The Keepers of the deciduous forest
Five nations have lived in the deciduous forest since time immemorial: the Abenaki, the Malecite, the Micmac, the Huron-Wendat and the Mohawk. Their names Wôbanaki, "Land of the Dawn"; Wulustuk, "St. John's River"; Mi'gmaq, "The Allies" undoubtedly; Wendat, "The Island Dwellers"; and Kanien'kehá:ka, "People of the Flint" evoke their links to the earth as well as their different origins.
The Abenaki, the Wolastoqiyik (Malecite) and the Mi'gmaq are part of the Algonquian language family. As for the Huron-Wendat and Mohawks, they belong to the Iroquoian language family. These nations share an ecosystem which is dominated by the sugar maple, the ash and the elm, but which also contains conifers such as the pine and hemlock.
The sugar maple
The large and prestigious sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is a common sight in the deciduous forests of southern Québec. In the fall, it gives the forests a blaze of color; in the spring, it provides a sap loved by everyone.
Cut, notched, beaten, engineered, rolled, the black ash (Fraxinus nigra) provides thin, flexible strips of wood that the Abenaki weave with vanilla grass to make baskets similar to those of the Huron-Wendat and Mi'gmaq. The white ash, easy to bend, is used by the Abenaki and Wolastoqiyik to make snowshoes, and by the Mi'gmaq to make tool handles.
Gathering and collecting
The Earth offers a multitude of edible, aromatic, medicinal and colouring plants. And year after year, each nation gathers and collects a hundred or so species that contribute to the general well-being of its members.
The task of gathering the plants falls mainly to the women in Aboriginal societies, and the gathering activity occupies an important place in the calendar. The Mohawk had their own thanksgiving services for maple syrup and strawberries. At least six consecutive month names also refer to stages in the growth cycle: from April to September, onerahtokha, "small leaf"; oneratakowa, "large leaf"; oiariha, "unripened fruit"; oiarikowa, "ripe fruit"; seskeha, "brush"; and sehske'ko:wa', "large brush".
Tradionally, gathering is mainly the responsibility of women. The Abenaki harvest maple sap, fern fronds and wild leeks in the spring, wild strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries and blueberries in the summer, cranberries in the fall, and medicinal plants in every season.
The fall was the season for collecting acorns and nuts. The plants and fruits gathered were then eaten fresh or preserved for use as flavouring in foods such as the corn mush (or hominy) prepared by the Huron-Wendat.
The plump flesh of strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries and blueberries has always been a part of the traditional Aboriginal diet.
Berries play a key role in the daily diet and in providing vitamins. They are eaten both fresh and kept for a long time thanks to different techniques:
- dried powder;
- pemmican, a mixture of meat and dried berries reduced to powder and mixed with animal fat.
Harvesting and gathering berries are activities at the heart of Aboriginal cultures, as they call for patience and observation. These activities are practiced in family and in groups. It is a special time to be together on the land.
Acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts and hazelnuts: all have been part of Aboriginal history for more than 7,000 years. The stone anvils used to break them can still be found today on archaeological sites. The presence of walnut shells on Île Verte, 100 km north of the butternut's distribution area, is a living reminder of how far the plant travelled as far back as the year 1 200.
Traditionally, it was the women and children who gathered and prepared the nuts. The Huron-Wendat boiled acorns repeatedly in ashes to eliminate their bitter taste. The Mohawk used nuts to make bread and corn mush, and the Iroquoians extracted nut oil that they used to season pumpkins, squash and other vegetables, or even as a hair lacquer.
Acoording to an iroquoian legend, corn would have appeared from the burial of a woman, emerging from her breasts. Corn is therefore often represented by a woman in Mohawk and Huron-Wendat mythology and it was cultivated by women.
As soon as the men had cleared an area, the women began to work the soil, armed with small hoes. They then planted corn in mounds of soil, usually followed by its sister crops, beans and squash. A field could contain thousands of mounds, since corn accounted for up to 65% of the Iroquoian diet. The first green corn harvest took place in August for the Mohawk, and like sowing and the fall harvest, it was an occasion for many feasts and ceremonies. However, soil exhaustion and lack of firewood forced villages to relocate periodically, approximately once every 15 years.
Called Indian corn by the Europeans, corn (or maize) originates from America. The Aboriginal peoples developed many different varieties, at least five of which were cultivated by the Mohawk: one variety of flint or "soup" corn, two of starchy or "bread" corn, one sweet corn variety and one popcorn variety. Corn was often exchanged for furs from the North.
The Three Sisters: corn, beans, squash
A legend tells that corn, beans and squash were like three beautiful and affectionate women who enjoyed each other's company. They are traditionally known as the Three Sisters, or De-o-ha'-ko, which means "Our life" or "Our support" in Iroquoian. The three plants formed the basis of the ancient Huron-Wendat and Mohawk diet.
Planted, harvested and eaten together, they also shared thanksgiving ceremonies, as they were blessed in the spring, evoked in prayers for abundant rain in the summer and celebrated in the fall, at harvest time. A song sung by women describes the harvest in these terms: "The Three Sisters are happy because they are home again from their summer in the fields."
Intercropping of the Three Sisters is still practised today, and produces excellent results. The broad leaves of the corn plant protect the squash from the wind and sun, while the squash leaves prevent weeds from growing and also help retain soil humidity. The beans fix nitrogen levels in the soil and climb up the corn stalks towards the sunlight.
Tobacco and sunflowers, plants of light and spirit, were grown everywhere by the Iroquoians. Tobacco was used in religious ceremonies, at healing sessions or at feasts where smoking was the only activity. It is still grown at Kahnawake, near Montréal, and is still used in ceremonies.
Sunflowers, plants of light, were grown for their seeds, which yielded oil used for cooking or as a hair lotion. The flowers were probably also the model for some decorative patterns found in Iroquoian art.
The white pine: symbol of peace
The white pine can grow to a height of more than 35 metres and is one of the largest trees in Eastern Canada. It flourishes in full sunlight, and is easy to spot because of its size and shape. In the forest, it serves as a point of reference for the Algonquin, and has always been used for a variety of purposes by other nations. For example, the Iroquoians would hollow out pine trunks to make dugouts, the Huron-Wendat built fences of pine logs, and all the First Nations made pine-based remedies.
The pine, the Tree of Life, the Tree of Peace and the Celestial Tree, was one of the strongest images used by Grand Chief Kondiaronk in a speech made the year before the Great Peace of Montréal treaty was signed in 1701: Today, the sun has scattered the clouds, revealing this wonderful Tree of Peace...
The art of the longhouses
The longhouses each housed 5 or 6 families of about 5 people. Built by the men, they were known as Karonta'seronnion by the Mohawk and ganonchia by the Huron-Wendat. Their tunnel-like structure was obtained by means of vertical and horizontal arrangements of logs, and they were covered by long strips of bark, preferably elm or cedar. Inside, fires were lit down the middle and were shared by the families living on opposite sides of the house. Porches were found at one and sometimes both ends, and were used to store corn and firewood.
The longhouses were typical of corn-growing societies and were used for more than a thousand years, finally disappearing in the 18th Century. They are still part of the Mohawk and Huron-Wendat identity. Smaller long homes are still used by some northern Algonquian nations such as the rectangular kichiihchauukimikw of the Cree which can house 2 or 3 families in winter and the shaputuan of the Innu.