Mistresses of Plenty and Kin; Indigenous Women in the French Colonial World.

Mistresses of Plenty and Kin; Indigenous Women in the French Colonial World. 

“…in her humble way, helped to make the history of her race. For it is the mothers, not her warriors, who create a people and guide her destiny”

- Ponca Leader, Standing Bear 

Marie Rouensa was an Illinois Catholic and one of the predominant women of the French colonial town of Kaskaskia in the Mississippi River Valley. In 1726 she was the owner of 5 Black slaves, 3 Indian slaves, half a dozen cattle, a couple of horses and a 100 acres of cultivated land, but more than wealth and prestige this Illinois woman had an extensive kin network that spread over miles away.  Like many other Indigenous women across the French colonial frontier, Rouensa was a converted Catholic and married to a Frenchman, while still maintaining a vital connection to her indigenous kin and culture. Rouensa’s life and others like her represents an exceptional momentum of Indigenous women’s adaptation to settler society through the conversion into Catholicism and unions with Frenchmen. This moment is exceptional because of the political, social and economic circumstances that propelled such positions, a moment of an infusion of the French and Native societies, and the interdependency on one another during this period of conquests and trade. This momentum lasted until the solidification of the colonial society that gradually reinforced ideologies of race, class and citizenship at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  

Navigating through the micro histories of the Native women of New France, Louisiana and the Mississippi River Valley French settlements shows the ways in which individual women were vital agents within the developing colonial domains. Rouensa’s narrative shows that the involvements of Native women in the French colonial world were not simply an experience limited to male subjugation and oppression but participation of dynamic involvement. Native women’s position within the seventeenth century and mid eighteenth century French colonial society was rather unique, placed somewhere between European oppression and personal economic and political agency. Indigenous women who identified as Catholic and were married to Frenchmen held a unique social category that allowed them to exercise a wide degree of personal agency and social mobility within the increasingly Christian and male dominated colonial world. They were not just surviving but adapting to the new social spheres and at times even prevailing within them. 

The Jesuits missionaries aimed to Christianize the American Native populations profoundly shaped the first century of French colonialism in the eastern frontier. Catholicism initiated the primary French and Native relations as Jesuits wasted little time in establishing their religious authority of bringing salvation to the Indigenous population. The Jesuits resided among indigenous groups and would preach about God and salvation imposing upon Indigenous peoples baptism and Catholic marriage practices. Convergence was widespread throughout all French settlements in North America and it was through the Jesuits in which the initial relations between French and Indigenous peoples begun. The Jesuits’ experience of converting local populations profoundly varied between different localities, as each Indigenous group throughout the eastern coast of North America from the south Mississippi to the north of the Great Lake region, held different customs of gender roles and sexuality.  As discussed by historian Karen Anderson, the Jesuits earliest convergence within the Algonquians and Montaigne’s in the Saint Lawrence River regions were primarily unpopular, especially among the women who were the most difficult to convert. However not all Indigenous women were so defiant of the Jesuits. The Illinois women were rather welcoming to Catholicism, while it was the Illinois men that were apprehensive of the Jesuits’ goals of Christianization. Within a century or so, the Jesuits infiltrated the majority of Indigenous groups in contact with French colonies. Indigenous women whether willingly converting or rejecting the men in black robes, did not lack personal agency as their actions were guided by a collective consciousness that understood that the world around them was changing due to the infiltration of the White men. 

The Jesuits sought to control Native women’s sexuality by imposing Catholic marital values of gender roles and sex, imposing strict European ideas of monogamous matrimony and female chastity.  Indigenous peoples’ gender and sexual behavior challenged the conventional Christian European notions of sex and gender roles.  Many Indigenous societies of North America practiced homosexuality, cross-dressing, bisexuality, and ritual intercourse. The Illinois as well and Montaigne practiced polygamy and were patriarchal societies, while the Wandat, Haudenosaune and Abenaki were matrilineal or matrilocal. In matrilineal leaning clans, women held positions of political and social importance, exercising a broad degree of social and sexual freedom, which was problematic to the Jesuits. Women were free to marry who ever they pleased as well as divorce their partners if they so wished and in some cases chastity was a social value not rigorously enforced. The Jesuits tirelessly imposed their European ideologies upon Native populations whose gender relations were dramatically transformed by Christian domination. 

