Wendat Lifeways - Wendake, circa 1500
Who are the Wendat (Huron)?
Wendat, meaning "island (or peninsula) dwellers," is the collective term for a northern Iroquoian people whose homeland, Wendake, is a peninsula in Georgian Bay of Lake Huron. (The Wendats are also known as Huron, a name used by the French, derived from the French word "hure" for "boar's head"—perhaps in reference to the Wendats' bristling hairstyles or as slang for "ruffian" or "rustic.") Up until the mid 1600s, the Wendats were a confederacy made up of five nations living close to one another in Wendake: Attignawantan (Bear Nation), Attigneenongnahac (Cord Nation), Arendahronon (Rock Nation), Tahontaenrat (Deer Nation or "the white-eared people"), and Ataronchronon ("people of the marshes"). Excellent farmers with surplus corn to trade with neighbors to the north and south, the Wendats were masters of trade and diplomacy.
A Prosperous Wendat Village
The illustration shows a Wendat settlement of numerous longhouses surrounded by a palisade and situated on an elevation near a river. There were a number of such large villages in 16th-century Wendake (before contact with Europeans) with populations of 1500 to 2000 in up to 100 longhouses. However, the majority of Wendat villages in this period were smaller—fewer than 800 people—and undefended. Larger, fortified villages evolved as warfare became more prevalent, and were more common near Wendake's southern borders. Some were actually multiple smaller villages that had merged together. The palisades for such large villages were made of multiple rows of stakes made from small trees—as many as 24,000 for the largest villages, according to one estimate! (1)
Wendake was densely populated. Most of the villages, of which there were perhaps 25, were located in an area that was 35 miles east to west and 20 miles north to south. In this area lived a population estimated at 18,000 to 22,000. The Wendats were able to support large, semi-permanent settlements through their success in agriculture. The cultivation of corn had become central to their culture around 700 AD. Wendake had a good supply of fertile, well-drained soil, and Wendat women were able to plant and harvest much more corn than needed for their own family. The surplus was used for trade or gifts for social and ceremonial occasions, or saved for years of drought.
One meaning of Wendat is "island dweller," which could describe Wendake, surrounded as it is on three sides by large bodies of water. But the Wendat creation story also tells of the whole world as an island created on the back of a turtle, and the Wendats as the first people, placed in the center of all the other nations. The Great Turtle, aided by other animals who dove to the bottom of the ocean and gathered soil to pile on his back, caught the sky-woman Aataentsic in her fall from the sky-world. She was pregnant, and gave birth to a daughter who in turn gave birth to the twin boys who finished creating the world. The benevolent twin, Tsetah or Iouskeha ("Man of Fire"), created an ideal world in which each river had two channels that flowed in opposite directions for easy travel; berries were the size of apples and easy to reach; maple sap was the consistency of syrup; and the land had only gentle hills. The malevolent twin, Tawiskaron ("Man of Flint"), sabotaged these convenient features to make life more challenging for people.
The twins challenged each other to a fight or a race, which the "benevolent" twin Tsetah won, in part by trickery. Drops of the injured "malevolent" twin's blood turned to flint when they touched the ground, becoming the beneficial source of Wendat tools and weapons. Killed or driven to the northwest, Tawiskaron lived on as his spirit continued to visit his grandmother Aataentsic, who had always favored him over his benevolent brother. Overall, the twins and their grandmother represent forces that are complementary rather than opposing; both are necessary for a balanced world and individual life. (For the complete creation story in text and audio, please visit the Voices & Songs menu.)
Other stories testify to the importance of animals in Wendat life. Animals were seen as people—just non-human ones—and other elements of the natural world were also considered beings with souls. These fellow creatures had to be treated with respect and gratitude for their sacrifices on behalf of humans. Their spirits or "okis" could either help human beings if treated properly, or harm them if abused.
Wendat Subsistence and the Work of Men and Women
Corn was the staple food for the Wendats throughout the year, and the basis of their economy. It is estimated that corn made up 65 percent of the Wendat diet, with the other two of the "three sisters" vegetables (beans and squash) making up another 15 percent. Women were responsible for planting, cultivating, and harvesting these important crops, which they grew in hills using wooden spades. Women also cooked the food, cared for children, made clothes and pottery, wove mats, and made cord and baskets.
Living as they did on the shores of Lake Huron and among many rivers, the Wendats' primary source of protein was fish. Wendat men caught fish with nets, often with the help of weirs across rivers and inlets, as well as by spearing them or using a hook and line. Only about five percent of the Wendats' diet came from meat, but they needed animal skins for clothing. The men went on hunting expeditions in the fall and late winter, usually outside of their own territory. (Game had become scarce in Wendake due to the population density.) They hunted deer in large groups—as many as several hundred men—driving the animals into either a body of water or a funnel-shaped enclosure where other hunters killed them with arrows and spears.
