Inventing Iroquoia? Migrating Tropes of Similarity and Heritage in Francophone Narratives of Colonial Possession

Barbara Buchenau,

University of Bern, Switzerland

Today’s interest in inter-American connections brings back the texts and tropes of non-English founding figures such as Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain. These texts and tropes challenge us to rethink the European race of colonization also with regard to the cultural work that comparisons and alignments are able to perform. Since the texts of unsuccessful colonizers such as Cartier underwent significant change when they were edited, re-edited, translated and re-translated over the centuries, their canonization as pivotal exploration and contact literature in the early decades of the twentieth century warrants critical attention. Beyond the regional cultural importance of these texts and beyond their functions as ethnohistorical sources, their old and new presence in English-language contexts and their translated re-introduction in recent anthologies and curricula of Early America have paved the way for a critical engagement with the history of contact. A scrutiny of these texts and their tropes can lead to a better understanding of the cultural accommodations that were the hallmark of early colonial times; at the same time it also throw a new light on a history of claiming indigeneity and producing a native heritage that is by no means concluded today.

Early non-English narratives about the Americas have recently experienced a veritable renaissance as they enter not only the canon of American literature and American Studies programs in the U.S. and abroad, but also the transnational marketplace of popular documentary literature and its satellites of merchandise and scholastic material. Made available in old and new translations, in scholarly anthologies as well as often heavily illustrated popular and juvenile literature adaptations, these narratives remind us of a heated competition among European rulers, merchants, and missionaries for exclusive rights to exploration, exploitation, settlement, acculturation, and proselytizing. In many ways, however, their renaissance also expands upon the very idea of a European race for knowledge and power through a production of colonial spaces in the Americas that the papal bull Inter cætera had so ineffectively sought to contain. Taking the current popular revival of the narratives of Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain as an incentive to revisit their depiction of the Northeast of North America and their constitution of Iroquoia as a proto-national collaborator and rival in colonization, I analyze two tropes in the texts and maps of Cartier and Champlain, which invent a biblical heritage for indigenous America and claim inter-American similarities.

Competing Narratives of Colonial Possession and the Marketplace

Texts of exploration and colonial possession are migrant texts par excellence. They circulated widely from the moment of their production onwards: initially, they traveled back rather cautiously to those who paid for the exploits, providing them with information that did not always bear to be spread too widely. Most frequently these scribal publications were designated for the perusal of a jealously guarded coterie of would-be colonizers. Later, when information about New World explorations violating the regulations of the papal bull Inter cætera was no longer deemed to be top secret, readers passed on exploratory reports in manuscript form, with the narratives experiencing treatment as both, treasure and poison, along the way. Once these texts became part of history, loosing their initial political task and context, they often found their way into compilations that followed distinctive political rationales.

These early versions of anthologies were compiled by illustrious figures such as Giovanni Battista Ramusio, Richard Hakluyt, Marc Lescarbot and Samuel Purchas, each one gathering, selecting, translating and occasionally rewriting exploratory documents according to different rules and for quite specific purposes of his own (see Bauer, Cultural Geography, 80; Zecher, “Marc Lescarbot”). Employing a heavy editorial hand, compilers generally sought to spread news about the New World and they invited their readers to develop colonizing and exploratory plans of their own and to enter the competition, start the race. Under their supervision, texts of exploration and colonization migrated across multiple linguistic, cultural, regional and early national borders, changing and producing change along the way.

Early exploratory and colonial documents underwent another major change when the stories and personae of their producers were written down and popularized in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Frequently enough the texts followed the fate of their authors, who were “conscripted to the service of nationalist historiography,” becoming “surrogates for the collective bonds of nationalism” (Gordon, The Hero and the Historians, 7 and 5). In the context of French Canada, aspiring scholars of the nineteenth century such as Alfred Ramé (1826-1886), and the early ethnologist Marie Armand Pascal d’Avezac (1800-1875) and scholarly experts of the early twentieth century such as Henry Percival Biggar (1872-1938) translated and/or published the deeds and words of those European explorers and early colonizers who, according to the respective scholar’s estimate, captured the most important features of colonization and marked the beginning of non-American national trajectories in North America.

While Ramé and d’Avezac were centrally involved in the constitution of scholarly fields such as ethnography and geography even as they sought to identify and celebrate historical figures of francophone New World discovery and colonization as proto-national heroes, Henry Percival Biggar operated in contexts in which competitions between Canadian and U.S. American nationalisms and the concomitant rise of new scholarly fields came to the fore. After studies at the University of Toronto and at Oxford, Biggar became a staff member of Public Archives of Canada soon after its foundation (working there from 1899 until his death in 1938). From 1905 onwards, he was the chief archivist for Canada in Europe, author of Early Trading Companies in New France, 1901, editor of Works of Samuel de Champlain, 1922-36, The Precursors of Jacques Cartier, 1911, A Collection of Documents relating to Jacques Cartier and the Sieur de Roberval, 1930. Arguably, he is the one editor who did more than anybody else to restore the texts of Cartier and Champlain to the English-speaking public, thus enabling their commemoration and celebration as founding fathers of modern-day Canada and, more recently, a transnational North America which seeks to re-define itself in terms of hemispheric spatial relations and recovered historical roots in indigeneity.

