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When one looks through history, there is something the Wyandot knew that most other cultures are only recently discovering. This is the importance of a balanced society where both men and women are fully able to contribute their abilities and talents to the community. In this paper, I will be focusing specifically on the Daughters of Aataentsic in Wendat society and what roles they have played throughout time. The term “Daughters of Aataentsic” comes from the Wendat creation story. This story occurs at a time when the world was still covered in water. The animals saw Sky Woman, also known as Aataentsic, falling from the sky. To save her, the animals began piling mud from the ocean floor onto a turtle’s back. They helped her land safely onto the small, earthy continent they had prepared (Labelle). The fact that the entire Wendat creation story is based off of a women reminds us that women were always respected in this society.
The Wendat were a matrilineal society, meaning that all of their clans were based upon the female lineage. When a man and a woman were married, the man would go to live in the woman’s long house. If a chief died, his sister’s son would be next in line instead of his own son. Additionally, if there came a point when there wasn’t a clear successor, the matron thought to be the noblest in the clan would choose the next chief. The long house and all the items in it belonged to the woman who was the head of the household. If she died, her oldest daughter or closest female relative would inherit these belongings. In contrast, a man’s possessions were defined as the items only he used such as clothing and hunting and fishing utensils (Steckly).
Women also controlled the community fields and were in charge of the harvest. They were the ones who decided when it would be a good time to move. This usually occurred when the harvest was too small and the soil was overworked (Judith).
When it comes to war, to someone not familiar with the inner workings of the Wendat, it could appear that the men were entirely in control. This was because the war councils were entirely comprised of men. In reality, women did play a significant role in war culture. More often than not, women were the ones who decided whether or not their tribe should go to war. The main reason women initiated war was when their family had suffered a grave loss and they wanted a captive from another tribe to take the place of their loved one. To do this, a woman would select a war chief and ask him to call a war council to petition on her behalf to go to war. The result of the petition depended heavily on the public speaking skills and social status of the war chief, making it imperative for the woman to choose her representative carefully.
The woman with principal authority in her family could make the decision of whether or not her children would participate in the war. Women also had the power to veto the war council’s decision to go to war if their reasons weren’t strong enough. Because women could control if the tribe went to war and how many children went to war, they had a lot of say in what the outcome would be. An example of this was acknowledged in the Jesuit’s writing. They talked about a certain woman of very high rank saying that the tribe would not make any decisions without consulting her first.
Apart from being a big influence in the decision to go to war, women also helped in any way they could when the tribe was in combat. They played a large role in producing the food and weapons that were necessary for the tribe to be successful. Additionally, women had full control over what happened to the war captives. One Jesuit wrote that when a captive was assigned to a certain matron, if she wanted him to live, he would, even if the entire village wished otherwise (Labelle). All of these examples prove the point that women had much more power than it may have seemed to an outsider.
Women and men also shared significant influence in the politics of the tribe. It is important to note that their society should not be thought of as a matriarchy or a patriarchy because neither men nor women had sole influence. Although women were not part of the general council, they would always discuss what was to be talked about in the general council before it happened, relay what they discussed on to the chiefs, who then passed this along to the rest of the general council during their meeting (Steckly).
The attempted colonization of the Wendat greatly affected women’s roles. For so long, the Wendat had had a form of equality between men and women. Europeans were not used to this, and eventually some of their traditions began to influence the tribe, making it harder for women to maintain their positions. With increasing amounts of diseases spreading and no treatments, many began to turn to Christianity and Baptism in the hopes that it would cure them. This became very detrimental for women because Christianity was full of patriarchal practices, leaving women little room to maintain their original influence.
There were many strong Wendat women who fought this change to stand up for their beliefs. The mother of Tarentande, an influential headman, was a great example. She fought conversion with all of her being. She had been baptized when she was younger but continuously stated how much she regretted it up until she died. Her opposition did not waiver when she was sick. Missionaries came to visit, hoping that she would confirm that she was grateful for her baptism, but she forcefully refuted them. She held strong and fast to her Wendat traditions until she died.
Women were faced with increasingly difficult decisions as their options consisted of accepting Christianity, which could come with a lot of backlash and isolation from their village, or continually refuting Christianity, which was what had been done up until this point. However, the dispersal occurred right around this time and entirely changed the situation at hand. The differences in Wendat viewpoints on Christianity before and after the dispersal were quite drastic. Instead of seeing Christianity as the downfall of women’s influence in the community, it became one of the sources they used to still contribute to their tribe. Women relied on Christianity, resettlement negotiations, and their roles in family life to maintain their impact.
In contrast to other tribes, Wendat women were very involved in the decision to resettle and played a huge part in convincing the Jesuits to go with them. The Jesuits created a group called the “Women of the Holy Family” which gave Wendat Christian women the platform to help those in the tribe who were in need and continue their roles as caregivers. This group helped many people in the tribe warm up to the idea of Christianity. Another reason for the widespread conversion was the amount of death that people in the tribe had to cope with. Many were in search of a outlet to deal with all of the loss and this religion opened a spiritual way to handle things. The idea that they could be reunited with their loved ones in heaven brought great comfort to many women.
The women were the ones who spearheaded the push for Christianity. As soon as the mother converted, it usually wasn’t long before her husband and the rest of her family did the same. This shows that even through the dispersal, women were able to maintain their influence in many places in society.
An additional benefit to converting was the added protection of the Jesuits. Many women had lost their husbands and looked to Jesuit men to serve as father figures for their children. The seminary also provided women and girls with educational opportunities. They were able to learn about Christianity, food, shelter, and different language alongside the French girls and women. This opened a significant amount of doors for Wendat women to get important jobs. An example of this was a young Wendat woman who lived with the nuns for 2 years. During this time, she focused heavily on learning on French and exceeded expectations. Afterwards, she became a translator in the nearby hospital. She lived at the seminary but didn’t abandon her culture. Instead, she used her talents to help her kind as a interpreter and visited her community often. Overall, the dispersal provided women with the abilities to grow their impact on the tribe and strengthen their personal abilities (Labelle).
As one can see, although their roles may have altered slightly over time, women always had an important place in Wendat society. The reason for this was because of the tribes confidence in a balanced community and the determination of the women to always have something to contribute. The Daughters of Aataentsic were truly unique and demonstrated new ways of doing things to other societies that were still struggling with equality.
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