- Dispersed But Not Destroyed: A History of the Seventeenth-Century Wendat People by Kathryn Magee Labelle
In this welcome addition to seventeenth-century North American historiography, Kathryn Labelle takes aim at the longstanding discourse of “destruction” surrounding the Iroquois military assault on the Wendat (Huron) nation in 1649. Labelle seeks to answer how a people supposedly vanquished in 1649 managed to retain not only group identity under diasporic conditions but also significant political influence in the upper Great Lakes region to 1701 and beyond. The result of her effort is a provocative and important contribution to our understanding of Aboriginal nations’ capacities for survival under difficult circumstances associated with settler intrusion.
Although relying on many of the same primary sources (especially the Jesuit Relations) that her predecessors employed to craft a narrative of Wendat “destruction,” Labelle’s fresh take on the history of the Wendat people after 1649 is drawn from a close rereading of those texts integrated with a firm grounding in Wendat ethnography and some newly-available Wendat traditional sources. More than simply offering a “glass half full” counterpoint to declension-oriented narratives, Labelle invites her readers into the complex context of post-1649 “dispersal” Wendat history to demonstrate how those living through an undeniable sociopolitical catastrophe drew upon cultural traditions to formulate innovative responses to duress: spatial mobility, political alliances with Aboriginal and French allies, Christian devotion, the calibrated exploitation of what Labelle calls “cultural capital,” and linguistic brokerage of diplomacy all figure prominently in her account of Wendat persistence.
Focusing attention on Wendat dispersals after 1649, Labelle provides original and detailed accounts of Wendat suffering during their initial retreat to refuge on Gahoendoe Island from 1649 to 1650 — here she incorporates valuable new data from historical archaeology to help explain the extreme circumstances that motivated the Wendats to undertake more [End Page 551] distant removals to the upper Great Lakes and to refuge among the French in the St. Lawrence River valley. Her narrative then moves to chronological chapters on the Western Wendats (residing among Algonquian-speaking Ojibwes and Odawas at Michilimackinac) and the Eastern Wendats (who established a mission community near Québec that became known as Lorette) down to 1701 before concluding with thematic chapters on Leadership, Women, and Power. Given her emphasis on the degree to which Eastern Wendats felt compelled to manifest pious Christian devotion while living among the French, the fundamental geographic divergence of the Wendat population appears to be explained by this cultural fault line — a point further supported by the decision of many Eastern Wendats to relocate voluntarily to the lands of their former enemies, the Iroquois League, after their arrival in Québec.
While Magee devotes her seventh chapter to an analysis of the Wendats who relocated to Iroquoia after 1649, this intriguing phenomenon fits imperfectly with the author’s thesis and results in an uneven treatment of a significant aspect of the post-1649 Wendat dispersal. Labelle acknowledges that at least 2,000 (or twenty percent) of the Wendat population “either chose or were forced to move to Iroquois country” in 1650 and that these people “exceeded the numbers of Wendat at Michilimackinac and Lorette” (p. 120). She then notes that subsequent “large-scale relocations of hundreds and even whole villages of Wendats” (p. 120) occurred after 1650 but overlooks recent published estimates that quantify these subsequent relocations as encompassing at least an additional 1,600 and possibly 2,800 Wendats entering Iroquois communities as part of the dispersal. Finally, the chapter’s treatment of the experience of Wendat adoptees in Iroquoia emphasizes some of the ways in which these people retained a distinct identity during the first generation of their incorporation into Iroquois nations (a practice that Iroquois hosts not only tolerated but frequently encouraged) but fails to demonstrate that such concerns for distinction lasted much longer. It would appear that for many Wendat, the opportunity to retain an independent Aboriginal lifestyle among the Iroquois, sharing a...