Rituals of Violence, War, and Death Among the Wendat/Huron and the Dakotas: Two New Studies

Paul Harvey

War, violence, and rituals of death have been central to American history, nowhere more so than among Native Americans. Here, just wanted to alert you to a couple of new works that advance new understandings of religious rituals surrounding war, violence, and death.

First, last week Historiann called my attention to a new book which I have yet to see but looks hugely promising, especially as a classroom-usable text. I'll quote from her here:

Erik Seeman’s The Huron-Wendat Feast of the Dead: Indian-European Encounters in Early North America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011). From the book jacket:

“Two thousand Wendat (Huron) Indians stood on the edge of an enormous burial pit… they held in their arms the bones of roughly seven hundred deceased friends and family members. The Wendats had lovingly scraped and cleaned the bones of the corpses that had decomposed on the scaffolds. They awaited only the signal from the master of the ritual to place the bones in the pit. This was the great Feast of the Dead.”

Witnesses to these Wendat burial rituals were European colonists, French Jesuit missionaries in particular. Rather than being horrified by these unfamiliar native practices, Europeans recognized the parallels between them and their own understanding of death and human remains. Both groups believed that deceased souls traveled to the afterlife; both believed that elaborate mortuary rituals ensured the safe transit of the soul to the supernatural realm; and both believed in the power of human bones.

Appreciating each other’s funerary practices allowed the Wendats and French colonists to find common ground where there seemingly would be none. Erik R. Seeman analyzes these encounters, using the Feast of the Dead as a metaphor for broader Indian-European relations in North America. His compelling narrative gives undergraduate students of early America and the Atlantic World a revealing glimpse into this fascinating — and surprising — meeting of cultures.

Anyone who has poked around at all in The Jesuit Relations will recognize descriptions of the feasts of the dead in these documents to be some of the most immediately compelling and gripping (if, as always with the Jesuits, problematic) primary sources for 17th-century Native American religious practices. Weighing in a a svelte 176 pages, this book looks like an effort to use these kinds of sources in a way that opens them up and makes discussion of cross-cultural religious encounters in early America accessible for classroom discussion.

And here's a powerful new article of interest to many of you, by our friend and colleague Jennifer Graber, whose first book The Furnace of Affliction has received attention at our blog before.

The article, based on some outstanding research in the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions papers at the Minnesota Historical Society, is "Mighty Upheaval on the Minnesota Frontier: Violence, War, and Death in Dakota and Missionary Christianity," Church History 80 (March 2011): 76-108.

The piece begins by asking "If . . . war is the norm rather than the aberration in American national life, how are we to understand the transformations experienced in 1862 by missionaries and Dakotas as part of a larger American story . . . [and how do we] understand how violence worked to reshape the participants' religious lives?" Graber considers the effects both on missionaries from the ABCFM and the Dakotas of the Dakota War in Minnesota in the late summer of 1862, a horrific outbreak of violence which resulted in the deaths of several hundred settlers and later the mass public execution of over 300 Indians, particularly focused on non-Christian Indians and "medicine men" who were thought to be the ringleaders of the revolt. Graber makes effective use of concepts of Christianity and violence drawn from Emma Anderson's Betrayal of Faith, Jill Lepore's The Name of War, and Harry Stout's "Religion, War, and the Meaning of America" (from Religion and American Culture, Summer 2009, 275-89).

In one section, Graber considers the religious responses of Dakotas to this signal event in their history, including the "conversion" of many of those awaiting execution. She provides a complex portrayal difficult to summarize here but well worth the read. Alongside this, Graber considers also the effect that the trauma of war had on the missionaries, and concludes that "these men underwent their own transformation. Their encounter with violence and devastation, punishment and incarceration caused them to mitigate and complicate the revivalist Calvinism they brought to the frontier. Their vision of missions made up of churches and schools became something else altogether, one of reservations and prisons that God used to make Indian converts."

Despite its short length, this sobering piece had me reflecting in ways which inspired some previous blogging about Emma Anderson's Betrayal of Faith. Highly recommended reading, especially after our last continuous decade of religion, violence, war, and death.


esclark said…
The Huron-Wendat Feast of the Dead is on my summer reading list, and now I'm looking forward to reading it even more. It will be interesting to see how he builds on or contests Trigger's The children of Aataentsic. And thank you for alerting us to Graber's article; my summer reading list keeps growing.
Stacy Vlasits said…
Nice article. One correction though: Graber's book is called "The Furnace of Affliction". You inadvertantly added an extraneous (though descriptive) "Mighty".
Paul Harvey said…
Stacy: Corrected, thanks.

Popular Posts