Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits
is a non-fiction biography
published in 2004 by Canadian author and historian Allan Greer. The book seeks to summarize the life of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, an Algonquin-Iroquois woman who converted to Christianity and was later canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. (Although when Greer wrote the book, Tekakwitha had only been beatified and not yet canonized as a saint). The book also seeks to add historical context to the life of Tekakwitha, distinguishing it from the hundreds of other books on Tekakwitha which are largely hagiographical and devotional in nature.
Born around 1656 to an Algonquin woman named Tagaskouita and a Mohawk chief named Kenneronkwa, Tekakwitha was given a name that means "she who bumps into things." Her mother, Tagaskouita, was actually baptized and educated by French missionaries; however, she was captured and taken by a Mohawk tribe that re-assimilated her into Native American culture. Until the age of four, Tekakwitha belonged to a fairly stable family amid a diverse community of Native American tribes who had all united under the Mohawk tribe. At this time, however, the community was hit by a devastating bout of smallpox which killed both of Tekakwitha's parents along with her little brother. Tekakwitha developed smallpox herself but survived, albeit with permanent facial scarring and damage to her eyesight.
After this, Tekakwitha was adopted by her aunt, who relocated the family to a new home north of the river to a community called Caughnawaga. Reports of her childhood say that Tekakwitha was shy, often carrying a blanket over her head to hide her scarring. Nevertheless, it appears she was well looked after and cared for by her adoptive family. The community was long suspicious of missionaries of any kind, including the Jesuits who eventually began converting its members. However, this resistance to missionaries soon became complicated by the arrival of Dutch and French colonial settlers. The settlers from Europe were eager to engage in the fur trade with the local Native Americans.
Competition between Dutch and French colonists for the cheapest and best furs resulted in an exclusive trading agreement between the Mohawks and the Dutch. Eager to stymie their Dutch competitors, the French attacked the Mohawks, setting fire to villages and crops. The Mohawks eventually surrendered and signed a peace treaty, part of which stipulated that Jesuits would be allowed peaceful entry into the Mohawk villages where they would be allowed to proselytize and spread their religion.
In highlighting this conflict, the author provides some enlightening context to the story of Tekakwitha, tying her eventual conversion to the commercially-driven predations of the European settlers and their violent methods of enforcing deals with the indigenous people of America. In this way, religion in the Americas is uncomfortably mixed up in war capitalism and other troubling practices of early colonial America.
Tekakwitha was eleven years old when she first encountered the Jesuit missionaries Jacques Frémin, Jacques Bruyas, and Jean Pierron. Two years later, when Mohican warriors attacked her home of Caughnawaga, Tekakwitha aided Pierron in tending to the wounded. After the Mohawks successfully defended their community and began torturing their Mohican captives, Tekakwitha witnessed Pierron baptizing and praying for the tortured, dying captives.
At the age of seventeen, Tekakwitha's adoptive parents were eager to marry her off to a suitable husband. Although she did not explicitly disagree with her parents' wishes, it was clear that Tekakwitha had little interest in getting married according to their tribe's traditional customs. About a year later, Tekakwitha met Father Jacques de Lamberville and confessed to him that she wished to convert to Christianity. Within a year, she was baptized as Catherine, though she went by Kateri which was "Catherine" in her native tongue. She remained with her native community for at least another six months, but was pressured to leave after many of her Mohawk brethren accused her of sorcery. Tekakwitha eventually left her community to stay at the Jesuit mission of Kahnawake, where she remained for the next two years until she died.
During that time, most everyone at the mission was impressed by Tekakwitha's piousness, virginity, and willing to do penance by fasting, altering her own food to make it taste worse, and kneeling on a hard floor for hours at a time. For decades after her death in 1680 at the age of 23 or 24, her memory was repeatedly venerated by local clergy, in part as tribute to her but also as a way of encouraging other native people to convert to Christianity, in hopes of gaining similar veneration.
Unlike religious texts devoted to Tekakwitha's holiness, Mohawk Saint
is a rigorously-researched historical record of the sociological and economic forces of the era that helped lead Tekakwitha to Christianity.