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Testimonies to Indian Character

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Testimonies to Indian Character
"Early in 1800 the Governor of the Northwest Territory, in his message to the assembly, invited their attention to the condition of the Indians. He observed that, irrespective of the principles of religion and justice, it was the interest and should be the policy of the United States to be at peace with them; but that could not continue to be the case if the treaties existing between them and the Government were broken with impunity by the inhabitants of the Territory. He referred to the well-known fact that while the white men loudly complained of every injury committed by the Indians, however trifling, and demanded immediate reparation, they were daily perpetrating against them injuries and wrongs of the most provoking and atrocious nature, for which the perpetrators had not been brought to justice. He stated that the number of those unfortunate people who had been murdered since the peace of Greenville was sufficient to produce serious alarm for the consequences. He added, further, that a late attempt to bring to punishment a white man, who was clearly proved to have killed two adult Indians and wounded two of their children, had proved abortive."
BRUNER'S Notes on Northwest Territory.

Character of Northwestern Indians
"Among other falsehoods it has been asserted confidently, but without a shadow of argument or fact to sustain the assertion, that they cannot be brought to a state of civilization, or be induced to form communities and engage in the pursuits of agriculture and the arts, in consequence of some physical difference between them and the Anglo-Saxon race. This hypothesis is contradicted by experience, which has abundantly shown that the two races, when placed in the same situation, and acted upon by the same causes, have invariably resorted to the same expedients and pursued the same policy.

"This averment is sustained by a reference to the white people who have been taken prisoners in childhood and brought up among the Indians. In every such case the child of civilization has become the ferocious adult of the forest, manifesting all the peculiarities, tastes, and preferences of the native Indian. His manners, habits, propensities, and pursuits have been the same, so that the most astute philosophical observer has not been able to discover any difference between them, except in the color of the skin, and in some instances even this has been removed by long exposure to the elements, and the free use of oils and paints."

The many instances, which there are on record of cases in which persons taken captive by the Indians, while young, have utterly refused in later life to return to their relatives and homes, go to confirm this statement of Judge Burnet's.

On the other hand, he says: "The attempts that have been made at different times to improve the minds and cultivate the morals of these people have always been attended by success.

"On an unprejudiced comparison between the civilized educated white man and the civilized educated Indian, all this theory of an organic constitutional difference between the European and the native Indian vanishes.

"In what respect have Ross, Boudinot, Hicks, Ridge, and others differed from the educated men of our own race? Inasmuch then as the reclaimed educated Indian becomes assimilated to the white man, and the European brought up from infancy among the Indians becomes identified with them, this alleged difference cannot be real, it must be imaginary.

"The fact is, the difficulty of civilizing the natives of this continent is neither greater nor less than that which retarded the improvement of the barbarous nations of Europe two thousand years ago. Men uncivilized have always delighted in the chase, and had a propensity to roam; both history and experience prove that nothing but necessity, arising from such an increase of population as destroys the game, has ever induced men to settle in communities, and rely on the cultivation of the earth for subsistence. In the progress of civilization the chase has given way to the pastoral state, and that has yielded to agriculture as the increase of numbers has rendered it necessary.

"As soon as the Cherokees and the Wyandot were surrounded by a white population, and their territory was so contracted as to cut off their dependence on hunting and fishing, they became farmers, and manifested a strong desire to cultivate the arts; and with them in the freest intimacy, and this is his verdict as to their native traits, when uncontaminated by white men and whiskey.

As long ago as 1724, the Jesuit Father Lafitan wrote of the Indians, and stated that to his own experience he added that of Father Gamier, who had lived sixty years among them: "They are possessed," says he, "of sound judgment, lively imagination, ready conception, and wonderful memory. All the tribes retain at least some trace of an ancient religion, handed down to them from their ancestors, and a form of government. They reflect justly upon their affairs, and better than the mass of the people among ourselves. They prosecute their ends by sure means; they evince a degree of coolness and composure, which would exceed our patience; they never permit themselves to indulge in passion, but always, from a sense of honor and greatness of soul, appear masters of themselves. They are high-minded and proud; posses a courage equal to every trial, an intrepid valor, the most heroic constancy under torments, and an equanimity, which neither misfortunes nor reverses can shake. Toward each other they behave with a natural politeness and attention, entertaining a high respect for the aged, and a consideration for their equals which appears scarcely reconcilable with that freedom and independence of which they are so jealous. They make few professions of kindness, but yet are affable and generous. Toward strangers and the unfortunate they exercise a degree of hospitality and charity which might put the inhabitants of Europe to the blush."

