Prayers and Politics at Kahnawake

The bridge over the St. Lawrence River in Canada hangs in the twilight, a connection to some different sense of time and space. It is the summer of 2000 and my last day in Montreal. I’ve been invited by a French Canadian friend to travel with him across the river. My plan is to visit Kahnawake, a Mohawk Indian Reserve, the site of a widely publicized eruption of gunfire and rioting 10 years ago this week.

Earlier, I inquired about directions to the reserve. A waitress at one of Montreal’s restaurants responded with curiosity, Why do you want to visit a dump like that? I replied, Have you heard of Kateri Tekakwitha? No, she said. Hoping to make the trip, I continued, on behalf of a couple of Native friends of mine. There’s a shrine and tomb there. In 1980, Tekakwitha, a Mohawk convert in the 17th century, was the first North American Indian to be beatified by Rome. Polite but uninterested, she poured another cup of coffee and changed the subject.


The trip to the reserveoriginally a French and Indian settlement, founded in 1676 by Jesuitstakes less than 20 minutes. My worn tourist guidebook explains: The village once served as refuge for Iroquois converts to Christianity. Its current population is estimated at 5,500 residents. The reservation has no street names or numbers.

Since 1990, Kahnawake has been known to Canadians as The Battle Ground at Oka. During the late 1980’s, developers made plans to expand the Oka Golf Course through a stand of pine trees. Mohawk tribal members claimed it was an ancient native burial ground. Led by a band of native militants called The Warriors, community activists blocked Mercier Bridge, sparking the fatal shooting of a Quebec police officer. A summer-long standoff involved a blockade of the bridge, which is a major transportation route out of Montreal.

During this early evening, the streets of Kahnawake are abandoned. St. Xavier Mission, a modest church built of hand-crafted quarried stone, stands quietly silhouetted against the river bank. A small garden and simple fence frame its boundaries. I introduce myself to Donald Flynn, a Jesuit priest and university instructor from Quebec, who serves the parish in the summer months.

Father Flynn informs me that a native family is expected for a wedding rehearsal and then leads me to the worship area, a dark, wood-beamed sanctuary smelling of damp plaster. He points out Tekakwitha’s tomb in the far corner of the nave. Built of Carrara marble, the memorial stone is surrounded with votive candles, ribbons, photographs and jewelry. Separating it from the sanctuary is a simple wooden altar rail.

I ask if I might sit for awhile in prayer. He invites me to do so. Finding a back pew, I slide into a corner of the empty sanctuary. As I bow my head, I find myself in the quiet, unseen presence of two friends: one from a Sioux community in the Dakotas, the other from the little-known Skokomish Reservation near Puget Sound.


The sun is setting and I’m leaning against a pickup truck outside the St. Francis community center on South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation. Nearby, a crowd of Lakota are gathering for tonight’s powwow. Dancers, elders, tribal leaders and dozens of children in bead shirts, jeans, Reebocks and hand-me-down sweaters are meandering into the meeting hall. The mixed smells of fried bread, soup and coffee fill the air.

I’m here among 12 clergypersons and laypeople for a weeklong cross-cultural training program. During free time, I’ve slipped away to track down a friend whom I first knew as a graduate student at the University of Washington. The last I heard he’d moved back to South Dakota. That was six years ago. We finally connected when his sister told me over the phone that he’s living in a trailer behind a housing unit subsidized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Pine Ridge. Without a moment’s hesitation she said, He’s on his way.

The dented van pulls into the parking lot. The trip from Pine Ridge has taken a little over two hours. Rueben Twin’s hair is longer than I remember, his face leaner, his eyes more intense. Pushing the button on the van’s power window, he leans out and says: Brother, I’m in big trouble. My colostomy has backed up. It could poison me. I move in next to him and raise his pant leg, unclipping the plastic tube leading to a stained yellow bag. He motions me outside and I pour the contents of his bladder into dry brown soil, the air around me reeking with body fluid and urine. In a minute or two, things are back in order. He swings into his collapsible wheelchair and hits the switch for the hydraulic lift with a paralyzed hand. I walk beside him in his wheelchair into the auditorium which is now filled with 100 dancers and Lakota community members.

Rueben Twin is a survivor, a truth-teller andwhen the occasion calls for itan exquisite liar. He also understands the secrets of mind and body. A paraplegic because of a car accident in his youth, he has lived a remarkable life that may even appear enviable to many. For more than 20 years he has traveled with the American Indian Movement and served as a drummer for ceremonies and powwows. He has earned a graduate degree, worked as road man carrying peyote for the Native American Church and did a couple of stints as a teacher at Indian community colleges.

Once he told me he almost finished a graduate degree program at a southwestern university without ever opening a book. His strategy was to work a mix of race, ethnicity and disability through the loopholes of ever-shifting affirmative- action policies. With a smile he said, It worked perfectly, almost.

Here at the St. Francis Center, a member of Oregon’s Klamath Indian community, a leader among them, approaches Albert White Hat, the master of ceremonies, to request an honor song for our guest from Pine Ridge. The emcee asks us to make some remarks. Rueben is invited onto the dance floor. He wheels his chair out to the center of the hall. For the next few moments he’s saluted for his many efforts to protect American Indian treaty rights and for the support he’s given church leaders across the Pacific Northwest. Prayers of thanks are lifted up.

