With us, against us

“The Five Nations could never control their world fully; they could never enjoy perfect security within Iroquoia, nor were they able to banish death. As a result, ritual torture and cannibalism – both by the Iroquois and by their enemies – continued throughout the seventeenth century. Indeed, the persistence of hostilities proved so frustrating to the Iroquois will to incorporate outsiders that the Five Nations resorted to the symbolic and actual consumption of enemies who consistently defied their expansive vision of peace.

“For the Iroquois, adoption was an important means of assuaging grief, replacing those who died, and maintaining population, especially in the face of epidemic disease. Men brought to the villages of Iroquoia as captives in warfare were candidates for such adoption, but they could also suffer a less happy fate: a kind of ritual adoption through torture, death, and cannibalism. In this practice, the Iroquois expressed a rage of bereavement, one that Deganawidah and Iroquois political culture sought to repress internally. The torturer thus found a release in subjecting the prisoner – an outsider – to treatment that today strikes us as extraordinarily cruel. While indulging in this violence, Iroquois men and women achieved psychic relief; they defeated their rage by devouring the source of it. And simultaneously, as they consumed their victims, they symbolically transformed them into kinsmen. Jesuit observers thought the Huron and Iroquois savage and cruel when they caressed captives with fire brands, commenting, ‘Ah, it is not right that my uncle should be cold; I must warm thee,’ or when they applied a red-hot axe head to a victim’s feet, saying, ‘Now as my uncle has kindly designed to come and live among the Huron, I must make him a present, I must give him a hatchet.’ In essence, Iroquoian people in this manner transformed the raw (foreign, hostile men) into the cooked (kinsmen), and then they ate them in the ultimate exercise of assimilation.”


“The sorcerer Thadadaho epitomized the dualism of good and evil, as did the cannibal Hiawatha. [The prophet] Deganawidah transformed each man, through magic and reason, bringing out the good and banishing the bad. The Iroquois similarly saw a dualism in power and in the effects of medicine and ritual. Orenda, a benevolent and protecting power, opposed utgon, the essence of evil, expressed by witches, disease and storms. Shamans or healers mobilized orenda against utgon, but the line between the beneficent and the malignant, between medicine and witchcraft, was easily crossed. Shamans might turn their abilities to evil, or normally benign rituals might become witchcraft if improperly performed. In the peace negotiations of 1645 at Trois Rivières . . . the Iroquois orator himself seemed the embodiment of dualism; in reply to an ‘ill-disposed Huron,’ he said, ‘My face is painted and daubed on one side, while the other is quite clean. I do not see very clearly on the side that is daubed over; on the other side my sight is good. The painted side is toward the Hurons, and I see nothing; the clean side is toward the French, and I see clearly, as in broad daylight.'”

Matthew Dennis, Cultivating a Landscape of Peace: Iroquois-European Encounters in Seventeenth-Century America (Cornell University Press, 1993)

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