Saint Without a Story
A Saint Without a Story
Kateri Tekakwitha’s Latest Reimagination
and its Consequences for Religious Unity
Heroine and role model for the nearly 500,000 Native Catholics in the United States. The first truly American Catholic Saint. Protectress of Canada. Poster girl for a successful missionary campaign. Patroness of ecology and the environment. Traitor to her own people. Over three centuries after her death, these are just some of the prevailing views of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk convert to Catholicism who lived a short life in what is now New York and Montreal. Her basic story, as laid out in biographies written by the two Jesuits who had known her, seems largely uneventful. Orphaned and scarred by smallpox, Kateri was baptized by French Jesuits at age twenty, whereupon she fled from her tribe to join a Jesuit colony for Christian Iroquois. After practicing severe penances and unsuccessfully attempting to start a convent for Iroquois nuns, the increasingly mystical Tekakwitha grew weaker, dying within two years of her arrival. After her death, her Jesuit confessors and Iroquois companions reported being visited by visions of the girl-turned beautiful maiden, and a healing cult emerged.
While Kateri’s life seems vague and deceptively plain, it is its very simplicity that has allowed the Mohawk to be reimagined in so many different ways. As ethnographer Paula Holmes, in her dissertation on the cult of Tekakwitha among New Mexican Pueblo women, explains, “the silence of Kateri in the official hagiographic tradition” lets devotees fill in the “blank[s],” “allow[ing] for […] popular theological creativity in the imaginative space of the devotional narratives.” Even as the body of works on Kateri has grown to include over fifty books, her objective, true story has been obscured, as every group that has sought to appropriate Kateri has rewritten her biography anew, skewing her narrative and filling the “imaginative space” to better fit its cause. As ethnohistorian K. I. Koppedrayer explains, even the only two primary sources on Kateri’s life were written with ulterior motives; the Jesuits used Kateri’s narrative to justify their missionary work. To that end, they attempted to make Kateri’s life mirror that of traditional European saints, adding fictive scenes, like a vow of chastity, and largely removing her from her “savage” Mohawk context. In doing so, they established a Europeanized cult for Kateri. Historian Allan Greer delves into American Catholics’ later appropriation of Kateri as a patriotically American saint, focusing on an 1892 biography of Kateri, which placed great emphasis on her connection to the American people, and the infuriated Canadian responses to it.
While these and many other historical hagiographies and their differing portrayals of Kateri have been the subject of much scholarly discussion, the role of modern-day biographies has largely been overlooked by scholars. In their studies on the latest appropriation of Tekakwitha, this time by Native American Catholics, ethnographer Paula Holmes, historian Christopher Vecsey, and sociologist James Preston conduct interviews with Native devotees, list instances of “miracles,” and look at the politics of the Native Catholic movement, but critical close analysis of the biographies and their role, beyond mere mention, is missing. This obvious omission was not made because texts do not exist—in fact, present-day devotional biographies, children’s books, and lesson plans on Kateri abound. However, there is an important caveat: the majority of modern literature is, in fact, not written by Native Catholic devotees. Instead, many pamphlets and books on Kateri’s life, though they sell her as a Native American figure, are written and approved by Catholic organizations, as the church wholeheartedly pushes adoption of Kateri as a way to integrate Natives. A close look at this modern-day hagiography can yield a rich discovery: The church’s approach, as mirrored in these missionary texts, tries so hard to portray Kateri’s connection to Native Americans and deemphasize the importance of her Jesuit biographers that ultimately, the substance of her story, however bent it may have been in earlier biographies, becomes simply irrelevant. As a result, Kateri’s narrative has ceased to be of primary importance to her devotees. Instead, they are concerned with Tekakwitha’s dual identity as it relates to their own, and their experience with the Mohawk maiden has become personal rather than literary. By handing Native Americans the icon of Kateri, a saint who has come detached from her story and her biographers, and encouraging her adoption, the American Catholic Church has opened a dangerous door to dissent. No longer constrained by an official narrative, Kateri can be reinterpreted in ways that criticize or even go against the Vatican.
