Some questions to ask yourself:

What is the meaning of "traditional lands"? Who writes our histories? What makes a people a people?

ABOUT THIS FEATURE SECTION

In late 2020, after a series of articles and appearances in mainstream media had outright decried any suggestion of Mohawks living along the St. Lawrence River in the early 1500s, a conversation was started on the Kanesatake History & Archives online group by Éric Miguel-Leduc. Several Kanien’ké:ha writers, guides, educators, researchers, and students of history chimed in, mainly because so much of the information and perspectives that were being shared by Éric were completely new to many of us present. Someone said, “someone has to write this up” and collect some of these ideas together, and so researcher Éric Pouliot-Thisdale joined Éric Miguel-Leduc and myself (Paul Rombough @ LEARN), and a process began.

(Note, to read more on the history of this collection, and for other documents not listed here, view our main document collection)

What you will be able to do:

Imagine the land and the waters of the territory of the St. Lawrence lowland region.

Identify elements of the daily lives of the people who would have lived in the St. Lawrence lowland region, by considering various types of evidence.

Identify and describe similarities and differences between the Kanienʼkehá꞉ka: (and other Haudenosaunee) and various other Laurentian-area peoples, and examine and justify possible alliances and conflicts.

Consider and explain various Kanien’kehà:ka perspectives on the so-called St. Lawrence Iroquoians.

Engage:

View the CBC Animation The Mighty River on Curio.ca.
Or try
this link when logged in.

Discuss the St. Lawrence River and its shores, now and in the past.

Discuss different reasons that different peoples would have for using this land.

An imagined rendition of a recounted meeting of Europeans and Iroquoian-speaking peoples, who were fishing at the time, well out in to the eastern sections of the St. Lawrence, with one of their villages in the distance.

An imagined scene! A digital combination of two separate original images:
Iroquoians are seen fishing during the arrival of Jacques Cartier at Stadacona, 1535. by Walter Baker, via
https://commons.wikimedia.org/under Public Domain
Detail from The Village Model, A Mohawk Iroquois Village, c.1600.
Source for educational use only from New York State Museum, Albany, NY. via A Mohawk Iroquois Village

Imagining the Innu and other Algonquian-speaking peoples following smaller rivers to then camp along the St. Lawrence shores.

British Library digitised image from page 222 of "Explorations in the interior of the Labrador Peninsula, the country of the Montagnais and Nasquappe Indians" via flickr with No known copyright restrictions

Explorations in the interior of the Labrador Peninsula, the country of the Montagnais and Nasquappe Indians. Cropped and recoloured from flickr under No known copyright restrictions

A long time here, a long time on the move

There were always people here… Archaeologically speaking, and perhaps even before people would have spoke languages that resemble the Laurentian-area Iroquoian; it was over twenty-five hundred years ago that the first known inhabitants discovered the use of bow and arrows, began making pottery, and then also learn to cultivate squash, sunflower and perhaps tobacco. And then later, perhaps a thousand years ago, beans and corn began to be grown. It were those later changes that would have produced regular crops that could support a larger population. Archaeologically speaking, the area was already filling up with Laurentians who were farming, who were settling, but who also needed to move on every generation as the land was used up and more fertile lands could be found.

Texts by Eric Pouliot-Thisdale and with edits by Paul Rombough

TY  - JOUR AU  - Anderson, David AU  - Miller, D. AU  - Yerka, Stephen AU  - Gillam, J. AU  - Johanson, Erik AU  - Anderson, Derek AU  - Goodyear, Albert AU  - Smallwood, Ashley PY  - 2010/01/01 SP  - 63 EP  - 90 T1  - PIDBA (Paleoindian Database of the Americas) 2010: Current Status and Findings. VL  - 38 JO  - Archaeology of Eastern North America ER  -

Section of "All reported Clovis and Clovis Variants..."
from
PIDBA (Paleoindian Database of the Americas) 2010: Current Status and Findings, by David Anderson et al

Villages along the shore: Whose villages were they?

