The Nature and Scope of Jacques Rousseau’s Amerindian Works

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Marc-Adélard Tremblay (1922 - ) et Josée Thivierge


The Nature and Scope of

Jacques Rousseau’s
Amerindian Works.”

Un document produit en version numérique par Jean-Marie Tremblay, bénévole,

professeur de sociologie au Cégep de Chicoutimi

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Cette édition électronique a été réalisée par Jean-Marie Tremblay, bénévole, professeur de sociologie au Cégep de Chicoutimi à partir de :

Marc-Adélard Tremblay (1922 - ) et Josée Thivierge
“The Nature and Scope of Jacques Rousseau’s Amerindian Works”.
In Actes du 17e Congrès des Algonquinistes, Proceedings of the Seventieth Algonkian Conference, par William Cohen, 1987, pp. 343-376. Ottawa: Carleton University Press.

M Marc-Adélard Tremblay, anthropologue, professeur émérite retraité de l’enseignement de l’Université Laval, nous a accordé le 4 janvier 2004 son autorisation de diffuser électroniquement toutes ses oeuvres.

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Édition numérique réalisée le 23 octobre 2011, revue le 13 novembre 2011 à Chicoutimi, Ville de Saguenay, Québec.

Marc-Adélard Tremblay
et Josée Thivierge (1987)
“The Nature and Scope of Jacques Rousseau’s
Amerindian Works”.

In Actes du 17e Congrès des Algonquinistes, Proceedings of the Seventieth Algonkian Conference, par William Cohen, 1987, pp. 343-376. Ottawa: Carleton University Press.

Table of Contents

1. Some Biographical Background

2. From Botany to Ethnography

3. Jacques Rousseau’s Amerindian Output
A. His Northern Journeys

B. His Ecological Perspective

C. Rousseau's Native Themes
i. Material Culture-Natural Setting

ii. Socio-economic Organization

iii. The Religious Universe

iv. Culture Contacts

v. Portrayals of Indians by Whites

vi. Ethnoscience, Ethnobotany and Ethnomedicine

4. Rousseau's Ethnological Influence

Marc-Adélard Tremblay (1922 - )
et Josée Thivierge
The Nature and Scope
of Jacques Rousseau’s Amerindian Works”
In Actes du 17e Congrès des Algonquinistes, Proceedings of the Seventieth Algonkian Conference, par William Cohen, 1987, pp. 343-376. Ottawa: Carleton University Press.

1. Some Biographical Background

To Table of Contents

This paper 1 on Jacques Rousseau is far from being exhaustive since it deals only with his Amerindian works. 2 It is our hope that someone in the future will undertake the task of dealing with all his [344] works. Born at St. Lambert, near Montréal, on October 5, 1905, Jacques Rousseau died prematurely on August 5, 1970 at Ouareau Lake, in the county that now bears his name. He obtained his licence-ès-sciences from the University of Montréal in 1928 (Botanical Institute) and a doctorate in science from the same university in 1934. In 1944 he became the director of the Botanical Institute of the University of Montreal, a position he held for 12 years. Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1942, member of the Société des Dix in 1951, member of the Order of Canada in 1969, Professor Rousseau belonged to some 60 learned societies.

Jacques Rousseau gained wide-spread fame through his expeditions to the Québec-Labrador Peninsula and to other remote regions of Canada. He was a man of science but also one who was equally skilled in a wide variety of natural and human disciplines, and who left a written production of close to 550 titles. It was this interdisciplinary competence which led to his becoming the first Director of the History Branch of the National Museum of Man in Ottawa, from 1956 to 1959. "His written work (observation notes, diary, reviews, articles), including numerous articles on 'Amérindiens' 3, a concept now in use in ethnological writings, demonstrate rare conversational skills and original views. His writings reveal a breadth of scientific knowledge and are masterpieces of interdisciplinary writing, though his innovating talents were not fully recognized in his lifetime" (Tremblay 1985:1599). Naturalist and ethnohistorian with an international reputation, a close associate of Brother Marie-Victorin and of a handful of young scientists who established the Québec scientific community [345] in the 30s, first secretary of I'ACFAS (The French-Canadian Society for the Advancement of Science), a position he held for 12 years (1930-46), Research Professor at the Centre for Northern Studies at Laval University at the time of his death, Dr. Jacques Rousseau belonged to the generation of men of science whose interests touched upon a wide spectrum of topics and whose questionings were limitless.

