Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Emma Anderson

Emma Anderson is Assistant Professor of North American Religious History, University of Ottawa, and author of The Betrayal of Faith: The Tragic Journey of a Colonial Native Convert (Harvard University Press, 2007).

The political scientist Ray Taras, whose scholarship includes many publications on ethnic conflict and belonging, interviewed Anderson about The Betrayal of Faith:

Taras: Paul Le Jeune is a bogey man today. His Relations have been used to serve authorial purposes radically different from his own. Are all the revisionist interpretations of the historical records he compiled plausible?

Anderson: I’m going to address each of your statements in order. First, it was not my intention to present Paul Le Jeune as a “bogey man.” To do so would simply be to continue the “black hats/white hats” historiography which has so dogged study of aboriginal-European religious encounter. Demonizing historical figures doesn’t help us to understand them. Colonial Catholic missionaries were neither the larger-than-life saints of their hagiographers, nor were they the soulless, insidious hegemony of their detractors. They were individuals whose historical circumstances and strong beliefs in the importance of their mission often caused them to overlook or underestimate the value of the native cultures in which they were immersed.

Paul Le Jeune is a complex figure whose teenage conversion to Catholicism during the French wars of religion represented the strongest possible repudiation of his Protestant family. Like Pastedechouan, the young Native American who is at the center of my book, Le Jeune had thus experienced dramatic religious transformation which redefined his identity and his relationship to his family and community. I believe that the intensity of the two men’s relationship during the last four years of Pastedechouan’s life was rooted in their shared experience of dramatic conversion. Just as Pastedechouan’s life was arguably transformed by his relationship with the older and irascible Jesuit, so Le Jeune’s experiences in New France were fatefully shaped by his relationship with the younger Pastedechouan, whom he wished both to exploit for his linguistic abilities and whom he longed to bring back into the Catholic fold.

Secondly, I want to address your comment “His Relations have been used to serve authorial purposes radically different from his own.” What are you suggesting? That analysis of historical sources should only serve its original authors’ presumed purposes (assuming that these purposes are, in fact, transparent)? What would this mean in practice? That only (presumably seventeenth century?) Jesuit historians intent on using Le Jeune’s Relations for religious, publicity and fund raising purposes could do so?

As a historian and religionist, I take it as a given that texts from the past often serve to illuminate more than their authors ever intended. Paul Le Jeune’s Relations are a particularly good case in point. In the opening chapters of his Relation for 1634, in which Le Jeune recounts his grueling six month-long hunting journey with Pastedechouan’s family, the Jesuit Superior sets forth a strong thesis: that his failure to convert Pastedechouan’s familial band was the result of a pre-planned collusion between Pastedechouan and his oldest brother Carigonan, a shaman, who jointly opposed his Christian mission. Careful reading of Le Jeune’s own record, however, contradicts his surface narrative: the missionary elsewhere records that Carigonan, supposedly his implacable foe, had repeatedly sought Le Jeune`s religious intervention in curing him of a lingering illness. Critically and carefully probing the depths of missionary writings, then, can illuminate aboriginal experiences as well as deepening our understanding of Le Jeune’s own perceptions.

Taras: You explain on page 49 that all-night torture sessions of prisoners carried out by both Innu and Mohawk were an affirmation of key cultural values shared by these antagonistic groups. Torture was understood as a mark of respect for the victim. Elsewhere you seem to regard physical privations (as in the winter trip of the protagonists made in 1633-34) as less severe than psychological traumas. Can you elaborate on why you are more concerned with psychological than corporal scars?

Anderson: I’m not sure that the pain explored in this book can be separated into neat categories of “physical suffering” and “psychological suffering” in quite the way in which you suggest, or that the amount of attention given to each can be neatly tallied. As you point out, suffering is a prominent theme in this book, be it the abstract analysis of the religious and sociological rationale behind indigenous post-war practices that you mention, or in its examination of the experiences of the young man who is the primary subject of this book.

Take, for instance, my presentation of Pastedechouan’s death. By any measure, to die alone of starvation and exposure would represent a terrifying ordeal. In the pages devoted to Pastedechouan’s death, I try to evoke what such an experience would likely have been like – the panic, the attempts to re-establish contact with potential rescuers, the attempt to construct shelter and create fire – and to chart the physiological symptoms of death from exposure – first pain, then numbness, then the illusion of warmth and the overwhelming desire to sleep. After evoking Pastedechouan’s likely actions and somatic experiences, however, I also address his likely state of mind. How would Pastedechouan have interpreted his apparent abandonment by his human kin? by the Innu pantheon? by the Christian God? How would he have interpreted the world which awaited him after death? How would these musings have inflected his experiences during his last hours? My assumption in posing these questions is that the two forms of suffering cannot be separated, as “physical” experiences are always inflected by psychological perceptions, and vice versa.

