Bones, marrow, blood. Genes and chromosomes. Amino acids and sunlight. Dead
matter leaping to life. Life leaping to consciousness. From time to time we learn who and
what we are. Some small piece of the idiosyncracy that is identity is illuminated by light
reflecting off water flowing from the heart of an unknown world. In canoe country, I feel this
sense of connection, wondering how it was when first we came, or perhaps before they
came. The country is in my blood. And my course on the "Frontier Heritage" becomes
more and more an exploration of the mysterious mosaic of ethnic and racial realities and
myths that makes us Americans. For me, teaching the course has become an exploration
of the mysterious mosaic within myself, as well as a discovery of the history that is in each
For years I've known how being Genovese, being Tomaso Carlo Bacigalupo's son,
burning to know, aflame to achieve, made this third generation Dago a student of the
humanities, a dreamer of perfection. Recently, I've begun to guess that being Gertrude
Lillian Durand's son, is making this 12th generation Canuck-Canuck a crafter of words, a
maker of tight-mitered word corners. She is a cabinet maker's daughter. When they
needed someone to hang a perfect door, they called Joe Durand, even when he was
seventy. I saw him set and sharpen a crosscut saw with pliers and a flat file at age 73,
sighting and shaving bent and rounded steel into perfect points and alignment. His own
saws were toledo steel and he bent them tip to heel and let them spring back to show us
what good tools meant. He kicked my ass and laughed when, at twelve, I tried to put
trowel to wall after watching him for half a day. Now watch close, and next time do it
right, he said. He was a tyrant, and a master craftsman. What made him, what made my
mother, is making me. As a teacher of the humanities hoping to understand the difference
between our dreams of perfection and our realities, and a writer trying to frame the
sentences that build word homes for all the people of the world, I seek to explore the
frontiers of our pasts for the sake of our future.
On September 23, 1662, Jean Durand, a peasant from the town of Doeuil in the
province of Saintonge, having completed his three year contract to earn his way to New
France, took to wife Catherine Annennontak, daughter of the late Nicolas Arendankir
captain of the Hurons of Georgian Bay. In 1658, she fled her fathers death and the
annihilation of the Huron nation by Iroquois armed with Dutch and English muskets. The
orphan and 200 other women and children were led to Quebec by the Jesuit missionaries
who had been converting them. She was reared and taught in the French manner"
by Madam de la Peltrie and Marie de l'Incarnation at the Ursuline convent in Quebec, so
that she "could someday marry a Frenchman." The Jesuits of Canada dowried her for
marrying her frenchman, giving 350 livres to the newlyweds. She was fourteen years old.
And from this blood and bone, from these genes and chromosomes, from the
policies of Champlain and the Recollets and Jesuits, of church and state, spring 12
generations of people of mixed blood. Mixed offspring married mixed offspring, and in
Quebec no one kept track. In the west, moving up the lakes they were called bois brûlé,
"burnt wood," coureurs de bois, "woods runners," voyaguers, "canoemen." Catherine and
Jeans son, Louis was among the first to go. As these fur traders moved west to the
plains, spreading from the Missouri basin to the Arctic, they came to see themselves as
people apart, as the Métis , the mixed..
The Métis were not only of mixed blood but of mixed culture and their lifestyle depended upon the river, the hunt, the fur trade and a pattern of primitive agriculture suited to a semi-settled people. Their life style was midway between that of the nomadic Indian food gatherers and that of the Europeans, the economic base of which was agriculture.
. . . These Métis are the true Natives of Canada. Indians and Europeans
were immigrants -- only the millennia separated their penetration into the
New World. The meeting of the two races produced a mixture which was not
from another land, but whose sole roots were in the New World. ( Sealey
and Lussier, 1975, p. 9)
How were people of mixed blood seen by the dominant Anglo cultures of the United
States and Canada? The answer to that question varies over time, but it ends where most
questions about the preservation of "native" cultures in the Americas have ended; in the
fight to maintain some sense of identity, some connection with tradition, some sense of
what the elders have to say in the face of every kind of pressure to capitulate to the
dominant cultures. The case of the Métis is especially difficult because neither the
dominant cultures nor the native cultures wanted the Métis to endure or prevail.
