- The Huron-Wendat Feast of the Dead: Indian-European Encounters in Early North America
Seeman’s book retells the story of the colonization of North America but not in any typical way, being not much concerned with analysis of the economic interests that fashioned and directed the unprecedented violence of modern capital. Seeman’s interests are elsewhere: he wants to understand how colonizers and colonized, specifically French Jesuits and Wendats, influenced each other through their investment in and fascination with one another’s deathbed scenes, funerals, mourning rituals, and rituals of commemoration—an assemblage of practices that Seeman calls “deathways.” Care of the dead and unmanageable grief became common ground for religions as different as Catholicism and Wendat spirituality, thus turning deathways into ways of life. Seeman reconstructs the Jesuits’ fascination with Wendat practices that, despite their admiration, they judged to be pagan and therefore in need of transformation with the aid of Christian theology. Without seeking to make us sympathetic to the colonizers, Seeman’s reading nevertheless depicts them as complex figures, astonished by what they were demolishing and altered by what they helped to make vanish.
The major value of this book is in its extensive discussion of Wendat spirituality and especially of their collective burial rite. The “Feast of the Dead” depended on a nondualistic ontology and a belief in multiple souls that confused (and continue to confuse) Western interlocutors, who have very different understandings of subjectivity, of the differences between mind and matter, and of the distinction between life and death. Having amassed an archive predominantly of Jesuit documents, Seeman describes how the Wendats would flex a corpse into the fetal position and wrap it in a beaver robe, before taking it to the village cemetery for burial on a scaffold holding a bark tomb. But this burial on the surface of the earth was only temporary; a second burial followed later. On [End Page 143] that occasion, the Wendats would scrape and clean the bones of all the corpses that had been brought to the village cemetery over a period of a year or more and left to decay on scaffolds, then lay them together in a pit. The preparation of the bones was considered particularly important, since bones were—not only in terms of Wendat theogony but also of their semantics—considered a variant of the soul (atisken, bones; esken, souls—a linguistic kinship reflecting a single origin for mind and body). Preparation of the bones was meant to liberate two of the souls that each human has for new lives; at the moment of final burial, one of the souls was released to the village of eternally living souls located in the sky, while the other remained in or near the ossuary. The dead were therefore not simply released into a transcendent eternity but, thanks to the vicinity of their other soul, also kept in the neighborhood of the living and of their own material bones. It is as if the Wendats imagined them never completely dead or, at least, never quite departed from the life of the living. And that is what the Jesuits found so fascinating in Wendat burial rites: the idea of a commitment to the dead that also celebrated the living.
Branka Arsić is professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. Her books include Passive Constitutions, or 7½ Times Bartleby; The Passive Eye: Gaze and Subjectivity in Berkeley (via Beckett); and On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson.