Amerindian Oral Traditions

read at "Teaching Columbus, Cabot, Cartier and others: The Discovery Paradigm revisited and revised," roundtable discussion at the annual meeting of the Canadian Indian/Native Studies Association, University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, I June, 1992.

-today I am going to be speaking, very briefly, about the Oral traditions of the Anishinabeg, and how they can be employed by persons teaching about first contacts between Amerindians and Europeans

-first I will say something about the oral traditions themselves

-second, I will give a very brief summary of what these traditions have to say about the contact experience

-and finally, I will try to give you some ideas about how the insights provided by this material can contribute to teaching about this process

-in the seventeenth century, Europeans kept records in writing, Amerindians committed theirs to memory

-written records are preserved by the paper on which they are set down

-oral records are preserved by their importance to a community

-one set of traditions that were preserved for centuries after the events that they recorded...

-were Anishinabeg accounts of their first contact with Europeans

-The Anishinabeg, or Ojibwa, are algonkians, and although this is something of a simplification, at the time of first contact they lived in the upper Great Lakes region, roughly in the area east and west of what is now Sault Ste. Marie.

-Those Anishinabeg who first encountered Europeans in the seventeenth century passed on their memories of events to their children.

-These recollections were subsequently transmitted by tribal elders, from generation to generation, until the mid-nineteenth century.

-Then, they were preserved in print by a group of Anishinabeg and synethnic historians

-I have sometimes had problems with people who question whether these Amerindians and synethnics are in fact real historians

-my answer has always been that they wrote in the nineteenth century, and if francis parkman is a historian, then so are William Warren and Peter Jones

-These historians, who had received European-style educations, used the oral tradition as the basis for a series of histories of the Great Lakes region from the perspective of the Anishinabeg

-their goals were to preserve the past of their nation, and in so doing to prevent the european version of the past from dominating the history of this region

-they were successful, and their success has meant that this material is readily accessible in English for educators

-it was published, and is now available in reprints or on microfilm

-these histories contain accounts of first contact with Europeans, which I have found to be of real interest to students, since they turn many preconceptions of first contact, based on European records and popular impressions, upside down and inside out

-for the anishinabeg, contact with Europeans took place at a time when their principle preoccupation, at least in their histories, was war...

-first for control of Manitoulin Island, then the lower michigan penninsula

-against this background of heroic warfare, the Anishinabeg learn of the presence of a new culture in the east

-essentially, an Anishinabeg shaman becomes aware of the existence of a strange new group of people, in some versions spirits, in others just different humans

-the anishinabeg sent an expedition from the upper great lakes to the st lawrence river

-there, they meet these people--the French--observe their rather peculiar customs, establish amicable relations, and acquire a variety of items either as gifts or through trade

-they are impressed with european technology, especially weapons.

-these are at first perceived as magical, but are quickly employed in war

-the tradition goes on to describe the use of these weapons which allow the anishinabeg to win a series of victories over other native groups

-Now this account of first contact between the Anishinabeg and the French is most notable for the fact that the Anishinabeg do not wait passively to be "discovered" by European "explorers"

-instead, it is the Anishinabeg who discover the French, and take the initiative in opening commercial relations.

-Although they are impressed by some aspects of European technology and intrigued by unusual French customs, it is the Anishinabeg who remain firmly in control of the situation, and the Europeans who respond graciously to Anishinabeg overtures.

-The French appear in Anishinabeg histories of the contact period, not so much as intrusive aliens, but as a new people who are first discovered...

-then accepted and incorporated...

-into the world of the Anishinabeg.

-They are remarkable only, for a number of rather peculiar, but harmless, habits and for their technology.

-In the beginning, this technology had been impressive, even frightening, but it was quickly mastered and exploited by the Anishinabeg.

-Yet apart from supplying this new technology, the French are not portrayed as exercising any great influence on the course of events in the Great Lakes region

-At the end of the contact period, the Anishinabeg remain as firmly in control of their lives as they had been when they first became aware of the existence of Europeans.

-were I teaching about the contact period, I would use the oral traditions of the Anishinabeg to establish the North American context within which contact took place

-I would use the oral traditions to enable students to take a look at what is happening in the Great Lakes Region in the early seventeenth century

-and establish that there is already history in progress in north america

-then I would use these histories to watch the Europeans as they arrive,..

-and see how one particular group of Amerindians reacted to them.

-only at this point would I begin to back up, and take a look at who these Europeans are, and why and how they chose to travel to the Americas

-this is, I believe, a much better way for students to experience the arrival of europeans in the Americas than following European documents and sailing across the atlantic...

-then moving inland with Caboto, Cartier and Champlain



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Copyright © 1992, 2001 D. Peter MacLeod

The bottom center image is a detail from David Rickman, Eastern Woodland Indians, middle of the eighteenth century, Department of National Defence.