The Sichangu Medicine Men and Missionary Agents of the Diocese de Quebec

Along the Red River in Northwest Territory, Fathers Provencher and Dumoulin set up a mission in 1818.  Members of the the Hudson Bay Company had already settled there, and with the arrival of two missionaries, many of the Hudson Bay Company workers felt that a region where vice had been “deeply rooted” within society could finally be restored. 

Over the next few yers,by 1821, a sizeable population of French Canadians came to settle in this region as well.  Numerous tales of the warm reception they received from the missionaries and Diocese of Quebec led many to suspect the first goal of the Diocese and French Missionaries had been accomplished.  The successful transition of a local Native American society ino an acculturated group was finally about to take place.

A year later, in 1822, three hundred people of Red River received baptism.  In addition, one hundred and twenty couples were married or had their marriages reinstated below the Holy Cross.  Another one hundred fifty members of this local community finally received their first communion.  To the Monseigneur of this territory, these Christians reached the final of three goals previously set by the Diocese, a sure sign that this trinity had finally been accomplished.  The first goal of this community was to build churches and to establish a holy land.  The second goal was for Monseigneur Joseph Provencher’s role to assure stability within this new-born Christian community following his arrival.  The third was to complete this mission and demonstrate its success through the completionof a series of Christian baptisms, weddings and confirmations.

As Provencher began new plans for a Mission at Fournier and another at White-Horse Prairies, he decided tht he would this time erect a chapel that was much larger in size, two stories in height, located at the Saint Paul Mission in Fournier.  Symbolic of his faith, he laid out floor plans of this church, which included a design for the main floor which would serve as the school and catechical institution, and a second floor, being closest to heaven, whih would serve as the site where holy services took place.  This practice of placing members ofthe Native American congregates would be a practice repeated for years to come by other missons throughout  middle and lower Canada.

As Provencher’s missionary partner, Father Belcourt, directed the construction of this chapel, directing the Native American tribe residing nearby to help with most of this construction.   Meanwhile, in the White-Horse Prairie, a different church was being erected, which Provencher decided would be “a chapel of wood.”  Like the St. Paul Mission, it was built with the assistance of Metis and Native Americans who used tree boughs and woods gathered from their local forest.  Like the two story church in Fournier, this church had its replicas built and established throughout the wilderness areas of much of Canada.

By building these chapels with the help of Metis and Natives, the Archdiocese hoped these new forms of social activities would further inspire the “savages” to attend the church services there.  The Archdiocese’s view of White-Horse Prairie was that it still had about seven hundred souls to convert to Christianity.  In Fourche, there were about six thousand ready to honor the stone church that they helped to build as it was dedicated to Saint Boniface in 1832.   A local member of this faith, nearing his own social and spiritual goals regardng this church once wrote, “It is a happy moment. The Indians are very attached to this chapel.  It is a happy moment for them when returning from their hunts, they set eyes upon it; the children jump and dance joyously about their parents when they discover in the distance the steeple which surmounts this edifice.  An old neophyte said he never experienced more agreeable sensation than that he felt in the morning when coming out of his cabin he laid eyes on the chapel.”

“Bois-brules” or Burnt Wood’  became the accepted term for use by members of the mission, especially when referring to the younger half-breeds attending their school.  At Fourche, where two of these elementary schools were established, each school had its own mentor and teacher.  The first was directed by a Bishop, the other by Madamoiselle Nolin, a daughter of trader descent raised by a member of the old Northwest Fur Company.  Madamoiselle Nolan learned her life skills at the Dames of Congregation school in Montreal, where she became the spiritual advisor to the children and the direct liason between the Church’s Diocese and the neophytes then residing in the newly born Christian-Native community.  To the Diocese, neophytes born as Sauteurs or Sauteux (in their language Ojiboweke) and those of the Crees (Kinistinck), were “savage groups” whom contrasted with groups residing in close association with this mission, such as the Mackegons of the Lake Winnepeg-Hudson Bay boundry lands, the Assiniboins, a detachment of the Sioux tribe, and the “small savage tribes” of Mandals, Gros-ventres, Black-Foots, Puans, Snakes, Blood Indians, and Castors.

