Sunday, March 08, 2015

Spirit of the Voyageur

The voyageurs are the heroes of their own tales. The short, stocky, tireless men are famous as the cowboys of the canoe country. According to legend, they have six wives and five running dogs, they can carry hundreds of pounds at a dogtrot, and they paddle three-ton canoes upstream. They can eat their weight in pemmican and drink a canoeful of rum apiece. Naturally, their exploits are larger than life. They are as large as their land.

Like other women of her era, Lisette is barely visible in "historic" accounts. Harmon's journal mentions her four times in sixteen years, and never by name. However, he writes in his appendix that it is a mark of respect among the Cree not to speak the name of a person under discussion, but to refer to them indirectly.

In the world of a man whose highest devotion was to family and community, there can be no higher state than the one Daniel accorded Lisette. She was "my cherished companion and the mother of my children." Yet beyond her role as wife and mother, Lisette's story brings to life a less stereotyped and much richer account of the multicultural height of fur trade society, at a time when most of the boundaries of North America were still being drawn. Lisette Duval was a real voyageur.

The voyageur symbolizes Canada and rivers with adventure, travel, exploration and discovery. Lisette's life spanned the continent from the Kootenays to Quebec. The rivers of the voyageur know no boundaries, and her journeys crossed the boundary waters again and again; her parentage, her marriage, and her family crossed boundaries of language, race and politics. The voyageur's symbol is the canoe, and like her craft, Lisette was born from native roots and raised to European commerce.

Voyageurs embody independence, and trade. Women of New France kept their names, owned property, and traded vigorously as North America's first businesswomen. Many a "Madame la Bourgeoise" interpreted, traded and managed her husband's accounts at the post during his extended field trips.

Voyageurs traded in needles, beads, pots and cloth used by native women, and like so many country wives, Lisette was skilled in the preparation of food, clothing and shelter that made liaisons with native women "the custom of the country." As the Métis children of native women and white trappers and traders, these women and thousands like them were literally daughters of the country: les femmes du pays.

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