Isaac Jogues: Missionary and Martyr - Martin J. Scott

The Savages

While Jogues was a captive of the Mohawks, a band of these savages returning from the war-path brought in as prisoners three young women besides some children. They had killed all the men of the enemy party in battle. As the women entered the village their clothing was torn from them, they were beaten with fists and clubs, and their flesh cut with knives and switches.

One of the women was selected as a victim to be burned in honor of their war-god Aireskoi. As some days elapsed before the human sacrifice was to be offered, Father Jogues instructed the poor victim in the truths of Christianity, and gave her the consoling motives of Faith for her support and resignation. On the day of the human sacrifice the wretched woman had firebrands applied to every part of her body, a sachem crying out at each application: "Aireskoi, we offer thee this victim which we burn in thy honor! Sate thyself on her flesh and make us ever victorious over our enemies." The poor creature, more dead than alive, was finally thrown on an immense pyre and burned to death.

These were the savages, to convert whom, Jesuit missioners, men of learning and refinement, were to leave the comforts of civilization, and to live among, sharing their rude manner of life, and eventually, many of them, meeting the fate of the Huron captives described above. Before we follow the steps of the heroic missioners through forests and along rivers and over dangerous rapids in their zeal to Christianize these savages, it is desirable to know something of the life, religion and character of these children of the forest.

The first thing that strikes us with regard to them is their capacity for enduring pain without complaining, or even giving any signs of the torture that racked them. This was a sort of religion with them. From earliest youth they were trained to all manner of endurance. It was considered a disgrace to wince under torture. The savages did everything that fiendish ingenuity could devise in order to draw a moan from their victim. Ordinarily a captive sang or laughed aloud under the most exquisite and prolonged torture. It was his way of defying his captors and showing his superiority over them. The savages, after tormenting their victim to the utmost limit of human endurance, and getting no sign of agony from him, sometimes tore out his heart and ate it, that they might thus become as brave as their victim.

They despised, on the other hand, a victim who writhed under pain, and left him to the women and children for torture. To sustain, without any show of suffering, the most dreadful agony that fiendish brutality could inflict, was the mark of a true brave. It is necessary to keep this in mind if we would appreciate the heroism of the highly sensitive missioners, who without the stoicism of the Indian, nevertheless surpassed him in patient endurance. What the savage did for bravado the missioners did for love of Christ. The Indian gave no quarter and expected none. It seems strange therefore that he did not always die fighting instead of submitting to capture.

But against this there must be put the fact that the savage made it a point to capture rather than kill, unless there were already enough prisoners taken. Moreover, a captive always had hopes of escape. Many did escape while on the long trail to the tribal village. Besides, the fate of a captive rested in the hands of some family of the tribe which had lost a member on the war-path. The captive was given to this family either to adopt in place of the lost one, or to assign to torture and death by way of expiation.

The Iroquois were constantly at war. They embraced five nations scattered from what is now Buffalo to Albany. Of these nations, the one most feared by others was the Mohawk, whose villages were near where the hamlet of Auriesville now stands on the banks of the Mohawk River, some forty miles from Albany. The Mohawks were the most ferocious nation of the Iroquois Federation. They were bent on the extermination of neighboring tribes, and especially of the Hurons, a people to the north and west of them, and whom eventually they all but wiped out.

Before the coming of the white man among them the religion of the Indians was a sort of nature dread. They believed that all material nature had life, soul and intelligence. Trees, rivers, mountains, winds, beasts, birds and fishes were all embodied spirits, capable of understanding the language of man and of doing him good or harm, mostly harm. If a storm arose it was the anger of the wind-spirit. If the hunt was a failure the spirit of the deer or bear or beaver was offended and must be placated before success would attend the hunt. If a canoe upset and a savage drowned it was the river-spirit seeking a victim for some neglect or offense. And so of all the occurrences of life. They did not attribute effects to natural causes but to some spirit who showed his pleasure or anger by good or malignant deeds. Thus when the crops failed, or a pestilence arose, it was the harvest-spirit or some malignant power which was manifesting displeasure with them.

