Joseph Chihoatenhwa (pronounced shee-ho-a-ten-hwa and meaning roughly 'He Is Brought From Afar') was born in 1602,' years before any white man had ever placed his hard soled European boots on the moccasin worn footpaths of Huronia. He would have grown up to be an inquisitive adolescent of thirteen before he would first get a good chance to catch a glimpse of one of those strange and wondrous beings. For it was not until 1615 when Samuel de Champlain initially entered Huron country, that anyone might have seen a French man in Chihoatenhwa's village of Ossossane in the country of the Bear tribe (see page 2, footnote 1).2 when he was a young man in his mid-twenties he may have heard the pidgin Huron of the great 'Henchon' or Father Jean de Brebeuf, the first of the black robed Jesuits (known to the Huron as 'hati- tsihenstaatsi' or 'they are called charcoal' on account of those black robes) to do missionary work in that area. By the time that he entered his thirties, a small but steady stream of those dedicated priests would have begun to flow into his country, bringing disease with them like stream-home silt. Both would have a devastating effect on his life. While the latter would carry off over half of his people in the short span of about five years, his contact with the religion of the former may well have been the direct cause of his premature death in 1640.
In the pages that follow, I will tell something of the story of the life, and mystery-shrouded death of Joseph Chihoatenhwa, outlining the significance of both to the history of the Huron and of the early missionaries in New France. I will primarily be dealing with him in terms of his being a Christian. This is not to say that the only good Indian is a Christian Indian, or that the only aspect of an Indian that is either interesting or significant is his or her response to Christianity. I am presenting his story in such a light for two reasons. First of all, the source that provides virtually all of the information available about Joseph Chihoatenhwa is the Jesuit Relations, a series of letters or reports written by the Jesuits in New France, and sent back to relatives, friends and authorities in France and Rome. Secondly, Joseph Chihoatenhwa's main historical significance lies in the way in which he responded to the Jesuit missionaries. His efforts and achievements in this area made him something of a unique figure in Huron society. Indeed, he was known, by French and Huron alike as 'the believer' (although this term of reference was uttered with different, even opposing attitudes by each group).
In the course of this biography I will be attempting to answer three fundamental questions: (I) Why did Joseph Chihoatenhwa convert to Christianity and stay a devoted Christian?, (2) What was his contribution to the development of Christianity among the Huron?; and (3) why was he killed?
In order to answer the first question, one must be aware of the most salient fact in Huronia in the 1630s: disease. Beginning about 1634, and tailing off approximately five years later, the Huron were struck with wave upon wave of contagious European diseases: measles, influenza, and smallpox. They wore down whole villages as if they were sand castles on the shores of Georgian Bay. Most of the greater than thirty thousand Huron died quickly, due to causes they could not readily understand. It fell hardest on the old and the very young: the wisdom of today and the hope for the future. wherever the Jesuits were most welcome, the hospitality was also unintentionally extended to their grim companion. whenever the soft words of the Jesuits were uttered, the anguished cry' of the sick was soon to be heard.
The words of the Jesuits moved and disturbed Joseph Chihoatenhwa, particularly
in the mid 1630s, just before he was baptized. The circumstances were grave,
the situation desperate. In 1636, in his home village of Ossossane, Joseph
heard Father BrEbeuf speak at the Feast of the Dead. That most solemn and
sacred of all Huron religious ceremonies was held approximately every 5
to 12 years. The bodies of all those who had died during that period were
respectfully laid to rest in a common grave or burial pit. The Ossossane
Feast of the Dead must have been an especially sad occasion in the year
of 1636, for many people had suddenly joined the ranks of the dead.
The basic message of the ceremony was that 'We who are Huron are all together as one people; the living and the dead. We are buried together so that we will all go to the same village in the western sky after we die (see chapter two, footnote #5).
Brebeuf's message was a different one. He spoke of there being not one but two places to which people traveled after they died. One was inside the earth. It was a terrible pit of torture in an ever burning fire, inhabited by had Frenchmen who had committed 'offenses' (a literal translation of the Huron word used by the priests to refer to 'sins') and by the greatly revered ancestors of the Huron. The other place existed somewhere in the sky, where everyone, French and Huron alike, could go if they were 'struck with water' (baptized). There weren't many Huron there yet, only those who had been struck with water and then died shortly afterwards.
