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I Shall Add One More Word to this Belt

Anonymous Manuscripts Published c. 1725-1726 presented by Benjamin Balloy
Benjamin Balloy
Traduction de Jonathan Michaelson
p. 144-161
Cet article est une traduction de :
Je mets encore un mot sur ce collier [fr]

Texte intégral

1The two documents presented here come from the remnants of revolutionary confiscations collected during the Second Empire, along with other manuscripts associated with the French Ministry of the Navy at the beginning of Louis XV’s reign. The first essay is an anonymous memorandum about the uses and means of fabrication of wampum or wampum beads of porcelaine (the French name for them at the time); it was written in France circa 1726, probably at the request of the authorities. This essay incorporates a second memorandum that was sent likewise by an anonymous correspondent, from “Nouvelle Yorck ” (New York). The second document presented here is a transcription of the “words,” or speeches made by at least two anonymous Iroquois speakers to the Marquis de Beauharnois in Montreal in 1726. The latter, as the Governor of New France, who had taken over from the late Marquis de Vaudreuil, welcomed the delegation of Iroquois from the five villages (the Five Nations) and that of the Christians (the converted Iroquois) of the neighboring Mission at Sault-Saint-Louis.

2Each of the parts of the speech addressed to the king’s representative (“Louis, my Father, who has always loved me,” fol. 39) corresponds to the display, and transfer of a “belt ,” or wampum, which conveyed the meaning of that particular part of the speech. Many other examples of these speeches—transcripts held in the National Archives of French Overseas Territories—attest to the attention paid to this form by the French. Behind the ornate style of the transcription, the speakers voice is somehow perceptible, as is the Iroquois conception of the effectiveness of the speech “articulated” by belts , using metaphors whose coherent formalism has been demonstrated by anthropologists.

3Together, the two documents provide a complementary view of the ways in which the French broadly perceived these kinds of artefacts, characterizations that were not necessarily shared by the Native Americans who made the speeches : on the one hand, the attempt to conceptualize the apparent diversity of its role in Indigenous contexts (diplomatic money, adornment, symbol of commitment, record of treaties, materialization of articles or clauses, etc.) ; and, on the other hand, the integration of wampum into the French diplomatic practices and especially written practices, since the seventeenth century. For, ultimately, the implicit suggestion is that the wampum were an incomplete and ineffective form of writing. The diplomatic transcriptions, while indicating the structure of the speech through a “belt, ” remain far better archived than the belts that were sent with them, attesting to this ambivalent conception. The analogy that is often made with written documents—transmitting information in an impersonal but stable way—and presumed to be evident, is perhaps merely a trompe-l’oeil ; in any case, it fails to take into account the highly personal dimension of the link established between the words and wampum. Equating wampum solely with a materialized word would ignore a richer diversity of connections between the objects and the statements.

4Rather than perceiving wampum as a derivative representation or the simple mimesis of words, the impact of wampum on words—assembled, displayed, hung on a rope, placed on the ground, or preserved—should be taken into account. Analyzing the type of instrument of speech they represented, and the degree of effectiveness they were credited with, means analyzing the framework of interaction that wampum and words jointly instituted. Did the Iroquois metaphors—such as wiping away the tears from the eyes, cleaning the mat, covering the dead, clearing the throat, and clearing the path—reflect real actions? Ultimately, the nature of the relations established between those who were thus connected —addressees, speakers, communities represented, and third parties evoked, both dead and alive—remains to be investigated.

Memorandum on porcelain belts, their use among the Indians, and the material they are made from

5Anonyme manuscript probably written in Paris, circa 1725
Recueil de pièces diverses, la plupart relatives à l’histoire de la première moitié du règne de Louis XV. V-VIII Marine et Colonies (1667-1735). Paris, BnF. Département des Manuscrits. NAF 2550, f. 24 r to 27 r.

6The Indians of North America have always had the custom of using belts both as ornaments and in handling the affairs of their nations; these belts are so necessary to those who speak of affairs on behalf of the nations that no faith would be placed in their words if they did not beforehand present the other party with a belt that they spread out before him; once the speech is over, the Indian being addressed picks up the belt and puts another down in its place to make his answer.

7If there are several statements to be made, it is matched by as many belts or as many “porcelain” strings of beads.

8When it concerns important affairs, on which it is important for the Council of the Nation to deliberate, the response is never given the same day.

9Aside from the belts that are given for general and public affairs, some are also presented when it comes to negotiating secret matters.

10The latter are called “underground belts,” for they are given in private.