Along the shores of the St. Lawrence River and its tributaries, you might see the villages of the Iroquoian communities, and alongside them the fields of the Three Sisters. Some of these would have been very small, with only a few longhouses (2-5), but others would have had dozens of dwellings.

We also know that there were dozens and dozens of Iroquoian villages along the St. Lawrence, from the mouth of the Ontario lake all the way to the estuary. Archaeologists have classed them into nine different regions, namely Canada, Maisouna, Hochelaga, Saint-Anicet, Summerstown, Prescott, Black Lake, Jefferson and Lake Champlain.

One should remember that these villages, mapped out, from what is now the country of Canada through to Jefferson county in present-day New York State - were also determined based on Europeans writings from the time (mostly Cartier’s but some Basques references), as well as from the findings of archeologists, but that the names generally do not represent names that were used by the First Peoples who lived there, or even who lived in the general area.

Texts above by Eric Miguel-Leduc, in collaboration with Eric Pouliot-Thisdale and with edits by Paul Rombough

Explore:

Explore and identify elements of the daily lives of the people who would have lived in the St. Lawrence lowland region, by considering various types of evidence.

Similar pottery over different regions of Laurentia

There were many different regions of Laurentia that were stewarded by the Iroquoian peoples.

Archaeologists view them as a single group in the greater Iroquoian language family and link them together through shared aspects of material culture, mainly in their particular pottery style.

But, even though they were clearly linked in terms of some material aspects of their cultures, the different regional communities that emerged developed very different ways of "living off Creation".

Because archaeologists identify more than nine regions and 25 communities in the area, let us only compare the two most important ones, Hochelaga and Stadacona.

Iroquois potters were women. They frequently decorated the pots around the rim https://exhibitions.nysm.nysed.gov/

Image source and larger version at: GENS DU FLEUVE, GENS DE L’ÎLE Hochelaga en Laurentie iroquoienne au xvie siècle on page 23, but originally this map seems produced by Pointe-à-Callière museum. Permission to use pending.

An intact clay pot c.1450-1500, Jefferson County, NY. https://exhibitions.nysm.nysed.gov/

Stadaconia

The Stadaconians lived in the most downriver area, around present-day Quebec city. They were the closest to the Saint-Lawrence estuary and thus the closest to the sea. As such, they were the first of the Saint-Lawrence Iroquoians to develop trading relationships with the European sailors who first came to Canada; they were also the first to meet the French explorer Jacques Cartier and it’s why we have a lot more descriptions of their lifestyle. Stadaconians were very different from other Iroquoians as they lived in a semi-nomadic way. Just like their Algonquian neighbours, they lived in fishing villages by the river during summer, but went back inland during winter. They were much more dependent on fishing and hunting than horticulture for their sustenance, and would thus travel as far as the mouth of the Saguenay river to find fish, sometimes even as far as Gaspésie.

Meeting between Donnacona and Jacques Cartier © Digital collection of the Bibliothèque nationale du Québec, Revues d'un autre siècle, no. 6218.

Hochelaga

The cousins of the Stadaconians, the Hochelaguians lived in the area of present-day Montreal, and they had a much more sedentary way of life by comparison. The exact site of Hochelaga has sadly never been found by archaeologists but, fortunately, we do have the descriptions of Jacques Cartier who visited the island during his second voyage. He describes their main city located somewhere on Mount Royal (and most probably the biggest city of all Laurentia at the time), as a great borough of around fifty 15 meter-long longhouses, protected by a triple 10 meter-tall palisade wall, and surrounded by acres and acres of fields. Living a conventional Iroquoian lifestyle, they were much more reliant on the Three Sisters, corn, beans and squashes produced by the women, than on the meat and fish brought by the men.

