The town of Kahnawake, formerly Caughnawaga, is home to the mission of St. Francis Xavier, founded in the early 1670s as a refuge for Catholic Iroquois and perhaps best known as the residence of the Lily of the Mohawks, St. Kateri Tekakwitha. In the years following her death, the mission evolved into a political capital, the central fire (to use classically Iroquois terminology) of the Seven Indian Nations of Canada, a confederacy of pro-French and staunchly Catholic tribes.
But Kahnawake also served as a liturgical center as well. It is where we see the highest development of the "Indian Mass", a pre-Vatican II liturgy peculiar to the North American missions that featured a mix of Latin and native languages.
Father Clement McNaspy described the mission's musical riches as follows in an article for Orate Fratres in 1947:
"At present the liturgical music library of Caughnawaga Mission includes almost all the Gregorian masses and dozens of modern masses of all schools, arranged in Iroquois and handsomely multicopied. In addition there are hundreds of motets (class polyphonic and modern) and the Gregorian Propers for all Sundays, commons and greater feasts, all in the same vernacular arrangements. In terms of sheer bulk and quality this represents one of the most useful collections of sacred music in Canada: yet all had to be done by hand and is the result of years of painstaking adaptation."
One of these manuscripts, happily, can still be seen on display behind glass across from the gift shop area of the church.
The vitality of Kahnawake's native chant tradition, even in an era as hostile to native languages as the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is also worth noting. Though Vetromile's Indian Good Books of the 1850s attest to a robust tradition of native-language hymnody among the Abenaki and other Eastern peoples, Teresa Sappier, one of the last living members of the Latin choir at Old Town, told me that she did not remember any Penobscot hymns being sung there.
Meanwhile, into the 1940s, Kahnawake was busily retooling its own native chant tradition in accordance with the reforms of the Liturgical Movement:
"As this is being written, a new printed edition containing all the principal Gregorian masses, Credos, and frequently used hymns and canticles, is being bound for use here at Caughnawaga and at Saint Régis... This new edition, with rhythm indicated according to the Solesmes theory, is the result of generations of study and adaptation of the Mohawk language rhythm to pre-existing Gregorian melodic patters. It may well be the definitive edition." (McNaspy 1947)
The native-language liturgical works published in the 1800s give us a concrete sense of how advanced Kahnawake and its daughter mission of St. Regis at Akwesasne really were. For example, the other missions show a rather simple set of Introits, with a mere handful rotating duty throughout the year. Kahnawake shows some 40 Introits, and many of these are faithful musical and textual renditions of their Roman counterparts. Also, Kahnawake seems to have served as a benchmark for the other missions; its masses and prayers appear in the Book of Seven Nations for the mission of Kanesatake/Oka.
Much research still needs to be done. But as the liturgical riches at Kahnawake and the other Indian towns begin to draw the attention of scholars, we will be better able to ascertain to what degree Kateri's mission has served as a liturgical model for its neighbors. And how it will serve as a model. For it is to be hoped that a renewed attention ad fontes does not end at mere scholarly curiosity but spills over into the renewal of the living liturgy. In an era where Indianizing the Mass can seem to rely on such superficialities as drumming and smudging, it would be well to remember how Kahnawake managed to preserve its authentic native tradition over 300 years of organic development.