The Ongoing Struggle

I learned another new word in Passamaquoddy:  Mocahantuwok, which means wicked devils. I am not sure if the word is used in a friendly teasing way, or in a serious condemning way. But in a serious way, I have been thinking about using it for certain people in Washington DC who are bent on undermining the processes and hopes of democracy in this country.  You can guess who I mean.

It is not the worst time in our country’s history.  That might have to be the initial conquest of these lands, and the direct genocide of millions of Indigenous people.  (That oppression still continues of course, but perhaps in more indirect ways.)  Another contender for the worst time would be the 250 years of enslavement of captured African peoples. (That oppression also continues, also in more indirect ways.)  I don’t believe there was a golden age of American democracy, that we are now on the verge of losing.

But I do believe there was a dream of America that had something to do with democracy, cooperation, and reciprocity. I think about the poem of Black American, Langston Hughes, written in 1938.

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

…Let America Be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed! This dream was not only dreamed in America either. In learning more about my ancestors in Europe, I was struck by the ongoing struggles between the forces of domination, empire, and greed and the forces of reciprocity, cooperation, and shared power.  For example, my East Frisian ancestors valued their freedom and resisted domination, resisted being forced into feudalism. Friesland actually means Free Land.

But those relational values were even more striking among my early Innu ancestors on this continent. I remember reading parts of the record that the Jesuits wrote about the Innu during early conquest times. How horrified the Jesuits were that the Innu people would only follow the lead of their leaders if they agreed with them. (Democracy!) How horrified they were that a man might agree to a contract, but if he went home and his wife disagreed, he thought he should be able to get out of that contract. (Power was meant to be shared!)

Those are the same values we are now struggling over, in Washington, and all over this country, once again and still. Will we create a society in which all people are included, in which power is reciprocal and we cooperate for the good of all? Or will some mocahantuwok create a society in which they dominate over others, accumulate as much as they can, and destroy the rest of the people and the world?

It is no easy struggle.  I don’t know how we achieve our goal.  But I know I choose to live by the values of reciprocity, cooperation, and democracy in every way possible, and I choose to align myself with others who share those values. Perhaps each time we do that, in all areas of our lives, we contribute some spark of energy that makes the dream more possible.


Winter dawn

Empires in the Rhineland

As I explore my Germanic ancestors,  I have been struck by the repeated rise and fall of empires in Europe, somehow timely during these days in the United States when it seems that the impulse to empire is battling the impulse to democracy.  I didn’t study much European history during my educational exploits, so much of this has been new information. But most important to me, it seemed that the places where my ancestors lived were deeply shaped by the struggles of empires.

My grandfather Hochreiter’s birthplace, Linz, Austria, for example, was first named “Lentia” during the Roman Empire, one of the many frontier fortifications along the Danube River.  The Rhine River was also pivotal to the Roman frontier, and the Gerling’s town of Osterath was near the old Roman frontier settlement of Novaeseum, now Neuss.

The fall of the Roman Empire saw the rise of the Frankish Empire, the center of which was in the Rhineland. From Wikipedia:

Julius Caesar conquered the Celtic tribes on the West bank, and Augustus established numerous fortified posts on the Rhine, but the Romans never succeeded in gaining a firm footing on the East bank. As the power of the Roman empire declined the Franks pushed forward along both banks of the Rhine, and by the end of the 5th century had conquered all the lands that had formerly been under Roman influence. The Frankish conquerors of the Rhenish districts were singularly little affected by the culture of the Roman provincials they subdued, and all traces of Roman civilization were submerged. By the 8th century, the Frankish dominion was firmly established in western Germania and northern Gaul.

On the map below, the dark green area of “Austrasia” is centered in the Lower Rhineland. (Note that the city of Cologne is just south of where my ancestors were from many centuries later. They lived on the west/left bank of the Rhine.)


I somehow had always thought of Charlemagne as French, but he was actually Frankish, and likely born in the lower Rhineland area as well. The center of his court was in Aachen. The Franks were precursors to both modern France and Germany. Perhaps this explains something that my grandmother Johnson said about her family being both German and French. The Rhineland where they were from was Frankish, and went back and forth in later days between Germanic and French rule.

