Project Canterbury

Dayspring in the Far West
Sketches of Mission-Work in North-West America

By M. E. Johnson

London: Seeley, Jackson and Halliday, 1875.

Chapter IV. The Indian Tribes

Aboriginal Races of North America.--Names of Tribes who formerly occupied British Territory.--Religious Ideas.--Manners.--Customs.--Cruelty.--Superstition.--Indian Women.

THE origin of the Aborigines on the continent of America is enveloped in darkness. Many of their customs and superstitions resemble those of Orientals. The aboriginal inhabitants of North America were divided into families, distinguished from each other in appearance, dialect, habits, and religious notions. These families were subdivided into tribes; between some of these tribes the most bitter hatred existed, and they carried on perpetual warfare with each other.

The following are the principal native races by which British North America was peopled:--

I. The Esquimaux, whose personal appearance indicates Mongol extraction. They are found on the northern shores of Hudson's Bay and the Arctic Ocean.

II. The Tinné or Chipewyan Indians, whose various tribes extend from the English River to the mouth of the Mackenzie. The Chipewyans are a harmless, inoffensive race, well disposed towards the reception of Christianity; and it is a remarkable fact that they have always refused to trade for ardent spirits; hence drunkenness, the great bane of the Indian race, is unknown amongst them. The Hare Indians, Dog-ribs, Beaver Indians, and others, belong to this family.

III. The Kutchin, or Loucheux Indians, more correctly termed Tukuth, who dwell on the banks of the great river Youcon and its tributaries, and on the shores of Behring's Straits. They are probably a branch of the great Tinné family; their appearance and peculiar customs, such as infanticide and burning of the dead, seem to point to Tartar origin.

"Both the Tinné race and the Tukuth," says Mr. Kirkby, (whose residence amongst both people afforded him ample opportunity for forming a correct judgment) "undoubtedly proceed from the inhabitants of North-East Siberia; if so, the Tinné family holds a very important position among the aborigines of the continent, extending, as it does, in an uninterrupted line from Hudson's Bay to the Pacific Ocean, and stretching in a more broken, though perfectly visible chain from the Arctic Coast to the Gulf of Mexico."

"The Tinné family," says the same authority, "consists of forty-one tribes." The term Kutchin signifies the people, or the nation, while Loucheux, signifying "the squinters," is the name given to this people by the white man. Tukuth is the name by which they designate themselves.

IV. The Algonquins, occupying the territory between the estuary of the St. Lawrence and Hudson's Bay, and extending west as far as the Rocky Mountains. The Ojibeways, Crees, Uelawares, and others belong to this family.

V. The Ircquois inhabited the country south of the St. Lawrence, and about the great lakes. They were divided into five great nations, the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagoes, Cayugas, and Senecas. Only a few scattered remnants of the Iroquois now exist. One of these has found a home on the Grand River in Upper Canada, while a few others have had lands reserved for them in the United States. The Hurons were a numerous people dwelling on the shores of Lake Huron. In the border warfare with the United States, they, in common with many others, were dispossessed of their lands, and the few that now remain are settled in the village of La Jeune Lorette, near Quebec.

VI. The Dakotahs are still found in the great prairie south of the Saskatchewan, and in the desert beyond the boundary line. The Blackfeet, Assiniboines, and Sioux belong to the Dakotahs. The Sioux are the hereditary enemies of the Ojibeways and Crees.

The still savage Indians on British territory are chiefly those found in the plains of the Saskatchewan, for whose evangelization earnest efforts are about to be made by the Church Missionary Society,

There are, it is said, "probably not one tenth of the number of Indians who peopled the country when it was first settled by Europeans. In British territory there are not more than 148,000 Red Indians, of whom 55,000 are found in the Hudson's Bay Company's territories," now included in the dominion of Canada. This diminution of numbers is owing to various causes. In addition to the wars carried on between tribe and tribe, the introduction of fire-arms by the white man, thus rendering their warfare more deadly, small pox and other diseases introduced by the settlers, brandy and rum, the "fire water," which has for the Red man such a terrible fascination, the scarcity of food consequent on the general neglect of agriculture;--all these causes combined have destroyed vast numbers of the native race. Hence the importance attached by the Missionary to the instruction of the Indians in the art of agriculture. Hence also the necessity for the law whereby the sale or barter of imoxicating drinks is now strictly pro_ hibited and enforced in British territory. One who resided for some years in the country observes: "When hunting, the Indian is removed from Missionary influences, and when visiting the trading-posts intoxication indisposes him to listen to the truths of the Gospel." If the Indian can be induced to settle in villages in the vicinity of the Mission station, if he can be taught to cultivate his garden and little farm, thereby providing a supply of food for himself and his family, a great point has been gained; the head of the family, when absent on his hunting expeditions, leaves his household in charge, as it were, of the Missionary, his children regularly attend the school, and he himself, returning to his peaceful and orderly home, and appreciating its comfort, is more willing to frequent the House of God, and to accept the instruction of Christian teachers.

The Indian is extremely superstitious. He believes in the existence of a great spirit, called Manitou, whom he supposes to be the maker and preserver of all things; he believes also in good and evil spirits, in the power of sorcerers and charms, and he looks forward to a future place of abode, where the brave will find their reward in happy hunting-grounds.

In the valley of the Qu'Appelle River, Professor Hind frequently found offerings to Manitou suspended on branches of trees; they consisted of fragments of cloth, strings of beads, shreds of buffalo hide, bears' teeth, and other trifles. "This custom," says he, "prevails everywhere in the valley of Lake Winnipeg, and on the banks of Red River, where the rattle of the conjuror, and the medicine drum maybe frequently heard. A conjuror or medicine man, celebrated for the potency of his charms, will often exercise a very injurious influence over an entire band, consisting of ten or twelve families, in deterring them from frequenting particular hunting or fishing grounds if they happen to offend him."

The caverns formed by fissures in the limestone on the shores of Lakes Winnipeg and Manitobah, are believed by the Indians to be inhabited by bad spirits, and numerous are the legends respecting them. There are many spots which the Indians do not even dare to visit. If necessity compels them to approach any of these abodes of the spirits, they either lay an offering on the beach, in order to appease the imaginary god, or they keep at the greatest possible distance as they pass by. Some of the legends associated with these caves are truly absurd.

The custom of offering sacrifices prevails among the Indians of the Saskatchewan valley. The usual offering consists of two or three dogs. "At the mouth of the Qu'Appelle river, an Indian in June 1858 set his net, and caught a large fish of a kind different from any with which he was familiar; he at once pronounced it to be a Manitou, and restoring it to the water again, he sacrificed five valuable dogs to appease the fury of the supposed fairy." When approaching Long Lake, an arm of the Qu'Appelle, Professor Hind was warned by the Crees not to visit the Lake by night, as it was full of devils. "They appeared," he says, "to live in awe and terror of them."

In the spring and fall of the year the Indians assemble to celebrate their medicine feasts and other idolatrous ceremonies. Carved and painted posts are to be seen in the woods" of the Saskatchewan which are used on these occasions. "A large medicine tent is erected; four painted posts represent the Manitou, whom they invoke during the celebration of the ceremonies. The features of a man are roughly carved on each post, and smeared with patches of vermilion and green paint over the cheeks, nose, and eyebrows. When decorated with fresh paint, feathers, strips of leather, and a painted robe of elk, moose, or buffalo skin, these idols inspire the most superstitious awe among the untutored savages. The awe of many becomes terror, when illumined by fires at night, and invoked as the representatives of the all-powerful Manitou; the whole assembly, jumping in time to the wild song and monotonous drum of the conjurors, circle round these idols, and join in chants to the praises of the spirits they represent." These ceremonies are kept up for several days together, and the feasting and dancing are continued during the night. These dances are held in honour of the gods who are supposed to have preserved the Indians and given them food. The ceremonies ended, the poles are stripped of their fantastic decorations, and the Indians are supposed to be in a fit state for enjoying their summer, or for setting out on their hunting expeditions.

