The Eighteenth-Century Wyandot: A Clan-Based Study.
While scholars and laypeople might remember the Wyandots, or Hurons, as New France's most important allies in the seventeenth century, their story after 1649--when the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) defeated and dispersed them--is more obscure. Like a growing number of studies, however, John Steckley shows that the Wyandots not only survived their dispersal but rebuilt their communities in diaspora and thus have persisted to the present. In particular, Steckley argues that their matrilineal clan system "kept the Wyandot strong" and allowed them to weather the maelstrom of colonialism (p. 6). Using an innovative ethnohistorical and qualitative methodology, Steckley successfully explores the Wyandot clan system and, in the process, demonstrates how using indigenous, rather than Eurocentric, categories enhances our understanding of native peoples.
At the heart of Steckley's work is a 1747 census of those Wyandots who had settled at Detroit (other Wyandots had moved east to Jeune-Lorette near Quebec and are not addressed in this study). Created by Pierre Potier and his Wyandot informants, the census provides the clan identity of a large segment of the community. Since the names of Wyandot individuals are clan-specific--that is, the clans "possessed" the names of individuals and passed them down from generation to generation within the clan--Steckley is able to ascertain the clan identity not only of those listed in the census but also those who possessed the names before or after that time (p. 29). By systematically searching for these names in the documents, especially the records of the Wyandot mission, Steckley has built an impressive database of the Wyandot clans. Coupled with Steckley's expertise on the Wyandot language and culture, this methodology provides us an unparalleled picture of Wyandot political and social structure.
Based on this data, Steckley argues that the clans served as "most important constituent parts" (p. 25) of Wyandot society (p. 6). Most importantly, in times of crisis the clans served as a stabilizing force; they simultaneously provided a common touchstone for Wyandot identity and allowed the Wyandots to experiment with different "adaptive responses" to the challenges they faced (p. 6). For example, when the Wyandots found themselves depopulated, displaced and in a precarious diplomatic position in the late seventeenth century, different clan leaders adopted possible strategies to deal with the problems confronting their people (see chapter three). Steckley also finds that different clans developed different relationships with outsiders (chapter four) and adopted different approaches to Christianity (chapter five). Clans also determined the Wyandot's political structure (chapter six) and the political and social roles of Wyandot women (chapter seven).
Although this book will be most useful to specialists on the Wyandots, scholars interested in indigenous history more generally can learn much from Steckley's methodology and findings. One of the book's chief contributions is to decolonize our understandings of Wyandot social and political order. By emphasizing the role that clans played in community organization and leadership, Steckley demonstrates the inadequacy of viewing the Wyandots, as the French and British too often did, in "tribal" or "national" terms. He seeks to understand how historical Wyandot saw themselves and their communities as per the goals of Wilfred Laurier's Indigenous Studies Series to recover "Indigenous epistemological frameworks" and "intellectual traditions" (p. i). Scholars working on other peoples, even those with less thorough documentation, can learn much from Steckley's reconstruction of Wyandot clans and adept use of mission documents. More generally the book speaks to the resilience and flexibility of groups like the Wyandots to respond to pressures of colonialism without jettisoning their cultures or identities.
The book is a better read as an extended thought experiment about the role of clans in Wyandot culture than an extensive history of the eighteenth-century Wyandots themselves, however. While Steckley expertly parses the language and meticulously reconstructs the kinship patterns among the Wyandots, he neglects an extensive corpus of primary and secondary materials that would not only make his picture more complete, but likely change that picture in important ways. Contrary to Steckley's curious assertion that there is a "general lack of sources" on the Wyandots, French officials wrote often and copiously about the Wyandots--their trusted and indispensable allies--in the eighteenth century (pp. 12-13). Yet Steckley only refers to this correspondence casually and inconsistently and uses English translations instead of the original French. Granted, these documents were created by outsiders, but so are the missionary documents upon which he relies. Steckley also omits many important recent scholarly works on the Wyandots specifically, such as Kathryn Labelle's Dispersed but not Destroyed: A History of the Seventeenth-Century Wendat People (University of British Columbia Press, 2014), and on general issues like indigenous Christianities and Great Lakes ethnohistory. Steckley's contributions are therefore blunted; instead of getting the fullest story possible we are left with fragmented and speculative propositions on a number of important issues.
Steckley has nonetheless provided both a wealth of information on the Wyandot people and language (including three valuable appendices with English translations of Wyandot documents). His provocative and compelling look into the Wyandot community is sure to spark further conversation and study.
Andrew Sturtevant, University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2015|
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