During the early years of establishing these Red River settlements, it was almost impossible for missionaries to reside within or near these “savage” communities.  By 1830, their presence came to be accepted and so some of them removed to reside close to or within the tribal lands, hoping to educate them and of course reduce their savagery.  Missionary Father Belcourt began this indoctrination session by educating his young aspiring Christians, for he had received considerable resistance from the elders and parents in his community.  Since the popular belief and subsequent practice of the Missions was that the children were most susceptible to undergoing the needed changes to become Christians, Father Belcourt succeeded in convincing the youngest neophytes, and subsequently his superiors, and so received permission to baptize the first of these children. 

The normal publicly-held debates often ensued between Christian and Indigenous elders concerning Christianity, regarding their beliefs and concerns about the Christian faith, along with the same pertaining to Great Spirit.  The Missionaries felt that in some ways, the two were similar and used this thinking to their advantage.  As they slowly gained support from the younger children, the elders who continued to dispute their claims slowly agreed to certain concessions over the weeks and months, but only once thy heard the message of the Diocese, members of whom made a fairly strong-willed statement in 1839: “Divine Providence who holds in His hands the hearts and power to move to His Will, inspire these young people with a courage to victoriously resist these blind old men.”  Within a few more years, members of the Missions preached liberty to the Metis and Native American children, finally convincing them and others to suppress or resist thier ancient spiritual practices they had devoted so much time to.  Both sides coceded that the great Power and Great Mystery was something that both sides could become devoted to.  Future accounts of these same events have since led to the sharing of numerous Christian stories, as well as some of the myths that were only passed down through oral history during the years before. 

Of the many accounts that soon followed after the acceptance of Christianity by the Indians, and the importance of  Native American tales relating to those who were converted, one such tale was that of Katakkotinimanagan, an old man who at seventy years of age was convinced of Christianity.  His devotion came when the priest “reproached him for his continuous delay in becoming a Christian and reminded him that his resistance would, sooner or later, expose him to the Wrath of God.”  Early on, Katakkotinimanagan had denied such a threat and so, as any Devil-worshipper should, he departed his village as an elder, only to experience what may have been a stroke four days later in the woods.  The children who accompanied him into the forest immediately attended to his needs, but would ultimately return to their encampment to seek the assistance of “a few elders whom they thought more learned than they in medicine.”  In short time, the effects of the paralysis set in and so Katakkotinimanagan was then taken to the village and then prepared by his children for receiving his first baptism. 

In accordance with tradition, the other elders were against this decision and tried to convince the children that the baptism would hasten the death of their tribe’s original patron.  As proof of this, they cited several sick children from their community who, soon after receiving their first baptisms, perished due to an unforeseen sickness.  Since quite often the Missionaries tried to give the baptism to the lame and weak, and often just before their deaths due to disease or weakness, it was not unusual for Natives, in their dying days, to be convinced that baptisms were the way to be accepted by the Christian God.  In the minds of the Missionaries this was taken to mean they wished to be cured of their life-threatening malady.   But in actuality, many were so close to death and weakened by the lancet, that they were unaware of whatever agreements were made orally with the other country’s Missionary elders. 

In this same way, Katakkotinimanagan finally conceded to the baptism, and during his recuperation from his stroke, underwent six weeks of Christian training to prepare him for his first sacred Christian event to take place.  For several weeks, he was visited by the missionary, who directed Katakkotinimanagan through the steps required of him as part of this transition.  The baptism was then carried out on the second Sunday after Easter.  On that day, Katakkotinimanagan was carried into the chapel and laid on a Buffalo Hide.  Holy Mass was then given to him and the other much younger neophytes, and then the instructions to Katakkotinimanagan were shared with “the assembled savages.”  An understanding of the necessities of baptism and the meaning of “the confidence in God” were expressed, and then finally, the sacrament of regeneration was administered to the old man.

