Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Through the 18th-Century Midwest with Commandant Sabrevois (Part Two)

(For the previous entry in this series, see here.)

Jacques-Charles Sabrevois was for several years the commandant of the French post at Detroit, and it is to this community that his memoir now takes us. Detroit ("the Strait") had been founded in 1701 by Antoine Le Mothe de Cadillac, who established the settlement to bar English expansion into the upper Great Lakes. In 1718 the site had a small French fort and trading post, but most of the local inhabitants were Indians whom Cadillac had invited to Detroit to serve as his farming population and military auxiliary. At least three Native American nations had built villages at Detroit by the time of Sabrevois's memoir: the Huron-Wendats, an Iroquoian-language-speaking people whom the Mohawks had driven from their homeland in 1648; the Odawas ("Traders"), one of the three constituent nations of the Anishinaabe people; and the Potawatomis ("Fire-Keepers"), another Anishinaabe nation from southwestern Michigan. The Hurons had "100 men" (16:370) at Detroit in Sabrevois's time, probably equivalent to a total population of 250-300 men, women, and children; the Potawatomis had equal numbers; and the Odawas had "100 men and a great many women," a gender imbalance no doubt due to that nation's recent wars with the Iroquois.

Not surprisingly given their common background, the Odawas and Potawatomis had very similar customs, differing only in the construction of their dwelling places: the Potawatomis lived in portable huts built of overlapping reed mats, while the Odawas built wood and bark cabins like those of the Hurons. (Perhaps they adopted this building style from the Hurons while the two peoples lived together at Michilimackinac in the seventeenth century.) Both groups otherwise had the same economic base: fishing, commercial hunting, trading animal pelts for textiles and other European goods, and farming. Odawas and Potawatomis both cultivated the "Three Sisters" of Native North American agriculture (corn, beans, squash), along with melons and peas. Both had the same gendered division of labor: women did the "drudge" work of farming, preparing food, treating skins, and transporting and assembling shelters, while men did the "fun" jobs like hunting and fishing and fighting. (Lakes Indian men actually worked about as hard as women, but women supplied most of the calories and raw materials that their kinsmen consumed.) Both also had similar dances and games, of which more below.

To the Hurons of Detroit Sabrevois devotes relatively little attention, though more than he gave the Senecas who resided near Niagara. They are, in his telling, an "exceedingly industrious nation," brave, intelligent, and generally praiseworthy, but rather dull. Their town near Detroit consisted of a fort enclosed in a double wooden palisade, several bark longhouses - Sabrevois calls them "cabins" but describes them as "high...and very long" - and extensive fields of corn, legumes, and "sometimes French wheat." While Huron men were expert hunters and spent most of their time, summer through winter, in their hunting ranges, Huron women generally remained closer to home, tending their fields, gathering wood, and guarding the Hurons' fort, a task they leave to "old women."  (16: 368). Of the Hurons' cultural and religious lives, Sabrevois appears to be unaware.

Sabrevois provides far more information about the cultural lives of the Potawatomis, and by extension the Odawas. Their clothing style, he observes, was beginning to change in consequence of the fur trade: women increasingly wore white dresses, glass-bead necklaces, and vermilion to community events, while men dressed in red and blue cloth garments in the warmer months, though they generally donned bison robes in the winter. Their dances Sabrevois divides into three types: war or "scout" dances, wherein men took turns striking a pole and reciting their martial exploits; social dances, in which dancers of both genders moved to the accompaniment of male singers, drums, and rattles; and midewiwin or medicinal dances, performed in the evening by older men.

Of the Detroit Indians' games, finally, Sabrevois describes two, which he has probably seen played in person. One is lacrosse, which the Odawa, Potawatomi, and Huron towns play against one another in the summer, with some of the French joining in as well. It is, as most modern North Americans know, a field game in which two teams of players (20 each, in this case) drive a wooden ball toward their team's goal with wooden rackets. Sabrevois noted that the game's players, all male, usually dressed in no more than breechcloths but usually painted themselves lavishly, some with white pigment in patterns resembling lace. (Sabrevois infers that this "lacework" was a coincidental effect, not a deliberate one.) The Indian spectators were just as lavish in the bets they placed on the games' outcome, wagers which could collectively exceed 800 livres' (francs') worth of goods (367). The other Native American game Sabrevois encountered at Detroit was "dish," a game of chance in which the players "tossed on a dish" eight "balls" or disks with two differently-painted sides (369), winning the round and the bet whenever seven or eight tokens landed on the same side. Thankfully, they did not have to yell "Yahtzee!" to collect their winnings.


Deaf_Dionysus said...

Did the rise of the fur trade have any impact of the traditions of the usage of the Calumet ?

Dave Nichols said...

Good question! I suspect it did not; the calumet ceremony preceded the European fur trade. The Lakes Indians did, however, consider both calumet-smoking and trade to be related to diplomacy.