Monday, July 21, 2014

Dream Cat

Engraving, 1557. Source.
As some of you might have guessed, my field of research is colonial French America. However, one cannot truly study New France without paying attention to native populations. I've stumbled across this little reference as I was reading Bruce Trigger's Natives and Newcomers
Father Joseph had given a cat to a great chief as a very rare gift, for they do not possess these animals. It happened that a sick woman dreamed that if this cat had been given to her she would soon be cured. The chief was informed of this and immediately sent her his cat, although he was very fond of it and his daughter even more so; and when the latter saw herself bereft of the animal, which she loved passionately, she fell sick and died of regret, being unable to vanquish and overcome her affection, although she did not wish to fail in succouring and helping her neighbour.
-Gabriel Sagard, (George Wrong, ed.). The long journey to the country of the Hurons. Volume 25. Toronto, Champlain Society, 1939, p. 118.
This is the first time I've accidentally come across a reference to the reaction of Natives upon seing a common house cat for the first time. This little gem is fascinating: it highlights the then prevailing tradition that should someone in a village dream of an object (or in this case, a pet) belonging to someone else, they were automatically entitled to said thing. Personal property in native culture was not as defined and as rigidly observed as it was in Europe. This "open ownership" was at odds with the values of the first white settlers (especially when the dream object belonged to one of them!). 
However, I do wonder if Sagard was exaggerating when he wrote that the chief's daughter died of chagrin... Could it be she simply passed away from one of the prevailing diseases already decimating native populations? Besides, one would think that she would still be allowed to see the cat on occasion...  
I sure hope I will come across more references to cats owned by natives. My guess is that like other european commodities, cats and dogs became more commonplace in villages through the years. However, since period descriptions of natives by missionaries and settlers deal mostly with what was to them strange and exotic, mundane everyday life is usually ignored. I would imagine that pets might thus be unaccounted for despite their presence.
Maybe an archaeologist reading my blog could tell me if any domestic cat remains have been found on native sites of the XVII and XVIII centuries?

For anyone who understands French, Marie-José des Rivières and Louise Laliberté wrote an interesting article regarding cats in New France, including Natives' reactions. Click here for the Cap-aux-Diamants text. Ditto for L’histoire des chats racontée par l’archéologie by Évelyne Cossette in the same magazine.

Wild american cat by Louis Nicolas, circa 1670.
Source: Codex canadensis

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