|collage on black, wampum chronicles|
by Darren Bonaparte
Káteri Tekahkwí:tha is universally known as the “Lily of the Mohawks.” A Mohawk elder told me that she is called this because after her death, lilies grew on her grave. That may be so, but there is a more mundane explanation.
The fleur-de-lys, or “lily flower,” is a heraldic symbol of the French monarchy. Four are depicted in the flag of Quebec. The stylized lily represents the Holy Trinity and the Virgin Mary. Associating Káteri with the lily was the French stamp of approval.
It was Father Claude who first evoked the lily metaphor when he wrote,
I have up to the present written of Katharine as a lily among thorns, but now I shall relate how God transplanted this beautiful lily and placed it in a garden full of flowers, that is to say, in the Mission of the Sault, where there have been, are, and always will be holy people renowned for virtue. 8
He was borrowing from the Song of Solomon (2:2) for his analogy: “As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.” By his hand, another Jesuit’s words were fulfilled as prophecy: a lily was planted on the grave of an Iroquois.
Traditional Mohawks, by default, are the thorns in this metaphor, and it’s not surprising that they don’t go anywhere near this story, having served as the contrast to Káteri’s goodness all these years. But there are other thorns to consider. There is the crown of thorns that Káteri chose to share when she consecrated herself to Jesus Christ. There is the bed of thorns that hastened her demise.
This brings me to why I believe there was something much more than a simple conversion going on with Káteri Tekahkwí:tha.
The Jesuits had to learn Mohawk. They didn’t force us to learn French. They borrowed names and concepts from our creation story to teach us their story. Karonhià:ke, the Mohawk name for Sky World, became the Mohawk word for heaven in the Lord’s Prayer. This was not just a linguistic shortcut, but a conceptual bridge from one cosmology to another.
We had something else in common: the belief that it was possible for a human female to unite with a powerful, unseen spirit, and to produce children with mystical powers from this union. This is found not only in our creation epic, but in the story of the Peacemaker and the legend of Thunder Boy. Hearing the story in Mohawk, Mary and her “fatherless boy” must have sounded like one of our own tales.
Did Káteri Tekahkwí:tha see herself in that light, as an earthly woman uniting with a Sky Dweller?
Or had she been a Sky Dweller all along?
excerpt from a talk, which begins:
A Lily AmongThorns
The Mohawk Repatriation of KáteriTekahkwí:tha
by Darren Bonaparte
Presented at the 30th Conference on New York State History,
June 5, 2009, in Plattsburgh, New York
Blessed Káteri Tekahkwí:tha, the Lily of the Mohawks, was a Kanien’kehá:ka woman of the 17th century whose extraordinary life and reputation for holiness have made her an icon to Roman Catholics throughout the world.
She was declared venerable by Pope Pius XII in 1943, and beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980. In 2008, the Cause for the Canonization of Blessed Káteri Tekahkwí:tha was formally submitted to Pope Benedict XVI. She is memorialized at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan and the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Throughout North America, she is depicted in statues and stained glass windows that adorn chapels named in her honor.
A recent biographer declared that no aboriginal person’s life has been more fully documented than that of Káteri Tekahkwí:tha. The writings of Jesuit priests who knew her personally became the basis for at least three hundred books published in more than twenty languages. 1
Reverence of Káteri Tekahkwí:tha transcends tribal differences. Indigenous Catholics identify with her story, and have taken her to heart. They have made her so much their own that they depict her in their art wearing their own traditional clothing.
The only negative in all of this is that she looks less Mohawk with each new depiction, as though her cultural background is irrelevant. The opposite is true: Káteri Tekahkwí:tha was raised with—and defined by—traditional Mohawk beliefs, and it was her understanding of them that led her to embrace a new faith, not so much as a rejection of her traditional beliefs, but as the fulfillment of them.
In recent decades, scholars like David Blanchard, K. I. Koppedreyer, Daniel Richter, Nancy Shoemaker, and Allan Greer, among others, have wrestled this subject away from the domain of more devotional writers, bringing a more critical insight into the cultural world of Káteri Tekahkwí:tha and the Rotinonhsión:ni converts of Kahnawà:ke.
The time has come for the Rotinonhsión:ni to take it to the next step by repatriating the story of the Mohawk maiden and liberating it from the “saint among savages” theme that was attached to it so long ago.
Visit source for full text of talk by Darren Bonaparte, including notes, and visit the shrine (source for collage)
Check out the Wampum Chronicles website for a wealth of information about Kateri Tekahkwi:tha, Bonaparte's book, the art, historical quotes, media & book reviews, & ordering information: