The Feast of the Dead


Wendat scaffold burial, where corpses awaited the Feast of the Dead. From Samuel de Champlain’s Voyages et descouvertures, 1619. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

by Erik R. Seeman

On May 12, 1636, two thousand Wendat (Huron) Indians stood on the edge of an enormous burial pit. Near the village of Ossossané in what is today Ontario, Canada, they held in their arms the bones of roughly seven hundred deceased friends and family members. The Wendats had lovingly scraped and cleaned the bones of corpses that had decomposed on scaffolds. They awaited only the signal from the master of the ritual to place the bones into the pit. This was the great Feast of the Dead.

Also standing near the burial pit was a French Catholic missionary named Jean de Brébeuf. One might assume that he was horrified by this non-Christian ritual with its unfamiliar cries and chants, and by the earlier preparation of the corpses, some only partially decomposed and seething with maggots. Yet Brébeuf was not only fascinated by the Feast of the Dead, he also “admired” this “magnificent” ritual.  He described it in great detail for French readers, telling them that it was “heartening to see” the Wendats show such devotion to their dead.

Brébeuf’s largely sympathetic portrayal of the Feast of the Dead drew on parallel Catholic and Wendat understandings of death and human remains. Both groups adhered to religions that focused on the mysteries of death and the afterlife. Both believed that a dead person’s soul traveled to the afterlife. Both believed that careful corpse preparation and elaborate mortuary rituals helped ensure the safe transit of the soul to the supernatural realm. Also, both believed in the power of human bones.

Today when most North Americans consider human bones, thinking is in terms structured by modern science. Bones as deposits of calcium and other minerals surrounding living tissue:  The 206 bones of the adult human skeleton. The site of the production of red blood cells. Cranium, coccyx, clavicle.

Four hundred years ago, when Wendats and French Catholics met in North America, their associations with human bones differed greatly from our own—but closely resembled one another’s. Bones to heal the sick and to tie together far-flung villages. Bones invested with supernatural power. The site of connection between this world and another world. Community, curing, condolence.

These similarities, and other death-related ones, helped facilitate communication between Wendats and the French. Even though the two groups spoke different languages, they shared a common tongue based on the veneration of human remains and the centrality of mortuary practices.

Building on this insight, it is possible to use the Feast of the Dead—or more precisely, the meeting of Wendats and Frenchmen on the edge of the Ossossané burial pit in 1636—as a metaphor for Indian-European encounters in North America. When native peoples met Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, parallel customs, and especially parallel mortuary practices, allowed for understanding across cultural boundaries. When each side saw the other performing funerals, they realized that their counterparts were neither gods nor demons but humans like themselves. Because both Indians and Europeans placed so much weight on proper burials, they were curious about the other’s practices.  And tragically, because the encounter caused countless deaths due to warfare and epidemics, both groups had numerous opportunities to witness the other’s funeral practices. Indeed, many of the Wendats buried in Ossossané had succumbed to European diseases.

As a result of these parallel practices, the French and Wendats often communicated with one another in the language of deathways, a term that encompasses deathbed scenes, burial practices, funerals, mourning rituals, and commemoration of the dead. Yet cross-cultural communication could be put to manipulative as well as constructive ends. In the frequently adversarial context of the European colonization of North America, knowledge was a precious commodity that could be used against one’s enemies. It did not take long before this dynamic emerged in French-Wendat relations.

Reconstructed church of St. Joseph, built for Christian Wendats at the mission center of Sainte-Marie among the Hurons. Photograph by the author.

Using the Feast of the Dead as a metaphor also highlights the specifically spiritual component of Indian-European encounters in North America. Students have long been taught that Europeans came to the New World for gold, glory, and God. Many of my undergraduates, however, are more impressed by the first two motivations than the third. My students believe that Europeans’ desire for riches and renown greatly outweighed their interest in spreading the word of Christ. Even when Europeans professed a commitment to teaching natives about Christianity, these classroom skeptics assert, this merely disguised their more powerful desires for material wealth and personal acclaim.

