IT will hardly be expected from a work making so little pretension as this to scientific accuracy and completeness, that the remarks which my plan necessarily leads me to make, concerning the aborigines of western America, should be either critical or comprehensive. Neither can I fed that it is a topic which I am at liberty wholly to disregard. The opportunities which I have enjoyed for obtaining a knowledge of the character and habits of the western Indians have been such, that I trust that a brief account of them may prove in some measure new, and not altogether uninteresting to a portion of my readers. Impressed with this belief I propose, in the few
following pages, to record such facts as shall seem to be most novel, and to corroborate, in my humble measure, occasional others which have before been related. With this view, I shall proceed to notice, in the present chapter, such leading characteristics of the aborigines generally, as shall seem most noteworthy; and then, in those that follow, ask the reader’s attention to many peculiarities which make the most conspicuous differences between them.
No aboriginal nation or people has ever yet been discovered, to my knowledge, which has not professed to have a mysterious ancestry of a mythical character. It is interesting to mark the analogies and the differences between their various systems. Although among some tribes who have lived much in communication with the whites, their cosmogony has been confounded very much with the Mosaic or Scripture account, so that it is now often difficult to distinguish clearly the aboriginal from the imported, yet all the Americo-Indian tribes have more or less preserved their traditions on this subject The old full-blood Choctaws, for instance, relate that the first of their tribe issued from a cave in Nunnewaya or Bending Mountain, in the ‘Old Nation,’ east of the Mississippi; yet this tradition has but little currency among the young men and mixed-bloods of the tribe. The minute account of this supposed origin cannot now be readily procured; yet some idea may be formed of it from a kindred tradition among
the Mandans which has been preserved to us by Lewis and Clark, and is thus related:
“The whole nation resided in one large village under ground near a subterraneous lake: a grape vine extended its roots down to their habitation and gave them a view of the light: some of the most adventurous climbed up the vine, and were delighted with the sight of the earth, which they found covered with buffalo, and rich with every kind of fruits: returning with the grapes they had gathered, their countrymen were so pleased with the taste of them that their whole nation resolved to leave their dull residence for the charms of the upper regions; men, women and children ascended by means of the vine; but when about half the nation had reached the surface of the earth, a corpulent woman who was clambering up the vine broke it with her weight, and closed upon herself and the rest of the nation, the light of the sun."
Besides the Mandans it seems that other neighboring tribes had somewhat analogous notions of their origin. An early explorer relates that the Osages believed that their forefathers grew from a snail, which, having become a man, married the daughter of a beaver, whence sprang the present race.
The resemblance of the American Indians to each other, however, is not more conspicuous in anything than in their religious opinions. They seem to have no well-defined creeds: yet there are very few but profess a faith in some sort of First Cause — a Great
Spirit, a Master of Life, who rules the destinies of the world. Though the different nations have not always typified their deity by the same objects, yet by far the greater number seem to have, fixed upon the sun as the fit object of their adoration. “Next to Virachocha, or their supreme God,” says Father Acosta, speaking of the Indians of Peru, “that which most commonly they have and do adore amongst the Infidells is the Sunne.” Many of the Mexican tribes* professed the same faith, and particularly those of New Mexico, as has already been mentioned. This seems also the most current among the Comanches and other wild tribes of the Prairies: and the Choctaws and several other nations of the frontier appear at least to have held the sun in great veneration.
But of all the Indian tribes, none appear to have ascribed to the ‘fountain of light’ more of the proper attributes of deity than the Shawnees. They argue; with some plausibility, that the sun animates everything — therefore, he is clearly the Master of Life, or the Great Spirit; and that everything is produced originally from the bosom of the earth — therefore, she is the mother of creation. The following anecdote* (as told to me by a gentleman of integrity), which transpired upon
the occasion of an interview of Tecumseh with Gen. Harrison, is as illustrative of the religious opinions of the Shawnees, as it is characteristic of the hauteur and independent spirit of that celebrated Shawnee chief. The General, having called Tecumseh for a ‘talk,’ desired him to take a seat, saying, “Come here, Tecumseh, and sit by your father.” “You my father?“ replied the chief, with a stern air — ”No! yonder sun is my father (pointing towards it), and the earth is my mother; so I will rest on her bosom” — and immediately seated himself upon the ground, according to Indian custom.
But though the Shawnees consider the sun the type, if not the essence, of the Great Spirit, many also believe in an evil genius, who makes all sorts of bad things, to counterbalance those made by the Good Spirit. For instance, when the latter made a sheep, a rose, wholesome herbs, etc., the bad spirit matched them with a wolf, a thorn, poisonous plants, and the like. They also appear to think there is a kind of purgatory in which the spirits of the wicked may be cleansed before entering into their elysium.
