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The Wendat World

In the 19th instalment of ‘Nations of Canada,’ Greg Koabel describes how Indigenous societies greeted the French influx of the early seventeenth century.

· 22 min read
A Wendat group from Wendake, in modern Quebec, photographed in 1880.
A Wendat group from Wendake, in modern Quebec, photographed in 1880.

What follows is the nineteenth instalment of The Nations of Canada, a serialized Quillette project adapted from Greg Koabel’s ongoing podcast of the same name.

Up to this point, our ongoing series has been tracking the developing presence of the French along the St. Lawrence River from the perspective of Samuel de Champlain and other Europeans. That’s because (a) the primary drivers of events have been the political, diplomatic, and economic pressures originating in France; and (b) the early seventeenth-century historical documents on which we rely were created by European authors. The Indigenous peoples of Canada have (I hope) appeared as fully realized characters in this drama. But they’ve mostly appeared as secondary characters. It’s past time that we explore their perspective more systematically.

From the beginning, I’ve tried to emphasize that North America was not a static, timeless world that was suddenly overturned by the arrival of Champlain in 1603. In the period immediately preceding regular European contact, the Great Lakes region in particular witnessed revolutionary socioeconomic changes that were every bit as dramatic as those initially sparked by the sudden appearance of Frenchmen on the St. Lawrence. 

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the adoption of agriculture fundamentally re-shaped Iroquoian society, as discussed back in our third instalment. Politically, this process culminated in the formation of Confederacies, starting some time in the 1450s. And “process” is the operative word here. The Wendat and Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) Confederacies did not come into existence overnight. They were a product of a long series of adaptations and improvisations.

The World of the Iroquois
In the third instalment of an ongoing Quillette series, historian Greg Koabel describes the revolution in agriculture, politics, and war that would transform many Indigenous societies before the arrival of French explorers.

As late as the 1590s, in fact, when Champlain was still a young man getting his sea legs on the Bay of Biscay, the Wendat Confederacy was welcoming another Indigenous nation into its orbit. (This was the Arendarhonon, which also happened to be the Wendat group that, in time, would first make contact with the French.) It’s true that Champlain’s arrival would induce Wendat leaders to fine-tune the nature of their Confederation, as proper management of Wendat–French relations required a somewhat more centralized political structure. But this was a mere refinement of a system that, to a significant extent, pre-dated European contact.

To pick up our narrative thread following on events we covered in our last instalment: The trading season of 1616 was a turning point in the emerging St. Lawrence world. The Franco–Wendat alliance had been formalised, and large-scale trade upriver from Quebec (which is to say, modern Quebec City) now became the seasonal norm.

Meanwhile, the scale of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) threat along the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers was greatly diminished. After suffering two costly military defeats and a full-scale attack on one of their villages, the Haudenosaunee were re-assessing their strategic thinking. For the time being, Wendat trade convoys enjoyed a degree of safety unmatched in the years before or after.

(I’m going to repeat an explanatory point I covered last month, but which bears repetition. My use of the collective terms Iroquois and Haudenosaunee refers to the Indigenous Confederacy that is also described as the Iroquois League and the Five Nations—later, Six Nations. These are confederated Indigenous societies whose traditional lands include much of modern upstate New York and neighbouring areas; arrayed, from west to east, as the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk. This is the region in which the above-referenced military battles took place. I will also repeat the caveat that usage of the word Iroquois should not be confused with the term Iroquoian, which can be used to describe a broader language group shared by other Indigenous nations, including—somewhat confusingly—the Wendat. This language type is distinct from the Algonquin language family, many of whose speakers were, of course, included in the polyglot Laurentian Coalition.)

But for one group, the growth of trade on the upper St. Lawrence was a problem—the Innu. These were the Algonquin-language fur hunters and traders inhabiting the downriver region north of the St. Lawrence in eastern Quebec.

For almost 40 years, the Innu had been engaged in large-scale commerce with Europeans at Tadoussac, the trading hub located on the lower estuary of the St. Lawrence, near the mouth of the Saguenay River. Socially and economically, Innu life had become increasingly geared toward the annual trading season. But now that the Europeans were shifting their operations west, toward what is now Montreal and beyond, Innu society faced an existential threat. Their region was effectively becoming the seventeenth-century version of flyover country. 

