Huron-Wendat

The Huron-Wendat are an Iroquoian-speaking nation that have occupied the St. Lawrence Valley and estuary to the Great Lakes region. “Huron” was a nickname given to the Wendat by the French, meaning “boar’s head” from the hairstyle of Huron men, or “lout” and “ruffian” in old French. Their confederacy name was Wendat (Ouendat) perhaps meaning “people of the island.” During the fur trade, the Huron-Wendat were allies of the French and enemies of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). Following a series of 17th century armed conflicts, the Huron-Wendat were dispersed by the Haudenosaunee in 1650. However, the Huron-Wendat First Nation still remains (located in Wendake, Quebec) and as of July 2018, the nation had 4,056 registered members.

Territory and Population

Historically, the members of the Huron-Wendat confederacy were the Attinniaoenten (“people of the bear”), Hatingeennonniahak (“makers of cords for nets”), Arendaenronnon (“people of the lying rock”), Atahontaenrat (“two white ears,” i.e., “deer people”) and Ataronchronon (“people of the bog”). Each of these peoples were termed by the French as “nations,” meaning that they were separate political and territorial entities, with similar cultures, a common origin in the distant past and similar but not identical languages.

The “Bear” and the “Cord Makers” were the original inhabitants of what is now northern Simcoe County in Ontario. In the late 16th century, the other three nations migrated from the north shore of  Lake Ontario and the Bay of Quinte area to join the Bear and Cord in a loose defensive alliance against their common enemy, the five Haudenosaunee nations south of the lake. At the time of the destruction of the Huron-Wendat homeland (sometimes known as Huronia) by the Haudenosaunee, in 1649-1650, about 500 Huron-Wendat left Georgian Bay to seek refuge close to the French, in the Quebec City region.

Prior to 1600, the Huron-Wendat numbered about 20,000 to 25,000 people, but between 1634 and 1642 they were reduced to about 9,000 by a series of epidemics, particularly measles, influenza and smallpox. Today, the Huron-Wendat First Nation in Wendake, Quebec numbers 4,056 registered members, as of July 2018. There are also populations that identify as Wyandot or Wyandotte (also Huron-Wendat peoples) in the United States.

Pre-contact Life

Huronia
Riverside activities

The Huron-Wendat lived in 18 to 25 villages, some with up to 3,500 people. Their subsistence economy was based on corn, beans,  squash and fish. Hunting was of minor importance except in the fall and late winter, and occurred well beyond the boundaries of occupied territory. At the time of French contact in the early 17th century, these efficient farmers occupied a territory of about 880 km2, referred to by the Huron-Wendat as Wendake, achieving an average population density of 23 people per km2. Larger villages were well-fortified with palisades. Villages usually stood on a slight rise, adjacent to a permanent water supply and close to good farming soils. Every 10 to 15 years, when soils and firewood were exhausted, the Huron-Wendat would relocate.

The Huron-Wendat had close trading, political and social relations with the Petun, Neutral, Odawa, Nipissing and the Algonquin nations of  Georgian Bay and the Ottawa Valley. With these nations they exchanged surplus corn, beans and cord made of “Indian hemp” (Apocynum cannabium), for tobacco and exotic items like native copper, catlinite, seashells and wampum. In 1609, they joined the military and trading alliance that the  Innu (then known as the Montagnais) and Algonquin had forged with the French by participating in a raid against the Mohawk, a member of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.

Society and Culture

The Huron-Wendat traced descent and inheritance through the female line. As among all the Iroquoian nations, the fundamental socioeconomic group was the matrilineal-extended family, made up of a number of nuclear families whose female members traced common descent to a mother or grandmother, who was in charge of daily affairs. The extended family lived in longhouses, which were about 7 m wide and varied in length with the size of the family. Houses up to 90 m in length have been reported from archaeological work.

Huron-Wendat individuals belonged to one of eight matrilineal clans. Clan members considered themselves to be descended from a common mythical ancestor — Bear, Deer, Turtle, Beaver, Wolf, Loon/Sturgeon, Hawk or Fox — and were not permitted to marry within their clan. Some sources name Porcupine and Snake in place of Loon/Sturgeon and Fox. A child could not marry a member of their mother’s clan, but could marry a member of the clan of their father. The strength of the clan system was that members, no matter in what village or nation they lived, were obliged to help each other in time of need or war.

Village affairs were run by two councils, one in charge of civil affairs, and the other of war. All men over the age of 30 were members. In theory, matters were decided by consensus, but in reality, the old men and elected chiefs of large families tended to dominate because of their community standing and powers of oratory. Unlike the older female members of the Haudenosaunee, Huron-Wendat women had little or no say in councils.

Language

The Huron-Wendat language is part of the Iroquoian linguistic family. After years of dispersals and the subsequent colonization of Canada, the Huron-Wendat language nearly went extinct. Still considered endangered, the language is being revitalized by Huron-Wendat peoples through a variety of educational programs and initiatives, including a dictionary. (See alsoIndigenous Languages in Canada.)

Colonial History

The Huron-Wendat formed trade and military alliances with French explorers. To demonstrate French solidarity with their new allies, Samuel de Champlain and two French volunteers joined a Huron-Wendat raid against its enemies, the Haudenosaunee.

In order to forge closer trade relations and obtain military aid from the French, the Huron-Wendat accepted missionaries. The  Récollet missionaries were sent in 1615, and were replaced by the Jesuits in 1625. In 1633 and 1635, the Huron-Wendat were asked by Champlain and Father  Paul Le Jeune, S.J. to consider intermarriage with the French. The Huron-Wendat rejected this request because they considered marriage a matter between two individuals and their families, and not subject to council decision.

