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Religion and Superstitions

 Native American Nations | The Jesuits in North America                     

 

The religious belief of the North-American Indians seems, on a first view, anomalous and contradictory. It certainly is so, if we adopt the popular impression. Romance, Poetry, and Rhetoric point, on the one hand, to the august conception of a one all-ruling Deity, a Great Spirit, omniscient and omnipresent; and we are called to admire the untutored intellect which could conceive a thought too vast for Socrates and Plato. On the other hand, we find a chaos of degrading, ridiculous, and incoherent superstitions. A closer examination will show that the contradiction is more apparent than real. We will begin with the lowest forms of Indian belief, and thence trace it upward to the highest conceptions to which the unassisted mind of the savage attained.

To the Indian, the material world is sentient and intelligent. Birds, beasts, and reptiles have ears for human prayers, and are endowed with an influence on human destiny. A mysterious and inexplicable power resides in inanimate things. They, too, can listen to the voice of man, and influence his life for evil or for good. Lakes, rivers, and waterfalls are sometimes the dwelling-place of spirits; but more frequently they are themselves living beings, to be propitiated by prayers and offerings. The lake has a soul; and so has the river, and the cataract. Each can hear the words of men, and each can be pleased or offended. In the silence of a forest, the gloom of a deep ravine, resides a living mystery, indefinite, but redoubtable. Through all the works of Nature or of man, nothing exists, however seemingly trivial, that may not be endowed with a secret power for blessing or for bane.

Men and animals are closely akin. Each species of animal has its great archetype, its progenitor or king, who is supposed to exist somewhere, prodigious in size, though in shape and nature like his subjects. A belief prevails, vague, but perfectly apparent, that men themselves owe their first parentage to beasts, birds, or reptiles, as bears, wolves, tortoises, or cranes; and the names of the totemic clans, borrowed in nearly every case from animals, are the reflection of this idea.

[This belief occasionally takes a perfectly definite shape. There was a tradition among Northern and Western tribes, that men were created from the carcasses of beasts, birds, and fishes, by Manabozho, a mythical personage, to be described hereafter. The Amikouas, or People of the Beaver, an Algonquin tribe of Lake Huron, claimed descent from the carcass of the great original beaver, or father of the beavers. They believed that the rapids and cataracts on the French River and the Upper Ottawa were caused by dams made by their amphibious ancestor. (See the tradition in Perrot, Mémoire sur les Mœurs, Coustumes et Relligion des Sauvages de l'Amérique Septentrionale, p. 20.) Charlevoix tells the same story. Each Indian was supposed to inherit something of the nature of the animal whence he sprung.]

An Indian hunter was always anxious to propitiate the animals he sought to kill. He has often been known to address a wounded bear in a long harangue of apology. [McKinney, Tour to the Lakes, 284, mentions the discomposure of a party of Indians when shown a stuffed moose. Thinking that its spirit would be offended at the indignity shown to its remains, they surrounded it, making apologetic speeches, and blowing tobacco-smoke at it as a propitiatory offering.] The bones of the beaver were treated with especial tenderness, and carefully kept from the dogs, lest the spirit of the dead beaver, or his surviving brethren, should take offence. [This superstition was very prevalent, and numerous examples of it occur in old and recent writers, from Father Le Jeune to Captain Carver.] This solicitude was not confined to animals, but extended to inanimate things. A remarkable example occurred among the Hurons, a people comparatively advanced, who, to propitiate their fishing-nets, and persuade them to do their office with effect, married them every year to two young girls of the tribe, with a ceremony more formal than that observed in the case of mere human wedlock.1 The fish, too, no less than the nets, must be propitiated; and to this end they were addressed every evening from the fishing-camp by one of the party chosen for that function, who exhorted them to take courage and be caught, assuring them that the utmost respect should be shown to their bones. The harangue, which took place after the evening meal, was made in solemn form; and while it lasted, the whole party, except the speaker, were required to lie on their backs, silent and motionless, around the fire.2

Besides ascribing life and intelligence to the material world, animate and inanimate, the Indian believes in supernatural existences, known among the Algonquins as "Manitous", and among the Iroquois and Hurons as "Okies" or "Otkons". These words comprehend all forms of supernatural being, from the highest to the lowest, with the exception, possibly, of certain diminutive fairies or hobgoblins, and certain giants and anomalous monsters, which appear under various forms, grotesque and horrible, in the Indian fireside legends. [Many tribes have tales of diminutive beings, which, in the absence of a better word, may be called fairies. In the Travels of Lewis and Clarke, there is mention of a hill on the Missouri, supposed to be haunted by them. These Western fairies correspond to the "Puck Wudj Ininee" of Ojibwa tradition. As an example of the monsters alluded to, see the Saginaw story of the Weendigoes, in Schoolcraft, Algic Researches, II. 105.] There are local manitous of streams, rocks, mountains, cataracts, and forests. The conception of these beings betrays, for the most part, a striking poverty of imagination. In nearly every case, when they reveal themselves to mortal sight, they bear the semblance of beasts, reptiles, or birds, in shapes unusual or distorted. [The figure of a large bird is perhaps the most common,--as, for example, the good spirit of Rock Island: "He was white, with wings like a swan, but ten times larger."--Autobiography of Blackhawk, 70.] There are other manitous without local habitation, some good, some evil, countless in number and indefinite in attributes. They fill the world, and control the destinies of men,--that is to say, of Indians: for the primitive Indian holds that the white man lives under a spiritual rule distinct from that which governs his own fate. These beings, also, appear for the most part in the shape of animals. Sometimes, however, they assume human proportions; but more frequently they take the form of stones, which, being broken, are found full of living blood and flesh.

