Jesuit Relations
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[Father Joesph Jouvency, Jesuit Priest, Reports on Natives of Canada, 1610. The reports of the Jesuits (called Relations) are an important source on the folkways of natives of North America. A large collection can be found at:  Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents.]


They believe that there are two main sources of disease: one of these is in the mind of the patient himself, which desires something, and will vex the body of the sick man until it possesses the thing required. For they think that there are in every man certain inborn desires, often unknown to themselves, upon which the happiness of individuals depends. For the purpose of ascertaining desires and innate appetites of this character, they summon soothsayers, who, as they think, have a divinely-imparted power to look into the inmost recesses of the mind. These men declare that whatever first occurs to them, or something from which they suspect some gain can be derived, is desired by the sick person. Thereupon the parents, friends, and relatives of the patient do not hesitate to procure and lavish upon him whatever it may be, however expensive, a return of which is never thereafter to be sought. The patient enjoys the gift, divides a portion of it among the soothsayers, and often on the next day departs from life. Commonly, however, the sick recover, plainly because their illnesses are slight; for, in the case of more severe complaints, these soothsayers are more cautious, and deny the possibility of ascertaining what the patient desires; then they bewail him whom they hove given up, and cause the relatives to put him out of the way. Thus they kill those afflicted with protracted illness, or exhausted by old age, and consider this the greatest kindness, because death [page 259] puts an end to the sufferings of the sick. They display the same benevolence towards children deprived of their parents, whom they prefer to see dead rather than to see them miserable. They believe that another source of disease is the hidden arts and the charms of sorcerers, which they seek to avert by means of absurd ceremonies. Often they expel noxious humors by sweating. They inclose a certain portion of the hut with pieces of bark and cover it with hides, in order that no air may enter. Within they pile stones heated to a high temperature. They enter naked and toss their arms while singing. But, strange to say, they will leave this heat, dripping with perspiration, and in the very coldest part of winter cast themselves into a lake or river, careless of pleurisy.

They never bear out the corpses of the dead through the door of the lodge, but through that part toward which the sick person turned when he expired. They think that the soul flies out through the smoke-hole; and, in order that it may not linger through longing for its old home, nor while departing breathe upon any of the children, who by such an act would be, as they think, doomed to death, they beat the walls of the wigwam with frequent blows of a club, in order that they may compel the soul to depart more quickly. They believe it to be immortal. That it may not thereafter perish with hunger, they bury with the body a large quantity of provisions; also, garments, pots, and various utensils of great expense, and acquired by many years labor, in order, they say, that he may use them and pass his time more suitably in the kingdom of the dead. The tombs of the chiefs are raised a little from the ground; upon them they place poles joined in the [page 261] form of a pyramid; they add a bow, arrows shield and other insignia of war; but upon the tombs of the women they place necklaces and collars. They bury the bodies of infants beside paths, in order that their souls, which they think do not depart very far from the body, may slip into the bosoms of women passing by, and animate the yet undeveloped fetus. In mourning, they stain the face with soot. When informed of a death, the relatives, neighbors, and friends assemble at the lodge where the corpse lies. If the condition of the dead permit, one of their makes a speech, in which he employs all those arguments that the most eloquent speakers are wont to use for the solace of grief. He rehearses the praises of the dead; he reminds them that the latter was born a man, and therefore liable to death; that those misfortunes which cannot be repaired are made lighter by patience; he sets forth other things of that sort to the same effect. On the third day the funeral is held. A funeral feast is provided for the whole village, each individual liberally furnishing his share For this feast they advance three main reasons: first that they may assuage the general grief; secondly that those friends who come from a distance to the funeral may be more fittingly entertained; thirdly that they may please the spirit of the dead, which they believe, is delighted by this exhibition of liberality, and also partakes of the repast placed for him When the feast is completed the master of the funeral, who, in each distinguished family, permanently holds this office and is greatly honored, proclaims that the time for the burial has come. All give utterance to continuous lamentations and wailings. The corpse, wrapped in beaver skins, and placed upon a bier made of bark and rushes, with his [page 263] limbs bent and pressed tightly against his body in order that, as they say, he may be committed to the earth in the same position in which he once lay in his mother's womb, is borne out on the shoulders of the relatives. The bier is set down at the appointed place, the gifts which each one offers to the dead are fastened to poles, and the donors are named by the master of the funeral. The mourning is renewed; finally, boys vie with each other in a mock contest.

