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Social and Political Organization

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In Indian social organization, a problem at once suggests itself. In these communities, comparatively populous, how could spirits so fierce, and in many respects so ungoverned, live together in peace, without law and without enforced authority? Yet there were towns where savages lived together in thousands with a harmony which civilization might envy. This was in good measure due to peculiarities of Indian character and habits. This intractable race were, in certain external respects, the most pliant and complaisant of mankind. The early missionaries were charmed by the docile acquiescence with which their dogmas were received; but they soon discovered that their facile auditors neither believed nor understood that to which they had so promptly assented. They assented from a kind of courtesy, which, while it vexed the priests, tended greatly to keep the Indians in mutual accord. That well-known self-control, which, originating in a form of pride, covered the savage nature of the man with a veil, opaque, though thin, contributed not a little to the same end. Though vain, arrogant, boastful, and vindictive, the Indian bore abuse and sarcasm with an astonishing patience. Though greedy and grasping, he was lavish without stint, and would give away his all to soothe the manes of a departed relative, gain influence and applause, or ingratiate himself with his neighbors. In his dread of public opinion, he rivaled some of his civilized successors.

All Indians, and especially these populous and stationary tribes, had their code of courtesy, whose requirements were rigid and exact; nor might any infringe it without the ban of public censure. Indian nature, inflexible and unmalleable, was peculiarly under the control of custom. Established usage took the place of law, was, in fact, a sort of common law, with no tribunal to expound or enforce it. In these wild democracies, democracies in spirit, though not in form, a respect for native superiority, and a willingness to yield to it, were always conspicuous. All were prompt to aid each other in distress, and a neighborly spirit was often exhibited among them. When a young woman was permanently married, the other women of the village supplied her with firewood for the year, each contributing an armful. When one or more families were without shelter, the men of the village joined in building them a house. In return, the recipients of the favor gave a feast, if they could; if not, their thanks were sufficient. [The following testimony concerning Indian charity and hospitality is from Ragueneau: "As often as we have seen tribes broken up, towns destroyed, and their people driven to flight, we have seen them, to the number of seven or eight hundred persons, received with open arms by charitable hosts, who gladly gave them aid, and even distributed among them a part of the lands already planted, that they might have the means of living." Relation, 1650, 28.] Among the Iroquois and Huron and doubtless among the kindred tribes there were marked distinctions of noble and base, prosperous and poor; yet, while there was food in the village, the meanest and the poorest need not suffer want. He had but to enter the nearest house, and seat himself by the fire, when, without a word on either side, food was placed before him by the women.

[The Jesuit Brébeuf, than whom no one knew the Huron better, is very emphatic in praise of their harmony and social spirit. Speaking of one of the four nations of which the Huron were composed, he says: "Ils ont vne douceur et vne affabilité quasi incroyable pour des Sauuages; ils ne se picquent pas aisément. . . . Ils se maintiennent dans cette si parfaite intelligence par les frequentes visites, les secours qu'ils se donnent mutuellement dans leurs maladies, par les festins et les alliances. . . . Ils sont moins en leurs Cabanes que chez leurs amis. . . S'ils ont vn bon morceau, ils en font festin à leurs amis, et ne le mangent quasi iamais en leur particulier," etc. Relation des Huron, 1636, 118.]

Contrary to the received opinion, these Indians, like others of their race, when living in communities, were of a very social disposition. Besides their incessant dances and feasts, great and small, they were continually visiting, spending most of their time in their neighbors' houses, chatting, joking, bantering one another with witticisms, sharp, broad, and in no sense delicate, yet always taken in good part. Every village had its adepts in these wordy tournaments, while the shrill laugh of young squaws, untaught to blush, echoed each hardy jest or rough sarcasm.

