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…”

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Teachable Primary Sources: Handsome Lake’s “How America Was Discovered.”

An illustration of an indigenous American man with a feather in his hair
Jesse Cornplanter, drawing of Handsome Lake (Wikimedia Commons).

One of the most interesting, and most difficult, primary sources that I have taught with is Handsome Lake’s “How America Was Discovered.”

Handsome Lake was a Seneca man who came to prominence in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. He was an important prophet who was involved in the revival of traditional religion among the Haudenosaunee. He argued that the Native peoples of the continent should reject western culture—including alcohol consumption and land selling. Many Seneca disagreed, but his ideas resonated and have proven to be remarkably resilient across centuries. Indeed, his ideas continue to shape the religious practice of the Haudenosaunee today.

In 1923, a folklorist named Arthur Parker, who was a descendant of Handsome Lake, recorded a short narrative about the discovery of America that has been attributed to Handsome Lake. It was first written down more than a century after Handsome Lake died, but it is closely aligned with his theology. According to Parker, the story goes like this (my insertions are in brackets):

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