Read CHAPTER VIII of The Conquest of Canada (Vol. 1 of 2) , free online book, by George Warburton, on ReadCentral.com.

In the warmer and milder climates of America, none of the rude tribes were clothed; for them there was little need of defense against the weather, and their extreme indolence indisposed them to any exertion not absolutely necessary for their subsistence. Others were satisfied with a very slight covering, but all delighted in ornaments. They dressed their hair in different forms, stained their skins, and fastened bits of gold, or shells, or bright pebbles in their noses and cheeks. They also frequently endeavored to alter their natural form and feature; as soon as an infant was born, it was subjected to some cruel process of compression, by which the bones of the skull while still soft, were squeezed into the shape of a cone, or flattened, or otherwise distorted. But in all efforts to adorn or alter their persons, the great object was to inspire terror and respect. The warrior was indifferent to the admiration of woman, whom he enslaved and despised, and it was only for war or the council that he assumed his choicest ornaments, and painted himself with unusual care. The decorations of the women were few and simple; all those that were precious and splendid were reserved for their haughty lords. In several tribes, the wives had to devote much of their time to adorning their husbands, and could bestow little attention upon themselves. The different nations remaining unclothed show considerable sagacity in anointing themselves in such a manner as to provide against the heat and moisture of the climate. Soot, the juices of herbs having a green, yellow, or vermilion tint, mixed with oil and grease, are lavishly employed upon their skin to adorn it and render it impervious. By this practice profuse perspiration is checked, and a defense is afforded against the innumerable and tormenting insects that abound every where in America. Black and red are the favorite colors for painting the face. In war, black is profusely laid on, the other colors being only used to heighten its effect, and give a terrible expression to the countenance. The breast, arms, and legs of the Indian are tattooed with sharp needles or pointed bones, the colors being carefully rubbed in. His Manitou, and the animal chosen as the symbol of his tribe, are first painted, then all his most remarkable exploits, and the enemies he has slain or scalped, so that his body displays a pictorial history of his life.

In the severe climate of the north the Indian’s dress is somewhat more ample. Instead of shoes he wears a strip of soft leather wrapped round the foot, called the moccasin. Upward to the middle of the thigh, a piece of leather or cloth, fitting closely, serves instead of pantaloons and stockings: it is usually sewed on to the limb, and is never removed. Two aprons, each about a foot square, are fastened to a girdle round the waist, and hang before and behind. This is their permanent dress. On occasions of ceremony, however, and in cold weather, they also wear a short shirt, and over all a loose robe, closed or held together in front. Now, an English blanket is generally used for this garment; but, before the produce of European art was known among them, the skins of wild animals furnished all their covering. The chiefs usually wear a sort of breast-plate, covered with shells, pebbles, and pieces of glittering metal. Those who communicate with Europeans display beads, rings, bracelets, and other gauds instead. The ear, too, is cumbrously ornamented with showy pendents, and the tuft of hair on the crown of the head is interwoven with feathers, the wings of birds, shells, and many fantastic ornaments. Sometimes the Indian warrior wears buffalo horns, reduced in size and polished, on his head: this, however, is a distinction only for those renowned in war or in the council. The dress of the women varies but little from that of the men, except in being more simple. They wear their hair long and flowing, and richly ornamented, whenever they can procure the means.

The dwellings of the Indians usually receive much less attention than their personal appearance. Even among tribes comparatively far advanced in civilization, the structure of their houses or cabans was very rude and simple. They were generally wretched huts, of an oblong or circular form, and sometimes so low that it was always necessary to preserve a sitting or lying posture while under their shelter. There were no windows; a large hole in the center of the roof allowed the smoke to escape; and a sort of curtain of birch bark occupied the place of the door. These dwellings are sometimes 100 feet long, when they accommodate several families. Four cabans generally form a quadrangle, each open to the inside, with the fire in the center common to all. The numerous and powerful tribes formerly inhabiting Canada and its borders usually dwelt in huts of a very rude description. In their expeditions, both for war and the chase, the Indians erect temporary cabans in a remarkably short space of time. A few poles, raised in the shape of a cone, and covered with birch bark, form the roof, and the tops of pine branches make a fragrant bed. In winter the snow is cleared out of the place where the caban is to be raised, and shaped into walls, which form a shelter from the wind. The permanent dwellings were usually grouped in villages, surrounded with double and even triple rows of palisades, interlaced with branches of trees, so as to form a compact barrier, and offering a considerable difficulty to an assailing foe.