Jacques Cartier at Hochelaga under Public Domain via https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Overview text on evidence, oral history, etc. (Limited documented primary sources)

The history of the St. Lawrence valley of the 16th century will probably always stay quite mysterious because of the limited sources that we have to work with. In terms of first-hand descriptions in that period. We basically only have the writings of Jacques Cartier and Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval who visited and tried to colonize the area between 1534 and 1543. And even then, the majority of the last voyage journals are missing. In fact, even the maps that Cartier drew were lost in time. The descriptions of Cartier also concentrate mostly on the Stadaconians, as he mostly interacted with them and only visited Hochelaga once. One of Cartier’s nephews who accompanied him during his voyages, Jacques Noel, came back to Hochelaga in 1585, but left very little writings of this expedition. A drawing of the city does exist, made in 1556 by Giovanni Battista Ramusio, but the Venetian geographer never actually put a foot in Canada; he drew it from descriptions that he heard or read.

When the next French explorer, Samuel de Champlain came to the St. Lawrence in 1603, all the Iroquoian villages that Cartier visited or sailed by were gone. The Iroquoian communities of St. Lawrence dispersed at the end of the 16th century because of a mix of European diseases, climatic cooling and wars. That means that not a lot of oral history from the people who lived there is left today. We do have some accounts written down by Europeans of people who lived in Hochelaga in their childhood or who heard stories from their elders, but they really do not give us a lot of information on the way people lived there; they do tell us however of the conflicts that forced the last occupants to leave.

Source: Woodcut engraving of Hochelaga published in Venice by Ramusio. Based on account of Jacques Cartier. File:La_Terra_de_Hochelaga

Laurentian-Area Peoples: A long time here, a long time on the move

There were always people here… Archaeologically speaking, and perhaps even before people would have spoke languages that resemble the Laurentian-area Iroquoian, it was over twenty-five hundred years ago that the first known inhabitants discovered the use of bow and arrows, began making pottery, and then also learn to cultivate squash, sunflower and perhaps tobacco.

And then later, perhaps a thousand years ago, beans and corn began to be grown. It were those later changes that would have produced regular crops that could support a larger population. Archaeologically speaking, the area was already filling up with Laurentians who were farming, who were settling, but who also needed to move on every generation as the land was used up and more fertile lands could be found. (Éric Pouliot-Thisdale)

Map of the Eastern Woodlands showing ecoregions and the locations of sites and phases Text and Image Source: researchgate.net/ Copyright information pending

Villages we find, and that we don't find:
The notions of "stewardship" and of "
moving through lands"

Even with their quite formidable city, the Hochelaguians probably would have had to move their homes from time to time, as most Iroquoian people did, in intervals of anywhere between 15 to 30 years. Even though they had the Three Sisters techniques, which helps to keep nitrate in the soil and keeps it rich, the earth would still eventually need some time to replenish itself.

They didn’t just move for the soil, but also to give a break to all the other elements of Creation that kept them fed, warm and healthy ; that means of course the fish and the many animals that they ate, but also the trees that they cut to make their fires and the plants that they used as medicine. Like all other First Nations, they would have seen their rights to the land not as an ownership, but as a stewardship. They needed to make sure not to take too much from it as this relationship would be passed down to future generations.

The Iroquois cut a clearing in the forest to create a space for the village and the surrounding fields.

Source for educational use only from: Detail from The Village Model, A Mohawk Iroquois Village, c.1600. New York State Museum, Albany, NY.

Their language tells us they were "multicultural"

Stadaconians were more of a nautical people but the Iroquoians peoples further to the west and south were less so, and we can tell this from what we know of their languages!.

In the two Cartier lexicons, counting the doubles as one entry, there are 170 entries that we can analyse. Around 72 entries that can be identified as a dialect of Huron-Wendat, but another secondary group of 31 entries can only be associated with Mohawk/Kanien'kéha; the balance of words are either closer to Wendat, or are closer to Oneida and/or Onondaga. Basically this leaves us with two sets of Iroquoian vocabularies with very blurry linguistic boundaries, Stadaconian and Hochelaguian.

