“Rome was destroyed, Greece was destroyed, Persia was destroyed, Spain was destroyed. All great countries are destroyed. Why not yours? How much longer do you really think your own country will last? Forever?”
– Old man in Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
There was a country called Wendake. The people who gave Wendake its name called themselves Wendats. The Wendats were a confederation of nations, at the center of an international civilization that lasted for centuries.
The ancestors of the Wendats first came to Wendake more than one thousand years ago. They formed a confederation of five nations who chose to live in close proximity to each other in villages of large houses. Their surplus of crops, their central location, and their nearly universal language made them influential traders with many nations throughout the region. They had four levels of government, and strict delineations of gender roles (though not in a way that elevated men or women above the other). They had a circular worldview, which influenced how they viewed time, the importance and responsibility of community, and their relationship with the dead. Wendats performed rituals of both torture and of healing. They kept bears in their homes (occasionally), shared space in the afterlife with their dogs, and believed in the power of dreams.
The story of the Wendats has been pieced together centuries later using a combination of oral history, archaeology, linguistics, anthropology, written documents, and other sources and techniques, primarilly thanks to the work of a handful of people including Elisabeth Tooker, Gary Warrick, Bruce G. Trigger (who was given the adopted Wendat name of Nyemea), and his “clan brother,” historian and Wendat Georges E. Sioui.
Having previously offered the preamble that stories about history (especially stories about cultures other than your own) are dangerous, that it is difficult to understand the past by the criteria of the present, that humans lived in the land now called Canada for a staggering amount of time before Canada came into existence, and having explored some of the Wendat worldview that places settlers like me at a high risk of fundamentally misunderstanding who they were, here is my attempt to capture a sliver of what their society was like.
In the preface to the 2000 edition of The Children of Aataentsic, Trigger’s history of the Wendats, he adds the disclaimer that while his writing decisions were not consciously biased, “it seems better to analyse them as if they were, than to remain spell-bound by the myths that our White Forefathers created to justify their actions and to deceive themselves and their descendants.”
What he said.
In ancient times, when the ancestors of the Wendats first came north, chasing the melting ice as the world warmed, they found themselves “surrounded by a sea of Algonkian peoples,” the nations who already lived in the northern land. At first this made these ancestors of the Wendats (Nadoueks, the Algonkians called them) “watchful and warlike,” but “eventually led to their becoming sedentary and settling in territories suited to agriculture,” which allowed them and their Algonkian hunter neighbours to not only live in peace, but develop mutually beneficial societies.
By at most 900 years after the birth of Christ, and probably hundreds of years earlier, the Nadoueks had made their shift to agriculture. They’d already been living in seasonal buildings for more than one thousand years at this point, and some Wendat ancestors began to settle down in what would become the home of their confederacy.
In the early 1300s, more than 700 years ago, more “Wendats began to settle in the heartland” of Wendake and experienced several decades of rapid population growth and increasing trade. These were the Attignawantans, who would become one of the founding nations of the Wendat confederacy. “Houses and villages doubled in size” and their population grew by 80 percent between the years 1300 and 1330, to a total of 11,000, large for the region and the time. International trade grew in “perishable goods such as corn, dried fish and meat, pelts, fishing nets, furs.”
Then, another “veritable population explosion.” Over the next 90 years the “population jumped from 11,000 to 29,000” by 1420, a rapid rate compared to other peoples in similar contexts.
Twenty years later in 1440, the nations of the Attignawantans and the Attigneenongnahacs came together to formally form the Wendat confederacy. The confederacy existed as a partnership between these two nations for 150 years before three more nations joined them in rapid succession. “The Arendahronons came to settle in Wendake” and join the confederacy around 1590. Then, “around 1610, the Wendat confederacy welcomed another nation, the Tahontaenrats… Finally, the Ataronchronons” were added, “probably as refugees.”
Now the Wendat confederacy was 170 years old, with an even longer heritage of people who’d lived centuries in the same land, and with cultural practices and the roots of their Wendat language going back even further.
Wendake was technically a peninsula, but effectively an island, since the borders that weren’t lakes were swamps. The tip of the peninsula was the shape of a dog’s head, and jutted out into a large bay, which was part of a great lake, which was connected to other great lakes. “The country of Wendake was not large,” consisting of “twenty to twenty-five Wendat towns, villages, and hamlets… concentrated in a territory… covering about 544 square kilometres.” The clustering of villages into this small area made Wendake “one of the most densely populated territories” for thousands of kilometers.
The five nations within a united Wendake bordered on each other, each in their own area. The Attignawantans were in the west, with the Ataronchronons directly to their east. The Attigneenongnahacs were even further south-east. The Tahontaerats were the furthest south, below the Ataronchronons and the Attigneenongnahacs. Finally, in the far north-east were the Arendarhonon.
