Writing Betrayal of Faith: An Interview with Emma Anderson

Editor's Note: In December I posted a blog entry about BETRAYAL OF FAITH: THE TRAGIC JOURNEY OF A NATIVE COLONIAL CONVERT, winner of the Best First Book in Religion award from the American Academy of Religion. The author of this work, Emma Anderson, has graciously consented to an interview with her about her work, which I'm posting below. I hope to feature more of these blog interviews as we continue, as they provide a chance for authors to speak more informally about the process of researching and writing their books. I commend BETRAYAL OF FAITH to all as a deeply affecting work that places us within a very distant time and place and allows us to see something of the world that the Jesuits and the Innu of Canada saw. Our next "interview" will be with Katherine Carte Engel, about her new work RELIGION AND PROFIT. Also, here's a very brief online biography of Pastedechouan, giving a basic summary of the life that Emma Anderson has fleshed out. And, here's an interview with the author on the CBC's radio show Tapestry.

The author would be glad to hear from anyone interested in her book; she may be contacted at Emma DOT Anderson AT UOttawa DOT ca, or click on the link to her name provided above.

PH: How did you become interested in the topic of your book BETRAYAL OF FAITH? Take us through your process, from initial conceptualization to finished book.

Emma A.: Well, as weird as it may sound, I feel like I didn’t really find Pastedechouan, he found me. Because of the unique circumstances of his life, which unfolded on two continents, and because of his interactions with the leading Recollet, Jesuit, and secular leaders of his day, we have an unusually large and varied number of sources about Pastedechouan, some of which offer considerable insight into his actions and worldview. While I was researching in the general area of missionary-aboriginal encounters, I kept running into references to him, some of them in highly colourful language (Le Jeune’s outburst “he is a heretic, a renegade, an apostate, and a slave to his brother, the sorcerer” comes to mind!). I was intrigued by this reappearing figure and surprised by the richness and interpretive promise of these sources, given the conventional wisdom which suggests that the extant sources are often simply too fragmentary and biased to allow us to reconstruct the lives of early modern native peoples. When the full dimensions of Pastedechouan’s religious journey became apparent to me – that he was among the first native children to voyage across the Atlantic from Canada to France and back again – I was hooked. Perhaps even more intriguingly, for a religious studies scholar, was his interior journey from conversion to ambivalence to apparent apostasy. I knew that this was a story that I wanted to try to uncover, so I began the process of finding and piecing together the bits and pieces of Pastedechouan’s life.

Not all of this process was textual. Fairly late in the project, I went to France to try to see whether any of Pastedechouan’s letters or other writings were lying around waiting for me in French archives (we know that Pastedechouan was literate, writing in both French and Latin, and that he had a “clear and steady” hand). In this quest I was ultimately unsuccessful (though I did get to see his baptismal certificate, which appears in the book). But in visiting the sites in which the French chapter of Pastedechouan’s saga unfolded, the stunning cliff-top convent of La Baumette (now a private residence) and Saint-Maurice Cathedral, where he was baptized, and in viewing the same religious tapestries and frescos that he would have seen, I was able to understand new aspects of his religious education and better able to envision how disruptive this European interlude would have been to his sense of self.

PH: You're obviously dealing with a topic that has enormous, and very emotionally fraught, present-day consequences, particularly in the treatment/schooling of native peoples. To what degree did these kind of more present-day concerns impact or influence your research and writing?

Emma A.: The contemporary context, particularly the modern history of aboriginal suffering in assimilative residential schools designed to convert and “Europeanize” them had an enormous impact on the writing of this book. Though I address the contemporary scene only in the last chapter, Pastedechouan’s Legacy, one of my strongest motivations in trying to tell the story of this young 17th century man was to highlight the prominent place that assimilative education has played in aboriginal-European relations since early contact. Here in Canada, the federal government has recently apologized for its complicity in founding a system of education which had as an explicit aim the disappearance of aboriginal religions, languages, and cultures, an act which has been accurately termed cultural genocide. But many continue to dismiss assimilative schooling in Canada as a peripheral and fairly recent phenomena. I wanted to show that the European impulse to remake aboriginal children in their own Christian image went right back virtually to the founding of Quebec in 1608.