Barbeau noted that the Stadaconian set has a lot more nautical and even seawater-specifi words, lkie. ajunehonné (whale), agougasy or amet (sea), coda (seawaves), aganie (sail), gadogourseré (codfish), casaomy (ship), agedoneta (mackerel).

Hochelaguians had words that were not found within the Stadaconians set; they may have understood them, but for them they were less important. Some Hochelangian words were. carracony (cornbread), esnoguy (white wampum), and caignetdazé (copper). These words tell us that they indeed relied more on corn for their sustenance than Stadaconians, that they used wampum early on (something historically associated with the Haudenosaunee/Iroquoian nations) and that they had access to the Great Lakes waterway, or at least could trade with some nation who had access to them, since copper could only be found in the distant Lake Superior region during those times.

Source: Online various locations. Larger version at Louis Nicolas, Codex Canadensis, n.d., Collection of the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma via Louis Nicolas, La pesche des Sauvages, sd | L'Institut de l'art canadien. For other similar images, see Louis Nicolas | Art Canada Institute

Texts above by Eric Miguel-Leduc, in collaboration with Eric Pouliot-Thisdale and with edits by Paul Rombough @LEARN.
Many of their references are found in our
main document collection here.

Investigate and consider implications of differences and similarities:

Begin to identify similarities and differences, and possible alliances and conflicts, between the Kanienʼkehá꞉ka: (and other Haudenosaunee) and the various other Laurentian-area peoples. Again, considering different types of evidence: language, traditions, methods, oral history.

Examine then explain various perspectives on the so-called St. Lawrence Iroquoians.

Side view of Indigenous territory: The Iroquoians live in the St. Lawrence and Great Lake lowlands© Service national du RÉCIT de l'univers social, www.recitus.qc.ca

Hochelaga area: A sedentary agricultural people using methods like the Haudenosaunee

Cartier describes fields in his voyage, fields and towns much like those of typical Haudenosaunee villages. Many of the Laurentian peoples lived in the same way.

“We marched further, and about half a league further from there, we began to see ploughed land and large fields of their wheat, which is like the grain of Brazil, as large or larger than a pea. on which they live, as we do, on wheat, and amidst these fields is situated the town of Hochelaga…

All this tribe live by ploughing and fishing alone, as they do not esteem the goods of this world, having no knowledge of them, and never leave their country, and are not nomadic like those of Canada and the Saguenay, notwithstanding which the Canadians are subject to them, as are eight or nine other tribes living on the banks of this river.” Source; Full text of "Jacques Cartier and his four voyages to Canada; an essay, with historical, explanatory and philological notes"

An Iroquois village surrounded by a palisade© New York State Museum via https://hosted.learnquebec.ca/societies/societies/iroquois-around-1500/a-sedentary-way-of-life/

“The St. Lawrence Iroquoians were a group of First Peoples who lived in the St. Lawrence Valley. Their villages consisted of several longhouses, often surrounded by palisades, in which they lived for 10 to 20 years before moving for various reasons. For instance, when the soil was no longer able to grow crops, timber or game resources were exhausted, or their longhouses and palisades had deteriorated, they were forced to move on. The village’s location was selected based on the resources available for agriculture, hunting and fishing, firewood, and construction timber.”


Source: The St. Lawrence Iroquoians DISCOVER THE FIRST INHABITANTS OF THE ISLAND OF MONTRÉAL Image copyright information pending.

Haudenosaunee, Wendats and other Iroquois: People of walled cities

Contrary to the Stadaconians, the Hochelaguians lived in very similar ways to the Wendats (Hurons) and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) peoples, two groups of Iroquoian nations whose cultures developed separately in present-day Southern Ontario and Upper State New York and who also lived a horticultural lifestyle, and in big longhouses and walled-cities.

