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Native Footsteps: Along the Path of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha

Native Footsteps: Along the Path of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. Edited by Mark G. Thiel and Christopher Vecsey. Paper.  Marquette University Press and the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, 2012.

Reviewed by Lauren Adderly

I met Kateri Tekakwitha three years ago. Her story of courage, faith, and holiness captured my heart while I was living as a volunteer on the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation in Belcourt, North Dakota. As I returned to the reservation in the summers that followed, my friendship with her deepened into devotion. Surrounded by a community who related to her as a heavenly sister and who invoked her intercession in all their needs, my confidence in her increased. What a joy to celebrate with the universal Church and with the Native American community when she was canonized last October, joining Saint Juan Diego of Mexico as the second Native American saint. Now, as a Catholic Worker in Houston, I eagerly hope for the day when we similarly celebrate the canonization of Dorothy Day.

Kateri was just twenty-four years old when she died, and she left no writings of her own. Though I knew the Catholic community in Belcourt invoked her in prayer and spoke of her tenderly, I could find little biographical or devotional literature about her. There seemed to be an unfair discrepancy between how Kateri was treasured by her Native American brothers and sisters and yet still rather unknown in the larger Church.

Entering this relative absence of literature, Native Footsteps: Along the Path of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha (ed. Mark G. Thiel and Christopher Vecsey) brings together a collection of letters, essays, and interviews spanning five centuries to explore how Kateri has become the “guiding exemplar” of Indian Catholics whose heavenly help and example of holiness have been recognized as gifts for the universal Church.

Kateri, scarred and nearly blind from a smallpox epidemic which killed her siblings and parents, converted to Christianity after missionaries arrived in her Mohawk village in 1667. Despite disapproval from her relatives and her tribe, Kateri grew in knowledge and love of Christ – even constructing simple shrines in the woods where she could pray in secret. Desire for the sacraments led her to migrate to a Jesuit settlement in Canada where she lived the last three years of her life. Her profound commitments to purity, charity, and asceticism were formed by both her Native American and Catholic spiritualities.

Early in the book, readers encounter Kateri in the words of Fr. Pierre Cholenec, a Jesuit priest who knew her well and wrote about her shortly after her death. He documents with great admiration her prayer, asceticism, and spousal closeness to God. With deep respect for Mohawk culture, he shows a young woman who infused her ordinary tasks of gathering, cooking, and crafting with hidden mortifications and a boundless desire for union with Christ. We would do well to imitate her integration of ordinary life and mysticism.

Among the documents that follow, we find a petition to Rome for Kateri’s canonization written by a group of Indian Catholics in the 1880s. They express their conviction that, “This virgin [Kateri], we believe, was given to us from God as a great favor for she is our little sister.” The letter asks the Pope to promote her canonization and formalize the veneration that Indian Catholics were already practicing.

Within the book, we find extensive discussion of the miracles attributed to her which were necessary for her canonization: first, the mira-culous transformation of her own disfigured face into incorruptible beauty soon after her death; and second, the 2006 healing of Jake Kinkbonner, a Seattle child of Native American descent, who miraculously survived a life-threatening bacterial infection on his face through her intercession.

Some of the modern perspectives included in this book, particularly the essays written by Darren Bonaparte and James J. Preston, offer nuanced insight into the cultural tensions associated with Kateri. These writers are concerned about the Church trying to “fit” Kateri into a Eurocentric model for sainthood and holiness. Bonaparte claims that “the time has come for… repatriating the story of the Mohawk maiden and liberating it from the ‘saint among savages’ theme that was attached to it so long ago.” Preston writes about the tension between Native Americans who relate strongly to Kateri and those who, seeing her as a “traitor to her people” for her acceptance of European influences, are hostile to the devotion. A serious discussion of Kateri would be incomplete without an ex-ploration of these dynamics of culture, race, and history.

Any doubt regarding Kateri’s legacy is removed in the second half of this book, where Thiel presents transcripts of twenty-five interviews which he con-ducted with Native American Catholics of varying tribal backgrounds. In these palpably enthusiastic pages, we hear people describe their colorful relationship with their beloved Kateri in their own voices: those who are moved to compose songs in her honor, who lovingly display her statue in their homes (in one case, even when her head breaks off), and who proudly participate in her processions. They express concern that younger generations may be less inclined to look to Kateri as the treasure that she is. Many were able to share a miracle in their families which they attributed to Kateri’s intercession. Nearly all implied that relationship with Kateri was an indispensible part of their spirituality.

Native Footsteps is a welcome and well-rounded addition to the literature on one of the Church’s newest canonized saints. I appreciated the book’s balanced examination of both Kateri’s earthly life and her heavenly life – presented through historical documents, scholarly essays on her culture and legacy, and stories of how she continues to reveal herself to those who seek her intercession. Photographs show the vitality of modern devotional gatherings in her honor, and the extensive bibliography will be of help to those desiring to know her more deeply. I sincerely hope that this book inspires the universal Church to take seriously the vibrant faith of indigenous people and to reflect on the beauty of the tradition of the saints.

Our spiritual lives are enriched through friendship with the saints: people who have left us examples of ordinary lives infused with extraordinary responses to grace. Formed simultane-ously by the timeless truths of faith and by their particular culture and circum-stances, saints accompany us through the ups and downs of daily life and history. I am grateful to Kateri for inspiring me to faith and courage, and I am overjoyed to see books like this one helping spread devotion to her.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXIV, March-April 2013.