This month, the Catholic Church will canonize its first ever Native American saint, Kateri Tekakwitha. Sometimes known as Lily of the Mohawks, she died more than 300 years ago, but is thought by some to have performed a miracle as recently as 2006.
Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1656 in a village called Ossernenon, part of what is now New York state. Dutch, English and French colonialists were competing for control of the territory, bringing with them European diseases. A smallpox epidemic killed Kateri’s parents and younger brother. She survived, but the disease left her face scarred and her sight seriously impaired. The Mohawk word "Tekakwitha" roughly translates as "the one who walks groping her way".
Kateri converted to Catholicism, which for many Mohawks was as much a practical and strategic move as a religious one. The Tribe was trying to align itself with European allies without becoming politically subservient. Kateri appears to have been ostracized for converting. Her uncle, the chief of the village, is said to have been unhappy with her decision, and her refusal to marry a Mohawk man he had selected for her.
Kateri ended up travelling hundreds of miles by foot and canoe to a Jesuit-run Native American missionary village near Montreal, called Kahnawake. There she proved herself to be pious in the extreme. She took a lifetime vow of chastity, and subjected herself to a harsh regime of self-punishment, which included walking barefoot in the ice and snow, placing hot coals from the fire between her toes until they cooled, and lying on a bed of thorns. Mohawk men would conduct tests of strength and willpower before going into battle, and Kateri may have been influenced by this, effectively fusing her native beliefs with her newfound faith.
Kateri Tekakwitha died when she was just 24 years old - and it was upon her death that reports of miracles began. Jesuits at the scene said that the scars on her face vanished entirely, and soon after, a number of people reported seeing visions of her.The Jesuits believed her to be a saint and catalogued all they could of her life, making her the most well-documented indigenous person in the history of the Americas.
The recent reported miracle that secured Kateri Tekakwitha's canonization occurred in 2006, when Jake Finkbonner, a five-year-old Lummi boy from Washington state fell playing basketball and hit his lip against some metal, contracting a potentially deadly "flesh-eating" bacterial infection, necrotising fasciitis.
Sister Kateri Mitchell put the word out for people to pray to Kateri Tekakwitha for his recovery. She then went to his bedside in the hospital in Seattle with a piece of Kateri's wrist-bone - a first-class relic - which she placed against his body, and together with his parents, prayed.
Jake, now 12, still needs some medical attention, but he made a recovery considered by some, including the Vatican, to be miraculous.