The French-imposed regulation of the fur trade also worked against Innu interests. When the various monopolies enacted by the French Crown had been poorly enforced (which was most of the time before 1616), the Innu had benefited from increased European competition. As noted previously, in fact, the Innu had a policy of not beginning the spring trading season until there were enough ships anchored at Tadoussac to drive up prices. Now that the nascent Quebec colonial project enjoyed the full support of a stable administrative back office in Paris, however, the Innu lost much of their trade leverage. The Company set prices, and was now effective at cracking down on monopoly-busting interlopers.

In other words, it wasn’t just that the fur-trading market was moving west, out of Innu territory; it was now becoming more of a buyer’s market, and less of a seller’s market.

A further problem was that the Innu had little to fall back on. Their traditional, pre-European economic practices had been based on specialised skills passed down from generation to generation. But for decades, these skills had not been developed or transmitted, because it was imagined that the Innu role would continue to be that of collective middleman operating between inland Algonquin hunters and European traders.

Inevitably, the impoverishment of the Innu led to a series of conflicts with the French, who exacerbated tensions by refusing to honour previously established price agreements.

The French also appeared to be unilaterally altering the terms of the relationship in other ways. As part of a pattern that would repeat itself in countless other parts of North America, the French acted as if they were the entitled owners of the land, rather than guests of the Innu. Rumours spread that the French secretly intended to completely supplant the Innu and steal their land. Whether this would be achieved through conquest or the deliberate starvation of the local inhabitants hardly mattered.

For their part, Champlain and the newly arrived Récollet missionaries believed that Quebec could thrive only if it was transformed from a glorified trading post into a well-populated town that was supported by a productive hinterland of farming villages—a supplanted version of rural France, in other words.

Champlain believed that Indigenous neighbours such as the Innu had a crucial role to play in this transition, but it wasn’t in their capacity as traders. Encouraging farmers and artisans to emigrate from France would be expensive, and so it would be more cost-effective, Champlain reasoned, if the new colony were at least partly populated by Innu who were assimilated into a sedentary European-style agriculture-based lifestyle. Needless to say, they hadn’t bothered to ask the Innu for their views on this plan.

As for the Récollet missionaries, they saw Indigenous re-settlement on farms around Quebec as the best path toward religious conversion. Their belief was that Indigenous people would never abandon their traditional spiritual beliefs if they did not break from the traditional economic practices into which those beliefs were interwoven. And while the goal of “saving souls” was one that Champlain had never seen as important, it was one he now had to (at least nominally) support, having realised that indulging the Church was the price he’d have to pay for continued backing from the pious Catholics who dominated France’s political establishment.

As the years passed, the French–Innu relationship was increasingly contaminated by mistrust. In 1617, a flash point occurred when two Frenchmen were killed by a pair of Innu. A dispute over trade had escalated into violence—a scenario that was becoming alarmingly common.

In accordance with Indigenous condolence rituals, a group of Innu offered the French a gift to make amends for the crime. But the Récollets urged Champlain to reject this settlement. By accepting, they reasoned, he would be putting a price on the life of every Frenchman.

Were these Innu killers to be treated as French colonial subjects who should be subject to the King’s justice? Or were they friends and allies whose treatment should be governed by the (more lenient) dictates of diplomacy? The answer wasn’t clear.

Another issue that Champlain faced was the question of jurisdiction. Were these Innu killers to be treated as French colonial subjects who should be subject to the King’s justice? Or were they friends and allies whose treatment should be governed by the (more lenient) dictates of diplomacy? The answer wasn’t clear.

In the end, Champlain managed to use his personal influence to defuse the conflict. But both sides remained distrustful, and Champlain himself began treating the Innu as a mere nuisance that was distracting him from his westward focus. In time, he would pay a high price for alienating France’s former friends in this haughty manner.

