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  • Writer's pictureArt Duval

Part 2-Life in Prehistoric Huronia (Life in living colour)

Part three entitled Sand and Stone, for now, will be out soon. And it will not contain it all so there will be a part 4. Will look into bigger constructions like canoes and shelters. But probably not cover it all so....

So this continues the story of the people who were here before contact. I am using the strategy of elephant eating, I'm taking small bites. There is much to the story, not all of it known, specifically in this case as there isn't much that lasts for more than a century or three, so we can only know so much.

I hope I am as accurate as possible, the adaptations of the people were often. The Wendat were very good traders and travelled extensively as did the Weskarini, Wendat mostly east and Weskarini west again showing how their alliance was symbiotic.

Just like today, the styles changed with the times. Clothing and pottery, along with beadwork and quillwork would change and adapt to the time across vast distances. The latest styles would return to Huronia in the canoes, but also in the minds of the traders.

The story is a journey, some of what I am about to tell you I have only just learned. I may have overstepped in some areas, but showing a pre-history by nature is just that. Before recorded history, so one must lean on oral, archaeological and contact era descriptions. Because of the nature of the materials, the archaeological evidence is lacking. So here it is, possible flaws and all.

We have assumptions based on movies and television that colour was limited in native life. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The native lifestyle included many different colours. Blue was a very important colour and so was red. The blue came from shells, called wampum shells and needed to be traded from the east coast. Reds could be had by some ochre, a type of sand. Beads of many different colours could also make clothing more colourful.

Clothing was probably along the same lines, everyone wanted to follow the style of the day. Some things such as tools cannot determine age, as a good tool design would be slow to be changed, lest it loses its effectiveness.

The Wendat and Weskarinin were incredibly adaptable in their style and fashion. This meant that soon after contact all forms of accoutrements were quickly adopted.

Clothing was also a lot more colourful than we portray today. Blues and purples of the wampum shells trade from the east coast would supply dyes for these colours and red ochre sand could be used to dye a red colour.

One of the earliest ways of crafting was Quills. Harvested from a porcupine the quills were worked together in such a manner (somewhat like a weave) as to make a solid surface. The quills are hollow, with a barb on one end. Hollow these quills were sorted and the good ones were put in the crafter's mouth. Then they were tightly woven over birchbark and rawhide so that the hollow quills would flatten. (Think of a garden hose being pulled tight causing it to flatten) These quills plates could be made into boxes, and could also be used by warriors as a sort of armour.

Quill-work was the precursor to beadwork. Beads were also an important part of stylish Wendat accoutrements. Beads were used traded and copied so readily, that archaeologists use it to accurately age sites. Moccasins also had their style, and different groups had their own way of doing things.

The native peoples were also very adept at handling blankets. Simple blankets could be worn as capote, a simple type of coat worn with a sash. Sashes were handwoven and very particular to the wearer.

Beadwork and quillwork were common to the Wendat. Beads were made out of many different sources, and porcupine quills would also be used to make all types of accoutrements. Beads could be made from all types of materials. Wood, stone, bone, seeds, just about anything at hand.

Quillwork and beadwork would also lead to weaving wampum belt making and such. Wampum belts were either made of quills or wampum shells made into beads.

One of the things I did not know, was there are brown porcupines and black porcupines, who knew, lol.

The Wendat/Weskarini also did finger weaving. The style of dress included a woven sash across the waist and woven ties at the knees. Pants, when worn were in two pieces. The top piece was like shorts and extended to the knee and the bottom part was leggings from knee to ankle. The sash held the shorts up and ties the leggings.

These sashes were done by weaving strips into a loose sash. The sash was not only stylish but quite functional. The loos weave allowed for items to be hung easily from the belt.

Porcupine quills could also be worked into clothing and storage.

Another important craft was making wampum belts. Wampum belts were a ceremonial weave used in certain civil ceremonies. When the belt was brought out, certain issues were settled by the authority figure.

Many of these crafts were so specialized to a nation that that nation was is known for their moccasins, clothing or hair. The Wendat were known for their hair, which was in the style now known as the mohawk. The hair across the top of the head was lifted up, while the sides were shaved. Interesting who did the shaving, or what they used, but the name Huron is reportedly from the style of hair the Wendat used.


or the tanning of hides was also a valuable trade. Hides taken from a harvested animal had to be prepared to be of it's most productive use. The hide was cleaned and possibly de-haired, although the process was the same. If the hide was to be de-hair, it is made easier by boiling it in a solution with hardwood ash. Hardwood ash has lye in it and can aid in loosening the hair.

Then the brain of the animal, it is said every animal has a brain big enough to tan it's own hide, was heated to make a slurry. The slurry was spread on the hide and the hide was worked until dry. Working it, or breaking it, consists of rubbing it against, or with a piece of wood. Once started into the tanning process you are required to finish, or the hide will get hard and brittle.

This process needed to be done to any skin that you wished to wear. Otherwise, the skin will not last long and will be rough and brittle. The final part of the process is smoking the hide. Smoke will make the skin waterproof. Otherwise, the skin will return to brittle rough rawhide. Smoking the skin also provides the colour. Varying the type of wood used and the length of smoking can alter the colour. An adept tanner could vary the colour to suit their wants.

Leatherwork would lead to drum making. Drums are a big part of the culture in Huronia. I will probably swing back to it later.

The naked savage is probably more myth than reality. Although less modest in their bodies, the weather would not have them naked for very much of the year, and the presence of mosquitoes etc would probably mean clothing was worn for most of the year. And they were not savage...

It is hard to nail down prehistoric and contact styles and craftmanship. The Wendat were very quick to change with the times and adapt to new materials and metals available when the European people got here.

They had a long history of trade and long trade routes. When Champlain came to America, the Wendat were on the St Lawrence. When he came to Huronia, they were down in what is now Pennsylvania trading. Many if not all burial mounds contained shells from the East Coast. The Wendat traded with all these different peoples.

A final word on colourful crafts. The thought of the villagers had to be constantly mindful of what they may want to create. Finding the right material, whether, through a harvested animal for its sinew and bone or birch trees for its bark, the eyes were always active. Furs had a season, a deer hunted before the first frost would not do in winter, roots harvested at the wrong time did not work. A butchered animal had to be butchered in such a way as to preserve the sinew and other parts of the animal. It also had to be collected and preserved. The meat was only part of the process.

Art Duval Pipesmoke of the past.

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