Kateri Tekakwitha

Masochism and Sainthood: Kateri Tekakwitha and Junípero Serra


Daniel Fogel

Presented at the symposium on “The Spanish Missions and California Indians,” held at D-Q University near Davis, California, March 2, 1990. Kateri Tekakwitha was canonized by pope Benedict 16 (formerly cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) on October 21, 2012, elevating her to sainthood.

Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), a Mohawk/Algonquin woman sainted by the Roman Catholic church in 2012

Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680) and Junípero Serra (1713-1784) are both candidates for sainthood. Pope John Paul, in beatifying Serra in September 1988, extolled him as “a shining example of Christian virtue and the missionary spirit. His great goal was to bring the Gospel to the native peoples of America, so that they too might be ‘consecrated in the truth’.”1 When he beatified Kateri Tekakwitha eight years earlier, the pope declared to a mostly Native American audience: “Blessed Kateri stands before us as a symbol of the best of the heritage that is yours as North American Indians.”2

Sainthood means raising a past Catholic's life as a model for living Catholics to emulate. Why would the pope view Junípero Serra on the one hand, and Kateri Tekakwitha on the other, as role models for Catholics today?

There seems to be a world of difference, culturally and historically, between the Spanish mission builder Serra and the Mohawk mission Indian woman Tekakwitha. One aspect that unites the two, however, is their single-minded devotion to Catholic dogma, their preference for a happy death over a happy life, and their practice of physical self-punishment to the point of excess. While harsh physical discipline and self-punishment were part of the secular and religious culture of both Serra and Tekakwitha, Serra was chided by his Franciscan colleagues, and Tekakwitha was chided by her Jesuit mission mentors, for carrying the practice far beyond the bounds of prudence.

Life of Tekakwitha

Tekakwitha was born around 1656, in the village of Ossernenon on the south bank of the Mohawk River, in what is now east-central New York state. Her father was a Turtle clan chief of the Kanien'kehaka, better known as the Mohawk people. Her mother was a Christian Algonquin woman, apparently captured in war, who had been educated and baptized at the French Jesuit mission of Three Rivers in Quebec.3

Mohawk society was being wrenched out of equilibrium by the stresses of European contact. The growing desire for European goods stimulated the Mohawk fur trade to the point that many men abandoned animal conservation practices and took to raiding the Algonquian peoples to the north, with the object of seizing beaver pelts. In the 1640s, the Mohawks obtained guns — first from the English, then from the Dutch — and became more aggressive and effective in fighting the French as well as the Algonquins and Hurons. Military leaders became more prominent and powerful than traditional chiefs. Rum sold by Dutch traders aggravated conflicts among village people. Smallpox and other European diseases devastated the population.4

When Tekakwitha was four years old, her mother, father, and younger brother all died of smallpox. She survived the disease, but was nearly blinded, and her face badly pitted. Since her eyes could no longer endure bright sunlight, “she was forced to take refuge in creeping about in the...shadows of the Long House. Whenever she emerged into the light of day, she had to hood her little head...to protect her eyes.”5

Tekakwitha's father's sister Karitha, along with her husband Iowerano, adopted her as their second daughter. Shortly afterwards, the survivors of plague-ravaged Ossernenon built a new village for themselves at the top of a hill, a mile or two up the Mohawk River along its southern bank. Celebrating for three days, they called their new village Kahnawake.6

In 1666, the French royal army systematically attacked the Iroquois nations. They amassed a force of over a thousand soldiers to subdue the Mohawks. After driving the people from their homes, the French burned all three Mohawk villages, one after the other, destroying the women's corn and squash fields in the process. The ten-year-old Tekakwitha and her new family fled into a cold October forest.7

Tekakwitha's family, along with other survivors, moved across the Mohawk River, rebuilding the village of Kahnawake on the north bank. By 1668, due to the drastic reduction in the Mohawk population from smallpox and French assault, two-thirds of the population of Kahnawake were said to be Algonquian and Huron captives.8

The Jesuits Arrive

The League of the Iroquois was compelled to make peace with the French in 1667. That same year, as part of the peace settlement, French Jesuits arrived in Mohawk country to set up a mission. Four priests (Jacques Frémin, Jean Pierron, Jacques Bruyas, and Jacques de Lamberville) visited Tekakwitha's family in Kahnawake, staying three days in their long house.9 Previous efforts by French Jesuit missionaries to evangelize among the Mohawks and neighboring Iroquoian peoples had been frustrated by Mohawk hostility.10 Now, with the Mohawks pacified, Jesuit missionaries fanned out into all five Iroquois nations.

