History 112: History of Canada
Dr. Chris Clarkson
November 18th, 2015
Fur Trade Effects on First Nations Women’s Status
First Nations women have greatly attributed to the establishment of Canada and have played a vital role in the Fur Trade settlements. First Nations women were commonly “valued as an interpreter, negotiator, trader, hunter, and guide.” Settler women, traders, and Jesuit missionary journals have recorded accounts of Indian women among the first settlements in Canada, and it is from these journals we can look further into the lives and social roles of these extraordinary women. Most importantly how the fur trade society affected their status in comparison to that of their communities. It is noted by many scholars that the accounts received from early European explorers are written in a paternalistic hierarchal and Christian-biased mannerism. These biased accounts make it difficult to fully understand the true nature felt among the Indian women as there were no records left in a first person’s point of view. These opinions are what bring about the determination of Native women’s status among the Fur Trade communities. Jesuit priests were able to live in Native tribes alongside Indians, to better understand the peoples, as well as introduce religion into their communities. Particularly interesting are the accounts made by priests among the Iroquoian tribes and their reports of a “peculiar form of government” they encountered. It is through these well-kept missionary journals that a brief understanding of life among the indigenous can be observed, but it has to be noted that the fashion of these recordings is of a biased perspective, and with intentions to control populations in a religious mean. The treatment of First Nation women in fur trade communities was considered to be seen as better than in their own communities from the trader's point of view, and interestingly enough “numerous Indian women deliberately sought out to become partners of the traders”. Be that as it may, it isn’t until life among the fur traders progressed that we see the detrimental effects on First Nations women’s role and status among their newly obtained society. Due to the fur trade wars, the merging of trading companies, and the changing of social structure in Rupert’s Land, Indigenous women’s position and status began to crumble. Although it can be thought that First Nations women’s status was enhanced by the fur trade it is undeniable that the outcome of their identity had been lost and negatively affected. Therefore, their social roles, and status were diminished by the Fur Trade.
Of all the First Nations tribes, Iroquoian communities were notably the best represented for high status women. The disregard of power over sexes between men and women in these tribes is apparent in regard to women’s involvement in the community’s governments, festivals, placement of provisions and religious arrangements. “It was necessary that women as well as men should be appointed keepers of the faith, and about in equal numbers. To the matrons more particularly was entrusted the charge of the feast. They had an equal voice in the general management of festivals, and of all their religious concernments” (Morgan 1851: 186). The Iroquoian women were seen as trader’s wives but not in as great as numbers comparatively to the Cree in the shield region, and the Chipewyan in the North region. The largest in numbers were the Chinook women among the French fur traders in coastal regions. The treatment and status of the Cree and Chipewyan women among their own tribe may have been worse off than the Iroquoian. Among the Chinook tribe’s men were noted to own the bodies and wills of their women, and husbands subjected them to prostitution, the lords would keep the earnings. For a general sense of women’s freedom and independence among native colonies the Iroquoian women greatly provide the insight and ability to understand the importance of autonomy. Women’s freedom and independence among their own communities is observed in records kept by traders in terms of their ability to know their own mind and display it at will. They “knew their own minds, how to get attention for their grievances, and also how to rebound in the interest of themselves and their children”.
The Iroquoian tribes were matrilineal, meaning that the names, titles, and property were all transmitted through the maternal line, in comparison to the European social structure where the paternal line was dominant. Native women often “enjoyed an autonomy which was relatively greater than that of her European counterpart at the time”, and while traditional roles of women were merged into a more obedient fur trade society it caused much hardship. Regardless to the First Nations women’s contributions, and influence in certain roles they were “at the mercy of a social structure devised primarily to meet the needs of European males”. This social structure slowly reduced the women’s independence, and it is apparent that the more dependent a woman become on a man the more she lost her “autonomy and purpose which native women had been able to maintain”. This plays an important role in why women had lost status among the fur trade. Indian women losing their independence and self-worth left them vulnerable and conflicted when the tides of the fur trade began to turn.
The introduction of Native women into the fur trade first began as a strategy for traders to gain alliances and ensure valuable trade partnerships among the native community. Many Native colonies greatly accepted these terms and married their daughters off to white men; it was considered a successful and beneficial alliance. It was not only beneficial in the fur trade business aspect, but also to the European males who had not yet conquered the brutality of the Canadian west. The Hudson Bay Company had a great need for Indian women on their posts “as they performed important tasks which the British had not yet mastered”. The women were responsible for the supply of moccasins, snowshoes, canoes, and provisions such as pemmican and much more, all of which were necessities for survival of pioneer men in the 1600’s. The involvement of women among the fur traders also offered the women an alternative way of life and in some respects relieved them from the burdens and hardship of their traditional existence. Furthermore, among the Chinook and Cree families the “marriage to a trader served to enhance social rank and influence”. It was practiced among their communities to promise the marriage of certain daughters to the “white people”.
