Writing Historical Fiction – The Jigonsaseh

Having embarked on my first effort to write historical fiction, I have to hand it to the people who pull it off. It’s an exercise in world-building and the amount of research is phenomenal.

I was inspired by Joseph Boyden’s new book, The Orenda, which covers a period in the early to mid-1600s when two of Canada’s First Nations (Hurons and Iroquois) were experiencing their first contact with the Jesuit priests sent to convert them to Christianity. It was a period of warfare between these nations, made more difficult because the Jesuits brought with them not only startling new ideas and values, but devastating diseases.

Boyden relied heavily on the Jesuit Relations for his research. These were accounts sent back to Europe by the Jesuit brothers, and in their reports, they summarized whatever they found of interest. But since they weren’t actually members of the Aboriginal communities, but products of very different cultures, there was a lot that they missed.

Even though the Iroquois were matrilineal, matrilocal societies, in which women not only owned all property, but held all custody rights, there is very little mention of women or their extraordinary powers (except with respect to “witchcraft”) and none at all of clan mothers.

This isn’t surprising: in Europe at the time, women were men’s property, legally, and non-persons, unable to go to war, or have custody of their children, or enter into contracts.

But over here, the Iroquois clan mothers not only picked out warriors and decided what wars would be waged, they had a women’s council that referred matters to the Iroquois Confederacy Grand Council: no matter could be discussed without their prior approval. And in the period I am writing about, they ran a parallel government after all forty-nine Confederacy chiefs were taken prisoner after being lured into a trap at Fort Frontenac and sent to France to serve as galley slaves in the Mediterranean. All but thirteen died.

And so that is the period that intrigues me — the 1670s through late 1690s — when there was espionage, spying, backstabbing and deception, as in any good thriller.

The challenge isn’t plot, or even characterization — we have enough detail about the main players from various colonial records to flesh them out. And because it’s history, I know how it ends. It’s the details.

Every time I write a sentence,  I have to stop and do more research. What did the galley slaves eat? What size were the oars and how heavy? What did the slaves wear? How long did they work? Which chiefs died; which ones survived? I did a full day’s research for what amounted to little more than half a page of text; this is the kind of book that will take years to get right.

It’s a challenge, but my doctorate was in Aboriginal legal history (I have an LLD, or doctorate in law) so this is something I really want to do.

The Jigonsaseh is its working name. The Jigonsaseh was the title and name of the head clan mother, (although you won’t find her mentioned anywhere except in the brilliant research done by Barbara L. Mann). The title passed from Jigonsaseh to Jigonsaseh, like it does with the Dalai Lama.

In the 1680s, this Jigonsaseh pulled the refugees together after the Senecas were driven out of their homeland by the French and the Confederacy chiefs were taken prisoner. She launched an all-out attack on the French colony that forced the French to capitulate. She demanded the return of the galley slaves; she brought the men home. She would have been an older woman, and  chosen for the position because of her diplomatic skills — part of her job was to welcome visitors to Gaustauyea and find out their business– but she became a warrior. I mean really — how interesting is that.

Now I just have to figure out what she wore :-).

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6 Responses to Writing Historical Fiction – The Jigonsaseh

  1. Sounds interesting…certainly an untapped area in historical fiction. Good luck!

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  2. Nadia says:

    Sounds really interesting and much needed. Can’t wait to read it …

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  3. NOW I really have to read this!!!! Tsikonsase means “Cat-Faced Woman”, did you know that?

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