"Unbelievers deserve not only to be separated from the Church, but also... to be exterminated from the World by death." - Thomas Aquinas (1271)

Among the worst omissions by early European writers was their failure to properly identify the ranks of Chiefs according to the protocol of Mi'kmaq political hierarchy. Whether the Chief they refer to in their journals was a District Chief, local chief, etc., is anyone's guess. This failing has posed problems in trying to sort out Mi'kmaq historical events.

The way Chief Membertou is identified in the following passages provides a good example of the omission of proper titles. He was the District Chief of Kespukwitk and had been appointed by his peers from the six other Mi'kmaq Districts Grand Chief. Lescarbot described him:

"At Port Royal, the name of the Captain or Sagamore of the place is Membertou. He is at least a hundred years old and may in the course of nature live fifty years longer. He has under him a number of families whom he rules, not with so much authority as does our King over his subjects, but with sufficient powers to harangue, advise, and lead them to war, or to render justice to one who has a grievance, and like matters.

"He does not impose taxes upon the people, but if there are any profits from the chase, he has a share of them, without being obliged to take part in it. It is true that they sometimes make him presents of beaver skins and other things, when he is occupied in curing the sick, or questioning his demon to have news of some future event or of the absent: for, as each village, or company of savages, has an Acutmoin, or Prophet, who performs this office, Membertou is the one who, from time immemorial, has practiced this art among his followers. He has done it so well that his reputation is far above that of all the other Sagamores of the country, he has since his youth been a great Chief, and has also exercised the offices of Soothsayer and Medicine Man, which are the three things most officious to the well-being of man, and necessary to human life.

"Now this Membertou today, by the grace of God, is a Christian. Together, with all his family, having been baptised ... last Saint John's day, the 24th of June, 1610. I have letters from Sieur de Poutrincourt about it, dated the eleventh day of July following. He said that Membertou was named after our good late King Henri IV, and his eldest son (Membertousoichis) after Monseigneur the Dauphin, today our King Louis XIII, whom may God bless."

Biard wrote that Membertou: "was the greatest, most renowned and most formidable savage within the memory of man; of splendid physique, taller and larger-limbed than is usual among them; bearded like a Frenchman, although scarcely any of the others have hair upon the chin; grave and reserved; feeling a proper sense of dignity for his position as commander."

Lescarbot says: "Membertou was already a man of great age, and saw Captain Jacques Cartier in that country in 1534, being already at that time a married man and the father of a family, though even now he does not look more than fifty years old."

None of these commentators identified Membertou as a District Chief. He died on September 18, 1611 at what is now called Saint Mary's Bay, Digby County. No one knows his exact age; that it was well over one hundred years has been widely acknowledged.


By Barry McGrory, February 8, 2009

Port Royal was but 500 paces from a village of Membertou, that paramount sakamow of the Mí'kmaw confederation, tall and powerfully built, keen eyed and white-bearded, who had met Cartier in 1534.i A supernaturally gifted warrior (ginap), prophet (aoutmoin), and medicine person, married to one wife all his life, a rarity, especially for a chief who would need extra wives for his many duties, he was singularly admired by the French commentators who met him.ii His cousin, the same Messamouet, had taught him some French and informed him of Catholic beliefs. Membertou treated the French as his guests, obviously needing his protection after their catastrophic first winters. He in turn expected to be treated as the equal of the King of France, and on his frequent visits to the French settlement, he was in fact considered the equal of the Governor, de Monts, with canon being fired to celebrate his arrival just as for the governor. Membertou wanted to give a copper mine to his colleague, King Henri, since 'we sakamaq have to be honest and generous to each other.'iii Over the years as Grand Chief, Membertou had made many enemies, and he welcomed the French presence as added security for him and his people, Lescarbot tells us.vv