Soon after Charlemagne, his empire was divided into three parts.  I will skip right over the “Holy Roman Empire,” which was mostly a Germanic coalition of many kingdoms and cities that persisted through to the time of Napoleon. (My apologies to all true historians!)  But moving closer to the time before my own Gerling ancestors emigrated, the whole of the left bank of the Rhine was taken by Napoleon’s empire for France in 1795. I found out more about this time from a very helpful website describing the Rhineland Under the French.

The “Rhineland” only emerged as a united political entity in the first half of the 19th century. Before 1794 the area on both sides of the Rhine, between the river Moselle and the Dutch border, comprised a patchwork “rag-rug”, made up of many different territories and princedoms. …The French Revolution of 1789 was the event which influenced the political landscape in that epoch, beyond the borders of France and also in the longer term. …In 1794 revolutionary France conquered the regions left of the Rhine, which Napoleon subsequently annexed in 1801. They were systematically brought into line with the legal, administrative and political conditions in France. In 1802 the French constitution, le Code Civil, was introduced. The achievements of the revolution enacted in the Code Civil included the equality of all people before the law, an independent judiciary and the universal right to vote. However, “people” were still only defined as men; women were regarded as the chattels of men and were not recognized as independent persons.

It seems that the forces of empire and the forces of democratic ideals were beginning to wrestle with each other in those times, and I am very curious what my Gerling ancestors might have made of it all. Gerhard Gerling is described as a “hotel meister” (manager?) so he would have fit into the newly emerging class of small business people–whether by owning or working in a hotel.

In 1815, Prussia gained control of the area, and it became the new Prussian Rhine Province, but it had been irrevocably shaped by the prior years.

In 1815 the time of French influence was over, but had left behind far-reaching changes, which had been appreciated as a change for the better, especially in the areas of commercial law and administration. Therefore the population also resisted having to sacrifice such achievements for the sake of Prussian citizenship.

One thing that I wonder about. When sources say, “France took control,” or “Prussia took control”–they don’t mention the armies or the battles or what human cost might have been part of these shifts of power. It must have been difficult to live on the edges of these empires. In 1840, France threatened once more to claim the west bank, but it did not materialize. That was the year that the Gerlings, and many in their town of Osterath left it all behind to come to Missouri.


What Does It Mean for Me to Be Austrian?

So I come round to the question, What does it mean for me to be of 1/4 Austrian heritage? All of my ancestor research has been linked to my quest to understand the colonization process, and how my family fits into that long history. How might I be connected to my Austrian ancestors, and how were they connected to the land where they lived?  What might I learn from them? I have had very mixed and often troubled feelings during this particular search.

John Hochreiter Baby in Linz

Johann Hochreiter as a baby, in Linz

Linz, the city where my grandfather Hochreiter was born in 1884 and lived until 1910, was also the home of Adolf Hitler for several years, from 1898 to 1907. It is not a connection I feel good about. Wikipedia noted, “Like many Austrian Germans, Hitler began to develop German nationalist ideas from a young age.[34] He expressed loyalty only to Germany, despising the declining Habsburg Monarchy and its rule over an ethnically variegated empire.[35][36]”  Learning the history of Austria’s connection and disconnection from other Germanic states, (see my last post) helps me to understand this somewhat, but the outcome was terrifying.

I was glad to read that in 1996, Linz became the first city in Austria to deal intensively with its own Nazi past.  There was widespread research by the municipal archives, and the culture of remembrance extended to the construction of monuments for the victims of National Socialism. But of course all of these events, including both World Wars, were after my own ancestor had emigrated to North America.

In my family, we didn’t really learn anything about Austria when we were growing up. As far as I can tell, there were no cultural aspects that were carried forward to us, except that, ironically and randomly, the only classical music album in our house was Johann Strauss’s Vienna Waltzes, including “The Blue Danube.”