As these new partnerships progressed the introduction of alcohol and diseases brought forth new dangers to the women, as well as the wives suffered more greatly in childbirth than they had in their traditional colonies. Alcohol consumed was more detrimental to Indian women than it was to men. Their lack of experience and tolerance to it had demoralizing effects and “not only did it make them prone to jealous acts of violence and the neglect of their children, but it debauched their morals”. Native mothers were considerably recognized as nurturing and caring in their own communities, observed by Jesuit missionaries. They were devoted caregivers and in Native society were accustomed to having full responsibility for the upbringing of their children. In the fur trade society’s men also played an active parental role, which most commonly ended up with sons being sent away for education, which brought great grievances to Native mothers. Mothers left to bring up their mixed-blood daughters would pass on their Indian traditions and skills which enabled them to be successful as fur traders' wives. As time pressed on the racial tensions heightened and the teachings of “uncivilized” Indigenous traits began to be considered as improper. In addition, “officers, particularly of the Hudson Bay Company, were concerned to impress upon their daughters “the Ideas and Habits of Civilized Life” and to wean them away from their Indian heritage”. As a result, Native mother’s involvement with their children began to decrease and the father’s patriarchal authority became more established in the family dynamics.
It seems as though that the end of the eighteenth century ended an error of comfort for the fur trade wives and their social roles began to diminish. Firstly, it must be noted that the generation of Métis women replaced their “Indian progenitors in playing an important role in the Indigenous fur-trade society that was evolving in the Canadian West”. It also became discouraged for white men to marry full blooded Native women as the generation of mixed-blood women became of marrying age. In the light of Métis women becoming the new traders' wives, trade wars between the Hudson Bay Company and the Northwest Company heightened and First Nations women were negatively affected. The women, not the traders were blamed for the appearing immorality in Rupert’s Land “because promiscuous tendencies were supposedly inherent in their Indian blood!” Métis women were also subjected to racial discrimination and many husbands often hid their wives in embarrassment or some could argue protection. It was inflicted by the fur trade wars that Indian women’s view of the European men began to considerably tarnish. Indian men also started to be angered by the treatment of their women during this time. Many women were subjected to sexual exploitation and prostitution and being mistreated among the communities. New traders coming into camps ignored the fact of married women by the “customs of the country” and used them as temporary sexual objects. These racial injustices started to cause friction between the fur traders and their First Nations alliances.
In the 1830’s a new obstacle introduced itself into the conflicts of the colonies, when white European women were sent over in ships. As one old trader exclaimed “the novelty of getting Hudson Bay stocked with European Ladys”. The white women’s presence brought about competition and racial discrimination towards the Native women. Métis Indian women were now less appealing to the fur trade men and their ability to obtain husbands was proven more difficult. European women had no desire to “approach their Native sisters in terms of equality or friendship”. Indigenous women were not treated as equals to the superiority of the white women, and they continued to be discriminated racially and referred to as inferior.
When considering the status of First Nations women to be enhanced or diminished by the fur trade there is evidence that contradicts the decided outcome. On the one hand there was more ability to climb in a European hierarchal settlement than there was in the traditional colonies of Aboriginal peoples. Except, if you were Iroquoian where then you were able to become a clan mother and direct longhouse life, decide fate of captives, and deny provisions to war parties. Otherwise, life among the Indigenous was considerably burdensome with hard, tedious, everlasting work. Undeniably, women accepted a life among the fur traders in order to experience a life with more purpose than what they were accustomed to, and as an acceptance of colonization and moving forward. Van Kirk identifies with this by saying “in reality the Indian woman may have enjoyed an easier existence at the fur-trade post, but she sacrificed considerable personal autonomy, being forced to adjust to traders’ patriarchal views on the ordering of home and family”. First Nations women among the fur-trade colonies lost their sense of freedom and were belittled by European husbands and other traders where men dominated in social structure. Indigenous women among their own tribes have a self-worth and dignity inherited to them. As Claude D’Ablon noted among the Mohawk people in 1672; “this is a dignity which they highly esteem, which she had inherited from her ancestors, and deserved by her own intelligence, prudence, and discreet conduct”. A women’s status is achieved upon professional gains, but equally important her family achievements. Women in the fur trade communities were denied their ability to mother their children as they had pleased and forced to send them away for schooling which was a concept impossible to make them understand the reasoning behind. They were eventually deprived of teaching their traditional values to their young; in addition, officers were concerned with limiting the use of Indian language amongst the children. Everything these women knew was eventually faded out and what’s worse is that they were judged greatly on their ancestral traditions of life. Métis women who were suppressed of their Indian heritage were more likely to be successful than those who had gained Indian heritage. Racial discrimination of First Nations women among the fur trade communities was heightened by the merging of Hudson Bay Company and the Northwest Company, as well as the introduction of European women and as the progression of colonists continues Aboriginal women continued to be judged and pushed to the side. First Nations women contributed greatly to the Fur Trade and their willingness to be involved is the reason behind how it succeeded the way it did. The status of First Nations women was diminished by the fur trade, they did not gain any sense of respect for their roles and contribution but instead have been further been discriminated and phased out.
Barman, Jean. French Canadians, Furs, and Indigenous Women in the Making of the Pacific Northwest. Vancouver: UBC: Press, 2014. PDF e-book
Darlene Rude, and Connie Deiter. From Fur Trade to Free Trade: Forestry and First Nations Women in Canada. Ottowa, Ontario: Status of Women Canada, 2004. PDF e-book
Katherine E. Lawn, and Claudio R. Salvucci. Woman in New France: Extracts From the Jesuit Relations. Bristol, PA: Evolution Publishing, 2005.
Kirk, Sylvia Van. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur Trade Society, 1670-1870. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Watson & Dwyer Publishing, 1980.
Noel, Jan. "The Powerful Influence of Iroquois Women." Canada in Context 28, no.4 (Spring 2015), 6.