Those who have been drowned are buried with greater ceremony and lamentation. For their bodies are cut open, and a portion of the flesh, together with the viscera, thrown into the fire. This is a sort of sacrifice, by means of which they seek to appease heaven. For they are sure that heaven is enraged against the race whenever any one loses his life by drowning. If any part of these funeral rites has not been duly and regularly performed, they believe that all the calamities from which they afterwards may suffer are a punishment for this neglect. They indulge their grief throughout an entire year. For the first ten days they lie upon the ground day and night, flat upon their bellies; it is impious then to utter any sound unless significant of grief, or to approach the fire, or to take part in feasts. During the remainder of the year the mourning continues, but less vigorously. All the duties of politeness, conversation with neighbors, and association with friends, are neglected; and, if a man has lost a wife he remains unmarried until the year has expired. Every eight or ten years the Hurons, which nation is widely extended, convey all their corpses' from all the villages to a designated place and cast them into an immense pit. They call it the day of the Dead. When this has been decreed by resolution of the [page 265] elders, they drag out the corpses from their graves, some already decomposed, with flesh scarcely clinging to the bones, others thinly covered with putrid flesh, others teeming with vile worms and smelling fearfully. The loose bones they place in sacks, the bodies not yet disintegrated they place in coffins, and bear them, in the manner of suppliants, to the appointed place, proceeding amid deep silence and with regular step, uttering sighs and mournful cries. But, in order that the memory of chiefs and of those especially famous in the art of war, who lack off-spring, may not fail, they choose some person in the flower of his age and strength, to whom they give the name of the dead man. The namesake immediately makes a levy of warriors and starts for battle, in order that by the achievement of some glorious deed he may prove himself the heir not only of the name but also of the valor of him whose place he has taken. Names of lesser note are condemned to ever-lasting silence. Therefore, as soon as any one in the village has departed this life his name is proclaimed in a loud voice throughout all the lodges, in order that no one may rashly use it. But if, nevertheless, it be necessary to name the dead man, they use a circumlocution and preface something by which the unpleasant [346] recollection of his death may be softened. If that be omitted they consider it a deadly insult; nor do they think that son or parent can be wounded by more savage abuse than when their dead relatives are defamed before them. [page 267]


THUS they treat their enemies; but at home they cultivate peace and carefully avoid quarrels, except those which the fury of drunkenness has aroused. Fortunate would they be if Europe had never introduced this scourge among them! They know nothing of anger, and at first were greatly surprised when the Fathers [Jesuits] censured their faults before the assembly; they thought that the Fathers were madmen, because among peaceful hearers and friends they displayed such vehemence. These people seek a reputation for liberality and generosity; they give away their property freely and very seldom ask any return; nor do they punish thieves otherwise than with ridicule and derision. If they suspect that any one seeks to accomplish an evil deed by means of false pretenses, they do not restrain him with threats, but with gifts. From the same desire for harmony comes their ready assent to whatever one teaches them; nevertheless they hold tenaciously to their native belief or superstition, and on that account are the more difficult to instruct. For what can one do with those who in word give agreement and assent to everything, but in reality give none ? They kindly relieve the poverty of the unfortunate; they provide sustenance for widows and old men in their bereavement, except when, with old age, vitality is withering away, or some grievous disease arises; for then they think it better to cut short an unhappy existence than to support and prolong it. Whatever [page 275] misfortune may befall them, they never allow ,themselves to lose their calm composure of mind, in which they think that happiness especially consists. They endure many days fasting, also diseases and trials with the greatest cheerfulness and patience. Even the pangs of childbirth, although most bitter, are so concealed or conquered by the women that they do not even groan; and if a tear or a groan should escape any one of them, she would be stigmatized by everlasting disgrace, nor could she find a man thereafter who would marry her. Friends never indulge in complaint or expostulation to friends, wives to their husbands, or husbands to their wives. They treat their children with wonderful affection, but they preserve no discipline, for they neither themselves correct them nor allow others to do so. Hence the impudence and savageness of the boys, which, after they have reached a vigorous age, breaks forth in all sorts of wickedness. Moreover, they exercise the same mildness which they exhibit toward their children and relatives, toward the remainder of their tribe and their countrymen. If any person has injured another by means of a rude jest (for they are commonly very talkative, and are ready jesters), the latter carefully conceals it, or lays it up, and in retaliation injures his detractor behind his back; for to jest in the victim's presence, or to make a verbal attack, face to face, is characteristic of religion. There is nothing which they are more prone to use as a counter-allegation, when provoked, than to charge a man with a lack of intelligence. For they claim praise because of their intelligence, and not without good reason. No one among them is stupid or sluggish, a fact which is evident in their inborn foresight in deliberation and their fluency in [page 277] speaking. Indeed, they have often been heard to make a peroration so well calculated for persuasion, and that off-hand, that they would excite the admiration of the most experienced in the arena of eloquence.

