Cultural Brokers in Colonial America
During the settlement of North America there were many people who crossed cultural borders becoming cultural brokers. Three such people were Isabel Montour, Samson Occom and Susannah Johnson. These three possessed strong language skills or the ability to learn new languages quickly, this was perhaps the most important skill needed to cross cultural borders and communicate with “outsiders. ” Another necessary skill was a complete understanding of their culture and the cultures of other groups. This skill was used to convey traditional customs, political protocol, and to avoid any misunderstandings between the people of the each culture.
The cultural broker would also have an agreeable disposition. Likeability and the ability to get along well with most people would be an asset in a cultural broker.
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Intelligence and diplomacy were also attributes necessary for the success of a cultural broker. I believe the cultural broker would have to be able to take rejection because of the possibility of those in their culture ostracizing them for their association with the “other” culture. A combination of these skills would allow a person to move easily from one culture to another and sometimes have a foot in both at the same time.
Isabel Montour was born in Canada to a French father and Abenaki mother. She was about ten years of age when warriors of the Five Nations of Indians raided her village during war with the Canadians and took her captive. The Iroquois Indians adopted her and she was raised as one of their children. Upon maturity she married an Oneida war captain named Carondawana. In 1711, New York Governor Robert Hunter enlisted Madame Montour’s assistance regarding negotiations with the Iroquois. Governor Hunter would make her a central figure in Indian negotiations in New York. He considered her to be one of his “most trusted advisers. Her duties included acting as interpreter at conferences, and helping to write speeches to be delivered. Another aspect of her work involved relaying messages and explaining the expectations and mannerisms of the Indians to the colonists. Through her work she aided the colonists’ in their quest to understand the culture of the Iroquois. She had great knowledge of the customs, ideas and the language of the Iroquois. Her ability to fluently speak English, French, Oneida, Mohawk, Delaware, and possibly Huron and Miami along with her many relatives located throughout Canada and the Great Lakes region identified er as a person “in the know” about the issues facing both cultures for the majority of her life. She was “trustworthy, and unafraid to tell the truth”. In the 1720s her family moved to Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Valley to live in an Indian community. Here she also served as interpreter for the colonists’ in negotiations with the Iroquois. As in New York she was known for her knowledge and often asked for her advice regarding Indians affairs. In 1729, while on his way home from war with the Catawba Indians, her husband, Carondawana was killed.
After his death she focused her attention on teaching her son Andrew the skills necessary to be a successful diplomat and cultural broker. Madame Montour had no real memory of her birth culture. Because of her mixed heritage she could blend in with many cultures by emphasizing or de-emphasizing certain aspects of her background. Madame Montour moved easily between the cultures of the Indians and the colonists. She was very adaptable. This was probably derived from her early capture and assimilation into the Iroquois culture.
Despite having family among Iroquois and supporters among the white settlers at times it seems she did not quite belong to any specific group. Even after being adopted by the Iroquois they still referred to her as the French woman who was married to an Indian. It seems Madame Montour was a woman of many cultures but also a woman with no true culture of her own maybe that is why she was successful as a cultural broker. Madame Montour both gained and lost by crossing cultures. She gained the respect of government officials in the colonies beginning with Governor Hunter of New York.
Her work as an interpreter and assistance in the understanding of the Iroquois provided financial resources for her and her family. She also gained a well-deserved reputation as an important person who was well versed in the manners, customs, and languages of the Indians. Due to her own cultural brokerage she trained her son Andrew Montour to be a cultural broker providing him with a career. Madame Montour also lost as a result of her cultural brokerage. Her mixed heritage set her apart and her association with the colonists caused ill will among some of the Natives.
Although she was respected among the colonists and Indians alike, this did not necessarily “translate into acceptance” among either group. After the death of her husband even the Oneida community “began to marginalize her family” and she moved around frequently alone or with her son. She received little “in the way of reward from the white colonial or Indian societies whom she served”. Madame Montour was used by both the colonists and the Indians. The colonists respected her and actively sought the knowledge she held regarding the Indians but as soon as she was no longer needed she was cast aside and forgotten until they needed her again.
An Oneida headman Shickellamy used Madame Montour’s contacts and influences to grow his status as a representative of the Iroquois Confederacy. Then he and a Seneca headman accused her of being untruthful and ended her public career. “She never again appeared at a conference in any recognized capacity. ” Madame Montour used her fluency of language; her family connections and knowledge of Native customs to help the colonists’ come to understand the Natives. Like Madame Montour, Samson Occom was a cultural broker but he used a different path to achieve his brokerage.
