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Iroquois-French Relations in 16th-17th century New France Completed by University of Outline 1. Abstract 2. Background and general introduction 3. Historians on Iroquois skills and traits a. Customs of Iroquois society b. Cultural exchange 4. Iroquois-French relations 5. Intermarriage relations 6. Conclusion 7. Bibliography Abstract In the past three decades, historians have vehemently debated about the history of Canada’s colonial period. In particular, a good deal of recent research has challenged the roles traditionally placed on the Indian nations in New France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While anthropologist Diamond Jenness’ The Indians of Canada, first published in 1932, had been the standard general historical reference of the roles of natives, his arguments have been overturned. Relying on archaeological and ethnographic studies, Jenness depicts the natives in passive and dependent roles in relation to the Europeans. Moreover, Jenness downplays the natives’ contributions to the development of Canada in the areas of politics, economics, and culture. He was also pessimistic about their future and even predicting their demise. One of his underlying concerns in his work was to explain why Canadian Aboriginals had remained so backward in comparison to Europeans. After the Second World War, however, a more dynamic historical image of Native people began to emerge. The shift was provoked by the fervor to obtain rights for minorities. As a result, historians became interested in studying native history and a new interdisciplinary and multi-source approach to study Indian-European relations, known as ethnohistory, emerged in Canada and the United States. Historians such as Cornelius Jaenen, and more recently, Bruce Trigger and James Axtell are changing the viewpoint among historians on the role the native peoples played in shaping New France. Background and general introduction Until the 1940s the religious, secular, and nationalist ideologies that produced differing perspectives on New France’s history and evolution also shaped the interpretations of French-Iroquois relations written by the colony’s historians. But as history divided itself into subfields and specialized areas of study and as monographs on the Iroquois and other native groups became available, historians of New France began to incorporate those findings into their own works. The result was that no longer did the Iroquois become enemies of New France because Champlain had attacked them in 1609. No more were Iroquois incursions against New France and her native allies seen as one more challenge thrown by God at the little Catholic colony to test its mettle. No more were the battles against the Iroquois the anvil on which a brave new French society was hammered out on the St. Lawrence River. The roots of the cultural exchange and intermarriage of Iroquois who settled in New France can be traced back to Francis Parkman, the American historian of New France. This interpretive model was given its fullest treatment by George Hunt in 1940 and has come to dominate the way historians of the Iroquois have accounted for Iroquois relations with a wide range of French groups. It is not really clear when the terms cultural exchange and intermarriage (referring to the French and Iroquois) were coined. Neither Parkman nor Hunt uses it to explain Iroquois-French relationships. It appears to have worked its way into the literature as a generalization for the elaborate theory that, reduced to its simplest form, argues that the Iroquois engaged in acts of cultural and social exchange because these were natural processes for Iroquois society of those days. Historians of New France writing after 1940 concurred with the findings of these authorities, and their interpretations of French-Iroquois relations reflected the growing predominance of the cultural exchange and intermarriage theory. Yet Axtell (2001) and Eccles (1998), for instance, did not work in a vacuum. By the time their books were published, most of the ideas they espoused had been current for decades. It was in part the longevity of those ideas, and the popularity of cultural and economic explanations of history, in both Canada and the United States, that gave these researchers’ work such currency when they were published. If Axtell (1981) can be credited for being among the first, if not the first, to contribute to the development of the cultural exchange and intermarriage theory, that is certainly not the interpretation he is known for, and his contribution has remained obscured by his more sensational pronouncements. Axtell (1981) was among the first and most widely read of New France's historians. His cultural references to the history of New France was written as a tragic tale of a colony doomed to fail. In the struggle between Protestant liberalism and Catholic absolutism and feudalism, liberalism was destined to triumph. Axtell’s (1981, 2001) writings on Iroquois reflected a similar duality of purpose. In most of his works the Iroquois figured prominently. Axtell’s treatment of Iroquois reflected his interest in them and allowed him to make a larger point about their inevitable destruction as a consequence of their inability to adapt to civilized ways and because they stood in the way of progress. More important to Eccles (1998), focusing on the Iroquois served as a means to tell a great story. Both Axtell (2001) and Eccles (1998) focused on the issues of cultural exchange, which is central to any examination of the Iroquois society in the New France territories.


