I have been reading a lot about Native Americans this past year in an effort to better understand my Ojibwe neighbors. I read The Orenda by Joseph Boyden in early March, but then Covid made it seem irrelevant. Recent protests for social justice brought my thoughts back to understanding neighbors whose cultures are different from mine, whose life experiences and worldviews are different. We aren’t all alike. We are different, and that difference enriches our world. Difference does not mean one is any less an image bearer of God than any other. We all deserve respect as God’s creation. We all stand in need of the gospel of Jesus Christ—a brown man from a lower class family in a backwater of an oppressive empire.
The Orenda is about Cristophe, a French Jesuit missionary struggling like me to understand. He sees that his seventeenth-century Huron neighbors and their enemies in the Iroquois Confederation have a strong belief in the soul, which they call the orenda. But the Native Americans believe that life force inhabits, not just humans, but also “animals, trees, bodies of water, even rocks strewn on the ground. In fact, every last thing in their world contains its own spirit” (p. 28). The warrior, Bird, tells Cristophe about a recent hunting trip. ‘“My orenda overpowered its orenda,” he said. “The deer’s orenda allowed me to take it”’ (p. 28). Cristophe, or Crow as the Natives call him for his black robe, is still confused. It's unsettling. Like the book cover. Look to the left and you see a Native in a feather headdress. Look to the lower right and it is a crow--two distinct worldviews pulling in different directions.
Crow is our cultural interpreter in this novel about the early encounters of Europeans and the indigenous population of North America. The French have come to evangelize. Or to exploit the resources. The Natives see them as weak and ignorant of the land, unable to survive without help. They are only beginning to be aware of the sicknesses the Europeans have brought and the devastation of their drink. The newcomers are few, but before long the locals are dependent on European trade goods like steel knives and iron cooking pots. As someone who has lived cross culturally most of my adult life, I found the disconnect between the perceptions of various characters as to what was going on very amusing. For instance, Crow thinks Bird’s adopted daughter Snow Falls is interested in the gospel because of her fascination with his crucifix. What she sees is an image of her father as she last saw him, arms thrown wide on the ground after Bird bashed his head in.
Some books portray Native Americans as noble savages, but this was not a peaceful and idyllic world before the coming of the European. War and raiding were brutal with no motivation I could see other than to avenge previous wars and raids. The torture of enemies was assumed to be a necessary part of bringing healing for your own loss. I find myself thinking of the riots that tore our cities this spring. But this is not just a painful death to the captives, but multi-day torture by women and children as well as warriors, with the captives carefully kept alive in order to prolong the torture ceremony. The reading of these parts of the book literally gave me bad dreams. Those who withstood the torture without crying out, continuing to sing their “death song,” were highly respected. The conquering tribe would even give them a break, tenderly nurse wounds and give food and drink to strengthen them for the inevitable return to the torture and the glory of withstanding it without crying out.
When I read Dan Cushman’s Stay Away, Joe, I tried to see what the values were behind behavior that I found foolish and ridiculous. So what are the values here?
In the end, what I see in this book is unredeemed sin, and a desperate need for the gospel although Cristophe and his Jesuit colleagues are not very adept at communicating it. Horrific death and vengeance has gone on for generations and invariably invites reprisal and more violence. I think of Easter and the Lamb of God, who was tortured by enemies—beaten, mocked, humiliated, crucified—all without opening his mouth, embodying the highest of Huron and Iroquois values. Only his death can satisfy the pain of hurt and loss in my past. Only his death covers my sin and yours, the Huron and the Iroquois, Native and European, White and Black. Only his resurrection gives me power to forgive what has gone before and live a new life.
Not an easy read, but worth the stretch.
LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents. Her books come out of her cross-cultural experiences and her passion to use story to convey spiritual truths in a form that will permeate lives.
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