11If the Indian to whom one has just made the proposals does not wish to heed them, he gives back his belt straight away, and he will even do so after reflecting for two or three days about the request that has been made; but if he offers another belt in exchange, one can entirely put one’s trust in him.

12Belts are still given to prevent a nation from avenging the death of one of its Indians without the participation of the one who sends the belt. The person who brings it says, as he presents it, that he is binding the legs of the dead, and hence the offended nation will take no action without notifying the one who sends the belt.

13The belts that are given to the Indians for affairs concerning the nation are kept by one of the former leaders of the Council and often, after twenty years or more, they will come and present the belt they were given as a reminder of the word that was given or as a reproach for not keeping it.

14The Iroquois—who are without contest the most skilled of all the peoples in North America and who, before the arrival of the Europeans, strove to make themselves the masters by destroying all the nations that refused to be incorporated to them and to take up weapons on their behalf, having never wished for allies— make piles of belts for the nation, which has enabled them to succeed in their affairs, while other nations with less foresight are often unable to negotiate with anyone for a lack of belts.

  • 1 A “ligne” is a French term designing a unit of measurement, equivalent

15These belts are made from beads made from white and blue shells; the most common are three feet and several inches long and three inches wide; the beads are threaded with [fol. 24] small strips of very delicate skin, and the Indians create on these belts with beads of these two colors figures, and designs in their fashion; the beads are not exactly round and are at most the width of two or three lignes1 in length and a little more than one in wide.

16The Indians also use these belts as ornaments around their necks. They also make others that are split in the center so that they can be placed around the neck, and they make bracelets that are at least four inches wide, which they wear on their wrists.

  • 2 This neck ornament is illustrated in Gilles Havard’s article in this issue, Fig. 1.

17These bracelets and one of these belts may be seen in the Cabinet of Monsieur Pajot Ons-en-Bray2.

18The “porcelain” used either in belts or in bracelets, is buried with the person to whom it belonged.

The shells from which the “porcelain” beads are made

19When the French arrived in America, they referred to the beads used for the Indians’ belts as porcelaine.

  • 3 That is to say spider shells (Lambis lambis) [Editors’note].

20We knew that these beads were made from shells worked by the Indians who lived near the coast between the Gulf of Mexico and the area to the north; but we did not know which shells they used. We subsequently learned that the white beads were made from lambis shells3, but from a different species than those found around the Windward Islands. The white beads are the most common, but we still did not know what shell was used to make the blue beads.

21We wrote to a correspondent in New York to obtain further information and received the following memoir in 1725.


22When the Europeans landed on the coasts of North America, the Indians had shells that resembled those we call lambis, but they were a quarter of the size and they collected them on the seashore along the coast of Long Island. These kinds of shells have become so rare that it is now impossible to find them.

23The Indians made the white porcelain beads from the thickest part of the shell, involving incredibly difficult work; they shaped the beads on stones and it is believed that they drilled them with flint, but after the arrival of the French they used an iron drill to make the holes in them. However, no matter how skilled the worker, he cannot make more than twenty to twenty-five “porcelain” beads in one day.

24As for the most highly valued and most sought-after blue “porcelain” beads, [fol. 25] those that are the darkest in hue, most of them were made in the past on Rhode Island, around fifty leagues from New York. These were worked in the same way as the white “porcelain” beads, but they were fashioned from another shell and only the lips of the shell, where the mollusks are attached, could be used to make these blue beads. These kinds of shells are found in vast quantities along the coasts of New York.

  • 4 « Isles de l’Amérique » refers to the islands of the Caribbean [Editors’note].

25Nowadays, lambis shells are brought from the islands of America4. The Indians make several pieces of work from them, which serve them as ornaments that are worn on their ears, nostrils, and neck, the long “porcelain” objects called pipes can be about three inches long. They are round and pierced lengthways and perfectly resemble a piece of the tube from a smoking pipe.

26The Indians also use the same shells to make circular objects of all sizes, which they engrave in their manner.

27There is an infinite number of lambis shells of this species on the French islands of America and in particular, on the coast of St. Domingue.

28These days, in New York, there are people who are capable of shaping the lambis shells with the same skill as the Indians.

  • 5 See Fig. 1 in the Introduction [Editors’note].

29In 1726, we received in France the shells from which the blue porcelain is made and we made the following observations about them5.

Description of the shells used by the Indians to make the beads of their belts

30The shell from which the blue “porcelain” beads are made and which was sent from the coast of Virginia, is a bivalve shell of the genius of light emptied shells—it is a kind of clam that resembles those that the Normans call venets and the inhabitants of Provence call clovisses.