2. From Botany to Ethnography

To Table of Contents

Jacques Rousseau carried out pioneering studies on Amerindians; his scholarly production spans a period of three decades and touches upon all the main levels of culture. 4 His descriptions of native cultures are rigorous and his analyses thorough. He applied to the field of ethnography the observational and descriptive techniques of the natural sciences in much the same fashion as Franz Boas had done before him among the Inuit and the Northwest Coast Indians. Although his theoretical scheme of reference and his level of conceptual specificity did not match the level of sophistication which has been reached in recent years, Rousseau skillfully used the ecological model 5 which did acquire an undeniable operational validity in the subfields of economic anthropology and the anthropology of health in the years that immediately followed his major contributions. Moreover, in the field situation, he exemplified the necessity for the observer to identify himself intensively with the subject of study, a sort of cultural empathy, with the view of reaching individual and collective behaviour from the inside and reflecting it with the greatest authenticity possible. As a self-trained cultural anthropologist, he naturally moved away from the criteria then used to measure objectivity, that is, the Kantian dissociation from the object. His participant-observational style will become the path to follow with the growth in importance of young ethnologists associated with the journal Recherches amérindiennes au Québec. Finally, one cannot [346] omit mentioning his complete involvement in the various endeavours to combat ethnocentric and racist views, to foster economic and social reforms aiming at counteracting the planned acculturational schemes of the whites and to better native levels of living. If his denunciations, actions and interventions did reflect the ardour of his temperament, they are nonetheless forerunners of a style of anthropology that is problem-oriented and that is in the process of acquiring greater importance on the market place.

These preliminary observations are indicative of our feeling and can be regarded as a testimony to our profound admiration towards a man that was a giant of science in Québec and a precursor of a new ethnological style. That style contrasted sharply with that used by university-trained social anthropologists, who were still strongly influenced by the objectivity model of the experimental sciences. Ironically, it was introduced by an individual who himself had been trained in the natural sciences. Unfortunately, that perceived epistemological contradiction was not resolved within the Québec social science community during his lifetime. The high esteem given Rousseau by his French anthropologist and ethnobiologist colleagues 6 was not reciprocated here, with the exception of a few interdisciplinary men of science who were familiar with the wealth of [347] his scientific writings and were conscious of the fact that any research enterprise had to be conducted with the fullest autonomy and freedom of thought. 7

As we said earlier, Rousseau's native studies represent one part of his overall scientific work. If we were to study his global production, we would have to view it within the wider context of his scientific training, of his botanical expeditions, of his close association with Brother Marie-Victorin, of his active participation to the growing importance of the ACFAS, of his professional experiences at the Botanical garden of Montréal and at the National Museum of Man in Ottawa, of his teaching and research functions at the Sorbonne at the time of his exile and at The Centre for Northern Studies at Laval. The biographical profile of this man of science has yet to be constructed. It represents a monumental task which goes beyond the horizons of a single discipline or the knowledge of those who have known him. For Rousseau, in addition to being a strong participant in the building up of science in Québec (cf. Fournier and Maheu 1975; Fournier et al 1972; Lortie 1960; Marie-Victorin 1939; Pouliot 1938), was closely associated with the coming of age of the Québec social sciences, and with their evolution toward interdisciplinary studies. In his published and unpublished work, he dealt with ethnology and ethnolinguistics, geography and choronymy, ethnobotany and ethnozoology, ethnohistory and ethnoscience. 8 From his standpoint, knowledge had no frontier. His conceptual discourse [348] reflected both his training in the natural sciences, his historical keenness, the breadth of his culture, his natural talents as a story-teller and commentator and his poetic inspiration. 9 We shall identify the fields upon which he focused his Amerindian studies with the view to pinpointing the main elements which gave originality to his anthropological contributions.

3. Jacques Rousseau’s
Amerindian Output 10

A. His Northern Journeys

To Table of Contents

Two types of experience deeply influenced Rousseau's professional and intellectual development. The first was his keen interest in the history of Canada as it could be discerned through the logbooks and diaries of early explorers; 11 the second was the numerous botanical expeditions which he undertook as early as 1948. These allowed him to make inventories of the local flora and, in the case of his northern expeditions, to gain an inside view of native lifestyles and to get to know the peoples of remote northern areas, the Montagnais, Naskapi, and Inuit. Rousseau used his long and exhausting northern journeys to gather observations and information on both northern ecosystems and native cultures. His interest in native customs and lifestyle developed out of his knowledge of northern flora and its use by native peoples. The step from botany to ethnography [349] was a small and natural one for him. Using the trail of his published material, we followed Rousseau's interests as they shifted, little by little, towards the study of Amerindian lifestyles which eventually became his principal focus.