In 1637, the Jesuits moved their headquarters to the village of Ossossane. In that same year Brebeuf made another dramatic speech to the inhabitants of that village, one in which that big but gentle man tried to console them after the sudden death of so many of their loved ones. The consolation he offered them was that: 'Death need not be feared nor mourned; disease need not be dreaded. Conversion, and especially baptism can help you overcome any such problem.'
In the minds of Chihoatenhwa and many other anxious inhabitants of Ossossane this raised several crucial questions: 'Could baptism overcome death and disease by being a cure, a European remedy for a European malady?' How else could it be explained that the baptized French were unaffected by the scourge besetting the Huron? Even Tehorenhaegnon of 'He who surpasses the treetops', a powerful shaman and a persistent opponent of Brebeuf, seemed to think that 'striking with water' was an effective cure. Such was revealed to him in a vision that came to him during a grueling twelve day fast.'
Chihoatenhwa had much more than just a passing interest in the words of Brebeuf and the questions that they raised. For he too fell under the foreign spell of contagion. But unlike most others he had no doubts as to what his course of action would be. He staked his life on the 'medicine' of the Jesuits, refitting to use any traditional curing practices unless they met with the blessing of the priests. He believed that whatever was decreed or even suggested by those mysterious healers was to be strictly followed.
A good example of the extent to which he rigidly adhered to the 'cures' of the Jesuits occurred when he ran a high fever and the priests decided to cover him with a warm blanket.' Despite the sweltering discomfort, he remained covered for the rest of a long summer day until finally they returned. Upon their arrival he meekly inquired if he could give himself a bit more air and take off the sweat-soaked blanket. Those acetic priests - who had known and had even sought discomfort and pain in the service of their god - were impressed by this display of endurance and obedience. But for a Huron, a member of a society which believed that one must act out to the exact detail the wishes of a curing shaman, a people taught from early youth to endure pain, hardship and discomfort, this was not unusual.
On the 16th of August, at a time when it was thought that he was probably beyond all hope of recovery, Joseph Chihoatenhwa was baptized. Remarkably, almost 'miraculously, he recovered. There was no question in the minds of Chihoatenhwa and the Jesuits as to what had pardoned him from the fate of so many others. God, the 'master of life' so often spoken of by the missionaries had given him his life. 30 Joseph's views are clearly seen in the following passage (JR15:85):
No doubt God has had regard to my submission . . . and now since it has pleased him to restore me to health, I am resolved to be very faithful to him all my life; I will so act that the others will know it.
He seemed to genuinely believe that baptism and faith were the reasons that he and the French did not die while all around them the non-Christian Huron succumbed to the contagion. For, when speaking to his people in defense of the Jesuits he claimed (JR15:155):
The remedy which they I the French / use . . . is to believe in him who made all; it only depends upon thee to avail thyself of this. We are under too great obligations to them for coming from so great a distance to give us the knowledge of this so salutary remedy, which, thank God, they have taught me; it is for me a great glory to believe the same as the French do.
Most Huron converts who recovered and attributed that recovery to baptism did not persist in the narrow path of the vaguely understood Christianity. Why keep taking medicine once you have regained your health? Chihoatenhwa, however, continued to travel on a path which more than one Jesuit likened unto that of a saint. why?
The historian usually seeks secular reasons. Did Chihoatenhwa want to improve his position in the trade with the French? There were special benefits to be received by the Huron trader who at least appeared to act like a Christian: he would be more certain of his trade relationship with the French; he would obtain better payment for his furs; he would receive more gifts; and he would be treated with greater respect and honour. Many traders were among the first converts. But this should not be perceived as being a totally materialistic or insincere response on their part. Acts of 'instrumental' Christianity were in many ways similar to the religious acts one dutifully performed to ensure a successful hunt or plentiful harvest. It was not unlike the instrumentality of the Christianity of the Jesuits and many other 17th century Europeans. Brebeuf himself, called for nine days of prayer when he wished it to rain.