The Basques, some of the very first Europeans to describe the Indigenous peoples of the American North-East, even used the same word to describe all of these peoples: Irukoa, or “the people of the fortified cities”. This name, Frenchified to Iroquois, is still used today to describe the Haudenosaunee confederacy.

One can conclude that even though the Hochelaguians and the Stadaconians are linked together because of their shared pottery style and their geographic proximity, only the Hochelaguians lived in the same way as other Iroquoian nations. It makes sense that the Stadaconians would have adopted a more Algonquian lifestyle because it was more difficult for them to grow corn, being the northernmost Iroquoian people; at least. Lafitau tells us that we can find this explanation in a story that the people of Kahnawà:ke told to a Jesuit called Joseph François.

The Basques instead used Canadakoa to name the Stadaconians, from the word Kanata which means “village” in most Iroquoian languages. So both peoples had settlements of some kind, but clearly, the Hochelagians had larger “cities” like other communities to the south.

Source: Éric-Miguel Leduc (referencing Brad Loewen and Lafitau story)

An aerial view of the first incarnation of the Wendat village. Source and more images at HURONIA MUSEUM https://huroniamuseum.com/ Image used with permission.

Town of the Susquehannocks were a Iroquoian-speaking people, no longer in existence, who did not join the Five Nations Iroquois league and who lived along the Susquehannah River and the northern part of the Chesapeake Bay. Cropped image from: A new map of the north parts of America... https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/

View aerial view drone flight over the Droulers/Tsiionhiakwatha site at longhouses drone flight @Saint-Anicet

Languages again: Hochelaguians and Stadaconians influenced by others?


Speaking again of languages, it seems that there was also a difference in the languages that the Hochelaguians and Stadaconians spoke. Cartier didn’t just leave descriptions of their villages and ways of life, but he also had lexicons made based on the words that the St. Lawrence Iroquoians told him. Ethnolinguists analysed those words and compared them to other Iroquoians languages. They concluded that the people Cartier met and/or kidnapped spoke at least three different Iroquoian languages, maybe even up to five.


The words in Cartier lexicons are probably a mix of Wendat (Huron), Kanien’ké:ha (Mohawk), Onʌyotaʔa꞉ka (Oneida) and Onoñdaʼgegá (Onondaga) words, but might also include some words from an extinct branch of the Iroquoian language family, a language or dialect that the linguists call “Laurentian”. However, most of the Kanien’ké:ha words came from the second part of Cartier’s lexicons which he wrote after visiting Hochelaga. They even contain certain phonetic developments proper to the Kanien’ké:ha dialects of Kahnawà:ke and Ahkwesásne, still spoken today in those communities.


Based on linguistics, we can thus assume that the Hochelaguians were more linguistically influenced by the Kanien’kehà:ka or Mohawk people, and that the Stadaconians were more influenced by the Wendat or Huron people who still live in the area today, at Wendake.


Éric-Miguel Leduc referencing Floyd Lounsbury, Mariann Mithun and Marius Barbeau


Connections between clans across different nations

For the Iroquoian people, belonging to a clan is very important. Since they are matrilineal societies, children belong to their mother’s clan. In the 1500s, they lived with their mother’s family in a longhouse. The oldest woman was the clan mother. The clan was made up of a group of several longhouses. (RECITUS. The importance of the clan - S and T site)


Note that "clans were not exclusive to a single nation, meaning for example that a Bear from one nation might have still viewed a Bear from another nation as their brethren, as both shared a common responsibility to the medicine. Next, you would identify with your community or village which, like we’ve said before, could include people from different clans and nations." (Text here from Éric-Miguel Leduc and Éric Pouliot-Thisdale.)


Image based on various sources, available as a Google Drawing here.

Distribution of North American language families north of Mexico https://commons.wikimedia.org/

It was quite common for people of different nations to live together in a single community, just as the people who re-established Kahnawà:ke in the 17th century were a mix of Kanien’kehà:ka, Oneida, Onondaga and Wendat people. Who were the St. Lawrence Iroquoians then? Doesn’t it make sense to assume their villages were already a mix of cultures?


