Today we’re going to talk about one very specific encounter around death and death ways that took place in the mid 1600s in what is now Ontario, Canada, and before we even get started, I want to mention our source for this episode. We’re really basing everything here on one book, called The Huron-Wendat Feast of the Dead: Indian-European Encounters in Early North America. It’s actually written by one of our professors at the University at Buffalo, Erik Seeman, who I promise did not tell us to shill his book for him – but I want to preface our entire conversation by saying that you all need to go to Amazon right now – we have a link on our website – and buy this book. It is beautifully written. You won’t regret it.
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Transcript of Huron-Wendat Feast of the Dead: Death, Religion, and Euro-Native Encounters

Written and researched by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Produced and recorded by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD and Averill Earls, PhD

Sarah: Today, for the most part, we dread wakes and funerals. The traditional American funeral is somber and quiet, full of people dressed in black, milling about making painful small talk and trying desperately to pretend it’s fine, everything’s fine! and eating the weird, mish-mosh of foods friends and relatives bring. Our funerals are for the most part cleansed: nothing visceral or overly emotional, no real contact with the deceased.

Averill: But we know that this isn’t the way that all people deal with death. In Tibet, some people practice sky burials, where, after a ceremony, corpses are cut apart and left on a mountaintop where their bodies decompose in the elements with the help of birds, bugs, and animals. Other cultures, like the Irish, wake the dead with drinking, singing, telling stories and other festivities. In Madagascar, the Malagasy people disinter the dead, dance with the bodies, and re-wrap corpses in silk fabric to help speed the decomposition process. Every culture and subculture deals with death differently – and we each believe our approach is best.

Sarah: People are often surprised to learn that yes, even death has a history. In fact, death can be a powerful tool for unlocking the ways that people thought about themselves, their world, and one another – both for historians, and for people of different cultures trying to relate to one another. Today, we’re talking about death and how two vastly different cultures used it to try to relate to one another in early modern Canada.

I’m Sarah

and I’m Averill

And we are your historians for this episode of DIG

Sarah: Today we’re going to talk about one very specific encounter around death and death ways that took place in the mid 1600s in what is now Ontario, Canada, and before we even get started, I want to mention our source for this episode. We’re really basing everything here on one book, called The Huron-Wendat Feast of the Dead: Indian-European Encounters in Early North America. It’s actually written by one of our professors at the University at Buffalo, Erik Seeman, who I promise did not tell us to shill his book for him – but I want to preface our entire conversation by saying that you all need to go to Amazon right now – we have a link on our website – and buy this book. It is beautifully written. You won’t regret it.

Ok, so now let’s dig in. LOL.

We need to start first with the Huron-Wendat, a tribe of Native Americans who lived in this strip of land between the Northern shore of Lake Ontario and Lake Simcoe in what is now Ontario, Canada. The Europeans, when they encountered them, came to call them Hurons, which meant something like “ruffian,” certainly not a compliment. This was not what they called themselves, as with most Native tribes, they were sort of ‘renamed’ when they made contact with Europeans. We talked about this a little before in some of our History Buffs episodes about the Iroquois – Iroquois was the name given to the tribe by Europeans, but the tribe called themselves the Haudenosaunee. In the case of the Huron, the actual name of the tribe was Wendat. The Wendat, also sometimes called the Wyandot, was a confederacy rather than a tribe. It was made up of smaller tribes that lived in various locations around what is now Ontario. Those smaller tribes were the Bear People, the Rock People, the Deer People, and the Cord-making People. This is also very similar to the Haudenosaunee, who were also a confederacy known now as the Six Nations and made up of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca, Cayuga, and Tuscarora.