The French colonial authorities through laws and diplomacy asserted their interest in engulfing Native women into their colonial societies, believing inter racial marriages to be a crucial process of the Frenchification of Indigenous women. The lack of European women in the early stages of French settlements, as well as the political and economic benefit of French-Native marriages, propelled mix race marriages throughout all French colonies in eastern North America. Frenchmen and Indigenous women’s marriages were encouraged by the authorities of New France who for the early decades of the colony used intermarriage as a crucial diplomatic tool, as famously announced by Samuel de Champlain to Native leaders: “Our young men will marry your daughters and we shall be one people”. It is important to note that throughout the French settlements it was Native women not men who were encouraged and permitted to marry into European society. Native men were excluded in this gendered specific marital exchange.  

Indigenous women married Frenchmen for myriad reasons such as passion, diplomacy or economic aim. Regardless of the reasons for such unions Indigenous women were the first to cross cultural divisions, and were the forerunners of this cultural fusion. Interracial couples would essentially become cultural mediators between their own communities and the colonial French society, forming an essential backbone to the fur trade and political alliances in the primary stages of Colonial-Native relations. Women who would marry Frenchmen came to embody and essentially create a new social category previously unknown to French society.  This new social category supported by religious and colonial authorities, allowed Indigenous women to infuse into the changing world around them and for a time thrive within it. 

The socioeconomic bonds between French settlers and Native peoples were exploited in various ways by women across colonies such as Montreal, New Orleans, and in the French occupied Mississippi River Valley. Within the northern fur trade it was extremely common for European fur-traders to marry Indigenous women and accept their matrilocal marital practices. Such marriages provided fur-traders with direct contact to commodities through their Indigenous wives’ kin, facilitating access to furs essential for the economic activity of the settlements of New France. According to historian Susan Sleeper-Smith Illinois converted women were able to socially maneuver themselves into positions of power within the colonial society. Sleepers-Smith goes on to claim that such women did not reinvent themselves as Frenchized women, but maintained their indigenous identities. The Kaskaskia community’s Frenchification is a disputed topic among historians where some academics such as Robert Michael Morrissey claims that the Illinois women who converted to Catholicism and married Frenchmen rejected their Illinois identities. Morrissey argues that such women embraced Catholic marriages in order to escape sororal polygamous marriages and abusive male domination in their Illinois communities. Regardless of whether Illinois women embraced or rejected the settler culture, it is undeniable that they were able to pursue positions of prestige and power within the colonial society, while maintaining connections to their families and kinship networks which spread over hundreds of kilometers from the Mississippi River Valley to north of the Great Lakes region. 

Through the Catholic practice of god-parenting many Indigenous women created extensive kin networks that intersected between Native and French households. Baptized women within the eighteenth-century Kaskaskia community were a part of an extensive kinship network composed of mix-race, French and Indigenous peoples. The maintenance of strong kinship networks, especially after the solidification of the colonial society demonstrates extensive Indigenous solidarity throughout the colonial period. In Rouensa’s god-parenting network she was a central figure that connected Catholic and Indigenous communities. She helped integrate other Illinois women into the colonial domain, while also maintained social connections to prestige French men and women. Rouensa had also maintained the Illinoi language in her home, as indicated by her Illinoi written will. Her culture and language was spoken in her home and most likely passed to her many children. Communities just like Rouensa’s throughout the French colonial period suggest a unique domain where Indigenous women who are often seen as assimilated, essentially maintained ties to their languages, traditions and communities.  

Rouensa’s history demonstrates that certain Indigenous women within the French colonial world were powerhouse figures that used their social status to maintain strong ties between indigenous and colonial communities. Her story indicates that certain women used vehicles of Catholicism and marriage to their advantage, and perhaps used this social momentum to safeguard their communities and families. Such dynamic agencies pursued by Native women in the primary epoch of the French colonial society are vital to the discourse of colonial gender history, showing an often-dismissed narrative hidden from mainstream histories. It is also crucial to point out that such women were a few and do not represent the majority of the Indigenous female populations in the early eras of colonialism. 

The Jesuits and later colonial authorities’ enforcement of Christian values of sexuality and chastity resulted in a major shift of gender relation and gender power within most Native societies. European Christian ideologies of race and gender would impair the political, economic and social mobility of Indigenous women such as Rouensa, that by the nineteenth century Native women became an increasingly marginalized and disempowered group within North American societies. The Indian Act in Canada and the United State in the late nineteenth-century created a legal barrier for the cross-cultural social mobility of earlier colonial centuries. Such legislations, focusing on rhetoric of assimilation rather than reciprocal adaption, initiated institutional efforts to erase the rich cultures and traditions of Indigenous peoples.  The narrative histories of women like Rouensa exhibit an undercurrent of agencies that insured the vitality and survival of their communities and families prior to systematic institutional oppression. Through vehicles of marriage and Catholicism during the early eras of colonial society such women seized this momentum of an infusion of cultures and created their own social domains in which their kin and family could thrive.


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