Huron History, 1535 to 1648

The Huron, an Iroquoian-speaking people whose traditional homeland was north of the Great Lakes, were a confederacy of four major tribes: Bear, Rock, Barking Dogs, and White Thorns (also known as Canoes). The people called their confederacy Wendat or People of the Peninsula. They were given the name Huron by the French.

The first contact between the Huron and the Europeans was with the French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1535. At the palisaded Huron town of Hochelaga, the French were greeted by about a thousand Huron men and women. The French did not care for the Huron food – cornbread, beans, peas, and cucumbers – because it was not salted.

In 1609, some Huron warriors joined French explorer Samuel de Champlain and a mixed group of Montagnais and Algonquin warriors. While Champlain wanted the warriors to keep watch at night, they refused. Instead, they conducted a shaking tent ceremony and consulted the spirits about the nearness of any enemies. The spirits indicated that no enemy were near and so the warriors slept.

At the northern shore of what is today called Lake Champlain, the combined French, Montagnais, Algonquin, and Huron forces encountered a Mohawk war party massed in battle formation and wearing wooden body armor. The French firearms killed several Mohawk leaders and the Mohawk retreated. In an article on the French and Indians in Attitudes of Colonial Powers Toward the American Indian, Mason Wade reports:

“This exploit sealed the alliance of the French with the Algonkians and the Hurons and fixed their deadly enmity with the Iroquois.”

In 1611, the Huron confederacy sent presents to the French along with word that they wished to establish an alliance with them independent of the French alliance with the Algonquin. The Algonquin, however, opposed this and managed to delay the French response to the request.

In 1611, Samuel de Champlain arranged for a young Frenchman to live among the Huron and learn their language and culture.

A formal trading alliance between the French and the Huron Confederacy was negotiated in 1614. With this agreement, the Huron allied themselves with the French.

The following year, Huron warriors accompanied Samuel de Champlain into Iroquois territory in what is now New York. They captured three Iroquois men, four women, three boys, and a girl. Champlain complained when the Huron cut off one of the women’s fingers as a demonstration of the torture that lay ahead. The Hurons agreed not to torture the women.

Near present-day Fenner, New York, the French-Huron party attacked an Iroquois fort. After the initial attack, the Huron warriors withdrew. Champlain then convinced the warriors to build large wooden shields for protection and a large moveable platform which overlooked the Iroquois palisades. While the plan had initial success, the Huron warriors, unused to the discipline expected by European military leaders, broke ranks and attempted to set fire to the palisades. The Iroquois, however, simply poured water into the troughs which formed their fire defense system and the fires were quickly extinguished. Champlain was hit twice by arrows and was severely wounded. The Huron retreated carrying their wounded, including Champlain, in improvised baskets.

The Iroquois, who had been trading with Dutch traders in New York, sent emissaries north to propose peace and trade with the French. This would allow them to play the two European powers against each other with regard to trade. While the French were concerned that the Iroquois would convince the Huron to start trading with the Dutch, they agreed to the peace in 1622.

In 1623, the French sent a party of French traders to winter with the Huron to make sure that they continued to trade with the French rather than with the Dutch.

As the European demand for furs increased during the seventeenth century, both the Iroquois and the Huron began to expand westward in search of new furs and new Indian trading partners. This expansion brought about some violent conflicts between the Huron and the western Indian nations such as the Winnebago (Ho Chunk) and Ottawa. In addition, conflict between the Huron and the Iroquois also increased.

In 1642, a party of 36 Huron and 4 French under the leadership of Father Isaac Joques was attacked by an Iroquois war party. The priest and 21 others were captured. The Mohawk, one of the nations of the Iroquois League of Five Nations, later killed Father Joques in the manner reserved for sorcerers because he was suspected of started an epidemic.

In 1648, the Seneca and the Mohawk, both members of the Iroquois League of Five Nations, set out to destroy the Huron trading network. The Seneca, armed with firearms obtained from the Dutch, attacked the Huron town of Teanaostaiaé. Three hundred of the 2,000 inhabitants of the town were killed and 700 were taken captive. The following year, the Iroquois, supplied with 400 guns and unlimited ammunition on credit by the Dutch, attacked and destroyed the Huron. This marked the end of the Huron confederacy. Many of the Huron people took refuge with other Indian nations in the Great Lakes area. A new nation, however, the Wyandot, composed of Huron refugees as well as other Indian refugees, soon emerged, but did not challenge the Iroquois supremacy.

Indian Affairs in 1966

Just fifty years ago—1966—American Indian affairs in the United States was still being guided in part by a philosophy of termination: that is, dissolving American Indian governments and making Indians assimilate into the larger non-Indian culture. American Indians for the most part weren’t cooperating with this termination philosophy and still insisted that they had a right to exist, as Indians, within the United States. Briefly described below are some of the Indian issues and events of 1966.

Museums, Arts

Movie actor Nipo Strongheart (Yakama) died and willed his extensive collection of Indian books and artifacts to the Yakama Nation. The artifacts were incorporated in the Yakama Nation Museum in Toppenish, Washington and his personal library became a special collection of the Yakama Nation Library.

The Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma opened a small museum in Muskogee for the cultural and historical items of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muskogee, Creek, and Seminole people who were driven into Oklahoma from the Southeast.

The ballet Kochare based on the Hopi creation myth and written by Quapaw-Cherokee composer Louis Wayne Ballard was performed by the Harkness Ballet Company.

Economics

In Arizona, the Peabody Coal Company signed leases with the Hopi and the Navajo allowing them to strip mine 25,000 acres of the Joint Use Area in Arizona. With regard to the Navajo, journalist Marjane Ambler, in her book Breaking the Iron Bonds: Indian Control of Energy Development, reports:

“The Interior Department, under the direction of Stewart Udall, worked with industry and the tribal attorney to convince the council to act immediately, without deliberation.”

Law professor Charles Wilkinson, in his book Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations, calls the leases “financial travesties” and writes:

“Among other provisions, the Hopi received inadequate payments for the coal and sold their water for the slurry pipeline at the egregiously low rate of $1.67 per acre foot.”

Black Mesa, the area which was to be mined, is considered sacred by traditional Navajo and Hopi people. In pressuring the Navajo tribal council, council members were not informed about the value of their coal or about the potential impacts of the mining.

In Montana, the Salish and Kootenai of the Flathead Reservation requested more money for the lease that Montana Power Company had for Kerr Dam. The tribe wanted more money because the company had added an additional generation plant, but the company disagreed arguing that its power license did not designate the energy produced. The Federal Power Commission (FPC) suggested that the lease be increased from $240,000 per year to $850,000 per year, but Montana Power Company refused to acknowledge FPC jurisdiction in the matter. The tribes took Montana Power Company to court and the court required the company to pay the increased lease amount.

In Mississippi, the Choctaw constructed the Choctaw Industrial Park in an effort to improve the economic conditions of the tribe.

Education

In New Mexico, the Rough Rock Demonstration School was an experiment in which a group of Navajo parents operated a combined day and boarding school. In her book Language Shift Among the Navajos: Identity Politics and Cultural Continuity, Deborah House describes the Rough Rock community this way:

“a small community where most people still followed the traditional Navajo pastoral lifestyle, shopped at the local trading post, spoke Navajo almost exclusively, and had little formal education and no previous contact with a school in their community.”

While funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the school was the first Indian-controlled school in the United States. According to Smithsonian historian Wilcomb Washburn, in his book Red Man’s Land/White Man’s Law:

“Control of school policy, including the handling of a budget of nearly a million dollars, was placed firmly in the hands of Indians, most of whom were without formal education and some of whom were illiterate.”

The school taught English as a second language rather than requiring students to know English in order to learn. Non-Indian staff members received in-service training to familiarize them with Navajo culture. Deborah House writes:

“The role of Rough Rock Demonstration School as a model for other tribal education programs cannot be overemphasized. It was the school that established the legal precedent for the right of the federal government to give funds directly to local Indian communities to run their own schools.”

War on Poverty

In Arizona, the Havasupai began a community action program under the Office of Economic Opportunity. They also started a Head Start pre-school program.

In Arizona, the Pascua Yaqui Association under the leadership of Anselmo Valencia obtained a grant to start a Community Action Program under the Office of Economic Opportunity. With this grant the Pascua Yaqui organized a project to train tribal members to build their own homes and then to purchase them with sweat equity. The new homes were built on a 200-acre parcel and became known as New Pascua.