Ibid., 216. Including superlatives from Marc Lescarbot (La Conversion des Sauvages, MNF 1, 75-76) & even from Fr. Biard, SJ (below). While Champlain, who did not like Port Royal & all connected with it, was told that Membertou was 'the most treacherous of his tribe,' he said he actually 'found him to be a good Indian all the time we were there,' which would be for 2 or 3 years. The Works of Samuel de Champlain, H.P. Biggar ed. [Toronto, Champlain Society, 1936]: Voyages du Sieur de Champlain 4, 28. Champlain may be the source of the astonishingly negative Québec historiography of Mi'kmakik- l'Acadie. E.g., Lucien Campeau's minimising bio of Membertou in the Can Dictionary of Biography. The Jesuit scholar defined the Mi'kmaq as 'un assemblage de bandes de meme langue vivant au sud du golfe Saint-Laurent et en Nouvelle-Ecosse. . ..' 'a collection of bands speaking the same language living on the south side of the gulf of St. Lawrence & in N.S…..' MNF 6 (Montréal, Les Éditions Bellarmin, 1992) 691, n. 11. Lescarbot-Pioffet 217. Ibid. 216.



Later that summer of 1611, Membertou’s second son, Actodin, baptized Paul after the reigning Pope, was apparently ‘at death’s door.’ His family began their traditional funeral rites, their shaman having pronounced him as good as dead. PPre Biard chastised them for being Christian and yet performing such rites, but Membertou rebuked the priest, noting that they were but neophytes awaiting his instruction. PPre Biard two days later requested that the dying man be brought to the Jesuit quarters. He completely recovered. ‘Un vray miracle,’ remarked the attending pharmacist, Louis Hébert. 1

Seeing this, Membertou himself sought the Jesuits’ help for his worsening dysentery. PPre Massé offered him the bed of Pere Biard, travelling with Biencourt to find a ship to bring letters to France, and nursed him for a week, until P. Biard’s return. Here the record differs: Biard claims only the Jesuits and Hébert, the apothecary, assisted the dying man, including the gathering of wood for the necessary fire for the chilly nights and against the odour in the day. It seems the crowded conditions in the small quarters after Membertou’s wife and daughter came to help prompted the Jesuits to ask for his transfer. When Biencourt would not let the dying man use one of three empty ‘cabanes’ within the habitation, Biard alleges, the dying man was transferred to another they set up for him outside. Biencourt on the other hand maintains that the Jesuits after eight days found the great man’s presence intolerable and forced him out as there was no other room in the habitation. PPre Biard in an earlier version said that Membertou asked to transferred.1 In any case, after the transfer, Membertou’s condition worsened, and PPre Biard heard his friend’s confession, and celebrated the Sacrament of the Sick for him. An ugly quarrel over the place of his burial ensued. Membertou wished to be buried with his forefathers at the entrance to Port Royal harbour as Poutrincourt had promised him before his baptism,2 but PPre Biard was shocked that he would choose to be buried with ‘pagans who were damned,’ indicating to the Mi’kmaq that he himself was not really a Christian.3 Biard said that the all the dead in the Mi’kmaq cemetery would have to be disinterred before he could bless his plot there, thus annoying the Mi’kmaq. This is how Biencourt described his last hours in a letter to his father about six months after the event.

"I forgot to tell you about the death of Henry Membertou, that occurred on Sunday, September 18. We returned from visiting the Wulstukwiuk on Mary’s Feast [09.08] to find that Membertou had been sick with a blood discharge for ten days and that he had come from St. Mary’s Bay looking for me to heal him. He was in the Fathers’ lodging seriously ill. I immediately did the best I could for him. After eight days the Jesuits were tired of the inconvenience he caused, and aware that he was worsening, asked me to have him transferred to his own cabin, near our quarters. His wife had come to help, and I had him brought to his place where I nevertheless continued to try to heal and assist him. He got worse. Seeing that, I told him that for the good of his soul, he should confess all the sins he had ever committed in his life, so that in case God called him, he would be able to receive the graces to go to heaven. It was necessary that he be truly sorry for his offences, and if so I believed firmly that he would go right to heaven. He was very happy with this and asked that the Fathers come for him to confess, and then he began to tell them his faults committed since his youth, and begged God’s mercy for them all. The said Father gave him absolution. That night, Friday, I visited him again. He was getting worse, so I told him that it was the Christian custom when facing death to receive a sacrament called Extreme Unction,4 by which God conferred graces on those who received it. Whereupon he replied that he desired to do and receive whatever Christians have before death. After the sacrament, he told me that he now saw clearly that God wanted to take him from this world and that, when he was dead, he wanted me to make sure that he was buried at the entry to Port Royal, where his forebears were laid, as you had promised him, saying that when he was dead, you would build a chapel over his tomb . . . and that there we could pray to God for his soul. Father Biard, hearing what he wanted . . . was very angry with Membertou, and declared that he would be buried in no other place but behind the storehouse with our people, whom he was abandoning. When Membertou persisted in his request, the priest angrily walked out of his lodging,5 saying that he did not wish to be responsible for his soul and that he would not attend his burial. But Henry Membertou persisted in his request, begging me to have him buried near his predecessors, as promised him, and I agreed.

