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Native American Nations | Thirty Years with the Indians

"It is to be hoped that Mr. S. will resume the course of inquiry and research that he has marked out for himself; and that he will be induced to give to the public the results of his long and intimate familiarity with the Indian life and character."

17th. The Detroit Daily Advertiser, of this day, has the following critical notice on the work of Algic Researches, under the head of Indian Tales and Legends.

"This work has just been offered for sale at our book-stores, and we strongly recommend it to all those who feel an interest in the character of our aborigines. It is well known to many of us here, that Mr. Schoolcraft has, for the last several years, been industriously engaged in collecting facts which illustrate the 'mythology, distinctive opinions, and intellectual character' of the Indians. His researches have embraced 'their oral tales, fictitious and historical; their hieroglyphics, music, and poetry; and the grammatical structure of their languages, the principles of their construction, and the actual state of their vocabulary.' The materials he has now on hand afford him the means of fulfilling this extensive plan, and this 'first series' is only a leading publication.

"When the position which Mr. S. has occupied for the last seventeen or more years is recollected, as well as his fitness and exertions to improve all its advantages, we shall at once see the benefit to the literary and scientific world which his researches in these various departments are likely to produce. The subjects which have engaged his attention are regarded with deep interest by the philanthropist, the philologist, the archaeologist, as well as many other liberal inquirers, both in Europe and America, who, amid the scanty facts, cursory observations, and hurried, random conjectures of those who have been favored with a comparatively near view of them, have lamented the want of such deliberate investigations and comparative examinations, continued with sober judgment through a long series of years, as are now offered to the public. We trust that a proper and enlightened patronage will warrant Mr. Schoolcraft in completing his design. No man, possessing his qualifications, has enjoyed his advantages. He has been able to take up, at his leisure, the scattered links of a broken chain, and fit them together. A chaos of aboriginal facts will be reduced, under his hand, to some degree of order.

"Mr. Schoolcraft and Mr. Catlin have done more to preserve the fleeting traits of aboriginal character and history than all their predecessors in this field of inquiry, and none can follow them with the same success, as none can have the same range of subjects before them. The scene is changing with each year, and the past, with respect to the Savages, does not recur. They fall back with no hope to recover lost ground; they diminish with no hope to increase again; they degenerate with no hope to revive in physical or moral strength. Those who have seen them most during the last few years, have seen them best. After observers will find mere fragments, or a heterogeneous mass, in which all original identity is distorted or gone.

"The Tales now published must not be estimated for their intrinsic merit alone. They may have less variety of construction, less beauty of imagination, less singularity of incident, than belong to oriental tales, the productions of more refined times, or more excitable people. But the estimate must not be comparative. They are to be regarded as the type of aboriginal mind, as the measure of intellectual power of our Sons of the Forest; as speaking their sentiments, their hopes and their fears, whatever they were or are, whether elevated or depressed, whether raising the race or sinking it in the scale of untutored nations. Whether they prove a poverty of mental energy, a feebleness of imagination, a want of invention, or the reverse, cannot affect the value of these volumes in the opinion of those who look into them for evidences of the true character of the Indians. Mr. Schoolcraft, or any other gentleman of taste and skill, might have formed out of these materials a series of Tales, highly finished in their unity and design, strikingly colored by fancy, such as would have caught the popular whim. But this was not his object. He has been honest in his renderings of the aboriginal sense, whether pointed or mystical, of the Indian's mythology, whether intelligible or obscure; of their shadowy glimpses of the past and the future; of the beginning and end of things, without alteration or embellishment. Such a work was wanted, and such a work was expected from Mr. Schoolcraft.

"If we have room, we will quote one or two of the shorter tales, such as 'Mon-daw-min, or the origin of Indian corn,' and the 'Celestial Sisters,' both of which are very characteristic, and show, under the garb of much figurative beauty, how Indians appreciate the blessings of a kind Providence, and, how his domestic affections may glow and endure. Indeed, there are few of these tales that would not give interest to our columns, and we shall be pleased to give our readers an occasional taste, provided we thereby induce them to supply themselves with the full feast in their power."

20th. It is stated that the oldest town in the United States is St. Augustine, Florida, by more than forty years. It was founded forty years before Virginia was colonized. Some of the houses are yet standing which are said to have been built more than three centuries ago, that is to say, about 1540. De Soto landed in Florida in 1539. Narvaez, in his unfortunate expedition, landed in 1537. Both these expeditions were confined to the exploration of the country west and north of the Bay of Espiritu Santo, reaching to the Mississippi. De Soto crossed the latter into the southeastern corner of the present State of Missouri, and into the area of Arkansas, where he died.

