The research for my new work-in-progress, The Jigonsaseh, is taking me far back in time. I’m weaving together information from Haudenosaunee oral histories and primary and secondary sources in an attempt to find out more about the peace woman who’s one of the main characters. I have a background in Canadian history and Aboriginal legal history (I have a doctorate and wrote a non-fiction book called Lament for a First Nation) but what I’m learning as I work through this project is far from mainstream.
For example, the Jesuit, Father Brule, who visited the Wendats and the Neutrals in the early 1600s was described by other Jesuits as living a “scandalous and licentious lifestyle” when it came to Aboriginal women. They don’t give any details. Which makes me wonder what he was up to.
There was an ossuary uncovered east of Niagara in Neutral territory during an archaeological dig that had the bones of a mixed race child in it. The Jesuits were the only white people who over-wintered with the Neutrals in that time period. Hmmm.
Sadly, the ossuary also had the bones of a child who had been stunted by smallpox. I didn’t realize that that smallpox could affect growth if it was contracted during a child’s growing phase, but apparently it can. What was even sadder was to discover that almost half of the Neutrals were killed off by a form of smallpox carried by Wenros fleeing Seneca attacks who passed through Neutral territory. I’m not sure where the Wenros picked up the illness, but again, it was probably carried by the Jesuits.
The study of the Niagara excavation is really an interesting find for me. This is the geographic area where The Jigonsaseh would have originally come from before she was taken captive by the Senecas to Ganondagan for her safety in 1652. (That’s where she became The Jigonsaseh to the Haudenosaunee nations; she was the head clan mother, or Mother of Nations.)
Interestingly, there were only the bones of women and children found in this site and no men, which is unusual. Given the quality of the goods buried with them and the reverence with which the bodies were treated, the archaeologist thinks it may have been considered a sacred site at the time. (Gaustayea was a place of sanctuary in Neutral territory. The Jigonsaseh’s longhouse conferred a right of asylum, sort of like a church sometimes does today.)
But there were 103 women and children buried at the same time, which makes you wonder what happened that resulted in them dying all at once. There were no cuts on the bones so we can reasonably infer that they weren’t killed in the Iroquois attacks that destroyed the Neutral nation in 1652. And since they ranged in age from toddlers to around 51, they certainly didn’t die of old age or natural causes. My guess is that these were women and children who sought refuge in the Neutral territory and then were taken suddenly by illness.
I also found a reference in one of the secondary sources to another architectural dig in which the grave of the Jigonsaseh was believed to have been found: the grave site was scattered with freshwater pearls. No primary source was provided unfortunately; I would love to know more about that dig and what was found.
And so I have this incredible woman who’s described in oral histories — the Jigonsaseh was a peace woman whose skills at mediation and conflict resolution transcended national boundaries — and I’m finding snippets of information in the historical and ethnographic record that support those oral histories. Some historians thought that Gaustayea was mythical; finding archaeological information that tends to back up its existence is pretty cool.
In my research today for a chapter in which The Jigonsaseh remembers her first encounter with a Jesuit, I found out that when the Jesuits visited the Neutrals, not only were they turned away, but the Wendats offered to give the Neutrals nine iron axes to kill them, even though it was the Wendats who were acting as their guides!
Since the Neutrals had only stone axes at the time , that must have been pretty tempting. But instead, they tossed the Jesuits out, no doubt in part because the Wendats had told them previously that all Europeans had long tails and that white women had one giant breast in the middle of their chests. (Meanwhile, the Jesuits were telling their superiors that pretty much all the First Nations were cannibals, something most historians today debunk.)
Looking at the drawings of the clothing the First Nations wore and the way they decorated themselves compared to how Europeans dressed and wore their hair (remember, this was at the height of Versailles and Louis XIV), they might as well have come from different planets. Talk about a culture clash! I can just imagine the Jigonsaseh as a little girl, peeking out shyly at these strange visitors with their black robes and wondering how long their tails were.