- Iroquois in the West by Jean Barman
References in primary sources to Six Nations Iroquois in the Canadian and American West have long drawn the attention of scholars, though mostly as a curiosity – why are these people, based in the Northeast and central to the colonial history of the region, so far from “home”? Jean Barman seeks to answer that question and draw together disparate fragments of the history of the Iroquois in the West into a coherent narrative history of groups of Iroquois found there from about 1800 to the early twentieth century. The Iroquois, she contends, were filled with an “adventurous spirit” (4) and went west as trappers and paddlers to take advantage of the fur trade, whose centre had moved west, and “self-determined their lives” while holding onto “their way of life” (3).
Barman draws upon mostly printed primary sources, scattered archival materials, genealogical studies, and databases prepared by other researchers. The Iroquois in the West were mostly Mohawks from three Catholic reserves established around Montreal in the 1600s. Based upon names in work contracts that seemed to be Iroquois, along with sources that identified some Iroquois as such, Barman concludes that about six hundred went west. Of those, most returned after their contracts ended; the number who stayed is not clear. Despite the effort at constructing a narrative, what emerges are stories of distinct clusters of Iroquois groups, with each story emphasizing group leaders, group descendants, and those elements of the thesis that the story helps to illustrate. (The disconnected nature of the narrative is a function of the reality that the Iroquois in the West were not one coherent group and were widely separated in space and, often, time – the latter an impression enhanced by source limitations.) Still, we learn that one Iroquois group moved in among the Flat Head Indians in Montana, introduced them to Christianity, and worked to help bring them Jesuit missionaries. Another cluster of Iroquois that contracted with the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company, respectively, took actions that led to reduced prices for goods advanced to the Iroquois on credit and better prices for the furs traded. In these sections of the book, there is a more sustained effort to demonstrate Iroquois influence in shaping events in the West, even as they “self-determined” their lives. The latter becomes the focus of the chapters for yet another group in the Pacific Northwest and one that settled in, and was then removed from, what became Jasper National Park. In reality, about all that can be done for these clusters is to trace elements of social life (marriages) and economic activity (hunting, trapping, working as guides), which, to be fair, is an accomplishment in its own right. Throughout, Barman is at pains to trace familial connections among and within the various clusters, and genealogists will be grateful for her efforts. It is an impressive bit of sleuthing.
A central question that arises from these stories, evident in the discussion at the end of the work about how Iroquois of the West were identified, and elided, is what was uniquely Iroquois about these groups, their way of life, and what, after generations of intermarriage, made them Iroquois? The fact that Iroquois left the reserves to live “as they would” (an expression used throughout the work) [End Page 130] seems obvious. That they considered themselves Iroquois, and were viewed as such by many others, is equally evident. But what made those lives uniquely Iroquois when the characteristics attributed to them (scattered throughout the book) are generic and could encompass voyageur lives and those of Metis people in general (hunters, trappers, good with canoes, hardy, Catholic, part or wholly Indigenous, independent of spirit and action)? Barman points out that the Iroquois, for the most part, married other Native people, not whites, and did not consider themselves Metis (29). But the reality is that they intermarried with others to the degree that some spoke only the language of the group with...