At age four her parents and brother died from smallpox. Kateri survived but was left nearly blind, with deep scars on her face and her body physically weakened. Her uncle, also a Mohawk chief, took her into his family. Kateri lived with her adoptive family among her people at the village of Ossernenon.
When Kateri turned 8 years old, her uncle, following Iroquois custom, selected a young man for her future husband. Recalling her mother’s faithful devotion to the Holy Mother and Jesus, Kateri rebelled, declaring she would remain single and devote her life to Jesus. This began a long struggle with her Uncle and members of her Iroquois village. They named her Tekakwitha which means “bumps into things.” Tribal members did not hold back their ridicule of the poor-sighted, disfigured girl. There was deep distrust of the Black Robes—Franciscan priests who attempted to convert native people to European faith traditions.
At age ten, her village was destroyed by French soldiers with enemy tribes. They fled to the north side of the Mohawk River near present day Fonda, New York.
In her new setting, Kateri began in secret to devote herself to Jesus and to follow a Christian faith. She lived in Caughnawaga village until age 20 at which time she was baptized at the fervent protest of her uncle and Mohawk community. Eventually she was forced to flee for her life to a Catholic mission near Montreal. Kateri made the long, arduous journey alone, terrified of reprisals.
St. Xavier Mission was formed among Christian natives. The settlement, also known as Caughnawaga or Kahnawake, became the place where Kateri devoted her life to serving people and God, taking a vow of perpetual virginity in 1679. She was noted for her deep faith and practice of self denial. Perhaps because of the aftereffects of smallpox which hastened her demise, she became seriously ill at age 24 and died shortly after. Upon her death, the deep scars on her face disappeared and her face glowed with light. Two priests bore witness to the miracle.
Kateri’s short but deeply devoted life as an aspirant continues to inspire millions of people today. Many miracles are ascribed to her intercession. She remained Blessed Kateri until 2012 when sainthood was finally bestowed by Pope Benedict XVI. The prayers of millions of native and non native Christians helped to bring her canonization. She became the first Native American to gain sainthood in both the USA and Canada.
I would later learn that Earth, my principal spiritual teacher, had devoted her life to Kateri from childhood. Her parents lived in Montreal not far from the Iroquois Confederacy seat of power. Both her mother and father had assimilated into French Canadian culture. They followed the Catholic faith. But her father’s father, her grandfather, was a traditional Mohawk elder and spiritual leader to whom Earth bonded early in her life. The Mohawk reservation in Akwasasne, where her grandfather resided, became the early spiritual center of my teacher’s life. She often played near what is today the Kateri shrine as a child and a young woman, and related to me that she’d had many encounters with Kateri’s spirit.
In the ongoing mystery of my education, Earth arrived at my trailer with a rosary and a prayer book, insisting that I learn to pray the Rosary with her. We went down on our knees in front of the little devotional altar I had constructed by then, and she taught me how to use the beads and the prayers before and after.
For the four years of my study with her I wondered why a native person embraced a Christian saint. Later when I questioned her, she answered that was my koan—a paradox about which I was to meditate.