Little is known of the early exploits that earned him this reputation. Because he was a highly prized convert to Christianity, it is tempting to susect that the epithet 'greatest' was applied to him by the Jesuits in their Relations to enhance his importance, and thus the significance of his conversion in the eyes of readers back in Europe; people who might want to contribute funds or influence on behalf of the mission in Huronia. However, such of his daring deeds as were recorded would easily earn him the respect of even the most suspicious critic. It is reported, for example, that in 1641 , when he was about forty years old, he and nearly fifty followers put a band of Iroquois six times their number to flight (3~3:25). They even took prisoners.
In the same year, he and his companions were attacked while voyaging on the then no-man's waters of Lake Ontario. Rather than agreeing with the general sentiment to flee, he exclaimed: "No, no my Comrades. Let us attack them ourselves. N (ibid). What happened next was recorded in rather graphic detail in the Jesuit Relations (1~3:25-7):
As they approached each other, he I Ahatsistari I jumped, alone and quite naked, into a large Canoe flill of Foes, split open the head of the first one that he met, threw the others into the water, into which he himself leapt, upsetting at the same time the Canoe and all who were in it. Then swimming with one hand, he killed and massacred with the other all who came near him. So unexpected a sight filled the other Canoes of the Enemy with fear; and, they, finding themselves vanquished by their own conquest, even beibre they had fought, took to flight from fear of such Courage. But he, having regained his own Canoe, pursued those who remained in the water, and brought them back in triumph to his Country.
With Ahatsistari, as with Chihoatenhwa, the question must be ased: Why did he convert to Christianity? The easiest response to give is to say that he did it in order to obtain a gun. For in the early 1640s the French instituted a plan in which for the first time Huron were allowed to have guns, but only if they became Christians.2 In this way non-Christians could not put to their shoulders weapons that they might decide to use against the priests and their lay helpers living in the country of the Huron. This would particularly have been a cause for concern at the fortified mission community of Sainte-Marie, where there was never more than a mere handftil of soldiers at any one given time. Further, it would provide a strong mcentive for Huron men, particularly those who wished to earn or enhance reputations as warriors, to convert.
The first person to take advantage of this opportunity was Charles Tsondatsaa possibly meaning 'Very Small Pot') a cousin of Joseph Chihoatenhwa's. The ceremony of his baptism and simultaneous presentation of a gun, taking place in June of 1641, was played up with tremendous pomp and circumstance, careftilly calculated to impress and influence the onlooking Huron (see J~O:219-2S). The message of this elaborately-staged lesson was clear: honour, guns and Christianity went hand in hand. That message was not lost on many an adventurous warrior (J~S:27).
But can we say that this was Ahatsistari's
main motive for conversion? I do not think so. For he first expressed an
abiding interest in Christianity before the gun policy had been developed.
The protection or 'weapon' he seemed to feel he could receive from the
Jesuits was the spiritual power of their 'Master of Life' . This is strongly
suggested in his answer to a Jesuit's careflil enquiry of "What made you
first think of believing?" (J~3:29):
Even before you came to this country . . . I had escaped from a great many perils in which my Companions perished. I saw very well that it was not I who extricated myself from these dangers. I had this thought, that some more powerful spirit, who was unknown to me, gave me favorable aid ., I was convinced that all that was only nonsense, but I knew no more about it. When I heard of the Greatness of God, whom you preach, and of what Jesus Christ had done when he was on Earth, I recognized him as the being who had preserved me, and I resolved to honor him all my life. When I went, I recommended myself to him night and morning. It Is to him that all my victories are due;
Like many other Amerindian peoples, the Huron believed that in crucial matters such as hunting, agriculture and warfare, it was the potency or power of supernatural agents, not the profane skills of mankind, that ultimately determined the outcome of events.3 To the Huron one such supernatural agent was an angry-faced dwarf spirit of war known as 'Ondoutayehta' ('One Who Bears The War Bundle'; see JR1O:183 and 33:225). Sometimes, before a raid, he would suddenly appear in front of a warrior or shaman seeking prophetic visions. His caress would signal a victory; a smash over the head with his war club, defeat.
But traditional Amerindians were not alone in having those kinds of beliefs. '1n 17th century Europe, Christians really believed that God favoured one side or the other in any major dispute. If their faith was as strong as that of the Jesuits, they might think that Jesus, Mary, the Saints and the Guardian Angels were battling on their side, fighting against the 'demon-backed' forces of the enemy. It would not involve a major change in belief for Ahatsistari to conceive of these cosmological figures as being sinijiar to and more powerful than Ondoutayehta and other native spirits (termed 'oki' in Huron). The Jesuits would certainly not disabuse him of the notion that if he believed in 'good' Christian spirits, and attempted to enlist their aid through prayer, then those spirits would help him emerge victorious in battle. Such was probably a major factor in Ahatsistari's conversion.