Their towns and villages were usually between four to six acres in size, but as large as 15 acres. There were six particularly large ones, with populations of 1,500 to 2,000 each. These large towns were also fortified with defensive walls made out of tall, closely-spaced posts.
It took “as many as 24,000 poles” to build a palisade wall around a village, which were also secured with “watch towers and defensive galleries.” The houses inside the village were large structures, usually “90 to 100 feet long and 25 to 30 feet wide.” Multiple families lived in a single house, which included built-in food storage areas and places to hang pots and clothing.
To give one example, the Arendahronon capital of Cahiagué had “200 fairly large houses,” and was surrounded by a multiple-row stockade wall that the Wendats constructed from 45,000 stakes, “reinforced by other young trees and branches woven horizontally” and with earth “and tree trunks added as a further bulwark.”
The houses were built “like arcades or garden arbours covered with tree bark.”
A key feature of Wendake was that its location and natural transportation infrastructure made it possible for the Wendats to travel and trade across vast distances. “Most villages were located near streams, which were useful for canoe travel and close to sandy, well-drained soil that was preferred for growing corn.”
Wendake “was at the centre of the political web” of international trade and cultural exchange, “the heart of a developing interethnic and intercultural civilization, a remarkable phenomenon.” Such was the influence and reach of the Wendats that “the Wendat language was the lingua franca of… trade and diplomacy for at least fifty” other nations, near and far. Knowing the Wendat language was “the ultimate key for anyone wishing to exert real influence throughout the territory.”
That language had many notable characteristics. One was that it had the same word for mother as for aunt (anan), and for sisters and brothers as for cousins (ayein|eyein). Language shapes culture and vice versa, so these words represented tight family ties among the Wendat. Another feature of the language was that it “had no labial consonants,” which meant that “the Wendats never closed their lips when talking.”
The thriving Wendat trade was driven by their “large [agricultural] production surpluses, especially of corn, but also of beans and squash,” thanks in part to “agricultural methods [that] allowed them to quadruple the number of years of field use.” This surplus allowed them to import luxury goods and necessities like “furs and meat from the north,” and to live lives full of not just hard work, but of games and feasts.
In addition to corn, beans, and squash (the “three sisters“), meals also featured fish prepared “more than twenty ways,” varieties of soups and stews, bread with “dried fruit and pieces of deer fat [added] to the dough,” and lots of berries and nuts.
If you were a visitor to Wendake and you wanted to obnoxiously ask for something “really authentic,” you might be offered a “party dish” called leindohy, “stinking corn: small ears of corn that had been permitted to ferment in a stagnant pond for several months before being eaten.”
Famine was always a threat, so “the Wendats kept food reserves to insure against two or more years of poor harvests.”
Thanks in no small part to all this food, Wendats were generally tall, healthy, and well-fed.
It’s worth studying the governance and public policy of such a society, but here again we encounter concepts lost in translation. The Wendats “did not have leaders, as we understand the word today. The Wendat garihoua… could never claim to be empowered to speak or act without consent on any matter whatsoever: they were spokesmen, nothing more.”
A garihoua was someone “who has entirely given up his own will to become the voice, or the will of the people.” Serving involves “the obligatory submersion of his personality and personal interests; his duty is to incarnate the spirit of the community.” The word garihoua is usually translated, imperfectly, to chief.
The “political emblem” of the Wendat confederacy, “their model” for “physical organization and social vision,” was the beaver, “a sedentary animal that builds and defends villages, at the same time creating spaces where almost all other animal species can foregather.”
“The Wendats had four levels of government: the lineage (a clan segment within the village), the village, the nation, and the confederacy… The councils of each nation were composed of chiefs of all clan segments in all villages,” and the confederacy “consisted of most, if not all, of the civil headmen who sat on the various tribal councils.” In this way the levels of government were less like a hierarchy, and more like concentric circles.
“The confederacy council … met each spring for several weeks” and dealt with “topics such as political developments, trade, village resettlement and subdivision, new subsistence strategies, diplomatic missions,” and more.
When the Wendats held a council, “every one who wishes may be present, and has the right to express his opinion.” After each person speaks they conclude by saying “Condayauendi Ierhayde cha nonhwicwahachen,” which means “this is my thought on the subject under discussion.”
You have maybe noticed the use of “he” and “him.” Only men could hold political positions, including council membership. But the distinctions Wendats drew between the roles of men and women do not mean the Wendats understood either gender to be more important or influential than the other.