On a more historical note, it has always bothered me enormously that we are able to read nuanced, book length analyses of key European figures of Pastedechouan’s time, such as Samuel de Champlain or Paul Le Jeune, yet we still lack parallel treatment of aboriginal actors. While, as I noted earlier, many scholars have suggested that the available sources are simply too fragmentary to permit the same in-depth biographical treatment of aboriginal subjects, I hope that my book will show that we are able to do a lot even with relatively little. When we imagine the encounter between Europeans and aboriginal peoples in the distant past, our goal should be to recreate individual relationships between equally finely-drawn historical actors, both European and aboriginal.

PH: In an appendix to your book, you provide something of a defense for using conflicted European sources such as the Jesuit Relations forstudying Native peoples and religions of the early contact era. Can you say something more about how you thought through the difficulties of using these sources?

Emma A.: It is true that using European sources to try to uncover the lives, behaviour, and perceptions of aboriginal people is tricky. There are even some scholars who take what is to my mind the extreme stance that, as these sources are not everything we would like them to be, they are useless in revealing to us anything other than the European mentality of their authors. With these scholars I respectfully disagree. My perspective is, both pragmatically and methodologically, far more optimistic. I would argue that we must use these sources as one of the tools in our archaeological took kit as we try to uncover the distant past (along with oral history, ethno-historical techniques such as back-streaming, the use of visual evidence, etc) simply because it can give us information unavailable elsewhere. But these sources are useful on more than simply a pragmatic basis. They are also layered, textured, and nuanced sources which can be carefully “read against” themselves. The Jesuits in particular wrote so much and in such detail that we can use their own writings to uncover even those things which they may have wanted to hide or underplay.

Perhaps the best example of this addressed in the book is the Jesuit Superior Paul Le Jeune’s showdown with Pastedechouan’s brother Carigonan, who was a shaman. In presenting his relationship with the medicine man to his Jesuit superiors back in France, Le Jeune attempts to make it appear that Carigonan was violently opposed to his presence in the family’s hunting band right from the start. But Le Jeune’s own copious writings contradict this contention, presenting us with another Carigonan - one who is frankly curious about Le Jeune’s religious claims and open to utilizing Christian paradigms and rituals to solve his own existential and physical problems. Le Jeune’s “spin” of their relationship as one blighted in the bud by the shaman’s primordial hostility can thus be shown to be untrue by counter-evidence he himself presents. While this evidence is perhaps not as ideal as having a counter-history of their encounter penned by Carigonan himself, it nevertheless reveals important information about how aboriginal traditionalists perceived Christianity and its European representatives.

PH: Many historians have tended to see the Jesuits as sort of proto-pluralists, less perhaps by intent than simply by the ample and detailed discussion they provided of various Native religiousceremonies, some of which you rely on considerably in your book. But you dispute the interpretation of Jesuits as "relativists," and portray them more in line with how we often view Protestant missionaries and perhaps the Franciscans in that era. How did you come to have a view of the Jesuits that differs considerably from much other scholarship of this era?

Emma A.: What I discovered about the Jesuits of 1620s and 30s Canada in the process of writing this book surprised me as much as anyone. Being, like many, familiar with the famous Jesuit accomodationists in China and India, Matteo Ricci and Roberto de Naboli, I was initially startled to learn that initial Jesuit missionary protocol in Canada differed very little from that of their Franciscan Recollet predecessors in its staunch exclusivism. I think that this discrepancy can be explained in two different ways: Jesuit Canadian missionaries’ initial lack of appreciation of the cultural and religious sophistication of their host cultures, and the influence of their first Superior, Paul Le Jeune, a convert from Protestantism. When Jesuit missionaries went to India and China, they immediately appreciated the equivalencies which existed between European and Asian cultures, and saw their host societies as sophisticated cultures with which they could “do business.” By contrast, Jesuit missionaries to North America took longer in coming to appreciate the cultural, religious, and linguistic sophistication of their hosts. In looking around for the familiar bulwarks of European society (which they had seen mirrored in the social and religious institutions of Asia), they saw, in their words “ni foi, ni loi, ni roi.” In the initial flush of their missionary enthusiasm, then, the Jesuits, like their Recollet predecessors, saw aboriginal cultures only in terms of what they did NOT possess. Because they assumed that “civilization” would have to accompany or pave the way for conversion, Jesuits were less motivated to engage in the kind of “meet you half-way” accomodationism that had characterized their missions in Asia (and would later take more mitigated form on North American soil).

