“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.

 

Deep down, are we all racist?

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 Mgr. Taché, second archbishop of St. Boniface (1853-1894).

Was I unfair in singling them out for a special call-out for being racist?  Yes and no.

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 mahy 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. 

My rant here is not intended to make you feel guilty or bad because you may harbour secret prejudices or make sweeping generalizations about people. It’s more of an invitation to humility and to critical thought about your world and how it works.

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.

Savages Among Saints.

Years ago while rummaging through a used book store in Victoria I ran across and bought a two volume biography of the archbishop of St. Boniface, Manitoba who was installed in 1853. His term ended with his death in 1894. The biography was written by Dom Benoit, Superior of the Regular Canons of the Immaculate Conception of Canada after 1894 and was published in 1904. Dom Benoit’s story is worthy of a blog post in and of itself but his recounting of the life of Mgr. Taché is truly monumental, running to over 1400 pages. Much of it is based on Taché’s letters and reports but Benoit’s research is far-ranging and comprehensive. Of course this isn’t a critical biography. It’s definitely written by someone who admired and respected his subject. Still, the work that went into producing this work is impressive.

That said, when I first opened the pages of La Vie de Mgr Taché, Archevêque de St-Boniface I was struck by the narrative’s accounts of travelling long distances in birch bark canoes with very few of the comforts most of us would find necessary on a modern camping trip. It was about how saintly and long-suffering the missionaries were. I was also struck by the depictions of the First Nations people the missionaries encountered on their travels. They were at best condescending and at worse blatantly racist towards them. But, it’s complicated. We should not feel superior to the missionaries Dom Benoit follows in his narrative. In fact, the default setting in our relations with people we encounter in the world who are not like us is racism and/or xenophobia. It’s the rare person in our culture who can see beyond the blanket prejudgments of others that is pervasive in our workplaces, our communities, our playgrounds, our restaurants and our homes. Beyond the overt racism,which I expected, in the excerpt you are about to read , there is another message that I found even more interesting.

First, read the following:

From: 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 by the Librairie Bauchemin, Montréal, Québec, 1904.

On page 44, Benoit quotes a book by Mgr Laflèche the title of which is Etat général des Missions de la Rivière Rouge.  This is the text in my translation. It’s not clear when this quotation was written but it was around 1850.

“From the moral point of view, a distinction must be made between  the woods and the prairie savages. The prairie savages, who are the Blackfoot, the Assiniboine, the Cree and a large part of the Saulteux, are the worse type and I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that these people occupy the lowest rung of the human ladder. This state of degeneration and wickedness derives from their way of life; they can be found in large camps of 60 to 80 lodges and often more, and they lead a wandering and lazy existence following the innumerable herds of bison that feed and clothe them. When we witness the disgusting lives of these savages we understand that the penance of toil imposed upon man by his sin has been for his happiness and not for his misfortune…If the prairie tribes have become the bilge of all the vices that degrade man, that is, when theft, murder and everywhere terrible debauchery have become daily practice for a large number of these barbarians, it is because work is unknown to them.”

Benoit continues:

“The woods savages, who are the Montagnais, some Cree, Maskegons and Sauteux, have a way of life much different from the former. The poor quality of the lands they occupy forces them to live apart from each other and the land is sparsely populated: on first coming to this land one would be tempted to believe that mankind had yet to settle since there is so little evidence of its presence. They do not have, like the former, herds of bison to feed them when they are hungry or to clothe them when they are cold. They prey on somewhat rare and wary deer. They sometimes fall upon roaming herds of cariboo, but it takes time and patience to kill one. Fishing in certain rivers also offers them a resource to fend off hunger. It is such that these nations must live a much more active existence than the others if they do not wish to disappear. It is rare to find more than two or three families together and these families are always related to one another. It is to this active and remote existence that we must attribute the different morals between the woods and the plains savages. They are generally at peace with the world, are horrified at the thought of theft and murder, just like white people. Although they practice polygamy they are nowhere near as debauched at the others and we do not encounter crimes against nature as is evident on the plains.”

Alright, so it’s obvious the writers have no time for the plains nations. They are much more sympathetic towards the woods nations. Why? Well, according to them, the plains nations are idle, ‘lazy’ and indolent. They (only applying to the men, of course) only ‘work’ intermittently when in need of food or clothing. The woods nations on the other hand had to work hard to make a living.  Their lives were not easy. Laflèche’s argument, echoed by Benoit, is that the problem with the plains ‘savages’ is that they didn’t understand that their fate for original sin was toil. According to the Bible, when Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden, what was their fate? They now had to work for a living. Apparently the plains people just didn’t get the memo. Their bad.

It’s easy to argue that the writers here are racist, but John A. Macdonald, the first Canadian Prime Minister said some equally racist things about aboriginal people many times and completely unapologetically. So did my parents, and they are not exceptional. I don’t believe that people today are, on average, any less racist or xenophobic than the people of the mid-nineteenth century. We may express it differently today, but generally, we are no less racist than we were 150 years ago. Times have not changed much.

In my next post, more of Dom Benoit.