Image source: Illustration of variety of peoples, from page 103 of Moeurs des sauvages ameriquains. Public Domain via
https://collections.banq.qc.ca/

Clan emblems of the three Kanienkehaka clans: Turtle, Wolf, and Bear. Copies of Iroquois pictographs from a French document circa 1666.

Reproduced in Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 15: Northeast (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1978),

via Kanienkehaka Lifeways - Mohawk Valley, circa 1500 @ deerfield.history.museum/

Relationships between the St. Lawrence Iroquoians: Notions of Alliance

First Grand Council. copyright : John Kahionhes Fadden. https://www.6nicc.com/contemporary.html (Publishing rights or permission pending)

As far as we know, there isn’t any sign of war or conflict between these communities, and so we can at least assume that they didn’t fight with each other. But does that mean that they formed an alliance or a confederation between each other, like the Wendat (Huron) and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) nations did? It’s uncertain, but most experts do believe that they did, such as the ethnohistorian Roland Viau and the Archaeologist Claude Chapdelaine.


But what is at the core of this theory? Since we have such limited information on the “Laurentians”, what really binds them together in any undeniable way is, like we said before, their shared pottery style. But since pottery was made by women, and the Iroquoians are a matrilinear people, that would point to at least a strong social, and even familial bond between the various Laurentian communities.

Consider various perspectives of the Mohawk (Kanien’kehà:ka)

Examine then explain various perspectives of the Kanien’kehà:ka on the so-called St. Lawrence Iroquoians.

Montreal Aerial, showing the Lachine rapids, south-shore fertile lands, and New York State mountains to the south.

Source: Cropped and adjusted version of File:20190511 - Montreal Aeria via https://commons.m.wikimedia.org under /by/2.0/

Grandchildren of Hochelaguian survivors tell their story: Were they Kanien’kehà:ka?

Vimont, Barthélemy writes in 1642: “After the feast we visited the large woods which cover this island [Montreal area]; and being brought to the mountain from which it takes its name, two of the principal Indians of the troop, stopping on the summit, told us that they were of the nation of those who had formerly inhabited this island: then extending their hands towards the hills which are to the East and South of the mountain; Here, they said, are the places where there were Towns filled with a very large quantity of Indians; the Hurons, who at the time were our enemies, drove our Ancestors from this region, some of them retreated to the country of the Abnaquiois, others to the country of the Hiroquois, and a part towards the Hurons themselves, & joining with them; & this is how this Island became deserted. My grandfather, said an old man, cultivated the land in this place: the Indian wheat came very well, the sun is very good there: and taking the earth with his hands: Look, he said, the goodness of the earth, it is very excellent.”


Source information: The earliest detailed account of Hochelaguian “survivors” comes from Barthélémy Vimont’s Relations. VIMONT, Barthélemy, Relation de ce qui s'est passé en la Nouvelle France en l'année 1642, Paris, Cramoisy, 1644, pp. 132-133

Source: Saguenay-area cropping of Champlain's map of New France 1632, via larger versions at https://commons.wikimedia.org/ Public Domain

St. Lawrence Iroquoians and Haudenosaunee connections: Trade Relations


It seems like there were also a lot of exchanges going on between the Stadaconians and the Innu too, as we can find their pottery around the lower Lac Saint Jean territory, which is well into the Innu (Montagnais) area. (Sources are Morin, Guindon, Langevin)


In fact, a great number of different resources were imported in the St. Lawrence valley through trade such as Ramah quartz from Labrador, Onondaga chert from southern Ontario and north-western New York state, seashells from the Atlantic coast, copper from Lake Superior and even obsidian from New Mexico. And remember that these are just the things that can stay intact in the ground for centuries; they probably exchanged many more things such as food and pelts. (Source Viau p. 45)


What do these cultural exchanges and trading tell us? Well, you know how we sometimes say that there are no friends in business nowadays? Well, it was actually quite the opposite for the First Peoples; if you traded with someone, it usually meant that you viewed them as friends, and certainly not as foes. The only problem is that those artefacts weren’t found with a receipt, and so it’s often hard to determine their exact origin.