Even on the Ottawa River, where Champlain was busily strengthening his fur-trading ties with Algonquin allies, the French ignorance of Indigenous attitudes was becoming apparent.

For Europeans, trade was utilitarian—something you could conduct with strangers as easily as with friends. But for Indigenous societies, trading relationships were wrapped up with diplomacy and even military alliances. In this world, in fact, the line between reciprocal gift-giving among friends and quid-pro-quo trade could be a blurry one.

When a trading partner was experiencing a crippling bout of disease or starvation, the custom was for usual trading partners to send gifts, on the expectation that your partner would do the same for you when roles were reversed—a custom utterly alien to European-style capitalism (as we would now call it). By the same token, a stranger with whom you did not exchange gifts, or a friend who suddenly stopped offering gifts, was a potential enemy.

The difference between the Indigenous and European attitude to trade reflected the different political conditions in which these two systems operated. In Europe, where monarchs were understood to exercise complete authority over the lands they controlled, it wasn’t necessary to develop ties of affection or trust with one’s trade partners, as the sovereign would (at least in theory) resolve commercial disputes. In the Indigenous world, on the other hand, legal and political authority was more diffuse, and written contracts did not exist. Thus, the sense of security and trust required to sustain a regular trading relationship had to be nourished by other means.

The other element at play here involves travel and logistics. In Europe, business often was conducted at large ports, market towns, and trade fairs, where strangers would meet briefly, do business, and then go their separate ways. But in the Indigenous world, the only way to trade with other nations was often to embark on weeks-long journeys into their territory in canoes laden with goods. Unless you knew that such travels would take place among friends and allies, these journeys would be risky. And even once the trading was done, a trader who’d come from afar would often have to bed down in a trading partner’s village as a guest—an arrangement that required ties that went far deeper than profit-seeking.

Initially, the European commodities that Algonquin and Wendat traders were most interested in were those with straightforward economic and military value, such as copper kettles, iron tools, and weapons. But as the French–Wendat–Algonquin Laurentian Coalition matured, and trade volumes on the St. Lawrence grew, demand grew for seashells that could be strung together in symbolically meaningful patterns so they could be used as gifts or forms of diplomatic tribute.

The French called the individual shells “porcelain” because of their similarity to ceramics from the Orient. The Dutch called the product sewan. But the name that stuck over the centuries came from the English settlers in New England—wampum, a word that was originally derived from a more specific Algonquin word for white whelk shells, but then eventually got adopted as a catch-all term.  

Traditionally crafted wampum belts presented by a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island, photographed in 2018 at a display in Sutton, Ontario.
Traditionally crafted wampum belts presented by a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island, photographed in 2018 at a display in Sutton, Ontario.

Wampum had been traded within Indigenous networks long before the arrival of Europeans, with black and white whelks, mostly from the Chesapeake, making their way as far as the Great Lakes.

In the first half of the seventeenth century, however, the wampum industry changed drastically, as the shell supply was disrupted by conflicts connected with the arrival of English settlers at Jamestown. Production shifted north, to Long Island. In time, the deep purple quahog shell replaced the black whelk that had been harvested in the Chesapeake. This shift was facilitated by the use of drilling tools from Europe, which allowed the delicate quahog shell to be worked into a bead that could be threaded into wampum.

The arrival of the Dutch in the region (in the wake of Henry Hudson’s 1609 voyage, discussed in our fifteenth instalment) played a large role in this economic shift, as wampum became a key part of the Dutch trade network that sprang up along the Hudson River. Meanwhile, French artisans produced glass beads that mimicked the Long Island shells, which were distributed to Champlain’s Algonquin and Wendat allies.

Unlike weapons or tools, wampum did not provide a direct boost to economic or military efficiency. Its value came primarily from the fact that it could be easily redistributed. Indeed, a study of the wampum trade can help shed light on Indigenous attitudes to trade commodities more generally.  

Within Indigenous societies, property was typically seen as transient. Which isn’t to say that private property didn’t exist, but rather that its primary purpose was to help forge relationships by eventually giving it to others. The idea of permanently hoarding wealth in a private cache, the dream of every European aristocrat, didn’t resonate.

