[This is one of a series of meditations on what we might have learned, and might still learn, from the history of Native Americans about how to live without modern technology and industry, which we may have to do in the near future.]
During the same time that the unfortunate Montagnais people of what is now Quebec were being economically transformed and then ravaged by the juggernaut fur trade, in what we could call the Beaver Bubble, they were also being spiritually ransacked by the Catholic Church. In both cases the outcome was ugly, but offers lessons in what must not be sold, or lost, or given away if a people is to persevere.
You don’t have to look very far into the records that exist pertaining to Native North Americans before you realize that the writings consist in the main of the writings of Catholic missionaries, most of them Jesuit. You can’t help but wonder; how did it happen that there were so many Catholic missionaries in the New World wilderness?
Funny story. When the fur trade was ramping up, one of its biggest problems was financing. As huge as the profits were for each successful voyage, the costs were almost all up-front and the payoff was long delayed. The usual sources of that kind of capital were soon tapped out, at which point all eyes swivelled to the richest entity in Europe — the Church of Rome. As eager as the traders were to harvest furs, the Church was to harvest souls, and on hearing eyewitness accounts of the existence of thousands of unsaved savages ripe, as it were, for the picking, the Church opened its purses to finance expeditions in search of the skins of the beaver and the souls of the people.
It was harder for the priests to bring in their harvest than for the fur traders to gather theirs. Father Paul Le Jeune, who in the mid-17th Century was the father superior of all Jesuit missionaries in New France, identified two problems that nearly crippled the mission to the Montagnais at first. These roadblocks were virtually unprecedented in the Jesuits’ experience: first, the people were content, and thus not much excited by offers to improve their lot; and they were not in the habit of taking (or giving) orders, and so did not react well to instruction.
Most white people were oblivious to these basic facts about Native Americans, and remain so after 400 years. But Father Le Jeune got it at once: The Montagnais were “harmonious among themselves” he wrote, “rendering no homage to anyone whomsoever except when they like.” Such people were never going to do well in a Catholic school.
The fact is that among Native North Americans, there never was anything remotely resembling what white people call an “Indian Chief.” No person in their society (except designated war chiefs, temporarily) had either the responsibility or the power to tell other people what to do. No one gave orders either in the household or in the tribe, no one enunciated or enforced rules of behavior even among the children. Everyone participated fully in the life and the decisions of the community.
Moreover, the Jesuit lamented, “as they are contented with a mere living, not one of them gives himself to the devil to acquire wealth.” Certainly we can sympathize with the good Father; how do you save from the devil someone who is not remotely interested in the devil? Or to put it another way, where there is no interest in acquiring wealth, there does not seem to be much sin.
This would never do, Father LeJeune lamented: “Alas! If someone could stop the wanderings of the savages and give authority to one of them to rule the others we would see them converted and civilized in a short time.”
And soon indeed it was so, with the help of alcohol and trade goods and the accumulation of wealth, the conversion of the Montagnais people to Christianity and servitude was soon accomplished. Before long one convert proclaimed to his new overlords “We have burned all our songs, all our dances, all our superstitions, and everything that the devil has taught our forefathers.” (But wait, wasn’t the problem that your forefathers weren’t even interested in the devil?)
According to a tourist brochure from the area, remnants of the Montagnais can be found today, in Quebec. They are said to be a peaceable people, although they drink a lot.