Additionally, the Métis connections to French Catholic culture further alienated this people
from Anglo Protestant culture.
But before we consider ends we ought to examine beginnings through middles. In American popular culture, noble savages like Uncas and Chingacgook, last of the Mohicans, fight to save the English settlers and English women from a fate worse than death at the hands of the evil Hurons. In contrast, the most evil characters in fiction, film and song, renegades, breeds and bloods, threaten the very foundations of European culture precisely because they choose to go native.
From the beginning both the French and English settlers discovered that the native
way of life had its charms.
To him who has once tasted the reckless independence, the haughty self-reliance, the sense of irresponsible freedom, which the forest life engenders,
civilization thenceforth seems flat and stale. Its pleasures are insipid, its
pursuits wearisome, its conventionalities, duties, and mutual dependence
alike tedious and disgusting. The entrapped wanderer grows fierce and
restless, and pants for breathing room. . . . The wilderness, rough, harsh,
and inexorable, has charms more potent in their seductive influence than all
the lures of luxury and sloth. And often he on whom it has cast its magic
finds no heart to dissolve the spell, and remains a wanderer and an
Ishmaelite to the hour of his death. (Parkman, 1991, p. 790 -791)
But since the economy of New France depended on maintaining trade with the natives, the
legend and the reality of the voyaguer was born.
From the comments of contemporary observers these men appear to have been a unique blend of French and Indian, wearing Indian dress, traveling like Indians, eating the same sort of food, speaking their languages, making war in the Indian manner, living off the land and enduring privation with the fortitude of the Indian. Many took Indian girls for wives, and in the Indian fashion changed them as fancy dictated; they gambled away their hard earned profits as did the Indians and gloried in their physical prowess. In short, they embodied the antithesis of the middle-class virtues. . . .
The Canadian frontiersmen were an entirely different breed from the
frontiersmen of the English colonies. They made no attempt to destroy the
wilderness, because their way of life required its preservation. . . . nor did
the Canadians occupy the western wilderness; they merely established
factories at remote points to collect the local produce and make it ready for
the return journey to Montreal. (Eccles, 1969, p.7-9)
Initially church and state tried to dissuade French men from living with the natives. This
account of contemporaries reactions to Etienne Brulé, the first voyaguer, who as a boy was
given to the Hurons to be raised in their way and learn their language, suggests polite
society in New France was, however, ambivalent about its new heroes.
Of all the Frenchmen who listened to the call of the wild, Etienne Brulé was
perhaps the most rash but also the most daring and enterprising. . . . In his
last appearances among white men he was dressed like an Indian, his
powerful torso bared to the waist and tanned as brown as walnut. His hair,
it may be guessed, was shocky and coarse. His eyes, when he became
angry, which was often, had a reddish glint in them. He had gone native,
living as the Indians did, taking brown-skinned wives wherever he went and
putting them away as his fancy dictated. Father Gabriel Sagard, who was his
friend, acknowledged sadly that Brulé was much addicted to women.
(Costain, The White and the Gold, p.78)
Since the economy of the English colonies depended on settlement, a different set of
legends were required to address the realities of Parkmans Ishmaelites, legends of
renegades, whites who go native, bloods, mixed-blooded people who live amongst the
settlers: and breeds, mixed-blooded people who live among the natives. Three examples
drawn from popular literature illustrate the nature of the legends: the Girty brothers from
Zane Greys Spirit of the Border; Injun Joe from Mark Twains Tom Sawyer ; and
Toussaint Charbonneau from Ann Leopold Waldos Sacajewea.
The Girty brother are the primary villains of Zane Greys novel, Spirit of the Border
(1938). The novel is remarkable for its portrayal of Lew Wetzel, an Indian killer whose
foes red, white and mixed call him Atelang or Le Vent de la Mort, Deathwind. To Greys
credit he does let us glimpse the dark and bloody side of Pennsylvanias version of Daniel
Boone. But our chief concern is not with the savior of English women in this novel, it is with
his opponents. Our first glimpses of the Girtys tell us all we need know. An old
fontiersman advises a would-be-frontiersman:
Did ye ever hear the name Girty?
