“Black Robe” is a Canadian film released in 1991, directed by Bruce Beresford. The film begins in Quebec in 1634, with a decision to send a Jesuit priest, Father Laforge (played by Lothaire Bluteau), up the St. Lawrence River with a young French assistant, Daniel (Aden Young), to the Huron settlement where the Jesuits have already established a mission, guided and guarded by a group of Algonquians led by Chomina (August Schellenberg). Unlike many films about Native Americans or colonial America, this one is carefully researched and produced with a care not just for accurate detail, but also the veracity of larger issues: events, characters, their relationships, etc. Not everything is perfectly accurate: for example, Jesuit priests always traveled in pairs, in order to avoid the kind of situation that developed with Daniel (you’ll see what I mean), and Iroquois (and other tribes) almost never killed young children taken as captives, since the main point of capturing enemies and indeed of warfare itself was to “replace” recently deceased members of the community by adopting individuals who would take their place. But even so, this is THE best depiction of European-Native encounters, and has won various film awards.
While the film begins by reassuring you of the essential similarities of Native and European cultures—watch how the camera switches back and forth between Chomina and Samuel de Champlain (the governor-general of New France) preparing for their conference—it soon focuses on its main theme, the clash of European and Native beliefs and “world views.” The viewer (you) has a choice of point-of-view: to fall in with the devout Jesuit (who the Indians call “Black Robe” for obvious reasons) and to start caring about what happens to him in a land he cannot understand, cannot even survive in; or to focus on Chomina, who promised to deliver the Black Robe up river so late in the year, and believes totally in the power and reality of the Dreamworld and of his people.
As the band begins their journey upriver, the differences between Natives and Europeans emerge in the interactions between Father Laforge and the Indians. The Algonquians, by the way, were nomadic people who generally did not grow crops, since they lived in areas where the weather was too cold. At one point Laforge will show them writing; they will refer to it as “Manitou-ee” (or something like that), which is a word for spiritual power (or something so far from the ordinary world that it must reek with such power), and begin considering whether Black Robe is a demon. This is accurate: to Eastern Woodland peoples, spiritual power was real power, and could be used for good or evil depending on the desire of the person who wielded it. Chomina then has a dream about Black Robe, and the band will discuss the need to fulfill the dream; this is also quite accurate. Also during this period in the film, Laforge will have dreams in which he recalls his life in France, meeting a priest from New France, meeting a girl who his mother wants him to possibly marry, etc. By the way, you’ll notice that there was no privacy in the wigwam where people sleep, and that men shared sleeping furs. This is also accurate, and is something that was also true in European (and Euro colonial) societies at the time. Travelers usually shared beds with others of the same gender in a tavern or inn, and private rooms were generally only in the homes of the gentry or “middling” class. Oh, and of course Daniel falls for Chomina’s daughter and, as they say, the sparks fly.
Chomina then leads the band to meet with a powwow (medicine man) with a Montagnais band, who will help him deal with the Dream and with Black Robe. The appearance of this medicine man is a bit of comic relief, but it is also realistic. Individuals who were physically different (you’ll see what I mean) were viewed as somehow having special access to manitou. At one point, a child dies and is placed in a tree; Laforge goes to perform last rites, and a couple of the observing Indians comment that what he does is the way that the Jesuits steal their souls. That is indeed how many Indians saw Catholic rituals, particularly last rites, since so many died immediately after a Jesuit made those signs and said those words. At a certain point, Chomina will be challenged by another Algonquian; note how he asserts his authority—not by telling the challenger that he outranks him or threatening to arrest him, but by simply standing his ground and putting his prestige (and life) on the line.
Later, Chomina, Laforge, Daniel, Chomina’s daughter, and a young girl will be captured by Iroquois (I’m not sure which tribe) and taken to their village. The men will run the gauntlet (a very accurate depiction; and, by the way, an Iroquois (Onondaga tribe) once told me that tattoos on the village sachem’s face were absolutely accurate), and then inside a longhouse a few nasty things will happen, and then the sachem tell the captives what will be done with the captives tomorrow. All of that is accurate, except for the part where the girl is killed—that rarely happened (I won’t say that it never happened, but I’ve never heard of it). Note that later that evening, Laforge or Daniel calls the Iroquois demons (as I recall) for their behavior, and Chomina replies that he or his people would do the same to them if their roles were reversed—also very true.
When Laforge gets to the Huron village, note that it is very much like the Iroquois village. The Hurons were indeed close relatives of the Iroquois, with the same material culture, language, festivals, etc., even though they were bitter enemies. In this case, I think that the filmmakers used the same village for both. The scene in which Laforge agonizes over baptizing the Hurons reflects the kind of issues that did indeed face the Jesuits in these situations. Be sure to carefully read the text that rolls up the screen as the movie ends; it’s the “kicker” that should make you rethink your response to parts of the film.