Today’s Feast Day of St Kateri Tekakwitha, falls during interesting times.
The recent news about the renaming of the Washington Redskins football team has brought a renewed focus on the historical plight of Native Americans. This is fueled no doubt by the controversies associated with the current and historical plight of Blacks in our country. Our collective guilt has resulted in a laser focus in the public sphere on cultural sensitivity and historical injustice.
Hiawatha, perhaps the most famous Native American in history, was one of the “Redskins” commemorated by the team name. This great chief consolidated five Native American tribes (the Iroquois, Senecas, Cayugas, Mohawks and Oneidas) into a confederacy of tribes. It was the alliance of these Five Nations that provided that provided the garden for St. Kateri Tekakwitha to grow as the “Lily of the Mohawks.”
The Church, it would seem, struggles with its own similar guilt, particularly with its missionary work with Indigenous Peoples. This became manifest recently during the Amazon Synod, in which the Church went to extremes to accommodate pagan elements of spirituality, as if an act of reparation or expression of guilt.
On this celebration of the Feast of our newly-Sainted Kateri Tekakwitha, we should consider what the conversion and sainthood of the “Lily of the Mohawks” has taught us regarding cultural appropriation, cultural misappropriation, and proselytization.
REDSKINS SACKED FOR A LOSS
Pocahontas and St. Kateri are two of the best known women of the so-called “Redskins.” This term comes from the early French explorers who called them the “peaux rouge.” The relationship between the French and Indigenous was initially friendly if not tenuous as they became trading partners. Far from an accurate cultural description of skin color, early references hint it was merely a reference to the reddening of the skin from sunburn from the extensive outdoor exposure from their life of cultivation and hunting. Later, as the French and Europeans battled them for their territory and became enemies, the term took on an arguably negative connotation. In the same way, the pagan Iroquois referred to European invaders as “Christians” and the Jesuit missionaries as “blackrobes” in a negative connotation.
No disrespect is intended by the title of this article: the author has Native American heritage (albeit only slightly more than Elizabeth Warren ?!). The author was also a member of the Order of the Arrow , an organization within the Boy Scouts of America that pays great tribute and honor to native American customs by emulating and incorporating their dress and traditions in ceremonies used by the Boy Scouts of America. Besides, St. Kateri is the patron saint of my youngest daughter—so I don’t want to get on the bad side of either of them!
THE HEROIC JESUIT MISSIONARIES OF OLD
It was remarkable that the Jesuits were able to win converts for Jesus Christ among the native peoples. They had a good many reasons for suspicion or fear of the white man: the bringing of small pox disease (which was superstitiously linked to a form of black magic), plying them with alcohol, imposing their rules and laws, taking their land etc. History has well-documented the tragic mistreatment of the indigenous peoples by the European invaders. It would be no surprise to us then if none of them converted. However, God does His best work in the most dire of circumstances. God Almighty honored the sacrifices of hardships and martyrdom made by the heroic Jesuit missionaries, which bore fruit in amazing conversions stories, including Kateri.
CULTURAL APPROPRIATION DONE RIGHT
It wasn’t only the graces from martyrdom that produced fruit of conversion. The Jesuits were savvy and adept in the practical matters of evangelization. They saw the elements of spirituality in the Iroquois and were able to redirect those appropriately. The Iroquois were the most spiritual of the indigenous tribes. The Iroquois had many traditions and practices that could be re-purposed: prayer beads, ceremonies of confession and repentance, gift of spiritual oratory and complex harmonies of spiritual songs.
The Jesuits took great effort in understanding and adapting their culture into Catholic devotion. For example, the Latin chants of the Daily Office were translated into their language. The hymns of praise adapted the complex harmonies used by the Iroquois from their pagan rites. At Christmas, a nativity scene was adapted for the Iroquois, portraying the creche using the dress and other elements of their culture in a way that may have offended European sensibilities of the time.
Their spiritual formation was a slow and rigorous process, which upheld the great value of the faith they were teaching. Her baptism ceremony was such a grand spectacle using traditional Mohawk elements and ornamentation that many of the non-converted Mohawks turned out to witness it.
The Iroquois converts became known for their zeal and reverence of their faith. At the Sault Mission near Montreal, the French would come and join the indigenous converts in their inculturated masses and other services, not to observe out of curiosity but to participate. This was remarkable given the ingrained cultural prejudices of the time!
St KATERI – ANTI-SOCIAL JUSTICE WARRIOR
St. Kateri was the first canonized indigenous saint of the Native Americans. While she is known mostly as the patroness of nature and the environment, we should not let those things define her and concede her to the pantheon of great social justice warriors. Make no mistake about it, she had all the hallmarks of a conventional and radically traditional (“Rad Trad”) saint.
Kateri, even before her full initiation into the Church , loved solitude, contemplation, and mysticism. She could practice severe penances and mortifications with the best of the saints (e.g. extreme fasting, rolling naked in thorns etc.). She loved the mass and the rosary and had a strong devotion to the Blessed Mother. She seemed to understand the mystical path of consecrated virginity before it was formally proposed to her. She embraced the practices of modesty including head covering. Towards the end of her life she endured her sufferings and persecution from the non-Christian Iroquois with joy and humility.
She was somewhat privileged and distinguished as a saint by our Lord by reappearing a number of times after her death in her glorified state to perform miracles for the benefit of her people.
POLITICAL AND SACRAMENTAL CORRECTNESS
There is nothing inherently wrong with incorporating elements of indigenous people’s spirituality into their practice of the Catholic faith. With the recent debacle with the Pachamamma, traditional and orthodox Catholics have become alarmed and perhaps paranoid of elements of non-Western culture infiltrating the faith. The life lesson of St. Kateri should remind us that it is possible to retain and redirect indigenous cultural elements in a way that upholds orthodoxy and Church teaching. The core practice of our faith such as the Mass (even the Latin Mass), the rosary and the breviary are not inherently “Western culture,” but they transcend culture and provide universal access to matters of the soul. In the same way, the Blessed Mother and Our Lord have transcended our understanding of race: both have appeared as non-Jewish with darker skin to indigenous North American or African peoples.
Devout Catholics are notoriously judgmental and paranoid about other cultures. We should “check our privilege” (as the “woke” like to say) before we criticize any indigenous cultural elements being incorporated into devotions. We should apply more effort to better understand the meanings of those cultural symbols to properly discern whether they point towards God or towards the diabolical. The goal of the Church is to point people on the path towards union with God, not to instill in them our version of our faith.
The Church needs to ask in prayer through the intercession of St. Kateri before the throne of God for guidance on a rightly ordered view of environmental concerns within the Church and how to properly incorporate cultural elements of indigenous peoples without committing heresy.
St. Kateri of Tekakwitha and all the Jesuit missionary martyrs, pray for us!
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