Each primitive Indian has his guardian manitou, to whom he looks for counsel, guidance, and protection. These spiritual allies are gained by the following process. At the age of fourteen or fifteen, the Indian boy blackens his face, retires to some solitary place, and remains for days without food. Superstitious expectancy and the exhaustion of abstinence rarely fail of their results. His sleep is haunted by visions, and the form which first or most often appears is that of his guardian manitou,--a beast, a bird, a fish, a serpent, or some other object, animate or inanimate. An eagle or a bear is the vision of a destined warrior; a wolf, of a successful hunter; while a serpent foreshadows the future medicine-man, or, according to others, portends disaster.3 The young Indian thenceforth wears about his person the object revealed in his dream, or some portion of it,--as a bone, a feather, a snake-skin, or a tuft of hair. This, in the modern language of the forest and prairie, is known as his "medicine." The Indian yields to it a sort of worship, propitiates it with offerings of tobacco, thanks it in prosperity, and upbraids it in disaster.4 If his medicine fails to bring the desired success, he will sometimes discard it and adopt another. The superstition now becomes mere fetich-worship, since the Indian regards the mysterious object which he carries about him rather as an embodiment than as a representative of a supernatural power.

Indian belief recognizes also another and very different class of beings. Besides the giants and monsters of legendary lore, other conceptions may be discerned, more or less distinct, and of a character partly mythical. Of these the most conspicuous is that remarkable personage of Algonquin tradition, called Manabozho, Messou, Michabou, Nanabush, or the Great Hare. As each species of animal has its archetype or king, so, among the Algonquins, Manabozho is king of all these animal kings. Tradition is diverse as to his origin. According to the most current belief, his father was the West-Wind, and his mother a great-granddaughter of the Moon. His character is worthy of such a parentage. Sometimes he is a wolf, a bird, or a gigantic hare, surrounded by a court of quadrupeds; sometimes he appears in human shape, majestic in stature and wondrous in endowment, a mighty magician, a destroyer of serpents and evil manitous; sometimes he is a vain and treacherous imp, full of childish whims and petty trickery, the butt and victim of men, beasts, and spirits. His powers of transformation are without limit; his curiosity and malice are insatiable; and of the numberless legends of which he is the hero, the greater part are as trivial as they are incoherent.5 It does not appear that Manabozho was ever an object of worship; yet, despite his absurdity, tradition declares him to be chief among the manitous, in short, the "Great Spirit." ["Presque toutes les Nations Algonquines ont donné le nom de Grand Lièvre au Premier Esprit, quelques-uns l'appellent Michabou (Manabozho)."--Charlevoix, Journal Historique, 344.] It was he who restored the world, submerged by a deluge. He was hunting in company with a certain wolf, who was his brother, or, by other accounts, his grandson, when his quadruped relative fell through the ice of a frozen lake, and was at once devoured by certain serpents lurking in the depths of the waters. Manabozho, intent on revenge, transformed himself into the stump of a tree, and by this artifice surprised and slew the king of the serpents, as he basked with his followers in the noontide sun. The serpents, who were all manitous, caused, in their rage, the waters of the lake to deluge the earth. Manabozho climbed a tree, which, in answer to his entreaties, grew as the flood rose around it, and thus saved him from the vengeance of the evil spirits. Submerged to the neck, he looked abroad on the waste of waters, and at length descried the bird known as the loon, to whom he appealed for aid in the task of restoring the world. The loon dived in search of a little mud, as material for reconstruction, but could not reach the bottom. A musk-rat made the same attempt, but soon reappeared floating on his back, and apparently dead. Manabozho, however, on searching his paws, discovered in one of them a particle of the desired mud, and of this, together with the body of the loon, created the world anew.6

There are various forms of this tradition, in some of which Manabozho appears, not as the restorer, but as the creator of the world, forming mankind from the carcasses of beasts, birds, and fishes.7 Other stories represent him as marrying a female musk-rat, by whom he became the progenitor of the human race.8

Searching for some higher conception of supernatural existence, we find, among a portion of the primitive Algonquins, traces of a vague belief in a spirit dimly shadowed forth under the name of Atahocan, to whom it does not appear that any attributes were ascribed or any worship offered, and of whom the Indians professed to know nothing whatever;9 but there is no evidence that this belief extended beyond certain tribes of the Lower St. Lawrence. Others saw a supreme manitou in the Sun.10 The Algonquins believed also in a malignant manitou, in whom the early missionaries failed not to recognize the Devil, but who was far less dreaded than his wife. She wore a robe made of the hair of her victims, for she was the cause of death; and she it was whom, by yelling, drumming, and stamping, they sought to drive away from the sick. Sometimes, at night, she was seen by some terrified squaw in the forest, in shape like a flame of fire; and when the vision was announced to the circle crouched around the lodge-fire, they burned a fragment of meat to appease the female fiend.