A brief summary of the Catholic Church’s involvement in the recent emergence of Kateri’s Native American cult might be helpful. The revival of Native Catholicism began in the late 1970s, when, thanks to the efforts of the American church’s canonization campaigns, Kateri had been declared venerable (1943) and was on the cusp of being beatified (1980). In the wake of the sweeping reforms of Vatican II, inculturation—in the words of Paula Holmes, the belief that Catholicism’s “cultural expressions are, and should be, diverse and specific to local contexts”—was quickly becoming the Catholic Church’s missionary approach. The annual Kateri Tekakwitha Conference, originally a support group formed in 1939 by missionary priests in order to discuss conversion strategies and deal with a general lack of interest in Catholicism on reservations, was reinvigorated when the white leadership decided it could be more effective if it integrated Native traditions and encouraged Native participation and leadership. Kateri thus became a banner for inculturation and the integration of rituals such as smudging, sweat lodges, and drum circles into Catholicism. Today, the organization, headed by a Mohawk nun, runs the yearly national conference, regularly attended by almost a thousand devotees, and smaller-scale Kateri Circles, regional devotional groups that meet to discuss Native Catholicism and pray for Tekakwitha’s canonization. Despite the fact that it has come to be dominated by Natives, the conference is largely bankrolled and controlled by the church—75-80% of funding comes from BCIM, the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions.
It is this same BCIM that stands behind many of the recent publications on Tekakwitha, of which Margaret Bunson’s biography Kateri Tekakwitha, Mystic of the Wilderness is a prime example. The book clearly bears the Bureau’s stamp of approval; the introduction is written by its director, Monsignor Lenz. “For over three hundred years,” he writes, “they heard so often ‘what the Catholic Church had done for them.’ Now with great pride, the Native Americans are aware of their evangelization contribution to the Church.” Clearly, the book’s purpose is largely to draw Indians into Catholicism by emphasizing their connection to Kateri. According to the book’s description, while “most” texts are “simple biographies detailing only Kateri’s life […] this exciting work takes you inside Kateri’s tribe and describes the customs and culture that shaped her life,” a curious proposition considering author Marie Buehler’s explanation that “so little is known of the cultural pattern of the Iroquois at the time at which Kateri lived that it is very difficult to place her in her natural setting,” the only real sources being Jesuit accounts. Despite this factual limitation, the Native role in Kateri’s story and Catholicism is inflated and emphasized. Bunson spends practically the entire first half of the book singing the hyperbolic praises of Native Americans, calling them “astounding groups of human beings” from a “magnificent and vital past,” and describing what she believes life in Kateri’s tribe must have been like.
It not enough, however, to simply create a new presentation of Tekakwitha and her identity; in line with Richard Preston’s comment that Native devotees feel a need for accounts to be “purged of terms such as savage and heathen,” Bunson begins to criticize the old, Jesuit version of Kateri’s life.  The author goes through laundry lists of discontents with the Jesuits’ accounts of Tekakwitha, ranting about the inappropriateness of the terms “Indians” and “redskins,” insisting in the complexity of Native American society, and pointing out that the Jesuits’ refusal to allow Kateri to start her own convent was an example of “European prejudice” and the “inability of whites to comprehend such spiritual aspirations as valid in the souls of Native Americans.” Bunson openly acknowledges the wrongs of the Catholic church and its representatives, citing as evidence of their misguided beliefs the fact that “today, many members of the various Indian nations have assumed not only religious roles but appointments as prelates throughout the nation.” Bunson goes even further, completely erasing the American Church’s historically significant role in Kateri’s canonization process, instead focusing largely on the recent Native contribution to the effort. In her zeal to portray Tekakwitha independently of her biased biographers, she even asserts that not only did Kateri see God “long before baptism,” but that “it was her destiny to attain her spiritual heights in the dense forests of the land,” not in “a convent.” Bunson completely debunks the idea that the Jesuits were the ones who made Kateri Christian, and in doing so makes their accounts even more irrelevant—if she was simply born a Native Catholic, there seems to be little else to say. While the Jesuits may have institutionalized her, Kateri’s spirituality came from nature. While there is no evidence that Kateri’s spirituality was in any way tied to nature, her Native American identity is evidence enough.