Sunday morning, September 18, he sent for me, and I came right away. He said the he regretted not being able to see you one more time before dying, but since it pleased God to call him before seeing you, that he spoke to me, representing your person, in the presence of his son, Paul Actodin, and the other relatives.

‘You have done much good for us, and to me particularly, for which I am grateful. You have given me knowledge of the true God, by whose grace I hope to go up to heaven to enjoy his presence. You have helped us in all our needs; last year, M. Poutrincourt, my brother, healed me of a serious illness in which I had lost all hope, and by his help I became safe and healthy. This summer my son, Actodin, was saved by your help when we expected him to die; now he is fine, thank God. As for this sickness of mine, you have done all that you could. But it is not going to go away. My strength is failing; my eyesight is dimming. I know nothing can prevent my death. I ask you to cease trying to heal me. The time has come for me to go to heaven, and I ask you to prepare my grave in your cemetery with your people, as it is not good that I should be buried at the entry to Port Royal. May it be large and honourable, as my brother promised me.’

I granted his request and said that I would not leave him until his death, as it was our custom to stay with the dying until their last breath. And turning toward his children and relatives, he said to them:

‘I enjoin you to love M. Biencourt just as I have loved M. Poutrincourt, my brother. You will tell your brothers, Louis and Philip, surnamed Actodin, that I insist that they not quarrel or make trouble for him. You will love and honour my brother Poutrincourt. He will be a father for you and you will be his children. In the same way you will love all those who belong to him and his enemies will be yours. If any Aboriginals do them harm, or you learn of any plans against him, you will warn him and counsel him. I command you to always love and honour the great living God, and that you remain firm in the faith we have received, living as good Christians, and the One from whom I hope now to receive mercy will do the same for you, if it pleases him.’

He asked them to approach him to give them his blessing. . . . Then speaking to me, he said that he commended his wife and children to me; that perhaps it would happen that his children would make trouble for me, since they would no longer have a father to restrain them; that he knew I would have more discretion than they, since I still had a father who would keep me from doing anything unwise. This was why he asked me, for love of him, that I disregard his children’s faults, and that I guide them as they should be led.

I promised him, by the friendship that he bore you, and also because he was the first Christian among the inhabitants of this country, that I would avoid quarrelling with his children and would love them as you had loved him. As for his wife, I promised to do as much as I could for her. Then I shook hands with him and his children, saying that I would keep the promises I had made to their father, provided that they always remained as good Christians as they had been, which they promised to do, and to live as they had been instructed. Henry Membertou began to cry as he thanked me for my good will. Then he was no longer able to speak and between three and four o’clock in the afternoon, while we were at Vespers, they came to tell me that poor Henry was in his death agony. After I arrived, he gave up his soul as gently as a child. I kept watch over him until the next morning, when we all put on our full military dress, the drum beating, in the way we send off our captains. We led the body to the church, where the service was held, with his children and relatives in the procession, and then we led him to the grave dug in the cemetery, where he was buried.6 I had a great cross erected over his grave, bearing his arms. Returning from the scene, I made a feast for his children and relatives, who afterwards left to find their brothers, happy and satisfied with me, thanking me for the honour accorded to their dead father, etc.7"

