The first American Indian saint, Kateri Tekakwitha, was formally declared by Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 21.
But she clearly was considered a saint in popular culture long before the Roman Catholic hierarchy said so.
I first came across her during hikes in the woods of St. John's Abbey in Minnesota in the late 1980s, where she was clearly labeled "St. Kateri Tekakwitha," though that statue was placed in 1956 on the 300th anniversary of her birth.
Why would a young Mohawk woman from one of the most easterly of the Iroquois Confederacy nations located in present-day upstate New York and Canada be commemorated in Minnesota? Then I started noticing statues at Indian pueblos in New Mexico, the ancestral home of my father's family.
And new icons have cropped up, too a statue at the St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe, sculpted by a Jemez Pueblo artist, and 21 murals telling her story at the church where my family has stained glass windows at the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo (formerly San Juan Pueblo).
Tekakwitha's influence spans the continent and has only grown since her untimely death in 1680.
What is this about? She lived only 24 years at a time of the harshest clashes between European newcomers (or intruders) and native peoples, and between native peoples themselves. Yet her impact was immediate and has persisted across cultures through the centuries.
All we know about Tekakwitha comes from the letters and accounts of three French Jesuits who knew her. Her life, as Thomas Hobbes might describe it, was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."
Her origins were in the brutal battles between nations of the Iroquois Confederacy the Mohawk and French-backed Algonquins. Her mother was an Algonquin Catholic convert, who was captured in Canada, taken to live in New York and married to a Mohawk chief. Tekakwitha was born in 1656, a decade after three French Jesuits had been tortured and killed in her village.
At the age of 4, she was orphaned when a smallpox epidemic killed her parents. Disfigured, lame and barely able to see, she was taken in by her uncle. Mohawk villages and crops were destroyed by the French, peace imposed. Three French Jesuits came. She was baptized in 1676 and the Jesuits wrote that she was persecuted, hooted and pelted as she went to church. Already an orphan, she was now also an outcast. Her uncle arranged a marriage for her, but she refused. She fled her native land for a Jesuit mission in Canada, a 200-mile journey. No turning back. A new start in a strange land.
She and a group of women subjected themselves to all manner of self-torture (walking barefoot in snow, sleeping on thorns, putting burning coals between their toes, whipping themselves with branches). Some might say they were preparing themselves for what they might face if they were ever captured, as converts were treated brutally in raids.
In 1679, when pressed to marry, she refused again and made a vow of perpetual virginity. She died in 1680 the same year the Indian Pueblos of New Mexico rose up against Spanish settlers.
At a time when the Jesuits were trying to convert souls, Tekakwitha was seen immediately as a shining example of success when successes were few that could inspire others.
At a time when native converts were embattled, scorned by their own people, she was an example of rebellion against tradition and custom particularly among women who did not want to marry.
Father Pierre wrote that a quarter hour after her death, her disfigured face "became in a moment so beautiful and so white" that he thought she "at that moment might have entered into heaven" invoking both racial kinship (white, no longer brown) and kinship with the Virgin Mary (associated with the white petals of purity).
Hence she became Lily of the Mohawks.
Soon sick and dying French settlers who were urged by the Jesuits to "have recourse to the dead Mohawk woman" were healed. The phenomenon spread to France.
American bishops began in 1884 to seek sainthood for her.
With nothing known about Tekakwitha from her own perspective, she has become what others seek.
For the Jesuits and French settlers, she was a cultural bridge.
For native and non-native women alike, her life represented, as New Yorker Nelly Walworth described in 1891, a "thoroughly modern quest for personal autonomy."
But that's not enough for sainthood in the Catholic Church, so she had to have a miracle. A 5-year-old boy who had contracted a deadly flesh-eating bacterial infection in 2006 recovered after he was touched with a piece of Tekakwitha's wrist-bone and people prayed to her.
So now she's a bona fide saint and we can celebrate her short life and all that it means for us today in polarized times far less harsh than the 17th century.