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Philology of the Indian Tongues

Native American Nations | Thirty Years with the Indians

Philology of the Indian tongues--Its difficulties--Belles lettres and money--Michigan and Georgia--Number of species in natural history--Etymology--Nebahquam's dream--Trait in Indian legends--Pictography--Numeration of the races of Polynesia and the Upper Lakes--Love of one's native tongue--Death of Gen. Harrison--Rush for office on his inauguration--Ornamental and shade trees--Historical collections--Mission of "Old Wing."

1841. Jan. 12th. The Rev. Thomas Hulbert, of Pic, Lake Superior, who has studied the Chippewa language, says: "I fully concur in your remarks on the claims of philology. Circumstances may be easily conceived in which the missionary could in no way serve the cause of Christianity so effectually as by the study of barbarous languages. His primary object, it is true, is Christian instruction; but he would, at the same time, serve the cause of science, by assisting in the advance of comparative philology. In this light I view your Algic, Researches, which I consider a valuable acquisition to the missionary, as it introduces him into the stronghold of Indian prejudices. The introductory remarks I studied with peculiar interest.

"I find the principal difficulty in getting at the principles of the language to be in the compounds. I have long thought upon the subject, but have as yet ascertained no rule to guide me. However, I do not despair. If it cannot be taken by a 'coup de main,' patience and perseverance may in the end prevail. I intend to bend my mind to this subject for the future. It will probably require much research to settle this matter. There are some compounds that I form readily, in others I fail. I have not observed anything in the language like the rythmatic flow of Greek and Latin poetry; there is no alternation of long and short syllables; some words are composed entirely of long syllables, others of short ones, but generally there is at least one of each in a word.

"I have nothing in the shape of Indian poetry or hieroglyphics, neither have I seen the rocks you mention south-east of this place, but I have heard of them. All their traditions, or comic and tragic lore, should be collected, though it could not all be published in consequence of its obscenity. Almost all the Ah-te-soo-kaum I have heard, has had more or less of this ingredient."

Those who contend for a Welsh element in the languages of the American stocks, find little or no support in modern vocabularies.

Fire, Feuer, Tan, Schoda.
Water, Wasser, Duel, Neebi.
Earth, Erde, Daal, Aki.
Wind, Wind, Gwint, Noden.
Sky, Volka, Avere, Geezhikud.
Sea, Meer, More, Gitchigomi.
Book, Buch, Llyfer, Muzzenyegun.

This topic requires, however, to be investigated on a broad scale. It is merely adverted to here. It is among the western nations that inquiries should be extended.

Feb. 4th. I received a diploma of membership from the Georgia Historical Society, forwarded in accordance with a previous notice; and a few days after, through the medium of the Hon. A.S. Porter, the first volume of their transactions. Southern zeal quite outdoes us, in our literary efforts here of late. The truth is, men have speculated so wildly, they have no money to devote to historical or literary plans. A correspondent writes me (Feb. 12th) on these visionary plans of investment.

"H. wants me to go farther in the Cass Front; But I am determined to fall in the rear, as I have written to him. For the last three years I have been going on the Dutch plan, which, had I always pursued, I should now have had $10,000 in gold in my trunk, instead of having ten thousand trunks full of ground."

7th. Dick says that there are about 60,000 species in the animal kingdom. Of these, 600 species are mammalia, or sucklings, mostly four-footed; 4,000 birds, 3,000 fish, 700 reptiles, 44,000 insects, about 3,000 shell fish, and 80 to 100,000 animalcula, invisible to the naked eye. Perhaps these species may reach to 300,000 altogether. Yet here are no estimates for plants, ferns, mosses, madrepores, extinct fossil species, minerals and rocks. What a field for the naturalist! Yet Pope could exclaim--

        "Say what the use, were finer optics given,
        T' inspect a mite--not comprehend the heaven."

We are, in fact, equally and as much in want of microscopic and telescopic knowledge.

20th. An Indian, a Chippewa, recently visited the office, whose name is Nageezhik. This is one of the simplest compounds. I spent some time, however, with the man and his companions to get its exact etymology. Geezhik is the sky, or visible firmament, seen through the clouds. The word denotes two phenomena: first, something visible to the eye that is fixed and does not move, which is implied by the root geezh, and the inflection ik, which seems applicable to all inanimate substances, to denote the fact of their substantivity. The sky is thus described apparently as a created, or made thing. Na (the aa in Aaron) is a qualifying particle of very general use. It appears to place substances to which it is affixed in a superlative sense, and always as exalting the object. Thus its meaning may be fair, admirable, or excellent. Applied to geezhik, it implies an excellent quality in only one sense, that is excellent or fair, for a spot on the blue profound, of which geezhik is the description. For fairness or excellence cannot exist, or be described in their language, unless seen plainly by the eye. It is the spot made by a small cloud that makes it excellent or fair. The meaning is the fair or excellent (spot) on the sky.

