“Indians” in the Fur Trade

In my last three posts I considered the fur trade in the northern half of North America. I suggested that indigenous peoples traded fur (beaver as well as otter, mink, fox, muskrat, lynx and many others) for manufactured European tools, the most important being axes, hatchets, kettles, knives and guns. The trade began we don’t know quite when but possibly as early as the early 15th Century incidentally to fishing on the Grand Banks and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I also wrote that the trade didn’t really get off the ground until the 17th Century when Samuel de Champlain made several trips to the St. Lawrence in search of furs or whatever else he could return to Europe for a profit.

Indigenous peoples as early as 1534 when Jacques Cartier entered the St. Lawrence on the first of his three trips to North America, were eager to obtain European trade goods. That’s not in dispute.¹ The superiority of European iron, brass, and copper tools was not lost on indigenous people although some might argue that this superiority is strictly one that is adapted to capital accumulation and commodity production rather than for the creation and use of tools designed for immediate use. Still, the Indigenes, by all accounts, were driven to adopt European tools and soon lost the capacity and the skill to use their old tools. 

To say that Indigenous people were driven to adopt European tools is not to say that Indigene and European were equal in the trade. Hunt (see footnote 1) goes so far as to say: 

The great desirability of the trade goods to the Indian who had once known them became shortly a necessity, a very urgent necessity that permitted no renunciation of the trade. As new desires wakened and old skills vanished, the Indian who had fur, or could get it, survived; he who could not get it died or moved away. But, whatever he did, life for him could never again be what it had been: old institutions and economies had profoundly altered or disappeared completely at the electrifying touch of the white man’s trade, which swept along the inland trails and rivers with bewildering speed and wrought social revolution a thousand miles beyond the white man’s habitations, and years before he himself appeared on the scene. 

It was the incursion of Europeans into North America that eventually wrought the decimation of Indigenes in North America through intertribal war, smallpox, measles, whooping cough and displacement in the face of settlement. If a real accounting of the European invasion of North America were done, one would find that the Europeans had ‘won’ the contest hands down. I’m not sure, however, that the ‘win’ is especially sweet given the current state of our land, sea and air, our societies, our ways of ‘making a living’, and our often strained interpersonal relations.  That said, I’m not sure all Indigenous people would want to return to pre-contact times. Life then was not as idyllic as we would like to think and the ‘noble savage’ was neither particularly noble, nor savage, at least no more or less than the rest of us. 

We must keep in mind that the commercial fur trade based on the beaver lasted almost three hundred year as a dominant industry with the period 1670 to 1870 standing out as the most active. A lot can happen in two hundred years. For generation after generation, the Indigenes were driven by the lure of European trade goods but in the process, they transformed themselves and were coerced, often with the help of the clergy, into becoming the workforce of European capitalists. Old rivalries turned into bloody conflicts with the arrival of European guns and other weapons. The Mohawk, who numbered at most 12,000 people and who had been dominated for a long time by the Algonquin and Huron, who numbered probably 100,000, crushed the Huron in a bloody war culminating in 1649-50. 

It can be argued that early on in the fur trade, Indigene and European were on a much more equal footing than there were to be later, say in the 19th Century. Early on, Europeans relied as much on Indigenous technology as the Indigenous peoples relied on European technology. The canoe made the early trade possible and Indigenous agriculture fed the drive of the trade inland. After 1830, and the decline of the demand for beaver fur in Europe along with the virtually complete destruction of the bison and the rise of forestry as a staple trade, the need for Indigenous workers in the fur trade declined. They were abandoned more and more to their own devices. Starvation was rampant and disease murderous. In all of this in what we now know as The West, Catholic clergy vied with the Protestants for the souls of the remaining individuals. The Oblate missionaries declared the Protestants as the ‘agents of Satan’ but to their chagrin, the Protestants were often aligned with the British trading out of Hudson’s Bay and their work was doubly challenging as a result. 

By 1870 when the Hudson’s Bay Company sold Rupert’s Land to the Canadian Government the tragic trajectory of the Indian Act was about to be played out. Indigenous people became wards of the Canadian state and are still technically so with some exceptions. Indigenous people were crowded onto reserves and their rights eroded with several amendments to the Act. Nevertheless, resistance was always a factor in Indigenous life and the flowering of Indigenous political activism and individual success, even at the white man’s game, business enterprise, is testament to the resilience of Indigeneity. Still, the structural disadvantages and personal racism Indigenous people face are staggering. 

