Indigenous peoples as forever ‘children in the faith’: Emma Anderson, ‘”White” Martyrs and “Red” Saints: The Ongoing Distortions of Hagiography on Historiography’, American Catholic Studies, 127, 3, 2016, pp. 9-13


Excerpt: For centuries, historiography has systematically distorted aboriginal Catholics’ experiences. Rather than reflecting the often ambiguous and ambivalent realities of indigenous encounters with Catholicism, historians have continued to be influenced by what are essentially hagiographic tropes of encounter first constructed by European missionaries to valorize their own identities and experiences. Two relational models: that of missionary/convert and martyr/slayer have been particularly popular and destructive over the centuries. Each highlights the struggle and the sacrifice of European Catholic missionaries (the “leads”) while casting native people in supporting, reactive, and largely non-speaking roles. In the late nineteenth century, these iconic ways of articulating missionary-native relationships helped to fuel a powerful new articulation of American Catholic identity and served as a powerful means of contesting popular (and often contradictory) anti-Catholic tropes in dominant, Protestant historiography. These fictive relationships have also, over the centuries, legitimated real and symbolic violence against native people, and have occluded scholars’ understanding of the far richer and more challenging reality of indigenous people’s engagement with Catholicism since contact.

Catholic missionaries to the “New World” longed to be successful evangelists to ‘genuine’ converts. But how missionaries constructed the ideal indigenous neophyte bore little relationship to how native people actually experienced and experimented with Catholicism. Missionaries across North America performed a delicate balancing act: they sought to spark converts’ spiritual ardour whilst strictly controlling it. But when native converts sought to scale the lay/clerical divide, or to perform daunting feats of austerity or self-mutilation, this was discouraged because it threatened missionaries’ desire to be uncontested spiritual leaders of the community. Dubbed “children in the faith,” native converts were admonished to avoid the hubris of too quickly seeking spiritual adulthood. Religious conversion, then, was not the extension of an invitation to native peoples to explore with European authorities their now shared faith, but the beginning of an indefinite obedience, as eternal laymen, to a European clerical elite. The life of famed seventeenth-century Mohawk convert Catherine “Kateri” Tekakwitha aptly demonstrates the link that missionaries attempted to forge between conversion and submission to white authority. An audacious and imaginative spiritual adventurer during her lifetime, only after her premature death at age of 24 could Kateri be safely appropriated by the Jesuits as “one of theirs” (quite literally, as missionaries claimed that the young convert’s skin tone miraculous lightened as she lay on her deathbed).

%d bloggers like this: