The evolving history of The Huron Carol, a Canadian tradition

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Rev. Whitney Bruno, minister at the Little Current United Church Pastoral Charge (Little Current and Sheguiandah) chose as her sermon topics for the Sundays through the Advent season the theology underpinning several traditional Christmas carols. The one that follows is printed with her permission and is the fraught story of The Huron Carol, complete with present-day reimagining of the piece. The Huron Carol, while quintessentially Canadian, is also somewhat local and relevant to Manitoulin Island as it was written by Fr. Jean de Brebeuf SJ at the Jesuit mission near present-day Midland on southern Georgian Bay and it was from this same mission that contemporaries of Brebeuf and his fellow martyr, Fr. Gabriel Lalemont SJ, were dispatched to found a mission at present-day Wiikwemkoong in 1648, led by Fr. Joseph Poncet. Rev. Bruno, with her family, relocated to Manitoulin Island this spring from their native Ohio when she accepted a call from the pastoral charge. As the sermon demonstrates, she believes strongly in the Truth and Reconciliation process. 

A Sermon by Rev. Whitney Bruno 

for Little Current United Church P.C.

And some of you rejoice. Yes! And some of you wince – that racist hymn? How can it be racist? It’s got non-English words and Huron imagery! 

Let’s…. dive into this perfectly Canadian hymn…

It begins with the French song, Une Jeune Pucelle which is “A Young Maid.” This 1557 song sings about Gabriel coming to visit Mary and begins with, “A young maid with a noble heart, praying to her Creator in her chamber. The angel, descending from heaven to earth, told her the mystery of our Saviour.” We hear in it the full explanation from Gabriel, and then part of Mary’s resounding song of ‘My soul glorifies my Lord!’

This song is carried by the French Christian Jesuit missionary, Father Jean de Brebeuf, to “the Hurons” as we’re told, in the mid 1600s. Around 1642, he writes the song “Iesous Ahatonnia.” Father de Brebeuf “showed a gift for languages as he studied for the priesthood. He naturally understood that to communicate with people from another culture, he had to learn their language, customs and religious practices.” Writes the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, “So great was his rapport with the Huron people that they gave him the name “Echon,” and he was considered as one of them.  He wrote volumes about their language and culture in order to train the next generation of priests that would follow him in this work.  Because he took the time to understand the Huron people he was successful in teaching them about Jesus and raising up Christian believers.  (https://www.epaumc.org/news/a-culturally-competent-christmas-carol/)

As you likely have been told, he died in a raid by Iroquois who murdered the Huron Christians and their Jesuit missionary (Father Gabriel Lalemont, another Jesuit missionary, died with him and the Martyrs Shrine Church in Midland is named for these two). He died in torture more concerned for his converts than himself. He was canonized as the patron saint of Canada in 1925. The following year, an English translation of his hymn is published. It was titled “Twas the moon of wintertime” or, The Huron Carol.

Now we have a French hymn turned into an Indigenous hymn turned into an English hymn. It is wrapped in the nativity of Jesus and the nativity of Christianity here and the nativity of the country. A trilingual hymn to Jesus and Canada and the harmony of three peoples as one. 

Except, to be truly Canadian… the story cannot be this simple. There can’t be only one way to look at this hymn. And there’s got to be humans in the mix… humans are complicated creatures with known and unknown biases, and noble and ignoble intentions. This carol has all of these. It’s truly a story of Canada. 

Diving into it, we have to say first… there are no Hurons. People “usually do not realize that Huron and Wyandot are the same people. Originally, more than a dozen of the Iroquoian-speaking tribes in southern Ontario referred to themselves collectively as Wendat meaning “villagers.” Rendered variously as: Guyandot, Guyandotte, Ouendat, Wyandot, and Wyandotte. The French, however, called the members of a four-tribe confederacy the Huron, a derogatory name derived from their word “hure” meaning rough or ruffian. This has persisted as their usual name in Canada. When they were living in Ohio after 1701 (where they were relocated to), French and Canadians continued to use Huron, but the English and Americans referred to them as Wyandot. Currently, most groups prefer Wyandot rather than Huron.” (https://www.tolatsga.org/hur.html)

