Trenholm 1

Father Sagard and the Jesuits In North America

David Trenholm October 11th, 2006 HIST 2773 B1 Dr. Stephen Henderson

Trenholm 2 Jesuit Priests working on missions in the untamed Canadian wilderness made important historical contributions to the understanding of some aboriginal peoples and their interaction with European settlers. These primary sources, records of their day-today encounters, have been safely kept and studied for any clues or insights into aboriginal life, as well as the cultural clash that may have existed between the Jesuits and First Nation tribes. One such Jesuit, Father Sagard, spent some time with the Hurons in Canada. In his narrative, Sagard writes about the various beliefs he encounters, and the many stories he and his companions hear of the Indian gods and spirits such as Cudoüagni and Yoscaha1. To put these records into proper perspective, historical interpretations made by past historians tend to study further the character of the Jesuit priests and their First Nation counterparts. Francis Parkman in The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century describe the attitude and behaviour of a few Jesuit priests who travelled to Canada in their mission to baptise the “savage” populations. Parkman offers critical insight on how Jesuit Priests in North America viewed their charges, and more importantly what pre-existing biases may have carried on through their record keeping. In one excerpt of his narrative, The Long Journey to the Country of the Hurons, Father Sagard refers to Cicero in order to explain the diverse beliefs present in the aboriginal tribes in Canada. Sagard quotes Cicero in order to make a comparison, using his words to describe the Indian population as savage, brutal and barbarous.2 It is important to keep in mind, throughout the excerpt, that Sagard has little to no regard for the cultural or spiritual importance of these aboriginal beliefs—in fact, such spirits and
1

J. M. Bumsted and Ken Kuffert, eds., Interpreting Canada's Past. Vol. 1: A Pre-Confederation Reader, 3rd ed. (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 29-30. 2 Bumsted, p. 29.

Trenholm 3 gods, Sagard contends, are merely evil, solely concerned with corrupting the innocence of these tribes.3 Sagard continually points out the apparent inaccuracies and contradictions in these stories as it relates to their own Christian faith, as if such errors invalidate the truth or significance of these aboriginal beliefs. Sagard even states that, on relating to the practice of paying respect to a statue of some spiritual significance, “… the devil plays with them and holds them fast in his snares and subject to strange superstitions….”4 It is clear, then, that Father Sagard puts little value in the aboriginal beliefs present in Canada—being on a mission to baptise these populations, this comes as a little surprise. What is a welcome sight, however, is the care taken to record the many stories and myths of the aboriginal people Sagard encounters. Sagard writes, in great detail, the god Yoscaha and his grandmother, Ataensiq.5 He records the story of the five men searching for their living and their encounter with God.6 The intrinsic value of these stories having been recorded first-hand is unquestionably high, regardless of the apparent and sometimes distracting biases of Father Sagard. It is important to put Sagard’s testimony in historical context in order to responsibly understand the era and the people of which such records were made. Francis Parkman says himself, over a century ago, that before studying the more significant scenes in the drama of human history, it is important to understand and note the characteristics of the “chief actors”.7 Heightened awareness of human rights and the distasteful treatment of racial minorities in the past make it easy for the modern reader to isolate the obtuse opinions and remarks made by Father Sagard and his companions.
3

J. M. Bumsted and Ken Kuffert, eds., Interpreting Canada's Past. Vol. 1: A Pre-Confederation Reader, 3rd ed. (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 30. 4 Bumsted, p. 31. 5 Bumsted, p. 30. 6 Bumsted, p. 29. 7 Bumsted, p. 32.

Trenholm 4 Attempting to put these opinions and remarks in perspective, Parkman illustrates the lives and challenges of several spiritual and religiously convicted Jesuit priests. The Jesuit priests Parkman describes—men such as Charles Garnier and Joseph Marie Chaumonot —are highly dedicated to their goal, which is the conversion and baptism of their “people” (they often refer to the aboriginal tribes they accompany in the possessive; Sagard would often refer to the Hurons as “our” Hurons).8 These priests were fiercely devoted to their cause, and highly spiritual. As Parkman puts it, “These priests lived in an atmosphere of supernaturalism. Every day had its miracle.”9 This is evident in Father Sagard’s belief in the influence of evil spirits, and the devil ensnaring the tribe with “strange superstitions”. These priests were devout servants of God, who were intent on converting their charges—it would ultimately make sense that in their records they would discount and dispel whatever belief the aboriginal peoples would have, as per their duty. It is fortunate then, that Father Sagard took such care in recording such blasphemous beliefs for historical posterity. It is true, then, that Father Sagard placed little value in the spiritual convictions of the aboriginal people he encountered. He dismissed their gods as evil spirits and dispelled their spiritual practices as the result of being ensnared by the devious machinations of the devil10, not as a valid belief or unique spiritual custom. While this is unfortunate, it is important not to overlook the valuable historical contributions Sagard has made. The heavy bias present in Father Sagard’s testimony does not invalidate the significance of his written records. While it is important to read carefully the account of another for inaccuracy and bias, the spiritual beliefs and stories of the aboriginal people Sagard
8

J. M. Bumsted and Ken Kuffert, eds., Interpreting Canada's Past. Vol. 1: A Pre-Confederation Reader, 3rd ed. (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 30. 9 Bumsted, p. 34. 10 Bumsted, p. 31.

Trenholm 5 encountered must be appreciated in the context they were recorded. It is obvious that their mission in Canada heavily influenced the Jesuit priests, but that does not mean they did not attempt to record honestly the encounters they had with the First Nation tribes. J.H. Kennedy argues that, while the Jesuits did make an honest effort to write the truth, it was “as they saw it”.11 That must always be kept in mind when analysing any primary source, especially when there is little written corroborating evidence on the subject matter being recorded. There is little doubt, however, to the worth such records have to our history, and in our everlasting endeavour to understand the many aspects and cultures of Canada’s tumultuous past. David Trenholm

11

J. M. Bumsted and Ken Kuffert, eds., Interpreting Canada's Past. Vol. 1: A Pre-Confederation Reader, 3rd ed. (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 37.

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Bibliography Bumsted, J.M. and Kuffert Ken, eds. Interpreting Canada’s Past. Vol. 1: A PreConfederation Reader, 3rd ed. Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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