“And the Whole Earth Was of One Language”

This past Saturday, Jews around the world listened to the chanting of Parshat Noach. After the dramatic story of the flood, the destruction of the world and the annihilation of most of the human race, we are privy to yet another tale: the story of the tower of Babel. This parable serves to explain why there are so many languages on Earth—but it does much more than that. It reminds us that we all started from the same place. We were all one people, capable of working together toward a common goal.

Examples of communal work like this are difficult to come by these days, with the constant talk of clashes of civilizations, partisanship and war. But this sense of a common morality transcending cultural boundaries was tangibly present this past Sunday, when Pope Benedict XVI canonized seven new saints including the first American Indian—Kateri Tekakwitha.

Kateri was born in 1656 to an Algonquin mother and a Mohawk father. Her parents died due to smallpox complications when Kateri was young, after which she converted to Catholicism. Kateri died at the young age of 24 on an Indian settlement in what is now Canada.

There was much celebration about Kateri’s canonization – she has long been revered as a symbol of hope and strength for Native Americans and Catholics alike. However, while this event certainly points to the possibility of productive and meaningful interreligious collaboration, it also sheds light on the plight of Native Americans for the last several centuries and the role that Westerners have played in their marginalization.

Native Americans today remain systemically impoverished, and are subject to dreadful disparities in the law. These issues are coming to a head in current debates over the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, where the Native American community is fighting for necessary and deserved protections – yet these injustices are the result of years of oppression. So as we honor St. Kateri, let us think about the sort of relationships she would have wanted to see among members of our community, and truly honor her memory by ensuring equality for Native Americans in our contemporary society.

Image courtesy of Andrew Medichini/Associated Press.