And they are peoples – not one group. Just as “the Iroquois” are not one group. Iroquois is a French word. The Haudenosaunee are many different groups speaking one shared language. The same with those speaking Anishinaabe languages, or English languages. It would be a bit like calling everyone from Great Britain, Australia, Canada, the USA, New Zealand, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, and Dominica “The English” because they all speak English. You know and I know the culture of Canada and the culture of Jamaica are not the same. The accent of someone from London and the accent of someone from New York are not the same. We are different groups speaking a shared language. The same is true of the Wendat and Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe. We have to remember we speak not of one Indigenous or French or English or Canadian hegemony but many different tribes, nations, villages, peoples.

So let’s call this hymn the Wendat Carol… except it isn’t that either. Gitchi Manitou is not the same language as the Huron spoke. As Dana Lynn Seaborn explains, “The 1926 lyrics reference “Mighty Gitchi Manitou” and “sons of Manitou”.  Gitchi Manitou is often translated, “Great Spirit”, but it’s less “God-the-Father” and more, “Universal Energy”.  Having said that, the main problem with this lyric is that it’s the wrong language, and the wrong language family.  The Wendat speak an Iroquoian language; Gitchi Manitou is Cree, which is part of the Algonquian language group.” Part of the same family as Anishinaabemowin… as we know with our “Manitou’lin island. “Evidently the lyricist didn’t understand that there are various First Nations in Canada, with different languages and cultures.”

So too, the English pretty much ignores the Wendat and goes with stereotypical representations of what “The Indians” did in the non-indigenous imagination of 1926. It tries- but it’s 100 years out of date and suffers from the biases of its time. Dana Lynn Seaborn writes, “As a Métis woman who has lived in territory named for the Wendat, and studied traditional Wendat culture and history, I find those lyrics, written almost a hundred years ago, to be typical of their time in their contempt for, and appropriation of, Indigenous culture.  These English lyrics were written during a time when Indigenous people were viewed with what today would be called condescending, paternalistic racism.

The lyric “kneel before the radiant Boy who brings you beauty, peace and joy” seems simply ironic.  Not long after the Jesuits came among them, the Wendat lost half of their people to smallpox.  The survivors were attacked by the neighbouring Iroquois, and many more died.  

Many of the remaining Wendat sought refuge with the Jesuits, who, in exchange for shelter, required that they profess Christianity.  The few surviving Wendat were then forcibly removed from their lands and relocated hundreds of miles away.” That was the move to present-day Ohio.

But the English lyrics aren’t the same as the Wendat lyrics and they aren’t the same as the French lyrics! These aren’t translations of one another. They’re whole new re-writings!

John Steckley, a Canadian scholar, became a deeply respected figure amongst the Wyandot. On his adoption into the Wyandot tribe in 1999, he was named Tehaondechoren (“he who splits the country in two”). He was also given the name “Hechon” by descendants of the Huron in Loretteville, Quebec City, while teaching them their own historical language. This was a name that had previously been given to Jean de Brébeuf (1593–1649), one of the North American Martyrs, by his Huron and Wyandot followers. His 2007, Huron-English Dictionary was the first book of its type to be published for over 250 years.

He provides a more nuanced translation of the Wendat hymn into English. I’ll give you Steckley’s translation, which can be sourced on YouTube.

Guide to Pronunciation

e – like ‘eh’;

8 = ‘w’ before vowel;

‘u’ before consonant;

i – like ‘ee’ in ‘freeze’, = ‘y’;

a – like ‘ah’;

th = t followed by an aspiration;

on – as in the French word ‘bon’ en – as in the French word ‘chien’;

an – as in the French word ‘viande’;

Accents tend to fall on the second last syllable.