Yes; hes a renegade.
Hes a traitor, and Jim and George Girty, his brothers, are pisin
rattlesnake Injuns. Simon Girtys bad enough; but Jims the wust. Hes
now wussern a full-blooded Delaware. Hes all the time on the lookout to
capture white wimen to take to his Indian teepee. Simon Girty and his pals,
McKee and Elliot, deserted from that thar fort right afore yer eyes. Theyre
now livin among the redskins down Fort Henry way raisin as much hell fer
the settlers as they kin. (p.23)
Grey explores the motives of the villain he finds most perplexing, the renegade, Simon
Girty. As Girty decides whether or not he should allow his brothers and his native allies to
destroy the Christian Indians living around Moravian missions on the frontier, Grey
recreates his speculations.
. . . If he did not spread ruin over the village of Peace, the missionaries would soon get such a grasp on the tribes that their hold would never be broken. He could not allow that, even if he was forced to sacrifice the missionaries along with their converts, for he saw in the growth of this religion his own downfall. The border must be hostile to the whites, or it could no longer be his home. To be sure, he had aided the British in the Revolution, and could find a refuge among them; but this did not suit him.
. . . He had won a great position in an alien race, and he loved his power. To sway
men--Indians, if not others--to his will; to avenge himself for the fancied wrong done
him; to be great, had been his unrelenting purpose. (p. 207-208)
Grey recognizes something of the power of the wild that Parkman describes. But, his
imagination cannot contemplate the possibility that his own culture might be seen as
men--even if white, or that those who had gone native were, in fact, defending their new
way of life from the destructive forces of European Christian culture which was, in fact,
about to destroy that way of life. To his credit, he does imagine the noble savage of his
story, Wingengund, chief of the Delaware, recognizing exactly this outcome. After hearing
a sermon calling for peace and love he cautions his people.
. . . In days of long ago, when Wingenunds forefathers heard not the palefaces ax, they lived in love and happiness such as the young White Father dreams may come again. They wage no wars. A white dove sat in every wigwam. The lands were theirs and they were rich. The paleface came with his leaden death, his burning firewater, his ringing ax, and the glory of the redmen faded forever.
Wingenund seeks not to inflame his braves to anger. He is sick of
blood-spilling -- not from fear: for Wingenund cannot feel fear. But he asks
his people to wait. Remember the gifts of the paleface ever contained a
poison arrow. Wingenunds heart is sore. The day of the redman is gone.
His sun is setting. Wingenund feels already the gray shades of evening. (p.
Mark Twain (1922) provides us with one of the most evil bloods to appear in American
popular literature. In Tom Sawyer the personification of evil is Injun Joe, a mixed blood
who lives around and about the community of Hannibal, Missouri long after it has passed
from frontier to civilization. Not only is Joe not living among the whites, giving up his own
culture, but when we first meet him he is engaged in grave robbing and about to commit
murder. Twains unerring moral judge, Huck Finn, the boy who will eventually indicate that
he would rather go to hell than turn in his fugitive slave friend, characterizes Injun Joe for
us. When Tom Sawyer recognizes Injun Joes voice coming from the mysterious trio
gathered in the grave yard, Huck says: . . .That murderin half - breed! Id druther they
was devils a dern sight. (p. 84) Joe himself reveals his true nature in his own words. As
he tries to extort more pay from the doctor sponsoring the grave robbing expedition, Joe
Five years ago you drove me away from your fathers kitchen one night,
when I come to ask for something to eat, and you said I warnt there for any
good; and when I swore Id get even with you if it took a hundred years,
your father had me jailed for a vagrant. Did you think Id forget? The Injun
Blood aint in me fer nothing. And now Ive got you, and you got to settle,
you know! (p. 86)
Joes Injun blood next leads him to murder the doctor and frame his white cohort for
the murder. Eventually, Tom will cause Joe to fall to his death, thereby saving Ms.
