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What If?

Oct 30, 2008

This weekend I'll be writing an essay for a Canadian History course, discussing the motivations, methodology, and influence of the Jesuits on the Huron during their missions to New France in the seventeenth century. The questions I'm working on are engaging, however as I'm working on this topic and doing my readings I can't help but wonder what a contemporary Huron nation might have looked like.

French society was feudal, monarchical, hierarchical, and built on complex religious and economic systems. Government in that environment arose from the desire to protect and administer private property, and for the middling and lower groups private property was the result of agriculture -- few would want to place efforts into administering or working the land without ensuring that the fruit of their labour was guaranteed to them. The North American First Nations also had agriculture, however they had a very different conception of private property, its protection, and the relationship between one man and another. Private items included personal objects such as axes and horses, but lands were communal and assigned to tribes as agreed upon at meetings of tribal representatives.

If the natives had been left unmolested by the Europeans, and if or when the natives transitioned through their own iron age and beyond, would the resulting societies have resembled those of Europe, in particular those of France and England? Might it be that the natives were in a state the Europeans once passed through during their prehistory, en route to seventeenth century monarchism? The British economist and historian R.H. Tawney discusses the development of European societies and economies in his work Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, and from the title alone we can surmise the direction of the book: the development of (mercantilism, feudalism, and) capitalism was based upon and inextricably bound to the development of the dominant European religion, Christianity.

Accepting religion as one of the driving forces that shape the economic form of a society -- and there seems to be no reason to think this would not hold true in the case of First Nations as well as Europe -- I see no reason to believe that native North American societies would have developed in a fashion similar to European societies. First Nations religions and cosmology were different from Christianity in fundamental ways. The natives had very different natural and supernatural conceptions, and thus very different ideas about the relationship between men and earth.

A research topic for another year perhaps.