NIU Libraries Digitization Projects
Lincoln/Net Prairie Fire Illinois During the Civil War Illinois During the Gilded Age Mark Twain's Mississippi Back to Digitization Projects Contact Us

Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe.. History of the Indian Tribes of the United States: Their Present Condition and Prospects, and a Sketch of Their Ancient Status. Volume 6. . Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo and Co, 1857. [format: book; image], [genre: government document; report]. Permission: Northern Illinois University
Persistent link to this document:

Previous section

Next section

Chapter III. — Algonquin Mythology and Superstitions.

TO convey some idea of the mythology, beliefs, and superstitions of the Algonquins, it is necessary to remark, that they (and here is a strong point of analogy between them and the ancient idol worshippers) conceive the universe to be filled with invisible spirits. This spirit-life the Indians believe bears the same relation to matter that the soul does to the body. The Algonquins regard spiritual matter as infinitesimal, and believe a soul alike pervades all animate creation, the brute as well as the human. They believe that every animal has a soul; and the necessary consequence is, as might be expected, no distinction is made by them between the impulses of instinct and the powers of reason. Every animal is supposed to be endowed with a reasoning faculty; and the movements of birds, beasts, reptiles, insects, as well as of every other class of the brute creation, are deemed to be the result, not of mere instinctive animal impulses, implanted and limited by the Creator, without power to exceed or enlarge them, but of a process of ratiocination. According to their theory, a bear reasons as well as a man. They even go a step farther, and believe that animals, particularly birds, can see into, and are familiar with, futurity, and with the vast operations progressing in the arcana of spiritual life. Hence the great respect they pay to birds, as agents of omen; and also to some quadrupeds whose souls they expect to encounter in another world. Nay, it is a settled belief among the northern Indians, that animals will fare better in another sphere, in the precise ratio that their lives and enjoyments have been curtailed in this world. Herein will be perceived what we shall, for the sake of being understood, call the sensuality of spirituality — that is, material things made spiritual, and then degraded to the position of sensual accidents. The spiritual world of the Indian is not, therefore, such in a piatistic sense, but merely as opposed to materiality.

In these leading doctrines of an oral, and of course varied school, may be perceived the groundwork of their mythology, and the general motives which operate on the Indian mind, in selecting birds and beasts as personal manetos. Maneto is simply a synonyme for spirit, and there is neither a good nor a bad meaning attached to the word, when not governed by some adjective, or qualifying expression. Not only

-- 659 --

are all animate objects regarded as endowed with the powers of spirits, but, as the language provides inflections of its words, through the use of which all inanimate objects may, by grammatical transformations, be invested with supposititious life, the whole inanimate creation comes under the rule; including, as prominent agents, the class of aerial fluids, mists, clouds, and exhalations; the rays of the sun and moon, the light of the stars, and all electric phenomena. To these must be superadded the countless creations of a fertile imagination, in order to comprehend the multiplicity and variety of objects comprised in the Indian mythology. The classification of subordinate spirits into good and bad, is remarkably vague, and as various as the minds of individuals; for, the same object which one deems to be propitious, another will consider baneful. The intention of the person by whom these objects are worshipped, or invoked, being the only rule of classification, bad men among them, who follow soothsaying, and practise the arts of the meta, the wabena, and the jossakeed, have a very wide field from which to select, and, by a little ingenuity, can so manage their resources as to bring a large circle under their influence. We learn, from the confessions of Chusco, 882 that the theory of the art practised by these men teaches, that the evil spirit imparts energy to whatever object is assumed as a personal maneto, and becomes, as he distinctly announced to us, the animating soul of that object. It could hardly be conceived that the idea of a universal spirit could be carried to a greater extreme of latitudinarianism and sensuality; yet, it may be asked, what more benign result could have been expected, or can now be anticipated, from an ignorant and wandering people, subject to innumerable external wants, and exposed to countless trials, without the guidance of the Light of Revelation? Mr. Pond remarks that the Dakotahs have no duality in the class of wakans.

