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The Meaning of the Native Graves

It is no tragedy that thousands of indigenous Canadians were reared and buried as Christians.

And it came to pass, when the days of his assumption were accomplishing, that he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers before his face; and going, they entered into a city of the Samaritans, to prepare for him. And they received him not, because his face was of one going to Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John had seen this, they said: Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them? And turning, he rebuked them, saying: You know not of what spirit you are.

The Son of man came not to destroy souls, but to save. And they went into another town. And it came to pass, as they walked in the way, that a certain man said to him: I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. Jesus said to him: The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. But he said to another: Follow me. And he said: Lord, suffer me first to go, and to bury my father. And Jesus said to him: Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou, and preach the kingdom of God.

And another said: I will follow thee, Lord; but let me first take my leave of them that are at my house. Jesus said to him: No man putting his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God. (Luke 9:51-62)

Anno Domini 1625, the young French Jesuit Jean de Brébeuf was sent by his superiors to the province of New France; leaving behind the country of his birth, the missionary priest became one of the daring few who ventured into an untamed continent bearing little more than a keen awareness of the gravity of their mission: to bring the Christian Gospel to the natives.

Brébeuf had been chosen for the New World because he had a knack for languages, and so was well equipped for engagement with an altogether alien culture. The assignment proved a wise one, as Brébeuf immersed himself deeply among the Wyandot, or Huron, a tribal confederacy that had gathered on the north shores of Lake Ontario two centuries before. From 1626, the Jesuit père devoted himself as the apostle to the Hurons, with the singular mission of making these people Catholic.

It was slow work. An ancient pagan religion was ingrained among the Wyandot, and few had much interest in leaving it behind. But Brébeuf learned their language and their ways, and taught them something of his own in turn. By 1636, a decade into Brébeuf’s missionary work, he said he had baptized 86 of the pagan Wyandot.

That year was significant for another reason, too: Brébeuf—the tall, pale stranger from the land across the sea—was invited to witness the sacred Wyandot Feast of the Dead. In the ceremony, held at the Wyandot capital of Ossossané, the Wyandot dead were disinterred, reverently cleaned, and placed together in a communal ossuary pit, along with valuable and meaningful material offerings. The Christian priest was greatly impressed by the pagans’ treatment of their dead, and it is perhaps not coincidence that this was the year of Brébeuf’s first great missionary successes.

Brébeuf and his fellow Jesuits ministered to the Wyandot another 13 years. Then, under military pressure from the northward-moving Iroquois, the Wyandot and their Jesuit companions found themselves in dire straits. Finally, as the invading Iroquois sacked the mission village of Saint-Louis, Brébeuf and fellow priest Gabriel Lalemant were taken captive. The savage torture to which they were subjected included flaying and—in mockery of the sacrament they had brought to the Wyandot—a baptism in boiling water. At the end of it all, the natives consumed Father Brébeuf’s blood and heart.

The martyrs’ bodies were retrieved and buried at the nearby mission of Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, where they had ministered in life. Three months to the day after the priests’ martyrdom at the hands of the Iroquois, the remaining missionaries were forced to evacuate. Rather than leave the church to be desecrated, the Jesuits set the mission ablaze and watched their life’s work crumble as they fled.

It would not be the last church burned in the land whose heavenly patron is now St. Jean de Brébeuf. In recent weeks, nine Canadian churches, both Catholic and Anglican, have been subjected to arson attacks. Many more have been otherwise vandalized to varying degrees. The popular narrative, broadcast by an astonishingly credulous media, is that previously unknown mass graves of children were discovered just this summer on the grounds of Indian residential schools and, in a rash of grief and righteous anger, indigenous protestors swept across the nation desecrating churches.

It is very important to note that the entire story is made up. First, we have always known that many children died in the residential schools, which were active through the 19th and 20th centuries. Child mortality was relatively high during that period to begin with; Indian mortality overall was astronomically high; and the Church-run schools for native children were systemically underfunded by the government, resulting in subpar facilities and inadequate medical care. Second, the sites almost certainly include the graves of Christian adults from the neighboring communities, as Chief Cadmus Delorme of the Cowessess First Nation admitted with respect to the Marieval Indian Residential School, where an estimated 751 burials were detected by radar last month. The “mass graves” of public hysteria are, in fact, the ordered and intentional burial sites of people we always knew were dead, and who died of more or less natural causes. In more literate times, we might have called that a cemetery.

People die, and when they die, you put them in the ground. There is nothing inherently scandalous about this. When the burial site of the 1636 Feast of the Dead was excavated in 1947, the only outrage—justified, mind you—was directed at those who uncovered it, and in so doing disturbed and desecrated the sacred resting ground.

This is not to discount the deaths of children altogether. Of course, it would have been better if each and every one of the First Nations tykes Christianized by the union of Church and state had lived a long and happy life. But it is absolutely to discount the blame fixed on the Church by vicious opportunists. If anyone is at fault here—and the residential school system, for all the good of its evangelizing purpose, was hardly without flaws—it is, without a doubt, the secular authority. Had the Canadian government, which in word endorsed the Christian mission of the residential schools, upheld that word in deed by providing the funding which Church authorities repeatedly said was necessary for adequate operation, living conditions could have been improved and a great many premature deaths avoided.

But this failure of the secular authority to sufficiently serve the Church does not in any way indict that Christian mission. And make no mistake, the residential schools were first and foremost Christian. Those who ministered to the Indians a century ago did so, like Jean de Brébeuf three centuries before, out of a sincere concern for the salvation of their souls. The political utility recognized by the Canadian government—that, as one bureaucrat put it early on, “the North American Indian cannot be civilized or preserved in a state of civilization (including habits of industry and sobriety) except in connection with, if not by the influence of, not only religious instruction and sentiment but of religious feelings”—is secondary. Likewise, the certain fact that souls were saved by the missionaries, the enduring belief of Christians that the Gospel is true and must be spread, is paramount; everything else is secondary.

Whatever good was present at the Ossossané ossuary—where those who had not yet encountered the fullness of Truth honored their dead as best they knew how—is increased a thousandfold in the cemeteries of the residential schools, where baptized Christians were given Christian burials. Whatever natural good was present in the piety and community of the pagan past is an infinitesimal fraction of the grace rendered unto those pagans’ descendants who have been received into the Church of Christ. Whatever sacrifices were exacted in pursuit of that grace—the suffocation of a noble pagan culture; an increase in disease and bodily death due to government negligence; even the sundering of natural families—is worth it.

It must be, else two millennia of Christian civilization, in which oceans have been bridged, wars waged, continents conquered, and the lives of a million Jean de Brébeufs given in service to the Lord’s final commandment—Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.—all has been for nought.

Not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead. He that eateth this bread, shall live for ever. These things he said, teaching in the synagogue, in Capharnaum.

Many therefore of his disciples, hearing it, said: This saying is hard, and who can hear it? But Jesus, knowing in himself, that his disciples murmured at this, said to them: Doth this scandalize you? If then you shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before? It is the spirit that quickeneth: the flesh profiteth nothing. (John 6:59-64)



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