Remembering the French: Amerindian-French Relations in Anishinabeg Oral Traditions

paper read at "Native Peoples and New France: Re-examining the Relationships, 1663-1763," McGill University, Montreal, 15 February, 1992

most information on Amerindian-French relations comes from written documents

using this material, it is possible to put together a pretty clear picture of the Amerindian-French relationship

But there are other sources available ... in Amerindian oral traditions

just as documents contain that information that literate whites thought was worth writing down, oral traditions contain information that Amerindians of the French era thought was worth passing on to their children

So those events of the French era which contemporary Anishinabeg considered to be of importance were remembered by tribal elders and transmitted orally from generation to generation.

and those who listened to the narratives of Anishinabeg elders received an education in what the Anishinabeg themselves considered to be the most important events in the history of the Great Lakes region.

many the oral tradition of the anishinabeg have survived on account of the enterprise of a group of Anishinabeg and synethnic writers in the mid-nineteenth century

Francis Assikinack

Andrew J. Blackbird

George Copway

Peter Jones.

William Warren

These authors occupied a unique position midway between Amerindian and euramerican cultures

educated beyond the level of most Euramericans, each possessed not only the literary skills needed to write a book but the knowledge and contacts to get it published.

At the same time, they were naturally fluent in Amerindian languages and possessed the confidence of Amerindians, and consequently free access to oral traditions.

Refusing to allow Euramericans to monopolize the Amerindian past, they produced their own version of this past based upon the oral traditions of their nations.

They hoped by so doing to preserve an important fragment of the past that might otherwise be lost and to increase understanding between whites and Amerindians by making whites aware of the past as Amerindians chose to recall it.

They wrote their histories either from personal knowledge of Amerindian traditions or by actively seeking out elders who could enlighten them.

The material that they obtained from these sources allowed them to produce histories of the Great Lakes region from an Amerindian perspective

so in this case, dealing, not with transcripts of the oral tradition, but material that was collected and shaped by authors into narratives

Just as Euramerican histories pay considerable attention to the establishment of colonies and nation-states in North America, much, but not all, of the Anishinabeg oral tradition is devoted to explaining to future generations how their nation came to possess the territory that it occupied prior to the beginnings of Euramerican settlement in the Great Lakes region.

The greater part of the historical sections of their books was devoted to the wars of the Anishinabeg with the nations of the lower peninsula of Michigan, and the Iroquois, Fox and Dakota that had secured their national territory, and established their right to this territory through conquest and occupation.

Material relating directly to the relationship of the Anishinabeg with the French, on the other hand, forms only a very small part of the oral tradition.

their relations with the French are of secondary concern, just as relations with Amerindians forms only a part of the histories of New France written by europeans

But this material is nonetheless of considerable interest.

gives a chance to see what the Amerindians who actually dealt with the French in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries told subsequent generations about this relationship, and in so doing, provides a lens through which to view Amerindian- French relations from an Amerindian point of view, against a background of other Amerindian concerns.

In their oral tradition, the relationship of the Anishinabeg with the French begins "at the time the French settled in Montreal," when word reaches the Anishinabeg of the existence of "some strange persons living on this continent."

A shaman forms a small party to search for these people, which follows the French-River-Ottawa River route to the St. Lawrence valley. In Warren's version, the Anishinabeg first found physical traces of the whites when one of the travelers traveller "discovered on the banks, a hut, made of logs, and he noticed the stumps of large trees which had been cut by sharper instruments than the rude stone axes used by the Indians."

The Anishinabeg party eventually reached the French settlements on the St. Lawrence. There they were greeted cordially by a strange new people who rather resembled squirrels, because they kept...

"their goods and provisions in hollow places, but instead of digging holes in the ground like squirrels, they took the trouble to put several pieces of wood together, in the shape of a hollow tree sometimes, fastened with hoops, where they kept their provisions."

From these Europeans, the Anishinabeg travellers acquired, either as gifts or through trade, a variety of items, including cloth, metal axes and knives, flint and steel, beads, blankets, and firearms.

This account of first contact between the Anishinabeg and the French is most notable for the fact that, rather than waiting passively to be "discovered" by European "explorers," it is the Anishinabeg who discover the French, and take the initiative in opening commercial relations.

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

when Europeans first travelled to the Anishinabeg country, the Amerindians who compiled the oral traditions were apparently less impressed, for they passed on to their descendants an account that depicted isolated travellers, wholly dependent upon the tolerance and charity of the peoples through whose national territories they travelled:

"Early the next morning, ... the young men once more noticed the smoke arising from the eastern end of the unfrequented island, and led on by curiosity, they ran thither and found a small log cabin in which they discovered two white men in the last stages of starvation. The young Ojibways filled with compassion, carefully conveyed them to their village, where, being nourished with great kindness, their lives were preserved."