But considerations of trade do not really explain Chihoatenhwa's behavior. The trading that he engaged in was primarily with the Tobacco or Petun (known in the Huron language as the 'Etionnontateronnon' or 'People who live where there is a hill or mountain') who were the Huron's culturally similar and linguistically related neighbors to the west. His becoming a Christian did not help in this trade. In fact, he jeopardized his position with his Tobacco trading partners by attempting to assist the Jesuits in their efforts to do missionary work with these people.
For before the priests embarked on their proselytizing journey, some Huron traders, fearing that the extension of Christianity would inevitably lead to concerning what terrible events would take place if the missionaries were permitted to perform their destructive rites of 'witchcraft'. Their propaganda was effective. The Jesuits were refused entry into or were turned out of longhouse after longhouse, village after village. They were often threatened with physical violence when they approached prospective converts.
Owing to Chihoatenhwa's determined efforts, the black robed strangers were grudgingly given a single night's lodging in the homes of his trading partners. But they were soon driven out when they were caught in the act of baptizing the dying, apparently practicing the black arts that the horrified Tobacco had been warned about. Chihoatenhwa was loudly denounced by his trading partners for his association with French shamans and for his attempts to kill his friends by encouraging them to receive malevolent visitors.
If it wasn't considerations of trade that motivated him, what did? Could it have been the feelings of frustration of one who was within reach of power but could not seem to grasp it in his hand? He belonged to one of the leading families of the Bear tribe. He was the nephew of 'Hannenkiriondik' or Protruding Fir Tree, the principal headman of OssOssane, a leader whose voice was respectfully heeded in the councils of the Bear. '4 Yet Joseph himself, before converting to Christianity, was considered to be relatively young and unimportant.
Did he resent the power held by some of his fellow Huron? He repeatedly articulated a contempt for the opinions of his country's leaders, the headmen and elders called 'Captains' by the French. Sometimes this bordered on a rudeness uncharacteristic of a more traditional, respectful Huron. A good example of this occurred at a meeting that Chihoatenhwa had with a group of Huron elders. After he had spoken for several hours on his favorite topic - Christianity - one elder suggested to him that (JR19:163):
It is true that which the French taught thee is reasonable, - I would in favor of our all becoming Christians like thee; but it is for our to speak in that matter, he is the one who manages our affairs.
Chihoatenhwa attacked this seemingly conciliatory suggestion with all the vehemence of the most intolerant and insensitive of the French (ibid):
Truly. . . you have less understanding than children; if your Captains are damned, do you wish to be damned with them? A child would flee, who would see all the Captains burn in the midst of flames. Which of your Captains has ever taught you to live well? who of them has forbidden theft or adultery? Far from it; they Ire more thievish and indecent than the others.
I believe that he did not make such condemnatory statements through feelings of resentment. I think that he was led by the notion that he had strong support or backing from a source other than one that was traditionally Huron. It might first appear that this source might be the political influence of the Jesuits. As their favorite son, Chihoatenhwa would seem to be in a position to be able to use their solid support as a lever for political power. While this may have been considered by Chihoatenhwa, it would not have been a major consideration. For the Jesuits were not in a position of strength in those early mission years. Association with them brought more danger than security, more vulnerability than strength.
However, as a Christian Chihoatenhwa did have, or believed he had a source of power on which he could draw, a spiritual source not unlike that upon which a pre-contact Huron shaman would rely. This idea is suggested in the following speech (JR19:155):
But do not think that I am alone; I have for me and with me the one who is all powerful; if he takes me into his protection, all men and even all the demons of hell, can do nothing against me. I have on my side the Angels, who are in greater number than all men, and all the Saints of Paradise, among whom there are already a good many of our countrymen, who are ceaselessly praying for me.
I believe that Joseph Chihoatenhwa became a lasting convert to Christianity because the Jesuits provided an answer, an explanation of and solution to the new ways of life and death when traditional knowledge seemed inadequate. The priest appeared to have an effective medicine when no other was forthcoming; a preventative or cure which Chihoatenhwa accepted much like he would have in earlier times accepted the curing vision or dream of a powerful shaman. Christianity provided him with spiritual security at a time when traditional Huron gods seemed unwilling or unable to respond to calls for help.
