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Friday, July 13, 2012

Noble Savages and Jesuitical Relations

Jesuit Relations


In the winter of 1985, I went on an overnight class trip to Sainte-Marie among the Hurons (Sainte-Marie-au-pays-des-Hurons), a reconstructed 1640s French Jesuit mission near Midland, Ontario. The purpose of the mission was to bring Christianity to the local Huron Indians. We were there in February. It was cold. As such, it gave a very good idea of the kind of harsh conditions the blackrobes would have endured. Although I must have learned a lot about life in the early seventeenth-century Canadian wilderness, mostly what has stuck with me is the constant desire to be warm. At night, I seriously wondered whether I would still be alive in the morning. We slept in sleeping bags on cold pallets that were only about four feet in length (apparently the blackrobes were rather short of stature), so besides being cold, I was also very stiff and sore.

I remember a few other things about the trip. For instance, I can recall the film we were shown upon arrival at the site. It told of how the Hurons were ultimately destroyed by smallpox and war with the Iroquois. And of course, we learned in great detail about the death and martyrdom of Fathers Brébeuf and Lalemant at the hands of Iroquois captors in 1649. They died bravely, we were taught, without uttering a cry or groan, after suffering the most savage of tortures. I use the word “savage” advisedly: the Jesuits were scalped, they had boiling water poured over them, they were forced to wear “necklaces” of red-hot axe hatchets, and they were flayed and otherwise mutilated. After death, their hearts were removed and eaten. Such gruesome stories seemed tailored to the imaginations of eleven- and twelve-year-old children, especially boys. In any case, it was made clear to us who wore the white hats and who wore the black ones in this story. The blackrobes were the good guys, the Iroquois were the villains, and the Hurons were caught somewhere between them. Obviously, the real story must have been rather more complicated than this film would have us believe.

Brébeuf and Lalemant must have been men of almost superhuman faith and strength of character, or so we were instructed. Imagine, then, my surprise on a return trip to Sainte-Marie nearly two decades later, when I again sat down to watch the film. You see, it has since been heavily edited to tell a different story. First of all, the Indians the mission served were no longer called “Hurons”; they were now “Wendat”. This makes sense, since it is what they called themselves. We learned about how the Wendat were a peaceful people who lived at one with nature, how they thrived, and how everything was just idyllic for them before the Europeans arrived on the scene with their diseases and their new religion. Of Fathers Brébeuf and Lalemant we now heard next to nothing; they were killed by Iroquois, end of story. No martyrdom, no gruesome torture. As a matter of fact, the film even somehow managed to blame Europeans for the warfare between the Wendat and the Iroquois that led to the destruction of the mission (on very tenuous grounds, to put it charitably). The historical interpretation throughout the Sainte-Marie site seemed to follow the film’s change of focus: the mission now had little if anything to do with the Jesuits who built it and lived in it. Instead, it was a merely a prop, a slightly embarrassing backdrop to showcase Canada’s First Nations peoples and their preternatural nobility in the face of diabolical European evil. The purpose of Sainte-Marie now seems to be to make its mainly white visitors feel a due sense of shame and regret for nebulous crimes they had no hand in.

Seeing the film was an excellent lesson for me in how history may be shamelessly re-written to suit the tastes of civil servants and lobby interests, and how certain unpalatable facts can be made to disappear down the memory hole. Now don’t get me wrong. I am all for having the history of the Wendat taught in more detail. They were an inextricable part of the Sainte-Marie story, and in precisely the same way that the Jesuits were. Without both the Jesuits and the Wendat, there is no Sainte-Marie. However, we do no favours to anybody in erasing or whitewashing facts. And the fact is, Brébeuf and Lalemant were brutally butchered, and the Indians were every bit as capable of savage violence as the Europeans who were arriving on their shores in ever greater numbers. I am a firm believer in the notion that as human beings, we are all savages or potential savages. There is very little of moral superiority in the history of any people when it is looked at in the harsh sunlight of truth.


