Rony Blum. Ghost Brothers: Adoption of a French Tribe by Bereaved Native America: A Transdisciplinary Longitudinal Multilevel Integrated Analysis. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005. 464 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7735-2828-4.
Reviewed by Karl S. Hele (First Nations Studies Program, University of Western Ontario)
Published on H-Canada (February, 2010)
Commissioned by Stephanie Bangarth
Toward an Understanding of Cultures in Contact
Readers will be impressed by the depth of knowledge and research undertaken by Rony Blum. Her meticulous research supports a subtle discussion of how the French (read Normans and Bretons) colonized and survived in Native America in the seventeenth century. Beginning with the establishment of Quebec and largely concluding by the 1680s, Blum’s arguments convincingly demonstrate how early settlers were indigenized through contact with a variety of First Nations, particularly the Innu (Montagnais), Wendat (Huron), and Haudenosaunne (5 Nations Iroquois). Other First Nations, such as the pays d’en haut groups and the Mi’kmaq, serve as examples to broaden the discussion but only as outliers of the main cultural exchange. Blum’s examination centers on key areas of cultural similarity and difference, such as subsistence, gender roles, law, politics, and French adaptation to the new environment.
Blum’s narrative is based on a concept of twinning, with each chapter returning to this metaphorical construction. This idea is drawn from twin narratives in Aboriginal myths. By twinning early colonists with Aboriginal counterparts the dialogues between cultures is nicely formed. For instance, the author twins Champlain with Cherououny to explore how Innu concepts of justice and generosity affected similar broad concepts among the French. This is the mastery in her narrative, the twinning of individuals to explore how broad shared values were interpreted, modified, and incorporated by the French. Importantly for Blum, the dialogue of twins, the opposite natures, and even the distorted mirror images meld nicely in this cultural discussion. This concept alone makes the volume worth reading.
Twinning also encompasses Blum’s discussion of French-native relations through a shared sense of grief. This is a fascinating argument throughout the book. She notes that the French arriving in the colony in the seventeenth century were largely from Normandy, Brittany, Aunis/St-Onge area, and Poitou--areas where disease, violence, and political resistance to the Parisian center had shaped the immigrants’ core identity. Moreover, she applies theories about immigrant displacement and identity reformulation to discuss the effect of migrating to Canada. These factors are twinned with the high rate of mortality in native communities as well as conflicts that resulted in similar psychological and cultural trauma. It is this perception of shared pain, albeit from different cultural experiences, that served as a binding tie.
Additional points of twinning focus on myth, ethic, and masculinity. While some of these twinned concepts are superficial in the encounter, something the author points out, these nodes of cultural contact and understanding served to help nativize the French in Canada. This is evident, for instance, in the idea of manliness and honor in warfare and losing face in public. The Wendat, Innu, and Iroquois all shared similar conventions and recognized bravery and honor in daily life and warfare, as did the French. The differences were how these ideals were translated within and understood by the different communities as each tried to work with the other. It is these points of contact, the ghosts in the mirror, which served to link the newcomers to the native, which form and inform Blum’s discussions.
The effort by the author to locate and discuss positive interactions is drawn from Blum’s personal feelings and philosophy that historians need to refocus their efforts on all aspects of the past. She hopes that a focus on twinning in the colonial experience around the globe will allow for a fresh examination of the common past. Such a fresh perspective, according to Blum, will aid in the healing process rather than “unearthing additional fuel for old hostilities” (p. 10). This admirable goal is evident throughout the volume and forms her modernist epilogue wherein calls are made for a recognition and restoration of Aboriginal values and methods to the international stage. The continued nonrecognition and even denial of Native America, Blum argues, is only hurting the democratic and humanistic development of the Americas.
Blum should be congratulated for her efforts to incorporate a more holistic perspective into her discussions of the past. This effort not only answers the calls of many Aboriginal scholars that Western methodologies need rounding, but also allows Blum to pursue avenues of possibility that others would shy away from. Her discussion of the captivity experience is a wonderful example of how modern psychological understandings of youth, violence, captivity, torture, and brain functioning can contribute to understanding experiences. This discussion focuses not on the sensationalism of the captive experience, but on how it affected the individual on several levels, as well as how healing was undertaken afterward. Unfortunately, this discussion only deals with those individuals who returned to New France and not those who remained among their adopted-captors. This missing element is likely due to the lack of documentation and Blum’s stated intent to focus on the colonial French.
Blum’s focus on nativization of the French colonists, while convincing, does neglect to discuss how cultural exchange affected First Nations. The impact of French culture on the Aboriginal is in dire need of discussion, as is how the impact of multiple deaths refocused native beliefs and culture. Nonetheless, this is not the point of Blum’s book. To her credit she does briefly highlight some of these aspects but a thorough study needs to be undertaken.
Overall this volume is a must read for anyone studying the French colony in Canada, particularly its origins. It offers a more sensitive and nuanced understanding of Parkmanesque arguments about why the French appeared to get along better with the natives. We have moved from supposed cultural primitivism of the French meshing with New World primitives to a multifaceted understanding of each culture’s role in contact. This process was anything but primitive.
Nevertheless, there are three areas that Blum needed to take a little less than at face value. First, the claims of W. J. Eccles in The Canadian Frontier, 1534-1760 (1969), that the French frontier was in everyone’s backyard, while speaking to the uniqueness of the Canada colony, needs to be reevaluated. Blum notes that there is a different feel for the French when it came to the Quebec, Trois Riviere, and Montreal settlements, with those more westerly seeming more frontier-like. Is the Canada experience any different from the earliest settlements in the New England colonies? American scholars are wrestling with new interpretations of their multiple frontiers, so perhaps scholars working in Canada need to reevaluate their assumptions or lack thereof when it comes to frontiers at home. Second, the blanket statement that First Nations communities were egalitarian is hugely problematic. While perhaps this was or is the ideal, the term itself represents a Western attempt to understand social relations in various native communities. While to some extent Blum does see a difference in male/female relations in the Wendat and Innu communities, the blanket of egalitarianism fails to properly represent the divergent social constructions that may have existed in various communities and allows for the continued assumption that Indians are generally all the same. Then again, this assumption is Western-based and would serve to have influenced French understandings and cultural changes in Canada, which is Blum’s point. Third, and finally, is the use of the term “multicultural” within the colonial context. The desire to project Canada’s current policies and political-love of the ideal of multiculturalism is very problematic when applied to any colonial circumstance. While Blum is admirably attempting to focus on the positive, the simple reality that the Jesuits and Ursulines, and even French policy, aimed to assimilate Aboriginals belies multicultural assumptions. It also ignores later French-Indian relations, specifically French efforts to annihilate the Fox and Natchez Nations. Moreover, for me, it is also not cognizant of the fact that the Wendat and Innu, as well as all First Nations, were separate political entities and not part of Canada beyond colonial and imperial assumptions. Nevertheless, these three points do not detract from the importance or value of the work for scholars seeking to understand the process of contact, early colonial history, and the origins of Quebec as well as its contemporary culture. Overall, Blum does an excellent job of emphasizing the importance of culture in human interactions and its implications for the contemporary era.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-canada.
Karl S. Hele. Review of Blum, Rony, Ghost Brothers: Adoption of a French Tribe by Bereaved Native America: A Transdisciplinary Longitudinal Multilevel Integrated Analysis.
H-Canada, H-Net Reviews.
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