Concerns for hemispheric roots and indigenous origins have shaped many editions published in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century; additionally these concerns also fostered the rise of disciplinary scholarship. A public demand for national narratives was the third component in a common attempt to produce both, European founding figures for the budding new nations and indigenous counter-figures and counter-narratives which equally sought to produce a sense of belonging and social identity (Gordon, The Hero and the Historians). If nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholarship collaborated with literature and popular culture to produce founders, foundational fictions and increasingly narrow national views of the Americas, the theoretical, methodological and technological innovations of recent decades have encouraged the formation of a whole new field of inquiry which re-assesses and re-conceptualizes the competing narratives of colonial possession from transnational and transcultural vantage points. In these new assessments, one major focus of investigation is dedicated to the reconstruction of the life, culture and history of precolonial and early colonial American Indians. In North America, interest in the Haudenosaunee, otherwise known as the Iroquois, is particularly pronounced. Retelling early American history from indigenous vantage points or from the vantage point of non-English colonizers, scholars such as Daniel Richter in Facing East from Indian Country and David Hackett Fischer in Champlain’s Dream throw a new light on established national and nationalist histories and their heroes.

In contexts of postcolonial rewritings of early North American history the authors of especially the non-English colonial texts re-emerge as amazingly positive founding figures, as people of monumental status, whose legacy, if correctly understood and studied, will change the story of the New World and its emerging nations. According to this view, a reassessment of non-English colonial texts might change the meaning and the importance of colonial history for current conceptions of indigeneity and it might even affect present-day conceptions of North American Indian identities, since these colonial texts offer alternative views of North America and its cultural diversity. The test cases of this paper are two French travelers and explorers who based their assessment of North America on experience gathered and tropes developed during early exploratory travels to South America: Jacques Cartier, who flaunted the legal restrictions to a French presence in the New World imposed by the papal bull Inter cætera (1493) and conducted three royally sponsored exploratory and colonizing missions on the St. Lawrence River in the years 1534 – 1545, and Samuel de Champlain, the founder of Québec in 1608, who, for nearly forty years (1599 to 1635), travelled rather constantly between the Old World and the New (see Hart, Representing the New World, 19-20, 41-46 and 176-82).

In recent public discourse as it is instantiated in commemorative acts, pamphlets, juvenile literature, and popular histories which cater to competing audiences and their cultural habits, Jacques Cartier is usually seen as the hardy, potentially ruthless sixteenth-century discoverer of New France. Cartier, readers will learn rather quickly, initiated a North American tradition of impressing North American Indians, especially young Haudenosaunee men, into the service of intercultural diplomacy. [1] Across the centuries Cartier experienced a steep rise in popularity accompanying the nationalizing campaigns of the late nineteenth century and an equally sharp decline after the 1984 public celebrations of the 450th anniversary of his landfall in Northern America failed to raise positive public sentiments (Gordon, The Hero and the Historians). Samuel de Champlain, however, experienced a North American (that is, Canadian and U.S. American) rise to fame that is unmatched by any other Francophone explorer or colonizer (Fischer, Champlain’s Dream; Leroux, Review of Gordon). Histories for adults and children alike celebrate Champlain as the promoter of an inter-American style of diplomacy, which depended on the careful education of acculturated go-betweens on both sides (e.g. Francis/Jones/Smith, Origins, 52-54). If Cartier is remembered for his failure to build up a sustainable form of interaction with North American Indians and for his obsession with material gain, Samuel de Champlain, by contrast, is currently cherished for his communicative and interactive successes rather than for his initiation of extended intertribal and colonial warfare (e.g. Boyer et al., Enduring Vision, 44-45).

As many critics see it today, Jacques Cartier’s actions and mindset foreclosed productive interactions, ensuring colonial failure until a more gifted and open-minded leader such as Samuel de Champlain would come along. This understanding of Cartier is particularly strong in readings published in the context of the quadri-centennial of the foundation of Québec in 2008 (see Fischer, Champlain’s Dream; Gordon, The Hero and the Historians). Champlain, who traveled along paths initially described by Cartier and who placed Iroquoia and Iroquoian warfare onto the European mental map of the New World, has risen to considerable fame in recent years. Reassessed as a North American and possibly even a prototypical U.S. American, rather than Canadian founding figure, Champlain speaks to competing narratives of faith, denomination, and cultural background. Especially the U.S. press addresses Champlain as a communicatively gifted founder. Newspaper articles and press releases dwell on Champlain’s cross-cultural collaborations and negotiations, finding in them an alternative francophone, Catholic, non-acquisitive, accommodating narrative of colonial North America, using them towards a vision of a continental history that is rooted in indigeneity. This narrative differs quite considerably from histories of the Anglo-Saxon, Protestant record and their emphasis on non-accommodation, exploitation, and betrayal. At the same time, it rarely reflects on the Spanish and Portuguese records that informed the actions and descriptions of Cartier and Champlain. [2]