This is something that non-Indigenous observers had difficulty understanding. Certainly, there was no European equivalent of wampum, a commodity built on the notion of exchange as a virtue in and of itself. And over time, the wampum trade helped teach European traders about Indigenous systems of exchange in a way that would have been difficult to communicate through language.

Though the Wendat Confederacy and its Algonquin allies located along the Ottawa River were all part of the Laurentian Coalition forged by Champlain, they had different roles. While the Algonquin-speaking nations were less dependent on the French than were the Innu, they still had an economy based primarily on traditional hunting, the proceeds from which they traded with others for needed goods. By contrast, the Wendat Confederacy had a more diversified economy that included corn farming, and so were the least dependent of all upon the French. 

The Wendat saw themselves as politically dominant in regard to their Algonquin allies, and treated the French in the same fashion. Trade was conducted in the mutually comprehensible languages of the Wendat nations, not French. Moreover, Wendat traders were perfectly happy to cease trading with the French if they did not like French behaviour—for instance, when summer traders meeting on the St. Lawrence had acted aggressively with their Indigenous counterparts in the absence of Champlain’s moderating influence.

Historians have concluded that the Wendat of this period (the 1610s and 1620s) represented a confident society that engaged with the fur trade from a position of political end economic strength. According to archaeologist Bruce Trigger, the Wendat “believed themselves equal or superior as human beings to the French, and remained confident of the criteria by which they judged the world.” In other words, their initial encounter with Europeans did not produce a sense of shock or fear, but rather was a development that the Wendat believed could be exploited to their advantage.

Moreover, the military victories that the Wendat scored against the Iroquois as part of their French alliance brought a heightened sense of security to their homeland, which became known as Huronia (following on the French usage of the term Huron to describe its inhabitants). Previously, the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers had been dangerous for Wendat and Algonquin travellers, especially the no-man’s-land of the upper St. Lawrence. Mohawk raiders tended to come north to the St. Lawrence from Lake Champlain, down what would become known as the Richelieu River. That river emptied into the St. Lawrence amid a set of rapids north of Montreal, an ideal location for ambushing convoys travelling down the St. Lawrence to trade. Now that the Iroquois threat was in remission, traders no longer had to head out in a single, well-defended convoy. Instead, small groups of canoes could visit the French throughout the summer.

The trip to the St. Lawrence from Huronia (which sits in modern Ontario, between lakes Simcoe, Ontario, and Huron) typically took traders three or four weeks. And while I’ve been referring to this as the Ottawa River route, it was not a continuous waterway. Wendat travellers first set out north, along the coast of Georgian Bay, before cutting inland to Lake Nipissing. From there, a series of waterways took traders east, to the headwaters of the Ottawa. This involved a number of portages, over which canoes, supplies, and trade goods had to be carried. As European tag-along travellers would be learning, this could be a dangerous and physically arduous journey for men who weren’t experienced in this kind of work.

Map showing approximate path of seasonal trade route from Huronia to St. Lawrence along Ottawa River route.
Approximate path of seasonal trade route from Huronia to St. Lawrence along Ottawa River route.

The gruelling workouts didn’t end once you reached the Ottawa River proper. Over its course, the waterway drops 600 feet in elevation, producing a series of impassable rapids that had to be bypassed on land. The return trip was even more difficult and lengthy. And it was expensive, too, as travellers were expected to provide gifts to groups that controlled important choke points along the river (such as the Kichesipirini, whom we met back in the fourteenth instalment).

United Against the Iroquois
In the fourteenth instalment of his series on the history of Canada, Greg Koabel describes Champlain’s military alliance with France’s new Innu, Algonquin, and Wendat trading partners.

The alliance between the Wendat and Algonquin groups seemed to strengthen during the early seventeenth century, as both groups had a common interest in working with the French. It’s also possible that the Wendat trade network was still expanding during this period. That network now included the Ottawa, an Algonquin-speaking group that (confusingly enough) did not live on what we now call the Ottawa River. Rather, it occupied the coast of Georgian Bay north of Huronia—the first stop for Wendat traders heading to the St. Lawrence.

