Catholic Calumet and Colonial Conversions

Paul Harvey

 In writing The Color of Christ, which covers some five hundred years of American history, Ed Blum and I drew on a lot of scholarship in areas outside of our own fields of expertise. Nowhere was this more true than in preparing the sections on Natives in colonial America, which I soon learned was one of the most vital and interesting fields in all of American religious history. One of those was our own Lin Fisher's book The Indian Great Awakening, and an interview with Lin and more on his book will appear later this summer.

Also, in working on this, I came across some really deeply researched and perceptive articles by Creighton University scholar Tracy Neal Leavelle, which helped me (among other things) interpret the material I came across in primary documents such as The Jesuit Relations, some travelogues, and other places. The new issue of Choice reviews Leavelle's new book, in which some of the material I saw in article form receives fuller exposition: The Catholic Calumet: Colonial Conversions in French and Indian North America, recently out with Penn Press and sure to be a standard reference for all who seek serious studies of Native-Christian interactions in early America.

(Thank you, Penn, for another hefty and important monograph in American religious history -- given the struggles of scholarly and university press publishers nowadays, it's important for all of us to support the publications of these kinds of books).

You can see the table of contents and read a really stimulating excerpt on "conversion as cross-cultural practice" here. The conclusion parallels some of the points Lin develops in his book, albeit in a completely different region with different Native groups and French rather than English missionaries:

Singular definitions of conversion that depend on the idealized renovation of imperial subjects from "savages" to "Christians" are insufficient to explain the complicated processes that unfolded in this colonial world. The experiences of Native peoples and missionaries argue instead for the adoption of a plural, dynamic, and flexible concept of conversion that accounts for the changes in all participants. Such a perspective requires an analysis of religious action—orientation and movement, song and speech, ritual and relationships—more than it does a simple delineation of faith and doctrine. Ritual activity and social relations remained the basis for Native religious life even for those who adopted Christianity, the araminatchiki.

The preview on line is really rich and gives you a good idea of some of the major themes of the book. Below the fold is a brief review of the work from Choice, and some more material from the work's website.

Here is a review from Choice, first:

Leavelle, Tracy Neal.  The Catholic calumet: colonial conversions in French and Indian North America.  Pennsylvania, 2012.  255p index afp ISBN 0-8122-4377-3, $39.95; ISBN 9780812243772, $39.95. Reviewed in 2012jul CHOICE.  

The historiography of Native-French contact is now further informed, thanks to Leavelle's book, which describes relationships and interactions between French Jesuits and Native peoples in the pays d'en haut of North America during the 17th and 18th centuries. The book is remarkably balanced, showing how both Natives and Jesuits interpreted encounters with one another and how these encounters affected all those involved. Attention to issues such as hospitality, rituals, language, gender, and generational differences give readers a greater understanding of the blending of Native and Catholic ideas and practices. To reach this end, Leavelle (Creighton Univ.) provides fascinating, illustrative narrative examples. This merit of the book, however, is also occasionally a hindrance; the narratives are sometimes so lengthy that the author's thesis is not entirely clear until several paragraphs into a chapter. Fortunately, the author's skill at prose captures the readers' attention and holds it until the point is made. Useful, interesting reading for those seeking to further understand how Native-Jesuit interaction shaped the colonial world. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All academic levels/libraries. -- T. K. Byron, Dalton State College

Here's more about the book, from the Penn Press website. 
"With great detail and imagination, Leavelle brings a nuanced approach to conversion as cross-cultural practice, paying balanced attention to missionaries and Indians, analyzing behavior and action, song and speech, rituals and relationships, and considering plural conversions in the context of a volatile colonial world. One of the best studies I have read on the subject."—Colin G. Calloway, Dartmouth College

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.


Christopher said…
I haven't gotten around to reading The Catholic Calumet yet, but I'm a big fan of Leavelle's work. His Church History article a few years back on the mediation and meaning of religious texts and Illinois Christians is phenomenal.

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