The East, the West, the North, and the South were vaguely personified as spirits or manitous. Some of the winds, too, were personal existences. The West-Wind, as we have seen, was father of Manabozho. There was a Summer-Maker and a Winter-Maker; and the Indians tried to keep the latter at bay by throwing firebrands into the air.

When we turn from the Algonquin family of tribes to that of the Iroquois, we find another cosmogony, and other conceptions of spiritual existence. While the earth was as yet a waste of waters, there was, according to Iroquois and Huron traditions, a heaven with lakes, streams, plains, and forests, inhabited by animals, by spirits, and, as some affirm, by human beings. Here a certain female spirit, named Ataentsic, was once chasing a bear, which, slipping through a hole, fell down to the earth. Ataentsic's dog followed, when she herself, struck with despair, jumped after them. Others declare that she was kicked out of heaven by the spirit, her husband, for an amour with a man; while others, again, hold the belief that she fell in the attempt to gather for her husband the medicinal leaves of a certain tree. Be this as it may, the animals swimming in the watery waste below saw her falling, and hastily met in council to determine what should be done. The case was referred to the beaver. The beaver commended it to the judgment of the tortoise, who thereupon called on the other animals to dive, bring up mud, and place it on his back. Thus was formed a floating island, on which Ataentsic fell; and here, being pregnant, she was soon delivered of a daughter, who in turn bore two boys, whose paternity is unexplained. They were called Taouscaron and Jouskeha, and presently fell to blows, Jouskeha killing his brother with the horn of a stag. The back of the tortoise grew into a world full of verdure and life; and Jouskeha, with his grandmother, Ataentsic, ruled over its destinies.

[The above is the version of the story given by Brébeuf, Relation des Hurons, 1636, 86 (Cramoisy). No two Indians told it precisely alike, though nearly all the Hurons and Iroquois agreed as to its essential points. Compare Vanderdonck, Cusick, Sagard, and other writers. According to Vanderdonck, Ataentsic became mother of a deer, a bear, and a wolf, by whom she afterwards bore all the other animals, mankind included. Brébeuf found also among the Hurons a tradition inconsistent with that of Ataentsic, and bearing a trace of Algonquin origin. It declares, that, in the beginning, a man, a fox, and a skunk found themselves together on an island, and that the man made the world out of mud brought him by the skunk.

The Delawares, an Algonquin tribe, seem to have borrowed somewhat of the Iroquois cosmogony, since they believed that the earth was formed on the back of a tortoise.

According to some, Jouskeha became the father of the human race; but, in the third generation, a deluge destroyed his posterity, so that it was necessary to transform animals into men.--Charlevoix, III. 345.]

He is the Sun; she is the Moon. He is beneficent; but she is malignant, like the female demon of the Algonquins. They have a bark house, made like those of the Iroquois, at the end of the earth, and they often come to feasts and dances in the Indian villages. Jouskeha raises corn for himself, and makes plentiful harvests for mankind. Sometimes he is seen, thin as a skeleton, with a spike of shriveled corn in his hand, or greedily gnawing a human limb; and then the Indians know that a grievous famine awaits them. He constantly interposes between mankind and the malice of his wicked grandmother, whom, at times, he soundly cudgels. It was he who made lakes and streams: for once the earth was parched and barren, all the water being gathered under the armpit of a colossal frog; but Jouskeha pierced the armpit, and let out the water. No prayers were offered to him, his benevolent nature rendering them superfluous.

[Compare Brébeuf, as before cited, and Sagard, Voyage des Hurons, p. 228.]

The early writers call Jouskeha the creator of the world, and speak of him as corresponding to the vague Algonquin deity, Atahocan. Another deity appears in Iroquois mythology, with equal claims to be regarded as supreme. He is called Areskoui, or Agreskoui, and his most prominent attributes are those of a god of war. He was often invoked, and the flesh of animals and of captive enemies was burned in his honor.

