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“The Moment That The Snows Are Melted The Indian Women Begin Their Work”: Iroquois Women Work the Fields

Indian people of the Eastern Woodlands (northeastern North America) followed a seasonal schedule of hunting, fishing, gathering wild food, and the cultivation of crops. They relied upon cultivated crops such as corn, beans, and squash for much of their food. Men primarily provided the meat and fish, while women were responsible for supplying cultivated vegetables along with wild berries, nuts, and fruit. While men helped clear the fields, women did the planting, weeding, and harvesting in the warm months. Many European observers remarked upon what they saw as drudgery inflicted upon Indian women. However, Joseph-François Lafitau, a Jesuit missionary and writer, was also a keen ethnographic observer of the details of Iroquois life. In this account, he noted the similarities between farm women’s work in Europe and among the Iroquois.

The Indian women as well as the Amazons, the Thracian, Scythian and Spanish women and those of the other barbarian races of antiquity, work the fields as women do today in Gascony, Beam and Bresse where we often see them running the plough while their husbands ply the distaff. The grain which they sow is maize, otherwise known as Indian or Turkish or Spanish wheat. It is the basis of the food of almost all the sedentary nations from one end of America to the other....

Cultivation of the Fields

In Canada, the moment that the snows are melted the Indian women begin their work. They do not sow in autumn either because maize is one of the seeds which they call summer crops, aestiva,as are sesame, millet, panic-grass and the other vegetables or because, like wheat, it is that kind of grain called by Theophrastus and Pliny trimester[three months grain] since only three months pass between the sowing and the harvesting. Indeed, it seems that no single species should, perhaps, be considered unusual for this reason for the customs in New France show us, quite to the contrary, that all species of grain or French wheat, are usually sown only in the months of April and May and harvested in July and August. In Florida and the more southern countries the maize is sown and garnered twice a year.

The first work done in the fields is gathering and burning the stubble. Then the ground is ploughed to make it ready to receive the grain which they are [going] to throw there. They do not use the plough (for this), any more than they do a number of other farming implements whose use is unknown to them and unnecessary for them. All that they need is a piece of bent wood three fingers wide, attached to a long handle which serves them to hoe the earth and stir it lightly.

The fields which they are to sow are not arranged in headlands and furrows as they are in Europe, but in little round hillocks three feet in diameter. They make nine holes in each of these mounds. They cast into each hole a grain of Indian corn which they cover over carefully.

[Work Party]

All the women of the village join together for the heavy work. They make numerous different bands according to the different quarters where they have their fields and pass from one field to the other helping each other. This can be done with less difficulty and the more quickly in that the fields are not separated by hedges and ditches. All together these [fields] give the appearance of only a single form where there are no disputes over boundaries because every one knows how to recognize them clearly.

The mistress of the field where they are working distributes to each one of the workers the grain or seed for sowing which they receive in little mannesor baskets four or five fingers high and as wide, so that they can calculate the number of grains given out.

Beside maize, they sow horse beans or little lima beans, pumpkins of a species different from those of France, watermelons and great sunflowers. They sow the lima beans next to the grains of their Indian corn, the cane or stalk of which serves them [the lima bean plants] as support as the elm does to the vine. They prepare special fields for their pumpkins and melons, but before sowing them in these fields, they plant the seeds in a preparation of black, light soil between two sheets of bark and place them above their hearths where they germinate.

They keep their fields very clean. They are careful to pull up the grass in them until harvest time. There is also a set time for this [task] when they work all in common. Then each one carried with her a bundle of little sticks a foot or a foot and a half long, with her individual mark and gaily decorated with vermilion. They use these to mark their accomplishments and to make their work show up.

When harvest time has come, they gather Indian corn which they pull off with the leaves around the ears so that they form the husk. These husks, strongly attached as they are serve for braiding them in bunches or in strings as is done with onions.

The festival of binding together corn shocks is doubtless one of those which the ancients called Cerealeswhich they celebrated in honour of Ceres. It takes place at night in the fields and is the only occasion when the men, who do no work either in the fields or with the harvest, are called upon by the women to help. I do not know whether or not there is some remnant of a religious cult in this [ceremony]. I have not tried to learn its peculiar features. It appears, however, that this custom may have been originally due to religion. I speak here only of the North American custom. I do not know enough about what is done elsewhere to speak about it. The authors who have written about the Southern Americans limit themselves to saying, in general, that the men would be considered to have demeaned themselves if they even barely touched this task or anything else (that is) set aside as women’s work.

Text online at Library of Canadiana


Source: Joseph-François Lafitau, Customs of the American Indians Compared with the Customs of Primitive Times, ed. and trans. William N. Fenton and Elizabeth I. Moore, 2 vols (Toronto,: The Champlain Society, 1974–77), 2: 47, 54–55.