Many Mohawks were amazed that the French priests came with no military protection, and grew to respect the persistent “black robes,” as they called them. Moreover, the Algonquian and Huron Christians adopted into the Mohawk nation now felt free to express themselves as Christians. They eagerly flocked to mass at the mission church, and presented their children to the priests for baptism.11

Tekakwitha came into contact with children in Kahnawake who were being instructed by the missionaries and taught to sing charming church hymns. But her uncle Iowerano strongly opposed the Jesuits' evangelizing work. Her aunts Karitha and Arosen (Iowerano's sister) grew dismayed as Tekakwitha began to depart from traditional ways. They tried to arrange her marriage to a young Mohawk man.12 Tekakwitha fled the cabin after the young man had entered and sat down beside her. For this bold rebuff of their marriage scheme, Tekakwitha's aunts punished her with ridicule, threats, and harsh workloads. While obedient to their work demands, Tekakwitha remained firm in her resistance to marriage. Eventually, her aunts gave up their attempts to get her to marry.13

In 1669, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Feast of the Dead, held every ten years, was convened at Kahnawake. Some Oneidas came to the feast, along with several Onondagas led by their famous sachem Garakontié. Tekakwitha's mother and father, along with others who had died in the previous decade, were to be tenderly exhumed, so that their souls, contented, could be released to wander to the spirit land to the west.14

Showdown at the Feast of the Dead

Priest Jean Pierron had other plans. In a bold and rude speech, he attacked the beliefs and logic underpinning the Feast of the Dead. The assembled Iroquois, upset at Pierron's insult to their holy feast, commanded him to be silent. But Pierron continued, exhorting the Iroquois to give up their “superstitious” rites. Pierron's almost desperate sense of urgency no doubt stemmed from the Mohawks' revenge, earlier that year, against a group of Mohicans who had attacked Kahnawake: On that occasion the victorious Mohawks had tortured and burned to death eleven Mohican captives, including four women and one baby, scorning Pierron's attempts to instruct and baptize the captives even as they burned.

Pierron departed from the Feast of the Dead, but only to return accompanied by the Onondaga sachem Garakontié, to whose sense of justice he had appealed. Under Garakontié's protection Pierron concluded his speech, demanding that, as the price of continued friendship with the French, the Iroquois give up their Feasts of the Dead, their faith in dreams as a guide to action, and the worship of their war god.

Astonishingly, the assembled Iroquois relented. Exchanging gifts with priest Pierron, they promised to give up the customs and rituals he had denounced.15 In retrospect, Pierron had probably launched his bold psychological assault on the Feast of the Dead with the confidence that he and his fellow Jesuits had persuaded several valiant and respected Iroquois men and women far enough along the path to Christianity, that some would support him in his provocative speech. Garakontié himself later became a Christian.

Tekakwitha Becomes a Christian

In 1675, Tekakwitha met priest Jacques de Lamberville, who had taken charge of St. Peter's mission in Kahnawake the year before. She expressed her desire for baptism, and began religious training. Baptized on Easter Sunday in 1676, at the age of twenty, she took the Christian name Kateri. The new convert was considered exceptionally devout, having long since disdained and abstained from her people's traditional dancing, singing and feasting for the sake of a more humble and modest life, which now became more and more absorbed with Christian prayer.16

Kateri became the butt of scorn and insults from non-christian villagers. Men threw stones at her, compelling her to take roundabout paths to reach the mission chapel. Children ran after her down the streets, mocking and shouting, “Look at the Christian!”17

By now a new, Christian village of Kahnawake had developed 200 miles to the north, on the southern bank of the St. Lawrence River near Montreal. The settlement, called St. François Xavier du Sault by the Jesuit priests, was first composed mainly of Oneidas, but soon attracted large numbers of Christians from other Iroquoian and Huron tribes, especially Mohawks. So many Mohawks settled in the new mission village that, by 1673, it was said that there were more Mohawks warriors living there than in their own country.18 The more zealous Mohawk converts made regular trips back to their home villages, with the aim of bringing fresh converts to new Kahnawake.

Flight to New Kahnawake

One of these Mohawk lay apostles, upon learning of the harsh harassment Kateri Tekakwitha was suffering in old Kahnawake, convinced her to flee to the new mission village up north. After securing the permission of priest de Lamberville, Kateri, fleeing with her Christian Indian companions, eluded her pursuing uncle and continued along the 200-mile trek through the Adirondack mountain region. She arrived at new Kahnawake in October 1677, and received her first holy communion on Christmas day.