Pere Biard confirms that Membertou asked his people to get along with the Biencourts, and that they should not avoid his grave as was their custom. Membertou’s concern for concord with the French,8 and harmony within his family, is the Mi’kmawe, the Mi’kmaq ethos, and here contrasts with PPre Biard’s typically European concern for order and avoiding scandal. Biard says that ‘he died in my arms fort chrestiennement,’9 Likely moved by this pious death, often the gauge of a person’s spiritual maturity, he wrote that ‘this man . . . beyond all others, was wont to be so wondrously moved from within, that he apprehended much more of our faith than he could have learned from hearing us.’10 Here despite his insistence on the importance of instruction, Biard humbly concedes the primacy of the Spirit, not the evangelist, in revealing God from within (Ps 51.6, 10; Mt. 16.17).They knew each other a scant four months, yet the Jesuits, he wrote, deeply mourned him, ‘for they loved him, and were loved by him in return.’11 He ‘was the greatest, most renowned, and most formidable [Aboriginal] within the memory of man.’ Biencourt saw to it that he was given ‘the honours . . . shown to great Captains and Noblemen in France.’12 An apostle of this stature refutes the criticism about premature baptisms levelled at the Patriarch and Viceroy from a world away, as does the Mi’kmaw story ever since.

1. Biard to Baltazar letter, 1612.01.31. MNF 1, 233-36. The Jesuits applied the relics of St. Lawrence, 12th century Archbishop of Dublin, who died at Eu, Normandy, near Poutrincourt’s birth place.

2. Letter to P. Baltazar, 1612.01.31, 4 months after the event, MNF 1, 234-35.

3. Letter to P. Aquaviva, 1612.01.31, ibid. 222. There was concern too that his burial by the habitation would keep the Mi’kmaq, who avoided all connections with death, away from the chapel. Membertou asked them to reject this custom & pray over his grave in the Christian cemetery according to P. Biard here.

4. P. Biard, La Relation de la Nouvelle-France, Lyon, 1616, MNF 1, 537-39, for his recollection, sometimes to refute (539) Biencourt’s recollection from a letter to his father from Port Royal 1612.03.13, 6 months after the event as Capt L’Abbé was leaving for France. It is included in the Factum, likely compiled by Poutrincourt in early 1614. MNF 1, 348-51

5. Since returned to its ancient name, Sacrament of the Sick.

6. P. Biard says that he returned in less than an hour.

7. Campeau notes that this cemetery is on the east side of the habitation, & that a very large crucifix appears in the drawing Champlain made of it in 1613. MNF 1, 351, n. 111; Pl. IV faces p. 256. Candide de Nantes, OFM Cap., on visiting the site in 1923, noticed how easily it should be to locate the grave. Pages Glorieuses de L’Épopée Canadienne 164.

8. The letter is in the Factum, written by Poutrincourt in early 1614. MNF 1, 348-51. Campeau lists it as doc 83, where he provides his usual valuable introduction, p. 352. It was written from Port Royal, 1612.03.13, as Capt L’Abbé was leaving for France. My translation; Campeau lists no others.

9. ‘Pacem denique cum nostris iterum iterumqe commendavit.’ Again and again he urged peace with us.’ Letter to P. Aquaviva, MNF 1, 222.

10. Biard to Baltazar letter, 1612.01.31. MNF 1, 235.

11. PPre Biard to Aquaviva, Gen., 1612.01.31, MNF 1, 221; & same date to Ch. Baltazar, Prov., 235.

12. La Relation de la Nouvelle-France, ibid. 538.

13. Cf also Fr. Joseph Jouvency, An Account of the Canadian Mission 1611-13 (Rome, Placko, 1710), JR 1, 213: ita vixerat ut barbaris admiratione esset, Christianis exemplum.’ He ‘so lived as to be to the [Aboriginals] someone to be admired, and to the Christians an example.’


Mi'kmaq - Maliseet Nations News

Published May 2010

Membertou’s conversion to the Catholic Religion

Something to celebrate?

I’ll start by presenting a short comparison between the values of Mi’kmaq and European religions.

