Kateri Tekakwitha was the first American Indian to be a candidate for (Catholic) sainthood.
Born in 1656 near present day Auriesville, New York, her father was a Mohawk chief and her mother was a Christianized Algonquian (originally a captive). When she was four years old, a smallpox epidemic hit the area and both her parents and baby brother died as a result. She survived by was badly scarred and left with strong photosensitivity (her name Tekakwitha means "she who pushes all around her," reflecting her condition). She bore the weight of the condition without complaint (as any potential saint would do) and lived quietly with relatives becoming well known for her work with beads in the making of wampum.
Depsite her mother being a converted Catholic, she was unbaptized (the Indian women only allowing for priest performed baptisms and there not being one present in her youth). She had been visited by Jesuit missionaries when she was in her early teens and was greatly impressed and inspired by their prayerful life and religious lifestyle/philosophy. Likewise, she impressed them with her simple virtuous ways. Their visit left her with a great desire for a strong Christian life. And when she turned 18 or 20 (depending on the source; most say 20), she had herself baptized (at that time, she took the name Kateri, an Iroquois variation of Catherine, in honor of St. Catherine of Alexandria).
Her new life based on her religious beliefs and convictions was difficult within the structure and culture the of Indians with whom she lived. She chose to remain chaste for the time being against the wishes of her relatives (many of whom felt, among other reasons, that due to her condition, she needed a husband to give her "stability"). She was ridiculed for not working on Sundays and was often given extra chores. Through all the difficulties, she remained resolute and refused to abandon or concede any part of her faith. She remained patient and kind, living a life exemplifying her beliefs.
At the suggestion of a priest, she decided to leave the village and headed off to a community in Canada (some 200 miles/322 km away) where Christian Indians lived and were able to freely practice their beliefs (she was accompaniedvia canoeby another Christian Indian, an Oneida). It was the Mission of St. Francis Xavier at Kahnawake (also called Mohawk and Caughnawaga), on the southern bank of the St. Lawrence River near Montreal. Because of her strength of faith and virtue, she was allowed to take her first communion much sooner than most converts. Despite an apparently groundless accusation of adultery (she would go to the woods to pray at a shrine each day about the same time someone's husband went hunting) her virtuousness won over those skeptical of her and she was able to regain the trust and respect of her fellow Christians.
On a trip to visit some nuns in Montreal, she got the idea to try opening a convent on Heron Island (I'm assuming the one near New Brunswick). The church declined but allowed her to take a perpetual vow of chastity and pledge of eternal devotion to God on the Feast of Annunciation, 1679. She continued her penitent devotion and virtuous ways, even to what most would consider a fault (something all too common in the lives of saints and those who walk in their footsteps). She fasted, performed charitable work for the poor and the sick, slept on a bed of thorns, and practiced flagellationall despite being weak and plagued by ill health.
She became gravely ill and nearly died, hanging on until the next year. Following Lent in 1670, the illness returned and she succumbed to it, dying in April at age 24. Reportedly upon her death, her scars cleared away revealing "beauty" and a "radiating smile" (similar " miracles" are not uncommon in saints-to-be and probably related to the notion that saints' bodies are incorruptable).
Also common to people believed to be saints, is the idea that places where they were born, died, converted, or performed some miracle are sites where devoted pilgrims can go to pray and have religious visions, awakenings, ecstasies, and healings. Tekakwitha's gravesite is no different with many reported miracles and cures for illnesses by Indian and French believers (similar "cures" have been claimed from relics and even from the dust on her grave). Among them she became to known as "Lily of the Mohawks" (the most commonshe has been given numerous "titles" in the same vein).
In 1884, under Pope Leo XIII, she was deemed a suitable candidate for canonization. After the usual examination, investigation, testimony, and collection of information about the candidate she was declared "venerable" in 1943 under Pope Pius XII. The next step in the process is to have a miracle (through "intercession") attributed to the person. It must have occurred after the candidate's death and is judged by medical experts and theologians. If the miracle is accepted, then the person can be beatified, which Pope John Paul II did in 1980. Currently, the only thing keeping Tekakwitha "Blessed" instead of "Saint" is the requirement of one additional miracle to have occurred after being beatified. If that happens and is found acceptable, she may be given full sainthood.
Her original Feast Day was 17 Aprilthe day she died (it remains so in Canada). In the US it is celebrated on 14 July (moved so as not to overlap any period of Lent or Holy Week).
(Sources: CarlWaldman Biographical Dictionary of American Indian History to1900 rev. ed. 2001, www.cpis.net/~stannech/saintsgallery/kateri/kate_his.html, www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/6614/v1i3.htm, http://home.earthlink.net/~paula74/Kateri/Biographyx.html, http://physics.bu.edu/~trofimov/saint.html)