A New Saint for an Ancient People
The Vatican’s announcement on Dec. 19, 2011 that Kateri Tekakwitha, a seventeenth-century Native American woman, has been cleared to become a saint was, for Joann Samon, as well-received as the miracle cure attributed to Tekakwitha of a boy afflicted with a flesh-eating bacteria in 2006. Samon, who is of Dine, Yaqui and Hopi descent, is a member of a Los Angeles Kateri Circle, one of many groups sanctioned by the church for the purpose of prayer, learning about Kateri’s life, and to promote her sainthood.
“It only took 400 years,” Samon said. “I was at a religious conference some time ago and somebody said to me, ‘Why do you need a Native American saint? You already have Juan Diego (the Mexican Indian to whom the Virgin of Guadalupe first appeared in 1531).’ I asked him, ‘How many Italian saints are there?’ Isn’t the purpose of a saint to serve as an example to worshipers? So we have one saint for Native Americans and how many for Italians?’”
Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, a sixteenth-century Chichimeca Indian venerated primarily in Mexico, in July 2002. According to Catholic tradition, Juan Diego was walking to Mass near Tepeyac Hill in December 1531 when a radiant lady appeared to him amid music and light, calling to him in his native Nahuatl, announcing herself as a messenger of God, and asking that a shrine be built in her honor on that spot.
The bishop in Mexico City doubted Juan Diego’s account, necessitating more apparitions and an ultimate miracle: the Virgin caused roses to grow in the rocky field and instructed Juan Diego to gather them in his cloak. According to tradition, when he unfurled the cloak to show the flowers to the Bishop, the Virgin of Guadalupe’s image — with dark skin, wearing a starry veil, and coming out of the sun — had become imprinted on it. That image is venerated today at the basilica of the same name.
But Juan Diego was by far not the only indigenous figure to profess great devotion to the Catholic faith. Kateri, born in 1656 near present-day Auriesville, New York, also became a devout Catholic in a life filled with turmoil. The daughter of a Mohawk chief, Kenneronkwa, and a Christianized Algonquian woman, Tagaskouita, Kateri was left an orphan at the age of 4 after a smallpox epidemic struck her village and killed her parents and brother. She also was struck with the disease. Although she survived, she was left with scars on her face and poor eyesight.
Adopted by her uncle, the leader of the Turtle Clan, Kateri became a highly sought-after prospect for marriage, but did not accept any proposals. At about the age of 20, she took an interest in Christianity and was baptized on Easter Sunday in 1676. Members of her clan could not understand her new beliefs and the mortification of the flesh, including drawing blood and walking on hot coals, that she practiced as a sacrifice to her new God. Soon, she fled to Quebec, where there was a community of Native American Christians. There, she dedicated herself to prayer and caring for the sick until her death in April 1680.
According to some accounts, the scars on Kateri’s face disappeared soon after her death, constituting the first of two miracles required to be attributed to her to satisfy the requirements for sainthood.
The second miracle reportedly occurred in Seattle, Washington, on February 18, 2006, after Jake Finkbonner, 5, was injured while playing a basketball game. Before the next day, what had started as a fat lip had become a raging infection of the flesh-eating bacteria called Strep A, which swelled his entire head and was consuming his face with visible speed. Doctors raced to cut away flesh in an effort to stop the infection, but it continued its advance for nine weeks.
Friends, schoolmates and acquaintances prayed for Jake. Because he is of Lummi Indian descent, they prayed for Kateri’s intercession. Parents Donny and Elsa Finkbonner prepared for the worst, and Jake was administered last rites. But then, a member of a Kateri circle gave the Finkbonners a pendant with Kateri’s face on it. Elsa Finkbonner put it on her son’s pillow, and as of that day, the infection seemed to stop.
Jake, now 11, has undergone several reconstructive surgeries, but the infection did not return. Now, church officials have stated that there can be no other explanation for the recovery but that Kateri intervened on Jake’s behalf and cured him. Kateri is expected to be canonized sometime in 2012.
“For Kateri, who was born 400 years ago, to have her story gave us strength,” Samen said. “Religion has been a big part of keeping the family together.”
For her, as for many Native American Catholics, Kateri has special meaning.
Samen’s family comes from the Southwest, mostly Arizona, where her grandfather grew up at the San Xavier del Bac mission and later was trained along with his wife, as a domestic. They worked in at a resort. Samen’s father served in the military and mustered out in Los Angeles after World War II, where the family settled with the help of a federal program in force at the time that aimed at assimilating Native Americans into big-city populations.
“We wanted the same acceptance, the same ability to go to someplace and be accepted for who we are, as anybody else,” Samen said. “Being that we couldn’t get that other places, we could kind of get that in the Church.”
Samen said that, faced with the loss of many of their Indian customs and cultural traditions, many Native Americans have turned to religion — in this case, the very religion that for centuries aimed to stamp out their Indianness — for strength. And Samen works with the Catholic Church’s City of the Angels Kateri Circle, part of its outreach effort to ethnic communities, to help reconcile Catholicism with Native Americans. How does Samen herself do it?
“We know that God ,the Great Spirit, and Jesus, our Elder Brother, loves all of us,” she said. “The fact that we could be massacred, and taken to reservations, and put in Indian schools and all of that, that does not take away from the fact that we have survived. Other people celebrate Thanksgiving because they came to the New World and made a home. When we celebrate Thanksgiving, we celebrate our survival. We’re still here. People like to think of us as back in history, you know: the stoic television Native American. But we are human beings and it has taken all this time for us to appreciate that we are human beings …. Is it perfect? No. But is the government here perfect? Definitely not. Is the Church perfect? No. But we can celebrate now who we are and the fact that we’ve all survived.”
Once a month, at St. Marcellinus Catholic Church in Commerce, Samen’s group celebrates a Native American Mass, which incorporates a prayer to the four directions, the burning of sage, the beating of a drum and other practices central to Native American culture. And now, with Kateri on the cusp of becoming their patron saint, Samen says she is helping organize a feast day to be held at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral next year.
“We’re planning to do a celebration for the archdiocese and we want to make it inter-tribal and open to Catholics and non-Catholics,” she said. “We’ve been waiting and doing this for two years. And we are sure going to the canonization.”