Kateri was now free to express her Christian faith in all passion. She not only prayed ardently, performed all the Christian rituals she had been taught and humbly served the poor and infirm. She also deprived herself of physical sustenance, and punished her own body with unusual zeal. “She often went into the woods,” wrote her Jesuit confessor, “and chastised her shoulders with sticks. From there she would go to church and spend a long time deploring her sins... She confessed them, interrupting her words with sighs and sobs as if she were the greatest sinner in the whole world; yet she was of an angelically innocent disposition.”19

Survivor's Guilt

When a person suffers the death of her or his closest companions or nurturers, she or he naturally develops a strong desire to be re-united with those companions. To blunt the pain of her loss, she imagines her departed loved ones as happy together in some afterworld. But then, how does she reconcile the fact that she alone has survived to go on living? If she now finds pleasure in her life, she feels pangs of guilt, because her deceased loved ones cannot share in her pleasures. Both to rejoin her loved ones and to resolve her psychic tension, she may come to prefer an agonizing death to a happy life.

Tekakwitha suffered the death of her mother, father and brother at age four. At age ten, her village was burnt to the ground. At age thirteen, when she was expecting the happy release of her loved ones' souls from what remained of their dead bodies, the stunning turnabout at the Feast of the Dead ceremony instigated by priest Pierron may have compounded her psychic shock. If the Feast of the Dead was a wicked ceremony, and the Mohawk beliefs all wrong, then what would become of her loved ones' souls?

Guilt, it seems to me, was a driving psychological force of the Christian movement from its very beginnings. Jesus' closest disciples abandoned him during his hour of trial, condemnation, humiliation, torture and death. Their horror over their loss, and guilt over their own behavior, spurred them to sacrifice themselves spreading the gospel of their departed mentor. It also spurred them to rail against the pleasures of the flesh, and psychologically to invert Jesus' death agony into an object of adoration.

Catholic death obsession, and the dogma of original sin, may have provided Tekakwitha with a method to resolve her psychic conflict — a conflict provoked, ironically enough, by repeated European assaults against her people.

Masochism and Mohawk Culture

To be sure, physical self-punishment was not simply imposed on Tekakwitha from without; it had its roots in Mohawk culture. Besides hunting, war-making was among the men's major pursuits. The resulting military culture placed a premium on men's capacity to endure physical hardship, wounds, torture and execution. Condemned war captives were expected stoically to sing their death songs, and to endure their prolonged death agony without a moan or murmur. Women typically had the power of life or death over war captives, but women themselves were not always spared the cruel punishments of war.

Thus the Mohawks and other Iroquoian peoples, in contrast to the California Indians, took easily to the practice of physical self-punishment brought by Catholic missionaries. The Jesuit missionaries at new Kahnawake were amazed, and at times dismayed, by the self-punishing zeal of their neophytes. Priest Pierre Cholonec wrote that the Christian Indian women “outnumbered the men in repentance for their faults... Some rolled themselves in the deep snow...” Others chopped holes in the river ice with their hatchets, plunged into the water up to their necks, and boldly recited their prayers before clambering out, their clothing frozen to their bodies.20 Kateri Tekakwitha outdid most of her sister and fellow neophytes in self-punishment. One night, while her household slept, she spent several hours branding her own limbs with a burning wooden stick.21 She routinely fasted on Wednesdays and Saturdays and, when taking her single evening meal22 on other days, she often mixed ashes into her corn porridge. One day, to prepare for confession, Kateri and her Oneida friend Marie-Thérèse Tegaiaguenta voluntarily beat each other, in turn, with sticks, drawing blood from each other’s shoulders.23

Mourning Becomes Perpetual

In Iroquois religion, the Feast of the Dead provided periodic release from grief and mourning. With the shift to Christianity and the death cult of Jesus, mourning becomes perpetual. From an Iroquoian standpoint, Jesus Christ must have appeared as a kind and loving father whose soul could never find its resting place. For Kateri Tekakwitha, the figure of Jesus may have become a surrogate for her own departed father, who, by Mohawk belief, was a lost soul due to the aborted Feast of the Dead ceremony — and, by Christian belief, was a lost soul for never having been baptized.

The perpetual mourning mode of Christianity, with its attendant physical self-punishments, was bound to have a negative impact on the people. In Iroquoian societies (as in most cultures) women were the main providers, tending the cornfields and apple orchards, gathering wild fruits, nuts, roots and firewood, and manufacturing clothing. When women, the life-givers, become obsessed with self-torture and death, the people as a whole are in trouble.