The relationship depicted here is one between a resourceful, confident community and rather pathetic commercial travellers who needed indigenous help to keep from starving to death in the midst of one of the richest fishing grounds in the Great Lakes region.

Inspiring neither respect nor fear, the two Europeans were welcomed, but valued only for the products that they sold. They could contribute nothing else to the lives of the Anishinabeg rescuers and hosts, except perhaps the entertainment afforded by the presence of such unusual individuals.

When the Anishinabeg of Lake Superior acknowledged their relationship with the French through a formal alliance, the oral tradition preserved among the Crane Clan preserved a record of the negotiations

the French appear as supplicants who as for permission to travel through and trade in the region...

...then promise that in time of danger, they will protect the Anishinabeg

Speaking directly to the Crane delegate, the French representative declared that:

"Every morning you will look towards the rising of the sun and you shall see the fire of your French father reflecting towards you, to warm you and your people. If you are in trouble, you, the Crane, must arise in the skies and cry with your 'far sounding' voice, and I will hear you. The fire of your French father shall last forever, and warm his children."

William Warren, in his commentary on this conference, credited the French with considerable insight into Amerindian society and customs:

"it will readily be seen by them [these words] that the French had already learned to use the figurative and forcible style of expression of the Ojibways, and understood their division into Totemic clans, with the peculiarities on which each clan prided themselves."

this alliance was remembered by the Anishinabeg as characterized by close adherence by the French to Anishinabeg customs and forms.

Alliance entailed only the granting of access to Anishinabeg villages to French traders, and no surrender of sovereignty or freedom of action. In his commentary on this part of the oral tradition,

the French do promise their protection, but, in their oral tradition the Anishinabeg never portray themselves as faced with any danger that can't handle by themselves, and only once ask the French for military assistance

If the impact of the Europeans themselves was something less than overwhelming, their technology was nonetheless very much appreciated.

Andrew Blackbird contrasts the European ship that Amerindians "thought was a monster waiting to devour them" with the "little frail canoe" of the Anishinabeg.

Warren relates how the first goods obtained from Europeans had been "carefully deposited in his medicine bag, as sacred articles."

Brandy was cautiously tested, then enthusiastically accepted.

European goods in general excited considerable interest when they were displayed by returning travellers.

But, of all European products, it is firearms that receive the most attention in the oral tradition, where the Anishinabeg portray themselves as quickly mastering a new technology, and using it to further their goals.

Blackbird reports that when the first Anishinabeg to visit the French returned to their homes, they fired a shot into the air. Immediately, "all the inhabitants [of the Anishinabeg village] were panic stricken, and thought it was something supernatural approaching the shore."

After the travellers landed, the Anishinabeg began to consider the strategic implications of the new military technology. Blackbird's account of this process is rather ingenuous:

"Intercourse had been opened between the French and the Ottawas and Chippewas on the straits of Mackinac and being supplied with fire arme [sic] and axes by the French people, it occurred to the Ottawas that these implements would be effective in battle."

They were. Unsuspecting enemies who "thought they [firearms] were nought but clubs" were taken by surprise and suffered a "crushing defeat."

In the Anishinabeg oral tradition, the possession of European weapons give the Anishinabeg a decisive advantage over the Dakota and Fox adversaries.

They "had become possessed of fearful weapons, against which they feared to battle with their primitive bow and arrow" which "caused them to become too powerful for their western enemies" who "evinced a mortal fear of the gun" until the Dakota were contacted by French traders. This changed the strategic situation, for once the Dakota:

"had become supplied with fire-arms, and in this respect they now stood on the same footing with the Ojibways, who had long had the advantage over them, of having been first reached by the whites.

versions of the oral tradition that mention European weapons

so European weapons are portrayed in the oral tradition as quickly becoming a key element in the military balance in the Great Lakes region.

A nation possessed of firearms was in a position to dominate its neighbours. Enemies possessed of equal access to European military technology, on the other hand, met on equal terms.