Several sources take the reduction of Tekakwitha to Native American values or stereotypes even further. For example, a lesson plan on Kateri from a South Dakota Catholic boarding school for Lakota children emphasizes the importance of teaching the children “Native Values.” The standard biography of Tekakwitha is injected with occasional statements such as “working hard so that everyone could stay alive was a traditional Indian value and she believed in it” or “she often went to the woods alone to speak to God […] Being in harmony with nature was an Indian value.” These statements, while potentially edifying, and which in the Los Angeles Diocese’s version of the lesson have been explicitly bolded, have no connection to the story of Tekakwitha—instead, they seem to be part of an effort to convince Native Americans that Kateri is the ideal model for them.  The reduction of Kateri to these stereotypes has produced a wave of recent literature, from children’s books to pamphlets, that portrays her as a “patroness of ecology,” even though, as Preston writes, “if anything, her flight from the Mohawk Valley to the mission across from Montreal was a movement away from nature.”
The dissociation of Kateri from her original story and context continues even in two rapidly growing realms of hagiography: songs and pictures, regularly disseminated by the Tekakwitha Conference and described by Holmes as playing a large part in Kateri’s modern cult. A popular song from the conference, “In Your Footsteps,” originally performed at a pilgrimage to her gravesite, reads as a list of rather stereotypically Native American titles, such as “precious flower,” “noble turtle,” and “woodland cross,” and invites participants to follow in the footsteps of Tekakwitha’s “sacred journey,” the details of which are unclear. As historian Allan Greer notices, “illustrations generally emphasize the young woman’s dark complexion” and “outfit her in fringed buckskin and feather,” even though the sole surviving portrait of Kateri, made by her Jesuit biographer Father Chauchetière, is of a light-skinned maiden “dressed in a cloth tunic.” As is clearly seen in the contrast between the images on the title page of this paper, while Chauchetière’s potrait places her “in a basically agricultural landscape with a church as its most prominent feature, […] contemporary iconography always places her in a sylvan setting.” Considering that Kateri spent a large part of her life as a Christian in the Jesuit village rather than in the woods, the sylvan portrayals, much like Bunson’s story, clearly place symbolic meaning above fidelity, mirroring Bunson in downplaying the role of Europeans to show that Kateri’s lifelong source of spirituality was nature.
The conversion of hagiographic texts and images into a kind of advertising has had a clear consequence: Kateri’s story, pushed to the side to make a clear argument, has in turn simply ceased to matter in the eyes of Natives. One devotee claims that “all [he] knew” about Kateri “was that she was Indian and it was good enough for [him] because [he] was assured there was a place in God's heart for Native people.” The Tekakwitha Conference and texts like Bunson’s have promoted the idea of Kateri’s dual identity, but have failed to provide a story to back them up; in her travels across New Mexico, Paula Holmes found that no one “was ever able to tell [her] exactly how Kateri managed to be fully Indian and fully Catholic at the same time, or what this would have looked like in her devotional life.” In some cases, Natives are blatantly ignorant of history—For example, though Kateri’s body has been split up, reburied, and moved many times, her tomb is often seen as her only resting site. Holmes reports that, upon mentioning this fact to pilgrims, she was told that “Indians wouldn’t like that.” Ironically, this is the very gravesite at which the “In Her Footsteps” song was sung about Kateri’s so-called “journey.”
What are the consequences when the story of a cult figure becomes less important than her identity? For one thing, because Kateri’s identity has been almost forcefully associated with that of Native Catholics, many Native groups, conditioned by analyses such as Bunson’s, have come to see stories about Kateri as judgments on them. For example, Jack Casey, the author of a devotional biography on Kateri and himself a devout Catholic, stumbled, in the words of Preston, into a “hornet’s nest” when he angered Native Americans by including scenes of “wild sex and violence” in Kateri’s tribe. An amazon.com reviewer who describes himself as a Native American activist accused Casey of telling “lies” because he refers too much to the Jesuit texts’ descriptions of Native Americans. In staying too close to her only original hagiographers, Casey apparently does not present Kateri’s “true story” or “real character” nor do justice to Native heritage.