Huron-Wendat Feast of the Dead. Native American

John Richard Coke Smyth, Huron Indians of Loreth | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: The Wendat Creation Story told that the world was created when Sky Woman, or Aataentsic, fell from the clouds to the earth, which at the time was made entirely out of water. Because Aetaentsic couldn’t survive in just the water, the water animals rushed to make an island on the back of a turtle for Aetaentsic to land on. This island became Wendake, the area between Lake Ontario and Lake Simcoe where the Wendat lived. Sky Woman was pregnant when she fell, and she soon gave birth to a baby girl, who grew up and also became magically pregnant, bearing twin boys, Tawiscaron and Iouskeha. The boys did not get along well, and eventually, Iouskeha murdered his brother. But the death was not for nothing: Tawiscaron’s blood became pieces of flint, which was the critical stone that the Wendake used for their arrowheads and other tools. Without this death, they would not have their much-needed arrows and axes.

Sarah: The remaining brother, Iouskeha and Aataentsic lived together in a longhouse in a village. This was what the Wendake envisioned as the land of the dead, when Wendake people died, eventually their souls would join Aataentsic and Iouskeha in this village and live a life that looked very much like the one they had while living.

Averill: The Wendat grew corn and other crops, but they also were intermediaries on the fur trade, acting as sort of a ‘middle man.’ Tribes from the south, who focused largely on agriculture, brought their excess dried corn to the Wendat, who held it and traded it on their behalf to tribes from further north, who brought furs from beaver, marten, and fox. The Wendat weren’t just capitalists – their culture placed a high value on luxury goods, which we’ll spend a lot more time talking about later – but they also placed value on being hospitable and having good relationships with neighboring tribes.

In the 1600s, Wendat had about 25 villages that were home to anywhere between 500 and 1500 people each. In these villages, there were longhouses, about 15 in each village, that served as communal housing. Each family had a distinct space within the longhouse, but multiple families lived in the same structure. Around the outside of these longhouses were corn fields, where the women of the village grew the crops that sustained the people throughout the year.

Sarah: Souls were incredibly important to Wendat culture. Almost everything had a soul – people, animals, plants, and even rocks. The Wendat performed rituals to honor any animal or fish that they had to kill in order to sustain themselves, and treated the bodies of animals with deep respect. For instance, they would never give their dogs the bones of an animal they had eaten – it would be disposed of with respect. Animals spirits who felt disrespected had the ability to return and ruin hunting and fishing prospects for the Wendat people by telling other animals how to escape the hunters. Even inanimate objects, especially large and prominent objects like unusually shaped rocks or landscape features. If something was particularly awe-inspiring, it might need to be appeased with an offering or extra respect. This reminds me of how even now people do things like kiss or rub certain rocks or statues for luck – like, this seems really foreign, but I think it’s not all that far removed from things that people just do! For example, Erik Seeman gives the story about a rock that looked like a person holding two arms up, and as Wendats walked past it, they would leave some tobacco as a tribute for the rock. This actually reminds me of how at my college, we had a statue of the Greek goddess Minerva at the front door of the Main building. We were always leaving things for her, especially flowers – she held her hands out in a way where you could put things in her hands, and she always had things placed in her hands or on her head.

Averill: Even the sun and the sky had souls – obviously, these were the manifestations of the first people, Iouskeha and his grandmother, Aatentsic. These were spirits who could be incredibly loving and useful and helpful – helping to heal or bring about good harvests – but they could just as easily get angry and spiteful, and cause there to be accidents or bad weather. Iouskeha and Aatensic were appeased with sacrifices of tobacco and other things. Wendat people believed that a powerful tool of communication with the spirit world was through dreams, and that dreams held serious significance and needed to be properly and thoroughly interpreted. Dreams held powerful messages that Wendats needed to follow through out – for instance, dreaming that you needed to cook a big dinner for your neighbors meant waking up and getting to work to make that meal. Ignoring a dream wasn’t an option: spirits who felt unheard could cause misfortune, particularly making people sick or cause them to die suddenly.

Sarah: We could talk much, much longer just about the fascinating points of Wendat culture and religion, but we need to get down to the creepy stuff. How did the Wendat deal with death? First, death was not something that the Wendat people feared; The dying were not supposed to show in any way that they were afraid of their impending death, even as those around them began to make preparations for the funeral. This was most obvious in the athataion, or farewell feast. This actually reminds me of when some people today who know that they’re dying chose to have parties as they’re getting close to death – I think actually my uncle did this, but I can’t remember exactly. I know they had some smaller dinner parties with friends as he came closer to the end of his life. It also reminds me of that episode of Grace and Frankie where they have that massive party for their friend because she’s going to kill herself because she has a terminal illness! So this is not all that foreign even though it took place hundreds and hundreds of years ago in a very different culture.

