When I was a little boy, I would often visit my grandparents who lived along the banks of the St. Lawrence River in Lachine, Canada. Not too far down but on the exact opposite side of the river was Kahnawake, now present day Caughnawaga, the place where some of St. Kateri Tekakwitha’s relics are stored. Often, especially during summer vacations, my family and I would visit-in a tourist capacity-the Native Americans of that area, specifically the Mohawk tribe who had, as I recall, a visitor’s center and taught the visitors about their traditions and ways of life, from the times past up to the present. I always marveled at their oral traditions, being wowed into a kind of awe concerning their spiritual storytelling ability. One case in particular was of a holy woman named Kateri who had just recently been beatified by now Pope St. John Paul the II. While I was not Catholic nor even baptized at the time, the significance of her story was rather over my little boy’s head, for I was more interested in the storytelling, assorted dances and Native American dress than I was in anything else. Yet, whenever I would go out for walk with my dad or some family member along the St. Lawrence, I always knew that there was a holy woman, whose name I could not pronounce, whose presence was not too far from the homestead of my grandparents, and I always felt an inexplicable sense of security in knowing that.
The setup of the book is really twofold, the first part being an in-depth history into the early development of Canada or rather “New France” as well as a history of the Native American settlers who inhabited the wild terrain. Before the life of Saint Kateri is even addressed, which comes much later in the book, the reader will get a very detailed and thorough education of what the Native American culture and traditions were like even before St. Kateri was born. Community, storytelling, hunting and marriage were definite elements that brought continuity into that nomadic life, but there was also an adopted system of governance called the Great Council that ran throughout the assorted tribes. While Kateri was of the Mohawk Nation, the Mohawk were not at all the only Native American factions who inhabited the wilds, for there were as well the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga and the Seneca tribes as well. All these tribes were identified by the terrain they either inhabited or by a particular skill that they were adept at. They could, at times, be brutally savage when they needed to be and fiercely militant in their defiance with respects to codes, for each group had their own value and belief system in what they adhered to, but when those systems clashed against their own Native American brethren, there had to be a coalescence based on some common ground that each tribe had, and for most, that was the belief of the Great Spirit, the holder of all that was mysterious and sacred. It was through that universal belief that a fusion of the tribes slowly began to happen, and while they were all individualistic the great bond that all tied them together was the belief in the holy.
Once the background concerning time, history, place and inhabitants is firmly established, the story then moves onto the influence of the French Catholic missionary priests or the Black Robes (as they were so frequently referred to). It was upon their arrival and with their missionary zeal to save souls that the remarkable transformation of the Native Americans slowly began to happen. Often faced with suspicion and savagery, the Black Robes were persistent in their evangelization efforts, planting the seeds of faith in sometimes what appeared to be absolute insurmountable odds. Yet, with diligence and perseverance, the Black Robes were able to communicate through gestures and drawings on tree bark the theology and doctrine of the Catholic faith. And not too surprisingly, it stuck to the minds of the curious listeners, primarily because the Native American spirituality paralleled Catholicism in many respects, so it was none too difficult to take the leap into a more intense union with God, who was and is, the Great Spirit. Many of the Native Americans were so edified by this new enlightenment that they immediately tossed aside the former bad habits that were detrimental to their well being. It was this environment into which Kateri Tekakwitha was born, the daughter of a Mohawk chief and a Catholic mother. Growing up, Kateri was shy and retiring while simultaneously being involved in community work and life. But she was more inward than most and more sensitive to things that were not so obvious for the others in her flock. Disfigured at an early age due to a smallpox outbreak, she also lost her immediate family and was then adopted by her uncle who loved her; yet, he also coveted her because of her status as the daughter of a chief. He knew that she would elevate his status within the Native American hierarchy. Kateri, however, was different from the others, always seeking out comfort in the silence of the woods and not eager for the prospect of earthly marriage. She wanted to be married but to someone higher. She wanted to be married to Love. Yet, that idea was not yet established in her village, and her yearning for what many believed was unreachable, made it easy for her to be ostracized and tormented. However, when the Black Robes came into her life, she grew rapidly in holiness, so much so that she left her native village-extremely unheard of at the time-and followed the wilderness priests to their Catholic outposts. The second half of the book also gives a good summary of Kateri after her death and details many of the supernatural miracles and apparitions of her spirit. Especially noteworthy was the miraculous healing of Jacob Finkbonner of necrotizing fasciitis, also known as the flesh-eating disease; it was the miracle required for Kateri’s canonization. What was so unique was the parallel of the recipient of the miracle to Kateri as a person. Both were Native American, both valued the outdoors, both were disfigured by illnesses, both were Catholic. This was a really fascinating and inspiring read and made me have a deeper sensitivinty and appreciative for Native American culture and history while at the same time harkening me back to my own youth when I wiled away my summer days along the banks of the St. Lawrence River. A good companion piece to this work is the documentary In Her Footsteps: The Story of Kateri Tekakwitha by Salt and Light Media.
What did you think of this review?