In fact, it is the Danube River (German Donau) which has called most strongly to my heart, of all that I have learned about Austria.  (Not insignificantly, the Danube also flows through the city of Ulm where the Swabian line of my ancestors is located.) The Danube begins in the Black Forest and flows through southern Germany and through Austria, and then on to the Black Sea. The Danube valley in Austria is north of the Alps, and one of the most fertile and populous regions of Austria. This river is at the center of all its history and culture, and was the major East-West transport on the continent of Europe.

Linked to its location on the Danube, the Linz area was settled continuously, from the late Stone Age Neolithic period, in 4000 BCE. They have also found early Bronze Age urn sites and burial sites from the Hallstatt-period. In the first century AD, the Romans constructed a wood-and-earth fort to secure the important Danube river crossing to control traffic and for military reasons. They named it Lentia. In the second century it was expanded into a stone fort. It was part of the Roman frontier called the limes.

The official history site for the city of Linz notes there were many Goth invasions during the second century and that by the end of the 4th century A.D., the indigenous population is thought to have withdrawn to the easily defensible district of Martinsfeld in reaction to the advance of peoples from the East and West.

Upper Austria on the Danube seems to have been a crossroads of many peoples–who knows whether our ancient ancestors were part of the Roman colonizer settlements, or were the “Barbarian” hordes on the other side of the river? Or some combination of the peoples from “the East and the West”? In my personal DNA analysis, there seem to be fragments (less than 2%) of Italian and Eastern European ancestry–maybe they met along the Danube river in Austria.

So much is up to conjecture and imagination, except that it is clear they were of the so-called “lower” classes. Maybe my very ancient ancestors lived along the river, and then later migrated north to clear the forests and farm. Maybe they were a part of the Peasant Uprisings in 1626, or one of the 62 known uprisings in Upper Austria between 1356 and 1849. Maybe they were not. Day laborers. Weavers. Farmers. But in any case, around 1884, they left their rural connection to land and became urban city dwellers, and thus also came my grandfather to the cities of Ottawa, Ontario, and then to Detroit, Michigan. So much is lost in the translation. But I am glad to make the acquaintance of the great river Danube.


Linz in the year 1594.


Linz on the Danube, date ?1889

Austrian Questions

In searching to understand my Austrian heritage, I was able to find a few further generations of the Hochreiter family who lived in the Mühlviertel. This region consists of the four Upper Austrian districts that lie north of the river Danube: Rohrbach, Urfahr-Umgebung (where my ancestors were from), Freistadt and Perg. The parts of the state capital Linz that lie north of the Danube also belong to the Mühlviertel.

My grandfather Johann’s father, as I have said, was also named Johann Hochreiter. Johann, Sr. was the son of Michael Hochreiter (who would be my great-great-grandfather), born in 1832 in Waldschlag (now Oberneukirchen) and Theresia Foisner (my great-great-grandmother) who was born in 1828. She had an earlier marriage to Joseph Waldhör in 1851, at age 23. (Joseph was born in Unterwaldschlag, also Oberneukirchen). They had two sons, and then later Theresia married Michael Hochreither in Oberneukirchen on 13th of July 7, 1856, when she was age 28 and Michael was 24. They had four sons: Johann, Franz, Joseph, and Matthias, all of whom lived to marry and have children. (The records I have don’t indicate if there were any other children who did not survive.)

I also found each of their parents listed: Theresia’s parents were Michael Foisner and Cäcilia Pichler. Michael’s parents were Philipp Hochreiter (who came from Bad Leonfelden) and Theresia Rammerstorfer.

One of the ways I try to learn about my ancestors is simply to look up their towns on Google Maps. Bad Leonfelden is about 12-13 kilometers northeast of Oberneukirchen, and 28 kilometers north of Linz.  When I zoomed into Bad Leonfelden, a few businesses appeared with “Hochreiter” in the name. So that’s cool. Bad means “bath” in German, and there are spa mud baths in the town. It is only 6 kilometers south of the border with the Czech Republic.Oberneukirchen

A Wikipedia listing for Oberneukirchen said that settlement and then village life probably started in the area in the 12th century.  Around the year 1500 agriculture and the weaving industry served as the main source of income. Very important was the trade in flax and linen, and also in wood, wine and salt. So it is possible that my ancestors lived there a very long time.  In the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), the area was occupied several times, and in 1809 there were major fires that destroyed many buildings in Oberneukirchen.

