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Published on May 1, 2012
The Catholic Calumet: Colonial Conversions in French and Indian North America
Tracy Leavelle, PhD
Associate Professor and Chair Department of History, Creighton University
In 1730 a delegation of Native leaders arrived in the French colonial capital of New Orleans. An Illinois man presented two calumets, or ceremonial pipes, to the governor, one representing the diplomatic alliancebetween them and the other symbolizing their shared attachment to Catholicism. The priest who documented this exchange also reported with excitement how the visitors recited prayers and sang hymns in their Native language, a display that astonished the residents of New Orleans.
The "Catholic" calumet and the native-language prayers and hymns were the creative product of long encounters between the Native peoples and missionaries from the Society of Jesus, men who were themselves transformed by these sometimes intense spiritual experiences. The conversions of people, communities, and cultural practices that led to this dramatic episode all occurred in a rapidly evolving and always contested colonial context that opened new spaces for cultural creativity and mutual adaptation for both Natives and missionaries.