March 1st. Madwaybuggashe, a Chippewa Indian, of Grand Traverse Bay, Lake Michigan, related the following dream of Nebahquam, an Indian who recently died at that place:--

Nebahquam dreamed that he saw a white man coming towards him, who said, You are called. He replied, Where am I called? The white man pointed to a straight path, leading south-east. Follow that. Nebahquam obeyed and followed it, till he came to a thick wooded country through which the path led. He soon came to stumps of trees newly cut down, and afterwards heard a cock crowing. He next passed through a new town, where he was inclined to stop, but was told to go on. Again the cock crew. He next came to an immense plain, through which his path led straight forward for some time, till he came to the foot of a ladder. He was told to ascend this, but it reached up as he went, till, looking back, he had a wide bird's-eye view of towns, cities, and villages. He continued to go up until he reached the skies. Here stood another white man, who told him to look round a new earth. There were four splendid houses. His guide told him to enter one of these. As he got near it, a door opened, and he entered into a splendid apartment where four white men were seated. Two of these had heads white as snow. They spoke to him saying, Here is the place to which you are called. No Indian has ever reached here before. Few white men come here. Look down and behold the bones of those who have attempted to ascend, bleaching at the foot of the ladder.

The two venerable men then gave him a bright-red deer's tail, and an eagle's feather, which he was directed to wear on his head; they were talismans that would protect him from peril and danger, and insure him the favor of the Master of Life. Both white and red men could have reached the place, they continued, but for refusing to receive Him who was sent to save them, and for reviling and killing him. Look around again, they continued to say, and he saw animals and birds of every kind in abundance. These are for the red men, and are placed here to show the peculiar care of the Great Spirit for them.

Nebahquam was a Roman Catholic, and died in that faith. But he said that he had heard the dream in his youth, and he regarded it as sacred. Such are the blendings of superstition and religion in the Indian mind.

3d. Some of the incidents of the fictitious legends of the Indians teach lessons which would scarcely be expected. Manibozho, when he had killed a moose, was greatly troubled as to the manner in which he should eat the animal. "If I begin at the head," said he, "they will say I eat him head first. If I begin at the side, they will say I eat him sideways. If I begin at the tail, they will say I eat him tail first."

While he deliberated, the wind caused two limbs of a tree that touched to make a harsh creaking noise. "I cannot eat with this noise," said he, and immediately climbed the tree to prevent it, where he was caught by the arm and held fast between the two trees. Whilst thus held, a pack of hungry wolves came that way and devoured the carcass of the moose before his eyes.

The listener to the story is plainly taught to draw this conclusion: If thou hast meat in thy wanderings, trouble not thyself as to little things, nor let trifles disturb thy temper, lest in trying to rectify small things thou lose greater ones.

13th. Some years ago, a Chippewa hunter of Grand Traverse Bay, Lake Michigan, found that an Indian of a separate band had been found trespassing on his hunting grounds by trapping furred animals. He determined to visit him, but found on reaching his lodge the family absent, and the lodge door carefully closed and tied. In one corner of the lodge he found two small packs of furs. These he seized. He then took his hatchet and blazed a large tree. With a pencil made of a burned end of a stick, he then drew on this surface the figure of a man holding a gun, pointing at another man having traps in his hands. The two packs of furs were placed between them. By these figures he told the tale of the trespass, the seizure of the furs, and the threat of shooting him if he persevered in his trespass. This system of figurative symbols I am inclined to call pictography, as it appears to me to be a peculiar and characteristic mode of picture-writing.

22d. Mr. Ellis, in his Polynesian Researches, represents the Pacific Islands as being inhabited by two distinct races of men, each of whom appears to preserve the separate essential marks of a physical and mental type. The first, which is thought the most ancient, consists of the Oceanic negroes, who are distinguished by dark skins, small stature, and woolly or crisped hair. They are clearly Hametic. They occupy Australia, and are found to be aborigines in Tasmania, New Guinea, New Britain, New Caledonia and New Hebrides. The other race has many of the features of the Malays and South Americans, yet differs materially from either.

Yet what is most remarkable, the latter have an ingenious system of numeration, by which they can compute very high numbers. They proceed by decimals, precisely like the Algonquin tribes, but while the arithmetical theory is precisely the same, a comparison shows that the names of the numerals have not the slightest resemblance.