B. His Ecological Perspective

To Table of Contents

Rousseau's training in botany and the natural sciences as well as his field experience formed the basis of the theoretical focus of his work. He used a cultural ecological approach focused on the interrelationships between native peoples and their natural environment, and on the ingenious ways in which they used natural resources in order to survive. A large number of Rousseau's writings deal with material and socio-economic aspects of native culture. 12 In his view there was a symbiotic relationship between native technology and social structure as both were cultural responses to distinctive ecological conditions. Similarly, the world view of the native peoples, their thought processes and their religious beliefs, also stemmed from the close relationship between natural environment and lifestyle. Rousseau saw these relationships as the basis of cultural diversity throughout the world. 13 Thus, the ecology of the boreal forest, unsuitable for agriculture, imposed a nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle on the Montagnais-Naskapi in their huge homeland. The basic social units in such a culture were necessarily small, mainly involving close relatives, living for many months of the year in self-sufficient isolation. This type of human environment relationship among the native peoples was designed to maintain a balance between the needs of the social unit and the need for the environment to renew itself. The native practices were in sharp contrast to those of the whites who had no conception of the need for such an equilibrium. Rousseau vigourously documented and denounced the universal attitude of exploitation of the environment which prevailed among the whites. 14 He [350] was preoccupied with the protection and conservation of the environment. For example, as an advocate of reindeer husbandry in the north, he carefully addressed the matter of ecological limits which the tundra represents for this type of farming.

C. Rousseau's Native Themes

To Table of Contents

Preliminary observations. The catalogue of Rousseau's publications on native topics 15 allows us to identify his principal themes. The categories used here might appear arbitrary for two main reasons. The first is that they are clearly not based on either a content analysis, in the technical sense of that concept, or on a quantitative analysis which attempts to give weight to the relative importance of the very varied publications concerned. The second reason is that Rousseau's approach does not permit the isolation of distinct, separate categories. On the contrary, in any one of his publications, the description of a technique, for example, is placed in the context of the use of that technique and of a range of repercussions which it has on native lifestyles, socio-economic organization and institutions. The breakdown of ethnographic material used here allows us to comment upon each of the classical ethnological categories which formed the background and framework of Rousseau's ethnography. We treat, one by one, material culture, socio-economic organization, religion, culture contacts, the native view of whites and ethnoscience.

i. Material Culture-Natural Setting

To Table of Contents

Two articles which best characterize Rousseau's contribution to the analysis of techniques are "The Indian in the Boreal Forest: a Part of the Ecosystem" (1957b: 37-54) and "The First Canadians" [351] (1960: 9-64). In each case study, the techniques are inseparable from the natural setting which produces them. The northern scholar in effect views the many facets of material culture as so many specific manifestations of the adaptation of man to his environment. His conception of "the birch-grove civilization" clearly illustrates this point.

Starting here, one can ask how Rousseau applied his ecological perspective to his subject matter. In other words, how did he view his subject matter and what approach did he take to it? What type of explanation emerges from his understanding of the social reality? These questions provoke three observations. In the first place, animal and vegetable resources are presented as a dynamic system having, at one and the same time, a foundation, a process of development, and an ending. Thus one follows very clearly the behavioural patterns as they progress from bark gathering through canoe building to methods of travel. Or, again, one is present at a bear hunt to end up at the "feast without end", the Makoucham and its associated rituals. Another aspect, which was not only applied to material techniques, characterizes the Rousseauesque approach as much as this one: this is the spatio-temporal dimension which is expressed in the dichotomy between the periods before and after the arrival of the whites in North America. This historical division is associated with the external influence on change (diffusion, borrowing, exchange). He identifies, among other things, the techniques which the Indians borrowed from the whites, taking care to show how these were integrated into the Indian way of life. At the same time, he documents how, in return, many material elements of Indian culture enriched the Europeans' technology. The third and last feature of Rousseau's approach relates to the hardships of life in the north and to difficulties which the natives had to overcome simply to survive there. Here Rousseau had a personal yardstick, having himself faced many times, during his expeditions to the lands of "those they call savages", the severity of northern climate and having often travelled with Indians when they had to fight simply to survive (his work on famine foods is one example of this), and where physical weakness and errors of judgement produced tragic results. Rousseau's views reflect a rich personal experience which serves as a basis for his rigorous analyses and also for his humane preoccupations.

Certainly, the relative simplicity of the (material) techniques of [352] the Montagnais-Naskapi and of the Inuit of Ungava allowed Rousseau to paint a wide canvas, although, as far as we know, he took little interest in native tools, traps or arms. The aspects of native culture which attracted his attention were food, clothing, travel, shelter and technology.

