The Enduring Appeal of the Missionary Position: Some Contemporary Representations of Native-Jesuit Relations

by Matt Sheedy

I recently paid a visit to Martyrs’ Shrine and Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons in Midland Ontario, nestled on Georgian Bay about an hour and a half north of Toronto. The former is one of eight nationally recognized shrines in Canada and one of the country’s most popular pilgrimage sites for Catholics, containing shrines to and relics of the so-called “Canadian Martyrs,” (all of whom were canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930) including the skull of Jean de Brébeuf, along with several monuments to the recently canonized Kateri Tekakwitha (aka “Lily of the Mohawks”), the first “Native-Canadian” saint (though some American Catholics claim her as their own as she was born in what is today New York state).

Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons is a reconstructed French missionary village that existed from 1639-1649, and was home to dozens of Jesuits and hundreds of “Huron” converts, the French term for the Wendat people. The village also represents the first known European settlement in what is now the province of Ontario and is the only re-creation of a French Jesuit mission in Canada. It is at this location that Brébeuf and fellow Jesuit Gabriel Lalemant were burned at the stake in 1649 by a group of Iroquois, who were at war at the time with the Wendat/Huron and the French.

What is perhaps most interesting is that these locales, situated directly across the street from one another, operate under different authorities–the Shrine is run by the Catholic Church and the missionary village by the government of Ontario, which was named a National Historic Site in 1920. Thus, while depicting related events, the former is not subject to the same criteria as the latter, which falls under the ethical guidelines of the Canadian Museums Association. Yes indeed, tis’ a ripe fruit for comparison!

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Although I had been to both places several times since my youth, I was compelled to take another trip while visiting family in the area this summer after reading Emma LaRocque’s description of Martyrs’ Shrine in her book When the Other is Me: Native Resistance Discourse, 1850-1990, where she describes her own experience visiting the church in the summer of 1976 as follows: While gazing upon some life-sized wax figures,

I slowly realized what they were: kneeling priests angelically looking up, hands folded, praying for mercy as open-mouthed, hideously pained, evil-eyed savages tower over them, about the bury hatches in their skulls. (34)

I did not encounter these images upon my visit and nobody that I spoke to among the staff seemed to know of their existence or when they may have been removed. While the depiction described by LaRocque no doubt served to legitimate the claims to martyrdom from a traditional Catholic point of view, it would seem that more contemporary sensibilities have prevailed with the removal of these images.

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A brief tour of Martyrs’ Shrine today reveals a more multi-racial sensibility, as seen with the following image of Mary (left) or with this plaque (below right) mounted at the base of a statue of Kateri Tekakwitha, thanking God for leading chosen Native “souls” into the Christian fold. While such images no doubt provide-low hanging fruit for a (post)-colonial critique, the inclusion of the plaque in 1976 could be said to signify a historical correction of sorts.

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More subtle, but no less problematic, is a stained-glass depiction of Wendat convert Joseph Chihwatenhwa (see image below), who is seen to be aiding Jean de Brébeuf, thus echoing a common trope of the good “Indian” who serves as a dutiful guide to the civilizing European. The intensions of individual Jesuits notwithstanding, this iconography is suggestive of a colonialist discourse of justification.

 

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More problematic still was a series of paintings in the church’s basement depicting the mission’s demise, where “Blackrobe courage,” aided by the brave Huron “defenders,” is pitted against the “dread Iroquois,” suggesting a dichotomy between good and bad Natives based on their willingness to accept Christianity.

Across the street at Sainte-Marie (see image below), a more concerted effort at striking a balanced representation was evident, though a similar metanarrative prevailed, depicting courageous and benevolent Jesuits aiding less advanced Natives, whose traditions–it is all but spelled out–were destined to fail. This likewise serves as a colonialist discourse of justification, with some interesting implications for the framing of religion.

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While space does not allow me to elaborate on the many Euro- and Christian-centric depictions at Sainte-Marie, including a 15-minute instructional film, the books and images contained in the gift shop, along with the lay-out and emphasis of the village itself, one popular book sold on site, Images of Sainte Marie (1989), which was commissioned by Huronia Historical Parks (a government agency), serves as a useful guide.