In the organization of the savage communities of the continent, one feature, more or less conspicuous, continually appears. Each nation or tribe to adopt the names by which these communities are usually known is subdivided into several clans. These clans are not locally separate, but are mingled throughout the nation. All the members of each clan are, or are assumed to be, intimately joined in consanguinity. Hence it is held an abomination for two persons of the same clan to intermarry; and hence, again, it follows that every family must contain members of at least two clans. Each clan has its name, as the clan of the Hawk, of the Wolf, or of the Tortoise; and each has for its emblem the figure of the beast, bird, reptile, plant, or other object, from which its name is derived. This emblem, called totem by the Algonquins, is often tattooed on the clansman's body, or rudely painted over the entrance of his lodge. The child belongs, in most cases, to the clan, not of the father, but of the mother. In other words, descent, not of the totem alone, but of all rank, titles, and possessions, is through the female. The son of a chief can never be a chief by hereditary title, though he may become so by force of personal influence or achievement. Neither can he inherit from his father so much as a tobacco-pipe. All possessions alike pass of right to the brothers of the chief, or to the sons of his sisters, since these are all sprung from a common mother. This rule of descent was noticed by Champlain among the Huron in 1615. That excellent observer refers it to an origin which is doubtless its true one. The child may not be the son of his reputed father, but must be the son of his mother, a consideration of more than ordinary force in an Indian community.

["Les enfans ne succedent iamais aux biens et dignitez de leurs peres, doubtant comme i'ay dit de leur geniteur, mais bien font-ils leurs successeurs et heritiers, les enfans de leurs sœurs, et desquels ils sont asseurez d'estre yssus et sortis." Champlain (1627), 91.

Captain John Smith had observed the same, several years before, among the tribes of Virginia: "For the Crowne, their heyres inherite not, but the first heyres of the Sisters." True Relation, 43 (ed. Deane).]

This system of clanship, with the rule of descent usually belonging to it, was of very wide prevalence. Indeed, it is more than probable that close observation would have detected it in every tribe east of the Mississippi; while there is positive evidence of its existence in by far the greater number. It is found also among the Dahcotah and other tribes west of the Mississippi; and there is reason to believe it universally prevalent as far as the Rocky Mountains, and even beyond them. The fact that with most of these hordes there is little property worth transmission, and that the most influential becomes chief, with little regard to inheritance, has blinded casual observers to the existence of this curious system.

It was found in full development among the Creeks, Choctaws, Cherokees, and other Southern tribes, including that remarkable people, the Natchez, who, judged by their religious and political institutions, seem a detached offshoot of the Toltec family. It is no less conspicuous among the roving Algonquins of the extreme North, where the number of totems is almost countless. Everywhere it formed the foundation of the polity of all the tribes, where a polity could be said to exist.

The Franciscans and Jesuits, close students of the languages and superstitions of the Indians, were by no means so zealous to analyze their organization and government. In the middle of the seventeenth century the Huron as a nation had ceased to exist, and their political portraiture, as handed down to us, is careless and unfinished. Yet some decisive features are plainly shown. The Huron nation was a confederacy of four distinct contiguous nations, afterwards increased to five by the addition of the Tionnontates; it was divided into clans; it was governed by chiefs, whose office was hereditary through the female; the power of these chiefs, though great, was wholly of a persuasive or advisory character; there were two principal chiefs, one for peace, the other for war; there were chiefs assigned to special national functions, as the charge of the great Feast of the Dead, the direction of trading voyages to other nations, etc.; there were numerous other chiefs, equal in rank, but very unequal in influence, since the measure of their influence depended on the measure of their personal ability; each nation of the confederacy had a separate organization, but at certain periods grand councils of the united nations were held, at which were present, not chiefs only, but also a great concourse of the people; and at these and other councils the chiefs and principal men voted on proposed measures by means of small sticks or reeds, the opinion of the plurality ruling.

[These facts are gathered here and there from Champlain, Sagard, Bressani, and the Jesuit Relations prior to 1650. Of the Jesuits, Brébeuf is the most full and satisfactory. Lafitau and Charlevoix knew the Huron institutions only through others.

The names of the four confederate Huron nations were the Ataronchronons, Attignenonghac, Attignaouentans, and Ahrendarrhonons. There was also a subordinate "nation" called Tohotaenrat, which had but one town. (See the map of the Huron Country.) They all bore the name of some animal or other object: thus the Attignaouentans were the Nation of the Bear. As the clans are usually named after animals, this makes confusion, and may easily lead to error. The Bear Nation was the principal member of the league.]

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The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, 1867

Jesuits in North America


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