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The Mystery of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians

When I entered the exhibit on the St. Lawrence Iroquoians at the Pointe-à-Callière Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History, I got a feeling of both tranquility and claustrophobia. The room is dim, the colours are muted, and the brown vertical poles set up around the room as space dividers effectively restrict movement.

But when I examined a model of an Iroquoian village, I realized that exhibit organizers want visitors to feel that way: the exhibition space replicates the look and feel of the village. Life in a smoky, windowless Iroquoian longhouse would certainly have been cramped and lacking in privacy, and the vertical poles are reminiscent of the wooden palisade fence that enclosed the village to protect residents from their enemies.
museum exterior
Pointe-à-Callière Museum

The exhibit tells the story of the aboriginal people that French explorer Jacques Cartier encountered during his three trips to North America between 1534 and 1542. He visited their villages at Stadacona, near modern-day Quebec City, and at Hochelaga, in what is now Montreal. But by 1580, the St. Lawrence Iroquoians had mysteriously disappeared. No one knows what happened to them, although they likely fled the area as a result of intertribal warfare. In addition, no one has determined the exact locations of these two large villages.

Archaeological evidence, including pottery and pipe fragments, bone tools and fishing harpoons, suggests that the St. Lawrence Iroquoians extended from Watertown, N.Y., on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario, to the confluence of the Saguenay and St. Lawrence Rivers.

The St. Lawrence Iroquoians were one of about 25 Iroquoian language-speaking nations spread throughout northeastern North America when the first Europeans arrived. Today, the descendents of these groups continue to live in the region, in Akwesasne, Kahnawake, and elsewhere.

The exhibit is subtitled the Corn People because these were primarily corn farmers. Corn motifs even appeared in the decorations they made on their pottery. Corn was the basis of their diet, although they also grew beans and squash. Together, these crops were known as the three sisters. Not only did the beans and squash supply dietary nutrients that were missing from corn, but the three plants grew well together: the beans replenished nitrogen in the soil, and the large leaves of the squash plants helped conserve moisture.

The first artifact in this exhibit is a perfectly preserved earthenware pot, typical of the St. Lawrence Iroquoian culture. The final piece is a sculpture that pays homage to the Corn People, carved by contemporary Mohawk artist Steve McComber, of Kahnawake. The St. Lawrence Iroquoians may have disappeared, but they are not forgotten.

The exhibit was on at the Pointe-à-Callière Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History until May 6, 2007.

Copyright Janice Hamilton 2007