With the hindsight of the quadri-centennial of the foundation of Quebec in 2008 it is astonishing to see how very central Champlain has become to the rewriting of Anglo-American history (e.g. Fischer, Champlain’s Dream). Apparently, the persona of Champlain represents far better than Cartier a culturally and politically important, if overlooked language community in North America. Champlain’s foundational activities and his dealings with the Abenaki, the Montaignais and the Haudenosaunee apparently offer a productive counterpoise to the English Puritan record of the errand into the wilderness (Perry Miller), expressing a humane, appreciative, and thus commendable variant of colonialism and intercultural accommodation. As David Hackett Fischer points out, Champlain provides his readers with a sustainable alternative dream of and for America (Champlain’s Dream). Coming from the Saintonge, he brought to America the idea that “a province, a people, a language, a culture, and a way of life” can be set apart from French cultural, linguistic, and social norms by a linguistic, cultural, and religious “borderland” status and by an ability to produce first-class “mediators” able to negotiate different beliefs and expectations (Champlain’s Dream, 30, 37, 41).

Today’s contrastive interpretations of Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain seize upon consequential continuities as well as discrepancies in the tropes and descriptive modes employed by these two authors. These tropes described and thus captured Champlain’s North American Indian partners of interaction. Furthermore, Cartier’s texts apparently established a set of colonial hermeneutic practices that survived the failures of Cartier’s colonial ventures and the comparative obscurity of his texts. Champlain’s savvy conjunction of writings, maps, and engravings, however, elaborated upon a selective number of figures produced by Cartier. In addition, Champlain’s actions in North America sparked consequential forms of intercultural conflict, which equally reach much further than the intercultural accomplishments of the person who brought them to life.

Traveling Tropes: Claiming an Indigenous Judeo-Christian Heritage, Defining Inter-American Similarities

As Gerard Genette has pointed out, tropes are “gap(s) between sign and meaning” which produce an “inner space of language” that the reader has to traverse and bridge to make sense and establish meaning (Figures of Literary Discourse, 1982, 49). Each movement across this space doubles and alters meaning, either instituting a change in meaning or orchestrating the substitution of one meaning by another. The reader, as Genette says, “is able to translate implicitly one expression by another, and to assess their gap, their angle, their distance” (Figures of Literary Discourse, 51). When tropes themselves travel, when they migrate from one cultural or historical context to another, this potential for substitution or change becomes bigger and so does the need for bridges and traversals. Tropes, we can accordingly expect, are subtle and hence extremely effective tools of intercultural accommodation in contexts of conquest and colonization, because they allow their readers to make connections, build bridges and thus bring about change and possibly even replacement of one meaning by another.

In the Americas, tropes of heritage and tropes of similarity – that is, words which provide a sense of historical rootedness, of belonging, and words which establish a sense of likeness, have been used over centuries in discrepant efforts to tell the story of the continent and its many, often incompatible people. Recurring in changing contexts, they become textual migrants, words and ideas that need to build up new affiliations and associations in order to be understood and brought alive. In the process, they transform the story itself without dismissing the common need for a unifying story. In Jacques Cartier’s narrative of his first exploratory journey into the bay of the St. Lawrence River, this unsuccessful 16th-century colonizer on the payroll of the Valois king François I crafted two tropes that are of special interest to our consideration of indigeneity in the Americas. These tropes have assumed a vibrant textual life beyond the changing fate of Jacques Cartier’s texts. When Cartier first encountered the Northern shore of the St. Lawrence River, he captured his disappointment in words that bestowed a heritage on the land and its people:

If the soil were as good as the harbours, it would be a blessing; but the land should not be called the New Land, being composed of stones and horrible rugged rocks; for along the whole of the north shore I did not see one cart-load of earth and yet I landed in many places. … In fine, I am rather inclined to believe that this is the land God gave to Cain.
Si la terre estoit aussi bonne qu’il y a bons hables se seroit ung bien mais elle ne se doibt nonmer Terre Neuffve mais pierres et rochiers effarables et mal rabottez car en toute ladite coste du nort je n’y vy une charetée de terre et si descendy en plusseurs lieux. …Fin j’estime mieulx que aultrement que c’est la terre que Dieu donna á Cayn. [3]

This is a sweeping statement of the authorial voice. Demarcating the text’s alignment with a budding scientific discourse that, as Michel Foucault has noted, demanded a strong author function to become effective, this quote inserts the newly found land into the stories of the Old Testament, thus claiming that North America has a biblical heritage as the land the Old Testament God gave to Adam and Eve’s vengeful grain-producing son Cain. In the book of Genesis, this land, the biblical Nod in the east of Eden, was to be an eternal punishment for Cain’s fratricide.

