The Enduring Appeal of the Missionary Position Revisited

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by Matt Sheedy

In August 2013, I wrote a blog post entitled, “The Enduring Appeal of the Missionary Position: Some Contemporary Representations of Native-Jesuit Relations,” based on a trip that I took to a well-known shrine and museum in the province of Ontario. I opened the post as follows:

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I recently paid a visit to Martyrs’ Shrine and Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons in Midland Ontario, nestled on Georgian Bay about an hour and a half north of Toronto. The former is one of eight nationally recognized shrines in Canada and one of the country’s most popular pilgrimage sites for Catholics, containing shrines to and relics of the so-called “Canadian Martyrs,” (all of whom were canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930) including the skull of Jean de Brébeuf, along with several monuments to the recently canonized Kateri Tekakwitha (aka “Lily of the Mohawks”), the first “Native-Canadian” saint (though some American Catholics claim her as their own as she was born in what is today New York state).

Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons is a reconstructed French missionary village that existed from 1639-1649, and was home to dozens of Jesuits and hundreds of “Huron” converts, the French term for the Wendat people. The village also represents the first known European settlement in what is now the province of Ontario and is the only re-creation of a French Jesuit mission in Canada. It is at this location that Brébeuf and fellow Jesuit Gabriel Lalemant were burned at the stake in 1649 by a group of Iroquois, who were at war at the time with the Wendat/Huron and the French.

What is perhaps most interesting is that these locales, situated directly across the street from one another, operate under different authorities–the Shrine is run by the Catholic Church and the missionary village by the government of Ontario, which was named a National Historic Site in 1920. While depicting related events, the former is not subject to the same criteria as the latter, which falls under the ethical guidelines of the Canadian Museums Association. Yes indeed, tis’ a ripe fruit for comparison!

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Visiting with family in the area once again this summer, I thought it would be interesting to revisit these sites to see what changes have taken place and to consider how the space of two years and the sheer chance of coming on this day instead of that, might call attention to different sets of interest. I was in luck, as Martyrs’ Shrine was host to over 6,000 Filipino pilgrims, while at Sainte-Marie the premier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne, was unveiling a plaque commemorating 400 years (to the day) since the French explorer Samuel de Champlain entered the region for eventual settlement, colonization, and nation-building … though that was not exactly how they framed it.

I was initially compelled to visit Martyrs’ Shrine in 2013 after reading Emma LaRoque’s book When the Other is Me: Native Resistance Discourse, 1850-1990, where she describes her shock as a young Métis woman in 1976, upon seeing a large mural in the church depicting:

[K]neeling priests angelically looking up, hands folded, praying for mercy as open-mouthed, hideously painted, evil-eyed savages tower over them, about to bury hatchets in their skulls. (34)

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I went on to observe that the mural that LaRocque describes was no longer present at Martyrs’ Shrine, and that the church today reflects a more multi-racial sensibility. I also noted how positive representations of Indigenous people at the church (namely Wendat/Huron and Mohawk) were contingent on their willingness to accept Christianity and, moreover, reflected a colonialist discourse of justification, where “good Natives” were those who aided the Jesuit missionaries (e.g., as with the image depicted in the stained-glass window to the right), sent to Huronia by the explorer Samuel de Champlain as a necessary step toward “civilization.”

While this was not at all surprising coming from a Catholic church dedicated to honoring the lives of so-called “martyrs,” what interested me most during my 2013 visit was how representations of Native-Jesuit relations at Sainte-Marie presented a similar narrative, despite clear attempts at a more “neutral” rendering of the past.

For example, I noted how the most prominent book sold in the museum’s gift shop, Images of Sainte Marie (1989), was written by a Jesuit, Jacques Monet, who stressed the courage and virtue of the missionaries, and the eagerness of the Wendat to accept Christianity.  I also noted how Monet’s discussion of Wendat “spirituality” served to legitimate the missionary position by denying voice to Wendat narratives, and neglecting the material interests that guided alliances in the region.

I contrasted Monet’s history with a counter-narrative by Métis scholar Olive Dickason from her book Canada’s First Nations (1992), where she observers how the Wendat controlled upwards of 50% of the fur trade throughout much of the 17th century, while pointing out the material incentives for conversion to Christianity, including the preferential treatment that Christian-Wendat received when trading with the French. (133)

In sum, my observations back in 2013 stressed the lack of any critical or counter-narratives at Sainte-Marie, which I argued served to legitimate a Euro-Catholic rendering of history and provided an example of how popular discourses on competing “religions” will often subsume the identities and experiences of subordinate groups in favor of an irenic portrait of the past that reflects the interests of those who still dominate in the present.

One thing that did not stand out during my first visit that struck me on this occasion like a cat-o-nine-tails was the role of nationalist mythmaking at Sainte-Marie.

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During my previous visit, I had failed to take note of how the favorable portrayal of the missionary-settler position also functioned as a sanitized origins story for the province of Ontario (and of Canada, by extension). By minimizing conflict with the Wendat, and ignoring the genocide and dispossession that followed, the role of Francophone exploration and settlement in the region could be reconciled with a modern, liberal sentiment of tolerance and a shared cultural heritage (see image to the left in the near-by town of Penetanguishine).