Religion

In Idaho, an Indian branch of the Mormon Church was opened on the Fort Hall Reservation. In his book The Northern Shoshoni, Brigham Madsen notes:

“Apparently religion at the reservation had come full circle from a century ago, when the Latter-day Saints were under attack for proselytizing among the Shoshoni and Bannock.”

In Utah, the Shoshone members of the old Washakie Ward were transferred to the Mormon ward in Portage. Brigham Madsen reports:

“This action ended the formal Mormon Church support of a religion organization at Washakie, as nearly all the Indians had left the old settlement.”

In Florida, the Independent Big Cypress Mission was founded as a mission to the Seminole.

In South Carolina, the grave of Seminole war leader Osceola was vandalized. The vandals tunneled beneath the grave’s enclosure with the intention of taking his bones back to Florida.

Lawsuits

In California, the Cahuilla won a judgment against the city of Palm Springs with regard to zoning matters. The city had passed a zoning ordinance and a master plan which had included control over Indian land in the city.

In Oregon, the U.S. District Court, in Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation v. Maison, upheld treaty rights to hunt on unclaimed land in the Matilla and Wallowa-Whitman nations’ forests without restriction by the Oregon Game Commission.

In Oklahoma, the Cherokee filed a suit which asserted that riverbeds belong to the Cherokee. The suit was against the state of Oklahoma, 16 oil companies, and 2 sand and gravel companies.

Government

In Texas, Tom Diamond, the attorney for the Tigua, notified the city of El Paso that tribal members would no longer be responsible for taxes to any local division of government. The notification was based on the fact that the Texas Legislature in 1854 recognized that the Tigua held title to the Ysleta Land Grant. Local authorities were cooperative and receptive to the Tigua claim.

In Texas, a study by University of Arizona anthropologist Nick Houser showed that the Tigua were still a culturally distinct Indian tribe. The Texas State Historical Survey Committee acknowledged the accuracy of the report and passed a resolution stating that the tribe was entitled to federal recognition.

In Oklahoma, the Five County Northeastern Oklahoma Cherokee Organization selected Andrew Dreadfulwater, a respected ceremonial leader and dedicated Baptist layman, as president. The organization was renamed the Original Cherokee Community Organization.

In Oklahoma, the Bureau of Indian Affairs recognized the Comanche Tribe of Oklahoma as the political representative of the Comanche people.

In New Mexico, Wilbert C. Begay (Navajo) was elected to the state legislature. Tom Lee (Navajo) was elected to the state senate.

In Montana, Percy DeWolf (Blackfoot)  and Jean A. Turnage (Flathead) were elected to the state senate.

A Short Overview of the Huron Indians

The Huron, whose traditional homeland was north of the Great Lakes, were a confederacy of four major tribes: Bear, Rock, Barking Dogs, and White Thorns (also known as Canoes). The people called their confederacy Wendat or People of the Peninsula. They were given the name Huron by the French: the name came from hure, meaning “boar’s head” in reference to the head gear of the warriors.

With regard to language, Huron is a part of the Iroquois language family. Culturally, the Huron were similar to other Iroquoian-speaking Indian nations in the Northeast.

In the seventeenth century, the estimated 20,000 to 40,000 Hurons lived in 18-25 villages. With regard to the Huron origins, Olive Dickason, in her entry on the Huron/Wyandot in the Encyclopedia of North American Indians, reports:

“Archaeologists favor the theory that they began inhabiting their lands soon after the retreat of the glaciers, slowly evolving from hunter-gatherers into farmer-hunters.”

Their oral traditions tell of a migration from the southeast. The archaeological data shows that they were raising corn (maize) by 500 CE.

Agriculture

Among the Huron, agriculture produced about four-fifths of the food which they consumed. Farming centered around the Three Sisters: corn, beans, squash. They cultivated about 15 different varieties of corn, 60 different varieties of beans, and 8 different kinds of squash. As with other Iroquoian groups, the farming was done by the women in fields which had been cleared by the men. All uncleared land was considered common property.

The land was cleared by first girding the trees and then burning the underbrush and trees, a process known as slash-and-burn agriculture. In addition to providing a clear space for their fields, the ash from the fire also provided additional nutrients.  Generally, the cleared land would wear out in about a decade, forcing the Iroquois to clear new land, usually farther from the village. For the smaller villages – those with about 200 inhabitants – by the time the walking distance to the farthest field reached about 1 kilometer, the oldest abandoned fields could be re-opened. For the larger villages, however, it took about 50 years for the productive fields to become too distant and requiring the village itself to move.

