Oneota, or The Red Race of America . . .

ONETA, OR THE RED RACE OF AMERICA: their History, Traditions, Customs, Poetry, Picture-writing, &c. in Extracts from Notes, Journals and other unpublished Writings. By HENRY R. SCHOOLCRAFT. New-York, published by Burgess, Stringer & Co. 1844.

  Now that the Red Race have well nigh melted from our sight, relentings and regret arise that they had not been more prized, at least as an object of study. With the primitive features of the landscape this primitive aspect of human nature was indissolubly united; before the advance of the white settler both vanish, almost with the rapidity of thought, and soon will be but a memory, yet we should wish that memory to be faithful for there was a grandeur in that landscape, and in the figures that animated it, in itself too poetic, to be misused as theme or suggestion for mere fancy pictures.

  Mr. Schoolcraft possesses unusual pretensions to this rare merit of fidelity. His long and intimate connexion with the race, and the knowledge possessed by his wife and her family of the people from whom they were descended on the mother’s side, combined with a power of examining materials from the European point of view, have brought into his possession a large stock of valuable and well-prepared materials. We hope the public will, by a ready sympathy, encourage him to devote himself to arranging them all for general use.

  Mr. Schoolcraft gives the following account of the prejudices which he shares with most of our people, the hatred of the injurer for the injured.

  “My earliest impressions of the Indian race were drawn from fireside rehearsals of incidents which had happened during the perilous times of the American Revolution, in which my father was a zealous actor, and were all inseparably connected with the fearful ideas of the Indian yell, the tomahawk, the scalping knife, and the fire-brand. In these recitals the Indian was depicted as the very impersonation of evil—a sort of wild demon, who delighted in nothing so much as blood and murder. Whether he had mind, was governed by any reasons, or even had any soul, nobody inquired, and nobody cared. It was always represented as a meritorious act in old Revolutionary reminiscences, to have killed one of them in the border wars, and thus aided in ridding the land of a cruel and unnatural race, in whom all feelings of pity, justice, and mercy were supposed to be obliterated. These early ideas were sustained by printed narratives of captivity and hair-breadth escapes of men and women from their clutches, which, from time to time, fell into my hands, so that, long before I was ten years old, I had a most definite and terrific idea impressed on my imagination of what was sometimes called in my native precincts ‘the bow and arrow race.’”

  Although he knew in his ‘native precincts’ a few Indians, whose gentle and peaceable conduct, when undisturbed by aggression, might have dispelled such prejudices, he says they did not yield till he saw the Red man in large masses, in their own place, and their own life. After such acquaintance he says:

  “The Indians, viewed as a distinct branch of the human race, have some peculiar traits and institutions, from which their history and character may be advantageously studied. They hold some opinions, which are not easily discovered by a stranger or a foreigner, but which yet exert a powerful influence on their life and conduct. There is a subtlety in some of their modes of thought and belief, on life and the existence of spiritual and creative power, which would seem to have been eliminated from some intellectual crucible, without the limits of their present sphere. Yet, there is much relative to all the common concerns of life, which is peculiar to it. The author has witnessed many practices and observances, such as travelers have often noticed, but, like others, attributed them to accident, or some cause different from the true one. By degrees, he has been admitted into their opinions, and, if we may so call it, the philosophy of their minds; and the life of an Indian no longer appears to him a mystery.”

  The following extract gives a fair notion of the degree of liberality and discernment to be expected from this observer:

