Chapter 5. Indigenous Canada in the Era of Contact

5.6 Belief and Culture: The Wendat Experience

Map of the land between lakes Huron and Ontario. Shows rivers, smaller lakes, and peninsulas.
Figure 5.9 A c. 1660 map of Wendake (Huronia), now dotted with missions and Christian place names. From the Historia Canadensis.

Indigenous populations remained dominant — in numbers and authority — through the 17th century across most of North America, but change was upon them. It came so quickly in some instances and with such intensity that it produced a crisis of faith of sorts. Indigenous peoples began to doubt themselves and their ability to adapt successfully to new forces in their midst. The European agenda of religious conversion took advantage of this trauma, not always with success, but reliably and in ways that worsened the crisis.

The Black Robes

The first of the French missionaries to arrive were priests of the Recollet order. From 1615 to 1629 the Recollets worked with Indigenous individuals near the St. Lawrence and in Wendake (Huronia). They were understood by Indigenous groups to be emissaries from the French with exotic spiritual ideas; the missionaries were something to be tolerated but not indulged. The focus of the Recollets was on individual conversions but even more on the needs of French traders living among the Wendat. The arrival of the Recollets’ successors, the Jesuits, changed the missionary approach.

The Jesuits were closely tied to the Compagnie des Cent-Associés and were part of the restoration of French authority after a brief English occupation of the colony. The Jesuit approach was to convert whole communities rather than individuals. They did so by exercising greater control over the behaviour of the coureur de bois and working from within the host-community culture. They studied Wyandot (the language of the Wendat), represented the French enterprise in the field, and attempted (with mixed success) to live among the Wendat according to their hosts’ practices, rather than imposing their own.

People parade around a pit, carrying dead bodies on their backs. Bones hang on racks erected around the pit.
Figure 5.10 The Wendat Feast of the Dead entailed moving remains from one ossuary to a new one as village sites moved. Missionaries were both horrified and impressed by this cultural expression of intergenerational connection, so alien to their own experience. By J.-F. Lafitau, 1724.

The Wendat response to the clerics was mixed. On the one hand, the custom of exchanging community members had been well established in Wendat culture, so sending a few young men to Quebec to learn about the newcomers and accepting a few coureurs de bois or priests into their own villages just made sense. The priests’ agenda of cultural change, however, was not especially welcome. Various attempts were made to encourage the missionaries to return to New France, and plots were considered that would see them murdered by non-Wendat neighbours (and then invoking plausible deniability). But Champlain insisted on missionaries as part of the trading relationship so they were tolerated. Even the priests, however, knew that they were being judged by the Wendat and that they fell well short of being impressive. One report in the Jesuit Relations admits that the Wendat “gazed attentively at the Fathers, measured them with their eyes, asked if they were ill-natured, if they paddled well; then took them by the hands, and made signs to them that it would be necessary to handle the paddles well.”[1]

Exercise: Think Like A Historian — The Missionary Position

In an account of life among the indigenous peoples of the Gaspé and what is now northeast New Brunswick, Christien Le Clerq (a Recollet missionary among the Mi’kmaq from 1675–1686) described the minutest details of personal habits and relationships. [2] Take a look at these three passages:

They never quarrel and never are angry with one another, not because of any inclination they have to practice virtue, but for their own satisfaction, and in the fear … of troubling their repose, of which they are wholly idolaters. Indeed, if any natural antipathy exists between husband and wife, or if they cannot live together in perfect understanding, they separate from one another, in order to seek elsewhere the peace and union which they cannot find together. Consequently they cannot understand how one can submit to the indissolubility of marriage. ‘Does thou not see,’ they will say to you, ‘that thou hast no sense? My wife does not get on with me, and I do not get on with her. She will agree well with such a one, who does not agree with his own wife. Why dost thou wish that we four be unhappy for the rest of our days?’ in a word, they hold it as a maxim that each one is free: that one can do whatever he wishes: and that it is not sensible to put constraint upon men. It is necessary, say they, to live without annoyance and disquiet, to be content with that which one has, and to endure with constancy the misfortunes of nature, because the sun, or he who has made and governs all, orders it thus. […] In a word, they rely upon liking nothing, and upon not becoming attached to the goods of the earth, in order not to be grieved or sad when they lose them.

…[I]n fact they do not know what civility is, nor decorum. Since they consider themselves all equal, and one as great, as powerful, and as rich as another, they mock openly at our bowings, at our compliments, and at our embracings. They never remove their hats when they enter our dwellings; this ceremony seems to them too troublesome.

They [the Indigenous peoples] hunt for vermin [on their bodies] before everybody, without turning aside even a little. They make it walk for fun upon their hands, and they eat it as if it were something good. They find the use of our handkerchiefs ridiculous; they mock at us and say that it is placing excrements in our pockets. Finally, however calm it may be outside of the wigwam, there always prevails inside a very inconvenient wind, since these Indians let it go very freely, especially when they have eaten much moose…..

What does Le Clerq admire and what does he criticize? Keeping in mind that he is a man of the cloth devoted to the spiritual and not the material, in what ways is he criticizing his own culture? What do these accounts reveal about French society in the late 17th century? What insights can we obtain about Mi’kmaq society through the filter of Le Clerq? Is he reliable?