In this manner they attributed the various events of life to the influence of friendly or hostile spirits, neglecting altogether human measures and precautions against disease, famine and other misfortunes. By their filthy manner of living they invited disease. But instead of attributing disease to some natural cause they laid it to the anger of an offended spirit. It is necessary to understand this in order to comprehend the dreadful position of the missioners who came among them, and the immense obstacles which had to be overcome in the preaching of Christianity. It was due to the fact that a pestilence was attributed to the wrath of a spirit offended by the presence among them of some articles of Christian piety, that Jogues, one of the most heroic missioners in the annals of mankind, was cruelly put to death.

Not only did they believe that everything material had life and intelligence, but also that some one material thing or animal possessed a particular spirit, which was a personal deity to be worshipped by a particular individual, and which was a protector for that person against other spirits and calamities of whatever kind. This familiar spirit was called an oki or manitou. Every Indian had a manitou which he worshipped in a special manner. It was by means of dreams that each one knew what was his manitou. The object which at a certain age appeared most frequently to one in dreams was for that one his manitou. It might be a bird or fish or plant or stone. Whatever it was, the Indian had a symbol of it made which he always carried about his person, and to which he frequently made addresses, prayers, and offerings of tobacco, wampum, furs or weapons. It was real fetish-worship.

At times human life was sacrificed to a manitou. It was to placate an offended spirit who was believed to be wroth at the sign of the cross taught children by one of the missioners, that caused an Indian to tomahawk Rene Goupil. Sometimes a manitou was offended, they believed, because prisoners were not tortured cruelly enough. It was a terrible ordeal for the next prisoner after such a supposed grievance on the part of the spirit. Some of the missioners were tortured under such circumstances, and the frightful torments inflicted on them and their fortitude in bearing them, caused the historian Parkman to affirm: "Few passages of history are more striking than those which record the efforts of the earlier French Jesuits to convert the Indians. Full as they are of dramatic and philosophic interest, bearing strongly on the political destinies of America, and closely involved with the history of its native population it is wonderful that they have been left so long in obscurity."

The religion of the savage was one of perpetual fear. The Indian believed that everything in the world had power to harm, and would exercise this power against him for the slightest offense or neglect. Hence before entering a canoe on lake or river he threw tobacco upon the water to render propitious the spirit that inhabited it. If he heard the rustle of the leaves caused by the wind it was to him the voice of the tree-spirit in complaint or warning. The howling of the wind was the anger of the spirit of the air. Even the things made by themselves had soul and intelligence. Their fishing-nets were conscious and knew their owners. A peculiar confirmation of this is found in the custom which prevailed of marrying a maiden to a fish-net. This was supposed to make the spirit of the net very happy and in consequence to ensure a good catch of fish.

The savages believed that their manitou spoke to them by dreams. If an Indian declared that his manitou demanded a certain thing the village was scoured for it, and whoever had it gave it up willingly. Dreams had to be imperatively obeyed, even if it meant the sacrifice of one's most treasured possession, or even life itself, either one's own or that of another. For the most part the old, or manitou, was a malignant being. The missioners were convinced that this was devil-worship. Some of the things which the oki in dreams commanded them to do were so awfully inhuman and flagrantly indecent that it is hard to conceive that they came from human minds.

The Indians were naturally ferocious, but at the instigation of their manitou they became fiends. Some of the things that they did to the missioners, as we shall see, could only emanate from hell. Besides being naturally ferocious, or at least ferocious on account of their life and environment, the savages were also without any sense of shame or moral turpitude. Their manner of life, lived in common, without any privacy, destroyed all sense of modesty and purity. Every sort of obscenity and impurity was indulged in openly and without any loss of reputation to either sex. Until married a maiden was free to indulge every sex impulse, without detriment to future marriage.

Trial marriages were common, and some of the maidens had as many as twenty such alliances before permanent marriage. Once married the woman became a drudge, a veritable slave. There was no bigamy among the Indians for the simple reason that a man could divorce his wife for any slight cause or for no cause but displeasure. The missioners relate that in response to what their okis  commanded in dreams, the Indians at times perpetrated deeds more shameful than any recorded in the worship of the lustful deities of paganism. It is necessary to know this in order to understand the power of the Gospel, which in many cases, and sometimes with whole tribes, completely transformed these victims of satanic domination.