“For all practical purposes, men did not exercise definitive power” in Wendake. “Women were the real backbone of the nation… they wielded effective authority, being in charge of the earth, the fields, and the crops. Women were ‘the soul of the councils [and] the arbiters of peace and war,’ and it was to them that captives were awarded” after a battle. “They controlled the wealth of the community; they arranged marriages and were the custodians of children (and through them controlled inheritance).”
Women also “appointed and could dismiss chiefs” and “their views, and especially those of older women,” were expected to be represented at council meetings. The Wendat confederacy was a matrilinear society, and as a result “the births of girls were more rejoiced at than those of boys, because their descendants would be a source of strength to their matrilineage.”
Women had complete agency over their sex lives and who they married. The practice around marriage proposal even included a kind of free trial period. To propose, “the boy offered the girl a beaver robe or a wampum necklace. If she took it, they slept together for several nights. After this, the girl was free to accept or reject her suitor, but in either case she could keep the present he had offered her.”
Divorce was legal, and was a logistically and culturally acceptable option for both men and women if they were unhappy. “It was therefore necessary for a husband and wife to treat each other with respect if their marriage was to succeed.” That said, “married couples rarely separated after a child was born.”
It would be simplest and most comfortable for me, when writing about the Wendats as they were, to stick to facts and events. But, says Sioui, “for peoples without writing (a characteristic of Circle societies, generally speaking), life cannot and should not be a purely material and temporal venture. History that fails to address the human spirit and conscience is of no use.”
Understanding the Wendats as a “Circle society” is “first and foremost” on the list of cultural differences between their society and the “linear” ones that would later spread from another world. The four council circles described above actually existed within a larger framework of “the Great Circle of human society…”
…composed of eleven sub-circles: seven within their world and four outside it. The first seven were self, family, lineage, clan, village, nation, and confederacy. The remaining four were the extended confederacy, the continent, the world (including enemies and strangers), and the universe.
This worldview was expressed in a number of ways. For one, Wendats, like the other nations of their world, had a strong sense of community and communal responsibility. They were incredibly good at looking after all of their people. “This civilization was unaware of the concept of human and non-human exploitation aimed at the accumulation of power by certain groups within a society, to the detriment of the majority.” In Wendake, “a complete stranger had only to sit down in a longhouse in order to be fed.”
Even though councils at all levels “maintained a public treasury,” if anyone fell sick “there is a rivalry as to who will show himself most obliging.” And “whenever public funds were required, families vied with one another to subscribe to them.” If a house burned down, “the rest of the village helped to build a new one.”
This communal spirit was exhibited not just in times of need but also in times of celebration, and Wendats loved to celebrate and entertain. They found lots of excuses (“any special endeavour”) to throw a feast.
Communal responsibility also extended to the consequences for severe crimes like murder. The murderer’s community was responsible for paying reparations to the victim’s community in a ceremonial way that was meant to express regret, restore safety, provide condolence, and reunite the larger community. The goal of the “legal action was not to punish the offender but to awaken in him a sense of responsibility toward those who were closest to him,” and it was generally effective. “Ultimately this concern manifested itself in the individual agreeing to conform to the norms of [Wendat] society of his or her own free will.”
Wendats “knew of no culture that they had reason to believe was materially more successful than their own.” But being a circle society meant Wendats did not see their agricultural way of life as more advanced than a hunter one, both because they did not have a concept of cultural progress, and because they still regarded their former lives as preferable. “This society… seems to have viewed the nomadic life of the hunter as being closer to holy things and therefore an ideal human condition.” Their sedentary, village-based society was necessary for them to find their niche and coexist with neighbouring nations, but not ideal.
Wendats believed that “nothing exists by and for itself,” and that therefore “good is partly the product of evil, as evil is partly the product of good, which means that neither quality exists as an absolute.” Their society and the broader civilization was animist, which Sioui defines as the “capacity to perceive the soul (anima) inhabiting all beings and all things.”
Not only animals but even things, like fishing nets, were understood to have souls. For humans, “Wendats believed in the existence of two souls living simultaneously in the body,” one of which “leaves it and travels freely about the world” when “the body is asleep or in a trance, or dead.”
Souls of the dead were so valued that “if fire should break out in their village and in their cemetery, they would first run to extinguish the fire in the cemetery and then the fire in the village.”
Respect for the souls of the dead did not detract from honouring the living. “If someone in the village was dying of natural causes, it was the custom to give him or her a farewell celebration (atsataion) before death.”
“The Wendats had domesticated some animals, including bears and especially dogs.” The dogs were companions, while the bears were companions waiting to become food. “Baby bears brought back by travellers or taken in the territory were raised in an enclosure ‘in the middle of their lodge.’ After two or three years, the bear was killed for a feast.”