Access to this technology thus became a matter of vital concern to the Amerindians of the Great Lakes region.

on the other hand, aside from supplying military technology, the French are not portrayed as exercising any great influence on the course of events in the Great Lakes region

in the wars against Amerindian enemies of the Anishinabeg that are described in such great detail, the French are generally on the sidelines and in the background

The establishment of trade between the French in Canada and the Anishinabeg made free passage along the French River-Ottawa River route to Montreal a necessity for the Anishinabeg

the occupation of the land along this waterway by the Iroquois, and their attempt to interpose themselves between Anishinabeg traders and the French in Canada, forced the Anishinabeg into a war to keep the trade route open "to the white traders, in order to procure fire-arms and their much coveted commodities."

while the French remain so passive that they are not even mentioned, the Anishinabeg and their amerindian allies go to war against the Iroquois

Unlike other wars that dragged on for decades, the war with the Iroquois over what is now southern Ontario was more decisive, and resulted in the conquest and occupation of this territory by the Anishinabeg.

in wars with the Dakota and Fox, for control of the region south and west of Lake Superior, the Anishinabeg at first enjoy an advantage on account of their access to European weapons, then lose it, when French traders reach the Dakota.

decades of french efforts to establish peaceful relations between the Anishinabeg and Dakota are mentioned only once, when french traders manage, through persuasion and large presents, to temporarily reconcile the two nations

In the war waged by the Anishinabeg against the Fox, the French play a minor role

an Ojibwa grandfather, whose family had been killed by the Fox, travels to Detroit to solicit the help of the French in seeking revenge.

Provided with fusils, munitions and "a number of Frenchmen," the elderly Ojibwa leads a party which drives the Fox from the shores of Lake Michigan.

—In these wars, the French are not shown to be exercising any influence in the west. Their alliance is important to the Anishinabeg, but as a source of weapons rather than actual military support. When the French do attempt to intervene and bring peace to the west, the results are transitory and barely mentioned by the oral tradition.

When the Anishinabeg who initiated the oral traditions of the French era passed on these recollections to their descendants, they depicted a relationship in which Europeans were valued for their technology, but otherwise peripheral to the Anishinabeg. —Europeans were neither ignored nor denigrated, but played a secondary role relative to other Amerindian concerns.

the relations of the Anishinabeg with the French were simply not accorded the same attention given to their epic battles with the Iroquois or long struggle with the Dakota.

This neglect is typical of the oral traditions, which tend to devote less attention to those Euramerican and Amerindian groups with whom they enjoyed friendly relationships than to their enemies.

That the Amerindian and synethnic authors who preserved the oral tradition in print never attempt to explicitly denigrate or minimize the important of Europeans is hardly surprising, given that these authors were both highly acculturated and writing for Euramerican readers.

that so little was remembered of the Anishinabeg-French alliance is a reflection of the priorities of the Anishinabeg elders from whom the tradition was obtained.

Important as the activities of the French and English might be for the future, the Anishinabeg of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did not feel compelled to transmit a detailed account of their dealings with Europeans to their descendants.

The coming of Europeans was one of the crucial events of North American history, but theirs was not the only story in progress in the post-contact era.

Anishinabeg histories are firmly centered on the Anishinabeg and their concerns, and the French appear only when they were considered to be of importance to the Anishinabeg.

yet although not accorded great attention, the relationship between the French and the Anishinabeg was portrayed in the oral traditions as cordial, positive and a vital source of new technology.

in the oral traditions, the Anishinabeg-French alliance was a partnership in which the Anishinabeg could reasonably consider themselves as senior partners.

When the French do appear they are notably passive and inactive, and generally limit themselves to responding to the initiatives of the Anishinabeg.

it is the Anishinabeg who seek out the French, then establish commercial relations. They deal with the French as equals or superiors, and take the leading role in time of war.

when their commerce with Canada is threatened, it is the Anishinabeg who secure communications by driving the Iroquois from what is now southern Ontario.

—The French are allies, but rather subordinate allies. The alliance takes place in accordance with Anishinabeg customs and on Anishinabeg terms, and involves no surrender of sovereignty or loss of freedom of action.

The establishment of the formal alliance portrays the French as supplicants, who must request permission to trade in and travel through Anishinabeg territory. French promises to defend the Anishinabeg are only once given any tangible expression in the oral traditions, when a few Frenchmen join a war party led by an Anishinabeg grandfather.

the French appear in Anishinabeg histories not so much as intrusive aliens but as a new people who were quickly accepted and incorporated into the world of the Anishinabeg.

they were 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.

once commercial relations were established, the French quickly became part of the background of life in the Great Lakes region, and of less interest to the initiators of the oral tradition than the intricate details of a war party against the Dakota or Fox

The oral traditions of the Anishinabeg portray a world in which the major events were conflicts between Amerindians nations and the concomitant territorial expansion of the invariably victorious Anishinabeg.

The French were important to the Anishinabeg to the extent that they played a role in these events, as suppliers of new military technology, rather than combatants, overlords, mediators, missionaries, or explorers.

they did not exercise any great influence on the course of events in the region, except as purveyors of weapons.

the French are thus important, not for themselves, but for the contribution that they make towards the fulfillment of Anishinabeg goals.

in the oral traditions, the relationship with the French was important to the Anishinabeg, but it was only a means to a greater end: to victory in the wars that dominate Anishinabeg histories.

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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.