31The living shell is covered with a sort of greenish, iron-gray epidermis, which sometimes has reddish hues. Under this first skin is a layer of less than half a ligne in thickness formed from a grayish material that resembles that of a slightly hard marl which is easily cut.

32The heel of these kinds of clam, when they are closed, form a sort of elongated heart shape, whose breadth varies according to the shell, and the ligament or skin of the hinge that joins the two sides together is long and brown, and black when the fish [mollusk] is alive.

33The shell developed from the epidermis and the marl that coats it is as hard as any other shell. Hence, it is dirty white gray in color, which turns white as it develops and it only has a relatively marked aspect [fol. 26], yet without any wrinkles on the shell.

34The base of the inner part is milky white in color, and the muscles by which the fish [mollusk] is attached to the two halves are usually gray white; the extremity of the shell’s lips is fluted and is about a width of a ligne, and in the large and well-formed shells the edge is the width of a finger and dark blue, veering to purple.

35The fluted edge is always present as the shell develops and grows.

36The sharpest files and awls only pierce the shell with great difficulty, and even then it must be done with great care.

37Whatever the claims, it cannot have been possible to use flint to drill through the beads of the old belts, which are the width of three lignes in length and on which every hole is equal in size; and a piece of flint of this length would not have resisted and would have broken at the slightest effort. Out of necessity, the Indians must have used other methods to pierce holes in their porcelain” beads, as they had no knowledge of using iron and steel.

38It still took great patience to work on the “porcelain” beads, both white and blue. The Indians shaped them on a stone using sand, and they also made them round by gently rolling them, but only so long as they pierced the beads beforehand, otherwise it would have been impossible to successfully do this after they were rounded and polished.

39It was much easier to drill through this shell lengthways, rather than in any other way it flakes easily; and to avoid splitting the beads an iron bit had to be used, without the addition of water or oil, to avoid making a paste that might fill the hole in the bead and create too much pressure inside: and to separate them a small steel saw was used which is far easier to work with than a file, however good it is.

40The experiment we have done shows that the same shells produce equally white and blue “porcelain” beads, so the author of the memoir in New York is mistaken when he states that the two different colored beads come from different species of shell.

41[Note: there is reason to believe that if one works on these shells as soon as one has removed the fish [mollusk] inside, they are far softer, and therefore easier to drill through, which is probably what enabled the Indians to drill the holes using flint alone] [fol. 27]

Speeches by the Iroquois Indians addressed to M. Le Marquis de Beauharnois when they saw him for the first time and wept for death of the late M. le Marquis de Vaudreuil in 1726 in Montreal

42Anonyme manuscript written in Canada, 1726
Recueil de pièces diverses, la plupart relatives à l’histoire de la première moitié du règne de Louis XV. V-VIII Marine et Colonies (1667-1735). Paris, BnF. Département des Manuscrits. NAF 2550, f. 36 r to 45 r.

1st Speech and 1st Belt

  • 6 Meaning “Great Mountain,” the governor of New France [Editors’ note].

43My Father, today you behold us for the first time, and you see us in our pain and affliction and things cannot be otherwise after the unfortunate events that have occurred. No doubt, your pain is equal to ours, as the loss we have experienced as a result of the death of our Father Onnontio6 is shared by both the French and us Indians. How can we talk to you today about such a subject and how can we let you know just how sad we are? The pain makes it very difficult to converse with you, and it must also prevent you from listening to us. However, we must pay these last respects to a Father who loved us so much and to whom we were so attached, and it is to you, our Father, who has been chosen to replace him that I must express my feelings and those of my entire nation for this very good Father whom death has just taken from us. But, to help you listen to me calmly, with this belt I have unblocked your ears, which your pain had closed off from everything in this world; and I wipe away the tears that must have flowed from your eyes abundantly and for a long time, so that you can look at me with a joyous and favorable eye; and I shall open and clear your throat, so that only words of peace and consolation are uttered, like those that should be spoken by a Father to his Children.

2nd Speech and 2nd Belt

44My Father, I knew the Father, the late Monsieur de Vaudreuil, whom I mourn today, for a long time. I had become accustomed to the way in which he governed us and he too was familiar with my customs. He loved me and I loved him, and I cannot insist enough how sorry I am about his death, and if the Master of Life had not wished to punish us he would have kept him for us for [fol. 37] a longer time. Had we been sure that we would be listened to, some of us would have willingly given our lives so that his could be prolonged; we know how advantageous that would have been for us, but it is with reason that we view his death as a chastisement, which the Master of the Heavens wished to inflict upon us. However, he does not wish to punish us forever, as he has given us you to replace the one whom we lost, in order to console us. If you wish to alleviate our pain, take the spirit of the Father we mourn, and fill all your words and actions with this same spirit, and love your Children as much as he loved them; this is what I say to you with this belt.