Pre European Mi’kmaq Religion: The Great Spirit's directives were the Mi'kmaq Nation's eternal light. The People believed that His dominion was all inclusive, and that He encompassed all positive attributes - love, honour, kindness, compassion, knowledge, wisdom etc., and that He was responsible for all existence, and was personified in all things - rivers, trees, spouses, children, friends etc. No initiatives were undertaken without first requesting His guidance. His creations, Mother Earth and the Universe, were accorded the highest respect. Religion was blended into daily life - it was lived. Nature, as was the case with most American civilizations, supported Mi'kmaq religious beliefs.

European Religions: Europeans followed religions collectively called Christianity, which are based upon blind belief. They too promote a belief in a Supreme Being who possesses all good qualities, but until recent times, they also promoted a belief that God condoned the use of several bad qualities, e.g., vengefulness to spread and protect the word. Horrendous events such as the Crusades and Inquisitions were initiated under the dogma of Christianity. Innocent people who could not defend themselves against charges of heresy were found guilty and thrown into prison or burned at the stake. Non-believers were branded pagans and heathen savages. The Mi'kmaq, as non-Christians, were also thus branded.

For reasons that can only be conjectured at this time, on June 24, 1610, Chief Membertou and his family converted to the Catholic Church. Why? The People already had a time tested religion that had served them well for untold centuries, it was not pagan, it called for the worship of a real God, not idols.

Before proceeding further, lets go back in time and visit for a few minutes the unstable security situation that the Indigenous Nations of the Americas were facing at that time. The invasion of the Americas by well armed European countries, which was caused by Christopher Columbus getting lost and accidently landing in the Carribean, was well under way by 1610. Several Nations had already been barbarically conquered and plundered. Many of the inhabitants of these Nations had been slaughtered, and a great many sold into slavery, etc. Overall, it was not a situation to breed confidence in the survival possibilities for any of the remaining Nations.

In addition, many of the invading European Christian countries, which were affiliated with different Christian persuasions, vehemently hated each other because of different beliefs. A difference that was the root cause of many wars between them - wars that promoted the invention of horrendous killing machines - which, in comparison, made the weaponry of the Nations of the Americas look like puny toothpicks.

Membertou in 1610, being an intelligent and honourable wise man, would have, because of the well established communication system between the Indigenous Nations, had knowledge of the terrible fate being suffered by the citizens of the conquered Indigenous American Nations further south. This would have compelled him to consider a method to assure the future survival of his People.

In this regard, he didn’t have many options. At that time the World’s two most powerful European countries, France and Great Britain, through the use of militarily force, were trying to gain control of North America. And, of course, one has to take into consideration, besides insatiable greed, religion was involved - one country was Catholic and the other Protestant.

I believe that one of the main factors that Membertou may have considered, when choosing to ally with the French, was that they were, although hell-bent and determined to convert the People to the Catholic Religion, not overly interested in wiping out Mi’kmaq culture. On the other hand, from day one the English wanted to eliminate, either though brutal means, or through assimilation, the culture. Interestingly, being the eventual victors, the English carried on this assiduous effort until Canada was confederated in 1867, at which time Canada took up the mantel and continued the effort to assimilate right up to the present time.

What did the Mi’kmaq inherit from Membertou’s conversion? It eventually led to the establishment of Church controlled Indian Residential and Indian Day Schools, whose prime reason for existence was wiping out the remnants of our culture, and, very important, let’s not forget the brutal abuse.

Personally, I think I’ll pass on the celebration. To me Membertou’s conversion to a foreign religion, whatever his reason, was just another nail in the coffin that eventually buried the Mi’kmaq Nation’s independence, liberty, and freedom.

Maybe, in time, the federal and provincial governments will return to Canadian First Nations something that we can really celebrate; self-government, a status where we have control of our destinies. This can be achieved by, and by nothing less, dependent nation status within a nation, which is the status enjoyed by First Nations in the United States. What is now being proposed by many politicians, the status of glorified Canadian municipalities, is totally unacceptable!

Mi'kmaq Elder - Dr. Daniel N. Paul, C.M., O.N.S.

Click to read about American Indian Genocide