It is also necessary to know the degradation of the Indians in order to appreciate the sacrifice and heroism and virtue of those men of God who left the amenities of civilization to live and work among these ferocious and degraded savages. One of the missioners, Father Brebeuf, wrote to those of his brethren in Europe who were contemplating coming to America as Indian missioners in substance as follows:

"The dwelling of the missioner is a miserable hut, made by covering poles with bark. This hut, or wigwam, as it is called, is so fashioned that those inside cannot stand erect or lie down at full length. By day one must remain either sitting or kneeling. At night one cannot stretch one's limbs but must remain curled up. While sleeping the feet are towards the fire, in the center of the hut, and the head is at the outer edge, with the result that while the feet are almost roasting the head is chilled by contact with the cold ground or the snow, which is separated from the head by some branches only, or skins of animals.

"But the most dreadful thing of all is the smoke. It is so dense in the hut that it frequently causes blindness. It smarts the eyes as if salt were poured into them. It makes the eyes so sore that they continually run water for a considerable period. In winter the water flowing from the aching eyes makes it almost impossible to see when one goes outside. This makes it necessary to have some one lead the missioner in traveling when he is thus afflicted. Next to the smoke is the small martyrdom suffered from fleas, lice and vermin. The Indians do not mind this plague but to the missioner it is torture.

"The food is very coarse and frequently insufficient. Its manner of serving deprives one for a long time of all desire for food. They eat out of a common dish, usually dirty. The dogs eat from the same dish, and usually serve as the dish-washers by licking it. For napkins either one's hair or else the dog's back serves the purpose. The most repulsive uncleanliness does not offend the Indians at all. There is so much filth about their cabins and in them that it breeds disease. In their ignorance they think that such disease is the anger of some offended spirit. Or they attribute it to the presence of the missioner, which imperils his life, as at any moment a savage may sink a tomahawk into his skull, under the conviction that he is slaying the cause of misfortune.

"This causes the missioner to live in constant apprehension. He never knows when a frenzied savage may run him through with a knife or knock his brains out with a club, as has happened in not a few cases. What the missioner finds a great hardship is the utter lack of privacy. He can scarcely ever be alone, either for devotions or for necessary rest and the needs of nature. And although he longs for occasional privacy one of his most dreadful sufferings is isolation. He is surrounded by those whose ideas are as far apart from his as the two poles. First of all his knowledge of their language, at least for a long time, is rudimentary, which prevents him from normal conversation. And when he does get command of the language he finds that it is almost impossible to convey any but concrete notions to them. Their world is altogether different from his. Hence he is a stranger in a strange land, alone although surrounded by many. Moreover he is obliged constantly to be witness of vice which he is powerless to prevent.

"Lying, stealing and lust are as common to these savages as walking. They do not know what shame is. The only hope the missioner has of doing good is with the children, who, if rightly taught and influenced may become the means of civilizing and Christianizing these benighted creatures. This is a dark picture, but it becomes bright when one views it with the love of God in one's heart. The missioner knows that this field gives him an opportunity of proving his love for God in the way that most appeals to God, namely by service and sacrifice. It was thus Christ showed His love for us. It is the realization that sacrifice is the language of love, that makes the missioner rejoice amidst conditions which would ordinarily depress the most stout-hearted.

"Also he knows that sacrifice is the best means of doing God's work. If these savages eventually become Christian it will be in no small degree because the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians. The missioner sheds his blood as much by daily torture from disgusting and painful surroundings as by the sword. It is this that gives him that peace and courage which are the astonishment of the savages, and which makes him cheerfully labor for the cause of Christ "

The missioner, Father Brebeuf, who wrote the above description of conditions, exemplified in his own person the service and sacrifice he so earnestly hoped for in those who were to join him.

The Indians had no conception of moral good or evil. Their only standard of right and wrong was the desirableness or undesirableness of the thing in question. What gave pleasure or gain was good, what caused pain or loss was evil. They had no word for God. The missioners were obliged to invent a phrase to convey the idea of a Supreme Being. They called Him "The Great Chief of Men," and also, "He Who Lives In The Sky." According to the notion of the savages each kind of animal had a king. It was easy, therefore, to make them understand that man also should have a king, and that He was the Great Spirit.

They believed in immortality after a fashion, holding that after death the deceased continued a sort of shadowy existence in a shade world. Into that world the spirit of everything in this world passed on and survived the shades of men, animals, rivers, mountains, weapons, etc., continuing to exist there. Hence in burying an Indian, the things dearest to him were buried with him, in order that their shades might accompany him. But their belief in a future life did not imply reward or punishment. It is true that there was the bright and happy hunting ground for the brave warrior, and a rather darksome region for the coward, but with regard to reward for virtue, or punishment for moral wrong-doing, there was no idea whatever.

