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Crosses in the Sky by Mark Bourrie

Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann

As author Mark Bourrie states in the first line of his Introduction to Crosses in the Sky, “This is the story of the collision of two worlds.” He is speaking about the Jesuit efforts in the first half of the seventeenth century to convert the native peoples of Canada to Christianity. Those efforts led to the collapse of Huronia, the loose confederation of the Huron peoples in what is now the Georgian Bay area of Ontario. One of the main figures in this missionary effort was the Jesuit priest Jean de Brébeuf, and Crosses in the Sky focusses on his years among those tribes.

Also in his Introduction, Bourrie urges the reader not to “judge the people of these worlds through a twenty-first-century lens.” He makes the point that the seventeenth century was a violent time everywhere, both in Europe and in the Americas, so people’s norms and behavioural expectations were very different from what they are now. And this is one of the great achievements of this book. It convincingly presents both priests and Natives in the context of their times without making moral judgments. It is rough reading at times, the details often horrific. The Native tribes were frequently at war with each other and commonly tortured their captives to death in public, in full view of the priests. The Jesuits, for their part, preached fire and brimstone and actively pursued the glories of martyrdom. Both groups believed strongly in the prophetic power of dreams and visions, and their speech (and, for the priests, writing) is full of imagery that we would now call pure fantasy or even delusion.

Using contemporary sources, in particular the Relations, the annual reports that the Jesuits sent back to France, and which were then published for public consumption, Bourrie is able not just to describe what took place, but to use the very words of Brébeuf and other Jesuits as they relate what they encountered. These quotes are often weighed down with religious language, but they have a vividness about them that gives the reader rare insight into how these men (and they are all men) viewed what they were doing to Huronia.

The destruction of Huronia was not just caused by the Jesuits, however. Waves of epidemics reduced the populations of the Huron towns greatly, making them increasingly vulnerable to raids by Iroquois war parties. Western technology, in the form of firearms, was also a factor, given that the French would not sell them to non-Christian Hurons, while the Dutch black market supplied them to the Iroquois.

Crosses in the Sky also introduces us to a variety of native people, individuals who had substantial interactions with the Jesuits. Their personalities and concerns allow the reader to understand better the human variability both within the Huron nation and across the Native world.

What comes across is a fairly nuanced portrait of Native life at that time. This is a great service, as modern perceptions of Native culture tend to be simplistic, whether overly prejudiced or overly romanticized—seeing them as vicious savages or innocent children of nature. Native society was much more complex than that. The Hurons tended to live in decent-sized towns rather than small villages. There were feasts and celebrations of all kinds, many of which the Jesuits disapproved of. And Native politics were fairly complex, with numerous agreements and alliances among towns and several levels of decision-making within each town. Women played a major role in local government as well.

In the end, of course, Huronia disappeared, and much of what could have been its legacy has been lost forever. Nevertheless, Crosses in the Sky paints a detailed and nuanced portrait of that destruction, enriching our modern understanding of a time and people who have been stereotyped or simply ignored for too long.

Crosses in the Sky is published by Biblioasis.


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