[Father Jogues saw a female prisoner burned to Areskoui, and two bears offered to him to atone for the sin of not burning more captives.--Lettre de Jogues, 6 Aug., 1643.] Like Jouskeha, he was identified with the sun; and he is perhaps to be regarded as the same being, under different attributes. Among the Iroquois proper, or Five Nations, there was also a divinity called Tarenyowagon, or Teharonhiawagon,11 whose place and character it is very difficult to determine. In some traditions he appears as the son of Jouskeha. He had a prodigious influence; for it was he who spoke to men in dreams. The Five Nations recognized still another superhuman personage,--plainly a deified chief or hero. This was Taounyawatha, or Hiawatha, said to be a divinely appointed messenger, who made his abode on earth for the political and social instruction of the chosen race, and whose counterpart is to be found in the traditions of the Peruvians, Mexicans, and other primitive nations.12

Close examination makes it evident that the primitive Indian's idea of a Supreme Being was a conception no higher than might have been expected. The moment he began to contemplate this object of his faith, and sought to clothe it with attributes, it became finite, and commonly ridiculous. The Creator of the World stood on the level of a barbarous and degraded humanity, while a natural tendency became apparent to look beyond him to other powers sharing his dominion. The Indian belief, if developed, would have developed into a system of polytheism.

[Some of the early writers could discover no trace of belief in a supreme spirit of any kind. Perrot, after a life spent among the Indians, ignores such an idea. Allouez emphatically denies that it existed among the tribes of Lake Superior. (Relation, 1667, 11.) He adds, however, that the Sacs and Foxes believed in a great _génie_, who lived not far from the French settlements.--Ibid., 21.]

In the primitive Indian's conception of a God the idea of moral good has no part. His deity does not dispense justice for this world or the next, but leaves mankind under the power of subordinate spirits, who fill and control the universe. Nor is the good and evil of these inferior beings a moral good and evil. The good spirit is the spirit that gives good luck, and ministers to the necessities and desires of mankind: the evil spirit is simply a malicious agent of disease, death, and mischance.

In no Indian language could the early missionaries find a word to express the idea of God. Manitou and Oki meant anything endowed with supernatural powers, from a snake-skin, or a greasy Indian conjurer, up to Manabozho and Jouskeha. The priests were forced to use a circumlocution,--"The Great Chief of Men," or "He who lives in the Sky."

[See "Divers Sentimens," appended to the Relation of 1635, § 27; and also many other passages of early missionaries.] Yet it should seem that the idea of a supreme controlling spirit might naturally arise from the peculiar character of Indian belief. The idea that each race of animals has its archetype or chief would easily suggest the existence of a supreme chief of the spirits or of the human race,--a conception imperfectly shadowed forth in Manabozho. The Jesuit missionaries seized this advantage. "If each sort of animal has its king," they urged, "so, too, have men; and as man is above all the animals, so is the spirit that rules over men the master of all the other spirits." The Indian mind readily accepted the idea, and tribes in no sense Christian quickly rose to the belief in one controlling spirit. The Great Spirit became a distinct existence, a pervading power in the universe, and a dispenser of justice. Many tribes now pray to him, though still clinging obstinately to their ancient superstitions; and with some, as the heathen portion of the modern Iroquois, he is clothed with attributes of moral good.

[In studying the writers of the last and of the present century, it is to be remembered that their observations were made upon savages who had been for generations in contact, immediate or otherwise, with the doctrines of Christianity. Many observers have interpreted the religious ideas of the Indians after preconceived ideas of their own; and it may safely be affirmed that an Indian will respond with a grunt of acquiescence to any question whatever touching his spiritual state. Loskiel and the simple-minded Heckewelder write from a missionary point of view; Adair, to support a theory of descent from the Jews; the worthy theologian, Jarvis, to maintain his dogma, that all religious ideas of the heathen world are perversions of revelation; and so, in a greater or less degree, of many others. By far the most close and accurate observers of Indian superstition were the French and Italian Jesuits of the first half of the seventeenth century. Their opportunities were unrivalled; and they used them in a spirit of faithful inquiry, accumulating facts, and leaving theory to their successors. Of recent American writers, no one has given so much attention to the subject as Mr. Schoolcraft; but, in view of his opportunities and his zeal, his results are most unsatisfactory. The work in six large quarto volumes, History, Condition, and Prospects of Indian Tribes, published by Government under his editorship, includes the substance of most of his previous writings. It is a singularly crude and illiterate production, stuffed with blunders and contradictions, giving evidence on every page of a striking unfitness either for historical or philosophical inquiry, and taxing to the utmost the patience of those who would extract what is valuable in it from its oceans of pedantic verbiage.]

The primitive Indian believed in the immortality of the soul,13 but he did not always believe in a state of future reward and punishment. Nor, when such a belief existed, was the good to be rewarded a moral good, or the evil to be punished a moral evil. Skilful hunters, brave warriors, men of influence and consideration, went, after death, to the happy hunting-ground; while the slothful, the cowardly, and the weak were doomed to eat serpents and ashes in dreary regions of mist and darkness. In the general belief, however, there was but one land of shades for all alike. The spirits, in form and feature as they had been in life, wended their way through dark forests to the villages of the dead, subsisting on bark and rotten wood. On arriving, they sat all day in the crouching posture of the sick, and, when night came, hunted the shades of animals, with the shades of bows and arrows, among the shades of trees and rocks: for all things, animate and inanimate, were alike immortal, and all passed together to the gloomy country of the dead.