The worship of all the aborigines seems to consist chiefly in feasting and dancing. A worthy missionary among the Shawnees related to me the following legendary tradition, as explanatory of their ideas of another world, and the institution of their worship, which may serve as a fair sample of the traditions of many other tribes.
In days of yore (say the Shawnees) there lived a pious brother and an affectionate sister, who were inordinately attached to each other. It came to pass that the sister sickened and died, and was carried to the world of spirits. The good brother was inconsolable, and for a while refused to eat or drink, or to partake of any kind of nourishment: he wished to follow his beloved sister. At length he resolved to set out in search of her; so he commenced his pilgrimage toward the setting sun. Steadily pursuing the same course for days and moons together, he at last came to where the sky and earth meet; and finding an opening, he ascended into the upper regions. He now turned his course towards the rising sun, which he continued, above the sky, till he came to the abode of his grandfather — which seems but another name for one of the good spirits. This sage, knowing his errand, gave him ‘medicine’ to transform him into a spirit, that he might pass through the celestial courts. He also gave him instructions how to proceed, and where he would find his sister. He said she would be at a dance; and when she rose to join in the amusement, he must seize and ensconce her in the hollow of a reed with which he was furnished, and cover the orifice with the end of his finger.
After an arduous peregrination through the land of spirits, the brother found and secured his sister as directed. He returned with his charge to the habitation of his grandfather, who gave another ‘medicine’ to transform
them both into material beings again, that they might revisit their brothers on earth. The sage also explained to them the mysteries of heaven and the sacred rites of worship, that they might instruct their tribe therein. When about to start back, the venerable spirit told them that the route by which the brother had come was very circuitous—there was a much nearer way; and opening a trap-door through the sky, they beheld their native town just below them. So the good brother and sister descended; and returning home, a great feast was celebrated, accompanied by, a solemn dance — in accordance with the grandfather’s instructions. Thus originated, as they say, the sacred dances and other religious ceremonies now in practice.
As they believe the Indian heaven separate, and essentially different and distinct from that of the whites, and as they do not wish their people divided, this has often occasioned a serious opposition to the labors of the missionaries.* For the purpose of thwarting the
measures of these, a noted anti-christian sage ‘played off,’ a few years ago, the following ‘vision.’ Being very ill (as they relate this sage, to all appearance, died, and became stiff and cold, except a spot upon his breast, which still retained the heat of life. In this state he remained a day or more, when he again breathed and returned among the living: and calling his friends about him, he related the scenes he had witnessed. He had ascended to the Indian’s heaven, he said, which he described as usual: a fine country, abounding in all sorts of game, and everything an Indian could desire. There he met with his grandfather, who said to him, “It is meet, my son, that thou return to the earth, and warn thy brothers against the dangers that await them. Tell them to beware of the religion of the white man: that every Indian who embraces it is obliged to take the road to the white man’s heaven; and yet no red man is permitted to enter there, but will have to wander about for ever without a resting-place.”
The identity of the notions which the different tribes have conceived of a future existence, and the character of the ‘world of spirits,’ seems still more general. They fancy
heaven but another material world, superior, it is true, yet resembling this — a kind of elysian vale, or paradise — a ‘happy hunting ground,’ abounding in game and all their comforts of life, which may be procured without labor. This elysium they generally seem to locate ‘upon the sky,’ which they fancy a material solid vault. It appears impossible for them, in their pristine barbarism, to conceive of a spiritual existence, or of a world differing materially from that which they see around them.
Father Hennepin (writing about 1680) relates, that the northern Indians inquired about the manner of living in heaven, and remarks: “When I made answer that they live there without eating or drinking, ‘We will not go thither,’ said they, ‘because we must not eat;’ and when I have added that there would be no occasion for food there, they clapt their hands to their mouths, as a sign of admiration, and said, ‘Thou art a great liar! — is there anything can live without eating?’”
Similar opinions, among many different tribes, I have heard declared in direct terms; yet, did we want further testimony, some of their burial customs and funeral rites would seem to indicate their ideas of the future state. The Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, Kansas, and kindred tribes, besides many others, or perhaps most others of the frontier, have been accustomed to inter the most valuable property of the deceased and many necessaries with them. “Their whole property was bu-
ried with them,”* says an intelligent Cherokee, in some manuscript notes concerning his ancestors, I have in my possession: and I have been assured by credible natives, that; within their recollection, they have seen, at these burials, provisions, salt, and other necessaries, interred with the dead for their long journey.
