The Catholic Calumet: Colonial Conversions in French and Indian North America

The Catholic Calumet: Colonial Conversions in French and Indian North America

The Catholic Calumet: Colonial Conversions in French and Indian North America

The Catholic Calumet: Colonial Conversions in French and Indian North America

Synopsis

In 1730 a delegation of Illinois Indians arrived in the French colonial capital of New Orleans. An Illinois leader presented two ceremonial pipes, or calumets, to the governor. One calumet represented the diplomatic alliance between the two men and the other symbolized their shared attachment to Catholicism. The priest who documented this exchange also reported with excitement how the Illinois recited prayers and sang hymns in their Native language, a display that astonished the residents of New Orleans. The "Catholic" calumet and the Native-language prayers and hymns were the product of long encounters between the Illinois and Jesuit missionaries, men who were themselves transformed by these sometimes intense spiritual experiences. The conversions of people, communities, and cultural practices that led to this dramatic episode all occurred in a rapidly evolving and always contested colonial context.

In The Catholic Calumet, historian Tracy Neal Leavelle examines interactions between Jesuits and Algonquian-speaking peoples of the upper Great Lakes and Illinois country, including the Illinois and Ottawas, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Leavelle abandons singular definitions of conversion that depend on the idealized elevation of colonial subjects from "savages" to "Christians" for more dynamic concepts that explain the changes that all participants experienced. A series of thematic chapters on topics such as myth and historical memory, understandings of human nature, the creation of colonial landscapes, translation of religious texts into Native languages, and the influence of gender and generational differences demonstrates that these encounters resulted in the emergence of complicated and unstable cross-cultural religious practices that opened new spaces for cultural creativity and mutual adaptation.

Excerpt

A delegation of Illinois Indians on a diplomatic mission astonished the residents of New Orleans in 1730 with their ardent participation in the Catholic ritual life of the colonial capital. the Jesuit missionary Mathurin le Petit observed that during their three-week stay “[the Illinois] charmed us by their piety, and by their edifying life. Every eve ning they recited the rosary … and every morning they heard me say Mass.” People crowded into the church to witness the spectacle of “savage” Indians worshiping and singing before the altar. the highlight for the audience was a responsive Gregorian chant in which Ursuline nuns “chanted the first Latin couplet … and the Illinois continued the other couplets in their language in the same tone.” the Illinois appeared to be very well educated in Catholic practice, pausing during their daily activities to recite a variety of prayers. “To listen to them,” concluded the priest, “you would easily perceive that they took more delight and plea sure in chanting these holy Canticles, than the generality of the Savages.” Le Petit was correct in a sense. the inhabitants of some of the Illinois villages had developed a strong attachment to Christianity through years of interaction and exchange with the French.

Illinois leaders Chicagou and Mamantouensa arrived in the city at the head of the delegation to show solidarity with their French allies who were embroiled in deadly conflicts with Native nations in the lower Mississippi valley. in an audience with the French governor, Chicagou presented two calumets, or ceremonial pipes, one symbolizing the shared French-Illinois attachment to Christianity and the other the diplomatic and military alliance between them. the Illinois had since the middle of the seventeenth century engaged the . . .

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