Another brief example from the book makes the same point. In Chapter Four, Paul Le Jeune’s experiences on the winter hunt are examined. In this case, too, physical and psychological torment are prominent, and, arguably, inescapably intertwined. In the middle of his winter with Pastedechouan’s kin, Le Jeune falls seriously ill, displaying a range of symptoms from vomiting to dizzy spells. Le Jeune’s own analysis of his sickness combines prosaic causations (the dried meat did not agree with his stomach) to a much more complex religious explanation in which he contrasts his spiritual health in a time of dearth to his spiritual sickness in a time of plenty. My analysis of Le Jeune’s ailment explores its physical, psychological, and spiritual dimensions, as well as exploring how his ill-health was explained by the Innu community in which he was embedded.

There is one sense, however, in which I am, as you suggest “more concerned with psychological than corporal scars.” If I were forced at gunpoint to admit a distinction between physical and psychological suffering, and to indicate which is the more painful, I would indeed hold that psychological suffering is the more severe, simply because one’s psychological outlook regarding the meaning or meaninglessness of one’s physical suffering seems to affect how this suffering is perceived and experienced (for good or for ill). For example, Pastedechouan`s documented obsession with hellfire in the last years of his life would doubtless have sharpened rather than blunted the agony (both physical and psychological) of his final hours.

Taras: Is it accurate to say that your book juxtaposes an exclusivistic uncompromising French conception of identity with an inclusionary ecumenical Innu approach?

Anderson: It’s not quite that simple. You are correct in pointing out that identity is a major theme of this work, which focuses both upon the essentially comparative nature of collective and individual identity, and the dangers of the loss of a firm sense of personal identity. Just to set the context, the late 16th and early 17th centuries witnessed major new internal and external threats to the traditional sense of identity of both North American indigenous groups (with the advent of Europeans in their midst) and European Catholics (with the splitting of their church), threats which decisively shaped how these two groups regarded one another and themselves. While native people typically sought to incorporate French newcomers using traditional rubrics of fictive kinship and adoption, Catholic missionaries prayed that the transfusion of “New World” converts into their church would compensate for the ongoing Protestant hemorrhage. Both European Catholics and aboriginal peoples, then, used diplomacy, “conversion,” and force to ensure group cohesion and to incorporate outsiders into their respective groups, thus maintaining and extending their respective communal identities. Indeed, the central story of the book is how French Recollet missionaries sought, Pygmalion-like, to reshape a young native boy in their own image.

Though each group thus faced congruent challenges, they evolved different perceptions of alternative truth claims and different strategies for engaging them. Seventeenth century Innu spirituality was demonstrably characterized by relativism and empiricism. By contrast, early modern Catholicism insisted on its status as the sole acceptable truth and condemned the competing belief systems of Protestants or traditional indigenous religions as false, even demonic. In the initial decades of Catholic missionization of New France, missionaries thus sought to frame conversion to Christianity as a step which involved native peoples’ total renunciation of their religious and cultural heritage. In many cases, it was these exclusivistic tendencies within French Catholicism that hardened opposition to it amongst Pastedechouan’s people, rather than the actual theological contents of Christianity “itself.”

Taras: The battle of wills you describe between the two protagonists, Le Jeune and Pastedechouan, at Notre-Dame-des-Anges in 1632-33 involves a lot of speculative psychology on your part. If personal engagement is, as you say on page 234, an important part of the power of Pastedechouan's story, then does it follow that detachment from it leads to a more flawed interpretation?

Anderson: I feel that disciplined empathic engagement with the historical figures one is researching is one of the most valuable, yet least discussed, tools which historians and religionists have available to them. In trying to interpret the actions of people in the long distant past, this sort of tuning in to the subtleties of their behavior in the context of what we know of the rest of their story and their larger historical context is, in my opinion, invaluable.

Taras: Do you believe that in the seventeenth century European fur traders did less harm to the autonomy of Canada's First Nations than French Catholic missionaries? You underscore the religious nature of Pastedechouan's linguistic skills (French and Latin). In what way is that worse than the commercial nature of fur traders' language abilities?