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It has long been recognized that Iroquois society underwent change as a result of contact with Europeans. Indeed, aspects of Iroquois society were in the process of changing before contact with Europeans, and archaeological work has uncovered some of the changes. However, the ability to document material change has led to the development of a false confidence in our ability to measure changes in value systems. The question that is begged, however, is, changed from what? Major scholars such as Trigger (1985), Moogk (2002), Codignola (1996) etc. argue that it is possible to look at material culture and see how things were modified due to contact with Europeans, but we do not know what the Iroquois valued or fought for before contact with Europeans. Lack of understanding has not prevented speculation about what pre-contact Iroquois culture and society was like, and the result has been a tendency to romanticize the past. Many writers depict pre-contact Iroquois society as little more than a violent version of “hide and seek” that turned destructive with the introduction of new weapons and economic motives (Eccles 1998, 90-93). Many argue (Trigger 1985, Moogk 2002, Codignola 1996, Axtell 2001) this in the face of archaeological evidence that clearly reveals that large-scale destructive warfare predated European arrival. Palisaded prehistoric villages, and particularly the heavily palisaded village of Hochelaga, with its galleries filled with rocks to throw down at those who tried to breach the walls, all indicate that large-scale warfare, including sieges against fortified villages, antedate European arrival on the St. Lawrence. That these raids were destructive is attested to by the death of close to two hundred Stadaconans in 1533 at the hands of the Toudamans who breached the Stadaconans’ temporary fortification. Adding to the distortion is the tendency to equate possession of European goods with the acceptance of European values, and to view change as equal to displacement--that is, acceptance of something equals the loss of something that existed. This view overstates the power of those goods and represents a simplistic perception of how cultures work. It is possible to add to a culture or to modify aspects of it without losing completely that which existed. As James Axtell (2001, 78-88) has observed, the mere presence of French goods in native society, even on a large scale, did not necessarily denote a significant change in Iroquois culture. Historians on Iroquois skills and traits Material objects, no less than people, receive their cultural status only by being assigned meaning and value by members of a society. The form and the function of an object, therefore, are far more important culturally than the material from which it is made. (Sayre 1997, 17-29) notes that an artifact may be made of several alternative materials, but if its traditional form and function do not change, neither does its cultural meaning. Moreover, in any discussion of cultural change it is vital to distinguish between profound and superficial changes. As A. F. C. Wallace has noted, a culture can undergo drastic modifications while the personality structure of a society yields only slightly, and that in a regressive way (Codignola 1996, 45-53). If those arguing for cultural change have created an idyllic picture of Iroquois society as the starting point from which change took place, this does not mean that one is limited to discussing cultural change or stability within that framework. After all, given that basis, to argue for strong cultural stability is to appear to endorse a vision of Iroquois society that hints at the noble savage myth. Instead we must establish what values existed among the Iroquois in the period under study, and if (and how) they were altered and became like European values. It is crucial to establish that such changes occurred before one can contend that new and economic cultural exchange took place. Moreover, claims of cultural exchange must be based on more than simplistic notions that possession of French goods made the Iroquois into Europeans in moccasins. Among the Iroquois, acceptance of French goods did not always lead to their use as French employed them, nor to changes in Iroquois values. By 1700 many Iroquois living in New France used cloth rather than furs for parts of their dress. However, as more than one observer remarked, they have changed only the material of the clothing, keeping their former style of dressing (Eccles 1998, 33-39). Because an Iroquois wore French clothes did not mean he had adopted French values, in this case, a French sense of clothing style. Swords were also not used as French intended. The Iroquois did not take up swordsmanship; rather, the handles of the swords were broken off and the blades attached to the ends of spears because they were effective projectile points (Eccles 1998, 33-39). The new weapon was adopted to improve an ancient tool, not to replace it. Moreover, because an Iroquois used an iron knife to lift a scalp rather than a flint one did not change the intent or the meaning and value of the act, merely the means by which it was accomplished. Axtell (1981, 34-39) notes that using cloth instead of pelts and iron instead of stone were changes in themselves. It is also true that the fur trade brought much more to the Indians than just goods. But it is clear that the Indians were able to internalize many changes and make them fit into their value systems.