One, Atabi, Pazhik.
Two, Arua, Neezh.
Three, Atora, Niswi.
Four, Amaha, Newin.
Five, Arima. Nanun.
Six, Aono, Ningodwaswa.
Seven, Ahitu, Nizhwaswa.
Eight, Avaru, Schwaswa.
Nine, Aiva, Shonguswa.
Ten, Ahuru, Metonna.

The Polynesians, like the Algonquins, then say, ten and one for eleven, &c., till twenty, which is erua ahuru, this is two tens; twenty-one consists of the terms for two tens and one. In this manner they count to ten tens, which is rau. Ten raus is one mano, or thousand; ten manos one million, and so on. How exactly the Algonquin method, but not a speck of analogy in words.

27th. One of the emigrant Germans who swarm about the city, a poor ill-dressed wood-sawyer, met me, on coming out of my office door, and, mistaking me for the owner of a visible pile of wood, addressed me in one of the Rhine dialects, inquiring the owner. I replied: Ich wies necht--es is necht mein. He looked with delighted astonishment at an American speaking his language--"a stranger in a strange land"--and was ready to proffer any services in his power.

April 4th. A friend from Lancaster, in Pennsylvania, writes: "It was my luck to be called to Washington the latter part of February, and to be detained until the 11th ultimo, and in that great city business occupied my attention all the time. The congregation of strangers from all parts of the Union was immense; the number estimated at fifty thousand. Thirty thousand of them, at least, expectants, or thinking themselves worthy of office. But, alas! for the ingratitude of man, they were, almost to a man, sent home without getting their share of the pottage.... There has yet been no change in the head of the Indian Bureau, although there are three candidates in the field.

"I have just heard the rumor of the death of Gen. Harrison (the newly-elected President of U.S.), and, upon inquiry, find that it is well founded. It is said that he died last night at twelve o'clock. He has been suffering for a week past with a severe attack of pneumonia, or bilious pleurisy. Should this be so1, it will make a great change in the political destiny of the country for four years to come. Mr. Tyler is a southern man with southern principles, rather a conservative, opposed to a heavy tariff, if in favor of any. There will be a different policy pursued, and you will find great disappointment and confusion. He is not a man who will pursue a proscriptive course in turning out and putting into office, but who will go upon the great principle of the Virginia school in regard to office-holders. 'Is he honest? Is he capable?' I am of the opinion that the chartering of a national bank will not meet his approval. But there is no telling. Politicians, in these days of humbug, make so many turnabouts that it is impossible to scan their future conduct by their past deeds."

7th. Wrote a communication for the Michigan Farmer, on the important subject, as a matter of taste, of "ornamental and shade trees." New settlers are bent on denuding their lands of every tree, and a newly opened farm looks as if a tornado had passed over it.

6th. Messrs. Dawson and Bates submit estimates for the contemplated historical volume, for which I am taking every means of preparing the materials. I am satisfied that without publication the Hist. Society cannot acquire a basis with the literary world to stand upon. My own collections respecting the language and history of the Indian tribes are alone adequate to the publication of several volumes, and I have long sought, without being able to find, a proper medium of bringing these materials forward. My local position is unfavorable to sending them to the American Philosophical Society, or to any of the cities on the seaboard, where they would, however, be mangled, as I told Mr. Duponceau, for want of proof-reading; and here, alas! it is a question of dollars.

15th. Rev. Geo. N. Smith reports the state of the new mission at "Old Wing," on Little Traverse Bay, Lake Michigan, as encouraging. The American Board (who gave up this general field just at a time when, some thought, it was ready to bear fruits) transferred the treaty fund under which this mission was undertaken.

"We chopped in all," writes Mr. S. "about forty-five acres, but a team is necessary to clear off the timber, so that the land can be cleared and prepared for a crop this season. During the winter we had a school, which produced very encouraging results. I taught it in my own house. The scholars applied themselves closely to their studies and made great progress in learning, so that, if we had funds to go forward without embarrassment, our progress of ameliorating the condition of this band would be very flattering.

"The Indians say they are going to remain here this summer, and improve their lands, and that, if they can get their oxen, wagons, tools, &c., this spring, those who have never been here since they purchased (these purchases were in the U.S. Land Office), will come immediately and settle. And, I think, if their expectations in this respect could be realized, they would go forward with renewed encouragement, and with a success which would well compare with our best expectations. Also if their annuities could be paid somewhere in this vicinity, it would be of great advantage to them, as it would save much time which might be very profitably spent at home."

1: It was.

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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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