Friday, July 29, 2011

The Black Robes

Louis Thomas de Joncaire was not, however, the first Frenchman to make his way into Seneca territory. In the decades leading up to the Marquis de Denonville’s raid into Seneca territory in the summer of 1687, Jesuit priests were hard at work attempting to convert the Iroquois. The Jesuit presence was initially tolerated by the Seneca sachems of present-day western New York as a result of diplomatic agreements made between Onondaga and New France in 1653, but by the time of Denonville’s raid, the Jesuits were being forcefully expelled. When Jesuit priests came to the Iroquois Five Nations during the latter half of the seventeenth century they were usually met by two factions who held either a positive or negative understanding of what the “Black Robes” represented. Daniel K. Richter has characterized the first group as being mainly comprised of Huron war captives who had been previously converted to Christianity (2).

The Huron people had been devastated by epidemics throughout the 1630s and 1640s as well as by successive raids by the Iroquois Five Nations after 1649. What remained of the fragmented Huron tribes were many times taken as captives in Iroquois raids designed to capture furs and replacements for their own dead. Upon the Jesuits arrival into Iroquois territory, the Huron captives and refugees then living among the Seneca tribe welcomed the priests as a means to reconnect with their newfound religion. Additionally, among those Huron who had not previously converted prior to their being taken to live among the Five Nations, Christianity also provided a means to rebuke assimilation as they forged an independent Christian identity from their Iroquois captors (9). A perceived Huron affinity for the Black Robes helps to explain why Seneca sachems might actually have invited Jesuit priests to their villages in hopes of convincing the remaining refugee Huron of Canada to come and live among the Seneca people here in western New York(3). After suffering the devastating effects of a smallpox epidemic that ravaged the Iroquois during the 1640s, peacefully convincing the Huron to come and live with them would reduce the chances of losing still further numbers as a result of the Iroquois Mourning Wars that were more fully explained in the previous entry to this blog.

Nevertheless, not all Huron war captives were converted to Christianity. Many of the former Huron adoptees warned their new families and tribesmen that the Jesuits brought nothing with them but bad fortune. For many Huron, the Jesuits were to blame for their people’s ultimate demise. Such claims were not without merit. Jesuit influence had certainly caused political rifts among the Huron converts and traditionalists. With good reason, traditionalist adoptees now warned their Iroquois hosts that the Jesuit presence would have the same effect among the Five Nations should they be tolerated. The Huron adoptees also warned that the Jesuits and their pacifist influence left the Huron peoples weakened militarily in the face of outside invaders. Jesuit pacifism had prevented the trading of arms to the Huron by the Catholic French after the priests warned all French traders, administrators, and soldiers that they would be denied the Sacraments if caught trading arms with savages. Most devastating to the Jesuit reputation were Huron claims that the Black Robe was actually some type of witch or sorcerer (2).

In a native society where people had nothing to hide from one another and where almost all activities were conducted in the open, the Jesuit insistence of periodic privacy and refusal to accept visitors unless at specified times, surrounded the priest with an aura of questionability. The Black Robe’s clandestine activities behind closed, and sometimes locked, doors certainly made him suspect. This would have especially been the case should misfortunes in war befall his hosts or should epidemics or famine accompany him as he passed from tribe to tribe or village to village. Again, these Huron accusations against the Black Robe are not without merit since, many times, it was in fact the Jesuit priests who brought European diseases into Native villages. Even when he did not bring disease with him, the Jesuit priest played an active role in its spreading among villagers and neighboring villages. In the traditional sense, the Jesuit priest was seen as similar to the Native shamen who through the use of rituals involving talismans and incantations would ward off the evil spirits that made the body sick (8). Upon arrival to Huron villages where disease was already running its devastating course, the Jesuits were immediately conducted to the sick and dying. After initial contact with a disease such as smallpox, the Jesuit priest might then unknowingly spread it as he travelled from village to village or tribe to tribe. Daniel Richter emphasizes that the Jesuits compounded the negative perceptions associated with their activities since they seldom baptized anyone but the dying for fear of apostasy (2). The Jesuit priest thus became the cause of death, instead of the disease. With these negative perceptions of the Black Robe in mind, it is not difficult to imagine how traditionalist Huron adoptees may have made compelling arguments against allowing the Jesuits presence within their new homes among the Seneca.

Nonetheless, many Iroquois sachems did at least temporarily tolerate the Jesuit presence as part of Onondaga’s diplomatic agreements with New France. Daniel Richter points out that as part of traditional diplomacy, Native Americans would “exchange visitors who would live in each other’s villages as face-to-face reminders of friendship and insurance against renewed hostilities (4).” Under diplomatic circumstances, therefore, the Jesuits were merely seen as serving these ends. A peaceful relationship with New France was not the only motivation for their decision, however, since many times the sachems saw other benefits to the Black Robes presence – i.e. convincing Huron refugees to come and live among his people. An Iroquois sachem’s influence among his people was at least partially based upon the things that he could provide his people. Any gifts or benefits from the French that might accompany the Jesuit would help to secure the sachems influence as would any type of perceived good luck that might accompany the priest. Any good harvests, hunts, victories in battle, or spoils from increased trade that followed the Jesuit priests to the Seneca villages would therefore not only reflect greatly upon the Jesuit priest, but by proxy, would also increase the influence of the sachem responsible for bringing the Black Robe to their village (6). Consequently, Daniel Richter has argued that the initial successes experienced by the Jesuit priest in Seneca territory – where they did in fact see success - was largely a result of the Jesuit’s perceived “shamanistic power,” rather than “the message he preached (6).”

Initially, the Black Robe did not pose any real threat to the sachem’s authority since, as shamen tasked with the spiritual well-being of the people, the Black Robe’s activities should not have come into conflict with the decisions made by tribal leaders (5). Iroquois society was fairly open to anything and anyone that might bring good fortune to their villages or that might help keep their physical and spiritual worlds in balance. For instance, just as the Jesuit was initially accepted as nothing more than a traditional shamen, Christ was considered by many non-converts to represent nothing more than one of the many spirits active in the Iroquois world. This at least partial acceptance of Christ shows that many of the Iroquois did not wholly dismiss the validity of Christ’s powers according to the Jesuits, only that He ranked among the other influential spirits rather than replacing them completely.

The amiable situation changed, however, once the Black Robe’s influence began to outstrip that of the sachem and as relations with New France diminished. For better or worse, the Jesuits did in fact begin to convert significant enough numbers to create rifts within the Five Nations between the newly converted and traditionalists. For many of the converts, their relationship with their Jesuit priests translated into closer ties with their French fathers who were sworn to protect them. Though the Jesuit influence among the Iroquois Five Nations cannot completely explain the breakdown in Iroquois cohesion, their corrosive presence, along with that of European diseases and agents such as Louis Thomas de Joncaire and Peter Schuyler, was certainly volatile to the Seneca’s traditional way of life as well as their hold over their lands. Our purpose here is to point out that the Jesuit presence, though religiously motivated, caused a political rift among the Iroquois people, clans, villages, and tribes that left them open to future exploitation that might otherwise have been staved off by a united front (12). Check back in the future when we introduce at least one of the Jesuit priests who were at work among the Seneca here in western New York and go further to explain their impact.

Richter, Daniel K. “Iroquois versus Iroquois: Jesuit Missions and Christianity in Village Politics, 1642-1686.” Ethnohistory. Vol. 32. No. 1 (Winter, 1985): pp. 1-16

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