The drummers begin their song. Albert White Hat motions for us to walk alongside Rueben’s wheelchair as he moves around the perimeter of the auditorium. A hundred hands, many of them from children, reach out to touch him. Because his fingers cannot be fully extended, he offers his palm. The Klamath tribal member smiles, leans over, and I hear her whisper in his ear: Don’t forget this night. This is what the kingdom of God is going to be like.


Tekakwitha was born of a Mohawk father and Al-gonquin mother in 1656, in the village of Ossernenon, which is now the site of Auriesville, N.Y., some 35 miles west of Albany on the Mohawk River. In 1660 an epidemic of smallpox, a disease introduced by Europeans, swept through what is now southern Quebec and upper New York State. Both her parents died, but the four-year-old Tekakwitha survived. For the remainder of her relatively short life (she died at age 24), she lived with facial disfigurement from smallpox and increasing blindness. In 1675, at the age of 19, when she was living in a village near what is today Fonda, N.Y., on the north bank of the Mohawk, she met a French-born Jesuit missionary. On Easter 1676 she was baptized and given the name Catherine, or, as she is now called, Kateri. After her baptism, she traveled nearly 200 miles north to Caughnawaga, a Christian Indian village then known as Sault St. Louis.

We know little of her inner life. She never wrote or dictated her thoughts, but her devotion and humility became well known among both Christians and those who followed traditional Mohawk religions. One of her Jesuit spiritual directors wrote of Tekakwitha’s desire to organize a community of Indian nuns. He forbade her, however, because of her ill-health and lack of experience. Forty years later, the example of her life helped inspire the first convent of Indian Poor Clares in Mexico City. Among these nuns was a native descendent of Montezuma.

We will never have the full story of Kateri Tekakwitha. But the puzzle of her continued veneration among Indian people reinforces what William James once referred to as the tension between doing and being. In indigenous cultures the value of presence over action provides a contrast with Western approaches toward time and space. It may have been the depth of her being, not the nature of her actions, that sanctified her brief and even ordinary life.


It’s late morning. I’m reading in a forward cabin of a 56-foot trawler moored at Roche Harbor in Puget Sound’s San Juan Islands.

This particular trip back to the Pacific Northwest has been a return to what was my home for 10 years, and it combines work and rest. Yesterday I relaxed and made arrangements to spend the day with Mark Kremen from the Skokomish Reservation. We sat together in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, a connecting place for the city’s homeless. Sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup, the 50-year-old Native American told me that for the last eight years he’s lived on less than $3,000 a year.

Social workers, he said, estimate that 300 to 400 of Seattle’s 3,000 homeless people are Native Americans. Most are from Puget Sound and Alaska, but others are from as far away as Arizona and Michigan. Weather’s good here, Mark said, smiling. Pointing to a highway, he added: Most Indians without shelter keep together. We sleep under that Interstate overpass. How safe is it? I asked. I’ve got a couple friends who have heat and light sensors operated by batteries attached to their sleeping bags. For protection. Last year I lost two friends. There was another murder this spring.

I’ve known Mark for 15 years in a variety of roles: a gardener, chef, parish member, occasional homeless person and, most memorably, part-time assistant for cross-cultural classes I taught for the University of Washington. During these years, sometimes sober and sometimes not, he has traveled to 23 states, two countries and, on 11 occasions, to his church’s national offices in Chicago. He has represented churches during ecumenical dialogues, led prayers at public demonstrations, fished commercially on Puget Sound, spent time in the King County Jail and written editorials for The Seattle Times.

Mark Kremen is dressed in borrowed clothes, as usual. We’ve searched each other out during cold and rainy nights. He has been for me a connection to a deeper spiritual kingdom. There has been a cost. His linkages to this world remain tenuous. I’ve watched police drag him to the King County jail for disorderly conduct. I’ve prayed with him as he’s stumbled through a dozen alcohol treatment programs.

Back at Roche Harbor, I’m paging through a copy of Seattle Home Magazine and come across another article by a nationally known architect. I think of Mark Kremen sitting in his borrowed clothes on a bench in Pioneer Square. I don’t like houses that look too new, the designer writes. The really great houses of the world all look lived in.


I hear the wooden doors of the church swing wide. My eyes open to see evening has fallen. Here at Kahnawake in the summer of 2000 the extended families of a Mohawk bride and groom are entering the church. Rising from the pew and nodding to the priest, I kneel at the altar rail. I light two votive candles, drop two Canadian dollars into an offering box and quietly leave Tekakwitha’s tomb.

The French Canadian driver and I pull onto the highway to begin the drive back. He offers me a rolled cigarette, and we talk casually of American-Canadian politics and religion. I remark to him that when leaving the church moments ago I had picked up a parish bulletin. Inside its cover, printed in both English and French, were the words: The Third Millennium will be a spiritual one. Or it will not be.

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12 years 2 months ago
Thank you for your article on Kahnawake by Jon Magnuson (10/1). Here in Taiwan we also have a statue of Blessed Kateri in the church at Ch’ing Ch’uan, and she is popular with our tribal people. In fact the statue factory has made copies and is selling them. We also have copies of her life in Chinese and prayer cards in Chinese.

The circumstances of Kateri’s life are not much different from those of our tribal people here. They first became Catholics 40 years ago; they suffer from alcoholism and cultural disorientation, as in Kateri’s time. However, they also have a clearer sense of their own identity and mission. One young lady who fell seriously ill recently and who prays regularly to Kateri is now forming a music group with her friends to sing at Mass. They are all very gifted amateur musicians. I will share your article with them.


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