Friday, September 15, 2017

On Hochelaga and Subsistence

Montreal is celebrating its 375th anniversary, some say. That dates from 1642 when the Ville Marie was founded at a point along the St. Laurence River on the island later called Montreal.

But of course, people lived there before that and the number 375 does not include them. On a recent visit, I saw evidence of a small piece of this omission. This marker stands along the central green at McGill University:

The plaque reads:

Near here was the site of the fortified town of Hochelaga visited by Jacques Cartier in 1535, abandoned before 1600. It contained fifty large houses, each lodging several families who subsisted by cultivation and fishing.
People have been on Montreal’s island for at least 4,000–5,000 years. It was underwater from 12,000-6,000 years ago, and covered in glacier before then. The first sedentary settlements were about 1,300 years ago. (Signs of habitation in other parts of Quebec date to 12,000 years ago.)

Cartier's visit was more than a hundred years before the 1642 settlement of Ville Marie, but even so, the possibility of a visitor like Cartier would not have been unheard of the people of Hochelaga. According to the head archaeologist at the history museum in Montreal and a local historian quoted in the Montreal Gazette,
Europeans had been visiting other parts of the St. Lawrence Valley for years for whaling, cod fishing and seal hunting, and had interacted with indigenous communities.

“The aboriginal people were very mobile and information travelled fast,” Pothier said.

“Around the late 1400s and early 1500s, you have growing numbers of fishermen coming from Europe (French, British and Spanish), especially to exploit the Grand Banks,” near Newfoundland, Taylor said.

“Some of the fishermen would go ashore to pick up firewood or for trapping and would encounter the people living there. A trade develops. They’re offering knives, fishhooks, glass beads in exchange for fur” along the coast of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Canadian archaeologists have been digging to discover the exact site of Hochelaga, including this summer.

With that as background, what made me want to write about the stone marker and this topic was one word in the plaque: subsisted. Hochelaga’s “families subsisted through cultivation and fishing.”

It occurred to me that the verb subsist is used to unconsciously denigrate the way of life of non-European peoples. According to a couple of dictionaries, it means
  • to maintain or support oneself, especially at a minimal level.
  • to get enough food or money to stay alive, but no more.
Subsistence is defined this way, making the connotation even more central to the meaning:
  • the action or fact of maintaining or supporting oneself at a minimum level.
  • denoting or relating to production at a level sufficient only for one's own use or consumption, without any surplus for trade.
“Without any surplus trade.” Yet there’s plenty of evidence that the native people of North America were trading with each other before Europeans arrived, so they must have had something to trade, yes? Why do “we” (and the makers of that plaque) use the word subsistence for their way of life?

Cartier only stopped at what was later called Montreal in 1535 because the Lachine rapids were in the way. As he and his men looked around the area, they saw the big hill on the island and named it “Mont Royal.” They also came upon the village of Hochelaga, which was “surrounded by hills and cultivated fields of corn” — “ploughed and very fertile” — with 50 long houses, each home to multiple families, inside a wooden stockade. Cartier wrote at the time:
The said town is all in a circle, enclosed in wood, in three ranks, in the manner of a pyramid, crossed at the top, having a row perpendicular to it all. And this town there is only one door and entrance. There are within this town roughly fifty houses, each about fifty steps long, and…
He also described the longhouse interiors and how people lived in them, “in each one of them, there are several hearths and several rooms.” In the center of each house was a common room, where the families built a fire and lived as a community.

Near the village were fields where squash, beans and corn were grown, with an area reserved for tobacco.

Now, remember how the typical European lived at this time — probably in more squalor and hunger than the people of Hochelaga, as readers of Charles Mann’s book 1491 know. Remember that the idea of “subsistence” is used as an excuse for manifest destiny and land-grabbing (“they weren’t doing anything with the land anyway,” as the Randian philosophy goes).

And then remember what the etymology of subsist is, according to etymonline,
from Middle French subsister and directly from Latin subsistere "to stand still or firm, take a stand, take position; abide, hold out," from sub "under, up to" (see sub-) + sistere "to assume a standing position, stand still, remain; set, place, cause to stand still.” The meaning "to support oneself" (in a certain way) is later, from 1640s.
Which, ironically, was right around the time Montreal was “founded.”

The connotation of a minimal existence and lesser-than status that we now associate with the word is not mentioned and I assume is undated, but I would argue it has ruined it for common usage if you intend it to mean "support oneself." It now inherently implies that living with what you produce is bad and must be changed to a growth economy.

Whether that’s used to denigrate past native societies or current attempts at sustainable economies, it’s something we have to stop assuming.

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