Source: Éric-Miguel Leduc and various sources

Oral Histories Still Exist: Kahnawá:ke area always a key part of the "Circle of rivers"

Circle of Rivers, as described in Part 1: Pre-Contact (English) KahnawakeTV (Please visit and view video source.)

Big John and party shooting Lachine Rapids, near Montreal, QC, composite, 1878 Notman & Sandham. Public Domain via https://collections.musee-mccord-stewart.ca/

Fortunately, some living oral histories were still passed down through the generations by people often known as Knowledge keepers. Some other stories were also fortunately written down by anthropologists in the 19th and 20th centuries. While these stories may sometimes offer us a whole other view than the accounts written by Europeans, they can actually help us have a more complete view of what transpired in the past. Especially since the way Indigenous and European people remember the past can be quite different ; for instance, exact dates are usually not present in oral history as Indigenous people didn’t have the same obsession with time as European do, but they can be much more precise in their description of the land, the rivers, the geography, etc. (Éric Miguel-Leduc and Éric Pouliot-Thisdale)


"Our ancestors and others from the five nations came to this area a long time ago. Our people used the water systems around them. They settled by the water for many reasons. The river is now called the St. Lawrence, which passes by the area now known as Sorel. From here the river goes sound to another river near Albany, which they now call the Mohawk River, which then goes west to Oswego (Lake Ontario area), which leads back to the St. Lawrence. Our people lived inside the circle of rivers. We used them to travel to our lands."


At that time our people were able to keep track of people who passed through our territory, across from what they now call "our borders". Our people even had what the English called, a "customs house". In our area, Kahnawá:ke, we had one of these customs houses: it was the rapids! People travelling the St. Lawrence had to get out of their canoes and portage. That's how we knew who were coming and going through our territory."


Source: Billy Kaientaronkwen Two-Rivers is an elder whose role is to continue to pass down traditional stories. Part 1: Pre-Contact (English) KahnawakeTV


[Oral tradition was very important among Indigenous peoples]
©
Création Bernard Duchesne via Oral tradition - Societies and Territories

On European Historians and Written Records


We must remember that the Indigenous history that we generally read and learn in school is mostly based on academic research. And the disciplines of history and archaeology are still sadly mostly held by non-Indigenous and their view of the past.


In fact, very few Indigenous people have made it as recognized historians in Quebec. Thus, a lot of the bias of Europeans like Cartier who wrote about the Indigenous people through the centuries still affects our history today.


Of course, historians and other researchers don’t take their writings at face value; the practice of history is centered around the idea of using our sources critically, just like a detective would try to decipher the elements of truth, exaggerations and plain out lies in a witness’s testimony.


However, the modern historic discipline is also almost exclusively based on written records. That means that it still generally rejects any type of history that wasn’t written down, such as the oral histories of Indigenous people.

On European views: Of Nations and Sovereignty and Power


The first French explorer who came to Canada didn’t really understand things like clans and confederacies.


Jacques Cartier did actually view the different Indigenous tribes as nations, but since they were not Christian nations, he did not really recognize the sovereignty that they had on their land; it’s why he tried to colonize Cape-Rouge without their approval.


Cartier also viewed their medicine men (often called shamans) as sorcerers, since their medicinal and spiritual practices were completely foreign to him.


Finally, he also assumed that the Indigenous communities were kingdoms and that their leaders were kings. The Indigenous communities were, quite on the contrary, a democratic people, and their systems functioned on the idea of a consensus between and amongst the people.