The furniture in these huts was very scanty. The use of metal being unknown, the pots or vessels for boiling their food were made of coarse earthen-ware, or of soft stone hollowed out with a hatchet. In some cases they were made of wood, and the water was boiled by throwing in a number of heated stones.

The Indian displays some skill in the construction of canoes, and they are admirably adapted for his purpose. They are usually made of the bark of a single tree, strengthened by ribs of strong wood. These light and buoyant skiffs float safely on stormy or rapid waters under the practiced guidance of the Indian, and can with ease be borne on his shoulder from one river or lake to another. Canoes formed out of the trunk of a large tree are also sometimes used, especially in winter, for the purpose of crossing rivers when there is floating ice, their great strength rendering them capable of enduring the collision with the floating masses, to which they are liable.

Even among the rudest Indian tribes a regular union between man and wife was universal, although not attended with cérémonials. The marriage contract is a matter of purchase. The man buys his wife of her parents; not with money, for its value is unknown, but with some useful and precious article, such as a robe of bear or other handsome skin, a horse, a rifle, powder and shot. When the Indian has made the bargain with his wife’s parents, he takes her home to his caban, and from that time she becomes his slave. There are several singular modes of courtship among some of the tribes, but generally much reserve and consideration are exhibited. In many respects, however, the morals and manners of the Indians are such as might be expected in communities where the precepts of Christianity are unknown, and where even the artificial light of civilization is wanting. There are occasionally instances of a divorce being resorted to from mere caprice; but, usually, the marriage tie is regarded as a perpetual covenant. As the wife toils incessantly, and procures a great part of the subsistence, she is considered too valuable a servant to be lightly lost. Among the chiefs of the tribes to the west and south, polygamy is general, and the number of these wife-servants constitute the principal wealth; but among the northern nations this plurality is very rarely possessed. The Indian is seldom seen to bestow the slightest mark of tenderness upon his wife or children: he, however, exerts himself to the utmost for their welfare, and will sacrifice his life to avenge their wrongs. His indomitable pride prompts him to assume an apparent apathy, and to control every emotion of affection, suffering, or sorrow.

Parents perform few duties toward their children beyond procuring their daily bread. The father is by turns occupied in war and the chase, or sunk in total indolence, while the mother is oppressed by the toils of her laborious bondage, and has but little time to devote to her maternal cares. The infant is fastened to a board, cushioned with soft moss, by thongs of leather, and is generally hung on the branch of a tree, or, in traveling, carried on the mother’s back. When able to move, it is freed from this confinement, and allowed to make its way about as it pleases. It soon reaches some neighboring lake or river, and sports itself in the water all day long. As the child advances in years it enjoys perfect independence; it is rarely or never reproved or chastised. The youths are early led to emulate the deeds of their fathers; they practice with the bow, and other weapons suited to a warrior’s use; and, as manhood approaches, they gradually assume the dignified gravity of the elders. In some tribes the young men must pass through a dreadful ordeal when they arrive at the age of manhood, which is supposed to prepare them for the endurance of all future sufferings, and enables the chiefs to judge of their courage, and to select the bravest among them to lead in difficult enterprises.