Although burial followed shortly after death it was only temporary interment. At stated intervals of about ten years the bones of the deceased were taken from their various graves and assembled at a designated place where they were deposited with great ceremony. The whole nation gathered for this function. In the burial pit, along with the remains of the dead, were placed wampum-belts, beaver-skins, bows, arrows, pipes, utensils, beads, rings and everything associated with Indian life. The savages believed that all things animate and inanimate were alike immortal, and that with the dead to whom they belonged, their shades passed to the land beyond, where they would serve the same purpose as in this life, but in a different manner. To this day those burial pits are found in various parts of North America, some of them containing every kind of weapon, utensil and ornament with which Indian life was acquainted.

When a savage fell ill there was little or no attempt at curing him by medicine, surgery or any other remedial measure. The medicine-man was called in. Why he was called a "medicine-man" is lard to understand, because he prescribed no medicine and gave no medical treatment. He was a sorcerer pure and simple. If an Indian were ill, it was, in their belief, because a malignant oki had entered into him. As long as this hostile spirit remained, the man would be ill, and unless the spirit were driven out, the victim would eventually die.

The medicine-man, therefore, proceeded by incantations and various grotesque movements, accompanied by howlings and wild beating of drums, to expel the oki from the victim. Sometimes the medicine-man feigned to receive a communication from the spirit world to the effect that the malignant oki could be expelled only by the torture or death of a personal enemy or by despoiling him of possessions. The Indians regarded such communications as sacred and carried them into effect, at no matter what cost. In this way the sorcerer was able to revenge himself on anyone who was opposed to him. It was thus, as we shall see, that some of the missioners were tortured or killed, because they branded the doings of the sorcerer as devices of roguery, superstition or diabolism.

Dreams and sorcery were the two most potent factors of Indian life, as well as the all but invincible obstacles to the preaching of the Gospel. In nearly every tribe there were professed dreamers and interpreters of dreams. These were usually the shrewdest men of the community and ordinarily exercised their profession with a keen knowledge of persons and conditions. In consequence, some of their directions and forecasts showed marvelous results. Usually the community was in superstitious dread of these sorcerers, and seldom or never hesitated to carry out their orders. As a result, the missioners knew that at any hour, or in any place, an Indian brave might sink a tomahawk into their skulls or burn them at the stake, and in so doing be convinced that he was acting by direction from the spirit world. Perpetual fear of preternatural agencies haunted the savage at every turn and greatly influenced his life. All nature was alive and intelligent. He was the sport of all this spirit world, and too often its victim.

Most of these Indians led a roving life, due to the fact that for the greater part they depended on game for their food and clothing. They had settled villages, it is true, but with war parties and fishing and hunting expeditions they were not often resident. Sometimes the whole tribe—men, women and children—engaged in fishing or hunting trips. On these expedition the squaws were the beasts-of-burden and the toilers at camp. The braves fought, hunted, fished and made weapons. Oftentimes when game was scarce the whole tribe went without food for several days. Again, when game was plenty they gorged themselves.

While roving they slept in the open, or if the weather were too severe for that, in tents made by covering, with bark or skins, saplings of birch which were set firmly in the ground in a circle, bent together at the top and fastened by thongs of leather or twigs. In very cold weather a fire was built in the center of this tent or wigwam. The Indians slept on the bare ground or on animal skins, their feet towards the fire. Frequently while their feet were almost roasted their heads and shoulders were nearly frozen. The sky was visible through the crevices of the wigwam, and the suffering in extremely cold weather was intense.

Worse, however, than the cold was the smoke. The only outlet being the opening in the top of the wigwam, the smoke in consequence was often so dense that the missioners were obliged to sleep face downward, their mouths and nostrils close to the ground. It penetrated eyes, nose and mouth causing intense irritation and often blindness. The missioners found this one of the greatest hardships. In the winter, on a hunt, the wigwam was pitched in a clearing of snow. It was so cold that the missioners could not read their breviary except in the smoke-filled tent, and by the fickle light which came from the fire. This caused them excruciating agony, but they read their breviary, nevertheless.