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Even alcohol, which wreaked havoc on Iroquois culture, was used to suit Iroquois values. They drank to get drunk or to carry out some act that society did not normally permit. The Iroquois even incorporated alcohol into their traditional feasts and medicines. But they did not get together for a brandy after work, have a drink before dinner, or sip a glass of wine with their meals. Eccles (1998, 89-93) shows that the Iroquois also adjusted new religions to suit their cosmology. There is no doubt that missionaries had an impact on native religion. But while the Iroquois incorporated what would fit into their cosmology, the vast majority of them did not give up their own views and practices (Jaenen 1973, 76-78). They tolerated the opinions of the Jesuits and expected theirs to be likewise respected. Indeed, the various French Orders never managed to convert large numbers of Iroquois, and most of those baptized were given the sacrament only on the verge of death. Of the 3,199 Iroquois baptized between 1667 and 1679, almost all were children, and at least 2,002 children and adults died shortly after baptism. Customs of Iroquois society Contrary to the popular belief that French taught Iroquois everything the latter had applied in the everyday lives, some of the prominent scholars indicate that Iroquois had already developed the essential skills and traits before the French came into the region. For instance, James Axtell (2001, 33-42) states that the Iroquois were horticulturalists and hunters. Corn, squash, and beans were their staple crops. The author illustrates the three crops, known as the "Three Sisters," were planted together in small mounds in communal fields located outside the village palisades (Axtell 2001, 33-42). The fields were cleared by the men, but crops were planted and tended by the women. The men, when not at war or engaged in diplomacy and trade, hunted and fished to augment the Iroquois diet. The Iroquois hunted almost anything (beaver, muskrat, squirrel) but preferred deer and a variety of wild fowl as staples. The author places a significant accent on numerous household running skills that Iroquois possessed (Axtell 2001, 33-45). The men fished with spears, nets, and weirs for a variety of fish and turtle species. Eels were particularly sought because they could be dried, smoked, and preserved for use during the winter months. This type of subsistence pattern meant that the Iroquois lived in semi-permanent villages (moving only once the resources of a given area had been exhausted) and also needed large tracts of land as hunting territories. The latter included lands north of Lake Ontario and led them into conflict with other groups who also sought to exploit the region (Axtell 2001, 45-48; Eccles 1998, 77-82). What is more, such historians as Eccles and Moogk challenge the traditional view stating that Iroquois had an underdeveloped system of gender relations before they settled in New France. For instance, Moogk (2000, 27-48) argues that the matrilineal nature of Iroquois society, along with the significant role women had in providing basic group sustenance, gave women a good deal of power. Women could initiate warfare or seek to put an end to wars. Political or military deliberations often originated in women’s councils. Matters of enough import were then brought to the attention of male leaders. The latter (at least civil leaders) were often chosen by women, and it was from local village and tribal leaders that national leaders were chosen. Moogk (2000, 33-40) further points out that the clan system was also intricately connected to warfare, which was another key aspect of Iroquois society. Warfare could be undertaken for a number of reasons including the desire to gain honor, to exact revenge, and to gain captives. The latter could be used in exchanges with other nations who had taken Iroquois captives, for torture or, of increasing importance as the seventeenth century wore on, to adopt into a clan to replace a clan member who had died of natural causes, of new epidemic diseases, or in war. As the number of Europeans grew in the areas surrounding the Iroquois, so did the frequency of epidemic diseases, the number of deaths, and the need to capture people to replace those lost. Up to 1669 the Iroquois captured from 1,434 to 1,568 people. From 1680 to 1700 they captured 2,384 to 2,608. This represents a 60 percent increase (Eccles 1998, 67-72). Cultural exchange Axtell (1985, 2001) shows that archaeological evidence indicates that French and Iroquois societies there came to resemble each others cultures. A likely combination of cultural exchange and the actual migration of more southerly Iroquois peoples into the traditional French areas permitted the spread of many Iroquois ideas and technological innovations, including temple-mound building, maize horticulture, and the use of the bow and arrow (Jaenen 1973, 76-78). The largest obstacle to conversion within Iroquois society who were living at the New France territories was not really the religious exactions, but rather the cultural proscriptions that accompanied the switch from pagan to true believer. While the Iroquois resisted the cultural changes, they nonetheless incorporated elements of Christian doctrine, not because they rejected their own but because it made sense to add the powerful European god to their pantheon of gods. The question, then, is not whether transformations occurred in Iroquois society--they did--but how these changes were handled.