But what did it mean to be Austrian? After learning about the Swabian roots of some other Germanic ancestors, I wondered what kind of “Germanic” the Austrians might be. I found out the question has many historical complications. Some sources indicate that the Austrians and Bavarians were essentially the same culturally and linguistically. Austria is just to the east of Bavaria. But when Germany was nationalizing from smaller kingdoms and duchies and so on, Austria was a rival to Prussia, and there were also fierce Protestant/Catholic rivalries.  According to Leif Jerram, (Senior Lecturer in History, University of Manchester, UK) on,

Historically, Bavaria and Austria were much more similar. At the time of the formation of the modern state of Germany in the 1860s-70s, Bavarian politicians very much wanted Austria inside the new nation – they shared Roman Catholicism. Further, at that time, Bavaria tended to be more liberal and tolerant than the rest of the new state of Germany, and they wished to be able to preserve that. The Prussian elites who forced the unification of Germany, however (through warfare and blackmail), wanted to ensure that a) Catholics would be in a minority in the new nation, and b) that Prussian aristocratic elites would not face any competition for political power. If Austria were included, then many more Catholics would be included in the new state, and the might of the Austrian empire (such as it was – let’s say its wealth and prestige) would mean Prussian aristocratic landholders would have to make many compromises. So, Austria was excluded from the new state, and Catholics were vigorously persecuted as a minority for the first 20-or-so years of its foundation.

The history of the place seems incredibly complex, (but that seems true of most places I’ve tried to learn about in Europe.) A decisive moment for these developments was the Austro-Prussian War, in the summer of 1866.  Each side had ally states who were part of the loosely bound German Confederation, but the Prussians won that seven week war, and shaped the resulting eventual German Empire to the exclusion of Austria. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was then established in 1867 in the aftermath, as a constitutional monarchy (with Austria and Hungary as equal partners) that lasted until 1918.

So my grandfather’s parents and grandparents would have lived through these and other–often violent–transitions, but who knows how much or how little they were involved or effected by them personally in their small rural villages.  All of this helps me to understand just a little of the complex relationship between Austria and Germany in the World Wars of the twentieth century, (though my grandfather and all of my other Germanic ancestors) were gone from Europe by then. In each of those conflicts, there were some people who wanted Austria to be part of a wider Germany, and in the resulting peace treaties, that was explicitly forbidden. No wonder I find it all very confusing.


Johann Hochreiter

John Hochreiter at 31

John Hochreiter at 31

My most recent ancestor immigrant to this continent was my grandfather, John Hochreiter. He was born “Johann” on June 1, 1884 in Linz, Austria, when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, Johann Hochreiter (senior), born 1857, was a day-laborer originally from the village of Waldschlag, (now part of the town of Oberneukirchen), in the northern part of Upper Austria, an area called Mühlviertel. From the information I can gather, the next few generations of ancestors were from that area as well. His mother was born Anna Bartl, about 1851, daughter of the weaver Michael Bartl and his wife Katharina.

I turned to etymology for some clues this time. The name “Hochreiter” originally meant those persons who made higher-lying surfaces arable, who cleared forested areas for farms. “Wald schlag might mean “Forest Strike”, and “Ober neu kirchen” is “Upper New Churches.” According to Wikipedia, settlement and then village life probably started in the area of ​​the municipality Oberneukirchen in the 12th century. The spread and colonization of the forest clearing areas and the religious care of the settlers soon made a chapel or church building required.  One last etymology: “Mühlviertel” translates “Mill Quarter.” The Oberneukirchen economy was centered around agriculture and weaving for several centuries.