The most troubling consequence of the Catholic church’s presentation of Kateri, however, is the increasing split between Native Catholics and the Vatican. By giving Natives a figure dissociated from her story and encouraging them to see Kateri as their own, the Catholic establishment has sowed the seeds for dissent. The effect was seen most clearly at the Orono, Maine Tekakwitha Conference, when the mysterious circumstances surrounding the sacking of Fred Buckles, a Native director who had allegedly gone too far in integrating tribal elements into the conference, led to a schism that almost killed the annual event. As was discussed earlier, texts like Bunson’s use Tekakwitha to call on Natives to take part in the church, rejecting old notions that they are spiritually incapable. In this light, many Indians saw the firing of Buckles as a blatant rejection of Native Catholics’ autonomy and a return to Jesuit prejudices. In this sense, texts like Bunson’s were a dangerous gamble: in lambasting the Jesuits, they also opened up criticism of the Church establishment.
The Association of Native Religious and Clergy, a group that represents the disproportionately small number of Native clergy, was especially offended, and to fight back, they used the same tool that had missionized them: Kateri Tekakwitha. The ANRC published a manifesto of sorts in which they asserted their dissociation from the Conference, promising to take inculturation into their own hands and encouraging the formation of independent “Regional Conferences.” As their most symbolically significant act of dissent, they boldly wrote that because the church has always “canonized those whom the people have proclaimed saints,” and “our people believe” Tekakwitha is a saint, “we will begin calling her a saint.” The ANRC’s position flies in the face of Vatican doctrine and asserts an independence for Native Catholics—even for those who have, through ordination, taken roles in the church. This kind of statement is far from unusual among devotees; because there is no official story, many Natives have taken it upon themselves to write in Tekakwitha as a Saint. Indeed, many, such as devotee Mark Cheresposey, believe that what matters most is that Kateri is already a saint “in our hearts as Indians,” regardless of the Vatican’s position. The Vatican has not helped matters by waiting what is now 31 years and counting to canonize Kateri. Increasingly, Native Catholics perceive this seeming lack of interest as an indication that they are being ignored and must take Kateri’s identity into their own hands.
The ultimate danger is that Natives will stray so far in their insistent personal appropriation of Kateri that they will dissociate themselves from the Conference and then the Catholic Church. This has, in fact, already happened, as many Indians have grown disillusioned with the bureaucratic Tekakwitha Conference, preferring to worship the saint on their own. Christopher Vecsey reports that “one Mohawk woman told an observer that she did not believe in the Christian God, but she did have faith in Kateri.” Still others have grown disgusted with Kateri’s use as a tool and have thus rejected both her and Catholicism; according to Koppedrayer, a Christian Mohawk he interviewed called Kateri a “prostitute,” representative of “an alliance with Roman Catholicism and French institutions, both of which for him are unconscionable in light of present-tense relations between some of the more traditional and sovereignist Mohawk factions and the Quebec provincial government.” Disgusted by what they see as clothed oppression, many Mohawks have strayed from Catholicism to Protestantism and traditionalist movements.