Their bodies, well proportioned, handsome because of their height, vigorous in strength, correspond to their minds. They have the same complexion as the French, although they disfigure it with fat and rancid oil, with which they grease themselves; nor do they neglect paints of various colors, by means of which they appear beautiful to themselves, but to us ridiculous. Some may be seen with blue noses, but with cheeks and eyebrows black; others mark forehead, nose and cheeks with lines of various colors; one would think he beheld so many hobgoblins. They believe that in colors of this description they are dreadful to their enemies, and that likewise their own fear in line of battle will be concealed as by a veil; finally, that it hardens the skin of the body, so that the cold of winter is more easily borne. Besides these colors, which are usually applied or removed according to the pleasure of each person, many impress upon the skin fixed and permanent representations of birds or animals, such as a snake, an eagle, or a toad, in the following manner: With awls, spear points or thorns they so puncture the neck, breast or cheeks as to trace rude outlines of those objects; next, they insert into the pierced and bleeding skin a black powder made from pulverized charcoal which unites with the blood and so fixes upon the living flesh the pictures which have been drawn that no length of time can efface them. Some entire tribes that especially which is called the Tobacco nation, and also another, which is called the Neutral nation practice it as a continuous custom and [page 279] usage; sometimes it is not without danger, especially if the season be somewhat cold or the physical constitution rather weak. [347] For then, overcome by suffering, although they do not betray it by even a groan, they swoon away and sometimes drop dead. They praise small eyes and turned-up and projecting-lips. Some shave their hair, others cultivate it some have half the head bare, others the back of the head; the hair of some is raised upon their heads; that of others hangs down scantily upon each temple. They detest a beard as a monstrosity, and straight-way pull out whatever hair grows upon their chins. The men as well as the women pierce the lobes of their ears, and place in them earrings made of glass or shells. The larger the hole, the more beautiful they consider it. They never cut their nails. They ridicule the Europeans, because the latter wipe off the mucus flowing from the nose with white handkerchiefs, and say: "For what purpose do they preserve such a vile thing ?" In dancing, they bend the body, with the head lowered, in the form of a bow, and move their arms like those who knead dough, at the same time emitting hoarse grunts. They gird the lower portion of the belly with a broad piece of bark or hide or a parti-colored cloth, and leave the rest of the body naked. The women wear skins hanging from the shoulders and neck to the knees. They wear belts and bracelets ingeniously manufactured from Venus shells,{71} which we commonly call porcelain, or from porcupine quills; and necklaces made in this fashion they value highly They make very neat mats from marisco (a variety of marine rush); with these they cover their floors, and also take their rest upon them, or upon the soft furs of the seal or the beaver. In winter they sleep [page 281] about a fire constantly burning in the middle of the lodge, in summer under the open sky. . . .

Neither table nor chair can be seen in the hut. They squat upon their haunches like monkeys; this is their custom while eating, deliberating or conversing. They greet approaching friends with silly laughter, more often exclaiming, ho, hho, hhho. When they eat they do not take beverages with their food, nor do they drink often, but only once after eating. Whoever entertains his friends at a feast neither sits with them nor touches any part of the food, but divides it among the feasters; or, if he has some one act as carver, sits apart fasting and looks on. While eating they keep silence; they reject salt and condiments; they consider it a sin to throw the bones to the dogs; they either burn them in the fire or bury them in the ground. For, they say, if the bears, beaver, and other wild animals which we capture in hunting should know that their bones were given to dogs and broken to pieces, they would not suffer themselves to be taken so easily. They wipe off upon their hair the grease which is collected from fatty foods; sometimes they smear their cheeks or arms for the sake, as they say, of elegance and health; for they think that not only is the skin made resplendent with grease, but that the limbs are thus strengthened. For no other food do they have such fondness as for Sagamita. It is a relish made from flour, especially that of Indian corn, mixed with oil, which as a flavor is held in especial esteem among them. Therefore, in feasts the first course consists of oil or fat, in hard and compact lumps, into which they bite as we do into a piece of bread or an apple. Before pots, kettles and other vessels of the sort were brought to them from France, they used receptacles [page 283] of closely joined bark; but, because they could not place them with safety over the flames, they devised the following way of cooking meat: They cast a large number of flint stones into the fire until they had become red-hot. Then they would drop these hot stones one after another into a vessel full of cold water and meat. In this manner the water was heated and the meat cooked more quickly and more easily than one would suppose. For wiping their hands they use the shaggy back of a dog, also powder of rotten wood. The last-named is used by mothers, in the place of wash-cloths, to clean the dirt from their infants; it is also used as a mattress to support the weary body. They do not cleanse their cooking utensils. The more they are covered with thick grease, so much the better are they, in their judgment. They consider it disgraceful and arrogant to walk while conversing. They dislike the odor of musk, and consider it a downright pest in comparison with a piece of rancid meat or moldy fat.

