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Amusements During the Winter Months

Native American Nations | Thirty Years with the Indians

Amusements during the winter months, when the temperature is at the lowest point--Etymology of the word Chippewa--A meteor--The Indian "fire-proof"--Temperature and weather--Chippewa interchangeables--Indian names for the seasons--An incident in conjugating verbs--Visiting--Gossip--The fur trade--Todd, McGillvray, Sir Alexander Mackenzie--Wide dissimilarity of the English and Odjibwa syntax--Close of the year.

1822. December 1st. We have now plunged into the depths of a boreal winter. The blustering of tempests, the whistling of winds, and the careering of snow drifts form the daily topics of remark. We must make shift to be happy, with the most scanty means of amusement. Books and studies must supply the most important item in this--at least, so far as I am concerned.

It is observed by Dr. Johnson "that nothing can supply the want of prudence, and that negligence and irregularity, long continued, will render knowledge useless, wit ridiculous, and genius contemptible." This sententious apothegm is thrown out in contemplating the life of Savage, one of the English poets who united some of the highest requisites of genius with the lowest personal habits. But how much instruction does it convey to all! It does not fall to the lot of all to have wit or genius, or to be eminent in knowledge. None, however, who are not absolute idiots are without some share of the one or the other. And in proportion as these gifts are possessed, how fruitless, and comparatively useless do they become, if not governed by prudence, assiduity, and regularity!

3d. The Indian tribes in this vicinity call themselves Ojibwaeg. This expression is in the plural number. It is rendered singular by taking off the g. The letter a, in this word, is pronounced like a in hate, or ey in obey. Chippewa--often written with a useless terminal y--is the Anglicized pronunciation. The meaning of this seems obscure. The final syllable wae, in compound words, stands for voice. In the ancient Massachusetts language, as preserved by Eliot, in his translation of the Bible, as in Isaiah xi. 14, Chepwoieu means the east.

What a curious subject for speculation the Indian language presents! Since I began to dip into this topic, I have found myself irresistibly carried forward in the inquiry, and been led to resume it, whenever the calls of business or society have been intermitted. I have generally felt, however, while pursuing it, like a mechanist who is required to execute a delicate and difficult work without suitable implements. Technical words may be considered as the working tools of inquiry, and there seems to be a paucity of terms, in our common systems, to describe such a many-syllabled, aggregated language as the Indian. I have been sometimes half inclined to put my manuscripts in the fire, and to exclaim with Dryden, respecting some metaphysical subject--

            "I cannot bolt this matter to the bran."

It is not, however, the habitual temper of my mind to give up. "The spider," it is said, "taketh hold with her hands, and is in king's palaces;" and should a man have less perseverance than a spider?

4th. A meteor, or fire-ball, passed through the village at twilight this evening. The weather, which has been intensely cold for the last three days, indicates a change this evening. Meteoric phenomena of a luminous character were universally referred to electricity, after Franklin's day. Chemistry has since put forth reasons why several of these phenomena should be attributed to phosphorus or hydrogen liberated by decomposition.

5th. The Chippewa jugglers, or Jassakeeds, as they are called, have an art of rendering their flesh insensible, probably for a short time, to the effects of a blaze of fire. Robert Dickson told me that he had seen several of them strip themselves of their garments, and jump into a bonfire. Voltaire says, in his Essay on History, that rubbing the hand for a long time with spirit of vitriol and alum, with the juice of an onion, is stated to render it capable of enduring hot water without injury.

7th. Acting as librarian for the garrison during the season, I am privileged to fill up many of the leisure hours of my mornings and evenings by reading. The difficulty appears to be, to read with such reference to system as to render it profitable. History, novels, voyages and travels, and various specific treatises of fancy or fact, invite perusal, and like a common acquaintance, it requires some moral effort to negative their claims. "Judgment," says a celebrated critic, "is forced upon us by experience. He that reads many books must compare one opinion, or one style with another, and when he compares must necessarily distinguish, reject, prefer."

Sunday 8th. Quintilian says, "We palliate our sloth by the specious pretext of difficulty." Nothing, in fact, is too difficult to accomplish, which we set about, with a proper consideration of those difficulties, and pursue with perseverance. The Indian language cannot be acquired so easily as the Greek or Hebrew, but it can be mastered by perseverance. Our Indian policy cannot be understood without looking at the Indian history. The taking of Fort Niagara was the first decisive blow at French power. Less than three months afterwards, that is, on the 18th of October of that year, General Wolf took Quebec. Goldsmith wrote some stanzas on this event, eulogizing the heroism of the exploit. England's consolation for the loss of Wolf is found in his heroic example, which the poet refers to in his closing line,

            "Since from thy tomb a thousand heroes rise."