The Ottawa were extensive traders themselves (their name comes from an Algonquin term meaning “to trade”). Through the Ottawa, the Wendat (and, by extension, the French) would now be connected to a network that stretched all the way to the western Great Lakes, as far as the Winnebago, a Siouan-speaking people living around Green Bay in modern-day Wisconsin. 

Historians estimate that one in six Wendat men were directly involved in the fur trade at this time. A greater number were engaged in land clearance for agriculture. European metal tools likely aided in that work, and corn production increased to create tradeable surpluses, leading to more wealth for the community. (There’s evidence that Wendat builders fashioned higher quality longhouses during this period.)

The Wendat saw metal usage as a defining feature of the French (at least early on). We know this because the Wendat term for the French was Agnonha, or “the Iron People.” Unlike the Mi’kmaq and Innu further east, on the other hand, the Wendat had little interest in European food. They produced plenty of corn domestically, and perishable food stocks did not travel well on the long Ottawa River route. More easily transportable knives, axes, and tools were more favoured by Wendat traders.

But, to repeat a theme, there’s little evidence that Wendat society became dependent on these commodities. Despite access to European kettles and blades, for instance, traditional domestic production of household goods continued in Wendat communities. There was no sudden revolution in the way Indigenous people lived.

As in most Iroquoian societies, women played a prominent role in the Wendat world, especially as corn cultivators. In the past, there’s been speculation among historians about whether the increasing importance of trade (a male-dominated activity) may have affected Wendat gender relations, but there’s little evidence of this. Since corn was an important trade commodity when it came to Wendat–Algonquin trade, women would still be playing a key role. And the rising number of men who were now absent from the village during their long trading voyages to the St. Lawrence may have actually increased the responsibilities women exercised within their communities.  

However, there is some evidence that the fur trade had at least a subtle impact on social inequalities within Wendat society, since men who established new trading relationships enjoyed a kind of monopoly on further trade along the trail they’d blazed. In this way, they became necessary intermediaries in maintaining personal links with the new French trading partners, a fact that neighbours acknowledged by offering them gifts before engaging in trade themselves. In practice, this often elevated the status of the intermediary’s kinship group as a whole, as it was customary for traders to donate generously to a central community treasury.

As the fur trade developed, French sources noted, some of the Wendat traders who came to the St. Lawrence began expressing resentment toward the so-called “stay-at-homes”—the community leaders back in Huronia who seemed to benefit from all the hard work they were doing. As with any new economic development, trade with the French was advantaging some Wendat more than others, though it’s more likely that the effect was to exacerbate pre-existing intra-Wendat grievances than to create new ones.

Likewise, while traditional Wendat spiritual practices were no doubt affected by the changing environment, they were not fundamentally altered.

Although it’s difficult to know the details of rituals before European contact, French missionaries who arrived in the early seventeenth century reported an intensification of the Ononharoia, a traditional winter festival among the Wendat. The disdainful European priests referred to it as a “Feast of the Fools” because (to them) it resembled European folk festivals in which traditional hierarchies were temporarily inverted, and the common people acted without restraint.

In fact, the missionaries were observing a society without the strict social hierarchies of Europe—and so there wasn’t much here to invert. The Ononharoia was actually a kind of curing festival.

Within Indigenous understandings of health, there were three broad categories of illness. First were those brought about by natural causes. These could be addressed through changes in diet, or the application of herbal or medicinal remedies. Second were diseases brought on by witchcraft—a category that will become important in Franco–Indigenous relations in the future, so I’ll hold off on going down that road for now.

Third were diseases brought about by unfulfilled desires. Often, these desires were not consciously recognised by the sufferer—they were revealed only through dreams (which, in some cases, had to be interpreted by a specialist, a sort of Indigenous proto-Freudian therapist). It was during the Ononharoia festival that these desires were believed to be most often revealed. The result was, to French eyes, anarchy. People ran through Wendat villages proclaiming their latest dreams, and informing everyone what gifts were necessary to cure the underlying desires. 

