Natives and Nationalism: The Americanization of Kateri Tekakwitha

By Greer, Allan | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Natives and Nationalism: The Americanization of Kateri Tekakwitha


Greer, Allan, The Catholic Historical Review


In the history of the United States, the figure of the Indian has played an important part in discourses of national self-definition. Since colonial times, according to Jill Lepore, Americans constructed a "triangulated" identity, in relation to the native Other, but also in relation to "another Other," the European.1 Ancient colonial tropes of the evil savage and the Noble savage were available to nationalists seeking to distinguish the United States, either from the wild, untamed New World or from the decadent Old World. At times, the Indian was demonized and rejected so that the republic could be cast as the embodiment of civilization triumphing over cruel barbarity. At other moments, the Indian was idealized and incorporated into the American identity as the emblem of virtues that distinguished the United States from European civilization. The last two decades of the nineteenth century was one of those intervals when positive images tended to prevail.

The fact that Indians no longer posed a serious military threat at the time encouraged the emergence of this comparatively favorable view. In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the resistance of the Sioux and other western tribes had favored the resurgence of blood-thirsty images of "savage red-skins," but by the 1880's the West had been "won."2 It was in that decade that reforming voices (mainly eastern voices) began to clamor more insistently and effectively than in the past for an end to violence and broken treaty promises and for assistance to bring the poor Indian into the American mainstream.3 Real Indians, it was thought, needed to shed their distinctive culture as quickly as possible-it was doomed in any case-in order to enter into the national body politic for their own good. Military conquest was to give way to cultural annihilation, as the Dawes Act, Indian schools, and other similar initiatives undermined the bases of a separate way of life. Imaginary Indians, on the other hand, uncontaminated natives inhabiting some timeless region of the past, were to be cherished for the symbolic work they performed contributing their natural and primordially American qualities to the nation's identity.

Fin-de-siecle primitivism, Philip Deloria reminds us, represented the obverse side of modernism, rather than its negation.4 The primitive-associated with colonized peoples, but also with the working class and with women generally-gave definition through contrast to the progressive and the modern, while providing a focus for fantasies generated by the tensions and anxieties inherent in modern life. Primitivism was a theme found throughout western culture at the time, but Americans had a special fascination with Indians. Industry, urbanization, the rapid growth of powerful corporations, labor militancy, and class conflict were disturbing developments in Europe as well as America, but in the United States they were accompanied by massive immigration. Here the economically degraded and politically radical "foreign laborer" became emblematic of a constellation of "alien" forces that were transforming the United States and threatening its traditional self-image.5 In the xenophobic atmosphere of the times, images of Indians had a special appeal, not only because of their general association with Nature, the Past, and the Land, but also because they represented specifically the negation of immigration. Hence the popularity of Wild West shows, summer camps with native motifs, and exculpating stories of love and harmony such as the Pocahontas legend.

In these unquiet late nineteenth-century times, the American Catholic Church had its own reasons for invoking Indian symbols. Catholicism had always occupied an insecure situation in a country where civic traditions were steeped in Protestant Christianity and where "papist" religion had long been demonized.6 But with impoverished Catholic workers pouring into the country from Ireland, French Canada, and southern Europe, old patterns of religious prejudice united with thoroughly modern class conflict to produce an upsurge of nativist antiCatholicism. …

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