Samson Occom was Mohegan by birth. During the “Great Awakening” he converted to Christianity. Tutored by Reverend Eleazar Wheelock he learned to read and write in English. Additionally, he learned Latin, Greek, some Hebrew, Oneida, and Mohawk. Occom became an ordained minister. He used the path of “Reformed Protestantism, namely, Congregationalism and Presbyterianism” to cross cultural borders. He built a two story frame house in Mohegan where his family lived for twenty-five years. To his people and the English the house represented his moving from his birth culture to the English culture.
Wheelock asked Occom to travel to Britain to raise funds for Dartmouth College which he said would be used to educate Native youth. In Britain Occom was somewhat of a celebrity and preached to the people there and in Scotland. Upon his return to North America Occom learned Wheelock had deceived him regarding Dartmouth College. The target students were to be young English men. Occom had made the trip to Britain because he believed Native youth would make up the majority of the students. Occom never traveled to Dartmouth College and severed his ties with Wheelock.
After a period of depression Occom gained a “renewed sense of self-worth” as a sermon he had delivered was published as a temperance tract. While in Britain Occom had collected hymnals and in 1772 he published a book of his favorite hymns. Later his knowledge of English law and his recordkeeping would enable the Mohegan to retain land in the community he started called Brothertown. When Occom died Mohegan, Iroquois, and Algonquian Indians attended his funeral which was preached by an Englishman/American and was held in Brothertown.
The many different cultures present reflected his experience as a cultural broker but the place his funeral was held said even more: “Samson Occom had come home. ” Occom adjusted well to the English culture in the beginning. It could be said he even preferred the English culture over his own. But Occom never forgot about his people as to do so would have been irresponsible. Occom was well received in Britain where he was considered “a unique attraction. ” In Scotland he was a living example of the success of their “commitment to education and conversion” important because they funded Wheelock’s ventures.
Occom became less enchanted by the Europeans when he discovered Wheelock had deceived him about Dartmouth College. He decided that his faith was the only good thing to be taken from the English culture and severed ties with Wheelock and the English culture. This was a reverse of his early years when he had offended the Oneida by telling them to “to grow their hair long as the English do and not to wear wampum or other such things” which suggested he agreed with the concept of conformity. Occom gained the ability to read and write by crossing cultural borders.
Additionally he gained his lifelong faith in God through Protestant Religion. He became an ordained minister and used his preaching to help his culture. Occom learned the English laws regarding property ownership which eventually led to his people keeping the lands among the Oneida. He gained recognition through publication of one of his sermons and his popular book of hymns. In contrast he lost a part of his own culture for a brief time at the beginning of his association with the English. His knowledge of the English ways also “created a bone of contention with the splintered loyalties of the Mohegan tribe. Occom sacrificed time away from his wife due to his service to the English and Wheelock. Eventually the English culture lost appeal to Occom due to their abuse of his trust and confrontations of “English antagonism. ” Occom was used by several people. The Boston Board used him to prove a Native could be used as an educator and cheap labor at the same time. Wheelock used him to obtain funds to create Dartmouth College and to prove his ability to convert and educate the Native people showing he was worthy of the donations he had received.
Even though he eventually withdrew from the English culture Samson Occom achieved many things during his time as a cultural broker just as those before and after him. Roughly the same time as Occom was using his religious faith to cross cultures another person, Susannah Johnson, was pursuing cultural brokerage through another path. Susannah Johnson was a cultural broker. Her ability to adapt to any environment and “attract and remember the kindness of others” was the main path of her brokerage. Susannah’s empathy for those in her culture and other cultures helped her cross cultural borders.
Through the telling of her and her family’s trials as captives of the Abenaki Indians she helped challenge many ideas about the Indians that were not always true. Susannah was born on the Massachusetts frontier to Moses and Susannah Willard. She married and her husband and family lived on the New Hampshire frontier in Charlestown. On August 30, 1752, a group of Abenaki Indians raided their house and took her captive along with her husband, their three children, her sister, kinsman Ebenezer Farnsworth and a friend Peter Labarree.