  “Books, and the readers of books, have done much to bewilder and perplex the study of the Indian character. Fewer theories and more observation, less fancy and more fact, might have brought us to much more correct opinions than those which are now current. The Indian is, after all, believed to be a man much more fully under the influence of common sense notions, and obvious every-day motives of thought and action, hope and fear, than he passes for. If he does not come to the same conclusions, on passing questions, as we do, it is precisely because he sees the premises, under widely differently circumstances. The admitted errors of barbarism and the admitted truths of civilization, are two very different codes. He is in want, of almost every source of true knowledge and opinion, which we possess. He has very imperfect notions on many of those branches of knowledge in what we suppose him best informed. He is totally in the dark as to others. His vague and vast and dreamy notions of the Great Author of Existence, and the mode of his manifestations, to the human race, and the wide and complicated system of superstition and transcendental idolatry which he had reared upon this basis, place him, at once, with all his sympathies and theories, out of the great pale of truth and civilization. This is one of the leading circumstances which prevents him from drawing his conclusions as we draw them. Placed under precisely similar circumstances, we should perhaps coincide in his opinions and judgments. But aside from these erroneous views, and after making just allowances for his ignorance and moral depression, the Indian is a man of plain common sense judgment, acting from what he knows, and sees, and feels, of objects immediately before him, or palpable to his view. If he sometime employs a highly figurative style to communicate his thoughts, and even stoops, as we now know he does, to amuse his fire-side circle with tales of extravagant and often wild demonic fancy, he is very far from being a man who, in his affairs of lands, and merchandise, and business, exchanges the sober thoughts of self-preservation and subsistence, for the airy conceptions of fancy. The ties of consanguinity bind him strongly. The relation of the family is deep and well traced amongst the wildest tribes, and this fact alone forms a basis for bringing him back to all his original duties, and re-organizing Indian society. The author has, at least, been thrown into scenes and positions, in which this truth has strongly presented itself to his mind, and he believes the facts are of a character which will interest the reader, and may be of some use to the people themselves, so far as affects the benevolent plans of the age, if they do not constitute an increment in the body of observational testimony, of a practical nature, from which the character of the race is to be judged.”

  Mr. Schoolcraft says, “The old idea that the Indian mind is not susceptible of a high, or an advantageous cultivation, rests upon very questionable data.” He might have added, that the experiment has never been tried. For ourselves, brought up, like others, in the vulgar notion that the Indian obstinately refused to be civilized, and long ignorant that the white man had no desire to make the red owner of the land his fellow citizen there, but to intoxicate, plunder, and then destroy or exile him, we have been amazed, on looking into such experiments as have been made, at the degree of success that has attended them. In every instance where any fidelity was shown to the duty of reconciling two races opposed to one another in every characteristic of organization and manners, a surprising success has ensued. We mention this merely to do justice in word and thought; it is too late for act; the time is gone by when the possessors of the soil might have been united as one family with their invaders; nothing remains but to write their epitaph with some respect to truth.

  Mr. S. speaks of the Indian as pre-eminently a religious being. Here all writers agree. To his own standard of what is required by a supernatural power the Indian acts up. Old Adair has written most feelingly on this point, and we believe his descriptions of the Indian going forth on the dangerous and fatiguing war-path, without breaking his fast, trusting the Great Spirit, if solely relied on, would sustain his spirits and strength, unaided by material food, would have been pleasing and intelligibly grand to the Jewish lawgiver.

  Mr. S. mentions him, also, as being much more ruled by the gentler affections than is commonly supposed. There is a chapter on the family relations, where he attempts to prove that the position and advantages of women are by no means so inferior to those of men, as has been supposed; that she has not an undue share of labor, and that polygamy is not the common usage, is not approved by public opinion, and that there are always some, even in the wildest forests, who hold it in utter repugnance.—We are aware that the power of woman must be always great, for she cannot fail to be “the mistress of the lodge,” and that polygamy is put down always by unusual elevation of character; but we think Mr. S. overstates on his own side. There are too many incontestable facts on the other, and no one can see the Indian women without seeing that they occupy and have occupied for ages an inferior position. It is written on their forms, and in the soft melancholy of their eyes. There are two most interesting stories given of the conduct of first wives, when the husband chooses a second, that show alike the rule and the exception.