During four days previous to this terrible torture the candidates observe a strict fast, and are denied all sleep. When the appointed day arrives, certain strange ceremonies of an allegorical description are performed, in which all the inhabitants of the village take part. The candidates then repair to a large caban, where the chiefs and elders of the tribe are assembled to witness the ordeal. The torture commences by driving splints of wood through the flesh of the back and breasts of the victim: he is next hoisted off the ground by ropes attached to these splints, and suspended by the quivering flesh, while the tormentors twist the hanging body slowly round, thus exquisitely enhancing the agony, till a death-faint comes to the relief of the candidate: he is then lowered to the ground and left to the care of the Great Spirit. When he recovers animation, he rises and proceeds on his hands and feet to another part of the caban: he there lays the little finger of the left hand upon a buffalo skull, as a sacrifice to the Great Spirit, and another Indian chops it off. The fore-finger is also frequently offered up in the same manner: this mutilation does not interfere with the use of the bow, the only weapon for which the left hand is required. Other cruel tortures are inflicted for some time, and at length the wretched victim, reeling and staggering from the intensity of his suffering, reaches his own dwelling, where he is placed under the care of his friends. Some of the famous warriors of the tribe pass through this horrible ordeal repeatedly, and the oftener it is endured, the greater is their estimation among their people. No bandages are applied to the wounds thus inflicted, nor is any attention paid to their cure; but, from the extreme exhaustion and debility caused by want of sustenance and sleep, circulation is checked, and sensibility diminished; the bleeding and inflammation are very slight, and the results are seldom injurious.

The native tribes are engaged in almost perpetual hostility against each other. War is the great occupation of savage life, the measure of merit, the high road of ambition, and the source of its intensest joy revenge. In war the Indian character presents the darkest aspect; the finer and gentler qualities are vailed or dormant, and a fiendish ferocity assumes full sway. It is waged to exterminate, not to reduce. The enemy is assailed with treachery, and, if conquered, treated with revolting cruelty. The glory and excitement of war are dear to the Indian, but when the first drop of blood is shed, revenge is dearer still. He thirsts to offer up the life of an enemy to appease the departed spirit of a slaughtered friend. Thus each contest generates another even more embittered than itself. The extension or defense of the hunting-grounds is often a primary cause of hostility among the native nations, and the increase of the power of their tribe by incorporating with them such of the vanquished as they may spare from a cruel death is another frequent motive. The savage pines and chafes in long-continued peace, and the prudence of the aged can with difficulty restrain the fierce impetuosity of the young. Individual quarrels and a thirst for fame often lead a single savage to invade a hostile territory against the counsels of his tribe; but, when war is determined by the general voice, more enlarged views, and a desire of aggrandizement guide the proceedings.

As soon as the determination of declaring war is formed, he who is chosen by the nation as the chief enters on a course of solemn preparation, entreating the aid and guidance of the Great Spirit. As a signal of the approaching strife, he marches three times round his winter dwelling, bearing a large blood-red flag, variegated with deep tints of black. When this terrible emblem is seen, the young warriors crowd around to hearken to the words of their chief. He then addresses them in a strain of impassioned, but rude and ferocious eloquence, calling upon them to follow him to glory and revenge. When he concludes his oration, he throws a wampum belt on the ground, which is respectfully lifted up by some warrior of high renown, who is judged worthy of being second in command. The chief now paints himself black, and commences a strict fast, only tasting a decoction of consecrated herbs to assist his dreams, which are strictly noted and interpreted by the elders. He then washes off the black paint. A huge fire is lighted in a public place in the village, and the great war-caldron set to boil: each warrior throws something into this vessel, and the allies who are to join the expedition also send offerings for the same purpose. Lastly, the sacred dog is sacrificed to the God of War, and boiled in the caldron to form the chief dish at a festival, to which only the warriors and men great in council are admitted.

