Lily of the Mohawks


Ellie S. Thomas  


© Copyright 2012 by  Ellie S. Thomas


Painting of Saint Kateri Tekawitha.

She was born into a time of turbulence and an area of conflict, this gentle Mohawk girl. In 1656 the northeast was a wilderness for the most part, with only pockets of civilization widely scattered along the lakes and rivers. In between these remote frontier towns lay vast stretches of untamed forests inhabited by wild beasts and ferocious people - her people, the rampaging Mohawks. The future did not look promising for little Kateri Tekawitha.

The Mohawks lived in central New York State along the Mohawk River. They were but a segment of the mighty Iroquois Confederacy, the scourge of the huge area from just north of Virginia into Lower Canada, west to the Huron country of Ohio, and north to the Algonquins homes at Georgian Bay. The Hurons, Algonquins, and their French allies were detested enemies, which the Iroquois felt duty bound to destroy. Raid followed raid followed by massacre. They were never so happy as when one of their forays netted a hated 'Black Robe', one of the Jesuit missionaries dedicated to Christianizing the Indians. It was just a short time ago that three had been put to death in this very area; Father Isaac Jogues, Rene Goupil, and Lalande. No remorse was felt; after all, didn't everyone know that they were to blame for the bad luck in recent battles? For the crop failure? And most of all, for the deadly epidemics of smallpox that spread like fire?

Still, many Indians had been reached by the healing hands of the priests; many had been baptized and had come to the faith. One of the christians was Kateri's Algonquin mother. The woman would have been most happy if she had been able to persuade her husband, a Mohawk chief, to listen to the Jesuit, but he would not and before long, they too were ill with smallpox. Only the four-year old Kateri survived. Now she must go to live with her uncle, a non-Christian who had little sympathy for Kateri's professed faith and she must worship in secret.

The girl worked among her clansmen, living a life of austerity and charity. Privately, she instructed many and taught them to become Christians, but her uncle was becoming more insistent all the time that she break her vow of chastity and take a mate. Relations became so strained that she was forced to leave her tribe, but she continued to work among them, pock-marked and half-blind though she might be. When she was twenty-fours old, she became ill and died.

Kateri Tekawitha has had a special place in the hearts of Native Americans. It was a long time before they would have religious tolerance...for all too long they were forced to conform due to outside pressures, both social and economic and it wouldn't be until 1934 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered a halt to all interference with their religious observances.

Native Americans have traditionally been a deeply spiritual people, but their beliefs were based on an anthropomorphic foundation focused on the natural elements. They saw spirits in the wind and rain; animals and birds also had kindred spirits which must be propitiated before one took their life, or caused them any injury. The earth was itself the Great Mother and usually, they did not believe in tilling the soil or causing any wounding of her surface. The Indians of the southwest combined their observances with the cycles of sun and rain necessary to the harvest of their corn, beans, melons, etc. When the Spanish forged their way through the south, the missionaries traveling with them brought religious conformance to those Indians, while the Jesuits brought it to those of the north. It is difficult to say how many of the conversions were matters of expediency because the Indian was forced to give up much of what he held dear, the drums, the dancing, and the honoring with smoke from burning grease wood, etc. It was almost impossible for one to be a good Catholic and still follow one's traditional Indian lifestyle. Many because disgruntled, many gave 'lip-service', and others became 'apples'; red on the outside and white inside. It was the cause of diversions and disharmony within the tribes.

Over three hundred years after the Flower of the Mohawk breathed her last, her unifying power was still making itself felt. When Pope John Paul ll visited the United States in the fall of 1987, he met with 16,000 Indians working towards canonization of 'their' saint. Kateri, who was beatified in 1980, could have a strong impact on the 285,000 Catholic Indians who have a special place in their hearts for her. Her images and medallions are displayed on reservations over the north, as well as throughout the south. She has become the great unifier of Indian catholics and the Rev. Gilbert Hemauer of Great Falls, Mont., organized the Tekawitha Conference which has brought many converts and return of many disaffected back to the church. When they met with the Pope last fall, the Indians shared signs of reconciliation: the peace pipe and cleansing ritual of water were performed and Pope John Paul was given an eagle feather, a symbol sacred to Indians. On the obverse side, it was held to be permissible for Indians to have services said in their language, to use their drums, dancing, water signs, and 'holy smoke'. Now in 2012, St. Peter's Square was filled with the faithful on Oct. 21st as Pope Benedict canonized this young woman. The Lord's Prayer was sung in English but 'signed' as Indians traditionally do in prayer. All in all, a day to remember.

Kateri, as one of the Roman Catholic Church's first Native American saints could continue doing what was always foremost in her heart, leading the way for her people, and working for their best interests. The Lily of the Mohawks joins the pantheon of saints, who continue to reap the harvest of souls in a troubled era. Now Pope Benedict has given recognition to Kateri, the Lily of the Mohawks.

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