White and Wendat Sisters: A Study of Female Perspectives During the Jesuit Missions in Colonial New France
By Grace Anolin
On a stormy April 15th in 1639, Marie De l’Incarnation, a French nun born Marie Guyart, wrote a letter to one of her brothers, bidding him “farewell for ever.” In a few weeks, she was to set sail for Canada, where she would devote the rest of her life to educating native peoples on the word of God. In “the depths of the most cruel barbarism,” she told her brother, “there will be my delights, and I shall treat my little savages as if they were princesses.”
Marie De l’Incarnation was one of many women who chose to give up their lives in France and join the Jesuit missions in the New World. Throughout the 1630s and 1640s, these women helped establish seminary schools and hospitals across Canada, and their lives became intertwined with those of the indigenous peoples there, particularly the indigenous women. The Jesuit missions affected many indigenous tribes, including the Montagnais, Algonkin, and Ottawa peoples, but this paper will focus on the women of the 8endat (pronounced Wendat) tribe.
Wendat women were featured heavily in the diaries and correspondence of the Jesuit missionaries. Most notably, their voices had a strong presence in the “Relations,” which were extensive, widely circulated volumes written by the Jesuits about their experiences in New France. Because of this, there has been a substantial amount of secondary source material written about their experiences. Two of the most notable works of secondary source material about Wendat Women are Chain Her By One Foot: The Subjugation of Native Women in Seventeenth Century New France by Karen Anderson and Religion Gender and Kinship in Colonial New France by Lisa J.M. Poirier. Though both of these publications contribute valuable insight, they fall short in some important ways. The main shortcoming of Anderson’s work is that her analysis falls too much into the category of a “damage narrative”—defined by Alejandra Dubcovsky as the telling of moments of “horrific loss” without “privileging [indigenous] epistemologies, futures, and contingencies.”  Poirier’s shortcoming is that, though she manages to avoid telling a damage narrative, she does not fully render the unique position that women were in during this time period. In order to do so, one must examine the experiences of both Wendat and White women.
In her letter to her brother, Marie De l’Incarnation’s promise to treat her indigenous seminary girls like royalty, while in the same breath labeling them “savage,” is indicative of the complex cultural underpinnings of female experiences in a racial intersection. This paper will explore the places in their stories where White and Wendat women’s intentions and actions overlapped, despite working towards seemingly opposite ends. It will establish commonalities between the two groups, through an examination of their relationships with each other and their male counterparts, and use those commonalities to present a narrative of gender in New France that is not of loss or gain, but of survival and preservation in the face of male threats to female autonomy and values.
Mothers, Daughters, and Sisters
Upon arrival in Wendat country in 1623, lay brother Gabriel Sagard wrote that he and his fellow missionaries were approached by women of the tribe, with requests “to marry us or at least make a family alliance with us.”  To the missionaries, this behavior was evidence that the “savage” women were too headstrong and needed to be taught their place, but in Wendat culture, forming kinship ties was one of many honored female duties.
Wendat women’s role in marriage and family relations differed in many ways from that of the French. In Wendat culture, women had complete freedom to accept or deny suitors, and extramarital sex was not frowned upon, but rather encouraged. When a couple did marry, the husband cut ties with the family he was born into and became a member of his wife’s family.
Wendat longhouses were run by networks of mothers, daughters, and sisters. These networks often combined blood ties with fictive kinship ties, meaning that the terms “sister,” “daughter,” and “mother,” did not always reflect biological relation.
In the words of Lisa J.M. Poirier, these fictive kinship ties were “the means by which the Wendat people allied with the French, and indeed, survived the dispersion.”  In this quote, Poirier is referring to the dispersion of the Wendat people by the Iroquois in 1650, but the same thinking holds true in examining earlier experiences of Wendat and the survival of their culture and autonomy in the face of Jesuit interference. Furthermore, Poirier applies her examination of kinship to the Wendat people as a whole, but a more focused study of gender in both cultures reveals that the forging of these ties was a uniquely female ability.