The missionaries also believed that the influx of European goods increased the pandemonium, though their analysis should be taken with a grain of salt. It suited the missionary agenda to discredit Indigenous ceremonies as pretexts for debauch. Theirs was hardly a rigorous ethnographic study of changing social patterns within Wendat society.

There is firmer evidence when it comes to the central Iroquoian ceremony of the Feast of the Dead—the ritual disinterment of all those who’d died during the life of a village so they could be buried in a communal ossuary, before the community moved on to a new location where crops could be planted on fresh, undepleted soil.

Archaeological evidence indicates a significant increase in the material goods buried in such communal ossuaries once trade with the French was firmly established. And many of the goods buried with the dead were European in origin.

Historians have drawn two main conclusions from this. Firstly, and most obviously, the fur trade produced a significant increase in the exchange and movement of goods. Secondly, it seems that the Wendat interest in European goods went beyond the utilitarian efficiencies that iron tools could provide. In fact, it’s far from clear that economic motivations were even the primary draw. If they were, why bury these valuable items instead of letting others use them?

Instead, it seems that a key function of the fur trade was the creation and strengthening of personal relationships defined by exchange—both between Wendat traders and the French, and among members of Wendat society.

It’s important to note that during these early years, most Frenchmen who crossed the Atlantic never saw the Wendat homeland in Huronia, and most Wendat never ventured to the St. Lawrence. Initially, the only visible French presence within Indigenous communities were the translators—young Frenchmen who were placed in specific communities to learn local languages and customs.

At times, such arrangements could work out quite poorly, as we observed in the cause of Nicolas de Vignau among the Kichesipirini. But in other cases, interpreters helped forge substantial links between the two worlds. This group included trader-turned-interpreter Nicolas Marsolet de Saint-Aignan, who lived among the Innu for many years, and picked up their language far quicker than later missionaries. Jean Nicollet (who is believed to be the first European to visit what we now call Lake Michigan) was similarly successful with the Nipissing.

But none of the translators were as influential as Étienne Brûlé, the young man whom Champlain sent to live with the Wendat back in 1610. Technically, Champlain had put Brûlé in the care of Iroquet, an Algonquin chief. But Iroquet and his kin regularly spent winters in Wendat territory, and so Brûlé quickly established links in Huronia.

In effect, he became a member of Wendat society, and participated in social and political affairs. His knowledge of Wendat languages was invaluable, especially since Wendat traders tended not to conduct business in other tongues, and the French traders on the St. Lawrence were hardly fluent in anything except French. Every summer, Brûlé played a leading role in the main trading convoys.

The economic needs of both the French and Indigenous traders became dependent on the deep integration of such figures into the other’s societies, including through the creation of kinship ties. This was an arrangement that the Wendat and other Indigenous groups saw as perfectly normal, but it fit awkwardly into the European model, where distinctions between cultures remained important.

Men such as Brûlé were ideally suited to bridging this gap due to their youth. They typically did not have family connections tying them to French society, and (unlike missionaries) they relished the opportunity to escape the deeply conservative (which is to say, restrictive) sexual taboos imposed by Christian Europe.  

Brûlé’s early successes convinced Champlain and his fellow Company men to formalise such arrangements. New interpreters were brought in, and they were paid a generous salary. But while Brûlé and his compatriots were on the Company payroll, they were not necessarily “company men.” Their identities within the Indigenous communities that hosted them were just as important.

Brûlé, in particular, saw his future success as lying with the Wendat world rather than that of the French. Other interpreters would use their work as a stepping stone to accumulate wealth and influence that could be exploited to establish a prominent position in Quebec. But Brûlé would live his entire adult life among the Wendat, and, as we’ll see, ultimately become an important figure within their political milieu.

Unfortunately for us, interpreters such as Brûlé left few surviving documentary accounts describing their experiences. Most of our French sources come from missionaries, who had a drastically different (and likely less informed) take on Indigenous life.

In fact, the two groups of Frenchmen were often in conflict. The Christian holy men were there to change Indigenous society, while the interpreters were there to immerse themselves in it and (more cynically) profit from what they learned.

