WHAT DREW ME TO THE “MOHAWK VIRGIN,” CATHERINE TEKAKWITHA, WAS THE desire to learn more about the native experience of contact and colonization. Historians are well acquainted with the cataclysms that engulfed the Americas and their indigenous peoples following Columbus’s voyages: the bloody conquests, the devastating epidemics, the advent of wonderful new tools and weapons that could lead to commercial dependence, the introduction of a strange religion, Christianity. But how did these vast, impersonal processes play out at the level of specific, individual lives? surely generalizations about colonial war, disease, economic upheaval, and religious change can provide only an imperfect sense of what it was like to live through these unpredictable upheavals. i was hoping to gain a better understanding of the larger processes of colonization by taking as my subject not “Indians,” not even “Iroquois” or “Mohawks,” but a particular native person.
Until now, the history of Native Americans of the colonial period has been written largely in terms of faceless collectivities: “the Arawaks” greet Columbus on the shores of Hispaniola, the “Narragansetts” suffer defeat in Metacom’s War, a faction of “the Mohawks” aligns itself with the French and accepts Catholicism, and so on. The names of a few native leaders such as Powhatan, Pontiac, and Moctezuma are familiar enough, but the flattened portraits that emerge from European source materials provide hardly a hint of how these individuals—much less the millions of Indians who were not recognized as leaders—thought and felt. And as is always the case in history, the evidence, such as it is, tends to focus on men and male concerns. Hence my interest in Catherine Tekakwitha, a Mohawk woman of the early colonial period whose short life happens to be more fully and richly documented than that of any other indigenous person of North or South America in the colonial period.
After she died in 1680, two French Jesuits became convinced that the young woman they had known merely as one of several pious converts was,