During these ceremonies the elders watch the omens with deep anxiety, and if the promise be favorable, they prepare for immediate departure. The chief then paints himself in bright and varied colors, to render his appearance terrible, and sings his war song, announcing the nature of the projected enterprise. His example is followed by all the warriors, who join a war-dance, while they proclaim with a loud voice the glory of their former deeds, and their determination to destroy their enemies. Each Indian now seizes his arms: the bow and quiver hang over the left shoulder, the tomahawk from the left hand, and the scalping-knife is stuck in the girdle. A distinguished chief is appointed to take charge of the Manitous or guardian powers of each warrior; they are collected, carefully placed in a box, and accompany the expedition as the ark of safety. Meanwhile the women incite the warriors to vengeance, and eagerly demand captives for the torture, to appease the spirits of their slaughtered relatives, or sometimes, indeed, to supply their place. When the war party are prepared to start, the chief addresses his followers in a short harangue; they then commence the march, singing, and shouting the terrible war-whoop. The women proceed with the expedition for some distance; and when they must return, exchange endearing names with their husbands and relations, and express ardent wishes for victory. Some little gift of affection is usually exchanged at parting.

Before striking the first blow the Indians make open declaration of war. A herald, painted black, is sent, bearing a red tomahawk, on one side of which are inscribed figures representing the causes of hostilities. He reaches the enemy’s principal village at midnight, throws down the tomahawk in some conspicuous place, and disappears silently. When once warning is thus given, every stratagem that cunning can suggest is employed for the enemy’s destruction.

As long as the expedition continues in friendly countries, the warriors wander about in small parties for the convenience of hunting, still, however, keeping up communication by means of sounds imitating the cries of birds and beasts. None ever fail to appear at the appointed place of meeting upon the frontier, where they again hold high festival, and consult the omens of their dreams. When they enter the hostile territory a close array is observed, and a deep silence reigns. They creep on all fours, walk through water, or upon the stumps of trees, to avoid leaving any trace of their route. To conceal their numbers they sometimes march in a long single file, each stepping on the foot-print of the man before him. They sometimes even wear the hoofs of the buffalo or the paws of the bear, and run for miles in a winding course to imitate the track of those animals. Every effort is made to surprise the foe, and they frequently lure him to destruction by imitating from the depths of the forest the cries of animals of the chase.

If the expedition meet with no straggling party of the enemy, it advances with cautious stealth toward some principal village; the warriors creep on their hands and feet through the deep woods, and often even paint themselves the color of dried leaves to avoid being perceived by their intended victims. On approaching the doomed hamlet, they examine it carefully, but rapidly, from some tree-top or elevated ground, and again conceal themselves till nightfall in the thickest covert. Strange to say, these subtle warriors neglect altogether the security of sentinels, and are satisfied with searching the surrounding neighborhood for hidden foes; if none be discovered, they sleep in confidence, even when hostile forces are not far off. They weakly trust to the protecting power of their Manitous. When they have succeeded in reaching the village, and concealing themselves unobserved, they wait silently, keeping close watch till the hour before dawn, when the inhabitants are in the deepest sleep. Then crawling noiselessly, like snakes, through the grass and underwood, till they are upon the foe, the chief raises a shrill cry, and the massacre begins. Discharging a shower of arrows, they finish the deadly work with the club and tomahawk. The great object, however, of the conquerors is to take the enemy alive, and reserve him to grace their triumph and rejoice their eyes by his torture. When resistance is attempted, this is often impossible, and an instant death saves the victim from the far greater horrors of captivity and protracted torment. When an enemy is struck down, the victor places his foot upon the neck of the dead or dying man, and with a horrible celerity and skill tears off the bleeding scalp. This trophy is ever preserved with jealous care by the Indian warriors.

After any great success the war party always return to their villages, more eager to celebrate the victory than to improve its advantages. Their women and old men await their return in longing expectation. The fate of the war is announced from afar off by well-known signs; the bad tidings are first told. A herald advances to the front of the returning party, and sounds a death-whoop for each of their warriors who has fallen in the fray. Then, after a little time, the tale of victory is told, and the number of prisoners and of the slain declared. All lamentations are soon hushed, and congratulations and rejoicing succeed. During the retreat, if the war party be not hard pressed by the enemy, prisoners are treated with some degree of humanity, but are very closely guarded. When the expedition has returned to the village, the old men, women, and children form themselves into two lines; the prisoners are compelled to pass between them, and are cruelly bruised with sticks and stones, but not vitally injured by their tormentors.