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Take, for example, the question of trade in Iroquois culture. Before contact with French, the Iroquois engaged in very little trade with non-Iroquois groups, and trade among themselves served mostly to reinforce social and political ties (Eccles 1998, 33-39). Iroquois efforts to make peace and establish trade with the French in the 1650s were related to desires to gain the support of the French in their wars with the Neutrals and Eries. Moreover, relations between the Iroquois and French, whether economic or political, were based on fictive kinship ties and gift exchanges. Nor did the increased importance of the economic aspects of trade with French alter the social nature of exchange among the Iroquois (Trigger 1985, 53-67). The goods given to Iroquois leaders to cement political and economic ties continued to be distributed among their followers. Eccle (1998, 93) states that it is, of course, quite possible that new products were valued by Iroquois. A copper kettle may have been a mere reproduction of a clay one, but it was shinier, more durable, more efficient, and came to the Iroquois only through trade. Yet the new goods were not stored up and saved; in fact, the person who had the most goods gained honor and esteem by giving them away, not by keeping them. Reciprocal gift giving was a method of sharing wealth, trade, and cementing social ties that helped unify the Iroquois. The new goods did not undermine the value systems or the redistribution procedures of Iroquois society in the seventeenth century. If anything, French trade goods made these ceremonies more important. Certainly, this was in itself a modification, but the purpose of giving away presents and the reinforcing of social ties did not undergo transformation. The practice of putting goods in graves provides another example of how the advent of European wares changed an ancient custom but not its underlying significance or the values it reflected (Trigger 1985, 53-67). Codignola (1996, 45-53) notes that before New French contact, the Iroquois placed few material artifacts in the graves with the dead. In the post-contact period, more goods were placed in graves. Even Iroquois converts to Christianity who lived in missionary settlements could not be dissuaded from this practice. Buried goods included French wares as well as goods of Iroquois manufacture. It is quite possible that the French goods were included in the burials because the Iroquois valued them in this world and did not want to be without them in the next (Trigger 1985, 53-67). But in general, the Iroquois put items in graves because of their utilitarian functions, not their material value. French kettles were buried, as clay ones had been, because they held food for the deceased to use in the afterlife. Iroquois-French relations Nor did the Iroquois accept everything. For example, Father Lafitau, who lived among the Iroquois for years, remarked that “since their first contact with Europeans, the use which they have been able to make of such improvements [European goods, etc.] has not inspired them to alter their ancient folkways” (Trigger 1985, 53-67). Indeed, both Lafitau and David Zeisberger asserted that in one of the most demanding tasks, that of forest clearing, the Iroquois had not given up their traditional method; the Europeans brought them sharpened steel and set the example of felling trees and sawing them. Nonetheless they did not make much use of this method and went on using their former one which was to girdle the trees, strip them of their bark so that they die and let them dry standing (Trigger 1985, 53-67). Axtell (2001, 56-60) notes that the Iroquois saw that along with acceptance of French goods, the newcomers wanted them to adopt French values, and they resisted. They considered themselves superior to other peoples, French included, and saw no reason to change. This was a common view among natives in the Northeast. Well into the eighteenth century they told colonists that they had no desire to be like them: “We are Indians and don’t wish to be transformed into white men. The English are our Brethren, but we never promised to become what they are” (Moogk 2000, 83). Intermarriage relations Many scholars argue that official approval for intermarriage between the French and Iroquois is proof that French officials had no racial prejudice against native peoples. Cultural arrogance, however, was evident in the government’s assumption that this one, new people would be a French-speaking, Roman Catholic, farming population. Axtell (2001, 83-85) notes that the king expected the missionaries, whom he subsidized, to teach the native allies French language, and to raise them in the same customs and way of living as the French. Intermarriage would bind the newcomers and their native allies together, and it would prepare the way for total assimilation of the Iroquois to the French way of life. What is more, intermarriage would assist in religious conversion that one of the primary aims of the French. To continue, Jaenen (1998, 63-64) states that visitors to New France were surprised to encounter white Iroquois in the mission villages of the St. Lawrence Valley. The adoption of French, as well as the fact that natives with a white ancestor were more likely to survive the epidemics that cut through their population, meant that the aboriginal peoples of the Atlantic Coast and St. Lawrence Valley were increasingly of mixed ancestry. Culturally, however, they were still Iroquois.

