October 22, 2012

Kateri = symbol of colonization

1st Native American saint stirs pride, skepticism

By Mary EschSister Jennifer Votraw is director of communications for the Ogdensburg Diocese in northern New York, where the Mohawk reservation is located. While the diocese doesn't provide direct pastoral care to the Mohawks, Votraw belongs to the order the Sisters of St. Joseph, nuns who regularly aid the priests who minister to the tribe. She said years of successful interactions between the church and the tribe demonstrate a mutual respect for each other.

Still, she knows there are traditional Mohawks who will never be swayed in their view of the church and may resent Kateri's canonization as a ploy to improve the church's image among Native Americans.

"They believe very firmly in their religion, which is Mohawk," she said. "You just have to respect that."

Orenda Boucher, a Mohawk humanities professor at Kiana Institution, a Native American college near Montreal, said there are "mixed feelings" and no easy answer to the question of what Kateri represents to Mohawks or the rest of the world.

"A lot of my friends who are traditionalists see Kateri as tied into the story of colonization that has deeply affected Kahnawake, and to the atrocities of the church," she said.

Boucher said to understand the complexities of Kateri's life, it's important for people to look beyond the biographies written by clergymen who focus on what they consider her Christian virtues.

George-Kanentiio said traditional Iroquois worry that Kateri's sainthood could be used as way to encourage Native Americans to eschew their ancestral values for Catholic dogma.

"It should never obscure the best elements of our aboriginal spirituality, nor should Kateri's personal behaviors, given their extremities, be endorsed as a model for women anywhere," he said, referring to her self-mutilation with whips, thorns and hot coals.

"Women in particular need not kneel in supplication to any man or any god but to rise to dance and sing in true joy," he said. "We can never accept any institution which actively suppresses women or qualifies their potential."
'It's the same great spirit'

Canonization of Kateri is a big step toward true reconciliation, but the embrace could go further

By Wab Kinew
Yet even as indigenous North Americans are celebrated by the church, there are signs the embrace could go further. During his remarks, the Pope noted that although Saint Kateri "worked, faithful to the traditions of her people," she "renounc[ed] their religious convictions."

The church views indigenous cultures as merely a host for the Catholic religion. This approach is called "acculturation" by Catholic missionaries. As one priest explains in the new film In Her Footsteps: The Story of Kateri Tekakwitha, acculturation is the process where the local culture becomes like a "prism" through which the "truth" of the gospel is revealed.

Talking to many of the indigenous people at the canonization ceremony, many of them residential school survivors, I don't think this is what they have in mind. They speak of embracing Catholicism, but also of practising their traditional spirituality. It is precisely this pluralistic approach that made the inclusion of smudging and indigenous language so important to them. It is that same reason that motivated so many of them to wear their traditional clothing to Vatican City.

As Chief Littlechild says: "We can have both spiritual beliefs, although it's the same great spirit and the same Creator."

There was much talk from church officials this week about how Kateri's sainthood opens the doors for new forms of evangelism. Pope Benedict himself called for a "renewal of faith in the First Nations." This misses an opportunity.

The truth about reconciliation is this: It is not a second chance at assimilation. It should not be a kinder, gentler evangelism, free from the horrors of the residential school era. Rather, true reconciliation is a second chance at building a mutually respectful relationship.

While the Vatican may not yet treat it as such, many of the Aboriginal delegates in Rome this week do. They speak about new beginnings, healing and moving on. In a quiet courtyard in Vatican City at a post-canonization reception, Littlechild says, "I've forgiven, even more now, I think. For myself, the experiences that I've had, but also for my family."
Comment:  The basic question here is whether the Church has embraced the idea of respect and partnership with Native cultures. Or whether the Church thinks the good little Indians should give up their pagan practices and join a "real" religion.

The evidence suggests the latter more than the former. For instance:

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.

Below:  Chief Littlechild. (Wab Kinew)

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