However, Johann and Anna did not stay in this rural area, the place of their families. For some reason, I would guess related to work, they moved about 25 kilometers south to the city of Linz where Johann was a day-laborer. It was in the city that their children were born—they had at least five sons, Johann (junior) in 1884, Georg in 1885, Franz in 1888, Franz Joseph in 1892, and Julius in 1895. (I seem to remember hearing stories that my grandfather was the oldest of several brothers—even eight, but that number might be a error.) They later also died in the city of Linz, in 1933 and 1930.

My mom told of a story that my grandfather as a young man had carried bread on his back to deliver it, or another story was that he delivered beer by horse-drawn cart. But in any case, at some point he became a waiter, and remained so until his retirement many years later. He left Linz in his twenties, somewhere about 1910 or 11, with a group of buddies, working as waiters in hotels as they traveled, going first to France, and then England. Finally they took the ship called “Lake Manitoba” and landed in Quebec, Canada on June 16, 1912. Then, he worked as a waiter at the new, and very grand, Chateau Laurier hotel in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. It was there he met my grandmother, Yvonne Tremblay, who worked as a chamber maid.

In late 1915, John emigrated once again, traveling via Windsor to Detroit, Michigan. By this point, Canada had entered the first World War, and he was registered as an “enemy alien.” I wonder if that contributed to his decision to come to the United States, which was still a neutral country. (According to that registration, in 1915 at 31 he was 5’3”, weighed 125 pounds, and had dark hair, and wore glasses.) He soon sent for Yvonne, and they were married in Detroit on January 14, 1916. She was just 18.

John & Yvonne Hochreiter 1916

John and Yvonne in Detroit 1916

They stayed in Detroit, and he worked as a room service waiter at the Hotel Statler (which had been completed earlier in 1915), until he retired (at 70) after my grandmother died in l954.

When I have wondered about why he left Austria, I haven’t found clear answers. It was a few years before war would break out there, so I don’t think it was about that. It seems perhaps he and his friends were looking for adventure, and they’d found a way to do it even without many financial resources.  As waiters, they could work wherever they could find hotel jobs.  I was impressed that these men continued to be friends years later in Detroit. My grandfather was a quiet man, and he died when I was only 13, so I never felt that I knew him very well.

Ironically, even though my siblings and I are of 25% Austrian ancestry, and our grandfather was the most recent immigrant of our heritage, I found it difficult to find a sense of connection to that culture and place. It has bewildered me as I have continued to explore the region in Austria from which he came. I’ll write more in a future post.

The Swabian Alb

As I researched my Swabian roots, I realized that one eighth of my ancestral heritage is most likely tied to that place. One aspect of the decolonization process is for those of us with non-native ancestry to explore our roots in other places across the globe, places in which our ancestors might hold their own Indigeneity.  I found myself strangely moved yesterday as I watched Youtube videos about Swabia. See here is the thing:  before this week, I had never even heard of Swabia.  This is the forgetting that comes over so many families through several generations in the United States.

We begin to amalgamate, and make reference to a vague Germanic ancestry. But the more I learn, the more I realize that each of my various family lines came from distinct cultures and landscapes that are now considered “German.”  I want to record some things about that Swabian culture and place–nothing that can’t be found in Wikipedia and other online sources–but new to me. (Most of this is just copy and paste or mildly edited from public domain sources.)

Germany was slowly becoming unified over the 18th and 19th centuries (mostly after my ancestors had emigrated.)  This process was politically dominated by the northern Kingdom of Prussia, and therefore “Weimar Classicism” became the expression of German national “high culture.” As a consequence, southern Germany and by extension both the Swabians and the Bavarians came to be seen as deviations from a generic standard German, and a number of clichés or stereotypes developed about them.

These portrayed the Swabians as stingy, overly serious, or prudish petty bourgeois simpletons, for example as reflected in “The Seven Swabians” story published by the Brothers Grimm. On the positive side, however, the same stereotypes may be expressed in portraying the Swabians as frugal, clever, entrepreneurial and hard-working. Realistically, they lived on a land with thin soil and difficult access to water, so likely they had to be frugal and hard-working to survive.

