On Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI canonized Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American Saint, and six others in front of some 80,000 people at Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City. These kinds of ceremonies are always a big deal. There have only been about 3,000 people canonized in the history of the Catholic Church, and it's really hard to think of a better title for people to remember you by. For Tekakwitha's memory and the collective memory of the Native American diaspora, though, it marks an important step forward in their people's centuries-old relationship with the church.
For many Native Americans, Tekakwitha has been considered a saint since she died in 1680 at age 24. Born to a Christian Algonquin woman in upstate New York, Tekakwitha survived small pox at a young age and later became the wife of a Mohawk king. (She was ultimately known the "Lily of the Mohawks.") At age 20, she converted to Christianity, refused to marry a Mohawk man and, after a good dose of persecution, was run out of her village. She eventually wandered her way up to Quebec, where she joined a community of Christian women and died an early death. Those present at her death say that the years of prayer had erased the small pox scars from her face, an early sign that she might be someone special within the faith.
The first attempt to canonize Tekakwitha was made in 1884 but failed. Then, in 1942, she was declared venerable by Pope Pius XII and then Pope John Paul II beatified her in 1980, the last stop to sainthood. It wasn't until 2006 when a young Seattle boy fell while playing basketball and contracted a deadly, flesh-eating bacteria that Tekakwitha gained the chance of sainthood. The boy's family, part Native America, prayed to Tekakwitha, and the boy's infection cleared up. The Vatican deemed it a miracle, paving the way for Tekakwitha to become a full blown saint.
This marks a major step forward for the Catholic Church's relationship with native peoples. A few hundred years ago, missionaries stormed into a lot of native communities bringing their religion and, as the case of Tekakwitha shows us, horrible diseases. The church also never really considered natives equal. This sainthood means that the church is finally open to accepting natives as equal, experts say. That's why it's important that the church presents one of them precisely as an example to all the peoples of the world," the Reveverd Paolo Molinari told McClatchy. "[Tekakwith] belongs to those Native Indians who have been suppressed, deprived of many rights, both in Canada and in the States."