Religion, Gender, and Kinship in Colonial New France

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Lisa J. M. Poirier
  • Syracuse, NY: 
    Syracuse University Press
    , October
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Lisa J. M. Poirier’s Religion, Gender, and Kinship in Colonial New France is an exploration of the struggle of French and Wendat men and women to articulate meaning in the context of French and Wendat relations in the first decades of French colonial activity in Wendat Country—present day Ontario Canada—and in settlements constructed along the lower Saint Lawrence River, c. 1608-1650. Poirier’s central contention is that new religious orientations emerge as products of French and Wendat strategies of exchange—particularly the material exchanges of human beings. Poirier’s analysis focuses on four individuals: Étienne Brûlé, a French interpreter, Joseph Chihoatenhwa, a Wendat who allied with the Jesuits, Thérèse Oionhaton, a Wendat catechist, and Marie Rollet Hébert, a French settler. Her focus on four persons is a chief strength of the text with important implications as it encourages consideration of religion in practice, and thus reenvisions contact zones less as places where cultural systems collide, and more as spaces in which individuals are motivated to construct new orientations.

Religion, Gender, and Kinship in Colonial New France is a valuable contribution not only to the history of religion, but also to Algonquian ethno-history, and the history of New France. Its interdisciplinary value is afforded by another of the book’s chief strengths: the bringing of a history of religions perspective to historical and ethno-historical scholarship on the early decades of colonialism in New France. While such scholarship has been excellent in illuminating materialist and rationalist explanations for intercultural relations, Poirier attends to the role of religion in contact events. Poirier construes religion as one’s orientation toward what one considers ultimately significant, writing “new orientations to self, to [the] other, and to the sacred, were expressed in ways that can only be called ‘religious’” (5). Poirier’s use of the sacred here—and elsewhere in the text—raises the question of whether a religious orientation is an orientation to the transcendent. Occasionally she refers to kinship as centrally sacred, at other times, as above, the sacred stands alone. While this minor observation does not detract from her insightful analysis, I raise it in relation to what she identifies as a distinctive contribution of the book: the introduction of a religious hermeneutics to the study of New France. More than a little persuasion may be necessary when introducing religion to historical scholarship, for as Kenneth Morrisson observed in The Solidarity of Kin (State University Press of New York, 2002), a text Poirier cites as inspiration for her book, ethnohistorians are often dismissive of the role played by religion in contact events. Moreover, there is a body of Algonquian ethnography and ethnohistory that is critical of the category of the transcendent as applied to Algonquian religious life. In any event, this does not detract from Poirier’s aim of “reading against the texts,”—chiefly Jesuit mission sources—to illuminate “the complexities and opacities of the colonial encounters and exchanges of Wendat country and New France” (7).

One thing which Poirier does particularly well throughout the text is to elucidate the religious significance of kin. For example, in her treatment of Etienne Brûlé she illuminates Wendat economics as inextricable from kinship. The Wendat were vexed by Brûlé’s effort to act “as if exchange should be conceived as simply a matter of commodities and thus had betrayed the sacrality of his relationship with his Wendat kin,” a betrayal which ultimately leads to his murder (68). Another example is found in her treatment of Joseph Chihoatenhwa when focusing attention on his motivations for allying with the Jesuits. Chihoatenhwa was first drawn to the Jesuits to learn to write to record the affairs of his own country; later, in the context of the loss of many family members, he appropriated the ritual of baptism as a healing rite to extend protection to his kin. The choices which inform his new orientation “were made in order to keep himself, his family, and his people alive” (121), and ultimately afforded a redefinition of kinship which excluded unconverted kin and included those baptized as Christian.

The theme of kinship is further explored in chapters on Thérèse Oionhaton and Marie Rollet Hébert. The focus of each chapter is ostensibly on the lives of the two women, yet unlike the chapters on Chihoatenhwa and Brûlé, they are less biographical, with the women registering as points of entry into to a broader discussion of new orientations constructed by Wendat and immigrant French women. This is not a criticism as the move is doubtless due to the fact that “the voices of the women of Wendat country are often more deeply buried in colonial texts” (16). Despite this limitation, what Poirier is able to do with the material is impressive, and yields a much-needed sensitivity to gender in the construction of religious identities. I am particularly drawn to the chapter on Thérèse Oionhaton where Poirer examines Wendat women’s resistance to Christianity and yet, the reasons for integrating Christianity into their new orientations. Poirier incisively illustrates the unique threat conversion posed to Wendat women while also examining why some women did convert. Poirier’s analysis of conversion is the distinctive contribution of the chapter. Poirier shows how conversion was motivated by a desire to forge new kinship structures in the face of the decimation of kin and the loss of family—structures which also incorporated the Urusline sisters, as they too were recognized as displaced. The exploration is further supported with treatment of a Wendat myth of a “lost sister,” suggesting that these converts cultivated space in which they could mourn the loss of powerful women while looking optimistically toward a renovated future.

Poirier’s book is a very well written, thoughtfully composed and organized text. It is highly accessible to non-specialists with an interest in early colonial North America, Catholic Missions, and Native American studies. The book should also be of interest to historians of religion and to ethnohistorians with an interest in the role of religion in cultural change. It could be effectively used either in whole or in part in both upper and introductory level classes on the history of religion, women and religion, global Christianity, and Native American religions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jason Redden is part-time faculty in the department of philosophy and religious studies at Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lisa J. M. Poirier is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at DePaul University.


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