A council is usually held to decide the fate of the prisoners: the alternatives are, to be adopted into the conquering nation, and received as brothers, or to be put to death in the most horrible torments, thus either to supply the place of warriors fallen in battle, or to appease the spirits of the departed by their miserable end. The older warriors among the captives usually meet the hardest fate; the younger are most frequently adopted by the women, their wounds are cured, and they are thenceforth received in every respect as if they belonged to the tribe. The adopted prisoners go out to war against their former countrymen, and the new tie is held even more binding than the old.

The veteran warrior, whose tattooed skin bears record of slaughtered enemies, meets with no mercy: his face is painted, his head crowned with flowers as if for a festival, black moccasins are put upon his feet, and a flaming torch is placed above him as the signal of condemnation. The women take the lead in the diabolical tortures to which he is subjected, and rage around their victim with horrible cries. He is, however, allowed a brief interval to sing his death-song, and he often continues it even through the whole of the terrible ordeal. He boasts of his great deeds, insults his tormentors, laughing at their feeble efforts, exults in the vengeance that his nation will take for his death, and pours forth insulting reproaches and threats. The song is then taken up by the woman to whose particular revenge he has been devoted. She calls upon the spirit of her husband or son to come and witness the sufferings of his foe. After tortures too various and horrible to be particularized, some kind wound closes the scene in death, and the victim’s scalp is lodged among the trophies of the tribe. To endure with unshaken fortitude is the greatest triumph of an Indian warrior, and the highest confusion to his enemies, but often the proud spirit breaks under the pangs that rack the quivering flesh, and shouts of intolerable agony reward the demoniac ingenuity of the tormentors.

Many early writers considered that the charge of cannibalism against the Indians was well founded: doubtless, in moments of fury, portions of an enemy’s flesh have been rent off and eaten. To devour a foeman’s heart is held by them to be an exquisite vengeance. They have been known to drink draughts of human blood, and, in circumstances of scarcity, they do not hesitate to eat their captives. It is certain that all the terms used by them in describing the torture of prisoners relate to this horrible practice; yet, as they are so figurative in every expression, these may simply mean the fullest gratification of revenge. The evidence upon this point is obscure and contradictory; the Indian can not be altogether acquitted or found guilty of this foul imputation.

The brief peace that affords respite amid the continual wars of the Indian tribes is scarcely more than a truce. Nevertheless, it is concluded with considerable form and ceremony. The first advance toward a cessation of hostilities is usually made through the chief of a neutral power. The nation proposing the first overture dispatches some men of note as embassadors, accompanied by an orator, to contract the negotiation. They bear with them the calumet of peace as the symbol of their purpose, and a certain number of wampum belts to note the objects and conditions of the negotiation. The orator explains the meaning of the belts to the hostile chiefs, and if the proposition be received, the opposite party accept the proffered symbols, and the next day present others of a similar import. The calumet is then solemnly smoked, and the burial of a war hatchet for each party and for each ally concludes the treaty. The negotiations consist more in presents, speeches, and ceremonies, than in any demands upon each other; there is no property to provide tribute, and the victors rarely or never require the formal cession of any of the hunting-grounds of the vanquished. The unrestrained passions of individuals, and the satiety of long continued peace, intolerable to the Indian, soon again lead to the renewal of hostility.

The successful hunter ranks next to the brave warrior in the estimation of the savage. Before starting on his grand expeditions, he prepares himself by a course of fasting, dreaming, and religious observances, as if for war. He hunts with astonishing dexterity and skill, and regards this pursuit rather as an object of adventure and glory than as an industrious occupation.