Whatever the cause, he was quite anxious to become a Christian. After three years of pleading his case, he was finally permitted to be baptized on Easter, 1642, within the walls of Sainte-Marie.
Almost immediately after his baptism, Ahatsistari left with a group of fellow Christian Huron to go to war. They had remained behind for his baptism while the main war party proceeded ahead of them. Such an act was indicative of their growing sense of independence from the rest of their countrymen. This was loudly echoed in just about everything they said or did.4 Their independence would have tragic consequences for the Huron nation. For the members of this tight core of believers were drawn from all five 'tribes' of the Huron (see Introduction). Thus the seeds of division were broadcast throughout Huronia. The more unified Iroquois confederacy would reap the harvest of that division.
The desire for separation on the part of Ahatsistari and other members of the Christian faction cut through the deepest ties in Huron society - friendship, kinship, and even respect for the ancestors - letting loose the cultural cords that bound that society together. As one missionary rather heartlessly put it: "Faith is a sword that severs the Soul from the body and children from their Fathers." (J~3:3 1).
A clear statement of the radical views of this group was recorded in a declaration made just after Ahatsistari's baptism (JR23:31):
Let us hereafter be but one body and one mind, since we all serve the same Master. Whenever any one of us passes by a Village wherein a Christian dwells, let him not lodge elsewhere. Whenever any one is afflicted, let him seek consolation among the others. Let us not reveal one another's faults to the Infidels; but let it be recognized, through the friendship that we shall have for one another, that the Name of Christian is a tie more binding than Nature's bonds.
Let us inform our Relatives who are not of the same Faith as we, even if they be our fathers and our children, that we do not wish our bones to be mingled together after our death since our Souls will be eternally separated, and our affection will not continue beyond this life.
With this last statement they were reftiting the single most important integrative ceremony in Huron society: The Feast of the Dead (see above). The ritual and very notion of being buried together gave the Huron people a much needed sense of continuity, of collective strength and identity.
In that same year at Sainte-Marie, ground was consecrated for a European-style Huron cemetery, each grave separated, scattered like a family of frightened deer. In the years immediately following, other 'foreign' cemeteries would be dug near the villages of the Huron, competing with tradition for the allegiance of the living and the dead. Ahatsistari would be instrumental in the spread of those foreign institutions: perhaps more in death than in life.
In the summer of 1642 Ahatsistari led an escort numbering about forty to protect a party of four Frenchmen travelling on the perilous month-long journey from Trois Rivieres to Sainte-Marie. Two of the Frenchmen were Father Isaac Jogues, and Rene Goupil, a lay helper to the Jesuits. Both of them were to become martyred saints; the latter before the summer was through.
The escort was a necessary precaution
as the Iroquois had stepped up their attacks on those who dared to run
that eight hundred mile gauntlet. As they prepared to depart on August
1, both French and Huron travellers must have wondered what fate held in
store for them at the many river bends and portages
along the way.
On the second day of their journey the wary occupants of the scouting canoe noticed fresh tracks on the riverbank beside them. The whole party turned to the experienced Ahatsistari to interpret what they had found. He knew that they were made by the enemy, but felt that there were only three canoeloads at most, that they had nothing to fear. It was a fatal error. Just a mile down the river seventy Mohawk in twelve canoes ambushed and quickly triumphed over their unprepared prey.
First into battle, Ahatsistari was one of the first to be captured. As was the custom, he was tortured. On the eighth day of his captivity a war party of two hundred joined with his captors. To toughen themselves up for the anticipated rigours of war, they tortured their prisoners. Ahatsistari had his thumbs cut off, and a pointed stick thrust into his hand reaching through to his elbow. But he did not cry out. His one concern was that Father Isaac Jogues, who was forced to watch this grim spectacle, would be thought of as lacking in courage because he was moved to tears by the pain and bravery of his Huron friend. Looking over towards the black-robed Jogues, Ahatsistari broke his stoic silence (JR31:35):
Do not suppose that those tears proceed from weakness; it is the love and affection that he feels for me, and not want of courage, that forces them from his eyes. He had never wept in his own torments; his face has always appeared dry, and always cheerful. Your rage, and my pains, and his own love are the theme and the cause of his tears.Once in the country of the Mohawk the prisoners were paraded about for a week from village to village, not knowing if they would live or die. At last it was decided that two Huron would die: Ahatsistari and his 25 year old nephew Paul Onnonhoaraton ('One Who Has Lost His Head'). While being subjected to the physical torments that led to his eventual death, Ahatsistari remained calm and courageous. Despite the fact that he had spent most of his life fighting the very people who were killing him, with his final words he: ". . entreated the Hurons present that the thought of his death should never prejudice the peace with the Hiroquois." (JR39: 199).