11th. Names are the pegs of history. Velasco, it is said, on visiting the gulf which receives the St. Lawrence, and finding the country cold and inhospitable, cried out aca nada--"there is nothing here." This is said to be the origin of the word Canada. Nothing could be more improbable: Did the Indians of Canada hear him, and, if so, did they understand or respect the language of a foreigner hovering on their coast? We must look to the Iroquois for the origin of this word. Jacques Cartier, in 1534, evidently mistook the Indian word Canada, signifying a town, for the whole country. The Indians have no geographical terms for districts. They name a hill, a river, or a fall, but do not deal in generics. Some a priori reasoning seems constrained, where the facts are granted, as this: All animals at Nova Zembla, it is said, are carnivorous, because there is no grass.

12th. Snow covers everything. We are shut out from the civilized world, and thrown entirely on our own resources. I doubt, if we were in Siberia, or Kamschatka, if we could be so completely isolated.

13th. Ellis, in one of his northern voyages, asserts the opinion that the northern lights kindle and disperse the vapors requisite to the formation of lightning. Hence there is no thunder in high northern latitudes. We admit the fact, but doubt the reasoning. Vapor is but water in a gaseous state. It is a fine medium for the exhibition of electricity, and we cannot say that electricity exists without it.

14th. When Lucas Fox sailed to discover the north-west passage to India, in 1631, he carried a letter from Charles the First to the Emperor of Japan. Such was public information, in Europe, twenty-two years after the discovery of the River Hudson, and the settlement of New England, eleven years later.

15th. The state of the weather, during this month, has exhibited some striking changes. The first three or four days were quite severe. On the fifth it became mild, and continued so for eight or nine days. During this time, nearly all the snow which had previously fallen was carried off by rains, or the heat of the sun. The weather was so mild that I sat in my office, on the 13th, without fire, for about two hours. Two evenings previous, the snow fell from the roofs of buildings at nine o'clock, and it continued thawing through the night. To day, the wind has veered round to a northerly point, and the weather has resumed its wintry temperature.

22d. The River St. Mary's froze over during the night of this day. The stream had been closed below, for about a week previous.

24th. The Tartars cannot pronounce the letter b. Those of Bulgaria pronounce the word blacks as if written Iliacs. The Chippewas in this quarter usually transpose the b and p in English words. They substitute n for l, pronouncing Louis as if written Nouis. The letter r is dropped, or sounded au. P is often substituted for f, b for v, and ch for j. In words of their own language, the letters f, l, r, v, and x, do not occur. The following are their names for the seasons.

            Pe-boan,             Winter.
            Se-gwun,             Spring.
            Ne-bin,                Summer.
            Ta-gwa-ge,          Autumn.

Years are counted by winters, months by moons, and days by nights. There are terms for morning, mid-day, and evening. The year consists of thirteen moons, each moon being designated by a descriptive name, as the moon of flowers (May), the moon of strawberries (June), the moon of berries (July), &c. Canoe and tomahawk are not terms belonging to the Chippewa language. From inquiries I think the former is of Carib origin, and the latter Mohegan. The Chippewa equivalents are in the order stated, Cheman and Agakwut.

26th. In going out to dinner at 3 o'clock, a sheet of paper containing conjugations of verbs, which had cost me much time and questioning, had fallen from my table. On returning in the evening, I found my dog, Ponty, a young pet, had torn my care-bought conjugations into small pieces. What was to be done? It was useless to whip the dog, and I scarcely had the courage to commence the labor anew. I consequently did neither; but gathering up the fragments, carefully soaked the gnawed and mutilated parts in warm water, and re-arranged and sealed them together. And before bedtime I had restored the manuscript so as to be intelligibly read. I imposed this task upon myself, but, had it been imposed by another, I would have been ready to pronounce him a madman.

27th. I devoted the day and evening in transcribing words into my "Ojibwa Vocabulary." This is a labor requiring great caution. The language is so concrete, that often, when I have supposed a word had been dissected and traced to its root, subsequent attention has proved it to be a compound. Thus verbs have been inserted with pronouns, or with particles, indicating negation, or the past or future tense, when it has been supposed they had been divested of these appendages. I am now going over the work the third time. The simplest forms of the verb seem to be the first and third persons singular of the imperative mood.

Ennui, in situations like the present, being isolated and shut up as it were from the world, requires to be guarded against. The surest preventive of it is employment, and diversity in employment. It has been determined to-day to get up a periodical sheet, or jeu d'esprit newspaper, to be circulated from family to family, commencing on the first of January. Mrs. Thompson asked me for a name. I suggested the "Northern Light." It was finally determined to put this into Latin, and call it Aurora Borealis.

28th. Visits make up a part of the winter's amusements. We owe this duty to society; but, like other duties, which are largely connected with enjoyment, there is a constant danger that more time be given up to it than is profitable. Conversation is the true index of feeling. We read wise and grave books, but are not a whit better by them, than as they introduce and fix in our minds such principles as shall shine out in conversation or acts. Now were an ordinary social winter evening party tested by such principles, what would a candid spectator judge to have been the principal topics of reading or study? I remember once, in my earlier years, to have passed an evening in a room where a number of my intimate friends were engaged in playing at cards. As I did not play, I took my seat at an office-table, and hastily sketched the conversation which I afterwards read for their amusement. But the whole was in reality a bitter satire on their language and sentiments, although it was not so designed by me, nor received by them. I several years afterwards saw the sketch of this conversation among my papers, and was forcibly struck with this reflection.

