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Nature's Law
Spiritual Life, Governance, Culture, Traditions, Resources, Context and Background
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Report on Valentin Végreville’s Monograph of the Cree

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They removed the hide, then butchered the animal, slicing up all of the meat which they dried, some in the sun, some over the fire. From this meat they had provisions for themselves and their families for an entire season. As for the hide, they removed the hair, scraped it and tanned it to make mocassins and for their wigwams.

j) 4. P.86, Subject: religious beliefs, belief in an afterlife

Est-il sur la terre une nation sans religion? Des philosophes, pretendant que la religion est une invention humaine et non une loi donnée au premier homme par son Createur, ont allégué pour preuve de leur assertion qu’il y a des nations qui vivent sans religion aucune. Pour nous, la premire nation sans religion est encore  découvrir et nous ne sachions pas qu’il ait été prouvé qu’un seul peuple vécut sans idée religieuse et sans culte quelconque. La croyance  l’existence d’un tre suprme est si profondément gravée dans l'esprit de l'homme, le Créateur lui-mme l’y conserve avec tant de soin,qu’elle ne paraît pas jamais devoir en tre éffacée, mme chez les peuples les plus dépourvus de civilisation, d’intelligence et d’instruction religieuse. Ici, nous nous trouvons en face d’une nation qui ne paraît pas avoir jamais eu d’autres principes que ceux imprimés dans le coeur de l’homme ds le commencement du monde et renouvelés aprs le déluge.

Partie du pied de la tour de Babel, la race de Japhete se répandit par plusieurs chemins sur toute l’Europe. Plusieurs tribus ou families, continuant leur route par les contrées du Nord et les mers qui les avoisinent, vinrent successivement mettre pied en Amérique. Telle est l’origine, non de toutes les nations Peaux-Rouges, mais de plusieurs d’entr’elles, et particulirement de la nation algique.

Ces nations ont quitté depuis trop longtemps le Vieux Monde pour avoir connaissance des lois positives de quelques sicles posterieures au déluge. Tout chez-elles est primitif, mais profondément gravé dans l’esprit, j’allais dire dans la nature du sauvage. On sent quelque chose de matériel dans ce que nous voyons comme spirituel. Mais pour moi, la merveille, vraiment un miracle, c’est que des peuples abandonnés a eux-mmes depuis 3000 ou 4000 ans, ne contemplant que la matire, ne voyant que la matire disparaissant tout  tour de la terre, comme les animaux dont ils font leur nourriture, n’aient pas assimilé leur nature  celle des btes qui sont sans intelligence. Non. Ils ont reconnu en eux-memes l’homme, cet tre d'une nature supérieure  tout ce qui se voit sur la terre, et se survivant  lui-mme, et, au-dessus de lui, des tres invisibles et spirituels.

j) Translation, religious beliefs, belief in an afterlife.

Is there on Earth one nation without religion? Some philosophers, claiming that religion is a human invention and not a law given to the first man by his Creator, so as to prove their claim, allege that there are nations who live without religion at all. As for me, I have yet to discover a nation without a religion and I have never heard it proved that there has ever been a people without any religious ideas or a religious denomination. The belief in a Supreme Being is so deeply engraved in man’s spirit, the Creator himself so carefully instilled it in him that it does not seem to have ever been erased, even within those people who are the most deprived of the effects of civilization, lacking in intelligence or of religious instruction.

Here, we have a nation which does not seem to have ever received other principles than those which were imprinted in the heart of man at the beginning of the world and which were renewed after the Deluge. When it left from the base of the tower of Babel, the race of Japhet dispersed itself by many roads across Europe. Several tribes or families, continued on their way across the countries to the North and the seas which surround them, eventually arrived in America. Such is the origin, not of all the Nations of Redskins, but of several of them, notably the Algonquin nation.

These nations have left the Old World too long ago to know of the positive laws of a few centuries before the Deluge. Everything about them is primitive, but profoundly engraved in the spirit, I was going to say, in the nature of the native. We can sense something material in what we see as spiritual. But for me, the marvel of it all, a miracle really, is that these people left to themselves for three to four thousand years, contemplating only material things and seeing only these things disappearing one after the other from the face of the earth, like the animals from which they make their diet, and yet they have not assimilated their nature to that of the beasts who are without intelligence. No. They have recognized themselves as human beings, beings of a superior nature to everything seen on Earth, and believe in a afterlife, that all around them and in the heavens they sense the presence of invisible and spiritual beings.

i) endnotes

The end notes as outlined by Végreville seem to be complete and they seem to be properly referenced back to their page of origin. However, much of what is categorized as endnotes are passages which had been missed in the first transcription, the typesetter was to insert them into their respective places in the final text. As mentioned in the table of contents section, there is a also a section on the Dakota-Jesga which was not typed up at all. Typical of the errata type of endnotes is the passage which I have included with the translations (see a-2, p. 137a-b, Subject: geographical specifics of the Cree – Végreville’s thoughts on this based on the Wisaketsak legend, note 5.