She was pregnant at the time and on the second day of their captivity she went in to labor and delivered a baby girl she named Captive. Susannah considered the Abenaki to be “by no means void of compassion” as they helped her to deliver, clothed the baby and provided shelter for mother and baby. Additionally the Abenaki built a litter to carry Susannah and baby Captive but the other captives tired after a couple of miles and she was offered a horse to ride which she accepted for fear of being left behind in the wilderness with a newborn. Susannah spoke of how the Abenaki showed mercy to her family and the other captives.
Susannah also spoke of the Abenaki modesty. Upon being sold to Governor Ange Duquesne de Menneville, Marquis Duquesne, in Montreal Captive became ill and Susannah allowed her to be baptized a Roman Catholic and named the governor as her godfather. As Susannah was a Puritan this was a huge leap into another culture. Her husband James raised the money for his release and was allowed to return to New Hampshire to obtain the money to pay the ransom for Susannah and their children. Due to Massachusetts preparing to expeditions against Acadia and Fort St. Frederic James was not allowed to return to Canada.
When James did not return to Montreal Susannah and her two youngest daughters and her sister were cast out of Canadian society and made a living as seamstresses. When he finally returned to Montreal due to the escalation of war, James was considered a parole violator and posed a risk to military intelligence. Later, Susannah, James and the two youngest daughters were sent to Quebec to a criminal prison where conditions were poor and disease rampant. Intendant Francois Bigot used his influence to allow the Johnsons to be moved to a civilian prison where conditions were more comfortable.
There the family had a garden and Susannah was allowed to travel to town weekly to buy necessary goods. While in prison she gave birth to a stillborn son and learned her father had been killed by the Abenaki during another raid. Her baby girl Captive spoke only French and Susannah learned enough to understand her daughter. The Johnsons were given permission to go home via England but at the last minute they said her husband James could not go but she and all but her son still with the Abenaki and her daughter in Montreal went on the boat alone.
She arrived home after being gone for three years three months and eleven days. ” James having been released arrived home about the same time. Susannah’s son Sylvanus was redeemed from the Abenaki but could only speak their language and broken French. Her oldest daughter finally arrived home after six years in Montreal. Susannah’s family had become a “mixture of nations. ” In later years she loved telling about her adventures which she saw as “an instructive tale of suffering and redemption. ” She always credited the Abenaki with kindness. Susannah had some difficulty adjusting to life with the Abenaki.
She was not very good at canoe making and agreed with their adoptive sister’s occasional complaints that she was “a no good squaw. ” Susannah adapted better to life in Canada in Governor Duquesne’s house. She met many other captives there and found the people kind and she was treated like a daughter. Even after being cast out of Canadian society she survived by working as a seamstress. She never did adapt to the criminal prison but in the civilian prison she made do with the little she had. During weekly outings she met other captives and had conversations with them.
During her captivity Susannah met many people who were kind to her and her family. She never forgot that kindness and persevered until she was once again home. As a cultural broker Susannah gained knowledge of Native culture and personal insight into their lives. She became aware the Natives were capable of kindness and were a good moral people. She always believed the Abenaki were nicer to her family than the English would have been to a Native family had the situation been reversed. She found their community very favorable. Susannah further related surprise that the Abenaki adopted her as a sister and treated her as one of their own.
Although Susannah gained as a cultural broker she also experienced loss. She had a stillborn son and lost a son to the Abenaki. She later regained this son but he always considered himself an Abenaki. The six years her oldest daughter spent in Montreal were lost to her. One positive loss she experienced was her loss of fear over time. Susannah was used by the Indians as trade to the Canadians. She was also used by the Canadians as a prisoner to be bargained for political reasons. The three biographies relate much about intertribal relations and interaction between the Europeans and Natives. Inter-tribal relations were not always positive.
The tribes were many times split between loyalties to different cultures. They often looked upon cultural brokers as outsiders or a kind of traitor. There were also good things about tribal relations shown by Occom who never forgot his people. He became a cultural broker more for the benefit of his people than himself. The Indians were usually loyal to one another and treated most captives as family members. The interaction between English and Natives was usually strained. Neither group knew what to expect from the other or understood the other culture. The English were far worse in their treatment of the Natives.
They were generally unfair and untruthful. They used the Natives far more than the reverse. They considered them backward and perceived them as stereotypical savages. When captured Susannah was surprised to be treated as well as she was for she knew the English would treat their captives far worse. Madame Montour, Samson Occom, and Susannah Johnson were all successful cultural brokers. Cultural brokers played a large role in the colonization of the United States. Although they used different methods to cross cultural borders the intent was universal. They strived to bring understanding to both their culture and the culture of the English.