  We are pleased that Mr. Schoolcraft should head one portion of his record “Lives of Noted Men and Women,” and we will quote a specimen of noble character in each:

  “There lived a noted chief at Michilimackinac, in days past, called Gitsche Naygow, or the Great Sand- Dune, a name, or rather nick-name, which he had, probably, derived from his birth and early residence at a spot of very imposing appearance, so called, on the southern shore of Lake Superior, which is east of the range of the Pictured Rocks. He was a Chippewa, a warrior and a counsellor, of that tribe, and had mingled freely in the stirring scenes of war and border foray, which marked the closing years of French domination in the Canadas. He lived to be very old, and became so feeble at last, that he could not travel by land, when Spring came on and his people prepared to move their lodges, from their sugar-camp in the forest, to the open lake shore. They were then inland, on the waters of the Monistee river, a stream which enters the northern shore of Lake Michigan. It was his last winter on earth; his heart was gladdened by once more feeling the genial rays of Spring, and he desired to go with them, to behold, for the last time, the expanded lake and inhale its pure breezes. He must needs be conveyed by hand. This act of piety was performed by his daughter, then a young woman. She carried him on her back from their camp to the lake shore, where they erected their lodge and passed their spring, and where he eventually died and was buried.

  This relation I had from her own lips, at the agency of Michilimackinac, in 1833. I asked her how she had carried him. She replied, with the Indian apekun, of head-strap. When tired she rested, and again pursued her way, on-wa-be-win, by on-wa-be-win, or rest by rest, in the manner practised in carrying heavy packages over the portages. Her name was Nadowakwa, or the female Iroquois. She was then, perhaps, about fifty-five years of age, and the wife of a chief called Saganosh, whose home and jurisdiction were in the group of the St. Martin’s Islands, north of Michilimackinac.

  The incident was not voluntarily told, but came out, incidentally, in some inquiries I was making respecting historical events, in the vicinity.”

  One other is of a Chief named Andaig Weos, who lived on the Lake Superior shore. Among several stories illustrative of his wisdom, honor, dignity and tact, we select the following:

  “A French trader had entered Lake Superior so late in the season, that with every effort, he could get no farther that Pointe La Petite Fille, before the ice arrested his progress. Here he was obliged to build his wintering house, but he soon ran short of provisions, and was obliged to visit La Pointe, with his men, in order to obtain fish—leaving his house and store-room locked, with his goods, ammunition, and liquors, and resolving to return immediately. But the weather came on so bad, that there was no possibility of his immediate return, and the winter proved so unfavorable that he was obliged to spend two months at that post.

  During this time, the chief Andaig Weos, with fifteen of his men, came out from the interior, to the shores of the lake, for the purpose of trading, each carrying a pack of beaver, or other furs. On arriving at the point La Petite Fille, they found the trader’s house locked and no one there. The chief said to his followers—It is customary for traders to invite Indians into their house, and to receive them politely; but as there is no one to receive us, we must act in accordance to circumstances. He then ordered the door to be opened, with as little injury as possible, walked in, with his party, and caused a good fire to be built in the chimney. On opening the store-door he found they could be supplied with all they wanted. He told his party, on no account to touch, or take away any thing, but to shut up the door, and said, “that he would, on the morrow, act the trader’s part.”

  They spent the night in the house. Early the next morning he arose and address them, telling them, that he would now commence trading with them. This he accordingly did, and when all was finished, he carefully packed up the furs, and piled the packs, and covered them with an oilcloth. He then again addressed them, saying that it was customary for a trader to give tobacco and a keg of spirits, when Indians had traded handsomely. He, therefore, thought himself authorized to observe this rule, and accordingly gave a keg of spirits and some tobacco. “The spirits,” he said, “must not be drank here. We must take it to our hunting camp,” and gave order for returning immediately. He then caused the doors to be shut, in the best manner possible, and the outer door to be barricaded with logs, and departed.

  When the traders returned, and found his house had been broken into, he began to bewail his fate, being sure he had been robbed; but on entering his store-room and beholding the furs, his fears were turned to joy. On examining his inventory, and comparing it with the amount of his furs, he declared, that had he been present, he could not have traded to better advantage, nor have made such a profit on his goods.”

  There are valuable particulars given with regard to the growth of language, the change and disuse of arts. But we suppose Mr. Schoolcraft will go more thoroughly into these researches in some of the other works he proposes. His own personal reminiscences are not so written as to make them of much interest. As a writer of narrative he wants vivacity, terseness, and a tact of seizing upon the more important points, and leaving out or lightly touching on the rest. A quick but keen and broad glance we love in such narratives.