This figural identification of present-day Quebec as Cain’s land incorporates the New World into a biblical map of the world. The extraordinary status of this placement, however, is clarified by a shift in narrative transmission. While a communal speaker narrates the events in most sections of the text, this scene contains a speaker who is briefly recognizable as Jacques Cartier. Hence, the understanding of the Quebec coastline as the biblical Nod is marked as being neither accidental nor fleeting. Implying references to both the planisphere of Hereford (1280-1300) and the 1529 world map of Gerolamo Verrazzano, the cartographic identification establishes connections “between the old myth of the ‘sons of Cain’ and the new myth of the noble savage,” a linkage which opens a “renewed Eden” to a “new Adam” while delineating the future roles to be played by all who are involved in the encounter (Formisano, “Les Amérindiens,” 34, my translation). This affiliation of the American continent with a specific biblical landscape and its human history produces a whole script, indeed, for future interaction, defining the kinds of life options available in a worldly Nod.

In Genesis 4, Cain is identified as “a tiller of the ground” whereas his brother Abel is “a keeper of sheep” whose offering of meat and “fat” is more pleasing to “the Lord” than Cain’s offering of “the fruit of the ground” (Genesis 4, 2-5). On the basis of this opposition a lethal jealousy grounded in distinct forms of sustenance and their social as well as spiritual status takes its way. Cain kills Abel and is consecutively cursed to till the ground in vain and to be “a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth” (Genesis 4, 12), who must live “in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden” (Genesis 4, 16). Some of Cain’s offspring will “dwell in tents” (Genesis 4, 20), others “handle the harp and organ” (Genesis 4, 21), and still others are “artificer[s] in brass and iron” (Genesis 4, 22); i.e., people who practice agriculture, but with starkly limited success, who (being fugitives) lack fixed habitations and a proper title to the land, who enjoy (musical) performance, and who are well-versed in the basic materials needed for lethal warfare.

Aligning himself with the biblical narrative of Cain and his offspring, the autobiographical speaker in Cartier’s first voyage envisions all of these possibilities for the people he encounters. As Cartier’s team slowly moves off and onto the biblical map, narrative tension augments whenever the westward movement appears to take the explorers back into a Garden of Eden, with returns to Nod looming large throughout the text. In these contexts, the crime of Cain with its flavor of dysfunctional family ties, disobedience, and above all treachery accompanies the conflict-ridden and often callous interactions with St. Lawrence Iroquoians like a theme, serving as plot-pattern and explanatory framework whenever Iroquoians alienated Cartier. [4] We might even wonder whether the three biblical attributes of the inhabitants of Nod – laborious, yet ineffective agriculture, musical and performative entertainment, and martial artisanship –, along with the insinuation of faithlessness and treachery, did not accompany the representation of many North American Indians in western cultural production throughout the centuries, direly circumscribing further individual options for the future.

If Cartier’s first trope had offered a Judeo-Christian heritage to indigenous North America, while drawing attention to questions of agriculture, his second trope leaves the realm of biblical affiliations, expanding, instead, on the idea of indigenous agriculture. This time, we witness an encounter between the Frenchmen and the St. Lawrence Iroquoians on the Gaspe Peninsula. In these contexts Cartier employs knowledge he apparently gathered from journeys of exploration to Brazil, using this knowledge to make sense of the new surroundings:

Here likewise grows corn like pease, the same as in Brazil, which they eat in place of bread, and of this they had a quantity with them. They call it in their language, Kagaige (Cartier, Voyages, 25).
Pareillement y croist de groz mil comme poix ainsi que au Bresil qu’ilz mangent en lieu de pain dequoy ilz avoyent tout plain avecques eulx nomment en leur langaige kagaige (Cartier, Premier Relation, 115).

Here, a speaker who is no longer personalized envisions the lands and the sustenance of St. Lawrence Iroquoians through a comparative lens, defining it in terms of its similarities with Brazilian foodways. It is a rather off-handed remark introducing the narrator’s own inter-American knowledge in a rather un-obtrusive manner. At the same time, this trope of similarity establishes the Americas as one more or less continuous entity, an entity united by Indian corn. – For a statement dating back to the year 1534, this is an astonishing alignment indeed, since explorers sent out to find a faster and cheaper route to the riches of the Far East still searched for the gap in the obstacle America, ideally a northwestern passage that would give proof to a divine sense of symmetry by mirroring the passage that Fernão de Magalhães had found during his circumnavigation in the years 1519-1522. A search for knowledge about possible commonalities in the Americas had not yet begun, though interest in its unique fauna and flora and possible staples surely had, with corn or maize being noted first and firstmost as a welcome form of nourishment for explorers unprepared to engage in planting and agriculture themselves.

Christopher Columbus had described maize when visiting present-day Cuba and Francisco Pizarro had most likely been the first to import maize from South America in 1532, two years before the above description by Jacques Cartier (Margolin, “Quelque bouches,” 80, Cartier, Premier Relation, 336, fn. 274). Nevertheless, the term maize did not enter the English vocabulary until the late 16th century and it did not become common until the early 17th century (Bideaux 336, fn 274, OED, “maize”). Its more colloquial name, “Indian corn,” only entered public usage in the late 17th century in texts about British North America (OED, “corn”, meaning 5a).

