I have known about Kateri Tekakwitha all my life. She is the Lily of the Mohawks, the first and only Indian to get even close to becoming a saint. In 1980, Pope John Paul ll declared her "Blessed", the last step before full sainthood.

Kateri is a half-breed (like me, only her mix is Algonquin/Mohawk) and the daughter of a chief. When she was only four years old (and still known as Tekahkwitha), her village was overcome by smallpox. The disease killed both her parents and her baby brother. It also left her face scarred, her eyesight poor and she walked with a limp. Her aunt and uncle, who replaced her father as chief, raised Tekahkwitha as their own.

In 1676, at the age of 21, Tekahkwitha was baptised, and given the name Kateri, the Indian version of Catherine. But her journey towards sainthood started before that.

As more and more Native people converted to Christianity, suddenly everyone was doing penance for the sins of their past lives, which included just about everything, like not being baptised, drinking alcohol, or having sex even if they were married! And penance was not just getting on your knees to say a couple of Hail Marys. The church supplied special instruments specifically for penance, such as sharp belts made to scrape and cut the skin. I wonder what those missionaries said to make our people hate themselves so much. As a result, their forms of penance became more and more drastic. And Kateri lead them. She punished herself in every way she knew how: putting dirt or ashes in her food, walking barefoot on ice, whipping herself. The missionaries considered it "innovative" when Kateri and her followers burned themselves in the name of the Lord. When she took a vow of chastity, they knew she was destined for greatness.

Kateri died in 1680, her already frail body not being able to handle the rigours of Christianity. It is said that at the moment of her death, her face, scarred from the smallpox and disfigured from the penance, suddenly became beautiful again and remained so for days.

It is really difficult for me to see Kateri as a role model. Everything she did seems so unhealthy, in both mind and body. What was she thinking? And what are people in the year 2000 thinking, wanting to make her a saint? Why do we need an Indian saint? To me it's just another feather in the cap of those who tried to destroy us.

Look at Me!

Imagining Indians