The Hunting Season

The mission Indians of Kahnawake, who governed themselves under Jesuit supervision, would leave the village in groups during the harsh winter season, pursuing scant food supplies by hunting nomadically for three or four months. Kateri Tekakwitha, deeply attached to the mission church, did not want to join the hunting expedition, but was persuaded to do so by her adopted sister and brother, who wanted her help in making the long trip.24 Another woman in the hunting party accused Kateri of sleeping with her husband — a charge Kateri firmly denied, to the priests’ satisfaction. Kateri vowed never again to embark on a long hunting trip.

Upon visiting a sisterhood of French nuns with her friend Marie-Thérèse in Montreal, Kateri — who was still being pressured by her adoptive kin to marry — hit upon the idea of becoming a nun herself. The priests did not permit Kateri and Marie-Thérèse to establish an Indian sisterhood of nuns. Yet Kateri took a vow of perpetual chastity, with the priests' blessing, in 1679.

Tekakwitha's Death and Veneration

When the next hunting season came around, priest Cholonec, concerned over Kateri's failing health, urged her to join her kin in the hunting party, in the hope that access to meat might help her regain health. Kateri refused, insisting she would gladly suffer bodily hunger for the spiritual sustenance she received at the mission church. She remained in Kahnawake, continuing her harsh and sparse diet and her cruel self-punishments.25

The following April, after a long, drawn-out illness, after singing her Mohawk death song, and after receiving the final sacraments of the church, Kateri Tekakwitha died at the age of 24. The best spiritual explanation for her fatal illness is provided not by Catholic doctrine, but by Iroquois philosophy: Iroquois healers viewed some diseases as psychic, rooted in “the vindictiveness of the soul of the patient, when it is provoked to rebel against the body” out of despair over a lack of spiritual resources needed to sustain the body.26

Kateri's death and pious example left a deep impression on the Indians of Kahnawake. Their zeal for self-punishment increased. On the night of Good Friday, one day after Kateri's death, one woman spent hours rolling herself in thorns, as Kateri had done. “Many beat themselves till blood flowed. Married people separated, vowing to lead continent lives thereafter; widows renounced second marriage.”27 Young people took chastity vows, breaking sharply with Iroquois tradition. Kateri's burial ground soon became a shrine revered by Catholic pilgrims, both Indian and French, throughout the region. Many miraculous cures were credited to her intercession.

As candidates for sainthood, Junípero Serra and Kateri Tekakwitha form a perfect pair, by orthodox Catholic standards. Serra was a tireless European missionary who sacrificed himself to spread the gospel; Tekakwitha was a traumatized Indian woman who sacrificed herself to receive it. Serra worked with repressive imperial authorities to root out “pagan superstitions” among the people; Tekakwitha willingly gave up her people's “pagan” ways to embrace Catholic faith in its most repressive form.

If the Vatican canonizes Junípero Serra and Kateri Tekakwitha, the tragedy of the California Indians on the one side, and of Tekakwitha on the other, will be enshrined in the pantheon of saints.

❧ ❧


(Click on any superscript number in the text to jump to the corresponding footnote)

1. “Serra Beatified at Last,” by Elizabeth Fernandez, San Francisco Chronicle, 26 September 1988.

2. Pope John Paul's address of 24 June 1980, as related in Kateri Tekakwitha: Joyful Lover by Mary Pelagia Litkowski, O.P. Growth Unlimited Inc., Battle Creek, Michigan, 1989, p. 51.

3. Edward Lecompte, S.J., Glory of the Mohawks: The Life of the Venerable Catherine Tekakwitha, translated by Florence Ralston Werum, FRSA, Bruce Publishing Co., Milwaukee, 1944, p. 5 (translator's prologue).

4. William Fenton and Elisabeth Tooker, “Mohawk,” Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 15: Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, 1978, pp. 468-9.

5. Edward Lecompte, op. cit., p. 20.

6. Francis X. Weiser, S.J., Kateri Tekakwitha, Kateri Center, Caughnawaga, Canada, 1972, p. 34. Kahnawake (“at the rapids”) has several other possible spellings, the most common being Caughnawaga. The Mohawk village of Kahnawake, located in east-central New York, should not be confused with the (mostly) Iroquois mission Indian village by the same name, located 200 miles to the north near Montreal.

7. Daniel Sargent, Catherine Tekakwitha, Longmans, Green & Co., New York, 1936, p. 164.

8. William Fenton and Elisabeth Tooker, op. cit., p. 467.

9. Mary Pelagia Litkowski, O.P., Kateri Tekakwitha: Joyful Lover, op. cit., p. 53.

10. William Fenton and Elisabeth Tooker, op. cit., p. 469.

11. Daniel Sargent, Catherine Tekakwitha, op. cit., p. 164.

12. Among Iroquoian peoples, marriage was traditionally arranged by the mothers of the prospective couple, with the youngsters having no voice in selecting their marriage partners. Also, Iroquois families were generally matrilocal, with the husband moving out of his clan and/or village residence to live with his bride in her family home. This meant that arranging the marriage of a young female relative would bring a new man, and eventually children, into the woman-centered family home. See Judith K. Brown, “Iroquois Women: An Ethnohistorical Note,” in Toward an Anthropology of Women, edited by Rayna Reiter, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1975, p. 241. Also George P. Murdock, “The Iroquois of Northern New York,” in Our Primitive Contemporaries, The Macmillan Co., New York, 1934, p. 312.