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For instance, Moogk (2000, 45-56) tells a story when in 1707 John, Zachariah, and Sarah Tarbell were captured by Indians at Groton, Massachusetts, and taken back to Canada. They were all under the age of fifteen. The boys were adopted into the New France’s Iroquois and were said to have married daughters of chiefs and to have become chiefs themselves. Their sister was raised by the ladies of the Congregation de Notre-Dame in Montreal. Some descendants of earlier native converts bore variants of their French godparents’ surnames: those descended from a Mohawk sponsored by Sieur d’Ailleboust are called “Diabo”, and the “Peltiers” go back to the godchild of a Monsieur Pelletier. These surnames were symbolic of the hybrid culture that developed in the mission villages. Native assimilation of French was entirely opposed to the French government’s aim, which was to absorb converted natives into the transplanted white population of New France. Eccles (1998, 90-92) notes that minister Colbert and Governor-General Buade de Frontenac clung to the dream of totally assimilating the Christian Iroquois and they criticized the Jesuits, who ran most of Canada’s Christian missions, for keeping aboriginal converts apart from the white colonists. Colbert told Intendant Talon in 1668 that the Jesuit Fathers never worked hard enough to civilize the Iroquois at the same time they were converting them, whether by joining them to the French by marriage, or by drawing entire families to live like ours, or by obliging them to abandon their idle and lazy way of life to cultivate land in the neighborhood of our settlements or, finally, by making them learn our language (Eccles 1998, 90-92). The mission Iroquois retained their own languages and governed themselves, despite the presence of missionary priests. Conclusion At the end of the seventeenth century a French observer remarked that it was possible to find French influences in native religions and in the fact that Iroquois used French arms and other trade goods. However, not one native group, the Iroquois included, had adopted the French form of government or way of life. He concluded that it would be the work of many centuries to reduce the Iroquois to take up French habits and customs. Axtell states that contact with French cultures during the seventeenth century did not transform the Iroquois into a predominantly Christian, patriarchal, and hierarchial society. Despite the examples and efforts of French, the Iroquois did not abandon their way of life. They did not change how or by whom they were governed, how they maintained cultural stability, nor what they considered important. Iroquois society was not the same in 1700 as it was in 1600, but then again, it was not in 1600 what it had been in 1500. Cultural evolution took place, but the nature of change was conditioned by existing cultural values. Iroquois culture underwent some changes and adapted some new material goods, but Iroquois society remained governed by its own people, principles, and values, not those of French (Sayre 1997, 17-29). Based on the number of works illustrated and analyzed in this paper, it is possible to conclude that earlier historians’ views portraying Iroquois as the prime beneficiaries of the French culture and influence are often erroneous since they fail to mention one of the main points about French-Iroquois relationships, mainly that Iroquois society was already well developed and advanced even before French came. Contrary to the popular belief, French were the ones who learned from Iroquois and benefited largely from their relationships with this clan.

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