The book’s preface, written by a Jesuit, Jacques Monet, opens with the following lines:

Among explorers and settlers from Europe, the French were the only ones who wished to live with and learn from the New World’s people. They came to reconcile, not to conquer, wishing that in Ontario the best of both worlds could create a new society. (4)

While making brief mention of the commercial interests that were involved in the region (namely fur trading), the role of Samuel de Champlain in sending Jesuit missionaries to Huronia as a first step toward colonization, and the privilege that Christian converts received over “traditional” Wendat/Huron, the missionary position clearly prevails, where the courage and virtue of the Blackrobes is never called into question, and their presence is seen as a beacon on the road to salvation/civilization. For example, we learn that:

Those Wendat people who embraced Christianity accepted the Jesuits in their midst with the same equanimity that they accepted the dramatic changes in their own lifestyle. They saw the Europeans as partners in a new life that included peace with the Iroquois. (29)

Similarly, on the question of conversion:

They were impressed with the Blackrobes’ ability to survive the diseases that devastated their own people and they accepted the promise of eternal life offered by the Jesuits. (42)

On the question of Wendat/Huron religion, we learn that a “[d]eep spirituality infused every dimension of their lives,” and that “the spirits residing in the sky, earth and water controlled the destinies of the people.” (10)

While not necessarily an incorrect generalization of Wendat “spirituality,” there is an implicit dichotomy between “savage” and “civilized” that runs throughout this narrative, where the presumptively lesser beliefs of the Wendat/Huron are pitted against those of the more civilized Europeans/Christians. Despite the destruction of Sainte-Marie by the Jesuits themselves in 1649 and the retreat of the French from Huronia back to present-day Quebec, disease and the warring Iroquois are presented as the main culprits of the mission’s demise. For this reason, “[c]onfused, weakened and heartsick, many Wendat returned to the traditional ways of their people.” (31) In the end, this venture is seen as a noble first step on the path to colonization and eventual nationhood:

This living history representation stands as a memorial to brave Frenchmen and proud Wendat, and the their moment in the history of this nation. (51)

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As a government agency operating a National Historic Site, these representations are highly controversial and would no doubt prove offensive to many Native people. What interests me in particular about these various discourses, however, is how (and here I can only speculate) the reputation and influence of Martyrs’ Shrine likely shapes and conditions the depiction of Native-Jesuit relations at Sainte-Marie–after all the church brings in tens of thousands of visitors/pilgrims each year into the region, most of whom will visit the Historic Site to see the graves of the “martyrs,” Brébeuf and Lalemant. Moreover, these interests also come to condition the ways in which “religion” is depicted, lending it a primary and sui generis role within the dominant historical narrative.

While it is true that the earliest sources on European contact in this region come from Europeans, including accounts by Samuel de Champlain (1615-16), the Recollect missionary Gabriel Sagard (1623-24), and the extensive Jesuit Relations, which chronicles the observations of Jesuit missionaries from 1634-1650, there has been an explosion of scholarship offering a Native-centric and/or post-colonialist framework since the 1970s (e.g., Arthur J. Ray’s, Indians in the Fur Trade [1974]), thereby situating these perspectives contrapuntally.

Even where Native voices are absent, the documents of Europeans themselves often provide a rich trove of evidence on Native-European relations, including insight into the actions, assumptions and underlying prejudices of the latter, as demonstrated, for example, in Daniel N. Paul’s We Were Not the Savages (2006), which examines British documents to reveal the widespread European practice of scalping against Native people.

In her book Canada’s First Nations (1992), Olive Dickason provides a contrapuntal narrative of Native-Jesuit relations in Huronia, relying partly on accounts contained within the Jesuit Relations.

In Dickason’s narrative, it is the fur trade that takes center stage as the main source of conflict, where the French, in alliance with the Wendat/Huron, serve to exacerbate long-standing conflicts in the region (124), and are seen as the source of the Wendat/Huron demise, impacting their long-standing domination of the region by cutting off trade to the south. (133) Moreover, we get a sense of how important the Wendat/Huron were for the French, where, as Dickason notes, “at its height, the Huron were reported to account for 50 per cent of the French fur trade.” This strategic framing not only provides agency to the Wendat/Huron, as a powerful group in their own right in alliance with the French, but also reverses the role and centrality that “religion” purportedly played in the region.