Upon entering Sainte-Marie, my father and I were disappointed to learn that we had just missed the unveiling of a plaque by the Premier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne, which was inscribed with the following lines written by the Premier of Québec, Philippe Couillard:

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Québec and Ontario share a common francophone history dating back to the founding of Québec City in 1608, and to Champlain’s travels in Ontario in 1615.

On the occasion of the festivities celebrating 400 years of French presence in Ontario, this plaque stands as a tribute to the Francophones who have played a key role in the founding of Québec, of Ontario and of Canada.

 

In a similar vein, Wynne tweeted that day (August 1, 2015):

The beautiful plaque unveiled today commemorating 400 years of Franco-Ontarian pride! Merci ‪@phcouillard!

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While traversing the grounds at Sainte-Marie, it was called to my attention that Wynne was also unveiling a large statue of Champlain meeting an unnamed Wendat Chief in the near-by town of Penetanguishine (see image above), which was located in the newly named Champlain-Wendat Rotary Park. Beside the statue, was a description of this alleged meeting:

The Meeting: On August 1st, 1615 French explorer Samuel de Champlain landed on the shores of Georgian Bay where he was greeted by the Chief of the Huron-Wendat Nation. This statue recreates this historic moment of Champlain’s landing in Huronia and the meeting of the two cultures!

While this framing of history as a meeting between two cultures should raise a red flag for anyone vaguely familiar with more critical versions of European colonization in the Americas, what struck me this time around as most interesting at both Sainte-Marie and at my unexpected side-trip to Penetanguishine, were the attempts to include Indigenous spaces and voices amidst the celebration of Champlain’s legacy, revealing not just a colonialist discourse of justification, but also a liberal discourse of toleration and appeasement.

Indeed, unlike my 2013 visit there was a more tangible presence of Indigenous spaces and voices that time around. For example:

* The day’s events included a small roundance at Sainte-Marie lead by people of Wendat and Mohawk heritage, dressed in traditional regalia (see image below right).11896035_10156129763295727_5661092626743686005_n

* There was a temporary exhibit by Mohawk artist Elizabeth Doxtater called Rednaissance!, which was on display in the main hallway at Sainte-Marie, just outside the indoor portion of the museum, with detailed descriptions in small print beside her various paintings and figures made from corn-husks that spoke of maintaining traditional ways and values, of Indigenous sovereignty, residential schools and genocide, and the need for “revillagization” (see image below).

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* Similarly, in Penetanguishine there was a new ceremonial space called Circle of Four Nations in the renamed Champlain-Wendat Rotary Park.

While I don’t want to downplay or predict what kind of engagements may result from these Indigenous spaces and voices, their inclusion was clearly overshadowed by the dominant Christian-settler-colonial narrative, which functions to shape this history and its meaning in and for the present not only by virtue of its dominance, but also by projecting an air of historical neutrality, where the presence of “dissident” Indigenous voices appear to provide a sense of balance, while concealing much of what took place over 400 years and what it is at stake for today.

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A further example of this discourse was on display at a newly unveiled exhibit in the indoor museum portion at Sainte-Marie, entitled Champlain’s Astrolabe: Navigating Culture Contact in a New World, which centers around the mythology of the (highly contested) discovery of Champlain’s astrolabe (an ancient navigational device) in 1867, the same year that Canada was confederated, and its alleged role in Canadian identity. One of the displays (pictured here to the left) describes it thusly:

The astrolabe and its history have continued to captivate Canadians’ imaginations. It has served as a symbol of scholarly knowledge and discovery, as well as of our country’s identity and historical origins. … Commemorations outside of Québec shared the focus on francophone culture while including other claims more closely related to regional identities, as soldier, ‘civilizer’ or navigator. … At times, too, it has become a focal point for contention and protest.

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I must admit that I had never heard of Champlain’s astrolabe as a symbol of Canadian identity prior to this encounter, though it apparently has some historical currency as it features in the city of Ottawa’s coat of arms, circa 1954, was on the cover of the inaugural edition of the Journal of Canadian Studies in 1966, was taken into space (a replica, that is) by Julie Payette on the space shuttle Endeavour in 2009, and is a centerpiece at Champlain-Wendat Rotary Park (see image to the right) in Penetanguishine.

At the museum in Sainte-Marie, one half of one item on display, entitled Controversy and Alternative Memories, provides a brief description of how the astrolabe has “become [a] contested symbol of the place of indigenous peoples in the exploration narrative and in Canadian society,” though without any historical context, nor analysis of why such a symbol might be contested in the first place. Here, as elsewhere, the inclusion of some Indigenous perspectives are presented as an attempt at providing balance, while doing little to unsettle the dominant Christian-settler-colonial narrative.

While it strikes me now as painfully obvious that symbols like the astrolabe and the soft, irenic version of Champlain’s “meeting” with the Wendat function as parts of a sanitized origins story for the province of Ontario, which works to legitimate the dispossession and marginalization of Indigenous peoples in both the past and the present, I find it equally striking to think about how many of our observations and “choices” as scholars depend upon coming on this day instead of that, following a lead, and neglecting another. What adventures lay in the summer of 2016? Stay tuned for the Missionary Position 3.0!

Matt Sheedy recently defended his Ph.D in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.

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