Further, the message of Christianity made it easier for him to accept the death of great numbers of friends and kinsmen in a short period of time. It offered a real source of comfort to him. This can be seen in the following analogy drawn by Chihoatenhwa in one of his speeches (JR 19:147; see also the prayer presented in Appendix A):
When a young woman who lives in her father-in-law's house is invited by her own father to come and spend some months in his house; if he is a rich and liberal man, the father-in-law rejoices in the thought that his daughter-in-law will be much at her ease. Likewise, if some one of our family died, I should have the thought that God, her tither, had drawn her to his house:
I should rejoice in the same, since she would be better off there than with me.
Joseph Chihoatenhwa sought an answer to the great turmoil and tragedy of his time and place, and felt that he found it in the message of the Jesuits. Once convinced of its truth, he well earned the name 'the believer'.
In order to answer the second question - what was Joseph Chihoatenhwa's contribution to the development of Christianity among the Huron? - one must realize that his baptism was one of the first of a healthy adult Huron (falling just a few months after the initial such event). Once a Christian, Joseph wanted everyone around him to become one too. In short order his wife Marie,] his nephew Pierre, and two of his nieces were 'struck with water'. For nine months, a period in which the Jesuits were repeatedly threatened with death, Chihoatenhwa and his family were the only professing Huron Christians in the whole village of Ossossane. By the summer of 1639 (two years after his baptism), the ranks of the professing Christians throughout all of Huronia 'swelled' to about one hundred, probably less than one percent of the total population at that time. Of this group, around sixty were from Ossossane. This was due in no small part to the persistent efforts of Joseph and a small group of his relatives.
Many of the sixty Ossossane Christians were adopted Huron from the orphaned Iroquoian tribe known as the Wenro. In the summer of 1638 chihoatenhwa (among others) went to their country - situated dangerously close to the Seneca, the traditional enemy of the Huron - and had helped nearly six hundred of them flee from that war-threatened area. Many were sick and died along the way, but the mission of mercy was still relatively successful. So, it seems, was the mission of Christianity. Most of the survivors settled at Ossossane, where they continued to hear the words of the leading Huron Christian. Throughout the 1640s the number of Wenro converts remained disproportionately high.
Following the efforts and example of Chihoatenhwa, Ossossane continued in later years to be the foremost Christian village in Huronia. After his death, Joseph's wife Marie, and his brother Tehondechoren ('He who Splits The Earth') took up the banner that Joseph had dropped. By the year 1649, Ossossane had become the first Huron village to come under the control of a Christian majority.
In that year a battle took place that stands as a tribute to his influence on that village." Just after Fathers Jean de Brebeuf and Gabriel Lalemant were martyred in March, the French mission community of Sainte-Marie was saved from certain destruction at the hands of an Iroquois war party by a group of about three hundred Huron made up primarily of Christians from Ossossane. Their gallant defense of the charred remains of the recently-devastated village of St. Louis - standing less than three miles from the poorly-manned palisades of Sainte-Marie - made the Iroquois delay their attack plans. Although they lost the battle, they won time for the people at the mission. The Jesuits, their lay helpers, and their Huron followers had time enough to flee from Sainte-Marie.
For the early Huron mission Chihoatenhwa was and did everything. His influence was felt not only in Ossossane, but wherever he traveled throughout Huronia. Time and time again Chihoatenhwa took the Jesuit's side at meetings where no one else would speak for them. The example of his family becoming Christian was instructive to the missionaries. They henceforth directed their main efforts towards family heads who might then in turn be able to convert their whole family.
Chihoatenhwa also proved to be an invaluable aid as a linguistic informant. 'Ibis involved not only working with the Jesuits to develop a grammar and vocabulary list, but also the creation of connected strands of Christian thought. He was expounding at great length about Christianity at a time when most of the priests - with the exception of the remarkably talented Father Brebeuf - could merely stutter out only a few simple sentences and ideas. His eloquence impressed all that heard him; even those who were opposed to what he said (for an example see Appendix A).
In order to answer the final question - why was Joseph Chihoatenhwa killed? - one must also ask and answer another: who killed him, the Seneca, or the Huron? The 'official' answer to that question, given both by the Jesuits and the Huron elders in council, was that it was the Seneca. But the evidence, when sifted through carefully, suggests to me that they were wrong, and that they may have had reason to overlook evidence which contradicted their official viewpoint.
