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Indians say sainthood for Mohawk woman long overdue

19 october 2012, 18:20
0
Rays of sunlight seep through a stained glass window at the tomb on the shores of the Saint Lawrence River of the tribeswoman who on Sunday will become the first American Indian saint, AFP reports.

They form a golden halo above Kateri Tekakwitha's image in the glass, and light her marble burial place where, on Mohawk land, a statue and portrait of her likeness also stand.

Sunday morning, the Kahnawake Indian reservation, perhaps better known for its casino and sale of cheap cigarettes, will welcome hundreds of religious pilgrims in her honor as she is canonized in Rome.

"Everyone in the community is very excited," said parish priest Vincent Esprit.

Also known as "Lily of the Mohawks," Tekakwitha was born in 1656 in what is now Auriesville in the US state of New York, but died while serving the church in Kahnawake in Canada's Quebec province.

For centuries, she has been a symbol of hope for many Native Americans, despite the grim details of her short and painful life. And for a growing number of non-Catholic aboriginals -- those who have returned to traditional indigenous spiritual beliefs and practices -- her canonization is seen as a gesture of reconciliation by the church for past injustices.

Converted by Jesuits, the young woman who was left scarred and partially blind from smallpox, devoted her life to God to an extent that stunned even European missionaries.

She died aged 24, after years of self-flagellation and deteriorating health, but according to legend her scars disappeared, leaving her skin smooth and her face beautiful.

Tekakwitha's story, according to one of her biographers, Allan Greer, has touched North America's first peoples, Christians and non-Christians alike.

Her canonization comes at a time when many natives are still struggling to reclaim their identity lost over generations at boarding schools set up to assimilate them into mainstream Canadian and American societies in the late 1800s and 1900s.

They were forcibly enrolled in such schools run by Christian churches on behalf of the federal government and alleged abuse by headmasters and teachers who stripped them of their culture and language.

"Many of our people in this community, in the Mohawk community, the Mohawk nation are very pleased that the Catholic church is finally looking to ascend her to her rightful place," Mohawk Grand Chief Michael Ahrihron Deslisle Junior said.

"There are people within the community that feel differently, because of our history, long and arduous sometimes, with the Catholic church, not just the mission itself, but the church," he added.

But even the most cynical among them are proud that one of their own is to be held up as a symbol of goodness, he explained. "There are mixed feelings. Personally I think it is a great thing."

Many of the former boarding school students will be on hand at Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome to witness Tekakwitha's canonization.

Others will watch the ceremony on a large television screen erected in Kahnawake for the occasion.

Sainthood for Tekakwitha will go a long way toward healing those and other old wounds inflicted on North America's original inhabitants by European settlers, says Anne Doran, a professor of anthropology at the Dominican Pastoral Institute in Montreal.

"Native people have been put down, marginalized, labeled as drug users and alcoholics... It's about time that we learn to respect them, and recognize that there are marvelous figures in Native American culture," Doran told AFP.

If anyone offered a criticism, it is that Tekakwitha's sainthood is decades overdue.

"Natives thought that if she wasn't being considered for sainthood it was because she was a woman and a Native American. We believed that she was the target of racial discrimination," explained artist and academic Dolores Contre-Migwans of the Anishinaabe Nation.

Tekakwitha was declared "venerable" by the church in 1943 and was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980.

But the Vatican needed a certified miracle from Tekakwitha in order to declare her a saint, so followers submitted reports of dozens: everything from healing the sick to levitating a man off the ground and appearing herself, hovering in deerskin clothes.

None of these passed muster. But then in 2006 doctors in Seattle confirmed an astonishing event.

Against all medical expectations, an 11-year-old Native American boy fatally ill with a flesh-eating bacteria made a full recovery. His parents had been praying for Tekakwitha's grace.

After five years' deliberation, this report convinced the Vatican, and Pope Benedict XVI cleared her for canonization.

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