- The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs by Emma Anderson
Confronted by the popular history of the North American Martyrs, Georges Sioui, a young Huron-Wendat from Quebec, was taught that the French king took “pity on [Sioui’s ancestors] and sent missionaries to convert them, but [his] savage ancestors killed the missionaries. They became our Holy Canadian Martyrs, who died to save the savages.” As an adult, Sioui would recall his childhood experience explaining that “almost moved to tears, [the nun] made [the Wendat students] kneel and pray for forgiveness from the Holy Canadian Martyrs for our ancestors’ cruelty….”1
Sioui’s case reflects the complex and lasting legacy of the North American Martyrs’ cult. How did the nun come to understand the details of the martyrdom? How did Sioui’s personal encounter influence his understanding of history, colonialism and Indigeneity in North America? These are the questions that Emma Anderson addresses in her critical analysis of eight North American Martrys: René Goupil, Isaac Jogues, Jean de la Lande, Antoine Daniel, Jean de Brébeuf, Gabriel Lalement, Charles Garnier and Nöel Chabanel. At the heart of Anderson’s book is the history of the Martrys’ “afterlife” or the emergence and persistence of a cult following the years after their deaths. Through these case studies Anderson successfully seeks to complicate and problematize the mythology and history of the Martyrs. Combined, these chapters expose the reality that the cult of martyrs and the deaths of these European men have been consistently used to justify and further North American colonial ventures.
Perhaps the most significant contribution is Anderson’s attempt to deliver “The Other Side” and bring an Aboriginal perspective to the story (10). Rather than perpetuating the kind of message Georges Sioui received as a young Wendat student in Quebec, Anderson decolonizes the cult project in several ways. First, she exposes the nature of the martyred deaths through the views and traditions of the seventeenth-century Iroquois and Wendat world. Executions, for instance, that were once understood as acts of savagery, are contextualized into meaningful performances of spiritual and political significance. Anderson also calls attention to the existence of Native acts of martyrdom and in particular the circumstances of a Wendat leader Joseph Chiloatenhwa. Anderson equates the lack of knowledge about similar cases with the Unknown Soldier and calls for a similar recognition. Finally, Anderson effectively traces the impact of the cult within the Indigenous experience and in particular through the perceptions of the Wendat and Iroquois. Anderson follows Georges Sioui’s visit to the Martrys’ Shrine as an adult and dedicates several pages reconstructing his critical view of the history and legacy of the cult. Sioui’s sentiments are further contextualized by other examples of similar opinions, such as that from Owen Reid, a Mohawk from Akwesasne-St. Regis. These Indigenous voices help counter the history of the Martyrs as Anderson argues and demonstrates convincingly on several occasions throughout the book that the cult “systematically excluded them, misrepresented their history and, through the mandatory assimilative onslaught of residential schools, forced its sometimes pernicious assumptions on their children” (213). By giving voice to Sioui and Reid, as well as others, Anderson highlights the colonial process in which the cult so aptly belongs. The Martyrs represent clear references to the impact of colonialism on Native people, a situation that many Indigenous people criticize, rather than celebrate.
As with all good and broad-ranging projects there are areas that could use further clarification. Anderson’s decision to highlight the life (and death) of Joseph Chiloatenhwa, for instance, is a curious one. There are other contemporaries who could serve as more effective examples of Native Martyrdom. The Iroquois executions of Wendat Christian leaders Jacques Oachonk and Joachim Ondakont in 1656, for example, would have provided helpful insight into Anderson’s analysis.2 These two men are perhaps more relevant than Chiloatenhwa because they actually died in ceremony and acted in very similar ways to the European Martyrs (perhaps mimicking the Jesuits’ experience in the 1640s). Oachonk and Ondakont sang...