Averill: The athataion required the women of the village to cook the very best they could offer, and the very best cuts of meat would be given to the dying person. Once they had eaten, the dying person would give, sort of, a speech where they would tell their friends and family how they were not afraid of death, and how they looked forward to entering the spirit world. If they were a warrior, they would sing their death song – a common feature in many Native tribes. But overall, the feast was fairly happy – people shared stories and laughed and shared memories.

Reuben Gold Thwaites, Jean de Brebeuf Huron-Wendat

Reuben Gold Thwaites, Jean de Brebeuf | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: When the dying person finally died, that happy mood disappeared. Female friends and family members wailed and cried, while adult men were stoic and silent. And I’m gonna quote this from Dr. Seeman here, because it’s just really well put: “The mourners worked themselves into a passion by remembering others who had died, crying out, “And my father died, and my mother is dead, and my cousin is dead,” and so on through all their deceased relatives. Finally, after enough collective anguish had been expressed, an elder called out, “It’s enough, stop weeping!”

Now, I just have to share that when I was reading this I actually paused and said to my husband, this is how it should still be! Because you know when you have a terrible loss, it really can dredge up like, everything that is sad and you sometimes just feel like, I’m gonna be sad forever! Everyone is dead and everyone is going to die! We should just drink wine and lay on the couch and sob! But then, if that was, like, a sanctioned thing – where we could all just scream and sob and get ALL of that off our chest for a bit, and then have someone say, ok, ok, time to stop for now – I think that sounds wonderfully cathartic!

This would, however, require that I have emotions, but that’s a story for another day!

Averill: After the weeping was cut off, they would carefully fold the body up into the fetal position, then wrap it up in a beaver skin robe, and lay it on a mat to await its funeral ceremony. When everyone was gathered from surrounding villages, they would have another feast, this time called agochin atiskein, or the feast of souls. Depending on the status of the dead person, the feast would be bigger or smaller. All people had a feast, but higher status people just had bigger and more lavish feasts. It was believed that the spirit of the dead person was still there, partaking in the feast, gaining strength for the journey the soul would then taken. During the feast, leaders and elders would give speeches like eulogies meant to comfort the mourners. Then came the time for burial, and where things get very interesting – and a leeeetle creepy.

The age and status and cause of death dictated what happened to the corpse. Very young babies would be buried by a path, so it would always be very close to passers by – this would keep the spirit close to the young women of the village so it might be born again. For people who had the misfortune to freeze to death or drown – both deaths that were believed to be caused by the sky spirit’s anger – the corpse had to be disposed of in highly symbolic ways that might appease the sky spirit. So it had to be burned, but in a particular way – where the body was cut up and disembowled, with some flesh and bowels burned in a fire, and the rest of the body buried.

Sarah: But almost all Wendats received the same burial, and actually, burial isn’t even quite the right word. The corpse was carefully carried out to a scaffold, which was made from four poles with a platform in the middle made out of bark. The body would be placed on to this platform, which was something like 8 or 10 feet off of the ground. When the body was placed on the platform, the man who was officiating would distribute funeral gifts. Mourners would bring gifts – some of which would be left with the dead person to take with them into the spirit world. These gifts both helped to curry favor with the spirit world and with the living, helping to show your fellow villagers how generous and good you are.

After this ceremony, the mourners would go back to the village, where the closest family members (usually just widows and widowers) would go into deep mourning. They did not leave the longhouse, and laid face down on a mat covered with fur blankets, and without talking to anyone. They could only say “good day” to someone who came in, and that was it. When they were coming out of this period of mourning, they would have their head sort of partially shaved – a highly visible mark of their loss. I actually also really, really love this for a couple of reasons. First, wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to go into your room, cover yourself up with blankets, and just not be bothered for a while after a loss?! Instead of doing all this stupid shit you have to do, like talk to insurance people and credit card companies and talk to other humans?! And then to have it sort of, marked on you, so that everyone knew what you had been through so you didn’t have to act normal? Having been through this quite a few times, I just think that this would be so much better than trying to go back to being normal right away, which is really really really exhausting and hard.

Averill: This was actually only the first part of a Huron/Wendat funeral. The “burial” on the scaffold was only the first part of the process. For centuries, the Huron-Wendat people had been burying their dead twice. First, they would leave the wrapped bodies of the deceased on the scaffold, and once a year, they would take the bodies down and re-bury them in small mass graves. But as populations grew, the tradition changed. Instead of coming together once a year to re-bury the dead, these second funerals were spaced out by several years and became much, much larger. When the Huron-Wendat arrived in the area of Ontario they called Wendake, the smaller groups (almost like clans) and villages used these second funerals as a time when all the people of the larger tribe gathered – this is when it truly became The Feast of the Dead. Around this same time, it became part of the ritual to re-bury the dead with items that scholars call ‘grave goods,’ items that could help to determine your status or place in society. Remember those funeral gifts? Grave goods functioned in largely the same way. These were often things like clay pipes and beads, but after contact with Europeans, many manufactured goods from Europe became very popular and prestigious grave goods.

What did this second burial look like? First, it required that people go out to their cemeteries – those scaffolds that were outside of the village that held the decaying bodies of the dead – and gather their loved ones corpses. They went to an official, The Keeper of the Graves, who would go up onto the scaffold, gather their loved one’s body, and bring it down to the family. They would then open up the coffin, made of tree bark, and inspect the dead body, weeping and grieving all over again. If their loved one had been up on the scaffold for a long time, they would find mostly and sometimes only bones. But if their loved one was more recently deceased, they might find something a bit more gruesome: bodies in various degrees of putrefaction, crawling with worms and insects, and certainly not smelling very good. Either way, they needed to prepare the bodies for their second interment.

Sarah: That’s right, they had to prepare the bodies for burial in an ossuary – in other words, a grave that is just for skeletal remains. Families used tools to scrape the skin and flesh from the bones of the dead, placing them in to the fire. They then disarticulated the skeleton, in other words, taking the skeleton apart at the joints. Once that had been accomplished, they bundled the bones up into a fresh beaver skin robe. Things were a little less straight forward if the person was more freshly dead – in this case, it wasn’t really possible to completely remove the flesh from the skeletal remains. In those cases, they carefully removed as much as they could, particularly any portions that were infested with maggots or bugs, cleaning the body, and then also rewrapped it in a clean beaver skin robe.

All of this was rich with meaning. First, we need to understand that the Wendat did not believe that the soul was released to go to Aataentsic’s village (paradise, or heaven, what have you) when the person died. Instead, after the first burial, the spirit stayed relatively close to the cemetery, keeping it close to the village. The spirits of the dead didn’t leave – they stayed right there, with their families and loved ones, involved in their daily life, watching the comings and goings of the village. It was the second burial that would sort of unlock the next phase of their spirit journey. Wendats believed that people had two spirits. The only way to release the second spirit was to prepare it through this second burial process – and it was the second burial that would release that second spirit so that it might go to Aataentsic’s village. So cleaning the bones, touching them, wrapping them in their new burial robes was an incredibly important moment both for the living and the dead, where people acted out their love for their friends and family so that they could be released for the afterlife.

I also just wanted to give an example of what this might have looked like to drive home just how poignant this all was. A European observer describing seeing a woman prepare the body of her father and the bodies of her dead children for their reburial: “I admired the tenderness of one woman toward her father and children. She combed his hair and handled his bones one after the other, with as much affection as if she would have desired to restore life to him.” She took the bones of her children and “she put on their arms bracelets of porcelain and glass beads, and bathed their bones with her tears.” I mean, how heart breaking is that? [Discuss! Intimacy with the body after death, closure, not being as afraid of the dead, why are we afraid of dead bodies??]