Why would the Huron want to kill Joseph Chihoatenhwa? The answer is simple. He was considered by many to be guilty of the two greatest crimes in Huron society: sorcery and treason.
It was widely believed that he had obtained curing power from the Jesuits. For twice he had been struck a serious blow by disease (the second time when traveling with the migrating Wenro) and both times he had miraculously recovered. Having such power was considered a good thing if the possessor was thought to be a doctor or curer. But it was believed that such power could also be turned to antisocial use, the possessor could be a 'sorcerer': one who used spiritual means to cause disease and death.
There was a saying among the Huron that someone thought to be a sorcerer should be 'pulled out of the ground like a poisonous root'. This meant that sorcerers could be killed with impunity as a social good. In the last year of Chihoatenhwa's life the worst of the three plagues - smallpox - hit the Huron. Other people suspected of being sorcerers were put to death, but the anxious crusaders stopped short of killing the ones upon which they felt most of the blame rested: the black-robes and their protégé Chihoatenhwa. But they were getting more and more desperate. Joseph's brother, Tehondechoren, told his' that at all the feasts and assemblies the main topic of discussion was he and his French companions; the threat they posed, and the means that should be devised of disposing of them. The priests were protected in that their death might mean the end of the trade. Chihoatenhwa had no such protection.
Why would he be considered to be guilty of treason? Regarding his actions in the Tobacco mission, his countrymen could well ask: 'Is he trying to take the all-important French trade away from us? Did he not help the black-robes extend their mission to our former enemies the Tobacco? Would that not mean that the French traders would soon follow their brothers in the journey west?'
Chihoatenhwa had had a dream sometime in the early summer of 1639 when on a fishing trip with his good friend and fellow Christian Rene Tsondihwane. He dreamt (JR21:161-3):
... that three or four Iroquois attacked him; that, having defended himself, he was thrown to the ground; that they took off his scalp, and gave him a blow with a hatchet on the head from which they removed it.
The Huron were great believers in dreams. They felt that often such dreams could point the way to the future. Chihoatenhwa, who was said to have had this particular dream many times, probably saw in it an augur for things to come. The Jesuits seemed to think (at least in retrospect) that his dream was something of a prophetic vision.
Fourteen months later, early in August, Chihoatenhwa went out with three of his nieces into the fields that surrounded their home village of Ossossane. After kneeling down to pray in thanksgiving for the harvest he directed his young nieces to pick some squashes. Then, strangely, he told them to return home alone after the job was done and to do so "as soon as possible". He seemed to have suspected that danger was lurking nearby. Yet if it was danger from the Seneca, why would he not be careful to safely escort his nieces back to the village and raise a war party to drive them away? Perhaps he knew that there were Huron in the area who meant him great harm. Maybe he did not want his nieces around because they might be killed as witnesses.
Chihoatenhwa had learned well the lessons of the 17th century Christianity as taught by the Jesuits. One lesson he would have heard again and again was of the glory and the great usefulness to the church (that is of the 'church triumphant') of martyrdom. The Jesuits' opinion in this matter was clearly articulated by Father Jerome Lalemant when writing of Chihoatenhwa's death (JR20: 83):
It is true that we hoped much from him for the conversion of these tribes, whose Apostle be had made himself during the course of the year; but since the Saints have more power when they are in heaven than here below on earth, we are bound to believe that we have gained more than lost at his death. We shall me in due time what it will produce.
13 Thus, as he walked out alone into the woods to split a few cedars for the ribs of a canoe, Chihoatenhwa would have lodged in the back of his mind the notion that he could do more for his friends and kinsmen dead than alive. He closely followed the other teachings of the Jesuits to the strictest limits to which they could be taken. Did he perceive in a chance for martyrdom an opportunity to walk yet further along the path of a saint? Was this idea the source of his dream of death? The very least one can say is that he would not have feared death, should he see it approaching him from the depths of the forest.