Under this new name corn became an important figure in early national discourse in the U.S.A. more than a century later. In the 19th century, a large, but unsuccessful campaign was being launched to adopt “Indian Corn” as a national icon for the U.S.A. (Clarke, “Indian Corn as Our National Plant”). It is in this context that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s best-seller long poem The Song of Hiawatha acquired the broadest circulation. In Longfellow’s poem a historical founding figure of the Haudenosaunee, Hiawatha, the 16th-century founder of the Iroquoian League of Great Power and Peace, was celebrated as the supposed inventor of Indian corn who had to wrestle with and kill the Corn God Mondamin, before he could invent agriculture. At the least by the time of Longfellow’s absurd collage of Iroquoian, Ojibwean, Finnish, German and British history and lore (see Irmscher, Longfellow Redux), Indian corn had become one of the paraphernalia of the New World.

Indian corn and its possible echoes of a line of descent from biblical Nod is very present in the writings and maps of Samuel de Champlain as well. On the ornamental fringes of Champlain’s Carte Géographique de la Nouelle Franse” (1612), engravings of North American plants and agricultural products are introduced along with pictures of a couple of hunters and a couple of farmers and their varying insistences of closeness to or distance from contemporaneous French visual culture. Designed in 1612 but distributed to a wider audience as an introductory, tipped-in addition to Les Voyages du Sieur de Champlain (1613), the Carte Geographique is a founding document of New France, but it is also one of the fist extensive representations of what would become New England. At the same time, it is the first map of Iroquoia, with a lake, a river and a whole settlement area (“contres des yrocois”) being marked with variations of the term “Yrocois” and a key identifying the places where major French actions and conflicts described in the narrative took place. [5]

Fig. 1: Samuel de Champlain, Carte Geographique de la Nouelle Franse (1612), courtesy of Göttingen State and University Library, Germany (shelfmark: 8 Itin I, 4327 Rara)

It is also one of the first representations to be framed by an opposition between hunting and agriculture as central forms of sustenance and culture. As Nicolas Kushner has pointed out, Christian missionaries would later use a similar opposition to pit Europe against North American Indian (agri)culture (Why Have You Come Here, 11-12). The texts of Samuel de Champlain’s Des Sauvages (1603) and its follow-up Les Voyages (1612) expand upon this opposition, suggesting that the hunters become allies who support the European newcomers without ever moving up to the status of full members of their communities. Champlain’s agriculturalists, on the other hand, make war on the civilizing project of the Europeans, since it endangers their own version of (agri)culture. Champlain’s map is based on cartographic measurements made during his extensive travel, but in its depiction of the western lakes it also explicitly draws on geographical details and visualizations provided by North American Indian informants (e.g. Champlain, Des Sauvages, 136, 158; Voyages II: 191-92). In the map, the borders of Iroquoia seem to be carefully marked by the very fur-bearing animals such as the mink, the muskrat and the porcupine, which fueled the North American Columbian exchange. For a viewer looking south from Tadoussac or Québec, it even seems that the word “yrocois” is always blocking access to the desirable animals on the map.

Fig. 2: Samuel de Champlain, Carte Geographique de la Nouelle Franse (1612), courtesy of Göttingen State and University Library, Germany (shelfmark: 8 Itin I, 4327 Rara)

The map itself is embellished with a Montaignais and an Almouchiquois / Eastern Abenaki couple, each offering not only their tools and goods to the student of the map, but providing a framework and rationale as well for an agrarian reading of both the map and the texts of Champlain. A reading, which follows this proffered framework, produces an Iroquoia that is a quintessential diaspora. In the text of Les Voyages, the Montaignais and the Almouchiquois are identified as respective members of one cultural and linguistic community which entered into a sustained alliance with the French on the St. Lawrence River and another cultural and linguistic community in New England which opposed French attempts to settle there. In the embellishment of the map, the alliance-bound Montaignais couple appear to stand for a subsistence economy which relies on fishing, hunting, and warfare – the woman, nursing an infant in a blanket, holds a paddle, thus signifying the importance of water-bound travel and transfer, while the man is armed not only with the ubiquitous arrows and bow, but also with a shield and a war club. The opposition-bent Almouchiquois, however, apparently are sparsely armed, childless and immobile agriculturalists. Theirs is an air of superiority and nobility, which is insufficiently explained in terms of an authorial preference for a sedentary over a nomadic lifestyle.

As François Gagnon has pointed out, the embellishments of Champlain’s map do not concentrate on questions of settlement patterns, and they do not pit a nomadic people against a sedentary people. Instead, Champlain’s agriculturalists are recognizably biblical figures which respond to Cartier’s narrative strain of the exiled and thus ultimately homeless farmer Cain – an interpretation which dovetails with contemporaneous European legal interpretations of North American Indians as people who hold but do not own the land (Champlain: Painter? 308-11; Green/Dickason, Law of Nations).

