St. Kateri Tekakwitha is often referred to as "the Lily of the Mohawks." She was an Iroquois by birth, but after her conversion she lived among the Christian Mohawks at Kahnawake, a Jesuit mission near Montreal. After her death two of the Jesuits were inspired to write brief biographies which are the source of later books and articles.
One of those authors, Claude Chauchetière, is also said to be the one who painted the first image of the saint, which hangs today in the mission church and is the source of St. Kateri's iconography (first picture at right). As in later images, she contemplates the cross and wears a short tunic over a long robe, leggings, and laced footwear apparently of deerskin. The dark mantle in the painting is replaced in later works by a short, fringed top – a common traditional garment among Mohawk women. The cross, fringed top, and laced footwear are the key elements in the iconography.
Through the years the images reflect changing notions of how "Indian" a saint should look. In the Chauchetière painting her skin is light and her thin nose looks European. An 18th-century print based on the painting widened the nose and made the saint quite dark. In the early and mid-20th century she often has pigtails and light skin, as in the third image at right, a white stereotype of the unthreatening Indian Princess. Later images, such as this one and the second picture at right, make her unmistakably native.
Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-09-11.