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Twenty Years on the Saskatchewan, N.W. Canada

By the Rev. William Newton
Hon. Canon of Saskatchewan

London: Elliot Stock, 1897.

Chapter IX. Indian Religion and Parliament

THERE are not existing now, among the North-West Indians, traditions respecting religion that are much worth attention. Paganism remains to some extent among tribes that are nominally Christian, but its rites are practised secretly. When hunters go on their solitary expeditions, they contrive to make some offering to the spirit which incarnates itself in the scenes about them, or in the objects of their pursuit; and they try to be on fair terms with the great evil spirit as a matter of policy; for the great good spirit is good anyhow, and won't harm an)'one, while there is no accounting for Matchi-Manitou, who might be spiteful, and cause trouble and loss.

Here we have the remains of the old Shamaism of Asia, before Buddhism became mixed up with it or supplanted it. The ancient religion was clearly the ideal pantheism of the East, where all nature was poetized, and filled with a living, quickening, and ever-present spirit, representing the mental state of the worshipper. Was he intelligent and pure-minded, then the conception and worship of the Great Spirit would be elevated, and orderly, and sustained by suitable rites. Was he passionate and of sensual life, he would cringe and bow to the evil spirit, and in worshipping become more debased through his superstition. The same things occur everywhere: in ancient India and Babylon, in Western Europe and America. Man, in forming his own religion, sees himself represented, and worships his own creations, which ever tend to become more and more like himself. It has been left to modern times and our advanced century to formulate this worship into a creed, a rite, and a religion, and to designate it, in pompous style, the worship or religion of humanity.

As yet no ruins of temples have been found in all this great region, nor is there any tradition of such buildings among any of the tribes that are now existing. The medicine-man of the conjuring type is all that is left of past times. This is what might have been expected from the circumstances of the people, if they came in isolated bands over Behring's Straits. Such expeditions were likely to be self-contained, whether they were voluntary or involuntary. The name Calmucs signifies a homeless people, wanderers, dwellers in tents, or roamers. Therefore they would not build towns or temples, even if the climate encouraged them. Agriculture is necessary before these things can be done. Towns depend upon agriculture, and temples follow established rites of religion and an organized priesthood. Hence we need not be surprised to find everywhere, on the northern parts of the continent, only bury-ing-places, and places for defence and war. As tribes grew, and pressed on one another, conflict would be inevitable, and thus the wandering life would be perpetuated.

On our North-West plains there arc still to be traced three types of the Mongolian race: the distinctly Tartar or Calmuc, comprising the Toou-Gooses, or Cossack type; next the Chinese type; and then the Japanese type. We have already mentioned the first, which on all sides forced itself on our attention. The second came almost as a surprise. In our second autumn here, the Indians met at Victoria, seventy miles north of Edmonton, and, to make the acquaintance of the whole band, I determined to be present when they received their treaty payments from the Canadian Government. Sitting in my buckboard to survey the scene more conveniently, and forgetting myself for the moment, I exclaimed to a friend: ' Did you see that Chinaman who has just passed?' He lifted his finger, asking silence--for an Indian does not like to be observed; but, sure enough, there he was: the eyes, face, tawny skin, and braided hair hanging down his back, instead of pigtail--all proclaimed the Chinaman. Further observation confirmed the presence of this type among the Crees of the North-West.

The Japanese type is found more frequently in the mountains, and up the Peace River Country, though it is represented here. A family near me, who spoke Cree, out of charity took into their home an Indian child. She grew up, and I married her to a half-race man. She was a perfect Jap in height, with the characteristic dark tawny skin, oblique dark eyes, and Japanese nose and forehead. Her appearance was bright and intelligent, as if she had just come from Yokohama. Her brother was a Japanese student in University College, London. Corean faces as they are represented in pictures might well pass for Indian faces. There is little difference. The hammocks swung in a Siberian house, as cradles for children, are in no way different from those in Indian tents. Hudson Bay stockades and buildings are quite Siberian, and the Turkish bath may be seen any day in use on our prairies.

Undoubtedly there has been a great mingling of races in all parts of this great continent of America, although the type is mainly Mongolian from the North Pole to Patagonia. To one who has travelled, the difficulties of dispersion are not felt to be so very great. In all probability the Mongolian, under various designations, in ancient times wandered everywhere. From the uplands of Asia he filled China, and pressed into India, ancient Persia, Egypt, and Rome, both old and new. Probably the saying, 'Scratch a Russian, and you find the Tartar,' is true ethnological science.

The Mongolian could have got to America from the North-East or by Behring Sea. The Pacific Gulf stream could have borne him from Japan, or from the coasts of China; or, for that matter, mixed with the Malay element in the course of centuries, the isles of the Pacific might have been his highway. The Mongolian race had the compass; they were expert in boat-building; they understood astronomy; and as we become more fully acquainted with their arts, it is seen that in many ways they were a wise people. Great things were done in olden times by simple means which we think to have been impossible under then existing conditions. If men could build as they then did, and collect and polish precious stones, and design ornaments, such as modern skill cannot surpass or even equal, it is not unreasonable to expect that they were also acquainted with the earth and the sea.