Here we learn that while the Wendat/Huron were anxious to expand their trading operations, they were not so enthused about accepting missionaries into their communities, although they permitted them as Champlain was insistent on their presence. As Dickason writes, quoting from the Jesuit Relations,

The Jesuits sadly observed that Algonquins and Hurons had “a hatred and an extreme horror of our doctrine. They say that it causes them to die, and that it contains spells and charms which effect the destruction of their corn” besides engendering contagious diseases. (129)

Likewise, Dickason points out potential motives for Wendat/Huron conversion to Christianity since,

Motives for conversion could be more related to preferential treatment in the fur trade than to religious conviction. … Commercial incentives were considerable, since converts were considered to be French and so entitled to the same prices for their furs as Frenchmen, much higher than those paid to non-Christians. (133)

She also points out that for some coverts, such as the aforementioned Joseph Chihwatenhwa, the French were viewed as the wave of the future, making the move towards conversion a pragmatic one (133), while for others Christianity helped to invigorate their own traditions and, in some cases, aligned quite well with already existing beliefs and practices, as in the case of the Montagnais, who believe that the Christian God resembled their Atahocan. (134) This, in turn, provoked occasional purges of “idols” from the Jesuit ranks, which exacerbated tensions and factionalism.

While neither of these narrative accounts of Sainte-Marie are definitive, what is evident in the first, more “official” narrative is that by privileging a conception of religion—by turns confessional, institutional and dogmatic vs. spiritual, animistic and primitive—as a primary motive for behavior and interaction between two or more distinct groups, the position of the dominant group is legitimated, while concealing the material relations that underlie the outcomes of these historical events. By contrast, beginning with the material conditions and offering a contrapuntal reading of that same history, we find a much more complex and contested picture; one that not only provides historical agency to Native people, but also highlights the always and already contingent and politic use of “religion” as a contested category that cannot be separated from its various sites of authorization and social production.

Matt Sheedy is a PhD. candidate in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, ritual and myth, and social movements. His dissertation offers a critical look at Juergen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. He is also conducting research on myths, rituals and symbols in the Occupy movement and discourses on ‘Nativeness’ in the Aboriginal-led Idle No More movement.

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2 Responses to The Enduring Appeal of the Missionary Position: Some Contemporary Representations of Native-Jesuit Relations

  1. Michael F. Steltenkamp says:

    Ideas expressed in your article on the Jesuit-Huron interaction at Midland reminded me of commentary sometimes directed at the experience of Lakota holy-man, Black Elk. I authored two biographies of the him–their titles being: Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala (which tells how he lived his life after Wounded Knee in 1890–and correcting the misperception of his life-story generated by Black Elk Speaks and The Sacred Pipe), and Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Missionary Mystic (which distilled all that’s known about the man).

    Academic conjecture that questions Jesuit rapport with the Huron, Iroquois, and others is comparable to the same conjecture levied at Black Elk’s conversion experience. For example, the holy-man’s work as a Catholic catechist was described in an encyclopedia as a “role he played to appease his oppressors” and not one that he sincerely embraced.

    I’ve tried to show that the conversion experience for Black Elk (and others) was sincere, but conventional academic wisdom and some popular opinion have trouble accepting this fact.

    I showed the quotation above to one of Black Elk’s nephews (who received religious instruction from the holy-man). He said: “whoever said that [he played the role to appease his oppressors]–sure didn’t know Uncle Nick.” And so it is with our too easy dismissal of the Huron/Iroquois conversion experience of centuries past. It may be that, ultimately, we sure don’t know the full story.

  2. Ideas expressed in your article on the Jesuit-Huron interaction at Midland reminded me of commentary sometimes directed at the experience of Lakota holy-man, Black Elk. I authored two biographies of the DELETE “THE” him–their titles being: Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala

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