The French nuns similarly relied on fictive kinship ties; they were “sisters,” not by blood, but through their common devotion to God. Jesuit men, too, used “father” and “brother,” to fictively relate to one another and to God, but male kinship ties were not nearly as important, as they did not alter a man’s societal status. Patriarchal French society valued nuns over “secular” women because the Jesuits believed that “Jesus himself…imbued [them] with his own (and therefore male) Spirit.” 
The power that these religious women were able to obtain through fictive kinship ties was intensified by the fact that the dynamic between them and the Wendat girls in the seminaries was characterized in the Relations as that of a mother-daughter relationship. In an entry from 1640, a conversation with one of the nuns is recounted:“[The Wendat seminary children] are not moved at seeing the Savage girls or women come and go,—they show no desire to follow them, they salute them in the French way, and leave them smilingly; it seems as if we were their natural mothers.” This fictive mother-daughter bond extended beyond the seminary itself; women of rank back in France were assigned Wendat girls to be their God-daughters. The nuns corresponded somewhat regularly with these women in order to update them on their assigned daughters’ progress. Thus, they abandoned “the centuries-old cloistered role of female religious figures,” and were able to have “an active role in the life of the colony.” 
According to the Relations, the Wendat girls were in agreement about the terms of this fictive bond, saying “She whom I have in my country is no longer my dear mother…because she does not believe in God; it is you who are my true Mothers, since you instruct me.” It is easy to read this quote as the words of a helpless conversion victim, but considering the role of fictive kinship relations in Wendat culture, this would be a very limited interpretation. It was not uncommon amongst the Wendat for women to make decisions about who they wanted to have relationships with and who they did not. Divorce, for example, was treated casually, and women had complete authority to expel men from their longhouse. Is it not possible, then, that these young Wendat girls consciously chose to forge a fictive kinship bond with the nuns, in order to preserve some semblance of their autonomy and culture?
The Jesuit Relations are filled with conversion success stories that revel in how quickly and completely Wendat women transformed into visions of piety and how loyally and devotedly the nuns served them and their male God. A close examination of these women’s words and actions, however, reveals that displays of piety, loyalty, and devotion were often conditional. That is to say, obedience to the Jesuit Fathers and lay brothers was not without its strategic benefits for both White and Wendat women.
For Wendat women, there are two particularly poignant examples of this strategic obedience. The first can be found in an entry from 1640, in which a Wendat woman who had been baptised was seen with a Wendat man late at night. Because this type of unchaperoned interaction between members of the opposite sex was seen as a sin by the Jesuits, the woman was called upon to defend her un-Christian actions. According to the Relations, her testimony went as follows: “I have seen Frenchmen trifling with girls, caressing them and kissing them—but this is not our custom, —those who seek us only talk to us, and then go away.”
This woman is very forthright in pointing out the hypocrisy of the Jesuits here. She does end up adopting the Christian way of courtship, requiring all men to pursue her only by way of the “Fathers who had baptized” her, but the fact that her testimony was not an apology, but an admonition, is very important. It suggests an attempt to fight a system of oppression from within that system.
Another entry from 1640 tells the story of a misunderstanding between a French man and a Wendat woman over “a very pretty knife.” The woman thought that the man had given her this knife as a gift, and when he tried to take it back she got very angry. She later confessed to one of the Jesuit Fathers about the true cause of her anger—she feared being labeled a thief.
The Relations interpreted this confession as evidence of Wendat women’s progress; to them, the woman’s fear of being labeled a thief suggested an understanding of sin and a desire to act in accordance with Christian morals. A desire not to be labeled as a sinner, however, does not necessarily reflect a desire to be a Christian. From a modern perspective, taking into account the complexity of these Wendat women’s experiences, this woman’s confession reads less like an act of Christian morality and more like a criticism thereof. This woman has likely seen enough to know the French tendency to label women—as whores, as witches, as weak, etc. Thus, before even being accused of anything, she begins to resist. Just like the woman from the previous anecdote, this woman’s story is indicative of an attempt to fight a system of oppression, whilst allowing the oppressors to perceive obedience.