With regard to cultivation and the useful arts, the Indians are in the very infancy of progress. Their villages are usually not less than eighteen miles apart, and are surrounded by a narrow circle of imperfectly-cleared land, slightly turned up with a hoe, or scraped with pointed sticks, scarcely interrupting the continuous expanse of the forest. They are only acquainted with the rudest sorts of clay manufactures, and the use of the metals (except by European introduction) is altogether unknown. Their women, however, display considerable skill in weaving fine mats, in staining the hair of animals, and working it into brilliant colored embroideries. The wampum belts are made with great care and some taste. The calumet is also elaborately carved and ornamented; and the painting and tattooing of their bodies sometimes presents well-executed and highly descriptive pictures and hieroglyphics. They construct light and elegant baskets from the swamp cane, and are very skillful in making bows and arrows; some tribes, indeed, were so rude as not to have attained even to the use of this primitive weapon, and the sling was by no means generally known.

Most of the American nations are without any fixed form of government whatever. The complete independence of every man is fully recognized. He may do what he pleases of good or evil, useful or destructive, no constituted power interferes to thwart his will. If he even take away the life of another, the by-standers do not interpose. The kindred of the slain, however, will make any sacrifice for vengeance. And yet, in the communities of these children of nature there usually reigns a wonderful tranquillity. A deadly hostility exists between the different tribes, but among the members comprising each the strictest union exists. The honor and prosperity of his nation is the leading object of the Indian. This national feeling forms a link to draw him closely to his neighbor, and he rarely or never uses violence or evil speech against a countryman. Where there is scarcely such a thing as individual property, government and justice are necessarily very much simplified. There exists almost a community of goods. No man wants while another has enough and to spare. Their generosity knows no bounds. Whole tribes, when ruined by disasters in war, find unlimited hospitality among their neighbors; habitations and hunting-grounds are allotted to them, and they are received in every respect as if they were members of the nation that protects them.

As there is generally no wealth or hereditary distinction among this people, the sole claim to eminence is founded on such personal qualities as can only be conspicuous in war, council, or the chase. During times of tranquillity and inaction all superiority ceases. Every man is clothed and fares alike. Relations of patronage and dependence are unknown. All are free and equal, and they perish rather than submit to control or endure correction. During war, indeed, or in the chase, they render a sort of obedience to those who excel in character and conduct, but at other times no form of government whatever exists. The names of magistrate and subject are not in their language. If the elders interpose between man and man, it is to advise, not to decide. Authority is only tolerated in foreign, not in domestic affairs.

Music and dancing express the emotions of the Indian’s mind. He has his songs of war and death, and particular moments of his life are appointed for their recital. His great deeds and the vengeance he has inflicted upon his enemies are his subjects; the language and music express his passions rudely but forcibly. The dance is still more important: it is the grand celebration at every festival, and alternately the exponent of their triumph, anger, or devotion. It is usually pantomimic, and highly descriptive of the subject to which it is appropriate.

The Indians are immoderately fond of play as a means of excitement and agitation. While gaming, they, who are usually so taciturn and indifferent, become loquacious and eager. Their guns, arms, and all that they possess are freely staked, and at times where all else is lost, they will trust even their personal safety to the hazard of the die. The most barbarous of the tribes have unhappily succeeded in inventing some species of intoxicating liquor: that from the root of the maize was in general use; it is not disagreeable to the taste, and is very powerful. When the accursed fire-water is placed before the Indians, none can resist the temptation. The wisest, best, and bravest succumb alike to this odious temptation: and when their unrestrained passions are excited by drinking, they are at times guilty of enormous outrages, and the scenes of their festivities often become stained with kindred blood. The women are not permitted to partake of this fatal pleasure; their duty is to serve the guests, and take care of their husbands and friends when overpowered by the debauch. This exclusion from a favorite enjoyment is evidence of the contempt in which females are held among the Indians.

In the present day, he who would study the character and habits of these children of Nature must travel far away beyond the Rocky Mountains, where the murrain of perverted civilization has not yet spread. There he may still find the virtues and vices of the savage, and lead among those wild tribes that fascinating life of liberty which few have ever been known to abandon willingly for the restraints and luxuries of civilization and refinement.