The Swabian Alb (or Swabian Jura) occupies the region bounded by the Danube River in the southeast and the upper Neckar River in the northwest. In the southwest it rises to the higher mountains of the Black Forest. The highest mountain of the region is the Lemberg (1,015 m.). The area’s profile resembles a high plateau, which slowly falls away to the southeast. The northwestern edge is a steep escarpment covered with forests, while the top is flat or gently rolling.

The geology of the Swabian Alb is mostly limestone, which formed the seabed during the Jurassic period. The sea receded 50 million years ago. Since limestone is soluble in water, rain seeps through cracks everywhere and forms subterranean rivers which flow through a large system of caves until they emerge. Thus there are hardly any rivers, lakes or other forms of surface water on the plateau.

Many different types of beautiful caves can be found there, from dry dripstone caves to caves that can only be entered by boat. Sometimes the discharge of the water from subterranean rivers can be spectacular, too, for example, the Blautopf, (“Blue Bowl”) a source for a tributary of the Danube.Blue Pot

Also because of the porous limestone, the Danube nearly disappears near Immendingen only to reappear several kilometers further down. Most of the water lost by the Danube resurfaces in the Aachtopf, a spring for a tributary to the Rhine.

Much of the Swabian Alb consists of gentle to moderate hills often covered with forest or cleared for small-scale agriculture. The traditional landscape was grass fields with juniper bushes. Today this has become a comparatively rare sight. However, in certain places it is protected by the government (the province of Baden-Württemberg.) The soil is not very fertile, the humus is often as thin as 10 cm (4 in). Many small limestone pebbles are found on the surface.

Fossils can be found everywhere in the Swabian Alb. In a number of caves (including Vogelherd, Hohlenstein-Stadel, Geißenklösterle and Hohle Fels), all just a few kilometers apart, some of the oldest signs of human artifacts were found. Best known are: a mammoth, a horse head, a water bird, and two statues of a lion man all more than 30,000 years old. The oldest known musical instruments have been found here, too: flutes made from the bones of swans and griffon vultures, some 35,000 years old, and a flute carved from the tusk of a mammoth dating from the Ice Age, around 37,000 years ago. Perhaps most astounding is the oldest representation found so far of the human body, the Venus of Hohle Fels.648px-VenusHohlefels2

This Goddess figure, carved from mammoth ivory, and likely worn as a pendant, was found in caves that my very ancient ancestors may have frequented. Of course, people moved around between those ancient times and more recent times, the Celts and the Gauls intermarried with Germanic tribes, but some of the ancestors of the Swabians may have been present even then.

So as I think about my place on this earth, this is one of my places!



Ancestor Wounds and Healing

I’m on my way to the Wild Maine Witch Camp!  My friend Sylvia and I are leading one of the morning workshop series (called a Path), on the topic of Ancestor Wounds and Healing. 

Our intention in this path, is to open our lives to the blessings of our ancestors and to healing the wounds we carry from them. This work, for us, is rooted in our understanding that our path as witches is tied up with collective liberation from colonization and oppression, from patriarchy and racism. Connecting with our ancestors is a way to wrestle with our collective history and all that it includes, in order to bring healing and liberation in our times.

I have been blogging about this process with my own ancestors for the last several months, discovering more about the experience of my German and East Frisian immigrant ancestors, and the Quebec story of my French, Innu and Scottish ancestors. I’ve been asking questions about how the stories of my ancestors fit into the larger story of colonization, of relationship to the land, of migration, and belonging. Perhaps I have also been wrestling with the question of whether my European ancestors might have any blessings to offer me. That story is so tangled and broken.

I am looking forward to sharing this work with a group of people in the context of our lives as witches. Our tools will include experiential magical practice, music and chanting, personal sharing, guided meditation and trance work, sacred herbs, and the wisdom of each person in the circle. We will draw on Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects which is based on a cycle of four movements that we will use through our four days together. We will begin with gratitude, then move into honoring our pain, then seeing our connections with new eyes, and finally, going forth.

Perhaps I am hoping to discover if this message from Linda Hogan, Chickasaw writer, also might apply to me:

Walking. I am listening to a deeper way.

Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me.

Be still, they say. Watch and listen.