As the Catholic Church attempts to win back disillusioned Natives and retain its increasingly aging constituents, it will need to reassess the way in which Kateri Tekakwitha is used. Clearly, the Bureau of Indian Catholic Missions’ current approach, as exemplified in the writing of Bunson, the structure of the Tekakwitha Conference, and visual and musical propaganda, has been effective at galvanizing Natives and connecting their identities with that of Kateri, however constructed the latter may be. In its eagerness to make Kateri fully Indian, the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions distanced itself from the Jesuit hagiographers, yet the compilation of documents gathered by the Vatican as part of the canonization process of the saint, the “Positio,” consists almost entirely of Jesuit writings, since they are the only primary sources on the would-be saint. How can the Vatican, all the way across the Atlantic, be deliberating the canonization of Kateri based on these “prejudiced” documents while Native Americans, encouraged by missionaries, are rejecting them to make their own version of “Saint Kateri”? And if Kateri is canonized, which of the many versions of Kateri will be the “official” one? Scholars have focused on the historic accounts of Kateri’s life, but in truth the modern-day accounts analyzed in this paper, and the BCIM’s strategy as expressed in them, are a much more important basis for the formation of Kateri’s modern-day cult. Rumors indicate that the Vatican will make an announcement about the approval of a second miracle, required for Kateri’s canonization, in late December of 2011, clearing the way for her ascent to sainthood. Unlike Casey’s seemingly inconsequential biography, which by itself caused an uproar in the Native community, the Vatican’s statement on Kateri would be the final and official say on Kateri’s identity. If the Catholic Church goes down this dangerous route, how wisely it chooses its words could well determine whether it is able to retain its Native base.
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 K. I. Koppedrayer, "The Making of the First Iroquois Virgin: Early Jesuit Biographies of the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha," Ethnohistory 40, no. 2 (Spring, 1993): 282-89, http://www.jstor.org/stable/482204.
 Paula Elizabeth Holmes, "Symbol Tales: Paths Towards the Creation of a Saint" (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), McMaster University), iii.
 Koppedrayer, 281.
 Ibid., 292-93.
 Allan Greer, Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 51, 178.
 Allan Greer, "Natives and Nationalism: the Americanization of Kateri Tekakwitha," The Catholic Historical Review 90, no. 2 (Apr 2004, 2004): 270.
 Holmes, 180.
 Christopher Vecsey, Where the Two Roads Meet, Vol. 3 (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999), 103-04.
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 Bunson, back cover; Marie C. Buehrle, Kateri of the Mohawks (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, 1954), vii.
 Bunson, 7.
 James J. Preston, "Necessary Fictions: Healing Encounters with a North American Saint," Literature and Medicine 8 (1989): 52; Bunson, 113.
 Bunson, 113.
 Ibid., 7.
 Ibid., 127.
 Bunson, 76.
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 Preston, 51-52.
 Holmes, 110, 227.
 Sister Kateri Mitchell and Reverend John Brioux, “In Her Footsteps,” in Marie Therese Archambault, Mark G. Thiel and Christopher Vecsey, The Crossing of Two Roads: Being Catholic and Native in the United States (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2003), 236.
 Greer, Mohawk Saint, 198.
 “Marvin Clifford’s Recollections of Kateri Tekakwitha at a South Dakota Mission School, June 1994,” in Archambault et al., 229.
 Holmes, 110, 227.
 Holmes, 88.
 Preston, 55.
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 Vecsey, Where the Two Roads Meet, 358.
 “Statement of the Association of Native Religious and Clergy, Distributed at the Tekakwitha Conference, Orono, Maine, August 4, 1992,” in Archambault et al., 228.
 “Faith, Prayer, and Devotion of Mark J. Cheresposey in Laguna Pueblo, July 11, 1995,” in Archambault et al., 236.
 Bernadette Rigal-Cellard, "Center for Studies on New Religions 2006 International Conference: Katerian Catholicism: The Travails of the Global Church in Native North America," http://www.cesnur.org/2006/sd_rigal.htm (accessed November 20, 2011).
 Christopher Vecsey, The Paths of Kateri's Kin, Vol. 2 (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), 107.
 Koppedrayer, 278-279.
 Vecsey, Where the Two Roads Meet, 192.
 Catholic Church. Congregatio Sacrorum Rituum, The Positio of the Historical Section of the Sacred Congregation of Rites on the Introduction of the Cause for Beatification and Canonization and on the Virtues of the Servant of God, Katharine Tekakwitha, the Lily of the Mohawks; being the Original Documents First Published at the Vatican Polyglot Press Now done into English and Presented for the Edification of the Faithful (New York: Fordham University Press, 1940).
 “Board Approves Miracle Needed for Blessed Marianne Cope's Canonization,” Catholic News Service, Dec. 9 2011, http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1104783.htm.