The belief respecting the land of souls varied greatly in different tribes and different individuals. Among the Huron there were those who held that departed spirits pursued their journey through the sky, along the Milky Way, while the souls of dogs took another route, by certain constellations, known as the "Way of the Dogs." [Sagard, Voyage des Huron, 233.]

At intervals of ten or twelve years, the Huron, the Neutrals, and other kindred tribes, were accustomed to collect the bones of their dead, and deposit them, with great ceremony, in a common place of burial. The whole nation was sometimes assembled at this solemnity; and hundreds of corpses, brought from their temporary resting-places, were inhumed in one capacious pit. From this hour the immortality of their souls began. They took wing, as some affirmed, in the shape of pigeons; while the greater number declared that they journeyed on foot, and in their own likeness, to the land of shades, bearing with them the ghosts of the wampum-belts, beaver-skins, bows, arrows, pipes, kettles, beads, and rings buried with them in the common grave. [The practice of burying treasures with the dead is not peculiar to the North American aborigines. Thus, the London Times of Oct. 25, 1885, describing the funeral rites of Lord Palmerston, says: "And as the words, 'Dust to dust, ashes to ashes,' were pronounced, the chief mourner, as a last precious offering to the dead, threw into the grave several diamond and gold rings."] But as the spirits of the old and of children are too feeble for the march, they are forced to stay behind, lingering near their earthly villages, where the living often hear the shutting of their invisible cabin-doors, and the weak voices of the disembodied children driving birds from their corn-fields. [Brébeuf, Relation des Huron, 1636, 99 (Cramoisy).] An endless variety of incoherent fancies is connected with the Indian idea of a future life. They commonly owe their origin to dreams, often to the dreams of those in extreme sickness, who, on awaking, supposed that they had visited the other world, and related to the wondering bystanders what they had seen.

The Indian land of souls is not always a region of shadows and gloom. The Huron sometimes represented the souls of their dead--those of their dogs included--as dancing joyously in the presence of Ataentsic and Jouskeha. According to some Algonquin traditions, heaven was a scene of endless festivity, the ghosts dancing to the sound of the rattle and the drum, and greeting with hospitable welcome the occasional visitor from the living world: for the spirit-land was not far off, and roving hunters sometimes passed its confines unawares.

Most of the traditions agree, however, that the spirits, on their journey heavenward, were beset with difficulties and perils. There was a swift river which must be crossed on a log that shook beneath their feet, while a ferocious dog opposed their passage, and drove many into the abyss. This river was full of sturgeon and other fish, which the ghosts speared for their subsistence. Beyond was a narrow path between moving rocks, which each instant crashed together, grinding to atoms the less nimble of the pilgrims who essayed to pass. The Huron believed that a personage named Oscotarach, or the Head-Piercer, dwelt in a bark house beside the path, and that it was his office to remove the brains from the heads of all who went by, as a necessary preparation for immortality. This singular idea is found also in some Algonquin traditions, according to which, however, the brain is afterwards restored to its owner.

[On Indian ideas of another life, compare Sagard, the Jesuit Relations, Perrot, Charlevoix, and Lafitau, with Tanner, James, Schoolcraft, and the Appendix to Morse's Indian Report.

Le Clerc recounts a singular story, current in his time among the Algonquins of Gaspé and Northern New Brunswick. The favorite son of an old Indian died; whereupon the father, with a party of friends, set out for the land of souls to recover him. It was only necessary to wade through a shallow lake, several days' journey in extent. This they did, sleeping at night on platforms of poles which supported them above the water. At length they arrived, and were met by Papkootparout, the Indian Pluto, who rushed on them in a rage, with his war-club upraised; but, presently relenting, changed his mind, and challenged them to a game of ball. They proved the victors, and won the stakes, consisting of corn, tobacco, and certain fruits, which thus became known to mankind. The bereaved father now begged hard for his son's soul, and Papkootparout at last gave it to him, in the form and size of a nut, which, by pressing it hard between his hands, he forced into a small leather bag. The delighted parent carried it back to earth, with instructions to insert it in the body of his son, who would thereupon return to life. When the adventurers reached home, and reported the happy issue of their journey, there was a dance of rejoicing; and the father, wishing to take part in it, gave his son's soul to the keeping of a squaw who stood by. Being curious to see it, she opened the bag; on which it escaped at once, and took flight for the realms of Papkootparout, preferring them to the abodes of the living.--Le Clerc, Nouvelle Relation de la Gaspésie, 310-328.]

