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The North American Martyrs Offer A Way To Atone For Historic Sins


Warning: This article briefly mentions torture methods.

On October 19, Catholics will celebrate the feast day of saints Isaac Jogues, Jean de Brebeuf, and companions, the first martyrs in North America recognized by the Catholic Church. These martyrs, either Frenchmen or Native American converts, were brutally murdered in the 1640s in what is now Canada by Mohawk and Iroquois warriors.

Their deaths, particularly in light of the recent Columbus Day holiday and the renewed demands for its ending or renaming, remind us that the relationship between Europeans and the indigenous American peoples is often not reducible to the simplistic paradigm of aggressive colonizer and peaceful natives.

The Story of North America’s First Martyrs

The Jesuit French missionaries Isaac Jogues and Jean Brebeuf arrived in Quebec in 1636 to work among the Hurons, a tribe that had been receptive to the Catholic faith. Unfortunately, Jogues was captured by the Iroquois, enemies of the Hurons, and imprisoned for 13 months, during which time he was beaten, tortured, and forced to watch as Huron converts were mangled and killed.

He escaped, only to return in 1646. He was again captured by a Mohawk war party, which tomahawked and beheaded him on October 18. Other French missionaries, including companion Jean de Lalande, Father Anthony Daniel, and Jean de Brébeuf, were tortured, murdered, or burned to death by Mohawk and Iroquois warriors in subsequent years across what is now Canada and upstate New York. Eight of these martyrs were canonized in 1930.

The torture methods these Native American peoples employed were exactingly wicked. During his first imprisonment, for example, Jogues’ hands were permanently mutilated, his fingers either cut off or chewed. The Mohawks and Iroquois extended these practices even to the child converts of the Catholic Huron, one missionary account describing a child of four or five who was stretched on a piece of bark, his tiny hands and feet pierced with pointed sticks.

A historical narrative common in the 19th and 20th centuries depicted the Iroquois as “an expansive military and political power … [who] subjugated their enemies by violent force and for almost two centuries acted as the fulcrum in the balance of power in colonial North America.”

This Kind of Violence Wasn’t Unique

In contrast to many popular contemporary portrayals of Native American peoples prior to the arrival of Europeans, the North American continent witnessed plenty of violence in the centuries before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Lawrence Keeley of the University of Illinois has noted that “the dogs of war were seldom on a leash” in the pre-Colombian New World.

Historians now estimate that the once-powerful Aztec and Mayan civilizations in what is now Mexico murdered hundreds of thousands of peoples in bizarre rituals of human sacrifice to appease their gods. Many of these victims came from conquered people groups, demonstrating that even Native Americans could be “colonialists.”

Such spectacular violence was also prevalent in what is now the United States. Washington State University archaeologist Tim Kohler and colleagues have documented that nearly 90 percent of human remains from the American southwest during the twelfth century had trauma from blows to either their heads or parts of their arms.

Although Laura Ingalls Wilder has recently come under scrutiny for her books’ portrayals of Native Americans — particularly her mother’s explicit racism— such fear towards Western indigenous peoples was based on bloody experience. During the Dakota War of 1862, hundreds of white civilians, including many children, were butchered by warriors of the Dakota Sioux. Elsewhere in the 19th-century American West, Comanche warriors were legendary for their brutality, including mutilating and raping women, killing babies, and roasting enemy soldiers alive.

European Settlers Were Often Terrible Too

None of the descriptions of Native American brutality listed above are intended to obscure or detract from the pure wickedness of European settlers, beginning with Columbus himself. The great explorer described the indigenous peoples of the Bahamas thus:

They…brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance…. With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

White European settlers, be they French, English, Dutch, Spanish or Portuguese, did evil deeds that would be difficult for their descendants, hundreds of years later, to make sufficient reparations for. Europeans enslaved native peoples across both American continents, murdered them and their families, and stole their property.

Prior to Columbus’ arrival in the New World, there were somewhere between 5 and 15 million people in North America. By the end of the Indian Wars at the end of the 19th century, there were fewer than half a million.

Our American forefathers were some of the worst offenders of these efforts. The U.S. government, either through neglect or willful action, broke treaties with Native American tribes that allowed white settlers to steal Indian land. Often the treaties foisted upon Indians were not accurately explained to tribal representatives, resulting in the manipulative theft of their ancestral homes.

U.S. President Andrew Jackson, following several military campaigns against indigenous peoples in the American South, was responsible for the “Trail of Tears,” the forced eviction of Cherokee, Choctaw, and Creek Indians to Oklahoma. Thousands of natives died on the journey.

In 1890, a U.S. military force massacred about 200 peaceful Indians at Wounded Knee. In our nation’s tortured history with the original inhabitants, it is hard to find a single example of the U.S. government treating any Indian tribe with equity or charity.

Remembering, Honoring, and Learning From the Past

In truth, every side of the European-Indian legacy has blood on its hands. Europeans deceived, stole, and murdered to create what has become our great nation; Native Americans deceived, stole, and murdered, as well, often as a defensive measure, but sometimes with the same ignorance and malice usually attributed to whites. What, then, are we to do with this bloody, shared past?

One response, exemplified by movements to rename holidays, deface statues, and remove memorials, prefers to effectively destroy a significant chunk of our history. Anyone tainted with such evils as racism or colonialism must be vilified and excised from public historical memory — damnatio memoriae, as the ancient Romans called it.

Rather than exterminate our history, we contextualize it, mourn it, and make proper amends for it.

First off, this is foolish. Almost all the founders of this nation were racists or colonialists of one stripe or another. To properly expunge these evils from our past, we would have to make America into something other than itself, which would almost certainly elevate tyranny over liberty. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, even Abraham Lincoln — all their hands are bloody.

Damnatio memoriae is also a double-edged sword. As I’ve noted above, when it comes to European-Indian violence, there is plenty of blame to go around. A far better response, I would submit, is one that takes sufficient account of our collective national guilt.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, a proper “civic liturgy” includes a space for us all to acknowledge and repent of our nation’s sins, and the part we or our ancestors played in those evils. Rather than exterminate our history, we contextualize it, mourn it, and make proper amends for it.

As far as Native Americans are concerned, we should probably be less concerned with sports teams that have Indian-inspired names (especially when most Indians aren’t offended by them). Rather, we should support government efforts to reduce disproportionate percentages of poverty, unemployment, and alcoholism on tribal reservations. Such an approach would do far more to make reparations for our nation’s past sins.

To Learn from History, We Must Know It

Almost 400 years ago, a group of French Jesuits sought to missionize the original inhabitants of what is now the northern United States and southern Canada. They sought to love the Native Americans they met, to educate them, and, in a way, prepare them for the great colonial juggernaut that was coming.

Many Indians converted to Christianity. Others were suspicious, afraid, or angered by any threat to their way of life. They responded with violence. In our own day, we too are confronted with something we don’t like — a past that is often confusing, embarrassing, and angering. We too are inclined towards a violent reaction to obliterate this past.

Yet such acts solve little, and only obscure a legacy we need to and we must understand. A far better honor, both to the missionary zeal of early French martyrs like Isaac Jogues and Jean de Brebeuf, and for the peoples for whom they died, would be to remember them, to learn from them, and to let their acts of virtue inspire our own.