In the tribal village the Indians lived in huts constructed of logs. The Iroquois received their name from the architecture, if such it can be called, of their huts or sheds. These were long, low and narrow structures. The Iroquois were known as the dwellers in the long houses, which is the meaning of their real Indian name, Hodenosaunee or "People of the Long House." Each house accommodated five families, and had five fires, a fire for each family.

The name Iroquois is French, given to these Indians because they terminated a discourse by the word Hiro  which means I have ended  and Koue  or Quois  which was a grunt of satisfaction, or the opposite, according as it was uttered. The Iroquois was the Indian of Indians, and the Mohawk was the Iroquois of the Iroquois. The Iroquois were a confederacy of five nations, dwelling along a line running through central New York, and embracing from East to West the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas. As stated previously there was no such thing as privacy in Indian life. Everything was open to the gaze of all. As a result the savages were dead to all sense of shame. They were rather unmoral than immoral. Cruelty, dishonesty, lust were their characteristics. These were the people among whom the Jesuit missioners came to live and labor, and in many instances to die in horrible torture. No wonder that even the non-Catholic historian, Parkman, has declared that there has been no greater heroism in the annals of mankind than that displayed by the sons of Loyola among the savage children of the American forest.

Let me sum up the Indian character by a quotation from Parkman: "It is obvious that the Indian mind has never seriously occupied itself with any of the higher themes of thought. . . . In the midst of nature, the Indian knew nothing of her laws. His perpetual reference of her phenomena to occult agencies forestalled inquiry and precluded inductive seasoning. If the wind blew with violence, it was because the water-lizard, which makes the wind, had crawled out of his pool; if the lightning was sharp and frequent, it was because the young of the thunder-bird were restless in their nest; if a blight fell upon the corn, it was because the corn-spirit was angry; and if the beavers were shy and difficult to catch, it was because they had taken offense at seeing the bones of one of their race thrown to a dog. Well, and even highly developed, in a few instances—I allude especially to the Iroquois—with respect to certain points of material concernment, the mind of the Indian in other respects was and is almost hopelessly stagnant. The very traits that raise him above the servile races are hostile to the kind and degree of civilization which those races so easily attain. His intractable spirit of independence, and the pride which forbids him to be an imitator, reinforce but too strongly that savage lethargy of mind from which it is so hard to rouse him. No race, perhaps, ever offered greater difficulties to those laboring for its improvement.

"To sum up the results of this examination, the primitive Indian was as savage in his religion as in his life. He was divided between fetish-worship and that next degree of religious development which consists in the worship of deities embodied in the human form. His conception of their attributes was such as might have been expected. His gods were no whit better than himself. Even when he borrows from Christianity the idea of a Supreme and Universal Spirit, his tendency is to reduce Him to a local habitation and a bodily shape; and this tendency disappears only in tribes that have been long in contact with civilized white men. The primitive Indian, yielding his untutored homage to One All-pervading and Omnipotent Spirit, is a dream of poets, rhetoricians, and sentimentalists."

Such were the people, and such the field of missionary zeal that drew the sons of Ignatius Loyola from the colleges and universities of Europe.

Having seen the savages and their crude manner of living, it is well to turn our eyes to the Jesuit and his mode of life, in order to see what it was that inspired him to make such great sacrifices to bring the light of the Gospel into the lives of these poor children of the forest, who dwelt in the darkness of base superstition. A narrative of deeds is only part, and that a small part, of a career. The motives which actuate a person are the most important part of his achievements. When notable deeds are actuated by noble motives we have a truly noble character. And when some of the most heroic deeds known to mankind are performed under the inspiration of the most disinterested and most exalted motives which can influence man, we have what truly constitutes the loftiest example of human virtue and achievement.

When we realize that Catholic virtue is the supreme expression of Christian morality we can readily understand the lofty motives which influenced Jogues in the carrying out of a mission which entailed the greatest sacrifices possible to human nature. The deeds of Jogues are so heroic and withal so transcendent that there is no romance of fiction which compares with his career. No wonder that the Queen of France, on beholding Jogues' mutilated hands and hearing of his exploits, exclaimed: "Romances are written every day. Here is one that is true, and that combines the wonderful with the heroic."

In order to appreciate the motives which animated Jogues, and other men of culture and delicacy like him, who braved dangers, hardships, vileness and ingratitude among the savages, we shall now turn to a brief consideration of that Order of men whose members in such great numbers, and under such forbidding circumstances, offered their lives generously and permanently to a career of sacrifice hardly paralleled in human annals.