Dreams were to the Indian a universal oracle. They revealed to him his guardian spirit, taught him the cure of his diseases, warned him of the devices of sorcerers, guided him to the lurking-places of his enemy or the haunts of game, and unfolded the secrets of good and evil destiny. The dream was a mysterious and inexorable power, whose least behests must be obeyed to the letter,--a source, in every Indian town, of endless mischief and abomination. There were professed dreamers, and professed interpreters of dreams. One of the most noted festivals among the Hurons and Iroquois was the Dream Feast, a scene of frenzy, where the actors counterfeited madness, and the town was like a bedlam turned loose. Each pretended to have dreamed of something necessary to his welfare, and rushed from house to house, demanding of all he met to guess his secret requirement and satisfy it.

Believing that the whole material world was instinct with powers to influence and control his fate, that good and evil spirits, and existences nameless and indefinable, filled all Nature, that a pervading sorcery was above, below, and around him, and that issues of life and death might be controlled by instruments the most unnoticeable and seemingly the most feeble, the Indian lived in perpetual fear. The turning of a leaf, the crawling of an insect, the cry of a bird, the creaking of a bough, might be to him the mystic signal of weal or woe.

An Indian community swarmed with sorcerers, medicine-men, and diviners, whose functions were often united in the same person. The sorcerer, by charms, magic songs, magic feasts, and the beating of his drum, had power over the spirits and those occult influences inherent in animals and inanimate things. He could call to him the souls of his enemies. They appeared before him in the form of stones. He chopped and bruised them with his hatchet; blood and flesh issued forth; and the intended victim, however distant, languished and died. Like the sorcerer of the Middle Ages, he made images of those he wished to destroy, and, muttering incantations, punctured them with an awl, whereupon the persons represented sickened and pined away.

The Indian doctor relied far more on magic than on natural remedies. Dreams, beating of the drum, songs, magic feasts and dances, and howling to frighten the female demon from his patient, were his ordinary methods of cure.

The prophet, or diviner, had various means of reading the secrets of futurity, such as the flight of birds, and the movements of water and fire. There was a peculiar practice of divination very general in the Algonquin family of tribes, among some of whom it still subsists. A small, conical lodge was made by planting poles in a circle, lashing the tops together at the height of about seven feet from the ground, and closely covering them with hides. The prophet crawled in, and closed the aperture after him. He then beat his drum and sang his magic songs to summon the spirits, whose weak, shrill voices were soon heard, mingled with his lugubrious chanting, while at intervals the juggler paused to interpret their communications to the attentive crowd seated on the ground without. During the whole scene, the lodge swayed to and fro with a violence which has astonished many a civilized beholder, and which some of the Jesuits explain by the ready solution of a genuine diabolic intervention.

[This practice was first observed by Champlain. (See "Pioneers of France in the New World." ) From his time to the present, numerous writers have remarked upon it. Le Jeune, in the Relation of 1637, treats it at some length. The lodge was sometimes of a cylindrical, instead of a conical form.]

The sorcerers, medicine-men, and diviners did not usually exercise the function of priests. Each man sacrificed for himself to the powers he wished to propitiate, whether his guardian spirit, the spirits of animals, or the other beings of his belief. The most common offering was tobacco, thrown into the fire or water; scraps of meat were sometimes burned to the manitous; and, on a few rare occasions of public solemnity, a white dog, the mystic animal of many tribes, was tied to the end of an upright pole, as a sacrifice to some superior spirit, or to the sun, with which the superior spirits were constantly confounded by the primitive Indian. In recent times, when Judaism and Christianity have modified his religious ideas, it has been, and still is, the practice to sacrifice dogs to the Great Spirit. On these public occasions, the sacrificial function is discharged by chiefs, or by warriors appointed for the purpose.

[Many of the Indian feasts were feasts of sacrifice,--sometimes to the guardian spirit of the host, sometimes to an animal of which he has dreamed, sometimes to a local or other spirit. The food was first offered in a loud voice to the being to be propitiated, after which the guests proceeded to devour it for him. This unique method of sacrifice was practiced at war-feasts and similar solemnities. For an excellent account of Indian religious feasts, see Perrot, Chap. V.

One of the most remarkable of Indian sacrifices was that practised by the Huron in the case of a person drowned or frozen to death. The flesh of the deceased was cut off; and thrown into a fire made for the purpose, as an offering of propitiation to the spirits of the air or water. What remained of the body was then buried near the fire.--Brébeuf, Relation des Huron, 1636, 108.

The tribes of Virginia, as described by Beverly and others, not only had priests who offered sacrifice, but idols and houses of worship.]

Among the Huron and Iroquois, and indeed all the stationary tribes, there was an incredible number of mystic ceremonies, extravagant, puerile, and often disgusting, designed for the cure of the sick or for the general weal of the community. Most of their observances seem originally to have been dictated by dreams, and transmitted as a sacred heritage from generation to generation. They consisted in an endless variety of dances, masqueradings, and nondescript orgies; and a scrupulous adherence to all the traditional forms was held to be of the last moment, as the slightest failure in this respect might entail serious calamities. If children were seen in their play imitating any of these mysteries, they were grimly rebuked and punished. In many tribes secret magical societies existed, and still exist, into which members are initiated with peculiar ceremonies. These associations are greatly respected and feared. They have charms for love, war, and private revenge, and exert a great, and often a very mischievous influence. The societies of the Metai and the Wabeno, among the Northern Algonquins, are conspicuous examples; while other societies of similar character have, for a century, been known to exist among the Dahcotah.