Anderson: Your questions require a careful and nuanced answer which first of all distinguishes between the goals of different European groups, their demographic size, and their success in achieving their goals. As I outline in Chapter One of my book, the goals of fur traders were frankly exploitative of native groups. Traders wanted to get as many furs as they could wrangle from aboriginal peoples with the smallest outlay of their own resources. Their presence, historically, caused native over-exploitation of natural resources and encouraged aboriginal dependency on European goods, both of which had insalubrious results for native autonomy. At the same time, we must recognize that European traders sought to uphold traditional aboriginal life-ways, opposing fellow Europeans, like Champlain and Catholic religious orders, who sought to sedentify and Christianize communities of migratory hunter-gatherers. Recognition (and exploitation) of aboriginal people’s expert knowledge of their natural environment was, quite simply, in these traders’ best interest. The experience of the Innu people in the 1620s and 30s shows us that even large-scale trading with Europeans did not imperil native values or destabilize their internal economic practices. In fact, as I demonstrate in the book, the Innu were able to create a “dual track system” of values: continuing to retain their traditional communalism within their society, whilst evolving different “rules of engagement” when trading with the French. All of this suggests to me that trade relationships with Europeans, while challenging, did not profoundly imperil the survival of traditional native identity or ways of living, at least initially.

The advent of the missionaries, however, presented a totally different set of challenges. Seventeenth-century Catholic missionaries such as the Recollets and Jesuits sought nothing less than the complete religious, cultural, political, and economic re-orientation of aboriginal life around European-style agriculture and Roman Catholicism. While in Pastedechouan’s period the missionary presence was small enough that Catholics were unable to realize their ambitious plans for the cultural and religious “reformation” of aboriginal societies, within a few generations they had succeeded in fragmenting many native communities into Christian and traditionalist factions. In the case of the Wendat (Huron) this fatal weakening of community cohesion was a major factor in the eventual dramatic 1650 dispersion of the Wendat people from their traditional lands.

So while their engagement with missionaries and traders presented very different challenges, I would argue that missionary demands were ultimately more destructive of aboriginal cultures. The foregoing analysis, however, looks only at the conscious intent of these European agents. At the microbiological level, of course, traders and missionaries wreaked identical (if unintentional) havoc, as both economic and religious agents spread diseases to which native people had no immunity.

On your second question: I made the point I did about the religious context of Pastedechouan’s language acquisition in the interpretive context of his refusal to aid the invading Huguenot Kirke brothers in 1629. In mastering these European languages under the tutelage of the Recollets, Pastedechouan would also have imbibed their distinctive interpretations of Protestantism as a dangerous heresy, leading to his refusal to aid their agenda.

Taras: Have you read William Vollman's Fathers and Crows? What is it about the Jesuit Relations that has spawned contemporary works of creative nonfiction and fiction alike?

Anderson: I haven’t yet read it, but am familiar with other fiction works based on the Jesuit Relations, such as Brian Moore’s Black Robe.

I think that what attracts fiction-writers as well as historians and religionists to the Jesuit Relations is their unparalleled richness of narrative, detailed evocations of personal encounters, including conversations, and the strong sense that they provide of the individual personalities of their writers. More abstractly, I believe that the seventeenth-century encounter between native peoples and Europeans is of such popular interest because of the profound similarities between that period and our own. Like the early 21st century, the early 17th century was a period of unprecedented inter-cultural contact which was both fascinating and unsettling for all participants. Dizzying technological and conceptual changes then, as now, seemed to threaten traditional definitions of individual and collective identity. I think that, perusing the Jesuit Relations, many readers feel a sense of identification with the historical actors’ (both European and indigenous) cultural dislocation in our own time of globalization.

Taras: Do you hold out any hope for the survival of nomadic ways of life anywhere?

Anderson: Pastedechouan’s people, the Innu, have been successful in some parts of Canada to holding to a semi-nomadic way of life, though one which in some ways reverses the primordial patterns of their seventeenth century ancestors. Whereas the Innu of Pastedechouan’s day were largely sedentary in the summer, using these milder months to congregate in large groups by rivers, and breaking up only into smaller kin-based groups in the mid-fall, contemporary Innu people reverse the pattern: living in settlements during the winter and living in mobile bands in the summer months. So yes, it is possible, though often difficult. Aboriginal people wishing to follow the ways of their ancestors face a range of rigid hunting and fishing laws formulated around the need to restrict commercial activities or to regulate sport-hunting.
Read about The Betrayal of Faith at the Harvard University Press website. Learn more about Emma Anderson's teaching, research, and other publications at her faculty webpage.

The Page 69 Test: The Betrayal of Faith.

--Marshal Zeringue