About eight or nine years ago my wife and I spent a day helping with the archaeological excavation of a Huron (Wendat) village near Stouffville, Ontario, dating to the period from 1500 to 1530. At the time we were there, the excavation was at a fairly early stage, but it was already evident that this village was huge. The dig was fascinating. Here are a few things we learned: The Wendat were obviously hooked into some extensive trade links, as was made evident by the large quantities of flint on the site, of a kind that would need to have been imported from hundreds of kilometers away. We learned that in order to build the defensive palisades of the village, and to clear the land to grow enough corn to support a large population of some 2000 souls, they must have cut down all the forest within an 80 to 100 kilometer radius of the site. The fact is that all of these villages were temporary; the inhabitants would remain on a site only until the soil was exhausted, or until they could no longer walk the vast distances necessary to gather the remaining wood or to plant and harvest corn ever further afield. Once they had stripped the land bare, they would pull up stakes and moved on. Like a plague of locusts. Like a plague of… us.

These Wendat paid great attention to the building of palisades and used a staggering quantity of wood in their construction. That fact, in addition to the prevalence of carbonized post holes representing layers of palisade that had burned down, made it plainly evident that warfare seemed to occupy the inhabitants almost as much as trading or cultivation. So much for the image of the peace-loving noble savage, living at one with nature.

Nevertheless, even the archaeologists at the site, who knew better, wanted us to believe in this “noble savage” mythology, for they kept a sort of Indian-for-hire on site. His role seemed to be to burn a little sweet grass and pray native prayers on command, all to assuage the spirits that inhabit the place. It was all nonsense, of course, but white folks tend to find such mumbo-jumbo somehow spiritually edifying. It was all part of making the experience “authentic” for us weekend excavators. I could have happily done without it. It stank of fraud. It was about as “authentic” as a cheap plastic dream catcher. The only real question was whether this Indian actually believed in this nonsense, or whether he simply knew how dumb and gullible white people are. I suspect the latter.

What’s worse, this particular Indian-for-hire was Iroquois. The archaeologists didn’t trouble themselves to find an actual Wendat elder. After all, an Indian is an Indian, right? The supreme irony of having Wendat culture interpreted by someone from a tribe that was the Wendat’s mortal enemy was not lost on me, I can assure you.

Interestingly, the village we excavated, now called the “Mantle” site, has recently been in the news. Besides the fact that it ended up being one of the biggest such villages ever excavated, archaeologists recently found an iron axe buried very deliberately beneath one of the longhouses. Thanks to a maker’s mark, the axe could be identified as being of Basque manufacture. Astoundingly, the axe must have made its way, through long and complex trade linkages, from a Basque whaling station in Newfoundland, all the way along the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario, and up into the interior. The Wendat acquired the axe in the pre-contact period, a century or so before the actual arrival of Europeans in their territory in 1610.

CBC radio ran a news piece about Mantle that was notable mainly for its adherence to what is now a standard narrative structure when any Canadian media outlet runs a story about “First Nations” people and culture.

(The very term “First Nations” is dubious. Even if it makes sense to call them “nations”, many of these so-called “nations” are of relatively modern construction. And many of them were not the first such nations at all in the territories in which they now happen to reside. Many of these so-called “nations” fought each other to the death over those lands before the arrival of those Europeans from whom they now claim them. As far as I’m concerned, “First Nations” is pure Canadian political cant, inflationary linguistic nonsense foisted on gullible and well-meaning Canadians of European descent by their cowardly political class. I avoid using it, much as I avoid such other terms from the CBC Newspeak lexicon as “sex worker” (prostitute) and “sovereigntist” (separatist traitor). Be advised that whenever I use the term herein, it will always be within scare quotes.)

The CBC narrative structure for stories involving Indian history and culture involves interviewing one or two white experts, whether archaeologists or historians, followed by a self-appointed native “elder” or other Indian-for-hire who is allotted space to make absurd statements with zero plausibility, and backed by zero evidence, but which are presented by the CBC as if they represent objective fact, because based on supposed oral tradition that never existed until this “elder” was invited to speak on the CBC. These statements usually involve magic spirits, demons, and further peddling of the “noble savage” myth.

Here’s how it played out in the CBCs story on Mantle. An archaeologist in charge of the excavation dutifully describes the site, the finding of the axe, how its provenance was ascertained, the likely route it would have taken in arriving at Mantle, etc. Why was it buried under the longhouse? Don’t really know, he says. It’s a bit of a mystery. You see, he’s an archaeologist, and the material record simply doesn’t allow him to answer this question.