To study the fur trade and the colonization of the northern half of North America is to study the trials and tribulations of Indigenous North Americans coming to grips with the inexorable, inevitable, spread of Western Civilization into their lands, into their families, their social relations and their ways of life.  Their struggles were human struggles, not unlike the ones we experience today. Their lives weren’t simpler than ours. In fact their lives were often more precarious and more complicated than ours. Their loves were no less so. Alliances were often sealed with marriages between Indigenous women and European men although sexual intimacy and desire don’t need the sanction of politics to flourish. Indigenous men and women were as capable as we are of subterfuge, of lying, of deceit, and of treachery. They were also as capable of love, joy, caring, mutual support, as well as profound grief from loss of family members from disease and death as we are. They had dreams and arguments. They ‘othered’ people as we do. They had an idea of who was ‘good’ and who was ‘bad’, just like we do. They were just as powerless in the face of historical, global political economic forces as we are. In the end, they lived and died, just as we do.  

 


¹ See esp. 

Hunt, George, 1940. The Wars of the Iroquois: A Study of Intertribal Trade Relations. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press. The introduction is most relevant here, especially pages 4 and 5. Also see:

Innis, Harold, 1930. The Fur Trade in Canada. New Haven: Yale University Press. See especially page 392 but the whole book is about the spread of the fur trade west from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

 

The Dorm

When I was twelve years old my parents sent me away to boarding school in Edmonton. It was at great sacrifice for them and for the family because with my many siblings needing attention and money spent on them, investing as much as they did in me was surely a hardship. The parish paid for my tuition and that sort of thing, but my parents still had to dish out lots of cash for my expenses like hockey equipment, clothes, outings and sundry other things. Attending Collège St-Jean was a privilege because I got a very good classical education in French and English and I can still speak French more or less fluently to this day because of it. I doubt if I would have gone to university later without this early experience.

I was a student at the Collège St-Jean on the south side of Edmonton for 4 years starting in 1959. I went for a fifth year but couldn’t handle it and came home after a couple of weeks. I was a bit of a psychological mess. I’m sure I badgered my parents to attend this boarding school over a thousand kilometres from home because all of my friends were going too. In fact, there were 40 of us boys from BC attending the College in the early 60s. As I said, it was a privilege attending the College, but it was not all fun and games. The testosterone alone was choking as was the odor in the dorm. We played a lot of sports and not all of us were careful with our personal grooming…and that’s putting it gently.

The first 2 years I attended the College I slept in a dorm with 124 other guys 12 to 15 years of age. Five rows of bunk beds were the main feature of this building along with a narrow washroom/shower room containing probably 5 or 6 shower stalls and as many toilets along with a whole row of sinks where we would wash, brush our teeth and admire ourselves in the mirrors. This is  how I remember the dorm:

Dorm

This is how I remember my relationship with the priests who ran the school:

Blue me.jpg

Well, that’s a little unfair because some of the priests at the College were caring and respectful men. Some were less so and some were downright violent, not that my friends and I didn’t deserve a little chastisement from time to time. In fact, at times we were not the best examples of good behaviour. In fact, we were often little shits. I won’t go into detail but I’m sure we deserved any punishment we got.

It’s only in recent years that I’ve been able to look back on my College days with some degree of objectivity. It was a very emotional time but that’s the way it is for teens.

 

 

True Believers

The following I’ve already posted here but I’m posting it again because I have just completed a fictional account of a few days in the lives of oblate priests in what is now Manitoba and Saskatchewan in 1851. I wrote it in French for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted to re-acquaint myself intimately with my first language and second, I wanted to write in the language of the people who are the subject of my piece.  A few moments ago I submitted this fictional piece to the Cedric Literary Awards. We’ll see how I do. I have no illusions about this, but I will never get published unless I submit material and for some, probably masochistic reason, I want to get published. Oh, I have been published before, but research reports, essays, dissertations and the like don’t count in my present world.

If you read French, you may soon be able to read my story. If not, oh well.

Here is the blog post from some time ago now:

Deep down, are we all racist and xenophobic?

In my last two posts I wrote about a book by Dom Benoit published in 1904 about the Catholic missions in the mid 19th Century in the Canadian West.  The book is a biography of Msg. Taché, second archbishop of St. Boniface (1853-1894).

Was I unfair in singling them out for a special call-out for being racist?

It’s pretty obvious that the missionaries understood that the indigenous peoples of the area were human, but that they were significantly different from themselves, especially in the fact that they weren’t ‘children of God.’ The derogatory manner in which they describe indigenous peoples, especially plains peoples, would immediately label them racist in most people’s books.

Their mission’s objective was to make ‘savages’ into ‘children of God’. They may have thought they had accomplished that by baptizing as many as possible, but that apparently still didn’t make them equal to white folk in the eyes of Canadian governments, all of which had institutionally racist practices and values regarding indigenous people. There is no doubt that Sir John A. Macdonald’s government was racist to the core. It’s hard not to conclude that most Canadian governments over the decades, both federal and provincial have been racist. Their policies prove it, the Indian Act proves it, all their actions prove it.