Cornelius Krieghoff, Huron-Wendat Hunter Calling a Moose, ca. 1868 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Cornelius Krieghoff, Huron-Wendat Hunter Calling a Moose, ca. 1868 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: Once the bodies were prepared, the families each took their dead into their homes, where they recognized the moment with a small feast, complete with chanting and singing to honor the dead. The next day, they gathered up their bones and other supplies and began the journey to the central location, where the Feast of the Dead would be held – and we’re going to talk pretty specifically about one particular Feast of the Dead that took place in 1636. This Feast took place in a village called Ossossane. This Feast took place in early May – actually it was specifically Saturday, May 10, 1636, but there was bad weather, so it was postponed until the 12th. Feasts took place at various times of the year, but it almost always was within the spring and summer moths, and this particular date held a great deal of meaning for the Wendat, but for others as well. For instance, what do we think about in the spring? Rebirth, renewal, regrowth. If you’re Christian, you’re thinking about resurrection, as Easter takes place in the early spring. This would have been on the minds of the Wendat, too, except a different kind of rebirth and renewal: the sprouting of the critical corn and other crops, the reemergence of the game and fish, and, with the Feast of the Dead, the release of the spirits into Aataentsic’s village.

This might not mesh really easily in our brains, because it’s hard to think about the spring – warm, sunny, optimistic – with a massive, morbid, and sort of creepy funeral. But the Feast of the Dead was also like a huge reunion, where people of different tribes all came together and celebrated. So things were actually pretty joyous and festive! People showed off their archery and knife skills, held little competitions and contests, ate and drank and chatted and enjoyed each other’s company.

Sarah: Finally the time came – if a little delayed by bad weather – for the big event. Everyone gathered around a massive pit dug into the ground, about ten feet deep and thirty feet in diameter. By the pit was a massive scaffold, much larger than the ones people would have in their villages. When the people gathered by the pit, they grouped themselves up into their village groups, and family units, and then handed over their funeral gifts to be hung off of the scaffolding where they could be seen and admired by all of the attendants. After a couple of hours, they took down the presents again, and wrapped all the gifts up into beaver pelt robes, and then it was time to hang the bone bundles off of the scaffolding. While the bones were hanging, other people went down into the pit and lined it with more beaver pelt robes. (Side note: Each robe was made out of 10 pelts per robe. This is a lot of beaver pelt robes. Think about how much pelts were cherished by tribes who were not in trapping country, and how cherished they were by the French in Canada, how much those pelts could bring in trade!) Once it was ready, they first carried the bodies that were still whole down into the pit and laid them out. (Another side note: This part is sort of funny in the book, because Erik Seeman says that while you would imagine that this would be incredibly solemn, apparently people just yelled at each other about how to do it right – it reminds me of like a family trying to do something like put up a Christmas tree or put up a tent while camping and just getting frustrated and yelling at each other!) In the center of the pit, they placed three kettles, which symbolically represented the ceremony itself – the name of the ceremony in the Wendat language actually translated to ‘kettle,’ which was sort of like the center of daily life in the village. Then, they broke for the evening, cooking and eating and visiting around the pit.

A Huron Longhouse at the St. Ignace Museum in northern Michigan

A Huron Longhouse at the St. Ignace Museum in northern Michigan | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: Early the next morning, as they were starting to prepare for the day, it was discovered that one the bone bundles had let loose from the scaffold and fell into the pit, scattering the bones all over the place with a pretty significant crashing noise. People freaked out, because this was a real insult to the spirit, and it might be an ill omen from the spirit world that all was not well. But since the bones had fallen, they also reasoned that this must be meant to be – this must be what they spirits WANTED. So everyone ran to the pit and started flinging their bones into the put with a whole lot of noise and chaos. This is evidence that while there was a structure to the ceremony, it could also be improvised – if the spirits seemed to dictate that they wanted something different, the people were quick to oblige.

Once the pit was filled, and the scaffolds were empty, they went to the sides of the pit, carefully folded the beaver robes down over the dead, and added sad, sleeping mats, and bark. Then, the women brought of containers of corn – scholars believed this was to help fortify them on their trip to Aataentsic’s village – and set them on top of the pit. Then the attendants exchanged gifts with one another, and the Feast was over, and people slowly made their way back to their villages.

