The Paths of Kateri's Kin

by Christopher Vecsey

(University of Notre Dame Press, 1998, 400 pp., $40)

The canvas is enormous. It stretches in bold outline and vivid color from the forests of Maine and Nova Scotia through New York, the Great Lakes district, then southward to the lowlands around the Gulf of Mexico, on through the prairies, the Rocky Mountains, and finally to the Pacific coast. The vast panorama is filled in with figures drawn as if from life, culled from countless sources, reaching back through five centuries, and portrayed with swift brush strokes and the immediacy of an artist's perception.

In The Paths of Kateri's Kin, Christopher Vecsey has gathered material with the authentic historian's concern for facts and the storyteller's feel for details. He has succeeded in conveying an in-depth view of Native American civilization, traditions, and spirituality that is of incalculable value for anyone interested in American history, Church history, comparative religions, or the theology of evangelization.

When the early French missionaries arrived in Quebec City and Acadia in Nova Scotia in the early 17th century, they thought Native Americans totally uncivilized, having neither law, faith, nor king. Vecsey describes their view succinctly: “The Jesuits evangelized as Catholics and as Frenchmen, laboring zealously for God and king.... Whether they countered Protestants or pagans, [they] viewed themselves as waging a holy battle against Catholicism's enemies. At the same time, the French Jesuits in North America were connected with the official interests of New France ... policies of assimilation, economic exploitation, and imperialism. The commercial powers hired, supported, and protected the missionaries; in this context the Jesuits sought to ‘bring the native into the obedience of faith.‘”

The unfolding of this incipient drama carries the reader through four centuries of struggle, much of it bloody and death-dealing, to establish some kind of harmony between Native Americans and European colonizers. The Indians were open in general, and thoroughly impressed by 17th-century know-how in the areas of fur trade, rifles, and alcohol, but when it came to substituting a new culture and religion for their own deeply rooted spirituality and traditions, they balked. Some were willing to adapt to foreign rites and customs. They could stretch acculturation to incredible proportions, and even managed at times to persuade missionaries to an uneasy toleration of many of their traditional practices.

The struggle, however, was an uneven one. It was not exclusively, or even chiefly, about religion. Political ambition and financial power carried the day as the native holders of the land were forcibly driven further and further westward, leaving their tilled plots of maize and European corn to be claimed by waves of immigrants trekking across the country from the East. Glitzy advantages — fur trade, easy access to alcohol, and government-regulated education — were weighed against a whole way of life and found wanting.

Tribe by tribe and century by century, Vecsey records the struggle for dominance, and describes the outcome on the American scene today. The story is profoundly disturbing, and leaves readers less than complacent.

Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, a symbol of Native American Catholic identity in our times, is the unifying theme of the book. In her life and her person we see a resolution, at a higher level, of the tension between colonizers and natives.

“She was orphaned, persecuted, made a refugee, and damaged by disease,” Vecsey writes. “She wore her sufferings on her face in her pockmarkings; she died an early death. Sister Marie-Therese Archambault OSF, a Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux, says that her Indian people are scarred, too, so they identify with the Lily of the Mohawks. They suffer from alcoholism; they get into fights and their faces are scarred from these episodes. They wear broken noses, cut lips, and deep scars of pain. So, when they hear in litanies that Kateri is 'scarred but beautiful,’ they feel themselves akin to her. She is a human symbol of their hurt humanity.”

Kateri found an answer to the unanswerable. The beauty that shone through her scarred face was the beauty of Christian faith. She was open to the God who had died for all Natives and all Europeans. Sadly, some Native Americans reject the veneration of Kateri, seeing her as a tool of missionary domination, in effect a “traitor” to her own people. This has been the occasion for a bitter dissension between “Catholics” and “Traditionalists” among various tribes across the country.

Such obstacles to harmony point up the underlying problems of missionary activity within the Church. Her representatives have at times aligned themselves too closely with European nationalists whose motivation was less than altruistic. The fresh air with which Pope John XXIII longed to flood the Church and her evangelization has been welcomed, circulated, and channeled through the world by his successors.

As Gaudium et Spes puts it: “The Church, sent to all peoples of every time and place ... can enter into communion with various cultural modes, to her own enrichment and theirs, too” (58). And in the Decree on Missions, Christians are urged to “be familiar with national and religious traditions, gladly and reverently laying bare the seeds of the word which lie hidden within them” (11).

Where formerly Native Americans were commonly referred to as “savages” by colonizers and treated as such, where their civilization and patterns of spirituality were looked upon with considerable disdain and even horror, in recent times openness and understanding have deepened. Vecsey has done a service to all Americans in his skilled and capable portrayal of the colorful trends in Native tradition and spirituality, and the inculturation that has developed over the past five centuries in this country. He is honest and fair in his assessment of missionary endeavors, policies, and procedures, and leaves no doubt about the delicacy and complications attending current interrelationships. Perhaps his greatest contribution to a professional and general readership is the keen human insight he has gained through years of scholarly research. This he shares in a delightful and forthright style.

In honoring Kateri Tekakwitha, the Catholic Church has honored all Native Americans. A marginalized and battered people can feel loved and respected through this official recognition of one of their own. It affirms them as members of Christ's Body, as they travel the path of Kateri to wholeness.

Dominican Sister Mary Thomas Noble writes from Buffalo, New York.