La Fille Sauvage: Was she Canada’s first Missing Indigenous Woman?
There’s a stream on the grounds of a small winery in France’s Champagne district. At one point it widens into a pond, in the middle of which is an oval-shaped mound of earth, with a single tree at one end. The place is known as l’ile de la fille sauvage, and though it barely warrants being called an island, local legend says that it served as an occasional refuge from the stresses of civilization for the mysterious Wild Girl of Champagne.
She first appeared here in the year 1731, barefoot and dressed animal skins. According to one of the early accounts, “She runs like a hare, climbs trees like a cat, skins animals alive with her bare hands and eats them raw.” There was much speculation about where she might have come from, but “little doubt that she is a member of one of the savage races”. She was baptized, given the name Marie-Angelique and sent to a convent to be tamed and Christianized. After that, very little was known about her life until the early 21st century when, thanks to the work of an French amateur historian, a fuller picture began to emerge. Archival research by Serge Aroles has traced her origins to the Fox or Meskwaki tribe, then based in the Great Lakes region of New France. His findings also link her with a troubling period in Canadian history. Though the young woman known as Marie-Angelique was, mercifully, not murdered, it’s very likely that she was one of this country’s earliest Missing Indigenous Women.
In the early 18th centuries, France engaged in a complex series of alliances with various indigenous nations, including les Renards, who by 1712 had become a major obstacle to French domination of the fur trade. Through an emissary, King Louis XV sent the Fox an ultimatum, setting off a decades-long campaign of extermination that historians call the Fox Wars. Though they did not succeed in wiping out the Meskwaki, French forces tortured and killed thousands of men, women and children. A small number of survivors escaped New France and eventually settled in present-day Iowa, where they live today. During the hostilities a large number of Fox were enslaved by the French (some present-day Quebec métis trace their ancestry back to those Fox slaves). Aroles concludes that as a young child, Marie-Angelique was taken into slavery by a prominent family, who took her first to Labrador, and then sailed back to France in 1721. According to the ship’s manifest, Mme. Marie de Courtemanche was accompanied by her two daughters and an unnamed sauvagesse, whom Aroles believes escaped from the port of Marseilles and spent years – possibly as much as a decade – living in the forest, subsisting on roots, fish and animal flesh.
Unlike most feral children through history, Marie-Angelique reacquired speech, became literate and lived a normal life span. But she was unable to summon up more than vague recollections of her former life, and never learned who her people were or where she’d come from. After spending time in a series of convents, she lived in Paris until her death at the age of 63. The contents of her apartment included “20 chairs,” indicating that she received visitors and thus may have been a person of stature. To me, those chairs are a bit like the “second-best bed” Shakespeare left to his wife: So little said, so much implied, a mystery that will never be solved.
In January 2017, a major exhibit about la fille sauvage was mounted in the city of Chalons-en-Champagne, a sign that the French have come to embrace her as one of their own. But the exhibit makes clear that the her true roots are Indigenous North American, most likely the Meskwaki nation. Meanwhile, in Canada, she is hardly known at all. That might be because she’s an uncomfortable reminder of the historic wrongs committed against our First Nations: the theft of children to residential schools, the failure to search for missing women and to prosecute their murders.
It’s not known where the woman known as Marie-Angelique is buried and, given the passage of nearly three centuries, it’s unlikely her grave will be found. But stranger things have happened in the improbable saga of this remarkable woman. So who knows? Perhaps one day, at long last, the Wild Girl will – physically or symbolically – be brought home.