By Bill Jacobs and Kat Hoenke
Ecologist and founder of the Saint Kateri Conservation Center; spatial ecologist
North America and the Catholic Church are blessed with an Indigenous woman saint of Native Americans, First Peoples, and Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Kateri Tekakwitha.
Saint Kateri was born in 1656 in what is now upstate New York, USA. Kateri’s mother was Algonquin, and her father was Kanienkehaka (Mohawk). Her mother, father, and brother died of smallpox when Kateri was about 4 years old. The smallpox epidemic took the lives of 50 percent or more of the Indigenous population. Kateri survived. However, she was left scarred and partially blind. Kateri was adopted by her uncle and two aunts, all members of the Turtle Clan of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy.
Kateri grew up much like other Indigenous girls of her time on Earth. Her days were filled with chores, helping family and neighbors, learning, and planning for her future. Kateri grew into a modest young woman with a loving and gentle personality.
She helped her aunts work in the fields where they tended corn, beans, and squash (the “Three Sisters”) and took care of the traditional longhouse in which they lived. Kateri collected wood in the forest and picked plants for medicines and dye. She collected water from streams and springs that bubbled up from the ground. Despite her poor vision, Kateri became skilled at beadwork.
Kateri and her Indigenous Peoples had a deep knowledge of the fields, forests, rivers, plants, and animals of their homeland. For many thousands of years, Indigenous Peoples in her homeland managed the local land for food, medicine, shelter, and clothing. Using techniques such as the cultural burning of forests, they managed the land for the benefit of people and nature, for which there was no separation.
They hunted, fished, farmed, gathered, harvested, and traded for their material and spiritual needs, keenly aware of the rhythms of nature inscribed by our Creator. Her Indigenous People viewed themselves as one with the natural community, with other beings as relatives, sisters, and brothers.
Kateri and her Indigenous Peoples routinely gave thanks for creation in and around them, from people and Mother Earth, water, fish, plants, animals, four winds, sun, moon, and stars to the Creator or Great Spirit.
Kateri became interested in Catholicism while listening to Jesuit priests who visited her village. At 19 years old, Kateri was baptized. She chose to fully embrace Jesus and refused to marry. Kateri’s new faith and life choice didn’t quite fit with the expectations in her village, eventually leading her to travel more than 200 miles north through woods and rivers to the Catholic mission of St. Francis Xavier at Sault Saint-Louis, near Montreal. Kateri’s journey through the wilderness lasted for more than two months.
In several different homelands, Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge of the relationships of living beings – including humans – with our Creator and creation is passed orally from generation to generation. In North America, this is known as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), Indigenous Knowledge, or Indigenous Science. Kateri’s intimate knowledge of God and creation before ecosystems were degraded, damaged, or destroyed would be the envy of any ecologist today.
Kateri, whose health was always weak, died on April 17, 1680, following a long illness. She was 24 years old. Kateri’s pious existence did not end with her physical death. Three people had visions of her in the week following her death. A chapel was built near her grave, and soon pilgrims began to visit – Indigenous Peoples and Europeans alike – coming to thank God for this holy woman.
Kateri appeared to a Jesuit missionary who knew her, Father Claude Chauchetière, whom she asked to paint a portrait of her (see the painting above). Fr. Chauchetière spent the next fifteen years of his life working toward Kateri’s canonization. In 2012, Kateri was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI. There are many accounts of miracles attributed to Kateri’s intercession, which continues to the present day.
This month, we recognize the Traditional Ecological Knowledge and faith of Saint Kateri, together with Western science, through the creation of Saint Kateri Habitats for people and wildlife at home and in our local communities. TEK and modern science, combined with faith, hope, and love form the basis of a truly integral ecology.
The National Shrine of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha in the USA is in Fonda, New York, and in Canada, it is in the Mohawk Territory of Kahnawake.