Home / Thoook News / A New World mystery: How a 17th-century French woman became Indigenous, then became white again

A New World mystery: How a 17th-century French woman became Indigenous, then became white again

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Catherine Pillard came to North America in 1663, one of the hundreds of young French women sent over to marry and boost the population of the colony of New France.

Or, if you like, Catherine Pillard was actually Ouenta, the daughter of a Huron chief, baptized in Montreal in 1651 under the name Catherine and assimilated by the French colonists.

Or instead, Catherine Pillard was the daughter of an Indigenous woman brought to France from the New World at some earlier time, before Pillard was born and shipped back to the colony.

The debate about one woman’s shifting identity has played out over the past decade among some of her tens of thousands of descendants scattered across North America. But more than 300 years after her death it has revealed less about her than it has about the value, both political and sentimental, of being Indigenous.

The facts — or the original version of them, anyway — are as follows: Catherine Pillard was born in La Rochelle, France, and immigrated to what is now Quebec in 1663 as a fille du roi, or king’s daughter, one of about 800 young women sent over to marry and increase the colonists’ numbers. She married Pierre Charron in 1665 and bore 12 children.

Thanks to Quebec’s small founding population and the extensive records kept by Catholic parishes, many French Canadians can trace their lineage back to the first French colonists who set foot on North American soil. Denis Charron, president of the Association des Charron et Ducharme, which represents the descendants of Charron and Pillard, said their sons alone have 35,000 to 40,000 descendants alive today. “I discover them every day,” he said.

But in 2008, something changed. Three researchers — all descendants of Pillard — published a paper suggesting a radical new theory: Pillard might not have been French at all.

Their hypothesis was based on new DNA evidence from a descendant of Pillard, who was found to have a type of mitochondrial DNA — which only mothers can pass to their children — associated with people of Indigenous, East Asian or Siberian origin. Because Pillard was her ancestor on the maternal line, Pillard must have had the same type of DNA.

New stories quickly emerged to explain it. One rapidly took root: the idea that Pillard was actually the daughter of a Huron chief who went by Le Plat, a name not so different from Pillard. Church records show he had a daughter baptized as Catherine in Montreal in 1651. Perhaps, some thought, this was the same Catherine who later married Pierre Charron. Others suggested Pillard or one of her Indigenous ancestors could have previously travelled from the New World to France.

“We only know that Catherine Pillard is not of French origin,” the researchers wrote in 2008.

Still, not everyone was convinced. Denis Charron turned to Jacques Beaugrand, an emeritus professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal, for another opinion. Beaugrand concluded that Pillard descended from women who had migrated to Europe from West Siberia. The hypothesis would explain the mitochondrial DNA, but also would mean Pillard was decidedly French — not Indigenous.

Charron and his association adopted Beaugrand’s version of events as their official position on the issue last October. He had no interest in whether or not Pillard was Indigenous, he said, but he wanted to know the truth. “Unfortunately, it’s not true. Well, for me it’s not true,” he said. “It’s not the conclusion we came to. It’s not clear at all, from a genetic or a genealogical point of view.”

For some, however, this was more than an academic exercise. More and more Canadians are claiming to be Métis, especially in Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. And according to Darryl Leroux, an associate professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, some are doing so based on ancestors like Pillard and others of disputed origin.

Leroux said Pillard shows up as one of the most common “Indigenous” ancestors claimed by members of several Métis organizations in Quebec and similar groups elsewhere, which are not officially recognized as Indigenous. Her name appears in nearly 10 per cent of 1,900 genealogies submitted by a group in Maniwaki, north of Ottawa, as part of a court case in which the community is trying to prove its ancestral Métis right to hunt, fish and trap, he said. His analysis has not yet been published.

“It’s seen as rude, as inappropriate to challenge people’s identity,” Leroux said. “Meanwhile, I think that what’s happening is a direct attack on Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination.”

The Maniwaki case, which began after a member of the community was charged with illegally setting up a hunting camp on Crown land, is not unique. In a similar case in Chicoutimi, the Quebec Superior Court ruled in 2015 that a local, self-identified Métis organization had failed to demonstrate the existence of a historic or contemporary Métis community, despite demonstrating genealogical links with Indigenous ancestors. That case is under appeal.

In the Maniwaki case, the community claims it retains elements of Métis culture, such as hunting and trapping, and isn’t relying solely on genealogy. Pierre Montour, the lawyer for the group, said disputed ancestors like Pillard won’t be used as evidence when the case goes to court, and that Leroux didn’t have all the information the group will use to defend its rights.

Still, Leroux is skeptical of groups that allow members to identify as Indigenous based on distant ancestors, even those whose origins are not disputed. He counts four commonly cited Indigenous ancestors in his own genealogy. He’s also a descendant of Pillard. “There’s a value to indigeneity that has not always been there,” he said. “I don’t think that value is innocent in and of itself. I think it gets used in different ways.”

Not all of Pillard’s descendants wanted her to be Indigenous for political reasons. Susan Colby, who lives in Washington State but whose mother was French Canadian, followed the debate with interest. She’d been hoping for some time to find she had an Indigenous ancestor. “It’s just for romantic reasons. … I just thought it would be really cool to be able to say I have native roots. But I don’t,” Colby said.

For a while, Colby was on the side of those who thought Pillard was Indigenous, and she felt that some of the resistance was fuelled by a desire “to keep Catherine European, for ethnic reasons.”

“It got kind of uncomfortable for a while,” she said. But in the end, she was convinced by Beaugrand’s work, if a little disappointed. “I just think … it’s kind of boring just to be European.”

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