- De Religione: Telling the Seventeenth-Century Jesuit Story in Huron to the Iroquois
John Steckley, Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Humber College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Toronto, has for many years immersed himself in the documents that recount the once-spoken language of the Hurons, which he labels Wendat. De Religione is his translation of what is the longest extant text in this language, one that he suggests was written in the late seventeenth century by Philippe Pierson (1642–1688), a Jesuit missionary posted at the time in New France. Although the purpose of the text is unknown, it is Steckley's guess that perhaps "new missionaries wrote it out as part of their lessons in learning Iroquoian languages and that sections were used as homilies or sermons for one-on-one religious instruction" (p. 3). Furthermore, he notes, its message was specifically directed at the five Iroquois nations whose people, Steckley maintains, could understand Huron.
Steckley places Pierson's text in historical and linguistic contexts by offering sketches of the Jesuit missions and the Father's efforts to learn and control the native languages spoken in New France, along with a short account of the nearly always contentious Iroquois-French experience. There is also a brief discussion on the Iroquois "Great Law" which Steckley believes is key to understanding these people, no matter that the essentials of this epic are unknown for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. More germane, it would seem, is Steckley's analysis of how Jesuits chose Huron/Wendat words to represent or express Christian concepts, for example, the Trinity, the notion of sin, holiness, soul, and spirit, all indispensable in Roman Catholic religious discourse.
De Religione is an arresting if dense text filled with linguistic and philosophic complexities. Its initial creation in Pierson's mind and then transformation into Huron/Wendat had to have been a taxing exercise, even for a well-educated and devoted Jesuit. There is no telling how it was received by native people, assuming that there had been an opportunity for it to be heard. At once part religious lesson and part ecclesiastical and mission history, De Religione confronts a series of themes including, for example, the nature of God, the division of body and soul, heaven and hell, the devil, and death and resurrection.
There are a few questions in regard to Steckley's approach to the translation that require mention. First is Steckley's rather presumptuous declaration that his translation, "as much as possible," provides a "'Huron read'—to be understood in the way a Huron might have understood it—rather than to convey the Jesuits' intent" (p. 19). The notion that a non-native (or native) translator might affect a Huron perspective in translating any such text from the seventeenth century is dubious in the extreme. In addition is Steckley's assertion that the [End Page 300] Huron/Wendat words of De Religione, when voiced, would have been understood by speakers of the five Iroquois languages. This would mean that Huron/Wendat, and then the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk languages, were mutually intelligible in the late seventeenth century, a condition that is generally unsupported in the literature. Finally, there is the matter of transparency. Given the somewhat arcane status of the Huron language, it would have been helpful had Steckley more fully explained how he moved from period Huron-French dictionaries to his Huron-English translation, and what part the Latin text found alongside that in Huron in the original might have played in its preparation.
Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario