|The Changing Face of Canada|
|Through the Eyes of the Huron Women|
|...in the sorrowful, unwritten ages of woman's history, she still loved much...Frances Willard|
|When Cartier first arrived at Hochelaga, he described the town as having about 50 houses; "about fifty paces long and twelve or fifteen broad, covered over with the bark of the wood as broad as any board, very finely and cunningly joined together, and having many rooms. On their tops were garrets, wherein they kept their corn. The town was circular in form, stockaded, and environed by three courses of ramparts made of timber and about thirty feet in height. There was only one gate or sally-port, which was closed with heavy timbers, stakes and bars. On the ramparts were magazines of stone for the defence of the city."|
|These were the homes of the Huron homemaker. Modest but comfortable, with a central fireplace and a hole in the roof to allow the smoke to escape. Along one wall were small shelves or Endicha where clothing and other small objects were placed, and alongside that, the wood piles to keep the fires going. Bark, boughs and rush mats were often the only bedding, and the whole family slept beside the fire in winter to stay warm. Of course the houses were only thought of as shelter, and most of their time was spent out of doors, so were rarely decorated.|
|Social organization began with the extended families who resided together in the villages, and travelled together when the need arose. The villages varied in size, but the larger ones were usually fortified with populations of well over 1,000. Each village had their own chief, always male; who answered to a council of chiefs, with the main leader, or "Lord of Canada" as he was sometimes referred, having juristiction over them all. It was the chief's duty, amoung other things, to establish trade relations, but most major decisions were voted on by the entire council.|
|But the fact that women couldn't be chiefs, doesn't mean that they were docile or didn't play a role in political affairs. Like the Scots, the Huron people were divided into clans, but in their case, the clan membership was determined by the mother.
Therefore, it was a woman's responsibillity to record her geneology and she would recite clan lineage at special ceremonies. The original clan names have been lost (or destroyed), but by 1750, there were a total of ten in three groups: Turtle (Big Turtle, Hawk, Prairie Turtle, Small Turtle); Deer (Bear, Beaver, Deer, Porcupine, Snake); and Wolf.
Each clan had a chief and the chief was chosen by the clan mothers. The council chose the head chief, but traditionally he was from the Bear or Deer clan, being able to trace this lineage through his mother.
Though women did not directly own all property, farmland was owned by their matrilineal clans.
|Presentation of Newly Elected Huron Chief. Henry D. Thielcke Mueum of Quebec.|
|The Huron were very open about their sexuality and engaged in the activity soon after puberty. Premarital relations were perfectly normal and actually encouraged, and each village had at least one ‘procurer’ whose sole occupation was to bring young men and women together for intercourse. This seemingly promiscuous behavour was shocking to the Recollects and Jesuits, who tried to establish themselves amongst them, but it was simply a natural part of human life to the early Canadian people. Couples did not marry to have sex, but because they wanted to raise a family.
If a man and woman, or boy and girl, were in the mood; they usually went into the woods where they could have some privacy; not that they had to hide what they were about to do. The Huron frowned on public expression of jealousy or restriction of sexual freedom, so you could choose any lover you desired, regardless of age or marital status.
When an unmarried girl became pregnant, she would round up all of her lovers, each one of whom must say that the child was his. From them, she chose the one she liked best. This was why kinship was always passed through the mother, since actual paternity could rarely be established.
|As a rule, women or Asqua, had all of the control in a relationship. If a young man wished to win the heart of an Asqua, he first had to prove himself in hunting, fishing and war. Though pre-marital sex was encouraged, importance was also placed on marriage. When a boy came of age, his parents and relatives suggested a suitable girl. He would then seek permission for the union from the girl’s parents, and without this it could not be a legal marriage.
To begin the courting process, the young man would paint his face and adorn himself with the finest ornamentation, in an attempt to make himself more handsome. He would bring the girl a present, which might be a wampum necklace, bracelet, chain, earring, or beaver robe. If the girl liked the boy, she accepted the gift and they would spend the next several nights together, where they would engage in sexual intercourse, but were not allowed to speak to one another. This was considered to be the first stage of the marriage ceremony
If the girl was not pleased with the boy, for whatever reason, she could reject him at anytime during the process. But if things were going OK up this point, the second stage of the wedding took place. The families of both, together prepared a feast of dog, bear, moose, or fish and invited all friends and relatives. Once they were all gathered, the father of the girl announced the couple’s marriage and the feast began. Future sexual relations between the husband and wife did not play a vital role in holding a marriage together and marriages could be dissolved almost as easily as they were created. In the Jesuit Relations, there is an account of this freedom:
A Savage having absented himself from home, for I know not what reason, his wife, being wooed in his absence, married another. A few months after these second nuptials, the first husband returned and wished to have her back again; the other one not consenting to give her up; the father of the woman decides the contention without appeal. He takes a stick, carries it a short distance away, and sticks it in the ground. He says, ‘He who shall first bring back that stick shall have my daughter’ and he tells them to run. The woman was assigned to him who had the better legs, and suit was so entirely settled, that it was never more spoken of except as a joke. This demonstrates their inconstancy in marriage.
|Women were not dependent on their husbands for hunted foods because they had access to them on the basis of their clan membership, but rather men; relied on the woman to keep them fed. Since after marriage he lived at his mother-in-law's longhouse, he had to keep her happy to stay nourished, although it was also acceptable to go to his mother or sister for a meal.
Contrary to the Jesuits carefree description of them, however, after the birth of a child, couples rarely separated. If they quarreled or became estranged, friends and relatives would intervene to try to save the marriage. If a person became widowed, they would have to wait three years before they could take another spouse, and then only with the permission of the family of the deceased. Without this permission, punishment could be torture or even death.
Sexuality also played an important role in healing and was used as part of a curing ritual, known as the Andacwander. In 1624, the Recollect Gabriel Sagard, who lived among the Huron for a year, describes the ceremony:
There are assemblies of all the girls in a town at a sick woman’s couch. When the girls are assembled they are all asked, one after another, which of the young men of the town they would like to sleep with them the next night. Each names one, and these are immediately notified by the masters of the ceremony. All come in the evening to sleep with those who have chosen them, in the presence of the sick woman, from one end of the lodge to the other, and they pass the whole night thus, while the two chiefs at the two ends of the house sing and rattle their tortoise shells from evening till the following morning when the ceremony is concluded. The young also might be asked to simply dance naked in front of the sick.
The power of sexuality could be healing, but just as important were periods of abstinence. From the Jesuit Relations: As regards morals, the Hurons are lascivious, although in two leading points less so than Christians, who will blush some day in their presence. You will see no kissing nor immodest caressing; and in marriage a man will remain two or three years apart form his wife, while she is nursing.
Abstinence was also important for the accomplishment of many sacred events, and was believed to bring dreams, essential to all Huron rituals. Prior to a sporting competition, the players from each village fasted, abstained from sexual intercourse, and sought dreams that would bring them victory.
The Shamans of the villages, also observed periods of sexual abstinence, to help control their supernatural powers. Shamans, who could be men or women, required prolonged fasting and the avoidance of sexual intercourse to obtain the necessary visions, though never practiced complete religious celibacy.
Abstinence was also important just before the execution of a Prisoner of War. The poor soul would be tortured for several days in the home of the principal War Chief, but it was important that the actual death take place outside at sunrise, so that the sun could witness of the fate of the warrior. This was a sacred event, and no one in the village could engage in sex the night before the prisoner’s death, but had to behave in an orderly and restrained fashion Sex was often used, however, in the torture of the prisoner before the final event.
|Another interesting phenomenon of the Huron-Canadian sexual culture at the time, was the existence of the Berdache. A berdache was a biological male who dressed, gestured, and spoke as an ‘effeminate.’ He was required to serve the macho males by assuming the female division of labor, often including the sexual servicing of males. Sounds like an episode of 'Will and Grace', but it is believed that he existed in most of the aboriginal nations of the Great Lakes region.
These berdaches could be chosen at birth or adopt the lifestyle in adulthood, when they might choose to "come out of the closet", so to speak. Parents would also raise a male child as a female, because of the social and cultural benefits of a society that placed a high value on women. In these situations, the decision was not based on personality or behavior, and these children, were in fact, not free to choose their sexuality.
However, when an adult man became a berdache, it meant that they left their warrior status behind and assumed the position of women. In one account by the Frenchman Marquette in 1660s: "transvestites made war but they can use only clubs and not bows and arrows, which are the weapons of proper men." So while there was sexual tolerance, and even enouragement toward homosexuality, they too had their place in Huron society.
When the Recollects entered Huronia in the early 17th century, they tried to preach chastity and the importance of Christian marriages; concepts that seemed un-natural in the Canadian culture at that time. They didn't understand the priests' disinterest in women and could not imagine a life without sex. They were also insulted by the Recollects’ insistence on living apart from the Huron and refusal to participate in their activities. They understood why a Shaman would engage in celibacy for an extended period, but since they would share their supernatural experiences with the rest of the villagers, it was accepted. However, the priests kept this all a secret, so therefore must be engaged in some sort of witchcraft that required secracy.
This went contra to the Hurons' plans of matrimonial alliances, that would bring the French into kinship with their families. Many attempts were made to persuade priests to marry Huron women. According to Sagard: One of our greatest and most troublesome embarrassments was their continual pursuit of us, begging to marry us or make a family alliance....In these importunities, the women and girls were more insistent and plagued us more than the men themselves who came to petition in behalf of the women.
Many Frenchmen, on the otherhand, took Asquas as wives, causing Sagard to charge that they had established brothels in various parts of Huronia. Etienne Brule, a French trader, dressed like the Huron, hunted with the men, joined them in their ritual steam baths, and subscribed to their sexual practices (who wouldn't?). The Recollects accused all but a few traders of hampering their "moral" teachings and were aghast to find that they also insinuated that French women were not chaste, as the priests claimed, resulting in a clash between Christian ideals and normal European behavior, which amused the Huron but embarrassed the Recollects, since it undermined their credibility.
|So it's safe to conclude that women played a major role in early Huron-Canadian society. They had the final say in choosing a mate or sexual partner; they were the leaders within their clans and they alone, chose who would be their clan's chief.
But they also handled most of the domestic chores, including farming, the manufacture of the lightweight birchbark canoes, necessary to their livlihood, and ensuring that their families were fed and well dressed. About eighty percent of their food came from crops, while the rest was supplied by the men in fishing or hunting. Any surplus crops were used as trade.
|The Rather Stereotypical "Indian Agriculture" from "The Picture Gallery of Canadian History Vol. 1|
|Every summer, the men went off to war or in search of game, while the women, children and berdaches (homo-sexuals) tended to the gardens. Often the corn fields were several miles away and the small parties set off on foot, following familiar paths.|
|The only crop that the men took care of, was the tobacco. Jacques Cartier had described Canada as "full of hempe which groweth of itselfe" , an important notation, since hemp was quite valuable at the time for use in the manufacture of rope; so necessary during the days when shipping was integral to a country's economy.
However, the hemp did not grow wild, and cannabis hemp was among the first crops harvested by Louis Hebert, the Parisian apothecary who was lured to Canada by his good friend and explorer Samuel de Champlain, to study herbal medicine. Canadian men tended to their "tobacco" crops with great care, not only for personal use, but also for trade; the first Canadian drug dealers. Again, this is not to pass judgement and while to some it may appear that the Huron people were a bunch of sex crazed junkies, but nothing could be further from the truth. These were all important elements in their culture, that arose from a need to procreate and the "tobacco" was not just a fringe benefit, but an important element in many of their sacred ceremonies.
|In 1637, when Father Jean de Brebeuf drew up a list of instructions for Jesuit missionaries
planning to work among the Huron, he included this advice: Carry a tinder-box or a piece of burning-glass, or both, to make fire for them during the day for smoking, and in the evening when it is necessary to camp; these little services win their hearts.
|As in most cultures, the women took care of the children, a responsibility they did not take lightly, since children were the future of the tribe. They were always educated at a very early age, with young boys often accompanying the men to learn how to hunt and gather food. In turn, the girls would learn how to plant crops, store food, cook, sew, make pottery, and weave baskets and nets. When the children were babies, mothers cared a great deal for their health and before they could eat their own, she would chew their food first, before giving it to the baby, making it easier to swallow and digest.|
|Later, when many members of the Huron nation, converted to Christianity, women were often reduced to a role of obedience and subjugation, which is probably why they were the most difficult to convince that this would be a good thing.|
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