The Narrative Repatriation of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha

By Holmes, Paula E. | Anthropologica, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Narrative Repatriation of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha


Holmes, Paula E., Anthropologica


Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th-century Mohawk convert, is one miracle shy of becoming the Catholic Church's first Native American saint. Contemporary devotion to her is widespread among diverse Native American communities, and she has become the symbolic figurehead of what devotees call "the voice, presence and identity of Native Americans" in the Church. This paper explores the repatriation of Kateri as a colonial symbol through narratives, as told by her New Mexican Pueblo women devotees. I suggest that Kateri, a quiet and paraphrased character in the 17th-century Jesuit accounts, is given "voice" by her contemporary devout in four interrelated narrative ways: first, by the rescripting of her deathbed words; second, by their daily dialogue and interaction with the proto-saint, encounters which are often perceived as miraculous; third, by the sharing of these miracle stories with other devotees, and last, by the group's popular proclamation of Kateri's full-fledged sainthood, an acclamation which challenges the Vatican's understanding of sanctity. This layering of reclamations constitute what I have termed narrative repatriation. Finally, I argue that in the women's counterhagiographical discourses, Kateri is translated from a historically silent figure, bordered by colonial Jesuit categories, tropes and epithets, into a multivalent intertribal Catholic symbol--a reclaimed Indian saint of creative and heroic character. Since her death, she has been transported along the inter-colonial missionary rails from New France to New Mexico, through the locomotion of narrative.

I begin with the premise that saints are their stories; that is, that saints exist in and through the narratives that are told about them (Woodward, 1990; cf. Orsi, 1996). Thus saint-making--both in its official and populist dimensions, is a process whereby a life is transformed into a "text," broadly defined. My research focusses on the devotional stories which are told about Kateri by Pueblo women as narrative theology, in which both the divine and the self are revealed, and as counter-hagiography, stories which challenge the colonial narratives of this young Mohawk woman's identity and purpose.(1)

Here, hagiography becomes more than simply standardized stories about saints, but also stories about selves, both the official and the popular "selves" who transmit and translate Kateri's narratives (cf. Orsi, 1996). By the term "counterhagiography," I seek to underline the multiple, changing and often contradictory discourses which tell a saint's life. Such a notion of counterhagiography moves the story of a saint's life away from the traditional hagiographical practices which "do not manifest a Saint, [but rather]... mince him into spiritual lessons" (Woodward, 1996: 369, 370; cf. Noble and Head, 1995). My understanding of counterhagiography is closely linked to what I have called an "ethnotheology of sainthood"--the folk understandings about the lives, nature and function of saints.(2) In the specific case of Kateri, her colonial biographers and her contemporary devotees, I use the term "ethnotheology of sainthood" to refer to a situation where the people's beliefs and experiences override, or at least differ from, the Church's official statements and stories about Kateri (cf. Vecsey, 1997: 107). In employing these concepts, I hope to underline the populist dimensions of saint-making and the ways in which devotion to saints and the stories told about them shape saints' characters. At a general level then, this research is interested in the "conversations" between Kateri Tekakwitha and her devotional communities, and in the processes of decontextualization and recontextualization of Kateri.

In this exploration of the repatriation of a colonial mythico-historic figure through contemporary devotional narratives, it becomes clear that Kateri's story is not linear; there are multiple narratives with multiple endings; she is multiply "translated" (Behar, 1993).

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