There are six hundred matters of this sort in which their customs differ very widely from those of Europeans; but they are less removed from the faults of the latter and either equal or excel them. They have received stimulants of the appetite, and drinks hostile to a good and sound mind, from European traders, who think much of profit, even when tainted with the disgrace of a wicked traffic. They continue to exist so long g as they have anything to eat; they store up nothing for to-morrow, or for the winter; nor do they greatly dread famine, because they are confident of their ability to bear it for a long time, In feasts it is the rule, by general consent and custom of the race, that all the food shall be consumed. [page 285] If any one eats sparingly and urges his poor health as an excuse, he is beaten or ejected as ill-bred, just as if he were ignorant of the art of living. The principal article of their household utensils is the pot or kettle in which the meat is cooked. They measure property by the number of kettles, and in the beginning conceived a high opinion of the king of France, for no other reason than because he was said to possess a good many kettles. How great is the impunity and wantonness of licentiousness among men uncivilized and free from all restraint, especially among the youth, may be readily observed; for the elder men confine their lust within fixed limits, after the violence of their passions has subsided, and an erring woman does not go unpunished.


There is among them no system of religion, or care for it. They honor a Deity who has no definite character or regular code of worship. They perceive however, through the twilight, as it were, that some deity does exist. What each boy sees in his dreams, when his reason begins to develop, is to him thereafter a deity, whether it be a dog, a bear, or a bird. They often derive their principles of life and action from dreams; as, for example, if they dream that any person ought to be killed, they do not rest until they I have caught the man by stealth and slain him. It is wearisome to recount the tales which they invent concerning the creation of the world. Soothsayers and worthless quacks fill with these the idle and greedy ears of the people in order that they may acquire an impious gain. They call some divinity, who is the author of evil, "Manitou", and fear him exceedingly. Beyond doubt it is the enemy of the human race, who extorts from some people divine honors and sacrifices. Concerning the nature of [page 287] spirits, they go none the less astray. They make them corporeal images which require food and drink. They believe that the appointed place for souls, to which after death they are to retire, is in the direction of the setting sun, and there they are to enjoy feasting, hunting, and dancing; for these pleasures are held in the highest repute among them.

When they first heard of the eternal fire and the burning decreed as a punishment for sin, they were marvelously impressed; still, they obstinately withheld their belief because, as they said, there could be no fire where there was no wood; then, what forests could sustain so many fires through such a long space of time ? This absurd reasoning had so much influence over the minds of the savages, that they could not be persuaded of the truth of the gospel. For, plainly, in the physical man, as some one from Sts. Peter and Paul says, the entire system of knowledge is based on vision. Nevertheless, a clever and ingenious priest overcame their obstinacy. He confidently declared that the lower world possessed no wood, and that it burned by itself. He was greeted by the laughter of the crowd of savages. "But", said he, "1 will exhibit to you a piece of this land of Avernus, in order that, since you do not believe the words of God, you may trust the evidence of your own eyes". The novelty and boldness of the promise aroused their curiosity. Upon the appointed day they assembled from the whole neighborhood, and sat down together in an immense plain, surrounded by hills like an amphitheater. Twelve leading men of the tribe, persons of dignity and sagacity, were chosen to watch the priest, in order that neither fraud nor sorcery might be concealed. He produced a lump of sulphur and gave it to the judges [page 289] and inspectors to be handled; after examining it with eyes, nose, and hand, they admitted that it was certainly earth. There stood near by a kettle containing live coals. Then the priest, under the eyes of the people at a distance, while the judges were gaping with their noses thrust down toward the coals, shook some grains from the lump of sulphur upon the coals, which suddenly took fire and filled the curious noses with a stifling odor. When this had been done a second and a third time, the crowd arose in astonishment, placing their hands flat over their mouths, by which gesture they signify great surprise; and believed in the word of God that there is a lower world.[page 291]