Sunday, October 21, 2012

Stereotypes and the Canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha

Catholics and a great many Native people know that Kateri Tekakwitha was canonized a few hours ago in Rome. She is now a saint. Some news stories acknowledge the complex history and emotions around the idea of Native people embracing a faith that saw their own as pagan and therefore its practitioners as less-than-human. For those who are able to set aside the human impulse to see others as less-than and instead focus on a creator, the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha is an important moment.

I know a great many people---many whom I care about---that are in Rome for the canonization. As I search the news media for stories about it, I'm disappointed in the ways in which stereotypes of American Indians are part of this moment. There's this photo:

Compare it to this photo, from the same news gallery.

The difference is notable, and it makes me wonder who the nun is, where she got that headdress, and why she wanted to wear it. (The source for both photos is The Daily Gazette in Schenectady, NY:

NBC's coverage includes this line:

And yet, at the age of 20, Kateri swapped the Totem for the Crucifix.
I wonder what that reporter means by "Totem"? Sadly, Tekakwitha's canonization is being used as another opportunity to dress up like Indians:

The date of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha’s canonization is going to be October 21, 2012! (Yay!) The cool thing about soon-to-be-Saint Kateri is that she was Native American. This opens up all kinds of crafting possibilities! ;-) Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha’s feast day is July 14. We made some fun, Native American dress up crafts to celebrate St. Kateri’s canonization with my kids!

Here's the photo directly beneath that paragraph:

There's no excuse for the NBC reporter's comment. I do not know what to think about the nun in the headdress. The Catholics-playing-Indian activities are well-intentioned, but ignorant and ought to be set aside. As a society, we need not do these sorts of activities. We see it a lot in the context of "Indian" mascots for sports teams. There's a lot more awareness of stereotyping in that context, and a lot of schools have abandoned those stereotypical mascots. That same awareness--apparently--needs to be developed amongst Catholics who dress their kids up in stereotypical attire to be "Saint Kateri."

Update, Sunday Oct 21, 2012
Native news media coverage of the canonization:
Turtle Island Indigenous Flock to Vatican to Witness CanonizationIndian Country Today 
Chicago Delegation Joins Thousands of American Indians for Canonization, Native News Network 


Jean Mendoza said...

Good grief. Among other reactions, I'm wondering, "Do Catholics generally advocate having children dress up as they think their saints would have dressed?"

Sarojini Mary said...

LOL! Not on a daily basis, but it's very common for Catholic children to dress up as saints for All Saints' Day pageants. All kinds of saints: Asian, European, African, American, mothers, priests, martyrs, .... I love it, myself -- the display of the universality of the Church and so many individual paths to sanctity participating in the one Way to heaven. And kids love to dress up, though they are rarely concerned with the exact historical / cultural accuracy of their outfits. :) I really can't understand why anyone would be offended by it.

Anonymous said...

You criticize non-Native people for not recognizing the religious importance of certain Native ceremonies and customs, yet here you are criticizing what Catholics do to celebrate their saints. Very hypocritical.

Anonymous said...

yes, yes, we'll give them the benefit of the doubt only for so long, but once you take away their ignorance, then they have little to hide behind, and cannot fail to recognize that wearing a "costume" that idealizes an entire nation puts aside many many many many many issues that have occurred and are occurring and they continue to damage the already tarnished image. through enlightenment and understanding of why you cannot take a ceremonial headdress and turn it into a rainbow feather wig that holds no meaning other than to "look like an indian," we can stop seeing them as identifiers.

i personally am offended by it anonymous above and Sarojini, because frankly, wearing a multicolored feather headband is not honoring Kateri. for not just aforementioned reasons, but plenty others, for more info, take a look at this site, its pretty neat and it will take away the excuse of not knowing:

and if you knowingly choose to not learn, then you're knowingly offending people by choosing not to acknowledging their voices.