3rd Speech and 3rd Belt

45My Father, the first duty that I am obliged to fulfil for the Father whom death has taken away from me is to ensure that my gratitude for all that he did for me lasts as long as his name and memory. I will take it to the grave, and through a constant succession it will be handed down to the grandchildren of our grandchildren and beyond, so that the furthest posterity shall know that that I have lost a Father who should still be alive, if the spirit that governs everything had not decreed that all men must die; I come with this belt to give his body the funerary honors I owe him. I bring a precious balm that I shall cover his entire body with to preserve him from the corruption of the body in death common to all men; and I shall cover him in precious and rich clothing so that he may be as distinguished amongst the dead as he was amongst the living; and on his tomb I shall build a mausoleum on which I shall engrave in indelible characters all the noble qualities that he possessed and all the fine things he did; and through this all our descendants will realize that he deserved the love and admiration of all the nations, and the extent to which he was indeed loved and respected.

4th Speech and 4th Belt

46My Father, listen to me, I beseech thee, we have seen each other in all sorts of circumstances. The father whom I mourn today in war and in peace, and everywhere, was my Father, and this is why the tears I shed for him are true. The Demon of War had troubled my Spirit and made me indulge in extravagances against our sworn enemies; my deceased Father had made me wise by flogging me, as fathers do with their children [fol. 38], and gave me a spirit that I have not lost since that time. He saw that all the land was troubled, and he managed to protect and win over the spirits, all of whom he had pacified; and as he was so wise and placed great value on peace among men, he planted in these lands the Tree of Peace. This tree has grown there every year since that day, and has become so high that its branches have reached into the sky since then; it has remained unshakeable and able to withstand all storms, so deep do its roots reach into the earth. It is in the deep shade of this Tree of Peace that all the nations came every year to see their father, and everyone beheld everyone else in this place of safety. If difficulties arose among us, it was before our common Father that we brought our disputes and we always made him our arbitrator, and we would always return to our villages happy with the decisions that had been taken. Our Father, we present this belt to you, as we beseech thee to act in the same way with us and urge you to make the Tree of Peace he planted more and more stable, and not allow even the smallest root to be severed.

5th Speech and 5th Belt

47My Father, since the death of Monsieur de Vaudreuil, we have been living in obscurity and darkness, and we no longer enjoy those clear and serene days; and the bright sun does not rise over our lands, to make our countryside fecund and our harvests abundant. We sit on our mats uselessly, without being able to settle anything, and we make no decisions in our councils; it is no longer possible for us to enter into any matter of consequence, and when the other nations come to our villages to negotiate with us about making things better, because of the death of he who was our Father our guide, and light, we find ourselves in a dark night. My Father, through the belt that I present to you today I take the finest midday sun to attach it to your great lodge, so that when I constantly look this way I shall find the same light that illuminated me during the life of the Father whom I miss so greatly.

6th Speech and 6th Belt

  • 7 Montreal [Editors’ note].

48My Father, when the affliction is great and one is [fol. 39], so to speak, drowning in pain, one is more sensitive to the things of this life and if one thinks only of oneself one will spend sad days lost in the bitterness of one’s Heart until the moment when he who governs all decides to bring it to an end. But men who are truly men must have a strength of mind that enables them to rise above the uncertainties of life, and a courage that even the greatest of misfortunes cannot vanquish. I know that you and I have children and nephews whose wellbeing we must strive to preserve, and it was by working in conjunction with my Father, now deceased, that we always ensured the happiness of each and everyone. But how can we manage to find the means to ensure their safety and the tranquility of their lives now that his Council Fire that was always burning in this City7 has now been extinguished by his death. Hence, it is to rekindle this Fire, where sitting alongside him I would discuss the most important matters with him, that I present this belt, and at the same time I clean his mat stained with his blood since the day when his life ended, so that it may be as ornamental and beautiful as it always was when he was alive; and that I may sit down with you with the same joy that I experienced all the years at his side.

