Conflicting Survival Strategies in early Quebec

(More reflections on colonization in Quebec, jumping off from the book Helene’s World.)  Author Susan McNelley writes:

Summer days for the French settlers were long and filled with hard work. This was not the case for the indigenous people. Life was much less demanding in the summer. Fish, fowl, and small game were readily available in the river and nearby forest. The indigenous peoples along the St. Lawrence didn’t worry about storing food to last the winter. To the consternation of their French neighbors, the natives spent much of their time sleeping and socializing with their friends. There were games, story-telling, feasting and opportunities for young people to meet and court.  Summer was a time of replenishment and fortification for the rigors of winter.

A common factor for both Montagnais/Innu people and French settlers in early Quebec was surviving the long hard winter.  But they had quite different strategies for doing that. The French worked very hard in the summer to clear fields, and plant and harvest crops. Bread was their primary food. They were agricultural people, and in the early years were also reliant on ships arriving in summer with new supplies, to replenish their stores of wine and oil and spices and grains. They preserved food and stored it for surviving the long winter. Winter included much less activity, so in some ways it was an easier time, but they were on their own, and their strategy for survival was to carefully ration what food they had among the people in their families.

For the Montagnais, on the other hand, summer was the easy time–they camped by the river, fished & hunted, gathered fruits and nuts, feasted and celebrated with each other, and generally felt a sense of abundance in all sorts of food. As the fall came, they caught and dried eel, and then they left the summer encampment and began to hunt small game in the nearby woods. In winter, they traveled in small family groups into the interior, where they relied on heavy snow cover to slow down the big game: moose, caribou, deer, and bear. When they were successful in the hunt, they shared their feast with nearby families.

hiver_transports_11Susan McNelley describes a winter incident recounted by Champlain when some of the Montagnais/Innu came to the early French settlement, because they were starving, and asked for food.

Although the French did try to be generous, they rationed the distribution of provisions to the aborigines out of necessity. Otherwise, the food would not have lasted a month.

The French believed that the Innu were irresponsible because they didn’t store food, and because when they acquired food in the hunt, they ate all of it, or shared with their neighbors.  But if you are traveling to follow big game, it wouldn’t be practical to carry large quantities of preserved food.  It would be practical to share the abundance that came sporadically depending on who had a good hunt.  Reading between the lines of this incident, I could imagine the Innu noticing that the French had food while they had none, and expecting, according to their own values, that of course the French would be willing to share with them. Their strategy for survival was sharing what became available, as it became available. The French strategy was about storing up and rationing.

And isn’t that just like capitalism, really, and how our modern mainstream society works.  “Save what you don’t need now, to use later. Try to accumulate as much as possible. That is the definition of wealth.”  (But perhaps rampant consumerism and planned obsolescence have superseded that model too.  Some things to think about.)

I feel the pressure of this time of year to preserve what we can from our garden, small as it is–making pesto from basil and chives and parsley, freezing kale, drying herbs–in our own way getting ready for the long Maine winters. We certainly wouldn’t know how to survive on our own, without being able to go to the Food Coop or grocery store. So perhaps both the French settlers and the Innu had better survival skills than we have now.Kale

 

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.

 

 

“Part Indian”

Yvonne DSC01872I don’t know the whole story about Elizabeth Warren’s claim to have Native ancestry.  I have heard her mocked by being called “Pocahontas.”  That mockery is wrong on so many counts, not the least of which is the tragic story of the actual Pocahontas that has been obscured and romanticized by American culture and cinema.  But what I want to explore today is the sometimes confusing experience of those of us who are white but have some Native ancestry.

I know enough now to know that having Native ancestry does not make one a Native American.  But I didn’t know that when I was young.  It was through trying to understand what my Native ancestry meant that I grew to understand what it meant to be white.

When my siblings and I were growing up, all we really knew was our family stories.  Our mom told us she was part Indian.  She didn’t know what tribe.  It was through her mother’s family, my grandmother Yvonne who came from Quebec to Detroit.  (That is Yvonne’s picture I have included above–taken on the day she crossed the border from Canada to her new life in America with my grandfather.) My mom was proud of being part Indian.  My dad had worked as a cowboy, so we used to joke about our parents being the cowboy and the Indian.

Our family stories opened in my heart a curiosity toward Indigenous peoples. As a young adult I learned more about American Indian political struggles, and began to take what action I could in solidarity.  But I also learned that white people who claimed to have Native ancestry were often joked about, considered Wannabes, and especially tasteless was to claim a great-grandmother who was a Cherokee Indian princess.

Perhaps that was why I was relieved to discover that we were not part Cherokee.  I was the one who researched our family history and learned that we were related to the Innu people, who are indigenous to the land now called Quebec and Labrador. The French settlers called them Montagnais. I learned that the Innu know their land as Nitasinnan, which means “our land.”  Later, in the midst of my activist work, I had a chance to meet Innu activists, working against the hydrodams that Quebec was trying to build on their rivers.

Gradually, I learned more about the Indigenous experience in America, and was able to better understand my own position as a white woman.  But in between my childhood and my better understanding, it was confusing to me.  There were a few occasions that I said I was Native American, many other occasions I kept silent.  My sister once took an art class that she got into because she was 1/16th Indian (we thought).  For a short while, I said I was Metis–mixed–because that was a word used in a book in French that spoke about some of my ancestors.  Not being in Canada, I didn’t know about the actual meaning of that word in English to describe another distinct group.  It took a long time to sort out that it was more accurate and respectful to say that I was white.

This is why I have some sympathy for Elizabeth Warren right now.  With only family stories to guide us, it is hard to sort out the dynamics of race and privilege from cherished ancestral connections.  And the stories of my grandmothers are also meaningful to me still.  I say grandmothers, because it was my matrilineal descent that originated in Nitasinnan.  My Innu great-great-great-grandmother was Marie-Madeleine, who married a Scottish trapper near Chicoutimi, Quebec.  Her daughter was Angele, whose daughter was Claudia, my great-grandmother, and Yvonne’s mother.  When we were kids, we thought we were 1/16 Indian, but it turned out to be 1/32.  Much later, a DNA test confirmed that matrilineal descent.

These grandmothers were gradually–or perhaps quickly–assimilated into the white community, first in Quebec, and then in the United States.  I learned that assimilation itself was part of the long campaign to divide Indigenous people from their land and their history.  When an Indian woman in Canada married a white man, she lost her legal status as an Indian.  So, on the census records for Angele, for example, she was referred to as Scottish like her father.  The mother disappears, through a combination of sexism and racism.  I don’t think the assimilation was without difficulty.  I don’t know the early stories, but my mom mentioned once that her mom and her aunts didn’t go in the sun, because they didn’t want their skin to darken and people to think that they were Indians.

Their lingering shame says something to me about the difficulties of the assimilation process.  And yet–they told the stories–they didn’t forget their ancestry.  And that means something to me as well.  The Innu word for “my grandmother” is Nukum.  Even though I am now very clear about being white, I pray to Nukum for guidance in my life, and she has helped me on my journey.