When news of his death became generally known among the Huron, many of his companion warriors became Christians. This was probably not because they believed in the wisdom or 'moral rightness' of Christianity, nor because they thought that it had done Ahatsistari any good (after all he had died protecting Christians). They wanted to convert so that they would be with their former comrade in the afterlife.
Ahatsistari's close friend Martin Tehoachiakwan ('He Seizes His Stomach'), another warrior of renown and one of the leaders of the orphaned Wenro tribe (see previous chapter), was baptized shortly after hearing the news of Ahatsistari's death. He did that to fulfil a promise he had made when the two were last together (J~6:273). It encouraged many of his fellow Wenro to follow his path.
The strongly held Huron belief that everyone should go to the same place after death so that close relationships would continue in the hereafter had earlier been the greatest stumbling block to Christianity (or firmest line of defense of tradition, depending on your point of view). During the period of the mid 1640's this belief began to aid the missionaries in picking up converts like a slowly-rolling snowball. The conversion and tragic death of great leaders like Ahatsistari gave the snowball much of its initial momentum.
Not possessing a literary tradition, the Huron remembered their heroes through the telling of stories that passed from one generation to the next. Through such a medium fact and mythic elaboration sometimes blended together, particularly when the bold exploits of a great warrior were recounted.
Such was the fate of Ahatsistari. Several centuries after his death, in 1911, the renowned Canadian folklorist and ethnographer, Charles Marius Barbeau came across the memory of Ahatsistari's name and character in the recollections of Mme. Claire Picard-O'Sullivan, a Huron living in Loretteville, Quebec (where a major group of Huron settled in 1693 and still live today). According to Barbeau (Barbeau, 1915, p250, footnote 1):6
.../She/ remembered that Ahatsistari was a great Indian warrior whom everybody dreaded. He was called 'The reaper of scalps'. Whenever someone, in former days, was found dead and scalpless in the woods, the people would say, "Ahatsistari has been here."
- "My mother told me that no chief ever had so many scalps hanging in his wigwam as he had. And the women would sometimes frighten the children by saying, 'Look out! Ahatsistari is coming!'"
2. The Dutch and English, who traded with the Iroquois at that time, were more liberal with their guns. This was not due to their having more liberal attitudes towards Amerindians, but was probably the result of greater competition between traders, in addition to their not having missionaries living with the Iroquois.
The defeat of the Huron has often been attributed to their lack of guns relative to the Iroquois. While this undoubtedly was a factor, given the poor quality of the guns (i.e. short accuracy range and high percentage of misfires), the lack of ammunition and the inability of the Iroquois to repair their weapons, I think that this factor has been over-rated. For a good general discussion of the gun question see Trigger, 1976, p~29-33.
3. This should not be taken too far, as the Huron (like
other Amerindian peoples) maintained a balanced perspective regarding natural
and supernatural forces. This is clearly illustrated in the 17th century
Huron proverb that". .skill, strength, and vigilance are the most powerfiil
Aaskouandy / supernatural
charm / that a man can have." (JR33:215).
4. See for example JR26: 177-9 and 257.
5. There were exceptions to this: young babies were buried alongside paths so that they may enter a woman's womb and be reborn (JR1O:273 and 15:183); young children and old people were said to be too weak to make the long journey to the land of the dead, thereby remaining nearby on earth (JR1O: 143-5 and 14:51); and suicides and those who died in battle were said not to dwell in the same village with the others in the land of the dead (JR1O: 145).
6. He was also well remembered in the 19th century as a brave and noble warrior. In Adam Kidd's epic poem "The Huron Chief" (in his book "The Huron Chief and Other Poems", 1830, p56) the lines appear:
"From Ahatsistari known afarKidd commented in his notes (op.cit., p128) that:
By all his noble deeds of war."
"This distinguished warrior, . . . ,is still spoken of, by the Chieftains of the present day, as one of the greatest heroes that ever lived among the Hurons. In all my inquiries respecting this noble Indian, I received the most honourable, and most interesting accounts."One other indication of the respect in which this name was held is the fact that it was given to A.N. Montpetit, who was Honorary Chief of the Lorette Huron in 1873 (see Le Moine, 1882, pp 456, 460 and 466).
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