While in the woods he was attacked and killed, much in the way that he had envisioned it in his dream. Upon cursory investigation it was declared that the Seneca had killed him. No evidence was ever recorded in the Jesuit Relations to back up or substantiate this claim. But then, neither Huron elder, nor French priest would want to say that a Huron killed Chihoatenhwa. Both had too much to lose if such was declared. The elders would be risking the trade with the French, and the priests, their chances of obtaining financial and political support for the mission. Who would invest in a mission where the prospects were so poor that Christians were being killed by their own people?
Admittedly the evidence is somewhat sketchy and circumstantial in places, but I cannot help but think that Joseph Chihoatenhwa may have been the first martyr in Huronia; preceding by two years his first canonized European counterpart: a forgotten martyr. *
APPENDIX A: Joseph Chihoatenhwa's Prayer
You who are master, God, behold now I know you. It is fortunate that now I know you. You are the one who skillfully made this earth and this sky. You are the one who made we who are called human beings.
Just as we are the masters of the canoes and the longhouses we have made, so you are our master because you made us. It is a matter of little importance that we are the masters of all that we possess as it is for a short time only that we are the masters of the canoes and the longhouses that we have made. It is for a short time that we are masters. As for you, you have home the permanent master of we who are called human beings. While it would not be a trifling matter that you are master when we are still living, it is principally at the moment that we die that you are master.
You alone are master; no one shares the position with you. You are the one we should greatly fear. You are the one we should greatly love. It is very true that human beings and spirits are not really powerful. Not only do spirits lack power, hut they do not love us.
I now give special thanks that you willed that I should acquire knowledge of you; for you greatly love us.
Behold, I am now offering myself to you; I who am located here. Behold, I now choose you for my master. You are the principal master of I who am located here. Use your wisdom when you are thinking about I who am located here.
You have all of us in my family within your sphere of influence. If I am not present when something happens to my family, I will think that he who most assuredly has us within his sphere of influence is watching. As for me, I am not of such a stature. It will be of little import if I am present, as my family will die even if I am there.
Behold, I now express great thanks. Behold I now know your plans. I should not think: 'what if something happens to my family?' I will think that God who loves us will reflect on the matter. And if he wills that my family should become poor, I will think: 'It is the will of God who loves us.'
And if my soul wishes to become rich, I will think that he does not think of God. I will greatly fear this and take care as to how I live. For it is easy for one who is rich to be one who offends, as, unknown to him, he is accompanied by a bad spirit.
Alas, those people who are rich brag in vain. For, either rich or poor, we do not surpass one another. You love us equally; both those who are rich and those who are poor.
Fortunately I now know your intentions; you, God, who loves us. I express great thanks. I completely abandon myself to you, I who am located here. Behold, as we now cast away from us all kinds of things that we value while we are still living. Behold, they are no longer valued. Just you alone are valued. Apply your wisdom, great master, with respect to I who am located here.
It alone would have been providential if you had merely wished that human beings should come into being. Nevertheless, one should express thanks as there is good reason to rejoice here on earth in the many things that you have given us. You have greatly favored us by willing that people should go to the sky when they die, and that they should live forever.
I should not examine it for faults as things are quite perfect in the sky. I would have overestimated my ability if I thought that I could examine it, for I am not of such a stature. It is providential in itself that I am familiar with your word. Behold, I now believe that it is true. I do not doubt it as you do not lie. You speak only the truth, whatever you say.
You said that you will not refuse me anything in heaven as nothing is difficult for you. You love us. Your word is the subject of my prayer.
Truly, it is likely that we might suffer while we are living. There will be great cause for our rejoicing in the sky, and people will no longer cling tenaciously to life when they are sick. It is no longer a difficult thing to die. It is in vain that we fear to die while we are living. We are foolish. For at the moment of death, when one goes to heaven, one should be very happy.
It is like it is with those who go to trade. They suffer, those who go to, trade. It is of little significance, however, that one expresses satisfaction when returning home and thinks: 'We are now returning home and are at the end of our suffering'. For it is only when one is at the point of dying that one should think: 'Now I will be at the end of my suffering.'
These are my thoughts, God, the master. I now no longer fear death. I will express satisfaction when I am at the point of death. I will not suffer or be sad when relatives of mine die. I will think that God deliberated on it and willed that he loves them very much, for he willed that people would depart for a place where they will be very happy.
* Retranslated from the Huron text in JR21:251-65.
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