Fig. 3: Samuel de Champlain, Carte Geographique de la Nouelle Franse (1612), courtesy of Göttingen State and University Library, Germany (shelfmark: 8 Itin I, 4327 Rara)

In the engraving, the Almouchiquois couple is placed on the right, eastern side of the picture. The two are set in brighter contexts, and they are somewhat taller and of lighter complexion and hair color than the Montaignais – all of these choices possibly denoting superiority. The woman holds a gourd and a spike of corn and her bearings are much less casual, but more representational than those of the Montaignais woman. Presenting her agricultural gifts like the goddess Ceres, her physiognomy, facial outlines and complexion do not differ much from the queens and goddesses to be found in the Baroque paintings of Peter Paul Rubens. The man – whose facial features resemble contemporaneous representations of Henri IV – is armed with knife, spear, and arrows, yet he is unguarded (Gagnon, Champlain: Painter? 309). With no habitation in sight, this couple is kept apart and yet united by two fragile sunflowers that underscore their non-European agricultural occupations while signaling that the Almouchiquois operate in the hostile landscape of biblical outcasts.

Being without offspring, their fruits are solely agricultural. Arguably, this partial and strategic infertility complements and controls the couple’s supposed royal and possibly divine status. The missing offspring can also be understood to prepare and legalize the replacement of the Almouchiquois by French settlers and farmers. Oddly, the embellishment’s insistence on the infertility of Champlain’s agricultural antagonists was repeated in scholarship and poetry alike. Scholarship has numbered the Almouchiquois among the disappearing tribes, arguing – probably erroneously – that New England agriculturalists did not survive the diseases and the violence brought on by European colonization (see Baker, “Finding the Almouchiquois”). In Champlain’s Les Voyages agriculture itself becomes part of a dream of North American colonization that draws on the story of Nod to negotiate the military, religious and cultural replacement of indigenous farmers by French Catholics and their mission of nationalism and faith.

Towards an Inter-American Study of Early America and its Concepts of Indigeneity: Challenges and Problems

As David Hackett Fischer has noted, Samuel de Champlain harbored a vision of a peaceful, intercultural North America (Fischer, Champlain’s Dream). Champlain is not only one of the most prolific, if underestimated writers and illustrators of colonial North America; he is also one of the very few truly inter-American writers, since he travel to and wrote about South and North America. His work registers and feeds the heated European competition for the seizure and exploitation of the New World, but it also encourages later re-interpretations which use the strategic self-promotion of Champlain’s autobiographical speaker to produce an alternate nationalizing founding figure for North America. When we address Champlain’s figurations in the twenty-first century, we have to account for a long history of celebrating their author. Confluences and dissonances between the founder and his tropes affect and change either. At the same time, the battle over Champlain’s possible status as founder of many homes – New France, Québec, Canada and even North America – produces many implicit and explicit intertextual rivalries until today.

In Voyages du Sieur de Champlain (1613), Champlain’s second Canadian travel report, a peculiar blend of maps, illustrations, and written discourse inscribes itself into the Judeo-Christian hermeneutic tradition employed by Jacques Cartier, but departs from this tradition in its strategic invention of the Iroquois as constitutive enemies of the colonizing project. Champlain’s texts and maps unfold a plan of intercultural negotiation with North American Indian trading partners and a military intervention against the Haudenosaunee. This plan is recognizable in Champlain’s first Canadian report Des Sauvages and it would generalized roughly twenty years later in a final historicizing account of the colonial interactions in the Northeast, Les Voyages de la Nouvvelle France Occidentale (1632). Samuel de Champlain produced one of the first bi-medial traces of the politically, culturally and poetically influential “imagined community” of the Iroquois (Anderson, Imagine Communities). In 1609 and 1610 he also forged the first documented Euro-Indian military alliance against Iroquoia. Heading a small group of commissioned Frenchmen, Champlain joined a military campaign sent out by Montagnais, Abenaki, and Huron communities, the northern, eastern, and northwestern neighbors of the Haudenosaunee, against the agricultural, politically advanced communities of the Mohawk. Champlain’s actions initiated a North American history of military conflicts as well as collaborations between various colonizers and the Haudenosaunee. At the same time, it contributed to a definition of a “transdifferent” New World in which cultural affiliations, despite streamlining efforts, are never experienced as being unilateral or unchanging (Breinig, “Introduction,” 38).

Champlain rendered his vision of a European-Iroquoian history of conflict and collaboration and developed the tropes of heritage and similarity introduced by Jacques Cartier in a series of texts and illustrative maps. Thus drawing on two media simultaneously, the book and the map, Champlain exacted a form of visual as well as textual literacy from his readers that was rarely needed in earlier texts of exploration. His stance very often is literary rather than documentary and his work thrives on a form of bi-mediality that is almost programmatic, especially so, if taken as an early expression of stereotype-ridden interracial interactions. At the time of their production, these figures of New World similarity and Old World heritage helped to establish an inter-American colonial discourse that thrived on comparisons and alignments to assert power and establish control. Scholars of the literature of discovery have argued that comparisons between the Old World and the New generally helped to “familiarize the unfamiliar,” to defamiliarize the familiar, and to use senses of wonder and marvel strategically in order to insert the New World into established explanatory frameworks and to judge it on this basis. [6]

