“In the Moon of Thunder” By Joseph Bruchac

It was July of 1609, the Moon of Thunder as some of our people call that time of year, when Samuel de Champlain first reached the shore of Petonbowk, the “Waters Between” that would later bear his name. As he gazed on its wide, placid waters, he took note of the high mountains to the east still capped with snow. When he asked his guides who lived in the localities beyond those mountains, he was told that “the Iroquois dwelt there and that there were beautiful valleys in these places, with plains productive in grain.”

Like Europeans before and after him, Champlain and his white companions did not find this place on his own but were shown the way by Native people. Somewhere near Crown Point Champlain and his party of “Hurons” (Or was it the other way around? Were Champlain and his armored, well-armed men actually their Europeans?) encountered the Iroquois, who were surely Mohawks, “nearly two hundred in number, stout and rugged in appearance.”

Much has been made of the battle that ensued in which Champlain and his men used their muskets to kill three Mohawk chiefs and force the rest to flee for their lives. It is often said that this unequal encounter set the stage for a lasting enmity between the French colony that Champlain established and the powerful confederacy of the five Haudenosaunee nations of Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca who would tip the balance in favor of the English. One thing that is certain is that the thunder of French firearms on that July day marked the start of a century and a half of storms that would finally end with the French surrendering the northeast to the English.

It can also be said that it signaled the great changes that were already happening. One of those changes was the way in which war would be waged. The European concept of war was much more brutal and all-encompassing than that of the Algonquian and Iroquoian peoples who would find themselves lined up on opposite sides in decades that followed. The world war that was raging from ocean to ocean between the several European nations that sought control of the wealth of the American continents was one in which the total obliteration of the enemy was regarded as a great victory–even if it meant losing thousands of your own troops in the process. The kings and queens who headed all of those nations moved their massive armies and navies around like pieces in an endless and bloody chess game were not those who fought the battles. A European fighting man’s responsibility was to do whatever he was told by his commander. If he refused, he could be killed for disobeying orders. Prisoners taken in battle might be executed or used as galley slaves, exchanged back or (if important enough) redeemed through the payment of ransom money. And, despite the high ideals of chivalrous behavior espoused in romantic poems and novels, women and children were not spared when a European force invaded enemy territory.

War among the native peoples of the northeast was quite different in the early 17th century. For one, it was not total war but more often–throughout both American continents–a dangerous and sometimes deadly game that had carefully set rules and boundaries. For another, those who led in battle did not have anything like the control of “their” men that a white officer did of his. “Chiefs” never the absolute power of a monarch or a general. A position of leadership was not inherited or given them by some higher authority. Leaders were chosen by consensus (among the Iroquois, by the women of their clan) and only remained in their office as long as they served the will of the people. A war leader had to have the agreement of their men and it was his responsibility to protect them, not use them as “cannon fodder.” A bad leader was one who lost many men in battle.

And as far as those individual warriors went, if someone wanted to fight, they would do so. If not, for whatever reason, they were free to go home. That Native attitude about taking part in any war being the free choice of the individual would continue on throughout the next two centuries and consternate countless white officers confronted by their Indian troops deciding they’d had enough and walking away–as it happened to the British before the Battle of Saratoga.

Champlain’s own description of the events of that July day shows the ritualistic, even polite nature of such warfare. They first meet the Iroquois on the evening of July 29th, but do not attack. Instead the two parties draw apart, remaining within arrow range. Then:

“. . .they dispatched two canoes by themselves to the enemy to inquire if they wished to fight, to which the latter replied that they wanted nothing else; but they said, at present, there was not much light, and that it would be necessary to wait until daylight, so as to be able to recognize each other, and that as soon as the sun rose, they would offer us battle. This was agreed to by our side.”

The clear understanding here is that if either side said they did not feel like engaging in battle just then, the other side would just say, ‘Oh, all right,” and leave it at that! What Champlain described next is further evidence of the atmosphere in which such limited warfare was waged. There are no alarms in the night, no nervous warriors waiting fearfully for the dawn. Instead, it’s rather like a pep rally before a big football game.

“Meanwhile,” Champlain’s account continues, “the entire night was spent in singing and dancing, on both sides, with endless insults and other talk: as, how little courage we had, how feeble a resistance we would make against their arms, and that, when day came, we should realize it to our ruin. Ours also were not slow in retorting, telling them how they would see such execution of arms as never before. . .”

Indeed, they would see such “execution of arms as never before.” The Iroquois did not know that their enemies had a secret weapon. Champlain and his men had been kept concealed, “under cover, for fear that the enemy would see us” until the battle was about to start the next morning. Then, when the Iroquois least expected it:

“Our men began to call me with loud cries; and in order to give me a passage-way, they opened in two parts, and put me at their head, where I marched some twenty paces in advance of the rest, until I was within thirty paces of the enemy, who at once noticed me, and, halting, gazed at me, as I did at them. When I saw them making a move to fire at us, I rested my musket against my cheek, and aimed directly at one of the three chiefs. With the same shot, two fell to the ground; and one of their men was so wounded that he died some time after. I had loaded my musket with four balls. When our side saw this shot so favorable for them, they began to raise such loud cries that one could not have heard it thunder.”