Sarah: But we promised that this was going to be about a specific encounter between the Wendat and Europeans, and how death worked to help them relate to one another – and highlighted the differences between them. First, this particular encounter at the 1636 Feast of the Dead was between the Wendat and the French, specifically, a very small group of French Jesuit priests, and even MORE specifically, one priest in particular named Jean de Brebeuf. Jean de Brebeuf arrived in French Canada in 1625 and lived in Wendake among the Wendat as a Catholic missionary. He was relatively well received by the Wendat, and lived among them for a number of years. And in fact, we would know nothing about this particular 1636 Feast of the Dead without Brebeuf, who wrote about it in great detail – so much detail, actually, that when the ossuary was located and investigated by anthropologists and archaeologists starting in the 1940s, they confirmed much of his account.

Part of the reason the Jesuits and Brebeuf were accepted was because they practiced what they called “the gentle method” of conversion to Christianity: they believed that they could work with Native people and other non-Christians, adapting their teachings about Christ to fit into their pre-existing belief systems. As long as their customs or practices weren’t in opposition or a violation of Christianity, the Jesuits didn’t care about it – this meant they weren’t trying to get them to change the way they dressed or ate or wore their hair, which is quite different from SO many different missionary groups! [Ave, were the Mormons different? Are the priests in A Question of Hu Jesuits?] Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Jesuits were like, totally cool and embraced all cultural difference. but in the case of the Wendat, they were pretty accepting and adaptable.

Averill: At first, the Feast of the Dead – and the ways that Wendat treated the dead in general – was a powerful way for the Jesuits and the Wendat to relate to one another. The Jesuits were deeply touched by how much the Natives seemed to honor their dead, and how they lovingly and respectfully cared for dead bodies, almost moreso than the French, who buried their dead (especially of the poor or marginalized) in crowded cemeteries that were treated with little respect. Seeman talks about people cutting through the cemetery as a short cut, or using the cemetery grounds for various activities – nothing like the deep respect the Wendat showed for their dead. So Brebeuf actually was impressed with how well they treated the dead – this helped to make them look more, for lack of a better word, civilized and civilizable. It also seemed to have the potential for an ‘in’ with them – maybe the Jesuits could use death and dying, and the Wendat belief in spirits and the spirit world, to help sell Catholicism.

And on the other hand, Catholic death practices made a lot of sense to the Wendat. Catholics also believed in bones as touchstones and repositories of spiritual power. As some of you might already know, Catholics belied in the use of relics – small objects, bits of clothing, but often bones or other human remains – as conduits between the human world and the spirit world. They also told the Wendat stories about the cleansing and saving power of the blood of this powerful man named Jesus, which fit into their existing understanding of the way that Iouskeha’s blood helped to create the natural world.

(Sarah: For instance, in my old church we had a tiny fragment of a finger bone of St. Francis Xavier Cabrini, the saint after whom the church was named. Also, there are LOTS of Catholic ossuaries in Europe, some which even have the disarticulated bones of dead Catholics worked up into fancy designs and things like chandeliers and altars made out of skulls – creeeeepy.)

So actually, death practices helped the two vastly different cultures relate to one another – at least at first.

An etching depicting a burial scaffold surrounded by many Wendat people

The Huron Feast of the Dead, from Moeurs des Sauvages Amériquains 1724 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: But in the end, this way of relating to one another failed. Conflicts arose over the conversion of Wendats to Catholicism for a number of reasons. First, the Jesuits got particular – for example, a serious conflict was over where to bury the dead who converted. The families of the dead who converted to Catholicism felt that a traditional Wendat burial was necessary to release the spirits – but the Jesuits firmly believed that the Catholic dead needed to be buried in consecrated ground. While the Jesuits had some successes in converting, they also scared and angered some of the other Wendat, who were distrustful of the fact that the Jesuits didn’t seem to get sick as often as the Wendats – and they were getting sick more and more and more through the 1630 and 1640s, as the increasing populations of Europeans brought diseases to which the Wendats did not have immunities. Brebeuf and his brothers, however, were immune to smallpox and other diseases that they had been exposed to as children in disease-ridden France. The Wendat thought that the Jesuits must be inflicting the diseases, especially when they converted people only to watch them then die of disease. Finally, the tribe was under increased strain as their rival Iroquois raided Wendat villages, killing and destroying.