Here is the written version:

Iesous Ahatonnia (ee-sus a-ha-ton-nyah= Jesus, he is born)

Estennia,on de tson8e Ies8s ahatonnia

eh-sten-nyah-yon deh tson-weh ee-sus a-ha-ton-nyah

(Have courage, you who are humans, Jesus, he is born)

Onn’a8ate8a d’oki n’on,8andask8aentak

on-nah-wah-teh-wah do-kee non-ywah-ndah-skwa-en-tak

(Behold, the spirit who had us as prisoners has fled)

Ennonchien sk8atrihotat n’on,8andi,onrachatha

en-non-shyen skwah-tree-hotat non-ywa-ndee-yon-rah-shah-thah

(Do not listen to it, as it corrupts our minds)

Iesus ahatonnia

A,oki onkinnhache eronhia,eronnon

ayo-kee on-kee-nhah-sheh eh-ron-hya-yeh-ron-non

(They are spirits, coming with a message for us, the sky people)

iontonk ontatiande ndio sen tsatonnharonnion

yon-tonk on-tah-tya-ndeh ndyo sen tsah-ton-nha-ron-nyon

(They are coming to say, “Rejoice” (ie., be on top of life))

8arie onna8ak8eton ndio sen tsatonnharonnion

wah-ree on-nah-wah-kweh-ton ndyo sen tsah ton-nha-ron-nyon

(“Marie, she has just given birth. Rejoice.”)

Ies8s ahatonnia

Achink ontahonrask8a d’hatirih8annens

a-shien-k on-tah-hon-rah-skwah dhah-tee-ree-hwan-nens

(Three have left for such a place, those who are elders)

Tichion ha,onniondetha onh8a achia ahatren

tee-shyon ha-yon-nyon-deh-tha on-hwah a-shya ah-hah-tren

(A star that has just appeared over the horizon leads them there)

Ondaiete hahahak8a tichion ha,onniondetha

on-dee teh-hah-hah-hah-kwah tee-shyon ha-yon-nyon-deh-tha

(He will seize the path, he who leads them there)

Ies8s ahatonnia

Tho ichien stahation tethotondi Ies8s

thoh ee-shyen stah-hah-tyon teh-tho-ton-ndee ee-sus

(As they arrived there, where he was born, Jesus)

ahoatatende tichion stan chi teha8ennion

ah-ho-a-tah-ten-nde tyee-shyon stan shee teh-hah-wen-nyon

(the star was at the point of stopping, he was not far past it)

Aha,onatorenten iatonk atsion sken

a-hah-yon-ah-to-ren-ten yah-tonk ah-tsyon sken

(Having found someone for them, he says, “Come here”)

Ies8s ahatonnia

Onne ontahation chiahona,en Ies8s

on-nen on-tah-hah-tyon shyah-hon-ah-yen ee-sus

(Behold, they have arrived there and have seen Jesus)

Ahatichiennonniannon kahachia handia,on

ah-hah-tee-shyen-non-nyan-non kah-hah-shyah hah-ndyah-yon

(They praised (made a name) many times, saying “Hurray, he is good in nature”)

Te honannonronk8annnion ihontonk oerisen

teh-hon-an-non-ron-kwan-nyon ee-hon-tonk o-eh-ree-sen

(They greeted him with reverence (i.e., greased his scalp many times), saying “Hurray”)

Iesus ahatonnia

Te hek8atatennonten ahek8achiendaen

teh-heh-kwah-tah-ten-non-ten ah-heh-kwah-shyen-ndah-en

(“We will give to him praise for his name”)

Te hek8annonronk8annion de son,8entenrande

teh-heh-kwan-non-ron-kwan-nyon deh son-ywen-ten-ran-ndeh

(“Let us show reverence for him as he comes to be compassionate to us.”)

8to,eti sk8annonh8e ichierhe akennonhonstha u-to-yeh-tee

skwan-non-hweh ee-shyeh-rheh ah-keh-non-hon-sthah

(“It is providential that you love us and wish, “I should adopt them.”)

Ies8s ahatonnia

Father Brebeuf is a missionary. His mission is to convert people from their current faiths to his own. That is perhaps reflected in the hymn – the old spirit, the old faith, corrupts a mind and held the people prisoner. The good, new, is announced by sky-people: Jesus. Elders go and welcome him, give him reverence, and it is good news that Jesus adopts these people as his own.