The Wood and Prairie Indians are in the habit of painting their skin with different colours. Warriors on the "war path" often paint the figure of a hand over the mouth as is done in sounding the war whoop, this indicates that the individual is in pursuit of his enemies. The Ojibbeways are partial to vermilion, while the Plain Crees prefer white, green, and blue. It is also customary to cut and gash their flesh in token of grief for a deceased friend or relative. The Plain Crees, moreover, adorn their bodies with figures of birds, quadrupeds, and various symbols. An incision is made in the skin by means of a knife point, or the edge of a flint, and the colour is rubbed in, very much in the same manner as English sailors often tattoo themselves, but the process is wholly different from that performed by the New Zealanders. [Compare this with Levit. xix. 28 and Levit. xxi. 5, also Deut. xiv. i. Query--Do these customs point to Eastern origin? It would almost seem so.]

In sickness Indians are much depressed, and then they have recourse to the medicine man, whose incantations are supposed to have a beneficial effect. During the violence of a thunderstorm, the aid of the medicine man is sought by the timid; he is then supposed to invoke the Great Bird, by the flapping of whose wings they imagine the thunder is produced, while the lightning's flash seems to their affrighted imagination to be the "blink of his all-penetrating eye."

The Indians are extremely vindictive; and the cruelties inflicted on their prisoners taken in war almost exceed the power of description. Professor Hind thus describes a terrible mode of death sometimes inflicted by the Sioux on a prisoner taken during the summer season:--"Their victim is stripped, tied to a stake on the borders of a marsh in the prairie, and he is left exposed to the attacks of millions of musquitoes, without being able to move any part of his body. When the agony of fever and the torment of thirst come upon him, he is left to die a dreadfully lingering death, with water at his feet, and buzzards hovering and circling above him in greedy expectation." In common with all savage people, the Indians regard their women as slaves, they compel them to do the hardest work, while they look lazily on, enjoying the luxury of a pipe, and often requite their services with harsh words and cruel blows. Speaking of the Youcon Indians, Mr. Kirkby says, "The Kutchin women are inferior in looks and fewer in number than the men. The former probably arises from the harsh treatment they receive, and the heavy work they have to perform; while the latter is caused in a great measure by the too prevalent custom of female infanticide. Many a poor mother assured me she had killed her child to save it from suffering the misery she had herself endured."

Polygamy prevails to a considerable extent amongst the Indian tribes of North America. This is more especially the case with the Tukuth. "The Tukuth," says Mr. Kirkby, "multiplies his wives just as a farmer increases his beasts of burden. The more wives he has, the more meat he can have hauled, the more wood cut, the more chattels carried. Hence an Indian frequently has four or five wives at one time. The effect of this may readily be conceived; dissatisfaction, jealousies, quarrels, and murders are the natural results. No marriage ceremony of any kind or previous courtship appears to be required, but the consent of the bride's mother is essential in all cases. Neither father nor brothers have a voice in the matter, and would sit quietly by, and see their daughter or sister pulled to pieces by contending rivals, rather than interfere in the matter. Indeed, it would be considered weak and unmanly to do so."

Such is the picture, unhappily too true a one (as those who have resided amongst them can testify), of the Indian tribes of British North America. Truly "the dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of cruelty."

Shall Christian England leave these poor savages to perish in their misery and degradation? Surely not. An able writer, himself a resident in the country for some years, has well pointed out the duty which we owe to these people. "Let us," he says, "instruct and interest them, and give them incentives to industry and exertion; let them be induced to settle and cultivate the ground, and let artisans be employed to teach them the arts of civilized life." Encouragement to make such efforts are not wanting; the Indian Missionary village founded by Archdeacon Cockran in 1833, at Red River, and the Missionary village of Metlakatlah, on the Pacific coast, founded and presided over by Mr. Duncan, abundantly prove what may be done for the Indian. "Let men be found fitted for the work like them, let their numbers be increased, and a blessing prayerfully sought on their labours, and communities of Christian Indians will be found stretching from Lake Superior to the Pacific, thriving and happy, and increasing in number. Let us pray for this, and, while we pray, let us work; it is work which we owe to those Indian tribes, too long neglected by us, and it is work which must be done now."

"The only savage Indians now found on British territory are those known as Prairie and Wood Indians. They hunt the buffalo and other large game, and their tents and clothing are made of the skins of these animals. The Wood Indians live on fish, and hunt small game, they also cultivate Indian corn. Their tents are called wigwams, and are covered with the bark of the birch-tree. The Prairie Indians are good horsemen, and keep large herds of these animals." ["British North America."]

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