According to the Priest’s written recount of this ceremonious event, a miracle came next soon after Katakkotinimanagan headed home.  He writes: “On his return to his lodge the new Christian declared to his wife that during his baptism he had experienced a sensation similar to that he would have felt had an icicle been applied to his veins; then, in narrating what he had experienced, he moved the fingers of his left hand and moved his left foot which previously had been completely paralyzed.  Perceiving that his wife uttered admiring cries which attracted the neighbors in a crowd and they saw the old man move and bend his afflicted leg.  The next day the paralytic rose with cries of joy at being able to walk after having been unable to move for such a long time.  The children hastened to find the missionary to tell him the happy news, and were soon followed by their father who came to invite the priest to give thanks to God for His generosity to him.  The infidels, who had been skeptical toward the unexpected recovery, were so impressed that they presented their children for baptism and promised themselves as catechumens; several even asked to go to our confession.  Such is the means God chooses to enlighten the poor savages and establish a knowledge of eternal truths for them.”

In the eyes of the Archdiocese, these and similar “eternal truths” served as meanings for the Missions that would continue to take place during the next several years.  During this time, each birth was followed by a baptism, marriage ceremonies became enshrined by the church, communions took place making use of beverages of all sorts if necessary, the prayers were then taught to the children, hymns were sung, followed by the scribing or printing of Bibles written in the Native languages and the indoctrination of living as Christians within Christian communes.  The result was tears of savages flowed, according to the Priests, only to be followed by the tears of their missionaries who oversaw these sacred healing ceremonies.  

Despite all of this indoctrination taking place, the Sauteux, the largest group of “savages” in this region, still praised Great Spirit.  As “Master of All” they believed Great Spirit oversees what Christians called “the secondary spirits.”  These secondary spirits, according to the Mission, included “good and wicked powers like men.”  They were believed to possess the powers of both man and animals in life and in spirit.  This duality of their existence made them seemingly un-Christian in nature and therefore in need of elimination. 

But these same spirits are what had for centuries kept the members of the Tribe and their traditions alive.  To eliminate this could be equilibrated with the destruction of the Power underlying that which supports the human ecology they had established.  One of the notions repeatedly attested by the natives was the phenomenon they came to call metempsychosis–the transmigration of souls.  One such account of this was given by Father Belcourt who witnessed an elder speaking of such experiences.  The Quebec Diocese retold this tale as:

“The Indian pretended that in his first existence, he had died in childhood, his soul then passed into the body of a famous hunting dog which had an unparalleled sense of smell; it next passed into the body of Kiskkalon (the name of an old man).  It seemed that he had nothing upon which to build a fourth metempyschosis because he had no more like the third, a subject of world admiration, besides his tribe suddenly showed incredulity regarding the different phases through which he had pretended to have passed.”

A more important role of “secondary spirits” shunned by Christians were the performance of important healing rituals by the Wabana.  The Diocese wrote of this: “They invoke a particular spirit in time of sickness, and on their departure for the hunt.  They have a particular veneration for white bears and for the Kinin, the specie[s] of eagle which flies highest in the air, whose feathers are worn by the warriors following their victories.  Their prayers are kind of harangues during which an old man addresses the Divinity in the name of all the others.”

Other behaviors which the Missions were adamantly against are those which they labelled “superstitious.”  These beliefs, they felt, made the indoctrination and conversion into Christianity very difficult to achieve.  The practice of Jugglery for example, a special skill of the shaman, was very much distrusted by the Diocese, as if its basis were evil, the result of satan.  For his reason, the  resistance to change by the Native was often blamed by the Missionaries blamed on the “Medicine Man.”   In one recount on this important missionary issue, the following proof was given:

“Every year when vegetation has taken new vigor and the needles of the aspen are as large a finger nails, all the Sauteux assemble in great number in the different parts of the country they occupy.  They have their women build a large lodge or a cabin of branches.  While these are at work, the old men, each in turn, inspect the medicine to the noise of drum and singing.  This feast is called the “fete of mitewi.”  It is then that those wishing to be initiated into ways of medicine are presented to the old men to receive lessons on the usage of roots, shells, fish bones, etc., which must be employed in the practice of this science.  But to be accepted he must pass through a rather long ceremony.  Having had an expression of desire from the one who wishes to enter their learned corps, the old men select a certain quantity of the medicine which their large sack contains and with it fill a skin of a marten or some other animal of the same size to be used during the ceremony.  Preparations completed, all the men and women who are taking part in the “mitewi” assemble in the lodge or cabin, spoken of above. ”

