Invasions by the French
In the mid 15th century, the Mohawk interacted with both Dutch and French colonists. Originally, the Dutch, who had settled in Albany and Schenectady traded fur with the Mohawk while the French traded with the Huron.
In 1666, when Tekakwitha was around ten years old, the French trying to make inroads into Iroquois territory in present-day central New York, attacked the Mohawk, and after driving the people from their the longhouses and wigwams they burned all three Mohawk villages and their corn and squash fields.
During the skirmish, the Mohawks took refuge in the forest. Little Tekakwitha spent the cold winter in the forest along with her aunt’s family.
After the defeat by the French forces, the Mohawk was forced to accept a peace treaty that required them to accept Jesuit missionaries, whom they called “Black Robes,” in their villages for converting them to Christianity. The Jesuits established the mission of Saint-Pierre de Gandaouagué on the north shore of the Mohawk River and quickly studied Mohawk and other native languages to reach the people and taught them Christianity using terms the natives could easily identify.
Tekakwitha went with her people to the mission of Saint-Pierre de Gandaouagué. She was impressed by the courteous manners and the piety of the Jesuit missionaries she met for the first time.
The Mohawk crossed the Mohawk River to rebuild Caughnawaga on the north bank
In 1667, Tekakwitha met the Jesuits Jacques Frémin, Jacques Bruyas, and Jean Pierron, who had come to the village. But, her uncle opposed any contact with them because he did not want her to convert to Christianity since one of his daughters had already left Caughnawaga to go to the Iroquois Catholic mission village near Montreal in Quebec, Canada.
The records of Jesuits who knew Tekakwitha describe her as a modest, shy girl who avoided social gatherings, and wore a blanket over her head to cover the pockmarks on her face. She learned the traditional way of making clothing and belts from animal skins; weaving mats, baskets and boxes of reeds and grasses; preparing food from the game, crops and gathered produce. She took part in the women’s seasonal planting and intermittent weeding.
Although small-pox had marked her face and seriously impaired her eyesight, her aunts started pressurizing her to marry, even at the young age of 13. As she grew older, she shrank from marriage with great aversion.
In the summer of 1669, a band of several hundred Mohican warriors, advancing from the east attacked the village of Caughnawaga. The Mohawks fought off the invaders who kept the village under siege for three days. Tekakwitha along with other girls of the village carried food and water to the defending warriors on the palisades. They also helped the Jesuit priest Jean Pierron who tended to the wounded, and buried the dead.
When reinforcements arrived from other Mohawk villages the Mohican warriors retreated. The Mohawk villagers led by chief Ganeagowa, pursued the Mohicans in the forest, killing over 80 and capturing several others. When the Mohawks returned to Caughnawaga amidst widespread celebration, they tortured the captive Mohicans – thirteen men and four women – for two days and had planned to kill them on the third. Father Jean Pierron who was tending to the captives also, implored the Mohawk to stop the torture, but they ignored his plea. He then instructed the captives in Catholic doctrine as best he could and baptized them before they died under torture.
The Iroquois Feast of the Dead
In late 1669, the Iroquois Feast of the Dead, held every ten years, was convened at Caughnawaga. It was the Mohawk custom to carefully exhume the cadavers of those who had died in the previous decade, so that their souls could be released to wander to the spirit land.
A few Oneidas and Onondagas came to attend the feast led by sachem Garakontié.
Father Pierron who was present in the village boldly censured the beliefs and logic of the Feast of the Dead. The assembled Iroquois, upset over his remarks, ordered him to be silent. But Father Pierron continued, exhorting the Iroquois to give up their “superstitious” rites. Under duress, Father Pierron left the gathering, but returned along with Garakontié, the Onondaga sachem. Under Garakontié’s protection Pierron finished his speech. He demanded that, to secure a continued friendship with the French, the Iroquois should give up their Feast of the Dead, their faith in dreams as a guide to action, and the worship of their war-god. Eventually, the assembled Iroquois relented. Exchanging gifts with Father Pierron, they promised to give up the customs and rituals he had denounced.
Sachem Garakontié himself later became a Christian.
Family urges Tekakwitha to marry
Around 1674, when Tekakwitha turned 17, her adoptive parents, and other relatives became concerned over her lack of interest in young men as romantic partners or potential husbands. They urged Tekakwitha to marry a young Mohawk warrior. When she refused to marry the man chosen for her, she incurred the family’s displeasure, ridicule, threats, and harsh workloads. But Tekakwitha stayed firm in her resolution of resisting marriage, while submitting to their work demands.
Conversion and Baptism
In the spring of 1675, when she was about 18, Tekakwitha met the Jesuit priest Jacques de Lamberville. He taught her catechism.
Convinced that Tekakwitha was ready for true conversion, Father de Lamberville baptized her on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1676, and gave her the name “Catherine” after St. Catherine of Sienna. The Victorian author Ellen Hardin Walworth conceived the alternate name “Kateri” which was first used in 1891.
Tekakwitha’s family opposed her conversion to Catholicism and continued to persecute her. They deprived her of food because she did not want to work on Sundays. People threw stones at her when she went to the chapel to pray. Some Mohawks accused her of sorcery and sexual promiscuity.
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- The Story of Kateri Tekakwitha – the First North American Indian Saint: Part 1 (tvaraj.com)
- The Story of Kateri Tekakwitha – the First North American Indian Saint: Part 3 (tvaraj.com)
- The Story of Kateri Tekakwitha – the First North American Indian Saint: Part 4 (tvaraj.com)
- Kateri Tekakwitha (en.wikipedia.org)
- A Litany to My Cousin (kateritekakwitha.org)
- Fleur-de-la-Prairie – Prairie Flower (kateritekakwitha.org)
- Kateri Tekakwitha Bibliography (kateritekakwitha.org)