[The Friendly Society of the Spirit, of which the initiatory ceremonies were seen and described by Carver (Travels, 271), preserves to this day its existence and its rites.]

A notice of the superstitious ideas of the Indians would be imperfect without a reference to the traditionary tales through which these ideas are handed down from father to son. Some of these tales can be traced back to the period of the earliest intercourse with Europeans. One at least of those recorded by the first missionaries, on the Lower St. Lawrence, is still current among the tribes of the Upper Lakes. Many of them are curious combinations of beliefs seriously entertained with strokes intended for humor and drollery, which never fail to awaken peals of laughter in the lodge-circle. Giants, dwarfs, cannibals, spirits, beasts, birds, and anomalous monsters, transformations, tricks, and sorcery, form the staple of the story. Some of the Iroquois tales embody conceptions which, however preposterous, are of a bold and striking character; but those of the Algonquins are, to an incredible degree, flimsy, silly, and meaningless; nor are those of the Dahcotah tribes much better. In respect to this wigwam lore, there is a curious superstition of very wide prevalence. The tales must not be told in summer; since at that season, when all Nature is full of life, the spirits are awake, and, hearing what is said of them, may take offence; whereas in winter they are fast sealed up in snow and ice, and no longer capable of listening.

[The prevalence of this fancy among the Algonquins in the remote parts of Canada is well established. The writer found it also among the extreme western bands of the Dahcotah. He tried, in the month of July, to persuade an old chief, a noted story-teller, to tell him some of the tales; but, though abundantly loquacious in respect to his own adventures, and even his dreams, the Indian obstinately refused, saying that winter was the time for the tales, and that it was bad to tell them in summer.

Mr. Schoolcraft has published a collection of Algonquin tales, under the title of Algic Researches. Most of them were translated by his wife, an educated Ojibwa half-breed. This book is perhaps the best of Mr. Schoolcraft's works, though its value is much impaired by the want of a literal rendering, and the introduction of decorations which savor more of a popular monthly magazine than of an Indian wigwam. Mrs. Eastman's interesting Legends of the Sioux (Dahcotah) is not free from the same defect. Other tales are scattered throughout the works of Mr. Schoolcraft and various modern writers. Some are to be found in the works of Lafitau and the other Jesuits. But few of the Iroquois legends have been printed, though a considerable number have been written down. The singular History of the Five Nations, by the old Tuscarora Indian, Cusick, gives the substance of some of them. Others will be found in Clark's History of Onondaga.]

It is obvious that the Indian mind has never seriously occupied itself with any of the higher themes of thought. The beings of its belief are not impersonations of the forces of Nature, the courses of human destiny, or the movements of human intellect, will, and passion. In the midst of Nature; the Indian knew nothing of her laws. His perpetual reference of her phenomena to occult agencies forestalled inquiry and precluded inductive reasoning. If the wind blew with violence, it was because the water-lizard, which makes the wind, had crawled out of his pool; if the lightning was sharp and frequent, it was because the young of the thunder-bird were restless in their nest; if a blight fell upon the corn, it was because the Corn Spirit was angry; and if the beavers were shy and difficult to catch, it was because they had taken offence at seeing the bones of one of their race thrown to a dog. Well, and even highly developed, in a few instances,--I allude especially to the Iroquois,--with respect to certain points of material concernment, the mind of the Indian in other respects was and is almost hopelessly stagnant. The very traits that raise him above the servile races are hostile to the kind and degree of civilization which those races so easily attain. His intractable spirit of independence, and the pride which forbids him to be an imitator, reinforce but too strongly that savage lethargy of mind from which it is so hard to rouse him. No race, perhaps, ever offered greater difficulties to those laboring for its improvement.

To sum up the results of this examination, the primitive Indian was as savage in his religion as in his life. He was divided between fetich-worship and that next degree of religious development which consists in the worship of deities embodied in the human form. His conception of their attributes was such as might have been expected. His gods were no whit better than himself. Even when he borrows from Christianity the idea of a Supreme and Universal Spirit, his tendency is to reduce Him to a local habitation and a bodily shape; and this tendency disappears only in tribes that have been long in contact with civilized white men. The primitive Indian, yielding his untutored homage to One All-pervading and Omnipotent Spirit, is a dream of poets, rhetoricians, and sentimentalists.


1 There are frequent allusions to this ceremony in the early writers. The Algonquins of the Ottawa practised it, as well as the Huron. Lalemant, in his chapter "Du Regne de Satan en ces Contrées" (Relation des Hurons, 1639), says that it took place yearly, in the middle of March. As it was indispensable that the brides should be virgins, mere children were chosen. The net was held between them; and its spirit, or oki, was harangued by one of the chiefs, who exhorted him to do his part in furnishing the tribe with food. Lalemant was told that the spirit of the net had once appeared in human form to the Algonquins, complaining that he had lost his wife, and warning them, that, unless they could find him another equally immaculate, they would catch no more fish.