As Jonathan Hart has noted, however, comparisons between North and South America served a very different function, since they reflected the legal and ethical conflicts at the heart of the European race for the New World (see Hart, Representing the New World). At the time of Cartier’s explorations of the St. Lawrence region, for instance, references to the example of Spain helped to produce “a new policy toward colonization” which partially accepted the legal restrictions of the papal bull Inter cætera, but nevertheless sought to legalize French claims to possessions in the Americas by holding that “permanent occupation rather than discovery created possession” (Hart, Representing the New World, 39). More than six decades later, when Samuel de Champlain managed to established the kind of legalizing permanent occupation that Cartier had sought only half-heartedly, the papal bull did not have a legal and ethical grip on the debate about imperial expansion into the Americas any longer. Instead, the Spanish example became both, a model and point of departure for French colonial projects that sought to emulate South American modes of acculturation and mestizaje while seeking to avoid the violence that accompanied Spanish colonization. As Jonathan Hart notes, the early seventeenth century “was a fulcrum: it looked backward and forward. The texts drew on Spanish precedents and did so positively and negatively, but they also looked ahead to a displacement of Spain” (Representing the New World, 232).

In the case of Cartier’s Brazilian corn found on the St. Lawrence, the postulated similarity of the grain used by people on the St. Lawrence and in Brazil first and foremost authorizes its speaker as someone who has knowledge and experience of both regions and whose descriptions, hence, must be accepted as valid scientific data. It is, accordingly, a trope of similarity, which depends on the eye of the beholder. As such it can be addressed through Michel Foucault’s concept of the strong authorship that early scientific discourse demanded in order to establish authority. At the same time, it calls to mind Donald Pease’s argument about the New World as an important motor for the rising authority and self-reflexivity of modern authorship. As Pease argues, the New World could no longer be explained in terms of the allegorical relations that medieval literature employed to understand its own social world as expressions of stories already familiar from the Bible. The experiences gathered in America did not translate without friction into the language and the assumptions of the applicable authority. Instead, they fostered “new cultural agents”, “authors,” who established authority not through “cultural precedent” but through “verbal inventiveness” (Pease, “Author,” 106/07).

But as the trope that affiliated indigenous America with biblical Nod indicates, this move beyond cultural precedent is not so clean-cut. This trope advances the theoretical framework of its early modern treatise, indicating that the doctrines of Christianity determine the hypotheses and findings of the text. Doing so, it inadvertently argued that these doctrines need to be rethought in the light of the discovery and that America deserved a place in the Biblical story of descent. The identification of the northern shores of the St. Lawrence River with Nod, Cain’s land of exile where he was cursed to pursue agriculture without great effect, offers to America an access to Judeo-Christian heritage. The inhabitants of the newly found land here can become the descendants of Cain. They are now seen as the descendants of a common transatlantic past that is defined by Old Testament narratives. Positioning this point of access at the very moment in Genesis when agriculture becomes a theme, the text produces a trope of heritage, which oddly reverberates with the alignment of North and South America on the basis of Indian corn.

These two tropes, then, do two things that are incompatible only at first sight: they insert the Northeast of North America into a biblical landscape, thus bringing it into the folds of a Judeo-Christian history and worldview and they connect it to that part of the New World which is already quite well-known at the time. Yoking together Hebrew heritage and inter-American similarities, the language in Jacques Cartier’s text suggests that the two tropes share a common base in the theme of agriculture.

But what happened to this identitarian space of the corn patch after scholars and students of early North America began to ignore the texts of Jacques Cartier in the eighteenth century or after his texts were rediscovered in the 19th century? Did it get lost? The most cursory look at Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s international bestseller The Song of Hiawatha suffices to indicate that the argument thus begun lived on in endless debates about Native agriculture and indigenous usage of the land; debates rarely restricted to one nation in the Americas. Even if English-language writing which sought to establish the Puritans as the founding fathers of America temporarily succeeded in spreading the myth of the wilderness as an uncultivated, almost vacant land, most colonial and early national texts in English acknowledged the presence of North American Indian agriculture. This is particularly true for texts that inserted the Puritan experience, rather than the continent and its people, into a typological framework. But, as Helen Carr has noted in Inventing the American Primitive, the need for a primitive counterpart for U.S. American ideas about identity and culture structured all encounters with North American Indian agriculture. Primitivist interpretations celebrated or dismissed Native agriculture as pre-modern and paradigmatically unable to respond to modernization, thus turning it into an unwanted obstacle halting westward expansion.

As a consequence, many nineteenth-century literary texts were more likely to feature indigenous characters who followed the Leatherstockings pattern, silently or not so silently opposing agricultural lifestyles in their activities as nomadic hunters and warriors (e.g. Cooper’s Mohicans or William Gilmore Simms’ Yemassee), than to engage imaginatively with native uses of the land. If they did so, they usually celebrated indigenous agriculture as a doomed art. This benign celebration and ultimate dismissal of North American Indian agriculture is particularly strong in Longfellow’s poetic celebration of Hiawatha’s supposed invention of Indian corn: placing a historical Iroquoian leader at the beginning of pre-colonial agriculture in the Americas, The Song of Hiawatha is extremely partial in its recognition of non-European farming in the Americas. Blending numerous mythic and literary traditions the poem delineates the planting and harvesting of maize as a shamanistic exercise that involves to ritualistic killing and burial of the corn god Mondamin, the sprouting of the corn from the site of his burial and the protection of the corn patch by Hiawatha’s wife Minnehaha, whose nude, nocturnal circling of the field is the only remedy against pests and predators.