Thatchers niece Becky from a fate worse than death. Twains caricature of the evil
blood is especially striking when we contrast it with the sympathetic portrait of Jim, the
fugitive slave, he gives us in Huck Finn. Apparently mixed-blooded people who went
civilized were as evil and abhorrent to Twain, as renegades who went native were to
Grey. And it was their Indian blood that damned them.
Such attitudes continue to affect writers of popular literature about the frontier, well into the
20th century. In her authoritative historical novel, Sacajawea, A. L. Waldo recounts and
recreates the legend of the native woman who led the Lewis and Clark expedition up the
Missouri and across the divide to the Pacific. Her portraits of the native peoples and her
heroine are both accurate and sympathetic. In fact the only historical figure she portrays
in a negative light is Sacajeweas half-breed husband, Toussaint Charbonneau. As she
does throughout her novel, Waldo introduces her character with a factual account of the
sketchy information we have about the historical Charbonneau. She identifies him as a
mixed-blood living among the native peoples.
Toussaint Charbonneau was born in Canada about 1758. His mother was
a Sioux and his father a French Canadian. He and his brother were traders
and fur trappers from Lake Ontario to Lake Superior and the James Bay
Region. Charbonneau was mentioned as an engagé of the Northwest Fur
company in 1793, when he was about 35 years old. He worked as a trader
at fort pine on the Assiniboine River. In 1795 Charbonneau left from the
Lake of the Woods area, moved down the Red River of the North and went
west to the Upper Missouri where he lived, as a trader, among the
Minnetaree in their Metaharta village on the Knife River. . . .A year later he
was the only white man in the area and was living with the nearby Mandans.
For a time he worked for the American Fur Company and in 1803-4 he was
co-factor at Fort Pembina with Alexander Henry. . . . During the latter part of
1804 until August 17,1806 he was an interpreter for the Lewis and Clark
expedition. (p. 135)
Waldo then recapitulates some early accounts of Charbonneaus character:
John Bakeless also wrote that Toussaint Charbonneau was deep in aboriginal love
affairs during the years he lived in Indian country. The natives of the lower
Minnetaree village knew Charbonneaus character and gave him at least half a
dozen names, none of them overly respectful. They were The Chief of the Little
Village, The Man Who Possesses Many Gourds, The Great Horse that Came
From Afar, The Horse from Abroad, Forest Bear. Another name, which
Bakeless describes as not very refined may be translated Squaws Man or
even more literally as One Whose Man-Part Is Never Limp. (p. 136)
In many respects the Charbonneau of Lewis and Clark fame was a
feckless character. For example, in an emergency he seemed a coward, he
abused his Indian women, and always seemed to manage to have only
young girls in his lodge. Dr. Elliot Coues referred to him as clumsy and
boorish. John C. Luttig suggested that he ought to be hung, and William
Laidlow, of the Columbia Fur Company in charge of Fort Pierre, referred to
him as the Knave. (p. 137-138)
Clearly, when Waldo turns from facts to fiction, she has every right to imagine
Charbonneau as a rascal, and she does. What is illuminating for us is the cause she
imagines for his knavery.
Hed been there a long time, fixing his beaver traps and watching Sacajewea at play. This was not the first time he had followed this same girl lecherously. He had seen her in the big Hidatsa village, and discovered her here more than a moon before. . . . Each time he shadowed this child, who was clear featured and slim, exquisitely made, beautiful by the standards of whites and Indians alike, the one part of frenzied daring had come a bit closer to prevailing over the nine parts of sheer cowardice that composed his French (my italics) nature. But an instinctive awe of very young females continued to hold him from success.
Today, in this lonely spot, he had aroused himself to the point of
action. And like the blood lust of the prairie wolf, the bodily appetite of this
half-white, half Indian (my italics) man, fully aroused, was not to be turned
aside. Imagination had worked upon him until lurid flames burned in his
raisinlike eyes and he could fairly smell the pleasure of the tender flesh of his
prey. (p. 154)
Indeed, someones imagination has worked upon him to make our mixed-blood breed
a cowardly, lascivious French-Indian, who just might be, seen from another perspective,
a close cousin to the first of the voyaguers, Ettiene Brulé.