  To us, by far the most charming part of these records is in the legends or mythological tales. Those before us appear to be written down with a more simple fidelity than those in the Algic Researches. What those want of the artful, graceful construction we expect in the tales of cultivated minds is made up for by the free presence and subtle tokens of nature, and the lively play of fancy. They bring us closer to the Indian mind than any thing except the glance of the Indian eye. As a happy specimen of these and one very illustrative of Indian charactor we give in conclusion*

From the Odjibwa-Algonquin.

  There was once a Shingebiss, [the name of a kind of duck] living alone, in a solitary lodge, on the shores of the deep bay of a lake, in a coldest winter weather. The ice had formed on the water, and he had but four logs of wood to keep his fire. Each of these would, however, burn a month; and, as there were but four cold winter months, they were sufficient to carry him through till spring. Shingebiss was hardy and fearless, and cared for no one. He would go out during the coldest day, and seek for places where flags and rushes grew through the ice, and plucking them up with his bill, would dive through the openings in quest of fish. In this way, he found plenty of food, while others were starving; and he went home daily to to his lodge, dragging strings of fish after him on the ice.

  Kabebonicca* observed him, and felt a little piqued at his perseverence and good luck in defiance of the severest blasts of wind he could sent from the North West. “Why! this is a wonderful man,” said he;
* A personification of the North-West.

“he does not mind the cold, and appears as happy and contented as if it were the month of June. I will try whether he cannot be mastered.” He poured forth ten-fold colder blasts and drifts of snow, so that it was next to impossible to live in the open air. Still the fire of Shingebiss did not go out; he wore but a single strip of leather around his body, and he was seen, in the worst weather, searching the shores for rushes and carrying home fish.

  “I shall go and visit him,” said Kabebonicca one day, as he saw Shingebiss dragging along a quantity of fish; and accordingly, that very night he went to the door of his lodge. Meantime Shingebiss had cooked his fish and finished his meal, and was lying, partly on his side, before the fire, singing his songs. After Kabebonicca had come to the door, and stood listening there, he sang as follows:

Ka    Neej     Ka    Neej
Be    In       Be    In
Bon   In       Bon   In
Oc    Ec.      Oc    Ec.
Ca    We-ya!   Ca    We-ya!

The number of words in this song are few and simple, but they are made up from compounds which carry the whole of their original meanings, and are rather suggestive of the ideas floating in the mind than actual expressions of those ideas. Literally he sings:

Spirit of the North-West! you are but my fellow-man.

By being broken into syllables to correspond with a simple chant, and by the power of intonation and repetition, with a chorus, these words are expanded into melodious utterance, if we may be allowed the term, and may be thus rendered:

Windy god, I know your plan,
You are but my fellow-man;
Blow you may your coldest breeze,
Shingebiss you cannot freeze;
Sweep the strongest wind you can,
Shingebiss is still your man.
Heigh! for life—and ho! for bliss;
Who so free as Shingebiss?

  The hunter knew that Kabebonicca was at his door, for he felt his cold and strong breath; but he kept on singing his songs, and affected utter indifference. At length Kabebonicca entered, and took his seat on the opposite side of the lodge; but Shingebiss did not regard or notice him. He got up as if nobody were present, and, taking his poker, pushed the log, which made the fire burn brighter, repeating as he sat down again;

  You are but my fellow-man.

  Very soon the tears began to flow down Kabebonicca’s cheeks, which increased so fast that presently he said to himself, “I cannot stand this—I must go out.” He did so, and left Shingebiss to his songs; but resolved to freeze up all the flag orifices and make the ice thick, so that he could not get any more fish. Still Shingebiss, by dint of great diligence, found means to pull up new roots and dive under for fish. At last Kabebonicca was compelled to give up the contest. “He must be aided by some Monedo,” said he; “I can neither freeze him, nor starve him; he is a very singular being. I will let him alone.”

“Oneota, or The Red Race of America . . .” New-York Daily Tribune, 12 February 1845, p. 1.