Suppose we had consulted the Arabs who travelled up the Nile, and traded among the people of the great lakes of Africa, would Europe have been so long ignorant of those regions? And if China claims to have sent her colonies to America in the fifth, or even in preceding centuries, and to have called the continent Fusang, why should we consider the claim impossible or improbable? The Chinese profess to have a history of those events. Japan has ancient maps on which a part of America is certainly delineated; and the Phoenicians, the ancient mariners, have left their impress on every isle and continent beneath the skies. When the temples and tombs of Central America are carefully explored by scientific men who are students of the arts, science, and religion of the ancient nations, the unity of the race of man is likely to become apparent, and disclosures will be made which will be of surpassing interest to those who are students of the earlier ages.

Tyre and Carthage and the Druids might well have planted Mexico, China, Chili, Sumatra, and Peru. The Siberians could have established Shamaism and Buddhism, by organized emigrations on the west coast of America. West of Selenginst is the seat of Kahma Lama, the rival of the Tibetan Lama, the old seat of mixed Shamaism and Buddhism--the typical religion of ancient America.

Emigrants from parts of Austria and the Crimea, and people from the Scotch Highlands who are familiar with the Gaelic, often remark on the similarity of the sound of Cree to their own languages; and it certainly has an affinity with Turkish and Hungarian; many of its root words are European, while the verb forms are a good deal like the Hebrew. Certain people look to America for the lost tribes of Israel; it is not impossible that some Jews may have found their way to it in the time of their world-wide dispersion, although there is no evidence of their presence. The religious rites and customs, especially of circumcision and blood feud, first-offerings and yearly festivals, were not peculiar to the Hebrews; they were customs very common in the East, especially in the first periods of human history, and were well known to, and practised by, the inhabitants of Mid-Asia. Likewise the tradition respecting a migration of Welshmen to America may have truth in it, especially if they took their Druids with them, when the Romans were hunting them out of existence in Great Britain. They, with the Phoenician Baal-worshippers--who were of the same priesthood--might have built the temples and cities of Yucatan. The Welsh words in Indian dialects may, however, take us far back in the history of ancient languages.

Among Indian customs which are still retained, although robbed of much of the ancient glory, is the council Teppe, where the chief men assemble, and confer on matters of importance to their people. The Indian who is notified quietly attends his parliament, and seats himself in silence. The chief takes his position at the head of the assembly, which is arranged in a circle, as if they were a band of brothers. The speaker and medicine-man are on his right hand. The pipe of peace is gravely filled and lighted, and the chief passes it round, while all is still in silence. This rite over, without hurry or compromise of dignity, the speaker rises, and narrates his description of the matter in hand, the chiefs and his own view of it; for in this theocracy king and priest agree before matters are formally debated in council. Should the matter set forth be of much interest, exclamations of agreement are heard; if the council be not all of one mind, it is silent until another brave arises, and carefully unfolds his view, approaching the subject with delicacy, and presenting it in another aspect, without any asperity, or rudeness, or gross personalities.

When all have spoken, or signified their assent by 'Aha! aha!' the assembly disperses as quietly as it came together; no formal vote is required, only the chief keeps a hieroglyphical record, if it may seem necessary. Changes are not hastily made, and only when the agreement is general is any action taken. If any differ from the general sentiment or opinion, there is no brawling; they quietly retire, and leave all action to those immediately concerned, or even drop off from the band and form relationships with another band of Indians. Indians have not as yet become civilized enough to enact the scenes which we sometimes read of in the big pow-wows of America and Europe.

Should any English Radical wish to study the elements of the Russian Mir, by way of introducing it into the social life of England, he may see it here in its different degrees of ' evolution.' The land is held in common by the tribe. At first they hunted on it in common; then, when they used any part of it for cultivation, the tribe owned the cultivated land; cultivation gave no individual right of possession; what was grown was usually shared among members of the tribe, as they often worked together or in bands. When cultivation increased, each person would take the piece of ground allotted to him by the Indian council, and gradually the sense of right grew up, and every man who worked on land, and fenced it and improved it, was regarded as having a certain claim on it, which did not belong to others who preferred fishing, hunting, or conjuring; yet the tribe as a tribe were still masters of the whole, and the land could not be sold to, or used by, strangers without the solemn consent of the whole community. Were there a higher authority, as in Russia or the United States, the tribe as a whole would be responsible for its members, and the tribes would have in fact double laws and customs--those which existed in the tribe and bound the members together, and the laws that were enforced on them from without. These double laws and customs have, in America, been the cause of much misunderstanding and disputing, and often also the excuse for much cruelty and injustice, and the occasion of a bitter sense of wrong on the part of the Indian race. The East and West have met face to face, and the white man had no reverence or sympathy for what he saw; conflict was inevitable, and the conquest of the red man was certain. Still, the idea of the sacredness of close human relationship which the Indian had, certainly as a sentiment, was true to human nature as a whole; and the restlessness which is evident to-day among civilized people is caused by the absence of this sense, in their institutions, of the unity of tribes and nations, and the brotherhood of men in the same circumstances. ' Advanced' statesmanship can now show its superior wisdom, by introducing laws and customs that will cover the whole life of a nation, as the Indian laws and customs united a tribe. But Europe cannot adopt the Russian Mir system; the Indians themselves grow out of it as their social life advances. The Christian Mir is the true ideal for the happiness and perfection of national life; it is brotherhood in Christ, and the rule that all men should be members one of another.

In connection with this question--of the close connection of Asia and America--it may not be generally known that beyond the memory of man the people of Siberia and North-West America have traded together and been in free communication. The island Imaklitt, one of the group of the Diomede, was the centre of this trade, and thus Russia became the possessor of the great Alaska region, which was afterwards transferred to the United States.

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