Notice how slowly that all unfolds. There’s no frenzied attack, but a ritualized aggression as the two sides advance. The expected results might have been a number of injuries, a death or two, a few captives taken before both sides decided they’d fought enough to satisfy their honor and could then walk away. Then the sudden thunder of muskets changed all the rules of the game. Those Mohawks must have felt like a batter who discovers that what has been hurled at him is not a ball but a hand grenade.

Champlain would return victoriously to his new little village of Quebec. There, and at his later settlement that became Montreal, he would continue to ally himself with the Hurons and the Algoquian peoples of the northeast, such as the Abenakis. He would spend four decades in exploration, in warfare against the Iroquois, in advancing the religious and commercial interests of France in the New World. Much more so than the British, his constant enemies, Champlain would endeavor to work with the American Indian nations around him. He would value and respect his Indian allies. He would urge the creation of a new nation, New France, that would result from the intermarriage of French and Indians, whose mixed-blood children would be, he expected, loyal citizens of Mother France. That was far from the approach in New England where the idea of such intermarriage was appalling.

Similarly, following that idea of assimilation, there was a concerted drive through the history of New France to convert all the “savages” (including those in New England) to the true Christian faith. While there were numerous Protestant missionaries in New England who labored mightily to convert their own red pagans, there was a even stronger movement to eliminate those Indians. Extirpation or separation, rather than absorption was the British model. Even “Praying Indians” in New England were often killed or would later be forced to leave their homelands and move west–like the Stockbridge Munsees.

The French approach to Native relations, pioneered by Champlain, was indeed much more humanistic than that of the English. But it was also ethnocentric. There would always be a gap in understanding between Champlain and the native cultures around him. Just as it seems Champlain never fully understood the true circumstances and the later repercussions of that first violent encounter with the Iroquois, it appears that he always viewed the world–and the destiny of New France–through very French eyes.

What didn’t he see as a result? An entire book could be written about that. One thing, already been mentioned, relates to leadership and governance. The Jesuit fathers would write about the dangerous egalitarian ideas held by virtually all Indian nations, ideas that could emperil the stranglehold of monarchs on their subjects if adopted (as they eventually were!) by the common people of France. Native leaders were chosen by the people, led through consensus, and could be removed from their position if they behaved badly. That European model of leadership also extended to religious affairs. The Pope was God’s voice on earth, the spiritual Emperor of mankind. That tenet of the Catholic faith, of any human being infalliable, was one that Indian converts found it hard to accept. Why, for example, does an individual need a priest to be able to speak to the Creator whose great mysterious power is in eveyone and everything?

Champlain seems to never have wavered in his faith in both his King and his Catholicism. He accepted the pyramid model of religious and secular rule, with the vast mass of humanity far at the bottom, forever supporting and submissive. He did not see the circle of interdependence that characterized Native communities.

Nor did he see that for Native people, whether Haudenosaunee or Alnobak, that interdependence goes beyond the human world. The animals whose furs would bring wealth to the new colony, were regarded not as objects or “dumb animals,” but as sentient beings who had to be treated with respect, no less important than the humans who relied upon them for food and clothing and other apsects of material culture. Every human was related to the animal people (or some other non-human force of nature such as Thunder), sometimes through an ancient direct ancestor, always through the membership in a clan or division that was strengthened by its animal benefactor. The two major moeities of the Abenaki appear to have been the Turtle and the Bear. Among the Mohawk, the three clans that exist to this day, inherited from one’s mother, are Turtle, Bear and Wolf.

The Native world is deeply alive. The Thunder itself that we hear from above is the voice of one of the beings called Bedagi by the Abenakis and Heno by the Mohawks. Ktsi Kisos, the Great Sun that shone down that day on the meeting between those two parties, was not just a light in the sky, but a living being aware of the deeds of those below. Among the Mohawk, for example, it is still said that the sun approves brave deeds done in battle and so is pleased when men fight in an honorable fashion. The very waters that they passed over on their canoes were understood to be just as aware. It is certain that, though Champlain may not have noticed it, prayers were spoken and offering made to Petonbowk at certain stages of the journey. The sacred was not limited to the church or to the priest, but omnipresent. The white men practiced religion in their Churches. The Native people lived within a universe of spirit.

The story is told that a group of Indians were asked by a missionary, after he had explained to them the idea of God the Father, what their concept of God was. In response they drew a circle on the ground and placed a dot within it.

“We are that dot,” they said. “The circle is the eye of the Creator, who is all around us and always watching.”

It might be noted that in all our languages, the word for “God” is never a masculine noun. The Creator is Ktsi Nwaskw in Abenaki. the Great Mystery. This could lead into a further discussion of the ways in which Champlain and all those other men who came to rule our land did not recognize the true roles and deep strength of Native women. It’s the subject for a much longer essay than this one. But for now, let me simply say that men cannot be strong without strong women and that among our Native people the strength of women continues to this day, supported by the Mother Earth herself. Ndakinna.

Ndakinna, our land. Champlain and all of those others who came from across the sea saw the land as property to be conquered, claimed, purchased and sold. But to our people, of whatever indigenous nation, the land that remains, the soil and the water, the trees and the air, the very stones, are not objects. The earth is alive and its presence and role is that of a mother. It gives us life and we must respect and love it in return, for it is all that lasts, the place from which we come, the place to which we shall return, long after this Quadracentennial year.