And for current Christian Wyandotte, this can be a faithful representation of their faith. Yearly, people are introduced to their ancestorial language through this hymn and relish singing in the tongues of their ancestors in their current churches.  Perhaps the old spirit can be imagined as sins, or addictions, or hurts, or… any of that which ails us. It does not have to be the previous faith. It can be belittling to think of Jesus ‘adopting’ in other people as if they’re not already made in the image of God… but we do call one another brothers and sisters. Children of God. We do call one another family and if we’re not biologically related, it is a spiritual adoption of sorts. 

So Indigenous people are split on the Wendat version of the hymn. Some people hate it. Some people love it.

Could there be… a fourth way? As this is THE Canadian hymn – a French, a First Nation, an English – so why not a fourth rendition of the song that honors these pasts but is who we are today? A people living into truth and reconciliation. A people who are aware we are many peoples. A people of many faiths. A people learning to dialogue. 

Dana Lynn Seaborn offers us the lyrics to this hymn we’ll sing today. A new version. A version that honors our faiths and our peoples.

“Rather than a pseudo “Indian” or colonist approach,” she explains, “I’ve tried to write lyrics that reflect the stories that the Wendat themselves would traditionally have been sharing during midwinter.  These are followed by two verses acknowledging the influence of [the] Jesuit, Jean de Brébeuf.

I believe that this is a song that Euro-Canadians, as well as Indigenous Canadians, will enjoy singing.  They can learn about, and celebrate, Wendat culture.  They can research other Indigenous Canadian traditions to discover the ways in which their stories are similar, or different, from those of the Wendat.  If they are Christian, they can look for similarities between the Christian and Wendat stories.

Learning about, and respecting, each other’s culture is the first step to reconciliation.”

I reached out to Dana Lynn Seaborn and she gave us permission to sing this song today. She’s also submitted the lyrics to be considered in the next United Church hymnal! (The updated carol is set to the same tune as The Huron Carol).

The theology she weaves is one of the Wendat hearing their sacred tales of Sky Woman giving birth and in that, bringing forth life. And Little Turtle and Sun, giving light. But also of the Christians who speak of Mary who gives birth, and Jesus who brings forth light. Rejoice, this is our sacred home beneath heaven’s dome.

Rejoice, shining stars proclaim the dawn.

Rejoice, we have a new tomorrow we can live into today. 

Rejoice, we are living our faiths: faiths full of hope. Aware of our pasts. And learning to be in conversation in the present.

Rejoice, in love, we come to one another and speak, listen, sing in sacred love.

Amen.

Read more at https://broadview.org/the-complex-history-of-the-huron-carol/

The new and updated HURON CAROL

We gather at midwinter dark to share this hallowed night.

Within our longhouse, warm and dry, the fire glows with light.

Our Elders sing a teaching song;

it fills the night that seems so long:

This is our sacred home, ‘neath heaven’s dome,

shining stars proclaim the dawn.

Sky Woman came down from above, but found no place to stand,

till Toad put mud on Turtle’s back, and that became the land.

Sky Woman died in giving birth;

her holy body fed the earth.

This is our sacred home, ‘neath heaven’s dome,

shining stars proclaim the dawn.

A valiant Little Turtle rode a cloud up to the sky;

she used the lightning to make fire, and made our Sun to shine.

He journeys ‘neath the world we see,

returns to make the shadows flee.

This is our sacred home, ‘neath heaven’s dome,

shining stars proclaim the dawn.

The Black Robes came from lands afar, and told us of a day

Judea had been colonized, and Rome must be obeyed.

A mother bore a child of light;

rejoicing filled the starlit night:

This is our sacred home, ‘neath heaven’s dome,

shining stars proclaim the dawn.

Rejoice! Have courage one and all! The stars shine overhead,

the same stars that shone down upon a baby’s humble bed.

The infant grew to be a man;

his words, like stars, light many lands.

This is our sacred home, ‘neath heaven’s dome,

shining stars proclaim the dawn.

© D L Seaborn 2018

(Ms. Seaborn lives on Vancouver Island. She is a retired Unitarian chaplin.)