Monday, April 22, 2013

Through the 18th-Century Midwest with Mister Sabrevois, Part Four

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

The Illini are a very large collegiate drinking team that occasionally watches team sports and goes to a few classes.  They derive their name from the Illinois or Illiniwek Indians, who in the 17th century were one of the largest Native confederations in the Great Lakes region.  They were still a powerful nation in 1718 when Sabrevois wrote his survey of midwestern Indians, and thus he devotes several pages of his memoir to them and to their kinsmen, the Miamis (of whom more in the next and last post of this series).  

Sabrevois takes us southward along the west bank of Lake Michigan, passing the Mascouten and Kickapoo towns "on the bank of a river whose name I have forgotten" (I assume it's the Milwaukee), en route to the Saint Joseph River.  The lieutenant mentions in passing that the Mascoutens' and Kickapoos' customs are similar to the Mesquakies - not surprisingly, they were often military allies of the Fox Indians – though he adds that they still use bows and arrows to hunt and that some of their hunters can "run down the stag afoot" (372).  Arriving at the Saint Joseph River, which he claims was abandoned by its Indian inhabitants during the Fox War – only temporarily, if so – he notes the valley's excellent soil, abundant wild birds, and wild grapes.  "It is the best region in all that country." (373)  Sabrevois does not suggest that the French colonize the region, instead advising his superiors to induce the Miamis to return there.


Sabrevois then hops a short distance westward to the towns of the Illiniwek on the Illinois River, near the French post of La Roche.  They have about "400 men," translating to 1600-2000 people overall, in these settlements, and retain many of their old material customs: they use bows and arrows, wear deerskin clothes and bison robes (as well as garments woven from bison hair), and adorn themselves with elaborate tattoos – "all sorts of figures and designs" (374).  The lieutenant does mention that they make excellent "powder horns," indicating they do have gunpowder and, presumably, firearms, obtained in trade with the French.  

Further down the Illinois River are the Illiniwek communities of Pimitoui and Cahokia, 50 leagues from La Roche; 30 leagues further still is Kaskaskia, the "most prosperous nation among all the savages," whose people are numerous and "industrious."  The Illiniwek in these communities, or some of them at least, have adopted French customs: they raise French melons and wheat, as well as cattle, pigs, and chickens; have constructed three mills, one of them horse-driven, to produce flour; and many in Kaskaskia have become Christians. Sabrevois is uninterested in Native American women, so we must rely on Sophie White's Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians (U. of Pennsylvania, 2012) and Susan Sleeper-Smith's "Women, Kin, and Catholicism" (Ethnohistory 47 [Spring 2000]: 423-52) to inform us that most of these cultural converts were women married to French traders.  It was they who became Christian converts, in many cases to join themselves to new religious kinship networks (i.e., godparents), and they who raised the crops and livestock, allowing their French husbands to trade, hunt, smoke, and behave, in short, like Illinois Indian men.  Given that Illinois women also wore French textiles and dressed according to a modified European style, we may conclude that photos of University of Illinois women posing as "Princess Illiniwek" while wearing stereotypical Plains Indian garb are perhaps not 100% historically accurate.

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The above image, "Princess Illiniwek (Idelle Stith, Oct. 26, 1943)" is courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives and is used with their kind permission.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

John Connor (for whom Connor Prairie is named) was one of the Indian men marrying an Indian wife and when the Falls Creek Massacre took place in 1824 he quickly came to the Seneca's side. This reminds me of a book written by Patrick Griffin called THE PEOPLE WITH NO NAME about Ireland's Ulster Scots. One of the points he makes is that for men and women wanted to succeed in society but did not feet neatly into white Protestant categories they became able to shift their private and public identities to fit their needs (i.e., a man might be Catholic but in public life is Protestant) From what I've read men like Connor got on well in Indiana because they filled a role by acting as a liaison between white and Native Am. interactions