If you visit the Vatican in Rome, one thing you will not see is a statue of William Black Hawk Petawanaquot. He is allegedly located in a square in the heart of Vatican City, somewhere beyond the luxurious walls that hide countless other treasures from the world – my copy of Lonely Planet’s europe on a shoestring introduces the Vatican as the “jealous guardian of one of the world’s greatest artistic and architectural patrimonies.” At one time, Mr. Petawanaquot (not quite “Father”, since he was murdered in Rome only days before he was to take his final vows) was set to become the first Native American to be ordained as a Catholic Priest. He also happens to be Kat’s great, great, great, great, great grandfather and, as such, we were on a mission to find “him.”
Sadly, though perhaps predictably, our search was cut short by Vatican security officials, who informed us that only St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museum, and the Sistine Chapel were open to tourists. To be honest, I don’t understand why people say they have “been to the Vatican” when all you really get to do is cram like sheep (in a flock?) into the few designated areas made available to you. Anyway, the existence and location of the statue had been verified by a Canadian priest friendly with the family, and the guards seemed to at least recognize the address, but reaching it was, to our extreme disappointment, out of the question.
Stifled in our quest, Kat and I paid for a coffee and grabbed some WiFi, thinking if nothing else we might find a Google image of the statue or at least a description of its whereabouts. We came up empty yet again, but what we did find was something just as interesting if slightly less personal. Thanks to the key words “first” and “native” and “catholic”, we came across a recent New York Times article about the impending canonization of the first Native American saint (and a woman to boot).
This was some weeks back. Pope Benedict has now followed through with the canonization of Ms. Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk woman from New England who lived in the seventeenth century. Afflicted with an array of small pox-induced disabilities (including partial blindness) and having lost her parents at an early age, the young Kateri converted to Catholicism at the age of twenty and began a life as a devoted servant of God – taking on the practice of self-mutilation, she was said to have prayed for hours at a time, often outside in harsh winter conditions. She fell ill and died at the age of twenty-four. According to the article, her two requisite miracles (I think at one point it was three) were to have allegedly cured a woman of uterine cancer and a young man of a flesh-eating disease – all at a distance, many years after her death – through the medium of prayer. (Known as Lily-of-the-Mohawks, she has been designated the patron saint of ecologists and all Native Americans, among other things)
Now, let’s be honest, miracles happen every day in every corner of the world, and are debunked almost as often. And the fact that the last two popes have placed more individuals on the fast track to sainthood and/or beatification in their short tenure than the previous three popes combined says something rather unambiguous about the nature and motivations for such “honours” in general (maybe saint-detecting technology has improved of late). That said, the canonization of a Native person is a particular kind of statement, and warrants a particular kind of skepticism.
For those of you unfamiliar with the role of the Catholic Church in the colonization of indigenous populations around the world, I will give you the (heavily-euphemized) short version: it was really, really bad. Among other enlightened programs, The Church, in collusion with colonial governments, took it upon itself to “educate” indigenous children in the ways of civilization (and of God) visa-a-vis Residential School programs, a term now synonymous with rape and abuse and neglect for which too few apologies have been made and whose brutal effects can still be felt to this day.
If we looked at the case of this “Native Saint” from a more historical and scientific point of view, we would likely find a scared young woman, physically and emotionally scarred, who had been told her whole life that the gods of her ancestors were forfeit (as were their lands); someone who, given the losses suffered and trauma endured, and considering what we know today about mental health, was at a minimum very troubled and possibly schizophrenic. Think about it, if your neighbour’s daughter was devoted enough to an unseen “being” to mutilate herself and pray for hours outside, on her knees, in the winter, would you praise her commitment or take her to a hospital?
I swear I’m not trying to depress you, but if you find yourself standing in front of the Vatican on a hot summer day, take a second to consider how far its arms have stretched. Some people will likely say that to question Ms. Tekakwitha’s commitment to God (and indeed, her mental stability) is to disrespect a noble person, soil her memory, and, perhaps even worse, degrade something of which many modern Mohawks are very proud. If the New York Times is right, which happens on occasion, then many Native people were indeed honoured that the Vatican had extended its hand – apparently some even saw it as a testament to this saintly woman’s traditional roots. Kat’s family, too, was proud to have a distant relative honoured at the Vatican, and who could deny that it makes for interesting dinner conversation (especially since the search is not yet over).
I too would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that we were unable to see the statue in person, and I am certainly curious to see how he is portrayed. All things considered though, I think both Mr. Petawanaquot and Ms. Tekakwitha would have been better off were they left to rest in peace.