Wednesday, July 29, 2015

“The Elks Are Our Horses”: Animals and Domestication in the New France Borderlands

Benjamin Breen
Journal of Early American History 3 (2013) 181–206 

"When the Ottawa chief warned that “the French will do with us what they do with their cattle”, he explicitly linked animal husbandry to human captivity. In doing so, he drew upon a deep-seated association between the two concepts so fundamental that it was embedded in the structure of his language. In Ottawa, as in other Algonquian and Iroquoian tongues, the words for “tamed creature/pet” and “captive/slave” were linked."

"To ally with the French, the chief argued, was to willingly become an animal in their service – and the state of being a tame animal shaded into native conceptions of human bondage. In protesting this specific alliance, the Ottawa chief was thus also rejecting one of the most fundamental structuring principles of European society: a hierarchical social order that regarded mastery over domesticated animals as integral to improvement, commerce, and “civility”."

European and Native Conceptions of the Human-Animal Relationship.

"The Ottawa chief and his audience inhabited a world that was in many ways both physically and symbolically centered on animals. Although most Algonquians and Iroquoians practiced extensive agriculture, harsh winters necessitated a substantial seasonal reliance upon game hunting. Animal products not only supplied food, but also furnished critical materials for clothing, housing, and tools. The most prominent creatures inhabiting the North American woods (such as turtles, elk, eagles, lynxes, and bears) also played an important role in mythology as sentient beings with complex motivations and powers.  Materials from such “other-than-human persons” were central to Native American religiosity and to the closely related realms of medicine and bodily practice."

"Perhaps the most important symbolic role of animals was as markers of individual and group identities. Among the Anishinaabeg (a culture group including the Ottawa and the Ojibwe), Heidi Bohaker has identified 108 discrete pictorial identities used by native signatories in treaties and petitions throughout the colonial period, the vast majority of which were animals. In a 1701 treaty, for instance, 30 out of 38 different indigenous nations repre-sented themselves with animal pictographs ranging from bears, eagles, and foxes to beavers, cranes, frogs, turtles, and catfish. John Tanner, an Ojibwe captive at the end of the eighteenth century, likewise described an animal-based symbolic writing that “was in common use among the Indians” as a method of communicating information about oneself and close kin."

"The sense of divine order that informed these conceptions of the animal-human relationship was exemplified by the Algonquian concept of manitou, described by Daniel Richter as “the impersonal force that permeated the world, observable in anything marvelous, beautiful, or dangerous”. Indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes region typically viewed their sub-sistence hunting as a part of this balanced cosmos, and strove to keep things in order by propitiating the manitous of the animals they killed. These ‘boss spirits’ or ‘keepers of the game’ figured in dreams, stories, and myths as beautiful, manitou-infused versions of the animals they represented."

Fig. 1. The North American interior circa 1700, with places, cities and indig-enous cultural groups mentioned in the text labeled. Note that there were several sites named ‘Kaskaskia’ in the Mississippi region – the Kaskaskia labeled here refers to the settlement (sometimes called ‘Old Kaskaskia’) that existed along the banks of the Illinois River in the 1670s and 1680s. Map by the author.

"In his travels with the Sieur Dulhut from the Great Lakes down the Mississippi, the missionary Louis Hennepin observed that the people he encountered uniformly “believe that several kinds of Animals have a rea-sonable Soul” capable of “com[ing] back into the World to see how they treat their Bodies, and give notice accordingly to the rest of the Beasts both dead and living”. Although Hennepin and other French travelers held such beliefs in contempt, Europeans also envisioned animals as co-existing with humans according to a universal cosmic order. These beliefs had an Old Testament pedigree which established humans as the most exalted mortals on the “great chain of being”: the rest of the world’s creatures existed for and because of them, and it was the duty of man to shape nature to his will. In common with other early modern Christians, French travellers in the New World thus believed that man’s “divinely ordained role was to change and control [nature] by his arts and his technology”. On the ground, these generalized views acquired a distinctly Baroque French favor. In his recent work on animals and the “civilizing process” in absolutist France, Peter Sahlins has argued that the symbolic meanings of animals in elite French culture changed markedly during the seventeenth century. Whereas sixteenth-century nobles prized bloody animal combat and exotic beasts, by the 1660s, Louis XIV and his court had adopted a “language of the animal world” in which well-ordered, tamed menageries became “a living metaphor of royal authority and aristocratic civility”"

"These evolving attitudes toward animals shaped the foreign policies of Colbert and other leaders who sought to domesticate, tame and "Frenchify" (franchiser) a "wild" landscape."

"However, Colbert’s objectives were frequently counterbalanced by what François-Xavier Charlevoix called the “libertine habits” of young fur traders in the interior, who he blamed for “the Arts being neglected” and “many good Lands left uncultivated”. Fur traders were hostile to both the Jesuits and the French government, since any attempt to force native peoples into permanent settlements would necessarily disrupt existing commercial networks built upon territorial ranging. Long-distance trade in animal pelts and hides across the North American interior had a deep Pre-Columbian history, but by the seventeenth century this trade had also tapped into a globalized mercantile system that offered an alternative, mobile, hunting-based model for French commercial expansion. Conflicts about francization of societies on the outer edge of French imperial control were thus, at the largest level, part of a debate about the nature of commerce and society itself: was it possible to be “civilized” yet unsettled? Could land usage patterns based around hunting form the basis for a successful commercial society? The language of animals played an important role in these debates: the missionary survey of sixteenth-century exotic animal combat (including the famous battle between a rhinoceros and elephant at the behest of King Manuel I of Portugal in 1515), Jacques Marquette was expressing a common sentiment when he likened the inhabitants of the Illinois country to “lost sheep, that must be sought for among the thickets and woods” in order to be civilized. The goal of la francization was thus to transform both American landscapes and the humans and animals who inhabited them into not only societal, but also ecological and environmental analogs of France. Indians were to find fixed habitations, to cease to “keep things in common”, and to adopt Old World patterns of resource management, husbandry, and agriculture. One of the first steps toward achieving these goals was the abandonment of long-held attitudes toward animals and the embrace of European models of animal possession."

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