Author Darren Bonaparte sets the stage of the life of Blessed Káteri Tekahkwí:tha, a Mohawk woman who died in 1680 and was beatified by Pope John Paul II three hundred years later, by first presenting the earlier history of the Mohawk and the other Iroquois nations. He begins with the possible origins of the Mohawk nation and how they developed along with the other Iroquois and includes the creation story of Sky Woman and other early stories of the founding of the Iroquois and the earth. Wars with neighboring tribes, among other reasons, led five nations – Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Onondaga – to form the Iroquois Confederation.
Contact with Europeans from France, the Netherlands, and later the English made a major impact on the Mohawks and other Native American peoples - sometimes good but at others disastrous. They welcomed new items like glass beads, metal weapons, and guns, but they also suffered devastating new diseases like smallpox. Some tribes were completely wiped out by these diseases because they had no immunity to them. Later some Europeans used this method intentionally, committing genocide to wipe out American Indians and take their lands.
The title of the book - A Lily Among Thorns - refers to Káteri’s hard life among her own people. She was an orphan scarred in many ways by smallpox. Her face bore pockmarks, and her eyesight was affected to the point that she often wore a scarf or blanket over her head to protect her eyes from the sun and to hide the scars. Her weakened physical condition also owed to smallpox. An aunt and other family members tried to get her to marry, but she refused.
Thanks to a treaty with the French, Jesuit missionaries were allowed to work among the Mohawks to gain converts to Catholicism. Káteri met one, and eventually it was arranged for her to leave her village and join other Christian Indians in their own village in Canada. Bonaparte describes Káteri’s life at this Christian village based on early biographies on her by Jesuit priests who wrote them to promote her cause but also to promote the missions back in Europe.
Others joined Káteri to do penances and ascetic works for their sins and for those of their fellow tribesmen. Many of these penances would be considered extreme today, maybe even crazy, but they fit well with Iroquois culture of the time. These penances probably did not help Kateri’s fragile health. The Jesuits intervened when she would try to do too extreme a penance, but reading what she was allowed to do one leads one to wonder. Then, it was a different time and circumstance.
Blessed Káteri died during Holy Week in April of 1680; her death was holy and dignified. She inspired many American Indians to convert or live more Christian lives. Several apparitions of her were reported, and many more miracles have occurred since her death – some still happen even today, which helped to lead to her beatification in 1980 by Pope John Paul II. It has taken a very long time for her to be raised to the altars of the Catholic Church. She may one day; soon we hope to see her canonized and become the first American Indian to be declared a saint.
Bonaparte provides many black-and-white photographs, many of which he himself took. He also provides a massive bibliography of books, articles and websites (Bonaparte’s is at
www.wampumchronicles.com). R. Kakwirakeron Montour provided wonderful pen and ink drawings to help illustrate the book. On the front cover is an image of Blessed Káteri wearing a blue scarf; on the back is an image of a wampum belt.
Bonaparte was also aided by the Kateri Center and St. Francois Xavier Church in Kahnawa:ke, where Blessed Káteri is buried. Bonaparte also received research advice from the noted Dr. Laurence M. Hauptman, who has written many books on the Iroquois and other American Indian tribes and subjects. Endnotes are included but unfortunately not an index. Bonaparte is the author of Creation & Confederation: The Living History of the Iroquois (2008). A Lily Among Thorns is highly recommended for those interested in Blessed Kateri, the Mohawks, and early American and Canadian history.