Étienne Pigarouich

The Algonquin shaman who reads dreams

Shaman Pigarouich

Pigarouich (1639-1643) maintained that he had achieved his power as a medicine-man by fasting five days and nights in an isolated cabin. He held eat-all feasts, sang loudly during feasts, and interpreted dreams; he sang and beat on drums and to cure sickness he consulted the “genii” of “those who make the light.” He killed men with his sorceries. He took robes and other presents for healing and he ordered that presents be given to the sick. For success in hunting he sang the song he had learned in a dream. As were all the leading medicine-men, he was greatly feared among his people.

Although he had burned the utensils of his trade some two years previously, his conversion and baptism described by Father Paul Le Jeune took place in 1639. This followed a narrow escape from the Iroquois when on a war-party, a deliverance which he attributed to prayer. Soon afterwards he was married, for a second time, by Christian ceremony. (A wife and children had died in an earlier epidemic.)

Pigarouich, while still a medicine-man, carried on long discussions with the priests, at times revealing with great sincerity “all his knaveries.” He greatly feared the undermining of his practices by the Europeans. He was an able disputant and caused much concern to the fathers, both before and after his baptism.

Pigarouich discussed the tent-shaking ritual with Father Le Jeune. A tent about seven feet high was built of poles held together with a wooden “hoop.” It was covered with robes and blankets. The genii were invoked by the sorcerer’s singing, and the tent, although strongly built, would shake violently, moved by the wind. Sometimes the tent bent almost to the ground and the arms and legs of the sorcerer would be visible. In fact, so forcibly did it shake at times that the sorcerer would believe the earth had opened under him and would run from the tent in terror, while it continued to shake.

At Sillery, in 1643, he brought many to prayers. He chastised the wicked and preached eloquently at the chapel, speaking “as well as Father de Bressany [see Bressani], who had just preached a fine sermon.”

Pigarouich was of a bold, active, and passionate nature. Molested by his own people at Trois-Rivières, presumably for giving up his trade as a sorcerer, he went to Quebec and there fell into evil ways. Although at times deeply repentant, he had several relapses into non-Christian practices during the winter of 1643–44 and was for a time exiled by both French and Indians.

Having decided to join a war-party and fearing imminent death, however, Pigarouich went to Trois-Rivières to beg absolution for his sins from Father Brébeuf. He was refused. He then sought Father Buteux at Montreal who heard his confession and wrote, later, that he had never heard any Indian "speak better or more boldly than he did in the Church, for the space of a quarter of an hour,” adding that “what he will do is known to God alone, as He alone knows whether he is truly contrite.” It was agreed by the Jesuits, however, that Pigarouich could do much to aid or to injure the progress of Christianity among the Indians. After 1644 they make no further reference to him.