Teachable Primary Sources: A Mi’kmaq Man Questions French Superiority

File:Cliff in Gaspe - IMG 1304 (15584559606).jpg
A cliff in the Gaspé peninsula. (Wikimedia Commons)

This is one of my favorite sources from early America, both because it’s incredibly rich and because it’s surprisingly funny. The source is an excerpt of a book by a Franciscan French missionary Chrestien Le Clercq in his book A New Relation of Gaspesia (published in Paris in 1691). “Gaspesia” refers to the Gaspé peninsula, which lies alongside the St. Lawrence River in Canada. Le Clercq and other French missionaries had come to this region to attempt to convert local Natives to Catholicism and European culture.

The Franciscan missionaries weren’t as successful as they hoped. As it turned out, European practices weren’t immediately appealing to the region’s First Nations peoples. Among them were the Mi’kmaq, whose lands stretch across much of what is now eastern Canada and Maine. In the excerpt below, an unnamed Mi’kmaq person explains why he and his people did not want to embrace European culture.

In the book, Le Clercq explains how he encountered this man in 1676. Le Clercq could speak the Mi’kmaq language, and so some “gentlemen of Isle Percée” had asked him to interpret for them when they visited the local Natives “in order to make the latter understand that it would be very much more advantageous for them to live and to build in our fashion.” These gentlemen were “extremely surprised when the leading Indian, who had listened with great patience to everything I had said to him on behalf of these gentlemen, answered me in these words…”

“I am greatly astonished that the French have so little cleverness, as they seem to exhibit in the matter of which thou hast just told me on their behalf, in the effort to persuade us to convert our poles, our barks, and our wigwams into those houses of stone and of wood which are tall and lofty, according to their account, as these trees. Very well! But why now,” continued he, “do men of five to six feet in height need houses which are sixty to eighty? For, in fact, as thou knowest very well thyself, Patriarch—do we not find in our own all the conveniences and the advantages that you have with yours, such as reposing, drinking, sleeping, eating, and amusing ourselves with our friends when we wish?

“This is not all,” said he, addressing himself to one of our captains, “my brother, hast thou as much ingenuity and cleverness as the Indians, who carry their houses and their wigwams with them so that they may lodge wheresoever they please, independently of any seignior [a French Canadian feudal leader] whatsoever? Thou art not as bold nor as stout as we, because when thou goest on a voyage thou canst not carry upon thy shoulders thy buildings and thy edifices. Therefore it is necessary that thou prepares as many lodgings as thou makest changes of residence, or else thou lodgest in a hired house which does not belong to thee. As for us, we find ourselves secure from all these inconveniences, and we can always say, more truly than thou, that we are at home everywhere, because we set up our wigwams with ease wheresoever we go, and without asking permission of anybody.

“Thou reproachest us, very inappropriately, that our country is a little hell in contrast with France, which thou comparest to a terrestrial paradise, inasmuch as it yields thee, so thou safest [claim], every kind of provision in abundance. Thou sayest of us also that we are the most miserable and most unhappy of all men, living without religion, without manners, without honour, without social order, and, in a word, without any rules, like the beasts in our woods and our forests, lacking bread, wine, and a thousand other comforts which thou hast in superfluity in Europe. Well, my brother, if thou dost not yet know the real feelings which our Indians have towards thy country and towards all thy nation, it is proper that I inform thee at once.

“I beg thee now to believe that, all miserable as we seem in thine eyes, we consider ourselves nevertheless much happier than thou in this, that we are very content with the little that we have; and believe also once for all, I pray, that thou deceivest thyself greatly if thou thinkest to persuade us that thy country is better than ours. For if France, as thou sayest, is a little terrestrial paradise, art thou sensible to leave it? And why abandon wives, children, relatives, and friends? Why risk thy life and thy property every year, and why venture thyself with such risk, in any season whatsoever, to the storms and tempests of the sea in order to come to a strange and barbarous country which thou considerest the poorest and least fortunate of the world? Besides, since we are wholly convinced of the contrary, we scarcely take the trouble to go to France, because we fear, with good reason, lest we find little satisfaction there, seeing, in our own experience, that those who are natives thereof leave it every year in order to enrich themselves on our shores.

“We believe, further, that you are also incomparably poorer than we, and that you are only simple journeymen, valets, servants, and slaves, all masters and grand captains though you may appear, seeing that you glory in our old rags and in our miserable suits of beaver which can no longer be of use to us, and that you find among us, in the fishery for cod which you make in these parts, the wherewithal to comfort your misery and the poverty which oppresses you. As to us, we find all our riches and all our conveniences among ourselves, without trouble and without exposing our lives to the dangers in which you find yourselves constantly through your long voyages. And, whilst feeling compassion for you in the sweetness of our repose, we wonder at the anxieties and cares which you give yourselves night and day in order to load your ship.

“We see also that all your people live, as a rule, only upon cod which you catch among us. It is everlastingly nothing but cod—cod in the morning, cod at midday, cod at evening, and always cod, until things come to such a pass that if you wish some good morsels, it is at our expense; and you are obliged to have recourse to the Indians, whom you despise so much, and to beg them to go a-hunting that you may be regaled. Now tell me this one little thing, if thou hast any sense: Which of these two is the wisest and happiest—he who labours without ceasing and only obtains, and that with great trouble, enough to live on, or he who rests in comfort and finds all that he needs in the pleasure of hunting and fishing?

“It is true, that we have not always had the use of bread and of wine which your France produces; but, in fact, before the arrival of the French in these parts, did not the Gaspesians live much longer than now? And if we have not any longer among us any of those old men of a hundred and thirty to forty years, it is only because we are gradually adopting your manner of living, for experience is making it very plain that those of us live longest who, despising your bread, your wine, and your brandy, are content with their natural food of beaver, of moose, of waterfowl, and fish, in accord with the custom of our ancestors and of all the Gaspesian nation. Learn now, my brother, once for all, because I must open to thee my heart: there is no Indian who does not consider himself infinitely more happy and more powerful than the French.”

[Le Clercq concludes…] He finished his speech by the following last words, saying that an Indian could find his living everywhere, and that he could call himself the seigneur and the sovereign of his country, because he could reside there just as freely as it pleased him, with every kind of rights of hunting and fishing, without any anxiety, more content a thousand times in the woods and in his wigwam than if he were in palaces and at the tables of the greatest princes of the earth.

No matter what can be said of this reasoning, I assert, for my part, that I should consider these Indians incomparably more fortunate than ourselves, and that the life of these barbarians would even be capable of inspiring envy, if they had the instructions, the understanding, and the same means for their salvation which God has given us that we may save ourselves by preference over so many poor pagans, and as a result of His pity; for, after all, their lives are not vexed by a thousand annoyances as are ours.

You can find the source in its original context here. It’s quite easy to edit this down to a couple of paragraphs for an in-class assignment, or leave it as-is for a slightly longer out-of-class reading.

Students really enjoy this source, for obvious reasons. I enjoy it too, and only partly because “cod in the morning, cod at midday, cod at evening, and always cod” reminds me of a brainworm TV commercial jingle from my childhood. More importantly, it’s an opportunity to push students to step outside of Eurocentric perspectives and ask what it was that European colonizers were really “offering” to Native people. If you saw people living a life with harder work, worse food, less flexibility, and less comfort, would you want to join that culture?

Thinking more broadly, it’s also worth asking students to think about the unnamed Mi’kmaq man’s contention that the French were “incomparably poorer” than them. Was France a “little terrestrial paradise”? It had its charms. For example, Leading French colonizers had trouble attracting colonists to Canada because of its climate. Yet on a material basis, life was difficult for an ordinary person in France. For centuries, the French had experienced devastating epidemics, famines, and wars. Relatively few French people experienced easy lives of abundance. Who was happier? Who was freer?

Even as we consider these differences, it’s important not to take them at face value. Native people, including the Mi’kmaq, also experienced violence, scarcity, and inequality. They had not created a “terrestrial paradise” any more than had the French. It’s important to avoid providing the impression that Native people lived in a utopia prior to European colonization. Like all human societies, those of Native North Americans faced significant problems.

We should also be suspicious of the transcription. For a European observer, Le Clercq was unusually interested in the Mi’kmaq, and seems to have been proficient in their language. But he published this account in 1691, about fifteen years after it was supposed to have taken place. Did he use notes to record this conversation? Did he rely on his memory? We should also think about Le Clercq’s intended audience. Why did he include this anecdote in the book? We don’t know for sure, but one reason might be that it helped to explain the limited success of missionaries such as himself. Did Le Clercq decide to include this source because it helped to explain their failure? If so, what other accounts of his encounters with Mi’kmaq people might have been excluded from his book? Did any of the Mi’kmaq people he spoke with dissent from this view?

Despite its limitations, I have found that this is a great source for starting conversations with students about primary source analysis, early colonization, and French America.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s