I also am convinced that the personal views and perspectives of Paul Le Jeune, as their influential first Superior and the instigator of that early modern publicity machine, the Jesuit Relations, are key to this initially puzzling Jesuit exclusivism. In the book I argue that Le Jeune’s own experience of religious conversion from Protestantism had given him a particularly exclusivist, “my way or the highway” vision of aboriginal religious change in North America. In short, I would argue that early (i.e. before the mid 1640s) Jesuit missionization in Canada was orthodoxic, child-focused, and individualistic in its model of conversion, whereas later Jesuit missionaries, learning from this model’s inadequacies, moved to an orthopraxic, adult-focused, and more communitarian model.

PH: In my blog entry on your book, I mentioned that it reminded me of Allen Greer's biography of the famous "Mohawk saint" Catherine Tekakwitha, in the sense that it was sort of a dual study of Catherine together with her Jesuit mentor. Much the same could be said of your subject and Paul Le Jeune. Can you compare your book to Greer's, both in terms of their similarities as well as their differences?

Emma A.: I am very flattered by the comparison of my work with Allan Greer’s as he is a historian whom I particularly admire for the depth and nuance of his analysis and the lucidity and imagination of his prose. I would agree that there are indeed similarities between the two projects in their overall conception – we have, after all, two aboriginal subjects, both in seventeenth century Canada, seen largely through the lenses of Jesuit sources - but some differences exist as well. Allan Greer’s book is much more symmetrically and intentionally dyadic than mine: as well as presenting the unique, tragically short life of Catherine Tekakwitha, he also illuminates the lives of her Jesuit chroniclers, who self-consciously framed her life for the world. My book is more focused on a single individual – Pierre-Anthoine Pastedechouan. While the reader will meet a wide range of other historical figures in the work: Pastedechouan’s trio of brothers, one of them a shaman and the other, like Pastedechouan, a convert to Christianity, the maurading Kirke brothers, who briefly take Pastedechouan prisoner before taking over Canada in 1629, and Paul Le Jeune, the Jesuit Superior who would prove to be Pastedechouan’s nemesis, Pastedechouan stays at the heart of the book. Moreover, though both books explore the nature of aboriginal conversion, the theoretical and historiographic problems which they tackle are different: Allan Greer, in examining Catherine Tekakwitha’s conversion to Christianity (and her later beatification by the Catholic church), ponders to what extent traditionalist Iroquois paradigms continued to influence her worldview, whereas my research on Pastedechouan has led me to ponder in a different way the inadequacies of our current conception of “conversion,” which is often implicitly envisioned as a one-way process. Pastedechouan’s experiences demonstrate that, to the contrary, aboriginal conversion in seventeenth century Canada was a process filled with ambivalence, if not apostasy.

What kinds of future plans/writing projects do you have in mind?

My next book is going to examine the cult of the famous missionary Jean de Brebéuf, one of seven Jesuits (or Jesuit affiliates) killed in colonial North America during the 1640s, who were collectively beatified in 1925 and canonized in 1930. In this project, I will both re-examine Brebeuf’s much-celebrated “martyrdom” (he was tortured to death during the intra-aboriginal wars which were endemic to this period), trace the history of his cult from the immediate aftermath of his death to the present-day, exploring the way in which his image was transformed from generation to generation, from colonial protector to “founding father,” and explore the shadow side of his veneration on the lives of North America’s native peoples.


Randall said…
Great interview. Fascinating topic. I saw the book in the HUP catalog. I'll pick it up next time I'm in Cambridge.
John G. Turner said…
Paul (and Emma),

Thanks for the fantastic interview, which has me very interested in the book. I just finished a class discussion of Unredeemed Captive, so I was primed to be interested.
Kathryn Lofton said…
Thanks for this, Paul -- the book is amazing, Emma. I am going to teach it in the fall alongside selections from Sensbach's REBECCA'S REVIVAL and Demos' THE UNREDEEMED CAPTIVE to talk about methodology of archival absences -- BETRAYAL OF FAITH is a wonderful theoretical contribution to this line of colonial scholarship!