On Being Both Mohawk and Catholic: Kateri Tekakwitha
In our kaledioscopic world, there are many ways of becoming “both” or acquiring complex identity. The force that spins and swirls us may be intermarriage, adoption, immigration, expatriation, colonization. As a child of interfaith parents, someone deeply rooted in two traditions, I often discover shared qualities with transracial and mixed race families, third-culture kids, dislocated populations, and indigenous peoples surviving in the 21st century.
In today’s New York Times, a headline jumped out at me: “Complex Emotions With Naming of First American Indian Saint.” I felt immediately drawn to the story of Kateri Tekakwitha, an Algonquin and Mohawk woman born in 1656 who is scheduled to be canonized next October by the Vatican.
Kateri came into contact with Catholic missionaries as a teenager, fled an arranged marriage, was baptized at age 20, devoted herself to prayer and to working with the sick, and died at age 24. Over the centuries since then, those who pray to her say they have experienced miraculous healing.
On the Mohawk River in upstate New York, a shrine to Kateri created by Fransicans incorporates Mohawk symbols and cultural elements. The article notes that there are some 680,000 American Indian Catholics in America. “I don’t look at it like she gave up her native beliefs,” the article quotes a local Mohawk man as saying. “She added to her faith.”
A wise math tutor working with my children once told me, “As human beings, we love to add and multiply, whereas we struggle with subtraction and division, from a psychological point of view.” We build our complex identities through adding and multiplying, not subtracting or dividing. The New York Times quotes a Navajo man as saying that the canonization of Kateri might heal rifts by “connecting us together.” Those of us with complex identities inevitably find ourselves bridging gaps, straddling boundaries, striving to heal and connect. This fall, I will celebrate the canonization of Saint Kateri as a sister in complexity.