There are very few of the prairie Indians but practise something of this kind: many kill the favorite hunting-horses, and deposite the arms, etc., of the deceased, for his use in the chase, when he arrives at the ‘happy hunting ground.’ We are also informed by Capt. Bonneville, and other travellers, that this is practised by some, if not all, of the natives beyond the Rocky Mountains. The same is told of the Navajoes, Apaches, and other uncatholicized tribes of the north of Mexico.
Peter Martyr, a learned and celebrated protestant divine, who wrote his “Decades of the Newe Worlde” towards the middle of the sixteenth century, observes that, “in many places of the firme lande, when any of the kynges dye, all his householde servauntes, as well women as men which have continually served hym, kyl themselves, beleavynge, as they are taught by the devyl Tuyra, that they which kyll themselves when the kynge dyeth, go with hym to heaven and serve hym in the same place and office as they dyd before on
the earth whyle he lyved.* And that all that refuse so to doo, when after they dye by theyr naturall death or otherwyse, theyr soules to dye with theyr bodyes, and to bee dissolved into ayer and become nothynge- as do the soules of hogges, byrdes or fysshes, or other brute beastes.”** In corroboration of a similar custom among the natives along the Mississippi, in 1542, Herrera relates, that, after the death of Fernando de Soto, and his party had set out westward, they were joined by a youth, who stated that he had fled to escape being buried with his lord who had died; which was the practice in that country. Travellers from the upper lakes to the Mississippi speak of similar customs, at an early day, among the tribes of that quarter.
It would appear that they believe everything, both animate and inanimate — beasts, arms, ornaments, etc. — to possess immortal attributes, subject to resurrection in the world of spirits. However, did not their motives seem so well defined by the direct allusions to their notions of futurity, we might suppose, as is frequently urged, that the burying of property, slaves, etc., with the deceased, was only intended as a mark of respect; which, indeed, is hardly more irrational than the cus-
tom of interring costly garniture and appendages with the dead among us.
Some of the modes of burial adopted by the American aborigines are different, I believe, from those of any other people. Though, as among civilized nations, even the wildest tribes sometimes inter in ordinary graves, yet they frequently deposit their dead, in a sitting and even in a standing posture, in pits, caves, and hollow trees; and occasionally, they lay the corpse out upon scaffolds suspended from the branches of trees, or resting upon them where they will admit of it, so as to be out of reach of the wolves and other beasts.
I was once, with a little caravan, travelling up the course of the Arkansas river, when, a thunder-storm coming up suddenly, and night drawing near, we turned the wagons, as soon as we could, to the river-bank, to encamp, The bustle of ungearing and securing the teams before they should be frightened by the tempest, was hardly over, when we discovered a platform suspended above our heads, upon the branches of a cottonwood, which, upon examination, was found to contain an Indian corpse, from whose bones the putrid flesh had not yet separated!
This mode of disposing of the dead would seem once to have been quite extensive; for, as well as upon the western prairies, it formerly prevailed among the Potawatomies of the north, and the Choctaws of the south, at least while on their expeditions. In this case, if practicable, they would leave a band of
aged men, known as ‘bone-pickers,’ to clean the bones, when the flesh decayed, and carry them to their village for interment.
Barbarians are generally superstitious to an extreme, believing in hobgoblins, witchcraft, legerdemain and all sorts of mummeries.* Like many grandmothers in backwoods life, they delight in recounting the extraordinary apparitions, transmigrations, sorceries, etc., which they pretend to have witnessed. Nothing seems too absurd for their belief. Among many other cases of similar cast, an intelligent Potawatomie once assured me that he had witnessed the death of one of his nation, who had received a stab in his side with a knife (probably in some illicit adventure); and it being unknown to his friends how the wound had been inflicted, it was currently reported and believed, that from their
present home on the frontier of Missouri, he had visited the ‘Old Nation’ in Michigan, poisoned an enemy there, received the fatal stab, and returned and died, all in one day.
If you tell an Indian that such things are absurd and impossible, he is apt to answer, “It may be so with the white man, but how do you know it to be impossible with the Indian? You tell us many strange things which happened to your fathers — we don’t contradict them, though we believe such things never could have happened to the red man.” Or, they will reply, perhaps, as they did to Father Hennepin in a similar case: “Fie, thou knowest not what thou sayest; thou may’st know what has passed in thy own Country, for thy Ancestors have told thee of them; but thou canst not know what has passed in ours before the Spirits (that is to say the Europeans) came hither.”
In their matrimonial customs there is also a similarity among most of the American savages. Polygamy seems once to have been universal; and I believe still is so among the uncivilized tribes. Every man takes as many wives as he can obtain, or is able to support. The squaws, however, the more willingly consent to this multiplicity, as it affords additional helpmates in their labors. Polygamy among these savages would appear, indeed, altogether an unwise provision. At least it seems palliated with such a belligerent people, who lose so many males in their continual wars, leaving a great surplus of females; and
where the duties of the latter are so numerous and so severe.
The custom of buying wives, or at least making large presents to their parents, has always been very general ; and still exists, not only among the more savage, but even with many of the partially civilized nations. Yet, notwithstanding their depravity in other respects, there is one thing truly remarkable in their marriages. All modern observers seem to agree with the ancient authors, that they universally abhor incestuous connections. Among the Creeks, even the marrying of cousins was punished by cutting off the ears. The Cherokees (according to some manuscript notes which I have of an intelligent member of the tribe) were prohibited from marrying in their own clans (i. e. kindred) under penalty of death; and their clans themselves were their executioners. But, although the Indians thus so strictly prohibit marriage within the degrees of consanguinity, it is not so with those of affinity among many tribes. The Otoes, Kansas, and others of the same stock, will not only marry several sisters, but their deceased brothers’ wives; in fact, this last seems considered a duty, so that the orphan children of the brother may not be without a protector.*
While the aborigines of the New World
have been noted above almost every other uncivilized nation in history, for their vindictiveness and cruelty towards their enemies, there are, in these attributes, wide differences apparent among them. The Indians along the Pacific coast; as well as in most of Mexico, were always more mild and peaceable than those of the United States. Hence it is, in fact, that the Spaniards did not meet with that formidable resistance to their conquests which they encountered among the fiery tribes of Florida, or that relentless and desperate hostility which the Anglo-Americans experienced in the first settlement of most parts of the United States.
But in the common trait of hospitality to strangers all the western tribes are alike distinguished. The traveller who is thrown upon their charity, is almost universally received and treated with the greatest kindness; and, though they might pilfer him to the skin, and even place his person in jeopardy, if he show want of confidence in them and endeavor to conceal his effects, yet his property is generally secure when under their charge: they appear to consider a breach of confidence one of the greatest crimes.
Among the wild tribes, as well as among most of the unadulterated border Indians, to set something to eat before a friend, and even a stranger, immediately upon his arrival at a lodge or a cabin, is deemed not only an act of hospitality but of necessary etiquette; and a refusal to partake is looked upon as an un-
friendly token — an insult; in fact, to the family. Travellers are often severely taxed to preserve the good feeling of their hosts in this particular, especially among the prairie Indians. One at all fastidious in matters of diet, would find it hard to relish food from a greasy horn-spoon which every urchin had been using; and then to ladle it out of a pot which had been common for all the papooses and pups of the premises: or to partake from a slice rolled up in a musty skin, or a dirtier blanket. And yet an apology even of having already dined half-a-dozen times would scarcely palliate the insult of a refusal. Though one visit fifty lodges in the course of a day, he must taste the food of every one.
The Indian system of chiefs, which still prevails, and is nearly the same everywhere, except with the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and the Creeks to a degree, seems to bear a strong resemblance to that of the patriarchs of old; which, with their clans so analogous to those of our forefathers, perhaps affords as strong a proof as any other of their Asiatic origin.* To this might be added their
mode of naming; for the Indians universally apply names significant of acts, qualities, beasts, birds, etc., to their offspring, — a practice which seems to have prevailed generally among the ancient Asiatics.* Surnames have only been adopted by educated families
and mixed-bloods of the border nations, and are generally taken from their missionaries or some favorite friends; except they inherit surnames from parents of white extraction.
That the Indians of America are decreasing in numbers is very well known, but many are dwindling away, perhaps, at a more rapid pace than is generally suspected. The number of the Osages, it is confidently believed, has diminished fifty per cent. within the last ten years: the once powerful tribe of Missouries is now reduced to a mere remnant; while the Mandans, as a nation, have become entirely extinct: and others have shared or bid fair soon to share the same fate. This has resulted partially from the ravages of the smallpox and other diseases, yet as much no doubt from the baneful effects of intoxicating liquors. On this account, their diminution has generally been less in proportion as they are more remote from the whites. But the ‘red man’ has suffered from his intercourse with the whites not in this respect alone. The incentives to luxury and avarice continually presented by them, have had a very pernicious influence. Formerly the savages were contented with the indispensables of life — generally sober, just and charitable; but now they will sacrifice their comfort — risk their lives, and commit the most atrocious outrages, to gratify their vanity and lusts — to bedeck themselves with gewgaws and finery.