Questions for reading on Jesuit Relations

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22 Mar 2012

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History 2201E: Questions related to Father Jean de Brébeuf’s “Of the Polity of the Hurons
and of Their Government, 1636” as translated and reproduced in The Jesuit Relations:
Natives and Missionaries in North America, by Allan Greer, 2000
For this book, University of Toronto historian Allan Greer has selected various excerpts from the
multi-volumed Jesuit Relations, which the Jesuit missionaries produced annually to send back to
France as an account of their efforts, mainly in what is now Quebec and Ontario, to convert the
native people to Catholic Christianity. The Jesuits accounts were published annually in Paris
between 1632 and 1673. Greer describes the Jesuit Relations as “the most important set of
documentary materials on the seventeenth-century encounter of Europeans and native North
Americans” [p.1]. For the best part of fifteen years Brébeuf lived among the Hurons in the
Georgian Bay area. He died in Huronia in 1649 when the Iroquois exterminated the settlement.
In this translated excerpt from his 1636 report, Brébeuf, who was expert in the Hurons’ Iroquoian
language as well as in French, Latin, and Greek, shows a close interest in their social organization
and justice system. His goal was to convert them to Christianity, and he certainly thought
European civilization was superior to theirs. Nonetheless, these observations show him to be a
sympathetic as well as a close observer of their customs.
1. Why do you think he begins with the reference to the Chinese, Japanese “and other perfectly
civilized nations”?
2. Why does he think it important to note that the Hurons live in large villages?
3. There was no formal government structure among the Hurons set out in written laws, no police
force, prisons, etc. Yet Brébeuf says they live in harmony among themselves. What evidence
does he give of harmony and generosity?
4. He also describes their village “councils” in favourable terms. How did these function? Does
he seem to find some of their social relations - their dealings with one another - more admirable
in some ways than “polite” relations back in France.?
5. Although they have no formal government structures, they are not, he says, “without laws
[bottom of p. 52]. He goes on to illustrate by describing their method for punishing a murderer
who is part of their community. How did this work?
6. He writes regretfully [56-57] that they treat a captured enemy “with all the cruelty they can
devise.” Yet even on this subject he tries to be somewhat positive. How?
Ironically, Brébeuf himself would be put to death in this manner by the Iroquois when they
invaded and destroyed Huronia in 1649. (The destruction of Huronia is described by Trigger.)
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