You are the result of the love of thousands.

Biddeford Pool beach

French and Innu in Early Quebec

Samuel de Champlain map of Quebec

1612 Map of New France by Samuel de Champlain

Some thoughts on early French and Innu ancestors, on reading Helene’s World: Helene Desportes of Seventeenth-Century Quebec, by Susan McNelley.

I was surprised to learn that the primary Indigenous nation at the Quebec settlement in 1620 (later, Quebec City) were the Montagnais (Innu.) I had thought they had been mostly living further downriver and inland. But the Quebec settlement was one of the summer dwelling places in their vast territory along the St. Lawrence, where they fished, gathered herbs and berries, and traded with their neighbors for corn and tobacco.

In the early days of the settlement, the Innu, along with the Huron (Wendat) from further west, and other Algonquin tribes, were the main trading partners of the French.  Beaver pelts were the primary export from the colony.  Interestingly, the French especially valued the used pelts–those having been worn for a few years–after the longer hairs had worn off, because the French used the shorter hairs to felt for popular hats back in Europe. So what a great opportunity!  The Innu could trade the pelts they were about to discard, for copper kettles, metal tools, firearms, blankets, and food.

In the early days of the settlement, hundreds of canoes would arrive each summer, bringing furs for the annual trade. The French settlers had become part of earlier trading patterns. (The French made the choice to ally with the Huron and Montagnais against the Iroquois, and those earlier rivalries were exacerbated by competition to control the beaver trade. The Iroquois had allied with the English and the Dutch.)

But beginning in the 1630s, as in so many other places on this continent, diseases from the Europeans proved decimating for the Native peoples who had no natural immunity to them. Measles, smallpox, plague. The Huron/Wendat lost 50% of their people, and losses were said to be similar among the Montagnais/Innu. That, combined with increasing hostilities with the Iroquois, caused the remaining Innu eventually to go further downstream or inland.

French colonization took a different shape from English colonization.  There was more interaction with–and valuing of–Indigenous peoples as trading partners and allies. But an underlying driving force of this colonization was the desire of French Catholics to convert the Indigenous people to Christianity, to “save their souls,” which for them was inextricably linked with their also adopting French customs and lifestyles.  The Jesuit priests and Ursuline nuns settled in Quebec with a special call to this mission.

Native people were seen as “savages” who must be “civilized.” The French colonizers would send a few people to live among the tribes to learn their languages and customs. They invited Native people to send their children to be educated, and a few did send their children to the Ursuline school. There were many positive connections between the two groups. The Indigenous people were interested in the French, they shared a love of pageantry and celebration, they valued the trade, but ultimately and unsurprisingly, most were unlikely to give up their own ways for the ways of the French during these years.

More later on their different cultural strategies to survive the hard winters…

Montagnais as seen by Champlain detail

Detail from the map–Champlain’s drawing of Montagnais/Innu people.



Ancestors & Colonization: Quebec

When I was exploring my German immigrant ancestors in the context of decolonization, I was struck by the feeling that they arrived after the major struggles of colonization in their part of the country.  For my dad’s family who arrived in the mid-1800s, it was a generation earlier that treaties were pressed upon the Indigenous peoples of those lands, who were forced to move further west or to Oklahoma.  In another branch of my family, my mom’s father was from Austria, and immigrated even later, via Canada, to Detroit in late 1915.

I wonder if these Germanic immigrants even thought about it, or if so, maybe it was like, “We just got here, we don’t have anything to do with those struggles you all had before.” Though, of course, the German farmers benefitted from those earlier actions, because now land was available for low prices. But it can leave a feeling of distant non-involvement, a sense that colonization wasn’t very much about my family.  My mom’s mother was also an immigrant to the United States, but her background is more complex, because she came from Quebec.

When I was younger, the very first ancestors I was curious about were those of my grandmother, born Yvonne Tremblay.  That intensified when I became a feminist, and wanted to learn about my motherline.  Plus, as I have written about elsewhere, she was “part Indian,” and I was curious about that. It turned out that Quebec province kept very good records, and I was able to learn a lot, even before the age of the internet.  But I wasn’t asking questions then about colonization or decolonization.  So this week, I decided to reopen that window of exploration, to see what I could find.