This idea of conditional obedience to the Jesuit men can be seen in the nuns of New France as well. In order to understand the limitations of the nuns’ devotion to their male counterparts, however, one must first understand the limitations in the nuns’ quality of life. Though French society deemed them powerful and important agents of God’s mission, they were expected to act in subservience to the Fathers and lay brothers and to sacrifice their own needs for the good of the mission. It is important to note that the men of the missions were also expected to make sacrifices, but the difference is that they were only subservient to God, while the nuns were subservient to both God and men. It was an intrinsically hierarchical system.
Marie De l’Incarnation expressed resistance to this hierarchy in her correspondence with women back in France. In 1640, she wrote to a woman of rank, asking for her help in convincing the Fathers to improve the nuns’ living accommodations. “Our foundress is full of goodwill toward us and of desire to build us lodgings, but her kinsmen do not permit her to act in accordance with her zeal,” she explained.
It may seem like a minor detail in this history, but the fact that De l’Incarnation wrote and sent this letter indicates her dissatisfaction with the hierarchy of the mission as well as a willingness to fight against it. To question the authority of her male counterparts at all, was a subversion of the obedient female archetype.
The Wendat nation was dispersed by the Iroquois in 1650, by which point the French Jesuits had become heavily involved in their intertribal conflict. Just before the battle that destroyed the Wendat’s villages, forcing them to take refuge amongst the French in Quebec, Marie De l’Incarnation composed a letter to her son. In it she spoke of the impending violence and of her loyalty to the side of the Wendat, writing “These are our treasures, our brothers, our spiritual children…Rejoice then, if we die and if news is brought to you that our blood and ashes are mingled with theirs.”
The sentiments here harken back to the letter she wrote upon first departing for the New World, in which she promised to treat the “savages” like royalty. It is indicative of the French’s belief in their mission’s success; the Wendat were no longer “savages” to treat like royals, but Christians to treat as Christians. Though success for the French meant Wendat loss in many ways, the fact that the Wendat were able to survive such a violent and devastating dispersal shows the impact of the words, actions, and intentions, that have been enumerated in this paper, of White and Wendat women.
 Marie De l’Incarnation to one of her brothers, April 15, 1639, In: “Word From New France,” page 80, archive.org, Accessed November 2021, https://archive.org/details/wordfromnewfranc000mari.
 Also known by the name “Huron”
 For more information on how the Relations have been used and interpreted in academia, See Carolyn Podruchny and Katherine Magee Labelle, “Jean de Brebeuf and the Wendat voices of Seventeenth Century New France,” Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme 34, no. 1/2 (2011): 97-127.
 Karen Anderson, Chain Her By One Foot (New York: Routledge, 1993); Lisa J. M. Poirier, Religion, Gender, and Kinship in Colonial New France (New York: Syracuse University Press, 2016).
 For more information on damage narratives and the ethical study of indigenous experiences, see Alejandra Ducovsky, “Defying Indian Slavery,” The William and Mary Quarterly 75, no. 2 (2018): 295-322.
 Gabriel Sagard, The Long Journey to the Country of the Hurons (Toronto: 1939): 126.
 Anderson, Chain Her By One Foot, 102-128.
 Poirier, Religion, Gender, and Kinship,166.
 Anderson, Chain Her By One Foot, 55-56.
The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents 1610 to 1791 Vol. XIX, trans. Percy Favor Bicknell, (Cleveland, 1898): 53, http://moses.creighton.edu/kripke/jesuitrelations/relations_19.html, Accessed October 2021.
 For an example of this correspondence see Marie De l’Incarnation to a lady of rank, September 3, 1640, In: “Word from New France,” pages 70 through 78, archive.org, Accessed November 2021, https://archive.org/details/wordfromnewfranc000mari.
 Jan Noel, “New France: Les Femme Favorisees,” Atlantis:Critical Studies in Gender, Culture, and Social Justice. 6, No. 2 (1981): 87.
 The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents 1610 to 1791 Vo. XX, trans. Percy Favor Bicknell, (Cleveland, 1898): 136, http://moses.creighton.edu/kripke/jesuitrelations/relations_20.html, Accessed October 2021.