One of the more important contributions the local Canadian and North Dakotan Indians gave to their missionaries was the availability of the portable canoe.  With this light-weighted and portable transportation device, the missionaries could travel great distances and make their way deeper into virgin territory.  By the time the Diocese was establishing its missions in these rural settings, to make thir way into the interrior, fifteen portages were necessary for the Mission to reach its final destination.  Typically whenever they came to rapids considered too dangerous to pass, the canoes were carried around these parts of the trade route.  The first thirteen portages in 1837 were facilitated by the heavy rains that year.  The canoe and its baggage only underwent several brief passes by land through the woodlands.  The longest portage so far for this mission was one-quarter mile.  The steepest was the third, about a quarter of a league and up and over a steep [mountain.]  Between portages, the team struck a sharp rock after their canoe “spun like an arrow.”  They were stranded by this rock and in threat of losing everything:

“…we found ourselves stranded on a sharp rock which pierced our boat toward the center and made an opening in it.  The water entered in great gushes.  We were at first very frightened but were soon reassured when we realized that the water was not deep enough in this spot to prevent the men from getting out of the canoe and lifting it over the rock.  This was done promptly enough.  In fact we had time to reach the bank and throw out all the baggage before anything had been considerably damaged.  It was at the foot of a mountain where the bank was so very narrow that there was hardly room for our canoe.  We had to set a piece over it and when we wanted to use the roll of bark which someone had given us in leaving for China, we realized the quality was too poor.  My men then begged leave to go to the mountains to search for some bark; they brought back only thin pieces.  But fortunately for us, the wife of our guide followed us at a distance, having suspected out embarrassment when she saw us stopped in such a poor place, hastened to come to our aid; and of two pieces of bark which she had, she gave us the best….Having cut the broken part from the canoe, we pieced and gummed, without sewing, a patch nineteen inches in diameter on it.  We were able to resume our way, blessing God that the accident had not been too serious.  In descending, on our return, the water had lowered.  We saw our rock which showed a triangular point projecting two feet out of the water.”     

Like the Natives, the Reverends had entrenched in their philosophy their belief that their own “Great Spirit” was a part of the environment all around them.  This is made clear by the methods in which he reviewed his experiences, in a way reminiscent of the early French Canadian letters concerning the early history of Quebec and the establishment of its Nun’s Hospital.

These notes also contain the traditional strong trinity overtones expected of a Reverend.   He reconfirms this part of hisf aith by mentioning the triangular point that penetrated his canoe.  Throughout his subsequent writings on that journey, he repeatedly form is notes in trines, as if this has become a subconcious habit of his.  He writes  “We again made six other portages before the end of that day, and camped at the end of the ninth portage which is the second of two they call the “Two Sparrows.”  The date of the damaged canoe was July 10th, 1839.  The next day took they went through the rest of their fifteen portages, and then came upon a lake which took them six hours to cross, “when three hours would have sufficed so delayed were we by a great head long wind.”  A third of the way across this lake, the guide pointed out the way through a port to the right leading to the “Great Lake” Missionary Post.  Their next encampment was at the end of the lake that night, after carrying out their fifteenth portage.

