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‘Faith is A Sword’
Of the Huron War Chief Ahatsistcari


The full library of letters from Jesuit missionaries in New France back to the Jesuit Order in Paris comprises the greatest single anthropological resource concerning Native Americans. I have rearranged the text below for ease of reading. The annotations are mine.

From the Jesuit RELATION OF 1642 by SEBASTIEN CRAMOISY

The man of greatest importance among those whom we have solemnly Baptized in this house, has been one Ahatsistcari of the village of St. Joseph. His courage and his Yearly exploits against the Enemies cause him to be looked upon as the chief Warrior in the Country.

It is not yet a year since, having encountered three hundred Iroquois, he put them all to flight, and made some of them prisoners, although on his side there were but fifty, of whom he was the chief. And during the previous Summer, while crossing a great lake which separates the Hurons from their Enemies, having perceived a number of large Canoes filled with Iroquois [1] who were coming to attack him, his Companions thought of nothing but flight, but he said: "No, no, my Comrades. Let us attack them ourselves".

As they approached each other, he jumped, alone and quite naked, into a large Canoe full of Foes, split open the head of the first one that he met, threw two others into the water, into which he himself leaped, upsetting at the same time the Canoe and all who were in it. Then swimming with one hand, he killed and massacred with the other all who came near him. So unexpected a sight filled the other Canoes of the Enemy with fear; and, they, finding themselves vanquished by their own conquest, even before they had fought, took to flight from fear of such Courage. But he, having regained his own Canoe, pursued those who remained in the water, and brought them back in triumph to his Country. In a word, this Man's life is but a series of combats, and from his childhood his thoughts have been only of war; and it was through this that God made him a Christian.

He never manifested any aversion to our Faith, and asked us for Baptism more than three years ago; but, as he could not make up his mind to abandon some Superstitious practices that are customary among the Infidels, we could not grant it to him. At last, the Fathers who have had charge of the Mission of Saint Joseph gave him the final instructions last Winter, and, as they were satisfied with him, he came at Easter to plead his own case.

"I have Faith in the depth of my heart", he said, "and my actions have sufficiently shown it throughout the Winter. In two days I shall leave for the war; if I am killed in battle, tell me, where will my Soul go if you refuse me Baptism? If you saw into my heart as clearly as the Great Master of our lives, [2] I would already be numbered among the Christians; and the fear of the flames of Hell would not accompany me, now that I am about to face Death. I cannot Baptize myself; all that I can do is to declare sincerely the desire that I have for it. After that, if So I be burned in Hell, you will be the cause of it. But, whatever you may do, I will always pray to God, because I know him; and perhaps he will have mercy on me, for you say that he is better than you".

"But", said one of our Fathers, "what made you first think of believing?"

"Even before you came to this Country", he replied, "I had escaped from a great many perils in which my Companions perished. I saw very well that it was not I who extricated myself from these dangers. I had this thought, that some more powerful Spirit, who was unknown to me, gave me favorable aid " (although the Hurons attribute to Dreams the source of all their good fortune); " I was convinced that all that was only nonsense, but I knew no more about it. When I heard of the Greatness of GOD, whom you preach, and of what JESUS CHRIST had done when he was on Earth, I recognized him as the being who had preserved me; and resolved to honor him all my life. When I went to war, I recommended myself to him night and morning. It is to him that all my victories are due; he it is in whom I believe; and I ask you for Baptism, so that he may have pity on me after my death."

Was it possible to refuse such a Man? We Baptized him publicly, with some others, on Holy Saturday, and gave him the name of Eustache. When he had performed his Devotions on Easter Sunday, he started for the War with some of our best Christians, who had remained solely for the purpose of celebrating that Holy Day, although the Troops whom they were to join had already departed. But, before separating, finding that a considerable number of persons were assembled there belonging to various Nations, they wished of their own accord to hold a Council. Here, in a few words, are the resolutions that they took:

"Let us hereafter be but one body and one mind, since we all serve the same Master. Whenever any one of us passes by a Village wherein a Christian dwells, let him not lodge elsewhere. Whenever any one is afflicted, let him seek consolation among the others. Let us not reveal one another’s faults to the Infidels; but let it be recognized, through the friendship that we shall have for one another, that the Name of Christian is a tie more binding than Nature's bonds".

"Let us inform our Relatives who are not of the same Faith as we, even if they be our fathers and our children, that we do not wish our bones to be mingled together after our death, since our Souls will be eternally separated, and our affection will not continue beyond this life".

If there be anything in the world that is Sacred among the Hurons, it is their law of Burial. Their care in this matter greatly exceeds anything that is done in France. They are singularly lavish proportion to their means, and despoil themselves to clothe their Dead and to preserve carefully the bones of their Relatives, in order that they may repose after their death in the same spot. Never would we have believed that our Christians would soon renounce this claim of affection so firmly implanted in Nature; but Faith is a sword that severs the Soul from the body, and children from their Fathers.

"Let us not", added these Christians, "profane the Mysteries that are taught us, when we see souls of dogs and of brute beasts; but let us publish everywhere the advantages of the Faith. Above all, let our lives and our examples show that our Faith does not rest merely on our lips".

Notes

1. According to Father Paul Lejune, writing concerning the Iroquois on June 18,1632: “Their natural color is that of those French beggars who are half-roasted in the Sun, and I have no doubt that the savages would be very white if they were well covered.”

2. Note that the Catholic Jesuits, well versed in various heathen beliefs, more faithfully translated this essentially syncretic notion of God than did Anglican and Puritan writers of the same period, who insisted that the Natives worshipped Satan [more from the fact that they lived in, rather than destroyed, forests than any actual Satanic consciousness] and that later protestant missionaries in English America generally translated the belief in a Master of Life as “Great Spirit” coming more lately to the more effective missionary method of the Jesuits in using the Native Faith as a point of conversion rather than holding up ancestral beliefs, after the Anglican and Puritan fashion, as the lies of Satan whispering through his forest domain into the ears of his devilish minions. The two missionary methods together represent the materialistic protestant view of Christianity as expressed by the faithful in the aggressive transformation of the evil natural world into a pastoral, gardenlike New Israel, and the mystical catholic echoes of paganism in the direct quest for souls brought to Christianity with no particular doctrine of environmental conquest imbedded. In New France deforestation was minimal, while in New England it was nearly total. When one looks at forest cover in present day Eastern United States, understand that this represents a tripling of the forested land that remained in 1865 after 250 years of deliberate reduction of one of the earth’s greatest forest zones. When mass agriculture was shifted to the Great Plains after 1865, after the machine that had ground the Confederacy under heel turned on the Plains Indians, the eastern forests were allowed to return in a newer, lesser, unmanaged version.

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