13. Edward Lecompte, op. cit., p. 28.

14. Daniel Sargent, Catherine Tekakwitha, op. cit., p. 167. Also, J.N.B. Hewitt, “The Iroquoian Concept of the Soul,” Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. 8, Boston, 1895, p. 109.

15. Daniel Sargent, Catherine Tekakwitha, op. cit., pp. 167-8.

16. Edward Lecompte, op. cit., p. 41.

17. Ibid., p. 44.

18. William Fenton and Elisabeth Tooker, op. cit., p. 470.

19. Edward Lecompte, op. cit., p. 72.

20. Ibid., p. 97.

21. Ibid., p. 99.

22. The normal Iroquois custom was to have the main meal at the beginning of the day. (Judith K. Brown, op. cit., p. 249).

23. Edward Lecompte, op. cit., pp. 99-100.

24. Ibid., p. 75.

25. Ibid., p. 95.

26. J.N.B. Hewitt, op. cit., p. 114.

27. Edward Lecompte, op. cit., p. 121.


Beauchamp, W.M. “Mohawk Notes,” Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. 8, Boston, 1895, pp. 217-221.

————————. “Iroquois Women,” Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. 13, Boston, 1900, pp. 81-91.

Béchard, Henri, S.J. The Original Caughnawaga Indians, International Publishers, Montreal, 1976.

Brown, Judith K. “Iroquois Women: An Ethnohistorical Note,” in Toward an Anthropology of Women, edited by Rayna Reiter. Monthly Review Press, New York, 1975, pp. 235-251.

Chamberlain, A.F. “A Mohawk Legend of Adam and Eve,” Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. 2, Boston, pp. 228, 311.

Fenton, William and Elisabeth Tooker. “Mohawk,” in Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 15: Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, 1978.

Hewitt, J.N.B. “The Iroquoian Concept of the Soul,” Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. 8, Boston, 1895, pp. 107-116.

Lecompte, Edward, S.J. Glory of the Mohawks: The Life of the Venerable Catherine Tekakwitha, translated by Florence Ralston Werum, FRSA. Bruce Publishing Co., Milwaukee, 1944.

Litkowski, Mary Pelagia, O.P. Kateri Tekakwitha: Joyful Lover, Growth Unlimited Inc., Battle Creek, Michigan, 1989.

Morgan, Lewis Henry. Ancient Society, edited with an introduction by Eleanor Burke Leacock. World Publishing Co., Cleveland and New York, 1963.

Murdock, George P. “The Iroquois of Northern New York,” in Our Primitive Contemporaries, The Macmillan Co., New York, 1934, pp. 291-323.

Sargent, Daniel. Catherine Tekakwitha, Longmans, Green & Co., New York, 1936.

Sheehan, Thomas. The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity, Random House, New York, 1986.

Weiser, Francis X., S.J. Kateri Tekakwitha, Kateri Center, Caughnawaga, Canada, 1972.


Genevieve Cuny, OSF, director of religious education at the Tekakwitha Conference in Montana, generously explained to me her perspective on Tekakwitha's life and the sainthood campaign, and supplied me with popular literature on Tekakwitha's life. Gilbert Hemauer, OFM Capuchin, former executive director of the Tekakwitha Conference, gave me valuable background on Tekakwitha and the current Native American Catholic movement.

The late Henri Béchard, S.J., vice-postulator at the St. Francis Xavier mission in Kahnawake, helped me pursue a difficult historical question by tracing out his own extensive research into that question, and supplied me with two informative books he wrote on Tekakwitha and the early mission Indian community at Kahnawake. Thomas F. Egan, S.J., at the Akwesasne parish church in upstate New York, brought me up to date on Tekakwitha's sainthood campaign and told me of the recent history of the Mohawk community he serves.

Shirley Scott, librarian at the Kanien'kehaka Raotitiohkwa Cultural Center at Kahnawake, helped me sort out European-imposed names from the true names Native groups have given themselves, and told me of the wonderful work her community's elders have done to keep the Kanien'kehaka (Mohawk) language alive among the young generations.

Copyright © 1990 by Daniel Fogel

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