Some of their mythological subjects are adapted to, and might become, the theme of poetic effusions, by that peculiar license accorded to the imagination of the ancient poets. Manabozho may be considered as a sort of terrene Jove, who, though he lived on the earth, could perform all things, and excelled particularly in feats of strength and manual dexterity, yet feared manitos. He survived a deluge, which is spoken of in their mythology; having climbed to the summit of a high mountain, where he remained until the subsidence of the waters. The four cardinal points are personified, and the winds from each of these points are each assigned a distinctive government. The west, called Kabean, is regarded as the oldest, and east, north, and south are considered to be his sons by a maid, who incautiously exposed herself to the west wind. Iagoo is the god of the marvellous, and to him is referred the paternity of many most extravagant tales concerning forest and domestic adventures. Kwasind, a counterpart of Samson, uplifted and hurled from him a huge mass of rock, such as the Cyclops cast at Mentor. Weeng, the god of sleep, is represented to have numerous small emissaries at his command. He

-- 660 --

reminds us of Pope's creation of gnomes, wielding a tiny club, who clamber upon the foreheads of individuals and cudgel them to sleep. Paugak personifies death. It would be easy to extend this enumeration of personages; but those named will serve to indicate the character of this class of supposititious beings, who constitute the familiar personifications of conversation. There is no character of sacredness attached to them, nor are they worshipped in any manner.

Dreams they consider to be a medium of direct communication with the spiritual world; and hence the great influence which they exert over the Indian mind. They are considered as beneficent indications made to them by their personal gods. An entire army will retrace its steps if the dreams of the officiating priest are unfavorable. To give a character of greater solemnity to his office, the carved or stuffed images of animals, charms, and bones, constituting the sacred reliquoe, are placed in a sack, and never exhibited to the common gaze, except under the most imperative circumstances. To profane the medicine-sack would be like violating the altar. Dreams are objects of solicitude to every Indian youth, who assiduously seeks to produce them by fasting. These fasts are sometimes continued a great number of days, until the devotee becomes pale and emaciated. Those animals, the images of which impress themselves on the mind of the dreamer, are assumed as personal spirits, and are ever after regarded as guardians. This ceremony of fasting and dreaming is deemed as essential by them, as the observance of any religious rite whatever would be by Christians.

The naming of children has an intimate connection with this supposed mythological agency. Names are usually bestowed by some aged person, a relative or not, who acts under the presumed guidance of his favoring spirit or spirits. Names are commonly derived from aerial phenomena, or from the classes of animate creation. Little Thunder, Bright Sky, Big Cloud, Spot in the Sky, Spirit Sky, are common appellations. The names thus bestowed with ceremony in childhood are deemed sacred, and are seldom pronounced, from an apparent belief that it would be displeasing to the spirits under whose supposed influence the name had been selected. In the family circle, the children are usually called by some other name, which can be familiarly used. By the mother, a male child is usually denominated bird, or young one, or old man, as terms of endearment; or bad boy, evil doer, &c., in the way of light reproach; and these appellations frequently adhere to the individual through life. But the name solemnly bestowed at the time assigned therefor, when there is usually a family feast, is seldom or never uttered by the parents, who content themselves by saying "my son," "my elder or younger son," or "my elder or younger daughter," for which the language has separate words. When an individual is asked his name he is reluctant to mention it; a fact noticed by all writers. If pressed, his real name is stated by some third person; or, if he attempts compliance himself, he commonly gives his soubriquet.

The Indian "art of mystery," applied to hunting, is a tissue of necromantic reliances.

-- 661 --

The personal spirits are invoked to promote success in the chase. Their images are often carved in wood, or drawn, by the metais, on tabular pieces of wood; and the mystic medicines, applied to these images, or figures, are supposed to operate in such manner on the animal sought for, that he voluntarily enters the hunter's path. When the animal has been killed, the Indian feels that, although it is an authorized and lawful prey, yet there is something like accountability, not to God, but to the animal's soul. An Indian has been known to ask the pardon of an animal he has just killed in the chase. Drumming, shaking the rattle, and dancing, are the common accompaniments of all their superstitious observances, and are not peculiar to one kind alone. In the wabena dance, which is esteemed by the Indians the most latitudinarian,
love-songs are introduced.

The system of maneto-worship is marked by another peculiarity, which has an intimate bearing on Indian history, as illustrative of character. During the fast, ceremonies, and dances, by which a warrior prepares himself for active participation in the toils and duties of war, everything that savors of effeminacy is discarded. The spirits which preside over bravery and war are alone relied on, and these are supposed to be offended, if the votaries pay attention to objects less stern and manly than themselves. It would be considered a complete desecration if a warrior, while engaged in war, would profess any other than Platonic love for an individual of the opposite sex. We think this principle has not been duly estimated, in the general award of praise which history bestows on the chastity of Indian warriors. It is not alone purity of thought, or an innate phlegmatic temperament, which has caused him to pursue a course of honorable respect to female character; but he has also felt a fear of offending his warlike manetos, and of exciting the ridicule of his companions. We would record the fact in his favor, and award him as full a meed of praise as has been already done.