Men also built longhouses and palisades, and made birch-bark canoes, tools, and weapons. They contributed to agriculture by clearing new fields. Their stone axes could cut down only smaller trees; they killed large trees by girdling (cutting a strip of bark from around the trunk) and burning them. New fields were required every few years as the fertility of the soil became depleted; the Wendats did not replenish the soil by adding organic matter to it. In fact, villages had to be moved every 8 to 12 years, when all nearby fields were worn out and local firewood used up.
Georges Sioui, a contemporary Wendat historian, imagines the Wendat perspective at the end of the 15th century: "Wendake lies at the centre of the world. Through it pass all the great roads of trade and all the people of our extended society who understand and use our language to trade among themselves. . . . The most rare and precious things in the world circulate through our trading routes. . . . Our capacity for production and trade is great beyond imagining." (2)
The Wendats indeed traded widely, with the Algonkian nations to the north and other Iroquoian nations (e.g., Petun, Neutral) to the south. From the south they obtained luxury goods such as tobacco (which did not grow well in their northern climate), wampum, and black squirrel skins. With the Algonkians, the Wendats exchanged some of their abundant corn and the nets and rope they made for furs, dried fish, meat, and native copper. The Algonkians so depended on Wendat corn in the winter that people from several Algonkian nations lived among the Wendat during that season.
The Wendats traded only with people with whom they had established treaties or alliances. Trade relationships were similar to relationships within Wendat society, characterized by friendly reciprocity, and trading was often a formal occasion marked by feasts, speech-making, and gift exchange. Trade routes were owned by the person who discovered them and his clan headman, and others had to ask permission to use them—a request that was accompanied by significant gifts. Trade and ownership of trade routes were a source of significant wealth, which gave Wendats status by allowing them to demonstrate public generosity.
Family, Clan, and Government
Like other Iroquoian people, the Wendats lived in longhouses with their extended family, which consisted of grandmothers and mothers, their daughters and sisters, and the husbands and children of these women. The Wendats were thus a matrilocal society: where a person lived was determined by the woman's lineage. Nuclear families of father, mother, and children were recognized as "fireside families"—six or more per longhouse, paired on each side of a central fire—but the longhouse family was a more important unit. Sisters considered each other's children as sons and daughters, for example. Wendat society was also matrilineal: property, clan membership, and position were inherited through the woman's line.
Each of the Wendat nations had the same eight clans: Turtle, Wolf, Bear, Deer, Beaver, Hawk, Porcupine, and Snake. Everyone in a clan, no matter what their village or nation, was seen as related. This helped unify the five Wendat nations.
Each clan segment in a village governed itself, appointing two chiefs or headmen—a civil chief to maintain order, lead feasts and games, and represent the clan to larger groups; and a war chief. Chieftainship was hereditary to particular lineages, but individuals were chosen by the older women of the lineage on the basis of their intelligence, skill as orators, generosity, and courage. Village government consisted of a daily council of the civil headmen from each clan segment and other older village men, led by a principal chief or spokesman for the village. National government likewise consisted of councils of the civil headmen from each village.
The Wendat nations were bound together in a confederacy that was tighter than the Rotinonsionni (Iroquois Confederacy). The Wendat nations were geographically closer than those of the Five Nations Iroquois, coordinated trading activities as well as matters of war and peace, and were culturally more similar. The concept of alliance was and remained central to Wendat culture and values.
At all levels of their government, the Wendats worked by gaining consensus through extensive council discussions. No one had absolute power over another; even chiefs were considered no more than very respected men. Eloquence was a valued trait; the ability to persuade the group to one's viewpoint using the ritualized language of the councils was a powerful art. The Wendats were renowned among the nations of the northeast for their skill at oratory.
Wendat laws worked to contain violence within the society and between the Wendats and their trading partners. Murder was the worst crime, and technically it called for retribution by members of the murdered person's clan, who had the right to kill the murderer or his kin. In practice, the Wendats avoided blood feuds within the confederacy by substituting reparations payments to the dead person's clan. They used the same practice with their trading partners, giving reparations gifts of greater value so as not to trigger a war that would disrupt trade.
For nations with whom the Wendats did not have alliances—like the Iroquois Confederacy—the story was different. If a Wendat was injured or killed by an Iroquois, the war chief of his clan segment would initiate a war to exact retribution. The Iroquois had similar traditions, so an endless cycle of mutual raids became the norm. Raiding season was during the spring and summer, when the vegetation provided maximum cover for guerrilla-style raids.
Warfare was an opportunity for young men to prove themselves and gain status, so they were eager for it. War parties typically broke into groups of five or six and tried to attack individuals or small groups. The highest status went to those who captured enemy warriors. Captured warriors were brought back to the home village, adopted into a family, and usually ritually tortured and killed. A warrior was expected to endure this ordeal bravely, bringing honor to his nation. Women and children captives were more likely to be adopted into a family to replace lost loved ones than to be killed.