21st. The Detroit Free Press, of this day, has the following remarks:--

"Much interest is manifested in this work of Mr. Schoolcraft, as a timely rescue from oblivion of an important portion of the great world of mind--important inasmuch as it is a manifestation of two principles of human nature prominent in an interesting variety of the human race, the sense of the marvelous and the sense of the beautiful, or the developments of wonder and ideality. The character of a people cannot be fully understood without a reference to its tales of fiction and its poetry. Poetry is the offspring of the beautiful and the wonderful, and much of it the reader will find embodied in the Indian tales to which the author of the Algic Researches has given an enduring record.

"Much of this work strongly reminds the reader of the Grecian Mythology and the Arabian Nights Entertainments.

"According to one of the Odjibwa tales, the morning star was once a beautiful damsel that longed to go to 'the place of the breaking of daylight." By the following poetic invocation of her brother, she was raised upon the winds, blowing from 'the four corners of the earth,' to the heaven of her hopes:--

            Blow winds, blow! my sister lingers
            From her dwelling in the sky,
            Where the morn with rosy fingers,
            Shall her cheeks with vermil dye.

            There, my earliest views directed,
            Shall from her their color take,
            And her smiles, through clouds reflected,
            Guide me on, by wood and lake.

"The work abounds with similar beautiful thoughts and inventions.

"Catlin may be called the red man's painter; Schoolcraft his poetical historian. They have each painted in living colors the workings of the Indian mind, and painted nature in her unadorned simplicity. They have done much which, without them, would, perhaps, have remained undone, and become extinct with the Indian race. As monuments of history for future ages, their works are not sufficiently appreciated.

"The author of these volumes has stamped upon his page much of the intellectual existence of the simple children of the forest, and bequeathed us a detail map of their terra incognita--their fireside amusements in legendary lore."

I am willing to notice this and some other criticisms of this work as popular expressions of opinion on the subject. But it is difficult for an editor to judge, from the mere face of the volumes, what an amount of auxiliary labor it has required to collect these legends from the Indian wigwams. They had to be gleaned and translated from time to time. Seventeen years have passed since I first began them--not that anything like this time, or the half of it, has been devoted to it. It was one of my amusements in the long winter evenings--the only time of the year when Indians will tell stories and legends. They required pruning and dressing, like wild vines in a garden. But they are, exclusively (with the exception of the allegory of the vine and oak), wild vines, and not pumpings up of my own fancy. The attempts to lop off excrescences are not, perhaps, always happy. There might, perhaps, have been a fuller adherence to the original language and expressions; but if so, what a world of verbiage must have been retained. The Indians are prolix, and attach value to many minutiae in the relation which not only does not help forward the denouement, but is tedious and witless to the last degree. The gems of the legends--the essential points--the invention and thought-work are all preserved.

Their chief value I have ever thought to consist in the insight they give into the dark cave of the Indian mind--its beliefs, dogmas, and opinions--its secret modes of turning over thought--its real philosophy; and it is for this trait that I believe posterity will sustain the book.

A literary friend, of good judgment, of Detroit, writes (19th): "Your tales have reached me, and I have read them over with a deep interest, arising from a double source--the intrinsic value of such stories and the insight they give of Indian intellect and modes of thought. They form a truly important acquisition to our literary treasures, as they throw a light oft the Indian character which has been imparted from no other quarter. They form a standard by which to determine what is true and what is false in the representations made heretofore of the aboriginal nations on most prominent subjects. No one will doubt that you render the genuine Indian mind and heart. Those who conform to these renderings will pass muster; the rest will be rejected. Let Mr. Cooper and others be thus measured."

24th. Muk-kud-da Ka-niew (or the Black War Eagle), chief of the coasts of Arenac, brought me an antique pipe of peculiar construction, disinterred at Thunder Bay. It was found about six feet underground; and was disclosed by the blowing down of a large pine, which tore up a quantity of earth by its roots. The tree was two fathoms round, and would make a large canoe. With the pipe were found two earthen vases, which broke on taking them up. In these vases were some small bones of the pickerel's spine. He saw also the leg bones of an Indian, but the upper part of the skeleton appeared to be decomposed, and was not visible. He thinks the tree must have grown up on an old grave. The pipe consisted of a squared and ornamented bowl, with a curved and tapering handle, all made solid from a sort of coarse terra cotta. He says it was used by taking the small end in the mouth, and thinks such was the practice of the ancient Indians, although the mode is now so different by their descendants. The chief ornament consists of eight dots on each face, separated by longitudinal strokes, leaving four in a compartment. If the tree was four feet diameter, as he states, it denotes an ancient occupation of the shores of Lake Huron, which was probably of the old era of the mining for copper in Lake Superior.

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

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