 Now cue the obligatory wise old Indian, brought in to fill the gap in the evidence with fairy stories, prejudice, and superstition. The wise old Indian proceeds to weave a tale about how the Wendat were a peaceful people who lived in harmony with nature, thereby directly contradicting the material evidence. And then he offers his theory of why the axe was buried beneath the longhouse. The Wendat buried it there because of its bad karma, because it shadowed forth mysterious omens of the coming doom the natives would suffer at the hands of the white devils. And so they naturally buried it to protect themselves from the evil. Or something like that. In all honesty, what he was saying made little sense to my narrow Western mind, hobbled as it is by the curse of critical thought.

It was all very predictable. After all, what CBC story with a “First Nations” angle would be complete without a reminder of how evil the white man is, and how morally and naturally superior are their hapless native victims? Yet they rather outdid themselves this time, managing to work an “Indian good/white man evil” subtext into a story that had little if anything to do with white men (the meaning of the term “pre-contact” seems to have been lost on the producers). Apparently, the Wendat lived in a topsy-turvy world of backwards causation, where white people whom the Wendat had never met are held morally responsible for bad things they won’t be in a position to do for another century.

Yet, this native man’s nonsense was peddled by the CBC with the deepest gravity, as if it had some kind of validity by virtue of the mere fact that it spewed forth from the mouth of an Indian.  One man’s half-baked tale of spirits, premonitions, and bad juju magic was presented as if it were a valid or useful complement to the archaeological evidence. That is like presenting astrology as if it were a valid or useful complement to astronomy.

Even on its own terms, the “bad mojo” theory of the axe’s burial there doesn’t hold together. If its possessors truly believed the axe to be evil (and leaving aside the question of why they would acquire — presumably at great expense — such an evil object in the first place), would they not bury it far away, at least beyond the village walls? Would you bury such an object right underneath your home and hearth? Would you bury nuclear waste within your town’s limits, or would you want it as far away and as deep underground as possible?

The fact is, we can never know for sure why the axe was buried where it was. Any conjecture on the subject is just that — conjecture. Other opposing theories can be offered which have as much plausibility, or more. For example, the owner might have thought that the axe would bring good luck, and so buried it under his house, much like we might hang a lucky horseshoe over a doorway. Or else, it might have been buried there to hide it from thieves or from Iroquois raiders, precisely because it was such a treasured object. After all, it is not hard to believe that whoever acquired it didn’t get it cheaply. I don’t imagine metal axes from Europe were a commodity easy to get one’s hands on in Ontario circa AD 1500.

There is a sort of cultural schizophrenia in the way a story like that of the Mantle village is typically presented. On the one hand, an Indian-for-hire spins an outlandish tale for the consumption of a largely white audience; the audience is meant to find the story enchanting while finding the Indian people depicted in it as quaint, innocent, vaguely noble, and very much a valorized “Other”. At the same time, archaeologists stress the ways in which the lives the Indians led and the structures they built are little different from ours. Thus, the village is described as the “Manhattan of its time” or as a medieval European walled town of the same period. Their society and economy are described as being highly organized, complex, productive, sophisticated. In short, their form of life is made out to be recognizably our own.

But it is a double-edged sword: If the Indians were “just like us” in all these ways, then it is likely that they were just like us in their vices too. They polluted their land, they depleted their resources, and they devoted a lot of time and effort to slaughtering one another. Their problems were our problems, only on a smaller scale.

I sometimes think we do neither ourselves nor “First Nations” peoples any good by pretending that the latter are anything more than human beings with human problems. Of course, at least this is better than the old way, of pretending that they are something less.


  1. Nice to learn they've dispensed with the Roman Catholic history of the "martyrs" who not only tried to foist an alien religion on them and usurp Wendakia but also killed off many by distributing smallpox-tainted goods, including blankets, to a race with absolutely no immunity to European diseases. As to the iron tomahawk burial in pieces as was claimed, the Wendat would have lacked any way to cut up such a tomahawk head. I suspect that was a fiction made up for the book and "history" documentary. As to its burial, the Wendat traditionally hid items of great value by burying them beneath their sleeping pallets inside the longhouses.

    Larry Moniz
    Journalist, Author
    and Amateur Historian

  2. Good point about the axe. And for the record, I agree that the Wendat were not well-treated by the Europeans either. The fact is, it was wrong for the Jesuits to try to foist their religion on the Wendat (and other native peoples).

    Are you absolutely sure the Jesuits deliberately distributed smallpox-infected blankets? Seems doubtful to me -- and counterproductive, from the Jesuits' point of view.

    My main point though, is that we do posterity no favours by editing/whitewashing history, no matter who is doing the whitewashing.