The paper "Astam Mitchoum: An Essay on Indian Gastronomy" (1957a: 193-210) is certainly Rousseau's key work in this area. In it he lists the basic foodstuffs of Algonquian, Eskimo 16, and Huron-Iroquois families and presents several native recipes which bring out the essentials of northern eating. Several other articles deal with native nutrition. The enthusiasm with which Rousseau passes on his knowledge of northern diet and eating habits is greater than that with which he deals with food resources in general. Rousseau, as is well known, was himself a gourmet and a fine trencherman. 17 This personal trait did not, however, prevent him from examining the range of difficulties associated with the quest for food in winter and from studying in great detail foods used during famines. His study of nutrition is, as is the case for other techniques, always kept in context, that is to say, integrated into the larger cultural patterns and configurations that he was studying.

When he discusses clothes, he covers all aspects from skin tanning to the actual making of the clothes, admiring the skills of the dressmakers (particularly the Inuit women), stressing the way in which the clothing was adapted to climate and other aspects of the environment and expressing his regret with regard to modifications brought about by features borrowed from white clothing either in terms of basic materials or style.

His perspective is more or less the same when he describes the various means of transport and associated methods of construction [353] which illustrate the inventiveness of those who discovered these means and the competence of those who developed the construction techniques. This means of transport, especially the bark canoe (whence the term "brich-grove civilization") and snowshoes are equally the result of a harmonious adaptation to resources available in this particular environment. Similar considerations appear in passages devoted to the tent and shelter in general and to technology in particular.

ii. Socio-economic Organization

To Table of Contents

The second important focus of Rousseau's studies of native cultures was socio-economic organization. Although he was interested in social and economic organizations of various North American groups, the Montagnais-Naskapi group and the Inuit captured most of his attention. The socio-economic articles are not so extensive as his work on native techniques and technology. It seems to us that his contributions in this sphere have four main characteristics. First, as was pointed out earlier, he emphasizes interrelationships between native culture and the natural environment. Throughout his writings he notes ways in which the socio-economic organization of the native peoples modified the plant and animal ecosystem upon which it was based. The second characteristic is that almost all his papers involve a spatio-temporal perspective. He sketches a fresco of the history of Canada and North America. Beginning with the socio-economic system which was in place before the arrival of the whites in the 16th century, he paints a picture of the social organization of native groups of Eastern Canada which includes their economic and political systems. He takes the opportunity to comment on the stage of development of New World civilization at the time of colonization. He points out that the indigenous civilizations had not acquired certain techniques which could allow them to develop to the same degree, in some areas, as the peoples of Europe. He does not, however, attribute this difference in technical -and technological levels to intrinsic racial differences. Quite to the contrary, he is full of admiration for the ingeniousness and adaptability of native peoples. He sees the difference in technical levels as stemming from environmental factors and chance. He is particularly explicit about this in his article "Les Sachems délibèrent autour du feu de camp" (1959:33).

A third characteristic can be discerned in his work on socio-economic [354] organization. Through a comparison of the pattern of subsistence and lifestyles before the arrival of the whites, during the years immediately following their arrival, and following the establishment of the fur trade, he is able to reconstruct the changes which occurred during these phases. He is able to show how the changes gradually had the effect of dispossessing the native populations and developing an increasing dependence on the state, producing a condition which amounted to moral servitude. Rousseau saw this situation as unjust in every way, a violation of native rights and a grave lapse of social justice and equity. He believed, especially when caribou declined drastically in the territory of the Montagnais-Naskapi, that it was the state's responsibility to provide financial assistance. He fought for many years to protect the stock of game and was a promoter of the idea of reindeer husbandry in the north. He saw this last as a viable alternative for the native peoples faced with the virtual disappearance of caribou. He was fully aware of the degree of adaptation which the transition from hunting to husbandry required.

The final characteristic of this part of Rousseau's writings is notable. This has to do with the extremely personal nature of Rousseau's relations with the native peoples and with the "passion for exchange", 18 which pervades his relations with the other. With him, we enter into the tent, not as intruders but as involved participants, discreetly observing interpersonal relationships between husband and wife and other social exchanges. He was particularly struck by the uncertainties of the search for food, the fragility of the links between natives and their plant and animal environment. He himself suffered the fatigue and bruises of portages and of interminable travelling. He personally experienced the powerlessness of the natives in their everyday life. Let us look more closely at native socio-economic organization dealing with the five most important sectors of activity. These are subsistence techniques, daily life and seasonal cycles, the trading posts, division of labour and the hierarchy of authority, and social welfare policies and practices.

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