Longfellow’s primitivist vision of North American Indian agriculture fueled the rise of a whole industry of illustrations of and visual commentaries on North American corn patches, oddly enabling present-day readers to return full-circle to Champlain’s fascination with Iroquoian corn fields. In illustrated versions of Longfellow’s poem it was especially the poetic harvest of the corn that left a long trail of visual traces. One particular illustration of the harvest in The Song of Hiawatha, first published in an illustrated 1879 Houghton and Osgood collection of Longfellow’s Poetical Works, even made it into a children’s book on Samuel de Champlain. In Liz Sonneborn’s illustrated booklet Samuel de Champlain, published in 2001, an unacknowledged copy from page 266 of Longfellow’s Poetical Works adorns the margins of a report on Champlain’s struggle for the establishment of permanent settlements. Its caption does not draw a connection to Longfellow’s syncretic agriculturalists, nor does it refer to the long literary process that effectively separated indigeneity from agriculture. Instead, the text celebrates Champlain’s appreciation of Native agriculture and the caption reads “the Iroquois corn harvest must have tempted the starving French” (49).

As Liz Sonneborn’s fusion of Champlain’s and Longfellow’s dreamy representations of North American Indian agriculture suggests, recent commodifications of early non-English narratives about the Americas do more than to cater to a growing need for a transnational, multilingual American heritage. Tropes of similarity that had initially negotiated the idea of an overarching New World identity perform new cultural work in current transnational reassessments of the histories, literatures and cultures of the Americas. These tropes of course offer a comparativist, non-English alternative to Anglo-American narratives of heritage; an alternative, which envisions the possibility of transnational belongings rooted in the affinity with indigenous cultures. But this claim of an affinity between colonizing and colonized cultures posits lines of heritage and similarity, which guarantee that indigeneity becomes a concept that is wedded to the past; so much so that it occasionally does not seem to have any sustainable future in the transnational America of tomorrow.


[1] For a cautious celebration of Cartier that contends with a public dismissal of him and his men as “undisciplined, brutish, unscrupulous and immoral” see Réal Boissonnault’s Jacques Cartier: Explorer and Navigator, published in the governmentally sponsored Canadian Cartier Brébeuf National Historic Park Series, 71. In the Chelsea House Explorers of the New Worlds Series for young readers, a series dedicated to colonizers, imperialists, and alternate discoverers as distinct as Hernán Cortés, Marco Polo, Daniel Boone, Theodore Roosevelt, Sacagawea, and the Apollo astronauts, Daniel E. Harmon’s volume Jacques Cartier and the Exploration of Canada casts Cartier as a discoverer who was able to communicate and but unable to peacefully interact with the St. Lawrence Iroquoians. The 1984 St. Malo exhibition catalogue documenting the 450th anniversary of “the Discovery of Canada,” finally, heralds Cartier as a native son of Brittany whose memory can add fame and significance to a French coastal town reminiscing about the economic and commercial power possessed during the age of discovery and exploration ([Dan Lailler], Jacques Cartier: Le Pilote de Canada, title page, my translation). For a detailed discussion of the immense historical range of critical and popular assessments of Jacques Cartier see Gordon, The Hero and the Historians.back to text

[2] See, for example, Horwitz, “The Ideal Colonist;” Salisbury, “Grand Design;” Boot, “They Didn’t Name That Lake for Nothing;” Kennicott, “Mapping ‘Champlain’s Dream’.” back to text

[3] Cartier, Voyages, 10, translated and edited by Henry Percival Biggar, Ottawa, 1924, republished by the University of Toronto Press in 1993. Compare Genesis 4, 12: “When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength” (Cartier, Voyages, 10, fn. 51). Cartier, Premier Relation, 101, edited by Michel Bideaux, Montreal: Les Presses de l’Universite de Montreal, 1986, based on Ramusio’s Italian edition of 1556 and the French-language edition published in Rouen in 1598. In the French version Cartier says that he assumes “more than ever” that this is the land God gave to Cain, thus emphasizing a broader base upon which this heritage is claimed. back to text

[4] For an in-depth discussion of Cartier’s many conflicts with the Iroquoians upon whom he would come to depend and his unkind insinuations about them see Gagnon/Petel, Hommes effarables. back to text

[5] On the Carte Geographique and its history of production and initial publication see Heidenreich/Dahl, “The Two States of Champlain’s Carte Geographique.” Today, the map has become a form of cultural capital. In 2008, Sotheby’s auctioned one of the rare original exemplars, advertising it as “a foundation document for Canada.” Estimated at 30,000 – 40,000₤, the bidding was so strong that the map finally sold at 157,250₤ (Lot 196, “North America – Champlain, Samuel.” back to text

[6] White, Tropics of Discourse, 86, compare Geertz, Interpretation of Cultures; Dougherty, Poetics of Colonization; Greenblatt, Marvellous Possessions. back to textv

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