Planting would usually begin when the white oak leaves were the size of a red squirrel’s foot. While men would assist in the initial clearing of the fields, planting was done by a party of women under the supervision of the clan mothers. Women did the planting, weeding, and harvesting.

The three crops complemented each other. In her article on the Three Sisters in Science and Native American Communities: Legacies of Pain, Visions of Promise, Jane Mt. Pleasant reports:

“Beans, because they are legumes, add nitrogen to the soil that the other two plants need.”

The corn stalks also provide support for the bean vines. Mt. Pleasant points out:

“Now the squash, because it grows low to the ground and has very big leaves, reduces the ability of weeds to grow and interfere with the food crops.”

When the three foods are eaten together, they provide a balanced diet of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and the full complement of amino acids for protein.

By 1630 it is estimated that the Huron, with a population of about 21,000, were harvesting 189,000 bushels of corn from 7,000 acres.

Marriage and Family

In general, the most important feature of social organization among Iroquoian-speaking people was the matrilineal: this was a named group in membership was through the female line. Each person belonged to the mother’s clan. Among the Huron, there were eight matrilineal clans: Turtle, Wolf, Bear, Beaver, Deer, Hawk, Porcupine, and Snake. The clans were exogamous, meaning the people had to marry outside of their own clan. In addition, marriage to a close relative on the paternal side was also taboo.

Among the Huron, there was little public affection displayed between men and women. Sexual intercourse for both married and unmarried people tended to take place outside of the village. Premarital sexual intercourse was considered to be normal.

Among the Huron, families tended to be small – 3 children – because the women abstained from sexual intercourse during breastfeeding (usually about 3 years).

With regard to the gender of children among the Huron, anthropologist Elisabeth Tooker, in her monograph An Ethnography of the Huron Indians, 1615-1649, notes:

“Girls were preferred: the Huron rejoiced more in the birth of a daughter than a son, in order that the country’s inhabitants increase.”

With regard to sexuality, heterosexual relations were considered to be normal, but homosexuality was acceptable. Having no sexual contact at all was considered to be abnormal.

Tribal Government

There were three levels of government among the Huron: village, tribe, and confederacy. At the village level, clan chiefs organized councils in which older men and women expressed their opinions on matters concerning the village. Each Huron village council met frequently, often daily, to discuss village affairs. Discussions would continue until consensus was evident.

There were two kinds of Huron chiefs: (1) civil chiefs who were concerned with everyday life and peace, and (2) war chiefs who were concerned exclusively with military matters. Being a Huron chief required both time and an expenditure of wealth. Upon the death of a chief, the new chief would often be selected from among the relatives of the deceased chiefs. The person who was elected was usually not the child of the deceased chief, but was more often a nephew or a grandson.

Law

The Huron recognized four main classes of crime: (1) murder and wounding and injury, (2) theft, (3) witchcraft, and (4) treason. Murder placed an obligation on the relatives to avenge the killing. Reparation payments helped alleviate the possibility of blood feuds. Anthropologist Bruce Trigger, in his book The Huron: Farmers of the North, notes:

“Huron law did not permit society as a whole to punish individuals.”

Among the Huron, material gifts were often used as a way of restoring peace and mending the social fabric following a crime, such as murder or physical injury. The guilty party (including both the individual and the clan) would pay the victim’s family. According to Henry Bowden, in his book American Indians and Christian Missions: Studies in Cultural Conflict:

“Thirty presents was the usual indemnity for killing a man, but the murder of a tribeswoman called for forty gifts.”

War and Trade

For Huron men there were two ways to obtain wealth and prestige: war and trade. Traditionally, war was not waged to impose religious views on other people, or to capture new territory. Most frequently the reasons for war were honor and avenging some injury. Revenge raids were usually launched at the request of a clan mother.

While brave warriors were admired, so were clever traders. Trading had prestige because individual initiative and shrewd judgment came into play. It took courage and diplomacy to open new trade routes or to organize a wide network of business alliances. The purpose of acquiring wealth through trade was not to possess or display material goods, but to be able to give them away. Giving wealth away was a way of improving social status and respect.