Leadership at the “Mission Villages” of the 17th Century
For centuries, the Five Nations had been united under the Great Law of Peace, but they were eventually drawn into conflict over their involvement with competing colonies and other aboriginal nations for control over the fur trade. Eventually the hard-won unity of the Iroquois was unraveled by the work of Jesuit missionaries who convinced many of our ancestors to migrate to “mission villages” established on the banks of the St. Lawrence River opposite Montreal. At the new village of Kahnawà:ke (“At The Rapids”), they added Roman Catholicism to the pouch of their evolving culture, taking it so much to heart that one convert in particular, Kateri Tekakwitha, would eventually be beatified (declared blessed) by the Pope John Paul II.
According to the Jesuit Relations, the new community followed the lead of the priests until 1671, when it “elected” two “captains” to represent them:
Having then agreed together, in the summer of the current year, to accept forever the settlement of la prairie, they resolved to elect two christians, one for government and war, the other to watch over the observance of Christianity and religion. They recommended the matter to God, Judging it of the utmost importance, and with this intention heard mass. Then having assembled, they all with one consent chose the two who in fact have most merit and capacity for the exercise of these two offices. This election took place by majority of votes, as other transactions are settled among the iroquois — among whom the chiefs indeed speak, but they take the word from the elders of their village. Since then, our two captains have been obeyed, but, as was once seen by experience, lose their influence if they are not good Christians. They are strictly obeyed, especially in the observance of their regulations for good morals.7
The community quickly outgrew its settlement at La Prairie and relocated to present-day Sainte-Catherine in 1676. Father Pierre Cholenec, who was stationed there, described the community and its evolving governance structure in 1677:
The mission of st. Francois xavier du sault consists of 22 Huron and Iroquois Cabins, in addition to the Chapel and to our house. It is governed by the same captains as at la Prairie—namely, 2 hurons and 2 Iroquois. There is reason to hope that we shall shortly have there 4 captains of the principal Iroquois nations.8
Some have interpreted the above quotes as evidence of democratic elections at Kahnawà:ke, while others have suggested they imply adherence to the traditional forms of the Rotinonhsón:ni Confederacy.
Father Joseph Francois Lafitau was a Jesuit stationed at Kahnawà:ke in the early 1700’s. In his writing, he emphasized the strong political role of women:
…it is said that only the men among the Indians are really free and that the women are only their slaves. Nothing is more real, however, than the women’s superiority. It is they who really maintain the tribe, the nobility of blood, the genealogical tree, the order of generations and conservation of the families. In them resides all the real authority: the lands, fields and all their harvest belong to them; they are the soul of the councils, the arbiters of peace and war; they hold the taxes and the public treasure; it is to them that the slaves are entrusted; they arrange the marriages; the children are under their authority; and the order of succession is founded on their blood. The men, on the contrary, are entirely isolated and limited to themselves. Their children are strangers to them. Everything perishes with them. A woman alone gives continuity to the household, but, if there are only men in the lodge, however many there may be, whatever number of children they may have, their family dies out with them. And, although the chiefs are chosen among them, they are purely honorary. The Council of Elders which transacts all the business does not work for itself. It seems that they serve only to represent and aid the women in the matters in which decorum does not permit the latter to appear or act.
…the real authority is in the women’s hands, but they choose chiefs in their families to represent them and be, as it were, the repositories of this authority within the senate [council], as I shall explain later on in speaking of their government. The women choose their chiefs among their maternal brothers or their own children and it is the latter‘s brothers of nephews who succeed them in their mother’s household.
…In every family a certain number of ancestral names, both men’s and women’s are kept. These names are their own and known to be taken by such and such a family. Now it is the custom in each family to requicken and resuscitate, in some manner, those who, issuing from that family, have made it illustrious. They exalt thus, at the same time, the names of those whom they make live again, and impose them on those of their grand nephews destined to represent them. The latter assume more or less importance according as those who had borne their names were more or less important themselves by their qualities, virtues and deeds.
…These names change with age. A child either has no name, or takes that of another child, a young man, that of a warrior and an old man, that of some elder. As soon as a person dies, the name that he bore is buried with him and it is only several years afterward that it is renewed.9
It is said that as many as 22 different nations or tribes made up the new community at Kahnawà:ke, but the dominant culture and language was Mohawk, and remains so to this day. Europeans also joined the mix through captivity and adoption, most notably in raids on New England settlements in the early 1700’s that brought family names like Rice, Williams, and Tarbell into the ranks of our ancestors. The egalitarian nature of our communities allowed many of these new additions to assume leadership positions and a degree of prominence. As this history unfolds, we will encounter the names of Williams and Tarbell in positions of leadership at Ahkwesáhsne.
The northern migration to the St. Lawrence River Valley brought our ancestors into peaceful alliance with former enemies like the Algonquin, Abenaki, and Huron, while at the same time bringing them into occasional conflict with the people of their own confederacy. Tsiá:ta Nihononhwentsiá:ke, known to colonists as the “Seven Nations of Canada,” was inspired by the cultural and political model of the Five Nations, but spoke for itself in dealing with the colonies. The Mohawks and other Iroquois peoples who were a part of this alliance nevertheless maintained friendly relations with their kin who had stayed behind. These family ties were put to the test during the conflict known as the French and Indian War (1754-1760), the North American theater of the Seven Years War.
7 Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, vol. LXIII, p. 162.
8 Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, vol. LX, p. 275.
9 Fenton, W., and Moore, E., The Customs of the American Indian Compared with the Customs of Primitive Times by Father Joseph François Lafitau, The Champlain Society, Toronto, 1974, vol. I, p. 69-71.