“No difference between a Christian Indian and a Frenchman”: Identity, Community, and Material Culture

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 11:20 AM
Superior Room A (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Sophie K. White, University of Notre Dame
The 1627 Charter of New France had held out the promise that Indian converts would “be considered natural Frenchmen,” ushering in a sequence of failed policies aimed at frenchifying (“franciser”) Indians. By the time the Illinois Country was settled in the late seventeenth century, the premise of frenchification—that identity was mutable—had been largely displaced by proto-racial beliefs. Yet it would be here that missionaries and officials began to claim that women converts married to Frenchmen, and their progeny, had achieved Frenchness. They married in the Church, had their children baptized, and eventually lived not in Indian villages, but within French colonial houses, in segregated French agrarian settlements. Records of their daily life show that these women also wore French dress. In other words, they presented visual and material evidence of having frenchified, with the result that local officials and missionaries identified them as French, and granted them the legal rights of Frenchmen.

Rather than interpreting this adoption of French material culture as assimilation into the colonial order, I propose instead a gendered analysis that showcases the persistence of indigenous beliefs. By marking their affiliation with the French through their adoption of French dress and furnishings, these women were in fact extending the Illinois’ history of inter-tribal relations and cross-cultural exchanges. Further, we must not disassociate the unusual pattern of frenchification in the Illinois Country from indigenous captive adoption rituals that deployed material culture, including dress, to achieve metamorphosis into a new identity. Read in the context of marital alliance, captive adoption, and other native practices premised on the malleability of identity, cultural frenchification begs the tricky question of whether Indian wives of Frenchmen saw themselves as having actually become French. It also illuminates the authority of this group of women to define community through material culture.