“It had been only a few hours that we had been in the fort when in the afternoon a savage in a small canoe arrived with two women and some children.  He brought furs, and without doubt intended living at the fort to await the next arrival of the great canoes and their provisions….I went to meet him.  He approached me at once and respectfully gave me his hand as had all others on my arrival.  I made known to him the aim of my voyage and expressed my desire to him of baptising his two little children and of instructing himself in the religion of the Supreme Being….The weather was very beautiful and he wanted to profit by it in order to go a fairly good distance from the fort before night.  But my savage guide, who was a witness of these dispositions, came promptly to me to prevent his going. I at once went to the canoe in which the women and children were already embarked.  I sho[w]ed to savage my surprise at such as sudden departure, and I entreated him to stay, but he did not respond.  I went away quite discontented.  When I had gone only a few step, “Ah why!”, said I to myself, “shall I leave without baptizing them, those two children, exposed to so many dangers, and who perhaps will never again see a priest!”  I then returned to the canoe quite resolved to win my case, and addressed myself once again in a winning voice to the father of the children…”Why not stay here tonight.  I am going to give you some lard and some meat.  Bring me your two children so that I can baptize them immediately and you will leave tomorrow if you wish.”  I finally induced him to remain; and soon came his two children to my lodge.  Then taking my guide and his wife for godfather and godmother, I began the ceremony.  But I had not more than pronounced the first exorcisms when there suddenly arose the most frightening storm that had been experienced.  In less than an instant the whole lake was furiously covered with great white breakers.  The hail and the rain forcefully broke in the windows.  The cabins and bark canoes were carried away by the wind whirling on the rocks of the point; some of them even thrown into the lake.  The tent of my men was caught and torn, they had the greatest difficulty in holding it.  Everyone ran for canoe and tent.  This unexpected incident excited much curiosity among the poor people who had all come to my lodge in order to witness for the first time in their lives the solemn administering of baptism and perhaps too to see if these two children would not die soon after baptism for some bad fellow had succeeded in making some of them apprehensive of it.  However, I continued the ceremony to the end without even forgetting to give at the last the new little Christians (Therese, age four years, and Sophie, age one year) their crosses and medals, objects that I usually give those I have baptized.  In order to keep these savages from holding evil augery of the extraordinary tempest I engaged each one after the ceremony in admiring and thanking Divine Providence who had preserved this little family from certain shipwreck and was giving these children who had been in danger of certain death, a life of grace.  I had nothing so important the next day than to see my savage and his two children.  I asked him if he was not happy to still be alive.  “Oh, yes!” said he to me, “if you had allowed me to leave, I and all my family would have undoubtedly perished.” The brave man now thought no more of leaving.”

This trapper left the Mission at the end of the season.  He had not informed the Reverend of his two marriages, which the Reverend tells in his letter were “a mother and daughter for wives, both at the same time.”     

The missionary was told of an Indian named Pine-o-shitikwan who had instilled fear and uncertainty into the Natives about the value of the Christian baptism.  Two of the children that this Missionary had baptised there earlier were dead.  The Father looked at this number as very few deaths, but the Native Americans viewed this quite differently. 

These baptisms, after all, were often finally accepted and performed only during the dying days of many of these people.  Many of them could only be converted by giving them alcohol or medicines such as Opium.  

Determined to destroy the misconception of the baptism ceremony as a last rite, the Reverend approached the Metis family of the “poor invalid” Charles Breeds, who had in the past served as the Post’s guide.  The Father offered baptismal services to Breeds and his children, which Breeds was adamantly against, answering that “he preferred his children live without baptism.” 

The Father felt the invalid regarded him as “the portal of death” and could not be persuaded.  The next move taken by the Reverend is an example of the second action taken to instill the belief into these people.  After being refused in a near deaths state to under baptism, the Reverend states: 

“…I decided to cure him.  I used a medal for it, and as they consulted me on the treatment to be given him, without directly ordering the bleeding, I told them that in similar cases our doctors gave forced bleeding and applied insects.  Since, in this country, cantharides are not as common as gnats and mosquitoes they decided to use the latter for the bleeding.  The illness came from excessive drinking added to the fatigue of the voyage on which two of his comrades had died from the same cause.  One died unexpectedly at the large fort of Moose where they had had a great deal of liquor, the other passed away on the return voyage.  Bleeding the invalid copiously, they took from him two containers of matter in which there was only a thimble of blood.  Following this he was much relieved from a sharp pain in his side which was causing him great suffering.  The next day I made him perspire using some white elder, then having been bled a second time he immediately seemed to be out of danger to everyone’s great surprise.  At the time I departed he was in condition to be up and had regained his appetite.  I hope to find him less obstinate another year.”

