The Calumet and the Cross: Religious Encounters in the Lower Mississippi Valley

Article excerpt

FATHER JACQUES MARQUETTE CARRIED two religious symbols on his journey down the Mississippi: a cross and a calumet. The first was an icon at the heart of Marquette's own faith-the symbolic connection between a loving God and a sinful world. The second was a native symbol-an ever present bond between a protective spirit and his grateful children. Marquette's carrying of a calumet symbolized the connections the French and Indians had established by 1673. Yet Marquette and French colonials' misunderstanding of this and other native symbols and rituals would continue to color their encounters with native peoples. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the French encounter with the Quapaws. But that encounter would also be shaped by the Quapaws' own misunderstandings of French Catholics and their symbols and rituals.

Most discussions of the Quapaws' encounter with European religion have focused on the French failure to convert them to Catholicism. Over twenty years ago, W. David Baird argued that the Quapaws were "friends rather than converts." Morris Arnold and George Sabo III have more recently echoed that characterization. Arnold goes so far as to say that there is "ample indication that no significant Christian influence was brought to bear on the region's indigenous population during Arkansas's colonial epoch."1 Yet the Indian encounter with Christianity bears further examination, for if the Quapaws did not convert, they nevertheless made aspects and agents of Catholicism important parts of their society and culture. For Indians, religion was much more malleable than it was for European Christians. While Europeans hoped for a wholesale adoption of ritual and belief, native peoples of North America tended toward a more selective appropriation of Christian elements, with the object of gaining the spiritual power Europeans could provide. This was especially true in the case of the Quapaws.

The Quapaws incorporated missionaries and their symbols into their culture and participated in Catholic rituals. They did not do this as part of a process of conversion to Christianity, however, but as a means to strengthen and maintain their own nation. Rather than feeling they were under assault by the missionaries, they welcomed the introduction of new spiritual power as a gift, which they actively pursued. To their minds, such incorporation was essential. The continuing biological onslaughts of epidemic disease from the late seventeenth century to the early nineteenth century and the resulting decline in population from about 7,500 to less than 1,000 made it imperative that they assimilate other peoples and their spiritual power in order to sustain a viable nation.3

By 1673, when Marquette first floated the Mississippi, the four villages of the Quapaws were located along the Mississippi River. They had established one village, Kappa, on the east bank of the Mississippi. Two others, Tongigua and Tourima, sat on the west bank and a fourth, Osotouy, at the mouth of the Arkansas. This arrangement of settlements permitted the Quapaws to regulate travel up and down the Mississippi. Enemies could be turned back from either direction, while potential trade partners upstream could be warned of dangers farther south. This put the Quapaws in excellent position to be middlemen between the lower Mississippi and the pays d'en haut, the upper country of the Ohio River valley and the Great Lakes. The Quapaw villages on the west bank also guarded the entrance to the Arkansas River. This gave the Quapaws access to prairie and woodland hunting grounds upriver, while hindering such access on the part of competitors. According to Paheka, a Quapaw elder in the 1820s, the Quapaws took advantage of their strategic position, fighting and pushing out their rivals. They blocked upriver inhabitants from trade on the Mississippi as well.4

Such was the situation in the lower Mississippi valley when Father Marquette began his expedition with Louis Joliet and their five companions. …