Doug George-Kanentiio: The canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha

The canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha took place over two days. The first part was her official recognition along with six other candidates at a massive open air event in the front of the Vatican facing the eastwards direction.

Everyone should know that St. Peter's was built on the ruins of a former church which had stood for many centuries but was gradually wearing down and decaying. With the influx of wealth brought to Rome by the Spaniards and Portuguese as a result of their conquest of parts of the New World the Vatican was able to begin construction of the largest Christian edifice in the world with the artists Michelangelo and Raphael playing key rolls.

In the year 324 ACE the Roman emperor Constantine ordered a sanctuary to be built on the tomb of St. Peter, the first head of the infant Catholic Church. I have long wondered why he was considered the singular leader when Yeshua (Joshua), or "Jesus" in Greek, had a dozen male apostles around him as assistants along with a few women, the most prominent of which was Mary Magdalene. Should not have the early Christians taken note of how Yeshua delivered his teachings and caused them to be preserved? Was not his work so serious and important as to warrant such a council?

Apparently, by the time the second generation had passed since Yeshua's death at the hands of the Romans, and not the Jews, there was a decision to place the administration of Christianity in the hands of one man which would inevitably lead to corruption and excesses far beyond the actual instructions of the prophet.

But by the time of Constantine the Roman example eclipsed the simplicity of former times and the deal was made to blend Christianity into Roman political and administrative methods. So the papacy grew in physical power and with its influence and wealth erected monuments, palaces and churches, again in the Roman way. So a church was erected over Peter's grave. This stood for over 1,000 years but new found wealth necessitated new buildings and the best artists were hired, with resources from enslaved Native peoples, to build the church of all churches.

This is what greets the visitor to the Vatican on the west bank of the Tevere River. It is truly impressive in its size and meant to impress on the visitor the insignificance of their being before the might of the Catholic Church. As a Mohawk it fails to do so. A grove of redwoods along the Pacific coast or the strand of virgin eastern white pines near Lake George does more for the individual spirit. Yet there are amazing sculptures on top of the arches which flank St. Peter's and inside the doors is the Pieta, carved by Michelangelo and a true masterpiece in the history of human expression. If St. Peter's existed for no other reason than to house the Pieta it is well worth the visit.

Given the importance of the events marking the sainthood of the seven people, huge crowds from around the world were expected and they came by the tens of thousands. The largest delegation were from the Philippines, a nation which is heavily Catholic and takes its name from the very weird King Phillip of Spain. Yet they were in Rome to celebrate and they did so with banners and cheers to honor their candidate, a seventeen year old boy from the 17th century who died in the service of the Church.

Kateri's supporters were as enthusiastic and vocal. Many came from the American southwest including delegates from the Rio Grande pueblos, Hopis from Arizona and Crees from Alberta. By far, most of the Natives were the Mohawks, with hundreds flying in from Kahnawake and Akwesasne. Sister Kateri Mitchell was acknowledged at the October 22 celebratory mass with a standing ovation for her super human work in making the event happen. It was well deserved.

At the open air mass Pope Benedict lead the services and when he acknowledged Kateri, a loud, happy roar came from the crowd. Some estimates place the number of people at the Vatican plaza at over 80,000, which the many hours long wait to get there would confirm. The Mohawks were there and many were wearing traditional dress. A couple of men wore Kustoweh's and others waved the purple and white Haudenosaunee flag. It was a perfect day climatically with warm temperatures and a clear blue sky.

The mass took three hours to complete as each candidate was elevated to sainthood. A brief summation of their lives was said and then the rituals of the service. Every one of the seven would have their own specific mass the next day with Kateri selected as warranting her service inside the Vatican itself.

The next day the Vatican was open for the individual services. The crowds were far less in number which was expected as the masses were dispersed around the city. Kateri's mass began around noon after the one for the German saint. It was held at an altar across from the baldaccchino (canopy) a wooden structure carved by the master artist Bernini and said to be directly above St. Peter's tomb. Joanne Shenandoah, Oneida, was summoned to a podium by Sister Kateri and asked to begin the services with a song in Mohawk she composed and performed a week earlier for the Dalai Lama at the One World Peace Concert in Syracuse.

Shenanadoah was followed by an all-Native choir including Beatrice Lazore. Their music was a unique blend of drums, flutes, rattles and vocals. A blessing in the four directions was done by a Pueblo spiritual leader and is was most interesting to see the bishops and priests turn about as he called to the natural world. The mass was marked by more music, more drumming and the telling of Kateri's story.

As I have written previously, her story is a complex one which must be understood in the circumstances of her time. There is no evidence she was pelted with stones or punished by her family after she converted to Catholicism. She was a child who had barely survived a disease, smallpox, which kills thousands of Mohawks. She could barely see with the light of day causing her pain. Small in stature (barely 4 feet tall if that) she help provide for her family by weaving. She left her home in the Mohawk Valley to be closer to those who had access to priests. There is no proof she was pursued by an enraged uncle but she did make an incredible journey of hundreds of miles from the Valley to Kahnawake along Lake George and Lake Champlain.

The importance of her life is the passion of her devotion to her new faith. In Mohawk tradition faith is of little consequence since it is a celebratory culture in which the world is seen, appreciated and thanked for its beauty and grandeur. In organized Christianity the planet may seem a profane place, full of temptations and evil which is not surprising given the history of Europe in the past two thousand years.

But Mohawk life during Kateri's time had undergone massive changes and challenges which may have been too much for a young woman seeking meaning, spiritual guidance and affirmation of her existence.

Kateri found her place within the Catholic Church and sought to emulate the life of its founder however painful and life denying that was. She suffered for Yeshua and took his agonies as her own. The result was an early death and the elevation of her spirit.

The mass at the Vatican was necessary for Kateri to officially become a saint. It was done will all the rituals and passion of an extraordinary event and with the happiness and excitement of the Native people who were there to witness history.

It was good to see how the Mohawk traditions and symbols have come to be a part of the Church's practices. It is as if the waves of acculturation have been reversed. Perhaps those who are advocates for Kateri will continue to emphasize her humanity and to cite her as a clear example of the indigenous right to free expression of one's spirituality and the power she has to bring about healing from her place in the spirit world.

And that is truly a Mohawk way of thinking.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is a co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association, a former member of the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian and the author of many books and articles about Native history and current issues. His latest book is "Iroquois on Fire". He may be reached via e-mail: Kanentiioaol.com. Kanentiio resides on Oneida Iroquois Territory in central New York State.

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