The North American Martyrs and the Myth of the Noble Savage

North American Martyrs
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October 19 is the feast day of St. Isaac Jogues in the General Calendar. He was a Jesuit missionary working and living among the Mohawk Indians in the 1630s and 1640s before being tortured and beheaded on October 18, 1646. Few Catholics, especially Catholics in America, even know of the story of the North American Martyrs. Why?

In an age when we are meant to weep and cry over the tragedy of the Native Americans due to European settlement and Christianization, none are told to weep over the Europeans who were brutally butchered at the hands of the indigenous populations that routinely warred and killed each other prior to the arrival of European settlers. The Mayans were active sodomites, and some of their surviving artwork celebrates sodomite lust and violence. The Aztecs engaged in human sacrifice, cannibalism, and a slavery far worse than the Atlantic slave trade. The mound-building Native Americans in the interior river basins of North America also engaged in ritualistic human and child sacrifice. These were hardly noble and peaceful people before the arrival of Europeans.

The defenders of these horrors argue that the Christian (predominately Catholic) sources overexaggerated the brutality of the natives to justify conquest. This is typical among the Christ-hating intellectual establishment. Dismiss all the evidence that doesn’t conform to your presuppositional ideology. If facts don’t fit the theory, dismiss the facts as fake.

It is important for Catholics to have the memory of the North American martyrs for several reasons. 

First is that the story of the Catholic martyrs suffering from the hands of the Native Americans dispel any illusion that the natives were peaceful victims of supposed European aggression. On the contrary, it was often native aggression toward Europeans that sparked the wars between the settlers and Native Americans. Why weep for Native Americans when holy saints were flayed alive and had their skulls crushed by tomahawks? Eradicate that memory and the tragedy of the Native Americans can be weaponized for contemporary political goals.

Second is that the story of the Catholic martyrs shows that America’s founding, her true roots, rest not in the Protestant settlement of New England or the American Constitution but in Christ’s holy work through His Church. The seed of America is bathed in the blood and labor of Christ’s ministers and martyrs and not abstract political documents which make no reference to Christ, His Gospel, or His Church, whatever benefits may have come from those documents.

Equally bound up with the remembrance of St. Isaac Jogues, and the other North American martyrs: St. René Goupil, St. Jean de Lalande, St. Antoine Daniel, St. Jean de Brébeuf, St. Noël Chabanel, St. Charles Garnier, and St. Gabriel Lalemant, is the inspirational faith that they exhibited—especially among the Jesuit missionaries, considering the state of the Jesuit order in North America today. St. Isaac Jogues, for instance, reportedly said upon his missionary odyssey, “I go, but I shall never come back again.” 

St. René Goupil, a lay assistant for St. Isaac Jogues, was the first to be tortured and killed, in 1642. He, along with the martyred missionary priest, began to convert the Huron to Christianity, which enhanced Mohawk animosity toward them (because, contrary to the myth of peaceful Native American relations, the Huron and Mohawk hated each other and were bitter enemies; the Mohawks used the Hurons’ conversion as a pretext for war). 

When the two missionaries entered Mohawk villages, they were immediately captured without provocation, tortured, and St. René Goupil was butchered by several strikes to the head with a tomahawk. St. Isaac Jogues was ransomed by Dutch traders afterward but was undeterred by native brutality and continued his missionary efforts. What a heroic faith! When he pressed into the wilderness frontier in 1646 to continue his missionary efforts, he was once again tortured. He was then killed alongside St. Jean de Lalande and their bodies were desecrated and thrown into the Mohawk River.

The Native Americans who had converted to Catholicism later captured the killers of the French missionaries. Condemned to death, one of the killers, much like the Good Thief, converted and was baptized and took the name of Isaac Jogues before he, too, went to stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ.

Culture is bound up with memory. The memory of the saints is one of the hallmarks of Catholic culture and keeps the culture Christian. The loss of the memory of the saints leads to the deracination of culture and the poverty of memory. Why are these heroic, martyred saints not remembered or widely known among the North American faithful? The answer is that there is a war on Christianity in the form of neglection and forgetfulness; and this is the subtle killer of Christian culture, the neglect of memory and consciousness that passes on stories from generation to generation.

Moreover, Catholics who venerate the Native Americans who killed such brave ministers of Christ and His Gospel are the unwitting pawns of the new cultural vandalism. The attempt to impose onto the Catholic faithful the memory of Catholic atrocities against the Natives while ignoring the Native killing of Europeans and Catholic missionaries inverts the celebratory heart of Catholics. Rather than celebrate the holy martyrs who died for Christ, Catholics are subtly forced to mourn those who waged a war against Christ and His Church.

But the war against Christianity and Christian memory doesn’t stop with the idolization of the myth of the noble savage. Some go as far as to politicize the issue—as always—and now claim that the decline of the Native Americans caused “climate change.” This ideological propaganda aims at destroying any Christian veneration of the Christianization of the New World because Christianity, which is directly tied to North American settlement, “caused climate change.” If we are to remember Christianization in the New World, it is something to be understood as bad.

The stories of the martyred saints who engaged in the true “errand into the wilderness” remain an inspiration for all God-fearing Catholics on this continent. It is also a window into the realities of Native American society in contrast to the myths we propagate about them. Lastly, the story of the martyred saints in the North American wilderness reveal to us the true roots of American civilization and culture: Christianity, the Catholic Church, and the missionary heart. 

The martyred saints courageously crossed boundaries and learned new languages and sat—side by side—with people different than they, people with injured souls in need of the treatment only Christ can offer. The North American martyrs are the real heroes of the faith who embarked on a true errand into the wilderness to try and serve and save souls in desperate need of God. Their efforts to lovingly convert the Native Americans to the Church of Christ ought not be forgotten. They continue to show us the true, and only, path forward in a culture as barren as the seventeenth century and in need of the seeds of life and love.

By

Paul Krause a teacher, writer, and campus minister. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love: A Christian Guide to the Great Books (Wipf and Stock, 2021).

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