Let me revert to some of the topics of conversation introduced in the circles where I have visited this day, or in my own room. It is Goldsmith, I think, who says that our thoughts take their tinge from contiguous objects. A man standing near a volcano would naturally speak of burning mountains. A person traversing a field of snow would feel his thoughts occupied with polar scenes. Thus are we here thrown together. Ice, snow, winds, a high range of the thermometer, or a driving tempest, are the almost ever present topics of remark: and these came in for a due share of the conversation to-day. The probability of the ice in the river's breaking up the latter part of April, and the arrival of a vessel at the post early in May!--the dissolution of the seventeenth Congress, which must take place on the 4th of March, the character and administration of Governor Clinton (which were eulogized), were adverted to.

In the evening I went, by invitation, to Mr. Siveright's at the North West House. The party was numerous, embracing most of the officers of the American garrison, John Johnston, Esq., Mr. C.O. Ermatinger, a resident who has accumulated a considerable property in trade, and others. Conversation turned, as might have been expected, upon the topic of the Fur Trade, and the enterprising men who established, or led to the establishment of, the North West Company. Todd, Mackenzie, and M'Gillvray were respectively described. Todd was a merchant of Montreal, an Irishman by birth, who possessed enterprise, courage, address, and general information. He paved the way for the establishment of the Company, and was one of the first partners, but died untimely. He possessed great powers of memory. His cousin, Don Andrew Todd, had the monopoly of the fur trade of Louisiana.

M'Gillvray possessed equal capacity for the trade with Todd, united to engaging, gentlemanly manners. He introduced that feature in the Company which makes every clerk, at a certain time, a partner. This first enabled them successfully to combat the Hudson's Bay Company. His passions, however, carried him too far, and he was sometimes unjust.

Sir Alexander Mackenzie was at variance with M'Gillvray, and they never spoke in each other's praise. Mackenzie commanded great respect from all classes, and possessed a dignity of manners and firmness of purpose which fitted him for great undertakings. He established the X.Y. Company, in opposition to the North West.

29th. The days are still very short, the sun having but just passed the winter solstice. We do not dine till four; Mr. Johnston, with whom I take my meals, observing this custom, and it is dark within the coming hour. I remained to family worship in the evening.

30th. Read the articles in the "Edinburgh Review" on Accum's work on the adulteration of food, and Curran's Life by his Son. Accum, it is said, came to England as an adventurer. By assiduity and attention, he became eminent as an operative chemist, and accumulated a fortune. Curran was also of undistinguished parentage. His mother, in youth, seems to have judged rightly of his future talents.

Mr. Johnston returned me "Walsh's Appeal," which he had read at my request, and expressed himself gratified at the ability with which the subject is handled. Captain Clarke, an industrious reader on local and general subjects, had come in a short time before. Conversation became general and animated. European politics, Greece, Turkey, and Russia, the state of Ireland, radicalism in England, the unhappy variance between the king and queen, Charles Fox, &c., were successively the subjects of remark. We adjourned to Mr. Johnston's.

In the evening I went into my office and wrote to Mr. Calhoun, the Secretary of War, recommending Captain H.'s son William, for the appointment of a cadet in the Military Academy1.

31st. Devoted the day to the Indian language. It scarcely seems possible that any two languages should be more unlike, or have fewer points of resemblance, than the English and Ojibwa. If an individual from one of the nomadic tribes of farther Asia were suddenly set down in London, he could hardly be more struck with the difference in buildings, dress, manners, and customs, than with the utter discrepance in the sounds of words, and the grammatical structure of sentences. The Ojibwa has this advantage, considered as the material of future improvement; it is entirely homogeneous, and admits of philosophical principles being carried out, with very few, if any, of those exceptions which so disfigure English grammar, and present such appalling obstacles to foreigners in learning the language.

On going to dine at the usual hour, I found company invited, among whom were some gentlemen from Upper Canada. Conversation rolled on smoothly, and embraced a wide range of topics. Some of the dark doings of the North West Company, in their struggle for exclusive power in the Indian country, were mentioned. Nobody appeared to utter a word in malice or ill will. Dark and bright traits of individual character and conduct floated along the stream of conversation, without being ruffled with a breeze. In the evening I attended a party at the quarters of one of the officers in the fort. Dancing was introduced. The evening passed off agreeably till the hour of separation, which was a few minutes before twelve. And thus closed the year eighteen hundred and twenty-two.

1: The appointment was made.

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Personal Memoirs of a Residence of Thirty Years with the Indian Tribes on the American Frontiers, 1851

Thirty Years with the Indians


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