Flint's Reviews > The Huron: Farmers of the North

The Huron by Bruce G. Trigger
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's review
Jul 21, 11

bookshelves: anthropology, iroquois, indigenous, nonfiction, history

I'll be picking up more of his work, I'm sure. I find his epilogue compelling:

"The Huron are notable for the high degree of economic equality they maintained, although they lived in communities that had as many as 2,000 inhabitants and formed a settlement cluster of approximately 20,000 people. The Huron also believed that no person or group had the right to dominate or exploit another, or even to tell an individual what to do. In recent years, anthropologists have tended to restrict such equality to hunter-gatherer societies and to stress the hierarchical features of agricultural, and even sedentary collecting, groups (Testart 1982). Furthermore, they have emphasized the rapidity with which such egalitarian societies are transformed into hierarchical ones, as surviving hunter-gatherer peoples enter into close relations with more complex societies (Bloch 1983). The questions to be answered are how and why did the Huron maintain a high degree of equality as their society grew larger and more complex?

"Hard work and generosity were rewarded with tangible public approval. The Huron economy was structured in a fashion that made generosity highly visible. Exchanges of goods were essential features of public feasts, life-cycle ceremonies, curing rituals, community and personal religious celebrations, ritual friendships, settlements of disputes and the conduct of diplomacy. These exchanges were so effective that there is no evidence that a barter system was needed to distribute goods. Moreover, if a longhouse burned down, the rest of the community competed in trying to compensate its inhabitants for their losses. Likewise, refugees were welcomed into Huron society and supported with food, clothing, and arable land until they could look after themselves. While ritual exchanges tended to even out disparities in the amount of goods possessed by individuals, the public nature of much of the giving, which included announcing the names of the donor and the recipient and the nature of the gift, ensured that those who were generous received full public recognition for that they had done. Mutual exchanges were also essential features of relations between neighboring groups that were not at war with each other.

"Huron society encouraged hard work but also generosity and economic equality. Public opinion was intolerant of personal idiosyncracies, yet the Huron rejected the idea that any one Huron person or group had the right to try to coerce or intimidate another. Exhibitions of authoritarian behavior was repudiated as illegitimate and disruptive of public order. With their social institutions, their religious beliefs, and above all by manipulating gossip and witchcraft, the Huron articulated a potent set of mechanisms for defending their ideals of political and economic equality. In the Huron context these mechanisms were as effective for defending equality as the state has proved to be defending private property and social inequality in hierarchical societies. While gossip and witchcraft become less effective for protecting equality as the scale of society increases, the self-reliance and mobility of Huron slash-and-burn horticulturalists allowed them to maintain a high degree of equality well beyond the point where it appears to have given way in societies that depended more heavily on geographically restricted resources. In that respect the Huron resemble other slash-and-burn horitculturalists who have an abundance or arable land, such as the egalitarian (gumloa) Kachin of Burma (Leach 1954; cf. Friedman 1975) and more particularly the Tupi-Guarani peoples of lowland South America, who were the object of most of Clastres' (1977) research. The quality of Huron and Iroquois society was not a myth by the product of a system that was built upon positive and negative sanctions, that in their own way, were no less intricate and coercive than are those found in larger-scale state societies."

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