martes, 17 de abril de 2012

The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America

The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America (Vintage Books, 1995)
by John Demos
USA, 1994

Yale history professor John Demos, a Bancroft Prize winner for his 1982 Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England which I'd also like to pick up at some point, here trains his sights on a doozy of a captivity story set in "frontier" New England.  On an icy winter night in late February 1704, the slumbering English inhabitants of Deerfield, Massachusetts were rudely awakened by a large party of French and Indian raiders sent from across the border by the government of neighboring New France.  Houses were set on fire.  Settlers were butchered in their bedclothes.  Over 100 survivors of the massacre were taken into captivity, a common practice at the time both before and after the outbreak of hostilities legitimized by Queen Anne's War, most to be ransomed or otherwise released later.  One of the prisoners who didn't return--at least not in the fashion expected by her family and former countrymen and then not until several tearful decades later at that--was little Eunice Williams, the then seven year old daughter of Deerfield minister John Williams (who was also captured along with four more of his children).  Instead, Eunice would "turn" to Catholicism in captivity, lose the use of her native language entirely, and then willingly turn her back on other elements of her birth culture and onetime identity by choosing to marry into and live among the Catholic Mohawk Iroquois from Kahnawake who figured among her captors on that fateful February night in 1704.  To give you a sense of how radically different Eunice's cultural and spiritual life must have been after first "contact" and eventual assimilation, Demos spends a wonderful chapter talking about how many of the native Kahnawake religious practices persisted long after the tribe's conversion to Christianity.  He notes that the priest Joseph François Lafitau, who lived at the settlement from 1712-1717, wrote a book called Moeurs des Sauvages Amériquains Comparées aux Moeurs des Premiers Temps [Customs of the American Indians Compared with the Customs of Primitive Times] in which he described seeing ecstatic "shamans," use of "charms and fetishes" for healing purposes, "divination by dreams," "villagers perform[ing] gestures of libation," and "elaborate" dancing festivities that would last for days and nights on end (153-154).  Since it might be tempting to think that this fascinating account about "the unredeemed captive" is so inherently juicy that it would be virtually impossible for any writer to muck it up, I should point out that Demos is much more than a caretaker as the author of the history.  Throughout, for example, he takes great pains to tease out information from a wide variety of sources--various Williams family captivity narratives, diaries, letters, and sermons; Jesuit priests' accounts of the Kahnawake people and practices (as seen above); political correspondence from both sides of the border--while limited by the almost complete absence of Eunice Williams' own voice from the historical record.  Demos also maintains an admirable neutrality when discussing the English, the French, and the Indian responses to various events having to do with the Deerfield incident itself and with other aspects of the Anglo-French wars in general--perhaps no small feat given all the "barbarous" and "savage" and "French Popish Indians" (95) references in the New England sources.  Finally, the historian also manages to fashion a moving story about Eunice Williams' life and times and eventual reunion with some of her original family while honoring the demands of his craft as a practitioner of history.  Considering the disdain with which academic historians are often greeted by the general public, a rather nifty achievement.  (Vintage Books)

John Demos

Contact and Identity
In a work that has so much to say about "contact" among different groups of people and one's individual identity, here's how Demos helps highlight the complexities of these matters.  This description of the Kahnawake people who "adopted" Eunice Williams can be found on page 120:

To the French--those leaders and functionaries who wrote about them--they were les Iroquois du Sault.
To the Jesuit fathers, they were nos pauvres sauvages.
At Deerfield, and elsewhere through the English settlements of Massachusetts Bay, they were "the French Mohawks."
In New York, wrote one who had seen them close up, "they are now commonly known...by the name of the Praying Indians, it being customary for them to go thro' the streets of Montreal with their Beads, praying & begging alms." [footnoted in Demos' text]
The Abenakis, their Indian neighbors to the east (and fellow Christians), addressed them as "praying Iroquois."
And the non-Christian Iroquois to the south, their cultural (sometimes blood) kin, called them "our brethren at Canada."
To themselves, they were simply the Kahnawake (pronounced, roughly, Gah-nah-WAH-geh).
This varied nomenclature directly reflects the ambiguity of their cultural, and geographical, placement--and the extraordinary complexity of their history.  Mohawk, Iroquois, Indian, in ascending order of generality; Christian, to a degree; French, in a limited sense; "brethren" to some, allies of others, and, of course, enemies of still others: the Kahnawake were all these, and more.  Less than four decades old when Eunice Williams came to them, their community was already known--some said "renowned"--on both sides of the imperial border, and across the ocean as well.

6 comentarios:

  1. This sounds so familiar. Isn't there a movie with a similar theme?
    I would be interested in his witchcraft book. My master's thesis was about the fetishs (nkisis) of the Congo region and how they were misinterpreted by the Europeans ( based on European witchcraft concepts). Very interesting. One researcher I read said that one religion's God(s) often became the next one's (chronologically next) devil.
    Contact is an interesting topic. "Catholic Mohawk Iroquois" is slightly puzzling...

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    1. I don't know of any movies with themes similar to this other than maybe Little Big Man, which isn't all that similar from what I remember of it and is based on a novel anyway. Very interesting to hear about your master's thesis in more detail, though--what a fascinating topic! I couldn't find a way to work it into my post succinctly alas, but Demos spends a wonderful chapter or so talking about how many of the native Kahnawake religious practices persisted long after the tribe's conversion to Christianity. He shares that a priest who lived at the settlement for several years, one Joseph François Lafitau, wrote a book called Moeurs des Sauvages Amériquains Comparées aux Moeurs des Premiers Temps in which he described seeing ecstatic "shamans," use of "charms and fetishes" for healing purposes, "divination by dreams," "villagers perform[ing] gestures of libation," and "elaborate" dancing festivities that would last days and nights (these quotes appear on pp. 153-154 of Demos' book). Totally engrossing stuff.

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  2. Sounds very interesting. In cultural anthropology there is always this debate whether a phenomenon like this can be called syncretism or it's just a symbiosis. It's quite interesting to look at it in detail.

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    1. I'm not really familiar with the syncretism or symbiosis debate in cultural anthropology, but it doesn't take much to see that "bicultural" experiences like Williams' and/or the Kahnawake people's in general would be exceedingly complex and rich from an anthropological point of view. By the way, I took the liberty of updating my post to incorporate much of the information shared with you above earlier. Thanks for the push!

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  3. I know of this story from having once visited Deerfield, where it was apparently still very much a part of the local lore. It's a fascinating topic, and sounds like a rewarding treatment of it. I've been enjoying your periodic forays into history.

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    1. I'm relieved to hear that you've been enjoying the occasional history forays, Scott. More are coming whether anybody likes 'em or not, ha ha, but they don't seem to have a lot of built-in mass appeal. I envy you having been to Deerfield, by the way. It's only about a two-hour drive from where I presently live, but I never really had any reason to visit it until I read Demos' book. Hear it's a very scenic area, too. Cheers!

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