 Anderson, Chain Her By One Foot, 102-128.
 For examples of these “success stories” see The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents 1610 to 1791 Vol. XVI, Trans. Percy Favor Bicknell, (Cleveland, 1898): 73-111, http://moses.creighton.edu/kripke/jesuitrelations/relations_20.html, Accessed October 2021; The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents 1610 to 1791 Vol. XIX, trans. Percy Favor Bicknell, (Cleveland, 1898): 8-59.
 The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents 1610-1791 Vol. XVIII, Trans. Percy Favor Bicknkell, (Cleveland, 1898): 137-142. Quotation on 139.
 The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents 1610-1791 Vol. XVIII, Trans. Percy Favor Bicknkell, (Cleveland, 1898): 142-145, http://moses.creighton.edu/kripke/jesuitrelations/relations_18.html. Accessed October 2021.
 For examples of the sacrifices that women made, see The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents 1610 to 1791 Vol. XIX, Trans. Percy Favor Bicknell, (Cleveland, 1898): 8-59. For examples of the sacrifices that men made, see Anderson, Chain Her By One Foot, 13-30.
 Marie De l’Incarnation to a lady of rank, In: “Word from New France.” 70-78.
 Marie De l’Incarnation to her son, August 30, 1650, In: “Word from New France,” archive.org, Accessed November 2021, https://archive.org/details/wordfromnewfranc000mari.
De l’Incarnation, Marie. Word From New France: The Selected Letters of Marie De l’Incarnation. Translated and edited by Joyce Marshall. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Sagard, Gabriel. The Long Journey to the Country of the Hurons. The Champlain Society, 1632: 121-131. The Publications of the Champlain Society, Vol. 25. Toronto, 1939.
The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents 1610 to 1791 Vol. XIX: Hurons and Quebec 1640, Translated by Finlow Alexander, Percy Favor Bicknell, et al., (Cleveland: The Burrows Brothers Company, 1898), 19: 8-59, http://moses.creighton.edu/kripke/jesuitrelations/relations_19.html. Accessed October 2021.
The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents 1610 to 1791 Vol. XX: Hurons Quebec 1640, Translated by Finlow Alexander, Percy Favor Bicknell, et al., (Cleveland: The Burrows Brothers Company, 1898), 20:123-141, http://moses.creighton.edu/kripke/jesuitrelations/relations_20.html. Accessed October 2021.
The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents 1610 to 1791 Vol. XVI: Quebec and Hurons 1639, Translated by Finlow Alexander, Percy Favor Bicknell, et al.,(Cleveland: The Burrows Brothers Company, 1898), 16: 73-111, http://moses.creighton.edu/kripke/jesuitrelations/relations_16.html. Accessed October 2021.
The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents 1610 to 1791 Vol. XVIII: Hurons and Quebec 1640, Translated by Finlow Alexander, Percy Favor Bicknell, et al., (Cleveland: The Burrows Brothers Company, 1898), 18: 135-177, http://moses.creighton.edu/kripke/jesuitrelations/relations_18.html. Accessed October 2021.
Anderson, Karen. Chain her by one foot: the subjugation of Native women in seventeenth- century New France. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Dubcovsky, Alejandra. “Defying Indian Slavery: Apalachee Voices and Spanish Sources in the Eighteenth-Century Southeast.” The William and Mary Quarterly 75, no. 2 (2018): 295-322. muse.jhu.edu/article/692225. Accessed November 2021.
Podruchny and Kathryn Magee Labelle.“Jean de Brébeuf and the Wendat Voices of Seventeenth-Century New France.” Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme 34, no. 1/2 (2011): 97–126. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43446462. Accessed October 2021.
Poirier, Lisa J.M. Religion, Gender, and Kinship in Colonial New France. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2016.
Noel, Jan. “New France: Les femme favorisees.” Atlantis:Critical Studies in Gender, Culture, and Social Justice. 6, No. 2 (1981): 80-98. https://journals.msvu.ca/index.php/atlantis/article/view/4657/3890. Accessed October 2021.