So, along with the missionaries of the mid 19th Century, are they special in their racism? Are governments racist, along with a few bad individuals, or are we all racist, deep down? Some of us may deny it vehemently, but the impetus, the imperative, the drive to characterize ‘other’ groups of people and their institutions as inferior or undeserving because of some national or group trait is pervasive. Can we avoid being racist and xenophobic? Can we avoid labelling groups (gender, age, colour, etc.) and nations with sweeping generalizations that deny human individuality and capacity for free thought?

The short answer is that I think we can, but it takes a lot of effort and thought. It means letting go of a lot of ‘isms’ some of which we love dearly, like patriotism.

If we believe that our society, our way of life is the greatest thing on earth, it makes it difficult to just accept others as they are and not to try to convince them, by ideology or coercion, that they should change. The Catholic missionaries of the Canadian West obviously thought that their religious beliefs and practices were the only ones that could lead to salvation, that is to eternal life in the presence of God. It seems to me that they would feel a holy obligation to try to ‘convert’ as many ‘savages’ as possible to save them from being condemned to an eternity in pergatory or hell. One could argue that their drive to ‘save’ the indigenous people is no different from a compulsion we might have to pull someone out of the way of a speeding train in order to save their lives. It’s just something ya gotta do.

So, yes, if we feel we have the only road to heaven, or to salvation, the good life, prosperity or whatever you might want to call it, it’s hard not to want to share it or conversely, to prove to others that ours is a superior way by kicking their asses just to prove it. If, however, we can express some humility in the face of the diversity of human (and other) life on this planet, we can begin to overcome prejudice and ignorance. It’s not easy and it’s not even likely to happen on any scale until the structural and historical conditions in place currently on the planet that make prejudice and ignorance possible and even inevitable are still dominant.

If you ever get a chance, watch a 2003 documentary film called Flight From Death: The Quest for Immortality. It does a beautiful job in visually summarizing my argument above. You can do that, or you can rummage around the archives on my blog to find references to Ernest Becker’s work Escape From Evil. The film is based on his work.

Prime Directive: Save Them Savages.

Without the benefit of anthropology and archaeology it would be difficult indeed to come to North America from Europe in the 19th Century and not wonder where the indigenous people originated. In fact, Europeans imbued with Christian principles and values must have wondered, wherever they went outside of Europe, what could be the origins of all the strange and wondrous human beings they encountered. The clues had to be in the Bible or as logical extensions of ideas expressed in the Bible. They tried hard, but it was tough to deny that indigenous people were not human because they readily mated successfully with European explorers and colonizers all the time. The following is my translation of an excerpt from La Vie de Monseigneur Taché by Dom Benoit. I find it fascinating how the author grapples with the descent of the indigenous people and how these ‘savages’ became so ‘degenerate’. Read on:

On page 47*:

“From  whom do the savages descend? They are men therefore they are descendants of Adam. I might add: Noah was their ancestor and Sem their father as the red or American race is mongoloid, differing less from them as Noah’s three sons differ amongst themselves. It is clear that America was populated by peoples from Asia or even from Northern Europe. Everybody knows how easy it would have been to migrate to America from Asia even if the distant wanderings of these travellers were not supported by means any more sophisticated than those of today. This last proposition seems improbable to me; I am convinced that the savages were more civilized at one time than they are now, that they abased themselves by turning away from traditions that connected them to God, just as they will redeem themselves by accepting the teachings that bring them closer to their maker and to their end.

So, the author concludes that the ‘savages’ were no doubt more civilized at one time but because they turned away from the traditions that kept them attached to the teachings of the Church, they became lost to God. Seems reasonable, I guess, but I’d like to see even just a little evidence. Nevertheless, the only rational way that ‘savages’ could be brought back to God, obviously, is by missionary work. What a job they were tasked by God and the Church to do: bring back the godless savages to the bosom of the Church and to God. Further in the book, the author also warns that the situation is urgent and critical because their work could be thwarted by the ‘methodist’ missionaries who were eager to have the ‘savages’ turn against the Church of Rome. Tough competition required urgent measures and an army of priests had to be deployed as soon as possible between the Red River settlement and the Mississippi. That’s when the archbishop of St. Boniface at the time, Msg. Provencher, appealed to Monseigneur de Mazenod, the bishop of Marseilles and founder of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate to send as many ‘troops’ as possible for the battle ahead. This was in the middle of the 19th Century, before 1853. Travel was treacherous. It took roughly 8 or 9 weeks depending on the weather to cover the 1400 miles from Montréal to St. Boniface by canoe before the railroad was build a few decades later. War can be hell and there is no doubt that the Oblates were tough and disciplined in their urgent mission to save as many ‘savages’ as they could.

*From: La Vie de Monseigneur Taché, Archevêque de St. Boniface by Dom Benoit, Superior of the Regular Canons of the Immaculate Conception of Canada. Published in a limited edition in 1904 by the Librairie Bauchemin, Montréal, Québec.