In his writings he next notes this preparation for a baptism of two children.  After planting the Cross “with all solemnity possible” on a hilltop residing just above the fort, he prepared for the ceremonies, with an assistant who “forced all the most obstinate to assist also.”  His guide, who had resisted the baptism of his children, had finally verbalized his desire to be converted in order to “legalize his marriage.”   The clerk, Mr Polson, requested that his children be baptised as well.  He was then instructed that they would have to undergo proper instruction, along with several other children, before they could be baptised.  Mr. Polson entrusted to the Reverend his two children who were then taken to the Lake of the Two Mountain where they were instructed and baptised. One of these daughters was given the name Betsy Flora under her baptismal guide and godmother Madame Betsy Flora Fraser.  Reverend carried out similar practices, baptising thirty-two in all by the time his Mission for that season in this site was over.  He writes: “Thanks to the Father of Mercy I have left them all in the best disposition and a certain number with a fairly good beginning if instruction in order to hope to baptize them at the next mission.”

For receiving her baptism, Betsy Flora was given a cross and medal, “a pretty rosary,” and two prayer books–one in Indian Language and the other in English.  In her Bibles the Reverend had marked the different prayers she was to recite when she held the rosary, reminding her of her “devotion ot the Blessed Virgin.”  Madame Fraser was instructed as to how to teach these children to abide by the practices of their new faith.  She was instructed to teach her pupil using the readings from the “little Indian book” each day.  Several times a day she had Betsy Flora “repeat on her knees all the Christian prayers she learned.” 

The Reverend left these people feeling confident and so offered them his blessings. 

In 1837, another Reverend, Father de Bellefeuille, preached his faith in the Lake Temiscaming Mission, a mass of “infidel people” at Abbitibbi. Father de Bellefeuille was told by Mr. Cameron about a “savage hunter’s” encounter with the “Great Manito” which the Father then recounted in his writings to the Diocese of Quebec:

“This savage, twenty years old, a strong man of handsome figure, grave and Roman of face, with a moustache under his nose and a beard on his chin, came to find him [Mr. Cameron] early in the spring, excited by his hunting the result of which he brought to Mr. Cameron.  The latter asked him how he had had such a good hunt, “I listened” said he, “very attentively to all that was said of the “Great Manito” (or the “Supreme Being”) and the religion the priest instructed us in last a summer; and although I have not yet been baptized because of insufficient instruction, I nevertheless, have throw away all my wicked medicines.  I have renounced all the superstitious ways which I used to honor the wicked spirits.  I have practiced all that I was able of the religion that was preached to use by the priest.  I prayed to the “Great Manito” to grant me a good hunt and he heard me.  I have never had such a good hunt, and I am now persuaded that the religion preached to use by the priest is the true one and that his God is the only master of all things and laone worthy to be honored by men.”  The hunter brought back twenty-two bear skins not counting his other furs, which according to the “bourgeois”, was an extraordinary hunt.”


Bois brules:  from Bois- Brûlés (“burnt wood”), or Brullis (a French translation of their Indian name Sichangu), is a sub-tribe of North American Dakota Indians (Teton River division).

Much of this text is taken from An Account of the Missions of the Diocese of Quebec Which are Posted by the Society of the Propagation of the Faith.  January 1839 No. 1  January 1840 No 2.  (Seattle: University of Washington, W.P.E. Projects Nos. 4165 & 5606. 1957).  This French manuscript was translated by Tess E. Jennings, from the original document entitled Notice Sur les Missions du Diocese du Quebec qui sont Secourves par l’Association Propagation de la Foi….Avec Approbiation Des Superieurs. Quebec, De l’Imprimaries de Frechette & Cie Imprimeurs et Libraries, No. 8 Rue Lamontagne

Jugglery, Ibid.  p. 12. 

Canoes, Ibid.  p. 29-30. 

The Sinking.  Ibid.  p. 30-31.

The Great Lakes Missionary Post.  Ibid.  p. 35-6.

TheLancet,Ibid.  p. 38-39.