Missionaries complained that young men such as Brûlé were showing their Indigenous hosts the worst aspects of secular France—especially in the realm of sexual behaviour. Interpreters, meanwhile, resented the disruptive and meddlesome sermonizing of the missionaries.

The messy interplay between these two European constituencies essentially represented a miniaturised grass-roots version of the political compromise that had forced Champlain to include the Church in his North American project to begin with.

In terms of generating a historical record, the missionaries got the better of these arguments. Unlike the traders and translators, they were methodical in recording Indigenous customs and practices (as they interpreted them), in part so they could report on their progress for the benefit of fellow missionaries back in France.

The French seemed comically inept when it came to travelling by canoe, hunting, and communicating in local languages—all apparent signs (to Wendat eyes) of stupidity. Were these men who’d crossed the ocean the dolts of the French world?

Just as the French often misunderstood the Wendat, the Wendat often misunderstood the French. For one thing, the French seemed comically inept when it came to travelling by canoe, hunting, and communicating in local languages—all apparent signs (to Wendat eyes) of stupidity. Were these men who’d crossed the ocean the dolts of the French world?

Even on matters pertaining to the European realm, the French seemed clueless. For instance, none of the Frenchmen who traded with the Wendat seemed capable of producing the weapons and tools they’d brought with them from Europe. This fact struck Wendat observers as bizarre because the concept of labour specialisation (beyond a gendered division) was largely foreign to their societies.

There was similar confusion about how the French selected their leaders. Status and influence in Wendat society were built largely through persuasive rhetoric at council, skill in the hunt or battle, and generosity within the community. French leadership seemed to be based on something else. And clearly it wasn’t technical knowledge or physical dexterity, as Champlain put none of either on display. As discussed earlier, in fact, he’d almost died after getting lost in the wilderness while giving chase to a wild bird, and had to be rescued by Indigenous travelling companions.

For the most part, these impressions reinforced the Wendat sense of cultural superiority. It helped that the French tended to be short and heavily bearded—especially those who travelled deep into the interior of Canada. The consensus within Indigenous societies was that this made Frenchmen ugly.

Another aspect of French culture that grated on the Wendat was the French style of communication. The underlying basis of Iroquoian political systems was a desire to maintain harmony in the community. The network of village councils, topped by that of the Confederacy, had emerged out of a period of violence and disorder associated with the introduction of agriculture in earlier centuries. While Europeans tried to maintain peace and order through absolutist top-down socioeconomic hierarchies and rigid Christian moralising, the Wendat instead focused on building consensus.

On a day to day basis, the French tendency to gesticulate aggressively in conversation and interrupt one another was seen by the Wendat as uncivilised, socially disruptive, and even effeminate. Men discussed things in an orderly and civil fashion. Each took his turn to speak, and divergent views were softened by skilful mastery of language. Until these volatile Frenchmen learned some manners, they seemed more like children or women (Europeans had no monopoly on sexism) than proper men who were capable of conducting affairs of state. 

As we’ve seen, a similar dynamic was at play when it came to resolving disputes within one’s own community. Wendat justice was focused on the goal of re-establishing harmony. Opposing groups had to be reconciled to avoid a perpetual cycle of reprisals. But in the European world, justice meant punishment being meted out by a higher power who was immune from reprisal. French blood had to be paid for with the guilty blood of a murderer. As the Wendat saw it, this French style of justice seemed to immediately escalate every conflict into a form of blood feud—an ominous sign of things to come.

In summary, the Wendat world—as it existed during Champlain’s era—had not yet been radically changed by its alliance with the French. Things were changing, but still within the coherent and recognisable political and economic structure that the Wendat had created in partnership with their trading partners. And so it’s unlikely that many in Huronia saw Champlain and his companions as harbingers of a “new” world.  

But in our next instalment, we’ll travel downriver along the St. Lawrence, where the knock-on effects of the growing Franco–Wendat alliance really were ushering in a new world. The French post at Quebec, which had started off as a few wooden homes and warehouses used by seasonal traders, was finally turning into something that we would now call a colony.  

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