2 Sagard, Le Grand Voyage du Pays des Huron, 257. Other old writers make a similar statement.

3 Compare Cass, in North-American Review, Second Series, XIII. 100. A turkey-buzzard, according to him, is the vision of a medicine-man. I once knew an old Dahcotah chief, who was greatly respected, but had never been to war, though belonging to a family of peculiarly warlike propensities. The reason was, that, in his initiatory fast, he had dreamed of an antelope,--the peace-spirit of his people.

Women fast, as well as men,--always at the time of transition from childhood to maturity. In the Narrative of John Tanner, there is an account of an old woman who had fasted, in her youth, for ten days, and throughout her life placed the firmest faith in the visions which had appeared to her at that time. Among the Northern Algonquins, the practice, down to a recent day, was almost universal.

4 The author has seen a Dahcotah warrior open his medicine-bag, talk with an air of affectionate respect to the bone, feather, or horn within, and blow tobacco-smoke upon it as an offering. "Medicines" are acquired not only by fasting, but by casual dreams, and otherwise. They are sometimes even bought and sold. For a curious account of medicine-bags and fetich-worship among the Algonquins of Gaspé, see Le Clerc, Nouvelle Relation de la Gaspésie, Chap. XIII.

5 Mr. Schoolcraft has collected many of these tales. See his Algic Researches, Vol. I. Compare the stories of Messou, given by Le Jeune (Relations, 1633, 1634), and the account of Nanabush, by Edwin James, in his notes to Tanner's Narrative of Captivity and Adventures during a Thirty-Years' Residence among the Indians; also the account of the Great Hare, in the Mémoire of Nicolas Perrot, Chaps. I., II.

6 This is a form of the story still current among the remoter Algonquins. Compare the story of Messou, in Le Jeune, Relation, 1633, 16. It is substantially the same.

7 In the beginning of all things, Manabozho, in the form of the Great Hare, was on a raft, surrounded by animals who acknowledged him as their chief. No land could be seen. Anxious to create the world, the Great Hare persuaded the beaver to dive for mud but the adventurous diver floated to the surface senseless. The otter next tried, and failed like his predecessor. The musk-rat now offered himself for the desperate task. He plunged, and, after remaining a day and night beneath the surface, reappeared, floating on his back beside the raft, apparently dead, and with all his paws fast closed. On opening them, the other animals found in one of them a grain of sand, and of this the Great Hare created the world.--Perrot, Mémoire, Chap. I.

8 Le Jeune, Relation, 1633, 16.--The musk-rat is always a conspicuous figure in Algonquin cosmogony.

It is said that Messou, or Manabozho, once gave to an Indian the gift of immortality, tied in a bundle, enjoining him never to open it. The Indian's wife, however, impelled by curiosity, one day cut the string, the precious gift flew out, and Indians have ever since been subject to death. Le Jeune, Relation, 1634, 13.

91 Le Jeune, Relation, 1633, 16; Relation, 1634, 13.

10 Biard, Relation, 1611, Chap. VIII.--This belief was very prevalent. The Ottawa, according to Ragueneau (Relation des Huron, 1648, 77), were accustomed to invoke the "Maker of Heaven" at their feasts; but they recognized as distinct persons the Maker of the Earth, the Maker of Winter, the God of the Waters, and the Seven Spirits of the Wind. He says, at the same time, "The people of these countries have received from their ancestors no knowledge of a God"; and he adds, that there is no sentiment of religion in this invocation.

11 Le Mercier, Relation, 1670, 66; Dablon, Relation, 1671, 17. Compare Cusick, Megapolensis, and Vanderdonck. Some writers identify Tarenyowagon and Hiawatha. Vanderdonck assumes that Areskoui is the Devil, and Tarenyowagon is God. Thus Indian notions are often interpreted by the light of preconceived ideas.

12 For the tradition of Hiawatha, see Clark, History of Onondaga, I. 21. It will also be found in Schoolcraft's Notes on the Iroquois, and in his History, Condition, and Prospects of Indian Tribes.

The Iroquois name for God is Hawenniio, sometimes written Owayneo; but this use of the word is wholly due to the missionaries. Hawenniio is an Iroquois verb, and means, "he rules, he is master". There is no Iroquois word which, in its primitive meaning, can be interpreted, the Great Spirit, or God. On this subject, see Études Philologiques sur quelques Langues Sauvages (Montreal, 1866), where will also be found a curious exposure of a few of Schoolcraft's ridiculous blunders in this connection.

13 The exceptions are exceedingly rare. Father Gravier says that a Peoria Indian once told him that there was no future life. It would be difficult to find another instance of the kind.


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The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, 1867

Jesuits in North America

 

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