The Whirlwind Years

Conditions changed in the 1630s. The Recollets had been replaced in Canada and Wendake (Huronia) by the Jesuits (although they continued in Acadia) at a time when Haudenosaunee hostilities were on the rise, as was smallpox. Of all the pivotal moments in this history none is as consequential as the arrival of exotic diseases. In 1636 smallpox swept through the Wendat villages. Over a five-year period the disease picked away at the Wendat past and future, claiming the lives of elders (who were both the story-keepers and political memory of their community) and children in particular. Wendat people who might find solace or reassurance in traditional shamanic responses increasingly turned to the Jesuits for answers. Whatever good the missionaries might have done in this respect, their efforts foundered as perhaps two-thirds of the Wendat population died in the space of four years. The Jesuit practice of administering deathbed baptisms was interpreted, too, as causing death. This was the closest the Wendat came to drawing a direct connection between the presence of Europeans and the appalling mortality rates associated with virgin soil diseases.

The Wendat system of governance, which emphasized individual freedom, played further havoc with the solidarity of Wendake (Huronia). Only converts to Catholicism were permitted to trade for French muskets and this led growing numbers to look more closely at what the Jesuits had to offer. There were trade goods, yes, but also there was a spiritual commodity on offer: many Wendat were drawn to Christianity because they perceived

… Jesus of Nazareth as a protective spirit who was supposed to bring good fortune to the devotee and to avert misfortune. This utilitarian approach to Christ explains the quick abandonment of the new faith when the Hurons were beset by imported diseases and by Iroquois attacks. Native Christians fared no better than traditionalists, and so, when Jesus failed as a guardian spirit, disillusioned converts reverted to aboriginal practices and beliefs. Their initial view of Jesus explains why there were so many apostates among the Hurons.[3]

While traditional beliefs among Iroquoian peoples could accommodate different, overlapping, and even contradictory spirit figures, Christianity’s monotheistic intolerance of other divinities meant that converts were effectively removed from their traditionalist kin and neighbours. At death — and keep in mind that 1636–1649 saw an astonishing amount of death among the Wendat — families would be eternally lost to one another rather than rejoined in the hereafter. The position of traditionalists hardened against the Jesuits and even against the converts. Those Wendat communities with less exposure to the missionaries pulled back at the very moment when military unity was essential. Wendat women also proved reluctant to embrace Christianity, for a variety of reasons. Its patriarchal values were the most obvious difficulty: a matrilineal tradition would be subverted by a belief system that marginalized female voices.

The epidemics served to make the Wendat more vulnerable to Haudenosaunee attacks, and the loss of thousands of children meant that the stock of warriors was not going to be replenished in a hurry. The Haudenosaunee Five Nations League was able to acquire rifles from their Dutch trade partners and thus posed an even more fearsome danger than before. There was a brief peace in the late 1630s that evaporated in the 1640s as the Haudenosaunee launched wave after wave of attacks on their neighbours. From the European perspective, these Beaver Wars were about acquiring better hunting grounds or, similarly, unimpeded access to trade networks that would deliver pelts to their Hudson River corridor. The League’s own demographic crisis probably mattered more. Like the Wendat they had lost large numbers to disease (and significant numbers in conflict with the Confederacy) and one way of rebuilding the population was by means of raiding for captives. The evidence is clear that large numbers of Wendat women and children were marched and canoed across southern Ontario in these years into the villages of the League.[4]

It is easy to imagine the Wendat in a reactive state under these circumstances. Their society had collapsed in the space of 40 years from one of regional economic, cultural, and political dominance to insignificance. And yet every step along the way was connected to a vision of sustaining and advancing Wendake (Huronia). Accepting missionaries and French trade was bound up in consolidating commercial primacy and acquiring European goods with the continuance and expansion of gift-giving diplomacy and influence; conversion was motivated by a desire to keep kin together in the afterlife or to gain better access to French weaponry.

The retreat from Wendake (Huronia) in 1649–1650 took the majority of the Wendat in one of four directions: some joined with the Tionontati and Attawandaron to the south (although that ended badly with further Haudenosaunee raids); some aligned with their longstanding trade partners in the Council of Three Fires (the Anishinaabeg in particular) and came to have considerable influence in developments in those communities; many fled to New France where they were to live under the watchful eye of the Jesuits near Quebec and provide generations of warriors in defence of the Laurentian colony; still others joined up — willingly or not — with the Haudenosaunee, where common elements of their traditional culture would have a good chance of surviving and, if so inclined, they would have a chance to avenge themselves on the French.

Historians on Video

Allan Greer (McGill University) has studied Tekakwitha (1656–1680), an early Haudenosaunee convert to Catholicism. Kateri (Catherine) took a vow of lifelong chastity and set about self-flagellating on a regular basis. In 2012 she was canonized as ‘Saint Kateri.’ Professor Greer identifies what is interesting and important about this story. Here is a link to the transcript for a video about the Mohawk Saint Kateri [PDF].


Key Takeaways

  • Missionary activity in New France quickly became a part of the fur trade enterprise.
  • The Jesuits enjoyed somewhat more success in Wendake (Huronia) than the Recollets but their work was mostly undone by disease and warfare.
  • French reluctance or inability to trade more rifles more rapidly to the Wendat contributed to fractiousness within the Confederacy and severe losses to Haudenosaunee raids.
  • The missionary presence played a role in the destruction of Wendake (Huronia).

Video Attributions

Media Attributions

  1. Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, 1610–1791, XV (Cleveland: Burrows Brothers, 1898), 163, quoted in Olive Dickason, Canada's First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2002), 106.
  2. Christien Le Clerq, reprinted in William Ganong (ed. and trans.), New Relation of Gaspesia (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1910), quoted in Tom Thorner, ed., “A Few Acres of Snow”: Documents in Canadian History, 1577–1867 (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 1997): 30–44.
  3. Peter Moogk, “Writing the Cultural History of Pre-1760 European Colonists,” French Colonial History, 4 (2003): 2.
  4. Olive Patricia Dickason, Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, 3rd edition (Don Mills: OUP, 2002), 100–113.


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5.6 Belief and Culture: The Wendat Experience Copyright © 2020 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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