V Critical overview and suggestions for publication

There are many onerous passages in this text and I have attempted to include a few of them in the translations. However I believe that the numerous unique observations more than redeem the text. If taken at face value, it is certain that many of Végreville’s perspectives are passé, sometimes even ridiculous, given our present-day scientific approach. So it is that his theory of skin colour being affected during pregnancy has long been rejected, but his observations concerning how the Cree refuse to give their name when asked is very well explained and remains important41.

As for the message of the manuscript, it is two fold. There are numerous references to Christianity and of its positive effects on the aboriginal population, and this is something to be expected from a missionary like Végreville who believed wholeheartedly in his cause. Many of his observations on the culture of the Cree, however, are first hand accounts, and publishing from this collection would bring out previously unnoticed details to a general public.

I believe that the best way to present these texts would be to support it with a detailed biography of the author which should be further enhanced with excerpts from his letter books. Given the forty odd years of letters filed away in the Oblate collection, there are some which are describe his mission visits, as I have read some of them. For instance, while I has preparing the interpretative matrix on the Mission on Lac-la-Biche Mission, I read through letters pertaining to the years he spent there as director. I was amused by his frustrated description of getting lost and wandering around with his young Métis guide for three or four days in the Moose Hills area northwest of Fort Pitt. During the same period, he angrily recalled in a letter to Taché how some Métis, who were travelling in the same direction as him earlier on, had laughed at him and his little crew for their ineptitude in properly organising their expedition, as they had forgotten to bring an axe – a most essential tool at the time – and were obliged to swallow their pride and borrow one from the nearby Métis caravan. And to add insult to injury, the Métis voyageurs had mocked the lay-brothers who worked with the missionary, calling them "Bishop Taché’s slaves". In the recent month, I happened again across a well-known descriptive letter of his relating at length of Végreville’s visit to Cold Lake and Lac la Biche from Île--la-Crosse, via the Waterhen river and the Cold river, where his guides had inadvertently broken his empty canoe while towing it up the rapids from the bank.

Such a work, be it for a traditional publication or an on-line one, could be divided into three main parts, beginning with an introduction-biography which would put Végreville in context, pertinent passages from his letters would make up the second part and the monograph would comprise the third and final part. All of these could be supported with maps, illustrations and photos, which would further enhance the text. This would entail an editorial hand as concerns the monograph and, of course, additional research to seek out relevant material in the letter books. But all in all, presenting the monograph in this way, particularly with the use of the letter books, would consolidate it substantially by giving it much more depth. A good index would make it easy to seek out particular passages, an essential tool which does not even accompany the Savoie edition of Petitot’s writings42. I must again stress that Végreville’s writings greatly resemble those of his colleague, particularly in the anthropological style which they both adopted.

For many reasons, which can be essentially reduced to maintaining face, these particular papers have been passed by Oblate historians because of Végreville’s sometimes controversial nature, as seen in a few letters of reprimand from his superiors. These works have never been used because of they are difficult to read and few scholars have had the necessary skills to decipher them and interpret them in a meaningful way. In a sense, Végreville is no more controversial than Petitot, in fact, far less: he remained with the Oblate order and served his cause until the end of his days. Far from being a saint, it can be seen that Végreville was a man of his time with all the accompanying faults and foibles which can be expected of a person of his generation and background. Putting that in context and letting his writings speak of his experiences and observations would certainly add to the knowledge of the culture of the aboriginal peoples of the Canadian plains and of the boreal forest. Just because no one has ever dared to analyse this collection is certainly no reason to ignore this important contribution to the history of the Canadian native peoples.

As I mentioned in the initial proposal for this project, a critical edition of Végreville’s letters and writings could be a best seller, as well as being an incredibly successful website which could provide readers of French or English all over the world with the descriptions of the culture which this missionary so intensely desired to bring to public attention over a hundred years ago. And as for my involvement in the project, I would embrace it wholeheartedly. I am delighted at my discovery of the existence of a far greater and pertinent body of documentation and sincerely believe that it would be an important contribution to the existing scholarly publications, but if it could be made available to an even larger market, this would be even more wonderful.

As for time and costs, I have not included this with this report, but I suspect it would probably take at least a year to do justice to this work. I would be happy to present a more detailed estimate at your request.
 

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