Dogs, on the other hand, had souls that would, after their body had died, follow a path “by way of certain stars which are near neighbours of the [human] soul’s path.” The Wendats called this Gagnenon andahatey, which means “the dog’s path.”
“One of the most remarkable and most pivotal features of this civilization” was the Feast of the Dead, which can also be translated, maybe slightly less imperfectly, as the Feast of Souls. “Every ten or twelve years, probably in May,” relatives of people “who had died of natural causes since the last feast” would dig up, transport, and clean the bones of the dead, grieving anew, so that they could all be celebrated and reburied together.
“Arrangements were made well in advance and invitations to attend were sent out through the whole country.”
“Essentially, the Feast of the Dead was a gigantic ten-day ritual celebrating the people’s unity and their desire to live in peace and to extend the bonds of symbolic kinship to the greatest possible number.”
“From day to day the souls arrived,” you would see “processions, sometimes of two or three hundred persons; each one brings his souls, that is, his bones, done up in parcels on his back, under a handsome robe…”
On setting out from the Village, the whole band cried out haée, haé, and repeated this cry of the souls by the way. This cry they say relieves them greatly; otherwise the burden, although of souls, would weigh very heavily on their backs.
Even to begin to properly describe the Feast of the Dead would require thousands more words. To witness it was to experience “the genuine feeling that this event inspired and the tenderness of the living for their kin who had passed on.” As an example of the long history of this culture, burial rituals that flowed into what became the Feast of the Dead can be traced back to one thousand years before the birth of Christ.
The relief felt upon crying haée, haé is maybe similar to the role that the torture of enemy captives sometimes played. “Captives who were handed over to a matriarchal longhouse were usually ritually adopted if they were women or children. This was not always the case for male captives, however. Occasionally, when grief for lost relatives killed by an enemy nation was too great, the right to inflict certain wounds on the prisoner could be brought from the adopting house.”
“Putting an enemy to death by torture should be seen as a collective therapy ritual… The victim underwent the ordeal with courage and grace because he understood its cultural logic.”
Wendats would also practice collective rituals when someone was sick. Different “curing ceremonies” could be attempted, including one called Ononharoia, which means “turning the brain upside down,” and involved the analysis and acting out of dreams.
A number of curing rituals involved acting out dreams of a sexual nature, including “the endakwandet, the most important of a number of curing ceremonies” involving sex. Notwithstanding earlier descriptions of Wendat cultural norms, sex was usually a private matter. “In a society where there were strong pressures on the individual to conform to social norms,” sexual curing ceremonies were perhaps “a socially and psychologically acceptable outlet for their personal feelings.”
In practice, it meant that a sick person would describe their dreams, and their community, out of “concern for the welfare” of the sick person, would act them out.
This was a ceremony that seems to have been desired manly by old men and women… On one occasion all the young, unmarried girls assembled in a sick woman’s house and each was asked in turn to state with what young man she wished to have sexual intercourse. The men who were selected were notified by the chiefs who were in charge of the ceremony and came the next night to the woman’s longhouse in order to have intercourse with these girls. They occupied the house from one end to the other and remained together until dawn. Throughout the night the sick woman, who was propped up at one end of the longhouse, watched the ceremony, while two chiefs or shamans, stationed at either end, shook their turtle-shell rattles and sang.
Not all dreams of curing ceremonies were sexual. If a person with exceptional material wealth was sick, it was not uncommon for them to dream that in order to heal, they needed to give their things away. “The search for health through giving conforms with the high value the [Wendats] placed on generosity.”
The Wendat confederacy was 170 years old — older than Canada is today —when it was first visited by foreigners not just from another nation, but from another world. Their arrival on the Great Island “quickly upset the existing equilibrium and transformed it into a world of disease, division, violence, and death.” The foreigners renamed the Wendat, giving them and Wendake’s lake the derogatory name “Huron,” helping to erase the place and peoples from maps and memories. Within just a few decades of their arrival, the then centuries-old Wendat confederacy was destroyed.
“Wendake was a permanent island-village, a heartland around which revolved a huge world,” says Sioui. “The essence of their commercial (and therefore remarkably peaceable) civilization lay in their willingness to enter into cultural association with their Algonkian and Nadouek neighbours and to extend ties of communication and trade to an impressive number of other peoples of very diverse cultures and languages.”
Some Wendats escaped as refugees from Wendake, and became scattered across the Great Island. “The Wendat world vision..survives today… among traditionalist descendants who have kept their sense of Wendat identity,” including “the Canadian Wendats of Lorette and the American Wyandots, living in Michigan, Ohio, Kansas, Oklahoma, California, and Florida.”