7th Speech and 7th Belt

49My Father, the more one has experienced the sweetness of constant happiness, the more one is disconcerted when one is suddenly unhappy, with no help and no support; this is the state I am in today, I am like a child who after having drunk the milk of good nurse for several months has grown quickly and developed a vigorous temperament, and who realizes that he is suddenly exposed to the imminent danger of losing his life through the premature death of such a good mother. This child would indeed be dead if those to whom he belonged had not speedily brought him the help he requires, given the vulnerability of his age. [King] Louis, My Father, has always loved me and shown me mercy and wished to restore me to my initial state by making you succeed the Father who made me happy. The path you must take to reach the hearts of all your Children and win them over is clear: follow it, without straying either to the left or to the right, so that you never encounter a thicket that might make it less practicable, and are hindered by no stone that might prevent us from moving easily toward one another to speak of affairs and ensure that they are maintained, so that we may express [fol. 40] our love for one another.

8th Speech and 8th Belt

50My Father, you see me here with a very small number of my nephews from our five villages. The difficulty of the paths means that not everyone who would have wished to do so has been able to come to see you, but I address you on behalf of my entire Nation; all our elders that age or infirmity have obliged to stay on their mats, all our young people and our warriors who are hunting the beasts in our woods, or who have gone to take out vengeance on our enemies; all our women who are cultivating their land; everyone, even our grandchildren who are still suckling, all share the same sentiment and all weep over the body of the Father they have lost; all of them pray through my mouth to remind you always that he loved them fondly. They expect the same from you and, in return, promise you their fidelity and the same attachment that they had for him.

9th Speech and 9th Belt of the Iroquois from the Mission at Sault St. Louis

  • 8 Vaudreuil [Editors’ note].

51My Father, my faith and my religion, which are the same as yours, have taught me that one should not dwell too long on life’s misfortunes, because as we are only on the earth briefly, we must find our strength in the hope of eternal happiness promised to us Christians by the Master of the Heavens and the Earth. But no matter if we bow our heads in submission under the orders of the arbitrator of our lives, we cannot help but be greatly affected by the loss we have suffered through the death of our Father8, and God, who is just, would not disapprove of our sorrow. We had become accustomed to his government for many years, which was full of gentleness and kindness with regard to us, his Children, and strength and courage against his and our enemies; we were faithfully bound to him by links stronger and closer than those of flesh and blood; we often gave him unquestionable proof of that, when, due to the love that we have always had for a religion and for the King, our Father, we [fol. 41] joined to wage war on the English and our brothers and parents the Iroquois, who were the enemies of the French and their religion at that time. You will read in his papers that we preferred to stain our axes with our own blood rather than to fail in what our fathers the black robes taught us that we owe to our religion and the King, our Father, and rather than accepting the proposals made to us and our parents by the English.

52I promise you, My Father, the same fidelity, all my warriors are at your service; they will go wherever you wish as soon as you say the word, armed with their prayers and the love they have for the French, who made them know Jesus Christ. There are no enemies for whom they are not fearsome, but I beseech thee, My Father to consider us, as did your predecessor, as your true Children, and to trust me as he did. I never betrayed him, and sometimes he even came to me for advice, which I readily gave him when he asked for it, when it related to matters regarding the Nations that you French call Indians, for even though your spirit is far greater than ours, he knew that we know one another better than you, as foreigners, can know us.

  • 9 The sea.
  • 10 Monsieur de Vaudreuil

53We loved him and we will love you, but I beg you, My Father, to do as he did and never listen to bad affairs. We live in a land in which the underground spirits emerge now and again from their hiding places to sow discord, and the earth would soon be undone if we paid heed to them, and this is what we promised to one another to never do. My Father, by giving thanks to God in our Church for having preserved you from the dangers of the great lake9, we will ask him to ensure that you govern us well. I shall add one more word to this belt; when the Great Master beckons you to him to put you in your place of rest at the end of your days, he shows me the place of the Great Tree10, who has just shed some of its offspring that came from him. I have custody of his children because they were born on my lands, and the talent to govern us men must be hereditary to them, having had a Father who knew us so well. [fol. 41]

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1 A “ligne” is a French term designing a unit of measurement, equivalent

to an inch divided into 12. I.e. two or three lignes correspond to 4,512-6,768 mm and one ligne to 2,256 mm approximately [Editors’ note].

2 This neck ornament is illustrated in Gilles Havard’s article in this issue, Fig. 1.

3 That is to say spider shells (Lambis lambis) [Editors’note].

4 « Isles de l’Amérique » refers to the islands of the Caribbean [Editors’note].

5 See Fig. 1 in the Introduction [Editors’note].

6 Meaning “Great Mountain,” the governor of New France [Editors’ note].

7 Montreal [Editors’ note].

8 Vaudreuil [Editors’ note].

9 The sea.

10 Monsieur de Vaudreuil

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Benjamin Balloy

Centre national de la recherche scientifique

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