The sun was warm on Annahotaha’s neck as the Indian allies swiftly paddled their canoes up the Ottawa River. It was an hour after dawn and after the chilly night the young April sun was welcome. In an hour, the Indians would remove their outer furs and paddle in their deer, elk or beaver-skin clothes.
After paddling four hours, Annahotaha arched his back to awaken some muscles. He did it between strokes so that the rhythm of the canoe was not broken. Finally, he called a break, and the canoes pulled in at a suitable place. He and Mituvemeg found themselves sitting on the same curved rock smoking pipes. Traveling to fight Iroquois was a major part of their lives but they were curious about each others’ experiences.
“In the old days we fought the Iroquois with equal strength,” said Annahotaha. “Now the Vipers are much stronger. There once were more than thirty thousand Huron. Thirty summers later there were only twelve thousand. After the disaster of Sainte Marie…the people who that did not die or were not captured by the Vipers scattered….no one knows how many are left or where they live.”
“The Vipers did much damage but so did the Black Robes,” said Mituvemeg.
“When I was twenty summers I listened to an old woman who spoke before the whole assembly,” said Annahotaha. “She said:
“It is the Black Robes who have caused our deaths. Listen to me and I will prove it. They came to a village where everyone was well; as soon as they were established everyone but two or three died. They moved and the same thing happened. They visited the cabins of other cities and only those into which they did not enter have been exempted from illness and death.
“Do you not see that when they say what they call their ‘prayers,’ when they move their lips over us, spells come from their mouths? If we do not put them to death promptly, they will ruin the whole country.”
Annahotaha recalled the woman’s words verbatim. The Huron, like all the Indians, had astounding memories; they could not write, so the history of the tribes was entrusted to the people with an almost total recall.
The French did not know, at first, that while they were immune or highly resistant to influenza and other diseases, the Huron had no resistance to these strange ailments and easily succumbed to them. So while the Jesuits were doing their spiritual care-taking, they were unwittingly assisting the Iroquois in depleting the Huron population.
“I do not understand that,” said Annahotaha. “The Black Robes would not do that to us on purpose. I think it was a trick of fate. Our medicine was not strong enough. At that time the people wanted to kill the Black Robes but the council said that if we killed them the trade with the French would cease and we needed the trade to live. I did not want to kill the Black Robes. But my family did not get sick and die.”
“The Christian Algonquins did not want the Black Robes to die either,” said Mituvemeg. “The true believers I mean. Not the ones who said they believed to get guns. I am Christian now. I believe in the Jesus God.”
“I never became a Christian,” said Annahotaha. “It is good for them. Perhaps it is good for you. But not for me. I do not believe the Black Robes are evil, but I do not understand all the pestilence. I know the Vipers are evil. And I know the French regard them so too. And now, after Sainte Marie, I live among the French much of the time. When I am not killing Iroquois. I do not understand all these things.”
Annahotaha sighed as if all this was too much for him. “But anyway, Ste. Marie was not the fault of the Black Robes. It was the Iroquois. That is my opinion on the subject.”
“Sadly, Sainte Marie was almost the end of your people,” said Mituvemeg. “It was once a strategic fort in the middle of Huron lands on the banks of that river leading to the Big Bay.”
“Yes. It grew to hold up to sixty Frenchmen and hundreds of our Huron.”
“But your nation was already weak by then. Famine, disease and war…that attack was the end,” said Mituvemeg.
“Until I was twenty years old the Huron and Iroquois battled on an even basis,” said Annahotaha.
“When it was only blood feuds, it was a small thing. Peace was always made,” said Mituvemeg.”
“Somehow the Iroquois gained the upper hand,” said Annahotaha.
“Sometimes the Huron left the field too early,” said Mituvemeg, not reprovingly. “Sometimes you failed to press an advantage.”
“Iroquois’ guns outnumbered our own two to one,” replied Annahotaha grimly.
“And the Iroquois came like the fox, fought like the bear and fled like the birds,” said Mituvemeg. “But they often left the field early too. It is not dishonorable. When you cannot see over the hill, sometimes you go home alive to fight another day. But sometimes, with patience, you might have…” His voice trailed off. “We cannot see the enemy hidden in the forest. We do not know their strength. If the French were brave enough to attack the Iroquois in the wild, they could defeat those vipers. One great show of force and all would be well for our trading and the comfort of our peoples. But the French do not leave their forts.”
“Maybe this is the beginning of a new strategy,” said Annahotaha. “We made mistakes too. I have seen our young braves put too much faith in guns from the French. Many forget their war skills with our traditional weapons that are mostly better. The Iroquois do not forget. But they also have many more guns than our nation,” said Annahotaha. “The Dutch give guns without religion.”
‘There is the main matter,” said Mituvemeg. “You controlled the trading water routes from the best trapping grounds and refused to permit the Iroquois to trade there. We traded with you but not the Iroquois.”
“This is a natural thing,” said Annahotaha. If we allowed them to trap in our country, we would starve. They would take their furs and trade with the Dutch and shut out the French whom they have hated ever since Champlain shot three of their chiefs long ago. They never forget their humiliation. They will always betray the French even with treaties. That is my opinion on the subject.
“Look at what we are doing now. We are going to help the French fight the Iroquois in the forest. They have rarely done this–only in brief attacks with small war parties…but this force is larger. They want to shoot the Iroquois hunters as they come down the rapids. That is exactly what the Iroquois have been doing to us and to the French for these many years.”
I heard that Montreal has seen only three or four canoes of furs in a few years from the hunters and trappers” said Mituvemeg. They cannot stand that. They will have to return to their country or be wiped out by the Vipers if nothing is done.”
He paused, looked up at the water.
“This water is our life-line. We Algonkin are hunters and traders. If we cannot go free on the water…”
His voice trailed off. Then he stretched out, picked up a stone and threw it into the water.
“There was a treaty when I was half my present age that allowed the Iroquois some privileges but war soon broke out again,” he said. “I do not know the details of that treaty.”
“The Iroquois broke the treaty and so we abandoned it,” said Annahotaha angrily. “They always deceive, then plunder. They attacked our beaver flotillas when we were at peace, so our trade suffered. When we retaliated, our farming was neglected. That meant we had little to trade with: few furs, little corn. It became like a dog chasing its tail.”
“All the time French diseases were taking their toll,” said Mituvemeg.
“And this new kind of war… guns, cannons, surprise attacks, normal fur trade passage on the river leading to a water grave…then the disaster at Sainte Marie,” said Annahotaha. “Whole villages burned and the people killed. Runners warned us at Sainte Marie, and we left quickly. The Vipers came, but we had burned it to the ground.
“Our Huron nation was no more. Hundreds died, others captured, others dispersed. A death blow. Almost”
Annahotaha got up to return to the canoe. “That was ten summers ago. I vowed then to kill as many Iroquois as possible before my death. I am forty summers now. There is not much time left. I have killed sixty-four Iroquois to this day. One hundred would be good. This is what I think.”
“It is a good number. I will help you,” said Mituvemeg.