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David Graeber and David Wengrow – Forget ‘Liberté’ – 17th-Century Indigenous Americans Knew a Lot More About Freedom Than Their French Colonisers

The Anarchist Library

Author: David Graeber and David Wengrow
Title: Forget ‘Liberté’ – 17th-Century Indigenous Americans Knew a Lot More About Freedom Than Their French Colonisers
Subtitle: Just look at their abolitionist justice system.
Date: October 19, 2021
Source: Retrieved on October 7, 2022 from https://novaramedia.com/2021/10/19/forget-liberte-17th-century-indigenous-americans-knew-a-lot-more-about-freedom-than-their-french-colonisers/.

10 years ago, over a bowl of ramen near Times Square, David Graeber gave me a copy of his book Debt: the first 5000 years. Inside, was a typically generous dedication: “For David Wengrow, who has gotten me excited about the past in a way no one has since I can barely remember.”

It was the start of a project that would absorb us for the next 10 years, as an anthropologist and an archaeologist sought to revive a style of grand dialogue about human history that once was common, but this time with modern scientific evidence. We wrote without rules or deadlines, and finished as we’d started, with discoveries and debates into the small hours.

As you know, David was far more than a brilliant intellectual: he actually tried to live his ideas about social justice and liberation in a world that often seemed set against them, against him. To me, this book is a lasting testament, not just to an irreplaceable friendship, but to the strength of those ideas, and their great might, reaching back over the millennia.

What you now have before you, then, is an extract from our small attempt to change the course of human history (at least, the part that’s already happened), our new book, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity.


The ‘Age of Reason’ was an age of debate. The Enlightenment was rooted in conversation; it took place largely in cafés and salons. Many classic Enlightenment texts took the form of dialogues; most cultivated an easy, transparent, conversational style clearly inspired by the salon. (It was the Germans, back then, who tended to write in the obscure style for which French intellectuals have since become famous.) Appeal to ‘reason’ was above all a style of argument. The ideals of the French Revolution – liberty, equality and fraternity – took the form they did in the course of just such a long series of debates and conversations. All we’re going to suggest here is that those conversations stretched back further than Enlightenment historians assume.

Let’s begin by asking: what did the inhabitants of New France make of the Europeans who began to arrive on their shores in the sixteenth century?

At that time, the region that came to be known as New France was inhabited largely by speakers of Montagnais-Naskapi, Algonkian and Iroquoian languages. Those closer to the coast were fishers, foresters and hunters, though most also practised horticulture; the Wendat (Huron) concentrated in major river valleys further inland, growing maize, squash and beans around fortified towns.

Interestingly, early French observers attached little importance to such economic distinctions, especially since foraging or farming was, in either case, largely women’s work. The men, they noted, were primarily occupied in hunting and, occasionally, war, which meant they could in a sense be considered natural aristocrats. The idea of the ‘noble savage’ can be traced back to such estimations. Originally, it didn’t refer to nobility of character but simply to the fact that the Indian men concerned themselves with hunting and fighting, which back at home were largely the business of noblemen.

But if French assessments of the character of ‘savages’ tended to be decidedly mixed, the indigenous assessment of French character was distinctly less so.

Father Pierre Biard, for example, was a former theology professor assigned in 1608 to evangelize the Algonkian-speaking Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia, who had lived for some time next to a French fort. Biard did not think much of the Mi’kmaq, but reported that the feeling was mutual:

“They consider themselves better than the French: ‘For,’ they say, ‘you are always fighting and quarrelling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; you are thieves and deceivers; you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread we share it with our neighbour.’ They are saying these and like things continually.”

What seemed to irritate Biard the most was that the Mi’kmaq would constantly assert that they were, as a result, “richer” than the French. The French had more material possessions, the Mi’kmaq conceded; but they had other, greater assets: ease, comfort and time. 20 years later Brother Gabriel Sagard, a recollect friar, wrote similar things of the Wendat nation.

Sagard was at first highly critical of Wendat life, which he described as inherently sinful (he was obsessed with the idea that Wendat women were all intent on seducing him), but by the end of his sojourn he had come to the conclusion their social arrangements were in many ways superior to those at home in France. In the following passages, he was clearly echoing Wendat opinion:

“They have no lawsuits and take little pains to acquire the goods of this life, for which we Christians torment ourselves so much, and for our excessive and insatiable greed in acquiring them we are justly and with reason reproved by their quiet life and tranquil dispositions.”