The sex-positive Huron-Wendat

If, hypothetically, you wanted to define “historic Canadian values,” you’d have a hard time.

For example, I’m currently working my way through a large book about the history of the Wendat, a confederation of nations that ruled southern Ontario for centuries, with ancestral roots in the region running back even further. Today the Wendat are better known by the name the French gave them, the Huron. (The French were always renaming everything.)

There’s lots to say about the Wendat (Huron) Confederacy, including about their culture and what they, historically, valued. For the purposes of keeping this post brief, let’s focus in on one general topic area: dating, marriage, and sex.

Here’s what Bruce Trigger writes in The Children of Aataentsic about Wendat values with regards to sex, way back in the 1500s and 1600s, and possibly earlier:

The Huron considered premarital sexual relations to be perfectly normal and engaged in them soon after puberty…. Girls were as active as men in initiating these liasons [sic]…. Young men were required to recognize the right of a girl to decide which of her lovers she preferred at any one time. Sometimes, a young man and woman developed a longstanding, but informal, sexual relationship…. This did not prevent either partner from having sexual relations with other friends.

When the French showed up and witnessed this in the early 1600s, they were “astonished” and some were even horrified, writes Trigger, especially and specifically because of the agency enjoyed by women.

Wendat marriage proposals also included a no-commitment trial period for women. 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.” Listen, we both knew what this was. Thanks for the robe!

Divorce law allowed for any marriage to be “terminated at the wish of either partner.” In comparison, it would take two hundred years and a revolution before the French even legalized divorce at all. Meanwhile in Quebec, until “less than a century ago, Quebec women were essentially treated as children—legal dependents of their husbands—and they held no claim to homes, bank accounts, or other assets.” Further, “women couldn’t be granted a separation—even from an adulterous spouse, unless the cad actually brought his ‘concubine'” home. (Nutt, 194-195) Throughout the rest of Canada, “access to divorce…was extremely limited until 1968.”

Defining “historic values” isn’t just difficult because you first have to pick which history you’re talking about; it’s also nearly impossible to map historic cultural values onto present ones in any meaningful way. Cultures are complex, and societal values don’t progress in a straight or predictable line.

Still, I find it interesting that as someone who was socialized in a colonial Canadian culture, on these examples I find myself easily siding with the values of a pre-Columbian indigenous confederacy over those of their European contemporaries.

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