Source: Meeting between Donnacona and Jacques Cartier © Digital collection of the Bibliothèque nationale du Québec, Revues d'un autre siècle, no. 6218. via Donnacona - Societies and Territories

On European views: Of Sovereignty and Economy


It’s important to keep in mind the primary vision and purposes of Jacques Cartier in the first explorations (1534-1536) and eventually of Jean François de la Rocque de Roberval who later (1541,1543) obtained the responsibility of the explorations and eventual developments. Their goal was to analyse potentialities, in order to establish a profitable institution for the Crown of France and for themselves.


Their methods for interacting with the peoples of the St. Lawrence were less than respectful, and in the end resulted in a change in relationship with the Iroquoians of the area. Cartier essentially captured the two sons of Donnacona on his first exploration trip of July 24, 1534, and on consequent trips he brought several other “Indians” back with him, some who were even given as gifts, like a young girl given to him by the chief of Achelacy.


However, let's remember that Cartier didn’t leave any of his crew’s men in exchange to show any form of confidence and good will and that the two sons of Donnacona never came back. It is assumed that from then, the confidence has been broken. So therefore, the next explorations became much more complex and it was then important to plan an organised association with the Innu and Algonquins in order to obtain a form of security through their further quests.


Source: Donnacona being taken to France by Jacques Cartier in the spring of 1536 © Museum of Civilization, Séminaire de Québec library. Donnacona being taken to France, in: Adélard Desrosiers, Petite histoire du Canada. Québec. 1933. via Donnacona - Societies and Territories

On Archaeology and Archives:

No Recognized Indigenous Archaeologists.
Indigenous researchers must still rely on non-Indigenous records.


Like we’ve seen, archaeology also plays a big role in our understanding of the Indigenous people of the past. But, there again, the descendants of these people are rarely present in the analysis of archaeological findings.


In Quebec, virtually no Indigenous people are recognized archaeologists and the discipline just recently started to involve the Indigenous communities in their research. And so, just like in history, it will take some time before we have an understanding of the archaeological artefacts and their meaning that is not centred in a Western understanding of the Indigenous past.


Thus, it’s important to admit that today we still mostly view the history of the Indigenous peoples through the lenses of non-Indigenous people; in fact, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers mostly work with the archives and writings of their colonizers.


Eric Pouliot-Thisdale presenting on The Participation of Mohawks in the War of 1812-1815 (5/12) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IIMUBr6BNZQ

[A class in penmanship, Red Deer Institute]
Source: UNITED CHURCH OF CANADA ARCHIVES via IRSHDC : Archival Item

Oral History: Still in a system bent on suppressing it


The complexities concerning the conservation of oral histories, including those stories of the traditional lands and the settlements and movements of the peoples of the area, also involve political and social complexities that followed and suppressed the stories throughout the ages.


One key example that obviously impacted upon and suppressed the practising of oral tradition can be found in the way the system of residential schools in Canada had as a primary purpose to “kill the Indian in the Indian”, a policy of assimilation that affected diverse Indigenous groups and cultures.


The first experimental residential schools located in Ontario aimed to pass on a European version of agricultural knowledge to the Indigenous communities, so they would become self-sufficient. Politicians saw these communities as a burden, and they wanted to be free of the yearly gifts they gave to families of the very warriors who had previously collaborated in conflicts that had once helped the colony to grow.


The missions, managed as they were by different religious entities (Catholic, Methodist and Anglican), also played a negative role. Various syncretisms developed, various and different blends of cultures developed between different traditional groups, and that meant many families were divided. This too had the effect of suppressing and altering oral cultures.


Source: Éric Pouliot-Thisdale

Unless otherwise indicated, all texts above by Eric Miguel-Leduc, in collaboration with Eric Pouliot-Thisdale and with edits by Paul Rombough @LEARN. License: by-nc-sa
Note that many of their references are found in our main document collection here.

! MAIN Teacher Colllection Mohawk (Kanien’ké:ha) - A People of St. Lawrence Texts and Docs
Mohawk and St. Lawrence Iroquoians - Student Card slides