Last week I wrote about the country called Wendake and the peoples of the Wendat confederacy, some of whom had lived in the land they called Wendake for more than one thousand years when the Wendat confederacy was destroyed soon after the arrival of the French.
In telling Wendake’s story I intentionally kept mentions of the French to a minimum. This was challenging, since the French, and in particular the Jesuits, were the only people who both witnessed the Wendats firsthand and wrote down their observations. As a result, almost all witness accounts of the Wendats (and many other First Nations) end up being told from the perspective of their invaders. (The history of Wendake is also informed by oral history, archaeology, and other methods.)
The centrality of the French in so many histories of the Wendats (who are often referred to by the derogatory French name, “Huron”) frustrates me not only because of the limitations of learning about the Wendats from a group of correspondents who, for the most part, wanted to end the Wendat way of life. It also frustrates me because centering the French means focusing on the end days of Wendake rather than the much longer period of time when Wendats were blissfully unaware of what a Frenchman looked like. The Jesuits are a big part of why we know the history, but they’re not the reason the history is worth knowing.
Still, there are a lot of interesting things about the decades when the Kingdom of France and the Wendat confederacy were in close contact with each other that ended up on the cutting room floor last week. One is how life in seventeenth century Wendake seems, for many, to have been preferable to life in seventeenth century France.
One way to evaluate contemporary Wendat and French cultures would be by comparing them to our own. We could observe, for example, that on matters of sex and divorce, the Wendats were more aligned with modern liberal values than were the patriarchal French.
For the French, the absence of what we would call child abuse was even more scandalous than Wendat attitudes towards sex. “No aspect of [Wendat] behavior shocked the French more,” writes Bruce Trigger, “than their refusal to use physical punishment to discipline their children.” One French missionary, Gabriel Sagard, added that the Wendats “love their children dearly…more than is the case here [in France].”
Other stories, when read today, make the French seem plainly villainous, and the Wendats more virtuous. For example, when a group of French traders were traveling through Tionnontaté territory (a neighbouring nation to the Wendats), a member of their party became sick:
Rather than stop to take care of him, his companions left him among the Tionnontaté, stating that if he died the Indian who was looking after him was to bury him, but could keep his clothes in payment for his services. The Tionnontaté were shocked by the callous way in which the young man had been abandoned by his companions… It is clear that the [Wendats] were horrified.
In fact, when the Wendats learned that the French had abandoned a sick man in Tionnontaté, they rushed to him on a rescue mission.
All this said, attempts to evaluate any centuries-old culture through a modern lens are going to be flawed and limiting, and I am obviously cherry-picking my examples a bit. Ultimately, most people alive today would likely be extremely uncomfortable if forced to adapt to either culture, both of which were definitively more violent and devotedly religious (to choose two criteria) than our own.
A more interesting exercise may be to look at what the Wendats and the French themselves thought of the other’s way of life. Here, a pattern emerges of both the Wendats and the French preferring life in Wendake to life in either France or New France. Sagard was one of several Frenchmen who noted “how much more easily the average European could adapt to Indian ways than Indians could adapt to European ways.”
For example, a Wendat man named Savignon (who… that can’t actually be his original Wendat name, right? Champlain must have renamed him that? The French were always renaming everything, after all. No one addresses this directly… ) traveled to France. Upon his return to Wendake, he:
praised the excellent treatment he had received in France, but never expressed any serious desire to return there… he was appalled by the capital and corporal punishment that was a conspicuous feature of the life in the French capital. He was also disturbed to see Europeans beating their children and physically restraining them.
Later, “he said that if [Wendat] children were allowed to go to France they were in danger of being beaten or killed there.” When “five or six” Wendat children were offered a free trip to France to be educated, Savignon “convinced them that the French were too cruel and unjust to be trusted with [Wendat] children,” writes Trigger.
On the other hand, we know of Frenchmen who did wish to immigrate to Wendake. Missionary Nicolas Viel, for example, “expressed the wish that he might be allowed to continue working among the [Wendats] for the rest of his life.” (Viel got his wish. Unfortunately, that’s because he drowned in a canoeing accident after only two years.)
Viel may not be a perfect example, since he was possibly motivated more by a sense of religious mission than a preference for a Wendat way of life. French laymen, though, also chose to immigrate to Wendake, and “often lived among the [Wendats] for extended periods, helped to defend their villages, learned their language, and in some cases became members of [Wendat] families.”
Unlike the missionaries, most of the French traders who lived with the Wendats “had no desire to challenge the [Wendat] way of life, and in many ways were assimilated with it.” And in 1628, twenty Frenchmen were sent to live in Wendake “mainly because there was not enough food for them at Quebec.”
In general, “Europeans who were adopted by Native people always considered their ‘savage’ lives infinitely less harsh than life in European communities, and refused to return to the latter,” says Georges Sioui.
The feeling seems to have been mutual. Trigger concludes that “there is little evidence that the [Wendats] regarded the French as superior to themselves, while there is much evidence that they regarded them as inferior.”
That perspective was shared by other Indigenous nations too. “In 1691 a Micmac chief told the Recollet brother Chrestien Le Clercq that he should understand, once and for all, that there was not one Amerindian who did not consider himself infinitely happier and more powerful than the French.”
Sagard even proposed that the French adopt Wendat crops so that the poor of France “could be fed and supported as easily” as the Wendats were. For their part, Wendats “were horrified when they were told that in France the poor had to beg for food.”
These views about the merits of Wendat society compared to its contemporary French one were widespread, and should challenge modern assumptions, still asserted by Lords and Twitter trolls alike, that Indigenous cultures were inferior, and were lucky to be introduced to European ways of life.
At least one Frenchman who was around at the time was also challenged by this possibility. Having “recognized and understood a new and transcendent moral quality in the Amerindian social genius,” says Sioui, Sagard “left the Recollets,” his Christian religious order, and “finished his days (rather abruptly, in fact) as the object of persecution, in a state of profound disillusionment and even revolt.”
Photo: A mural in Midland, Ontario, formerly Wendake, Attignawantan territory, depicts a French mission to the Wendats.