(To be fair, they were *sort of* inflicting the disease!)

A good example of how this conflict played out is a particularly zealous convert named Chiwantenhwa. He sort of fell in love with Christ and Christianity, and was incredibly enthusiastic about helping the Jesuits however he could. He even helped them to preach to other Wendats, and was chosen to perform a particular honor by visiting some nuns, and on the way back, he was tasked with carrying the bones of saints back to the Jesuits. He took this incredibly seriously – and if you think about it, this would have made a lot of sense to Chiwantenhwa, who would have seen his friends and family perform similar actions with the bones of fellow villages, carrying them in sacred bundles to their new resting places. He talked to the bones, prayed over them, asked the saints to intercede for him. As we mentioned at the outset, the Wendat words for “bone” and “spirit” were almost the same. To him, the bones of the Catholic saints were the same as being in contact with their spirits, being close to the spirit world itself, whether you called it Aataentsic’s village or Heaven. In the end, this did not work out for Chiwantenhwa: he was found murdered, and it’s quite likely that the culprits were scared and angry Wendats trying to send a message to Christian converts. As Erik Seeman points out, Chiwantenhwa was murdered on the outskirts of the village, with no witnesses, but in a place where his body would easily be found: this was how Wendats took care of shamans who were suspected of practicing black magic.

Averill: As time went on, relations soured yet more. In 1649, the rival Iroquois/Haudenosaunee raided the Wendat village of Saint-Louis, and Brebeuf and a fellow Jesuit were taken prisoner. As a result, they were ritually tortured (explain if time) and then killed. A famine racked the remaining Wendat. The tribe split up, and portions traveled to new homelands: some to Quebec, others to modern-day Detroit, later to Ohio, to Kentucky, to Okahoma. Some changed their name and became the Wyandot. Later, some joined together with other tribes. Today, they exist in four major bands: the Huron-Wendat Nation of Wendake; the Wyandottes of Oklahoma; the Wyandots of Oklahoma; the Anderdon Wyandots of Michigan.

Sarah: In the 1990s, some Wendats discovered that the bones that had been buried in the 1636 Feast of the Dead had been disinterred, and were being held in the Royal Ontario Museum. This was done after those anthropological and archaeological digs that helped to confirm much of Jean de Brebeuf’s story about the Feast. Together, these groups joined forces to insist upon the bones be reburied. After all, while cultures had changed, they still believed strongly in the spiritual power of bones, and having them held in a museum was a horrific violation of their sanctity. In another really amazing confluence of cultures, the modern-day Wendat descendants gathered in the heart of their old lands, in what was once Wendake, to perform a reconciliation ceremony. In the same territory exists a reliquary that holds the bones of several Jesuit saints, most especially half of the skull of Jean de Brebeuf.
During the ceremony, the different bands of the Wendat apologized to one another for their differences and arguments, and really amazingly, representatives of the Catholic Church actually apologized to the Wendat. One of the leaders of one of the tribes was even named Chiwantenhwa.

And finally, in August of 1999, the Wendat joined together- in the exact spot where Jean de Brebeuf had seen the original burial pit in 1636 350 years earlier, and gently and respectfully delivered the bones of their ancestors into a beaver-pelt lined pit. They covered the bones with sand, then closed the pit.


Erik R. Seeman, The Huron-Wendat Feast of the Dead: Indian-European Encounters in Early North America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).

Kathryn Magee LaBelle, Dispersed But Not Destroyed: A History of the Seventeenth-Century Wendat People (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2013).

Huron-Wendat Feast of the Dead: Death, Religion, and Euro-Native Encounters #nativeamericans #history #huron #wendat


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