The mental traits of the Indians constitute a topic which we do not intend to discuss; but it must be manifest that some of the fundamental peculiarities of their intellectual organization are developed by their system of mythology, and superstitious observances. War, public policy, hunting, strength, courage, abstinence, and endurance under seffering, form the principal topics of their oratorical efforts. These are deemed the appropriate themes of men and warriors. But there is also a domestic theatre for intellectual display, where the Indian mind unbends itself, and reveals some of its less obvious traits. We have had occasion to observe, that their best and most popular speakers are referred to as standards of purity in language, and models for imitation in the mode of pronunciation and intonation, so closely observed. Their public speakers cultivate a particular branch of oratory; but they appear to have an accurate ear for the rythm of a sentence, and a delight in rounding off a period: the language affords great facilities for this purpose, by its long and stately words, and multiform inflections. A current of thought, a lofty style, is observable in their public speaking, which is not

-- 662 --

developed in private conversation. Hence it is, that those among them who excel in private conversation, are not always orators. They generally become, however, where a good memory accompanies the gift, the oral chroniclers of the tribe, and collect all their floating fables and tales. In the rehearsal of these, transformations are frequently relied upon as the groundwork of the fable; and some of them are as accurately adapted to the object of amusement, or instruction, as if Ovid himself had been consulted in their production. According to their notions, several animals had other forms, in their first stages of existence, which they lost, rather by the power of necromancy, than by transmigration. The evening star, it is fabled, was formerly a woman. A small boy became one of the planets. Three brothers, travelling in a canoe, were transformed into stars. The fox, the robin, the mouse, and numerous other animals, retain places in Indian astronomy. It is a coincidence, worthy of note, that Ursa Major is called by them the Bear. The earth is also a fruitful theatre of transformations. A shell, lying on the shore, was changed into the raccoon; the present name of which animal, aisebun, signifies shell, with the inflection indicating the past tense; for it is one of the peculiarities of the language, that nouns, as well as verbs, admit of tensal forms. The brains of an adultress were converted into the addikumaig, or white fish. This power of transformation was variously exercised, but most commonly possessed by magicians, of whom Manabosho retains much celebrity in story, as the magician of the lakes. He had a magic canoe, which would rush forward through the water, on the utterance of a charm, at a speed outstripping even that detailed in "Wacousta," in the miraculous canoe-journey. Hundreds of miles were traversed in so many minutes. The charm which he employed consisted of a monosyllable, containing one consonant, which does not belong to the language. The word has no definable meaning; so that the language of magic and daemonology has one feature in common, in all ages, and with every nation. To be at the same time a demigod and magician, was consistent with Indian ideas.

The intellectual creations of the Indians admit of the agency of giants and fairies. Their giants, termed ween-degos, were generally cannibals, who devoured men, women, and children. Their fairies comprise two classes, into which they are divided according as the location of their haunts is either on the land, or in the water. The favorite residence of their land fairies is the vicinity of promontories and water-falls, and in solemn groves. Besides furnishing a habitation for its appropriate class of fairies, the water is supposed to be the residence of an animal called nibau-auba, which has its counterpart, except as to sex, in the mermaid. The Indian word indicates a male. Ghosts are the ordinary subjects of their tales of terror and mystery. There is a glimmering of the doctrine of retributive justice, in the belief that ghosts can live in fire, and that this is one of the frequent modes of their manifestation.

As we have partially entered on the subject of Indian intellect, as influenced by popular superstition, it would be but a natural transition to an examination of some of

-- 663 --

the considerations which their existing ceremonies and institutions furnish, to countenance the belief of their Ephraimitic origin, which is a theory of the old divines, who had not, however, access to the best means of supporting it. But the limits of this article do not admit of it. Enough has been stated regarding them to indicate their claims on the benevolent and high-minded classes of the community. We will not say these claims press exclusively on the American churches, as the tribes are objects of their strenuous efforts; although we may, in the sequel, advert to some considerations which should have great weight with them, in view of their responsibilities to the heathen tribes of our own land as distinguished from those of the Asiatic continent.

-- 664 --

Previous section

Next section

Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe.. History of the Indian Tribes of the United States: Their Present Condition and Prospects, and a Sketch of Their Ancient Status. Volume 6. . Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo and Co, 1857. [format: book; image], [genre: government document; report]. Permission: Northern Illinois University
Persistent link to this document:
Powered by PhiloLogic