While the information available about my Scottish and Innu ancestors stops with Peter Macleod and Marie Madeleine Montagnaise, (my great-great-great-grandparents), the information about my French ancestors in Quebec goes back to some of the original colonizers.  Yesterday, I learned that one ancestor, Jean Guyon, my 11th great-grandfather, arrived in 1634. But not to get egotistical about it, they say three out of four Quebecois descend from him. And in fact, I am descended from him via four separate lines of ancestry. I am including this monument to the first Tremblays in Quebec, Pierre Tremblay and Ozanne Achon, who arrived in 1657.

Pierre Trembly Ozanne Achon

Today, in my family tree, I accidentally came upon the name Helene Desportes, my 9th great-grandmother. Her birth was listed as 1620 in Quebec, and it turns out she is said to be the first white child born in Canada, though she might have been born on the ship just before arrival. One of my methods is to do an internet search for any of these early names, and I learned there is a recent biography about her, Helene’s World: Helene Desportes of Seventeenth-Century Quebec, by Susan McNelley.

Suddenly, there is a whole new world to explore–okay that was the wrong phrase to use–in my decolonization understanding.


The Flowing

Orchard August 2019

The other morning I woke from a dream, in which I was thinking about Wabanaki languages. Wabanaki languages are a flowing. Everything is moving. Verbs are central. Verbs change shape to fit who is acting, who is moving, how many, and who or what their object might be. For example, Wiku is a verb for identifying where someone dwells. (The k is pronounced like g.) As in, Wiku Portland, meaning, “He/or/she lives in Portland.” But to say, “I live in Portland,” would be Nwik Portland.  “Where do you live?”  Tama kwik?

Even many nouns are flowing, changing, shapeshifting. Like the word for home. The noun, Wik, means a home. But “my home” is nik. “At our home” is nikonuk. “At your home” is kikonuk. The words flow depending on who lives there, or if you are going there. And the words for “mother” are related to the words for home. Wikuwossol, nikuwoss, kikuwoss. “His/or/her mother, my mother, your mother.” Flowing. Shapeshifting. Full of relationship.

English, on the other hand, is filled with many more nouns than verbs. Since contact with the colonizers, Wabanaki languages have had to add more nouns to the lexicon, to translate from English or French. Some of these nouns were created from verbs by adding an ending that, by itself, means “bait.” For example, koselomol, means “I love you.”  But to turn the verb “love” into a noun, you must say kseltomuwakon. Wakon means “bait.” So perhaps to make these nouns we must capture the verb, trap it with our bait, to stop its movement for a moment.

We colonizers live in solid houses with lots of things/nouns in them. The Indigenous peoples of northern places used to live in easily movable homes, with fewer things, to follow the hunt in winter, to fish the shores in summer. Everything was a movement, a dance, a shape-shifting. (Of course, many southern Indigenous peoples were/are farmers, stayed in one place. I don’t have any exposure to how their languages work.) But I notice the tendency in me to look for solid things, to struggle with the endless flow.  To try to put things in their places, get organized.  Make vocabulary flash cards to capture the words into my brain. (Even though the Wabanaki Languages class I am taking is on summer break, I have been listening to the recordings from the class, and continuing to study.)

Still, the garden in this place, at our home, nikonuk, also tries to teach me about flow, if I can be open to it. Every week is filled with different patterns and growing and shapeshifting. This week, no more snap peas or raspberries. But the basil has come back again after I harvested most of its leaves a while ago. The young fruit trees are wild and leafy. The bee balm is dying, and prone to powdery mildew. My nephew and his girlfriend helped me put wood chips on the paths during their visit a couple weeks ago. It rained during the night last night. Every day is different. There is no way to get the garden in shape, in form, once and for all. It demands relationship, interaction, flowing, it demands the verb “gardening.”

In Passamaquoddy, kihke means “He/she gardens or plants,” and kihkan is a garden. It is also another form of the verb.