Father Lafitan does not disguise the fact that the Indians have great faults. He says they are " suspicious and vindictive, cruel to their enemies."

Père Lallemant, a missionary among the Huron, says: "In point of intellect they are not at all inferior to the natives of Europe; I could not have believed that, without instruction, nature could have produced such ready and vigorous eloquence, or such a sound judgment in their affairs as that which I have so much admired among the Huron. I admit that their habits and customs are barbarous in a thousand ways; but, after all, in matters which they consider as wrong, and which their public condemns, we observe among them less criminality than in France, although here the only punishment of a crime is the shame of having committed it."

In a history of New France, published in 1618, it is stated of the Indians that " they are valorous, faithful, generous, and humane; their hospitality is so great that they extend it to every one who is not their enemy. They speak with much judgment and reason, and, when they have any important enterprise to undertake, the chief is attentively listened to for two or three hours together, and he is answered point to point, as the subject may require."

In 1656 the Jesuit missionaries among the Iroquois reported: "Among many faults caused by their blindness and barbarous education, we meet with virtues enough to cause shame among the most of Christians. Hospitals for the poor would be useless among them, because there are no beggars; those who have are so liberal to those who are in want, that everything is enjoyed in common. The whole village must be in distress before any individual is left in necessity."

Captain Carver, who travelled in 1766 among the wildest tribes, describes them as "cruel, barbarous, and revengeful in war, persevering and inflexible in pursuit of an enemy, sanguinary in their treatment of prisoners, and sparing neither age nor sex." On the other hand, he found them temperate in their mode of living, patient of hunger and fatigue, sociable and humane to all whom they looked on as friends, and ready to share with them the last morsel of food they possessed, or to expose their lives in their defense. In their public character he describes them as " possessing an attachment to their nation unknown to the inhabitants of any other country, combining as if actuated by one soul against a common enemy, never swayed in their councils by selfish or party views, but sacrificing everything to he honor and advantage of their tribe, in support of which they fear no danger, and are affected by no sufferings. 'They are not only affectionately attached, indeed, to their own offspring, but are extremely fond of children in general. They instruct them carefully in their own principles, and train them up with attention in the maxims and habits of their nation. Their system consists chiefly in the influence of example, and impressing on them the traditionary histories of their ancestors. When the children act wrong, their parents remonstrate and reprimand but never chastise them."
HALKETT's Hist. Notes.

The very idea of corporal punishment of little children seems to have been peculiarly obnoxious to the native North American. In the " Relation de Nouvelle France," published in 1633, there is a curious story of an incident, which took place at Quebec. A party of Indians, watching a French drummer-boy 'beat his drum, pressed more closely around him than he liked, and he struck one of the Indians in the face with his drumstick so sharply that the blow drew blood. The Indians, much offended, went to the interpreter and demanded apologies and a present, according to their custom. "No," said the interpreter, "our custom is to punish the offender; we will punish the boy in your presence." When the Indians saw the child stripped for the flogging they began immediately to beg for his pardon; but as the soldiers continued their preparations for whipping the lad, one of the Indians suddenly stripped himself and threw his robe over the boy, crying out, " Scourge me, if you choose, but do not strike the boy" The good Father Le Jeune, who tells this story, adds that this unwillingness of the Indians to see any child chastised "will probably occasion trouble to us in the design we have to instruct their youth."

As far back as 1587 we find evidence that the Indians were not without religion. Thomas Hariot, an employee of Sir Walter Raleigh's, writing from the Virginia colony, says of the Virginia Indians: " They believe that there are many gods, which they call Mantaoc, but of different sorts and degrees; one only chief and Great God, which hath been from all eternity; who, as thee affirm, when he proposed to make the world, made first other gods of a principal order, to be as means and instruments to be used in the creation and government to follow; and after the sun, moon, and stars as pettie gods, and the instruments of the other order more principal."

"In general," says Hunter, "a day seldom passes with an elderly Indian, or others who are esteemed wise and good, in which a blessing is not asked, or thanks returned to the Giver of Life, sometimes audibly, but more generally in the devotional language of the heart."

All the employees of the North-west Fur Company bear the same testimony to the fidelity and honesty of the Indians.

General H. Sibley once said to Bishop Whipple that for thirty years it had been the uniform boast of the Sioux in every council that they had never taken the life of a white man.


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

A Century of Dishonor, By Helen Hunt Jackson, New York, Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square, 1885

A Century of Dishonor

 

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