Mixed Reactions To First Native American Saint

The Vatican recently announced that Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk woman who lived in the 17th century, will be canonized as a Catholic saint. Many Native Americans say this is an honor, but others feel it legitimizes the abuses of colonialism. Host Michel Martin speaks with WCPN reporter Brian Bull, who has been covering this issue.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we'll check in with our Barbershop guys about a couple of controversies taking place at CNN and BET. People say these raised questions about free speech and artistic freedom. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. The Vatican recently announced that a 17th century Mohawk woman will be canonized as a saint. This make Kateri Tekakwitha the first Native American to be so recognized.

Now, many Native Americans say this is a long-overdue honor, but others are not pleased with the news. And so, we wanted to know more about the woman known as Lily of the Mohawks, so we've called upon WCPN's Brian Bull. He's been covering this issue for some time. He's also chair of the group, Native American Public Telecommunications. Brian Bull, so good to talk to you again.

BRIAN BULL, BYLINE: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, however you come out on this story, whatever side you're on, she is a fascinating figure. So, could you tell us a little bit about her?

BULL: Sure. She is very fascinating. Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1656 near what's now called Auriesville, New York, along the Mohawk River. Her father was a Mohawk chief. Her mother was an Algonquin woman who had converted to Catholicism. And when she was four, there was a deadly small pox outbreak that killed her parents and brother. And she herself survived, but was left scarred and partially blind. In fact, she was called among some of her tribesmen: She Who Bumps Into Things or She Who Finds Her Way With Her Hands.

She came into the custody of her uncle, who was the Mohawk Turtle clan, who repeatedly disliked Christianity. In fact, it's said that he removed some rosary beads from her that had been given to her from her mother. But this only drew out her interest - intensified her interest in Catholicism. And she began Catholic teaching in secret as a young adult. She was eventually baptized by a Jesuit missionary when she was 20 and took the name of Kateri, which is the Mohawk pronunciation of the name Katherine.

And she performed penances, which included things such as sleeping on thorns, while she prayed for the conversion and forgiveness of her people. And, you know, they are quite - and Mohawks had also done a practice of piercing the body to draw blood. But Tekakwitha believed that doing so was a way to personify Christ's crucifixion. A friend did eventually object to this. And so, she switched, apparently, to walking on burning coals, but she remained quite devout through her life.

MARTIN: And I understand that, of course, it's a very long process to become a saint, but it involves miracles that one has to document, that miracles are attached to the veneration of this person. And I understand that the particular miracle here was that a young Washington state boy recovered from a rare flesh-eating bacteria that could have killed him. And this is attributed to the fact that one of the nuns caring for him put a medal of Kateri on his pillow.

So there's that side of the story. But Brian, I want you to tell me about why it is that there are people who are not happy about this. Is it because of her, as a particular character or figure; or is it, more broadly, anger at the role that the Catholic Church has sometimes played in Indian country?

BULL: That's an excellent question, and not a very easy one to answer. There are many different viewpoints about this. When she died - this is actually an instance of what some people consider the first miracle - the blemishes on her body and face reportedly disappeared. And then it's also said on some accounts that mourners at her funeral also found themselves cured of various ailments. And so, they consider this the first miracle, per se. That was in 1680.

Now, flash forward ahead to a small town in northeast Washington State, Ferndale. And, yes, we have a young boy, his name is Jake Finkbonner. He's playing basketball. He splits his lip on the basketball hoop and that same night comes down with a raging fever and his face swells.

And, as you've said before, it creates a terrible infection. The bacteria is known as Strep A. It causes a disease called necrotizing fasciitis, which destroys skin and muscle and gives people a 50-50 chance of survival. And, as you said, a sister - actually, Sister Kateri - comes and places a pendant, which is attached to his pillow. And it's about that very same time that the family says that the disease stops progressing. To that point, they'd been removing skin from the boy's face and chest to stay ahead of this infection. But in fact, it stops and they tie it to the exact same day that pendant is placed.

And so, two months later, Jake gets to go home, and the Vatican begins its investigation and looks into a potential sainthood because a local priest has submitted this case to the Seattle Archbishop and the paperwork goes to the Vatican, as reviewed by a committee.

MARTIN: But on the other hand - and then there's this interview that you had with Ryan Rice. He's a Mohawk museum curator who organized an exhibit around different interpretations of Kateri's story. I'll just play a clip from your reporting. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

RYAN RICE: Well, fairy tale looks at how Catholicism was something that saved her from her own evil people, the understanding of - she came from a pagan existence and was civilized from a savage to a saint.

MARTIN: So again, Brian, the question is, is the resentment or the unhappiness about this about her per se, or is it more broadly about all the other things that you've reported on over the years - the Catholic boarding schools, and some of the abusive behavior that people experienced there?

BULL: There are, of course...

MARTIN: We only have about a minute left, I'm afraid.

BULL: Oh, sure. There are, of course, many Native Americans who celebrate this news. There are those who are very critical of the Catholic Church, and they see that this canonization of Kateri as something as trying to gloss over or whitewash history because the Catholic Church did run a lot of controversial boarding schools from the late 1800s through the 1970s, where there are reports and accounts of children being taken away from their families, subjected to various abuses. And then, you know, many people see Christianity as a way of eroding in their traditional culture and religion, as well.

And so, there are many native people who say this is a wonderful thing. This is an event to celebrate. And there are many others who simply say: No, the Catholic Church has to do more than this. They have to atone for this history they have with native cultures across the Americas.

MARTIN: Brian Bull, it's a fascinating story. Thank you so much for bringing it to us.

BULL: Thank you, Michel. Good talking to you.

MARTIN: Brian Bull is a reporter with member station WCPN, and he joined us from their studios in Cleveland, Ohio. Brian, thanks.

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