By the mid-1630s, the Huron-Wendat had become one of the most important suppliers of furs to the French. About 500 men from various villages operated the Huron-Wendat fur trade network, meeting fur suppliers along the canoe route to the French posts on the St. Lawrence, and later exchanging the fur for French goods.

When the epidemics ended in the early 1640s, all the Great Lakes Indigenous nations had suffered severely. Both Iroquoian and Algonquian groups saw their populations drop by over half, with the much less populous Algonquians — who also were affected by starvation —  suffering the worst losses. Responses to the crisis varied. Among the Huron-Wendat, a divisive debate ensued whether to keep the missionaries and remain allied with the French, or to sever all ties. The majority felt they were too deeply committed and hoped eventually for French military aid.

Among the Haudenosaunee, the women’s councils urged that clan members lost through the epidemics be replaced, or else their nation would be weakened and entire families would disappear. The logical method for replacement was through warfare against neighbouring groups with similar cultures. On a political level, the councils of warriors also saw this as an opportunity to fulfill their ancient ideal, to “extend the rafters of the longhouse” by absorbing their neighbours into one nation, thereby producing a universal peace. Jesuit missionary Father Jogues wrote from Mohawk captivity in 1643, “the Iroquois plan is to take all the Hurons if possible, put to death the most important ones along with a large part of the others, and with the rest to make one country.” Their rallying cry to those they were about to attack was: “come and join us that we be one people in one land.”

Recent scholars have argued that economic territorial motives played a role in Haudenosaunee aggression, though contemporary participants to these events, including the Haudenosaunee, make no mention of such intentions.

Huron-Wendat Dispersals

Between 1642 and 1646, the Haudenosaunee dispersed the Algonquians from the Ottawa Valley and attacked the eastern Huron-Wendat villages. In 1648 and 1649, armed with Dutch firearms, they defeated and dispersed the Huron-Wendat; followed by the Petun in 1649–50, the Neutral by 1651 and the Erie by 1656. During these wars, about half the post-epidemic Huron-Wendat population was decimated.

During and after the war, at least 3,000 Huron-Wendat joined the Haudenosaunee, including the “Deer” and most of the “Rock” nations; both established a village among the Seneca. These represented the bulk of the “traditional faction” of the Huron-Wendat. About 1,000, mainly the “Christian faction,” fled in 1649 with the Jesuits to Christian Island in Georgian Bay. Reduced by famine and cold, only 300 were left in the spring of 1650. These settled on Île d’Orléans and were later joined by about another 300 refugees. This remnant was composed largely of the “Bear,” some “Rock” and the “Cord Makers.” In 1656–57, in order to complete peace negotiations with the Haudenosaunee begun in 1653, which included demands that the Huron-Wendat join them, the French coerced the remnant Huron-Wendat near Quebec to go with their enemies. The “Rock” went to the Onondaga and some of the “Bear” to the Mohawk. The remnant “Bear” and all the “Cord” refused and moved from the exposed Île d’Orléans first to Sillery and then to Lorette where their descendants still live.

The “traditionalist-anti-Haudenosaunee faction” of the Huron-Wendat fled to the Petun in 1649 and in 1650 went together with them to Michilimackinac. This group, composed largely of Petun, was later called the Wyandot (Wyandotte in the United States), an English corruption of the word Wendat. By the mid-1650s they were in Green Bay and, joined by a village of Odawa, moved into the headwaters of the Mississippi. Attacked by the Dakota Sioux, the Wyandot and Odawa fled first to Chequamegon on Lake Superior and in 1671 back to Michilimackinac. In 1704 the Wyandot and Odawa settled near the newly established Detroit (1701).

In 1738, the Wyandot split into two factions in a quarrel with the Odawa and French. One faction moved to Sandusky and in 1748 into the Ohio Valley, while the other moved across the river from Detroit. In the Seven Years War, the Detroit Wyandot fought for the French and after the war joined Pontiac’s forces against the English. Their descendants, now acculturated, live in the  Windsor area. The Ohio Wyandot were forced to surrender their lands to the United States after the American Revolution. In 1830, with the passage of the Indian Removal Act by Congress they were moved to a reservation in Kansas. In 1867, after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), the remaining approximately 200 Wyandot were forced to a reservation in Oklahoma with their former enemies, the Seneca.

Contemporary Life

Huron-Wendat Dance
Mélanie Savard, a member of the Huron-Wendat First Nation, performs a traditional dance for Canadian and American sailors during celebrations of the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 (Québec City, 26 July 2012).

The Huron-Wendat First Nation in Wendake, Quebec, is led by a council made up of a Grand Chief and eight Heads of Family. The Nation offers a variety of services to its members, including a school (École Wahta’), health facility (Centre de santé Marie-Paule-Sioui-Vincent) and police (Service de police de Wendake). It is also home to Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations —  a hotel, museum and event centre.

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Read More // The Huron-Wendat

Indigenous Perspectives Education Guide

Indigenous Peoples Collection

Further Reading

  • B.G. Trigger, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, volume15, Northeast, (1978).

    ——., The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660 (1987).

    R.C. Harris, ed., Historical Atlas of Canada, vol. 1 (1987).

    J.A. Brandão, “Your Fyre Shall Burn No More:” Iroquois Policy toward New France and Its Native Allies to 1701 (1997).

    J.L. Steckley, Words of the Huron (2007).

    J. Boyden, The Orenda (2013).

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