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When the World Began...
Times of War and Peace
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Warring Nations
"In ancient times, warfare and feuding were endemic in the land of the Mohawks," wrote one of the chiefs of the Six Nations at the turn of the 19th century. "Here warriors roamed the countryside, killing and scalping the inhabitants of settlements that lay scattered across the forest."


Nothing was more important than defending ancestral land against aggressors. In the north, the Cree crossed the treeline to raid Inuit camps. On the West Coast, nations sent war parties to sea in cedar canoes, searching out enemies, killing their warriors and kidnapping their young women. On the plains, the Blackfoot believed their creator gave them the ferocity to fend for what was theirs.

In the land of the Great Lakes, the farming Huron, or Wendat, lived near the Iroquois, the most warlike of all the eastern people. For generations the Wendat and the Iroquois were enemies, locked in a cycle of deadly raids and fierce retaliation. War was entrenched in the Iroquois culture, demanding a gruesome reciprocity and encompassing a spiritual component.


Indian with War Club, National Archives of Canada C-99224
Indian with War Club, National Archives of Canada C-99224

If prisoners were taken alive, they were tortured to death in lengthy ceremonies; the prisoner's skin stripped in pieces, his fingers cut off, fire applied to his genitals, his scalp taken and the ghastly wound cauterized with pitch. Though it was extraordinarily cruel, there were odd elements of compassion. The victim was given water and his wounds were tended to before the ritual continued, a grisly pas-de-deux between torturer and prisoner.


The public ceremony was an affirmation of a people's solidarity in the face of their enemies. They would be protected. Their warriors could strike fear into their enemies' hearts. And the invader would be destroyed. It ended finally with the warrior's beheading on a scaffold. It was to everyone's advantage if the prisoner died well. The villagers ate parts or all of his body and absorbed his courage.

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