The problem with legends that are economically and culturally driven is that each masks
from us some of the truth about who our forbearers were and who we are. The stories we
tell ourselves about saving savages and preaching to pagans, civilizing natives and
carrying the white mans burden, manifest destiny and moral responsibility, all end in the
Heart of Darkness, in the dark recesses of the human soul. So Scots historians write their
version of the story that runs from Quebec to Batouche.
. . . The readiness with which the French adapted themselves to Indian ways
of life is a trait not exhibited by any other of the European nations which have
colonized the Western hemisphere. There seemed to be elements peculiarly
congenial to the French taste in the wild untrammelled habits of the forest
hunters of North America. The Frenchmans love of adventure was
gratified, his native activity of mind and body found full scope for exercise,
and in the woods he was far away from the Priest and the Intendant.
Though excommunications were fulminated against the coureurs de bois by
the Church, and edicts and ordinances and sentences of punishment by
death itself, in case of disobedience, passed by the Council, these
progenitors of the half-breed of the West increased and multiplied. In trying
to repress them the French Government acted inconsistently with its avowed
principles; for the conviction that the higher civilization can assimilate the
lower was then, and still is, a fundamental principle of French colonial policy.
It has never been propounded, or believed to be practicable, by any
experienced English colonists. (Douglas, p. 131-132)
. . . From that time , the [Red River] colony was largely peopled by
half-breeds. These were the offspring of the unions which the French-Canadian NorWesters and the Scots and English factors of the Hudsons
Bay company had made with Indian women. A common bond united the two
groups; but there were important differences between them. While the Scots
and English half-breeds were often better educated and normally more
industrious farmers, the Métis, or French-Canadian half-breeds, were an
agreeable, irresponsible, and adventurous lot who trapped, hunted the
buffalo,and freighted goods for the Hudsons Bay Company. (Creighton, p.
French istorians deny the dalliances of the founding fathers and misread, with their
forbearers, the life-ways of the new cultures they encountered.
Another source of population was to prove just as effective, although it
seemed more hazardous and unusual. Unmarried volunteer officers and
soldiers of these first years in Canada, mostly from the Carignan regiment,
were willing to live in New France when they came to be released from
service, provided they could find themselves wives. But there were very few
white women in Canada. Of course there were native women, but they were
few and for the most part jealously reserved for the chiefs of their tribes.
Moreover, despite legend to the contrary, they had nothing attractive about
them once they had turned twenty, and they were lazy and dirty to a
repulsive degree. Only a few of those whom the nuns and missionaries had
managed to instruct and civilize a little found husbands among the Whites
instead of returning to their villages. (Douville and Casanova, p. 25)
. . . The women, after a few years of unbridled license and passion, were
hopeless drudges, busy all day at plodding tasks and becoming in time more
cruel than the men. Jacques Cartier had reported a custom at Hochelaga of
turning all girls at puberty into a community brothel, where they remained
until they chose a husband. The Huron custom was based on trial marriage.
A girl, after receiving a gift of wampum, would live with a man for a long
enough period to decide whether they suited each other well enough to make
a permanent partner ship of it. The more attractive of the dusky belles made
as many as a dozen experiments before settling down, and gathered as a
result a very handsome store of wampum and other geegaws for the
adornment of their plump brown bodies. This fickleness did not weigh
against them. It was a recognized approach to matrimony and, if they never
again allowed their fancy to stray after settling down, they were as well
regarded as young squaws who had been less adventurous. (Costain, p. 80-81)
And the Métis slowly discover that Cardinals and Kings set out to make them; that
Amerindians werent always willing to leap into bed or board with their European saviours;
and that their mothers were drudging to save their fathers.
