Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Fulfilling the Name: Catherine Tekakwitha and Marguerite Kanenstenhawi (Eunice Williams)

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Fulfilling the Name: Catherine Tekakwitha and Marguerite Kanenstenhawi (Eunice Williams)

Article excerpt

Catherine Tekakwitha (1656-80) and Marguerite Kanenstenhawi (1696-1785), the latter much better known as Eunice Williams, are two of the most famous women of colonial North America. They are both products of the same cultural crucible: the Iroquois Jesuit mission village of Kahnawake, which was founded in 1676 when a predominantly Mohawk group of converts and the mission connected with them relocated from slightly downriver to the site the French called the Sault St. Louis, across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal. Kahnawake burgeoned during the 1680s and soon had the largest Native populace in New France, becoming the center of "Iroquois Catholicism" (Greer, "Conversion and Identity" 178). (1) Insofar as "women took a leading role" in the development of the community of practice at Kahnawake, it offered paradigms for identity that were distinct, in different ways, from those available to women in the surrounding Native villages, the neighboring French settlement, and the English colonies to the south (Haefeli and Sweeney, Captors and Captives 69). (2) Thus, at Kahnawake, the sickly Mohawk daughter of an Algonquin Christian captive might draw renown for her extreme devotion and, after her early death, become an unofficial Catholic saint; a generation later, a young Puritan captive might be so successfully incorporated as to become an exemplary member of the Iroquois Catholic community.

This essay proposes that we can gain further insight about Catherine Tekakwitha and Marguerite Kanenstenhawi through comparison. Catherine Tekak-witha's story is told almost exclusively from the hagiographic perspective of her adoptive community, while to Puritans in New England the name Eunice Williams became a byword for the susceptibility of even a minister's daughter to cultural and religious conversion. Accordingly, although to limited and unequal extents, Catherine Tekakwitha and Marguerite Kanenstenhawi can help to illuminate the occluded facets of each other's history. Most especially, an analysis of the representations of Catherine Tekakwitha's transformation into a saint sheds some light on Eunice Williams's transformation into a Mohawk woman.

The focus for this comparison is the study of names and naming. The "contact zone" of the Eastern Woodlands may offer a productively unfamiliar vantage point for onomastics (Pratt 8). (3) Specifically, the collision between European and Iroquoian initiations and naming practices, especially baptism and requickening, challenges Western notions of the relation of name to identity. (Requickening is an Iroquois naming practice that places an adoptee into a family by giving her or him the name of a deceased family member [Richter, Ordeal 32-33].) Each woman successively experienced both forms of initiation and renaming. Each transition exemplifies how individual selves "become entangled--through the name--in the life histories of others" (Bodenhorn and vom Bruck 3). Each name the women bore represents a different set of entanglements, a distinct, contingent personhood. (4) These interconnections span not only synchronically, to form "a social matrix," but also through time, linking a seventeenth-century Mohawk woman with a fourteenth-century Italian ascetic mystic and embedding an English girl within a Mohawk lineage (Bodenhorn and vom Bruck 3).

SISTERS OF KAHNAWAKE

Catherine Tekakwitha migrated to Kahnawake from her natal village of Gan-daouague in 1677. After her death in 1680, she was credited with exceptional chastity, as well as several posthumous cures and other intercessions. Two Jesuit priests who had worked with her, Pierre Cholenec and Claude Chauchetiere, composed hagiographic accounts that made the case for her holiness, and thereafter she was the subject of many derivative hagiographies. Her cult was established by the early decades of the eighteenth century. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, her prospective canonization became a point of pride for American Catholics; in 1980, the tercentennial of her death, Pope John Paul II made her the first Native American to be beatified. …

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