Cultural Brokers of Colonial America

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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. 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 her 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...
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