The Diversity of Native America: The Northeast
Digital History ID 640
Pierre de Charlevoix
Europeans expressed utter astonishment at women's important economic and political role within many Indian societies. A Jesuit priest describes life among Iroquoian-speaking Hurons whom he encountered.
It must be agreed Madam, that the nearer we view our Indians, the more good qualities we discover in them: most of the principles which serve to regulate their conduct, the general maxims by which they govern themselves, and the essential part of their character, discover nothing of the barbarian....
In the northern parts, and wherever the Algonquin tongue prevails, the dignity of chief is elective; and the whole ceremony of election and installation consists in some feasts, accompanied with dances and songs: the chief elect likewise never fails to make the panegyric of his predecessor, and to invoke his genius. Among the Hurons, where this dignity is hereditary, the succession is continued through the women, so that at the death of a chief, it is not his own, but his sister's son who succeeds him; or, in default of which, his nearest relation in the female line. When the whole branch happens to be extinct, the noblest matron of the tribe or in the nation chooses the person she approves of most, and declares him chief.... These chiefs generally have no great marks of outward respect paid them, and if they are never disobeyed, it is because they know how to set bounds to their authority. It is true that they request or propose, rather than command; and never exceed the boundaries of that small share of authority with which they are vested....
Nay more, each family has a right to choose a counselor of its own, and an assistant to the chief, who is to watch for their interest; and without whose consent the chief can undertake nothing.... Amongst the Huron nations, the women name the counselors, and often choose persons of their own sex....
The women have the chief authority amongst all the nations of the Huron language.... But if this be their lawful constitution, their practice is seldom agreeable to it. In fact, the men never tell the women anything they would have to be kept secret; and rarely any affair of consequence is communicated to them, though all is done in their name, and the chiefs are no more than their lieutenants....
Source: Pierre de Charlevoix, Journal of a Voyage to North America (London, 1761).
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