My students’ arguments are not without merit; many professional historians have made similar points. Bruce Trigger, for example, emphasized material over spiritual motivations among both Wendats and the French in his landmark The Children of Aataentsic:  A History of the Huron People to 1660. Trigger, an archaeologist and historian so respected by native peoples that he was adopted as an honorary member of the Huron-Wendat nation, was too careful of a scholar to argue that religious beliefs were entirely unimportant in the interactions between Wendats and the French.  But he did consistently place the desire for goods over the desire for spiritual fulfillment. He asserted that the French interest in colonizing Canada was primarily about profiting from the valuable fur trade, and he likewise insisted that Wendat interest in Christianity was mostly instrumental, that is, a means to an end. According to Trigger, Wendats who accepted the missionaries’ teachings did so in large part to gain access to European trade goods such as copper kettles and iron knives, which helped make daily life easier and promised greater success in warfare.

My interpretation, building on recent histories of other encounters between American Indians and Europeans, inverts Trigger’s formulation.  Yes, Wendats were interested in European metalware, and yes, they sought these goods because they promised greater convenience and fighting power than their native-made counterparts. But also important were the items’ religious implications. For the Wendats, material objects possessed spiritual power. This was expressed most clearly in deathways, as the bereaved gave the dead gifts to be brought to the afterlife, and offered presents to friends and ritual specialists as tokens of the reciprocal ties that bound a community together. Newly available European goods quickly became central to Wendat mortuary practices, including the Feast of the Dead. In the Ossossané burial pit, Wendats carefully placed European glass beads and copper kettles alongside the remains of their loved ones.

Furthermore, even beyond the connection with spiritually powerful trade items that frequently ended up as grave goods, many individuals involved in the encounter were motivated primarily by religious goals. French missionaries such as Jean de Brébeuf believed that baptism saved Wendat souls from eternal damnation. And some Wendats, in a time of rapid change brought on by an influx of European goods and pathogens, found themselves open to new interactions with the supernatural world.

Jean de Brébeuf’s skull peers out of its reliquary in the Martyrs’ Shrine, Midland, Ontario. Photograph by the author.

Like Trigger’s interpretation, mine is based on sources that leave much to be desired. Most problematically, written evidence of seventeenth-century Wendat perceptions is found only in works authored by Europeans. French explorers such as Samuel de Champlain and missionaries such as Gabriel Sagard penned books about the Wendats and their customs. More abundant sources are found in the Jesuit Relations, accounts written by the Jesuit order of Catholic missionaries in Canada.  Jesuits wrote the Relations intermittently starting in 1611 and then published them annually between 1632 and 1673.

Even the most basic matter of naming the native people of North America is shaped by European biases in the written sources. The Indians who are the subject of my book called themselves (and still call themselves) Wendats, yet for four centuries most Euro-Americans have referred to them as “Hurons,” following the practice of the earliest Europeans who wrote about them. The word “huron” was an Old French epithet meaning “rustic” or “ruffian”; a modern English analogue might be “hillbilly” or “hick.”  In this and other ways the surviving written perspective on the Wendat-French encounter inevitably distorts aspects of native society that Europeans overlooked, did not understand, or were downright contemptuous about.

Yet there remains another, underused body of sources on Indian-European encounters. Archaeology, though not without its own biases and shortcomings, allows us to corroborate, complement, and sometimes counter European descriptions with the excavated remains of the past. It also allows us to understand some characteristics of Wendat society in the centuries before Europeans arrived. These material sources are especially valuable for understanding mortuary customs. Deathways left more traces in the physical record than many other activities, such as sexual relations and childrearing practices. As a result, archaeology provides valuable information about Wendat deathways before and after contact with Europeans.

Still, archaeologists’ modern, scientific understanding of bones—as sources of data to be measured and weighed and peered at under microscopes—would eventually cause conflict. Descendants of the Wendats and other indigenous groups began in the late twentieth century to voice more loudly their demands that their ancestors’ remains be returned. This issue still vexes the museums and universities that hold indigenous human remains.  The Feast of the Dead thus continues to resonate nearly four centuries after the Wendats and Brébeuf stood on the edge of the Ossossané burial pit, waiting for the signal to bury the bones.

About the Author:

Erik R. Seeman is Professor of History and Director of the Humanities Institute at the University at Buffalo.  His two most recent books are Death in the New World:  Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492-1800 (2010) and The Huron-Wendat Feast of the Dead:  Indian-European Encounters in Early North America (2011).