Cardinal Richelieus new trading association in 1627 did include a
clause in its charter that providing that the Savages who will be brought to
the knowledge of the Faith and make profession of it, will be deemed and
reputed to be natural born Frenchmen, and as such may come to dwell in
France when it shall seem good to them. They would also enjoy all the
rights of acquiring and disposing of property and goods on the same footing
as the metropolitan French themselves without needing special letters of
declaration or of naturalization. (Jaenen, p.155)
There is evidence that the Amerindians did not always approve of the
kind of inter-marriage that the French wished to encourage. In 1635, the
commissioner general of the Company of New France reproached the
natives around Trois-Rivières for marrying only within their own tribe and for
avoiding alliances with Frenchmen. The following year, a chief from
Tadoussac replied to French charges that his people were not yet allied
with the French by any marriage . . . He told the assembly at Quebec that
when young Frenchmen joined the Montagnais warriors in war and returned
after the massacre of our enemies they would find native girls to marry.
. . . The primary reason, however, for having an Indian wife was simply one
of survival. In a non-technological society most of the work was done by
hand and to exist required teamwork with clearly differentiated roles for men
and women. Men were hunters, trappers, and protectors. Women took the
meat from the hunt and dried it or rendered the meat into pemmican. They
gathered berries, dug nutritious roots, cared for gardens and small fields of
grain in agricultural areas, dried and smoked fish, tanned hides, made
clothes, collected firewood, cooked, bore children and were largely
responsible for their upbringing. It was almost impossible for men to survive
without women. Europeans soon learned this lesson and, for this reason, as
well as others, eagerly took Indian women as mates. (Sealey and Lassier, p.
Our legends have effects, carrying racism and sexism as understory, and obscuring our
understandings of who we are individually and collectively. But if we open them up for
ourselves and discover how blood and bone dance jig time to fiddles in cabins, parks and
woodlots from Great Slave Lake to the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, and why Gertrude
Lillian Durand and Lorraine Durand spun Tommy off his feet at all those weddings, shining
red-black hair in buns, dark eyes flashing above high cheek bones, laughing through
hellaman left (allamande left).
Great Grandpa Durand, she told me not too long ago, made moccasins and shoes and
deerskin jackets: that he and his brothers were trappers and loggers. He could make
anything. He even made a two wheel cart once when Grandpa was small, all out of wood,
even the wheels, and they used it to go from Faribault to Turtle Lake in Wisconsin, or was
it Turtle Mountain? Did he tell you how the wheels sounded, and did an ox pull it? Did
he play a fiddle? Where did your dad and his brothers learn to jig. Did you ever see him
wear a sash, mom?
From Genoa, blue-eyed uncles, viking spawn; red beards, Berber blood; Etruscans,
Gauls, Goths, Visigoths, Franks, Carthaginians, Celts, Huns; from Saintonge, more Franks,
Celts, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes. For peasants its all the same whoever conquers;
and in violence, blood dances, chromosomes spin to new life. And then to multiply
miracles its Huron, Petun, Ojibway, Sioux, Assiniboine.
We are all of these in the blood, and we've bled over all of these and they over us.
If we begin to listen to this blood music, we may find were all brothers and sisters, and
Gertrude Lillian and I claiming Catherine Annennontak as grandmother 12 times removed,
will discover the wood carving Micmac/Bretons of the Gaspe as kissing cousins. This is
the sense of mosaic, of parts flowing to wholes, of brush strokes making paintings, of
words shaping poems, that I want to craft in my classes and on paper.
Costain, T. B. (1954). The white and the gold. New York: Doubleday.
Creighton, D. G. (1958). A history of Canada. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Douglas, J. (1906). Old France in the new world: Quebec in the Seventeenth Century. Cleveland and London: Burrows Brothers.
Douville, R. and Casanova, J. D. (1968). Daily life in early Canada. New York: Macmillan.
Eccles, W. J. (1969). The nature of the Canadian frontier. New York: Holt, Rhinehart,
Greys, Z. (1938). Spirit of the border. New York Triangle: Books.
Jaenen, C. J. (1976). Friend and foe: Aspects of French and Amerindian cultural contact
in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.
Parkman, F. (1991). The Oregon trail and The conspiracy of Pontiac. New York: Library
Waldo, A. L. (1980). Sacajawea. New York: Avon.
Twain, M. (1922). The adventures of Tom Sawyer. New York: Harpers.
Sealey, D. B. and Lussier, A. S. (1975). The Métis: Canadas forgotten people.
Winnipeg: Manitoba Metis Federation Press.