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Indian Population

 Native American Nations | Linguistic Families                    

As the question of the Indian population of the country has a direct bearing upon the extent to which the land was actually occupied, a few words on the subject will be introduced here, particularly as the area included in the linguistic map is so covered with color that it may convey a false impression of the density of the Indian population. As a result of an investigation of the subject of the early Indian population, Col. Mallery long ago arrived at the conclusion that their settlements were not numerous, and that the population, as compared with the enormous territory occupied, was extremely small.1

Careful examination since the publication of the above tends to corroborate the soundness of the conclusions there first formulated. The subject may be set forth as follows:

The sea shore, the borders of lakes, and the banks of rivers, where fish and shell-fish were to be obtained in large quantities, were naturally the Indians’ chief resort, and at or near such places were to be found their permanent settlements. As the settlements and lines of travel of the early colonists were along the shore, the lakes and the rivers, early estimates of the Indian population were chiefly based upon the numbers congregated along these highways, it being generally assumed that away from the routes of travel a like population existed. Again, over-estimates of population resulted from the fact that the same body of Indians visited different points during the year, and not infrequently were counted two or three times; change of permanent village sites also tended to augment estimates of population.

For these and other reasons a greatly exaggerated idea of the Indian population was obtained, and the impressions so derived have been dissipated only in comparatively recent times.

As will be stated more fully later, the Indian was dependent to no small degree upon natural products for his food supply. Could it be affirmed that the North American Indians had increased to a point where they pressed upon the food supply, it would imply a very much larger population than we are justified in assuming from other considerations. But for various reasons the Malthusian law, whether applicable elsewhere or not, can not be applied to the Indians of this country. Everywhere bountiful nature had provided an unfailing and practically inexhaustible food supply. The rivers teemed with fish and mollusks, and the forests with game, while upon all sides was an abundance of nutritious roots and seeds. All of these sources were known, and to a large extent they were drawn upon by the Indian, but the practical lesson of providing in the season of plenty for the season of scarcity had been but imperfectly learned, or, when learned, was but partially applied. Even when taught by dire experience the necessity of laying up adequate stores, it was the almost universal practice to waste great quantities of food by a constant succession of feasts, in the superstitious observances of which the stores were rapidly wasted and plenty soon gave way to scarcity and even to famine.

Curiously enough, the hospitality which is so marked a trait among our North American Indians had its source in a law, the invariable practice of which has had a marked effect in retarding the acquisition by the Indian of the virtue of providence. As is well known, the basis of the Indian social organization was the kinship system. By its provisions almost all property was possessed in common by the gens or clan. Food, the most important of all, was by no means left to be exclusively enjoyed by the individual or the family obtaining it.

For instance, the distribution of game among the families of a party was variously provided for in different tribes, but the practical effect of the several customs relating thereto was the sharing of the supply. The hungry Indian had but to ask to receive and this no matter how small the supply, or how dark the future prospect. It was not only his privilege to ask, it was his right to demand. Undoubtedly what was originally a right, conferred by kinship connections, ultimately assumed broader proportions, and finally passed into the exercise of an almost indiscriminate hospitality. By reason of this custom, the poor hunter was virtually placed upon equality with the expert one, the lazy with the industrious, the improvident with the more provident. Stories of Indian life abound with instances of individual families or parties being called upon by those less fortunate or provident to share their supplies.

The effect of such a system, admirable as it was in many particulars, practically placed a premium upon idleness. Under such communal rights and privileges a potent spur to industry and thrift is wanting.

There is an obverse side to this problem, which a long and intimate acquaintance with the Indians in their villages has forced upon the writer. The communal ownership of food and the great hospitality practiced by the Indian have had a very much greater influence upon his character than that indicated in the foregoing remarks. The peculiar institutions prevailing in this respect gave to each tribe or clan a profound interest in the skill, ability and industry of each member. He was the most valuable person in the community who supplied it with the most of its necessities. For this reason the successful hunter or fisherman was always held in high honor, and the woman, who gathered great store of seeds, fruits, or roots, or who cultivated a good corn-field, was one who commanded the respect and received the highest approbation of the people. The simple and rude ethics of a tribal people are very important to them, the more so because of their communal institutions; and everywhere throughout the tribes of the United States it is discovered that their rules of conduct were deeply implanted in the minds of the people. An organized system of teaching is always found, as it is the duty of certain officers of the clan to instruct the young in all the industries necessary to their rude life, and simple maxims of industry abound among the tribes and are enforced in diverse and interesting ways. The power of the elder men in the clan over its young members is always very great, and the training of the youth is constant and rigid. Besides this, a moral sentiment exists in favor of primitive virtues which is very effective in molding character. This may be illustrated in two ways.

Marriage among all Indian tribes is primarily by legal appointment, as the young woman receives a husband from some other prescribed clan or clans, and the elders of the clan, with certain exceptions, control these marriages, and personal choice has little to do with the affair. When marriages are proposed, the virtues and industry of the candidates, and more than all, their ability to properly live as married couples and to supply the clan or tribe with a due amount of subsistence, are discussed long and earnestly, and the young man or maiden who fails in this respect may fail in securing an eligible and desirable match. And these motives are constantly presented to the savage youth.

A simple democracy exists among these people, and they have a variety of tribal offices to fill. In this way the men of the tribe are graded, and they pass from grade to grade by a selection practically made by the people. And this leads to a constant discussion of the virtues and abilities of all the male members of the clan, from boyhood to old age. He is most successful in obtaining clan and tribal promotion who is most useful to the clan and the tribe. In this manner all of the ambitious are stimulated, and this incentive to industry is very great.

When brought into close contact with the Indian, and into intimate acquaintance with his language, customs, and religious ideas, there is a curious tendency observable in students to overlook aboriginal vices and to exaggerate aboriginal virtues. It seems to be forgotten that after all the Indian is a savage, with the characteristics of a savage, and he is exalted even above the civilized man. The tendency is exactly the reverse of what it is in the case of those who view the Indian at a distance and with no precise knowledge of any of his characteristics. In the estimation of such persons the Indian’s vices greatly outweigh his virtues; his language is a gibberish, his methods of war cowardly, his ideas of religion utterly puerile.

The above tendencies are accentuated in the attempt to estimate the comparative worth and position of individual tribes. No being is more patriotic than the Indian. He believes himself to be the result of a special creation by a partial deity and holds that his is the one favored race. The name by which the tribes distinguish themselves from other tribes indicates the further conviction that, as the Indian is above all created things, so in like manner each particular tribe is exalted above all others. “Men of men” is the literal translation of one name; “the only men” of another, and so on through the whole category. A long residence with any one tribe frequently inoculates the student with the same patriotic spirit. Bringing to his study of a particular tribe an inadequate conception of Indian attainments and a low impression of their moral and intellectual plane, the constant recital of its virtues, the bravery and prowess of its men in war, their generosity, the chaste conduct and obedience of its women as contrasted with the opposite qualities of all other tribes, speedily tends to partisanship. He discovers many virtues and finds that the moral and intellectual attainments are higher than he supposed; but these advantages he imagines to be possessed solely, or at least to an unusual degree, by the tribe in question. Other tribes are assigned much lower rank in the scale.

The above is peculiarly true of the student of language. He who studies only one Indian language and learns its manifold curious grammatic devices, its wealth of words, its capacity of expression, is speedily convinced of its superiority to all other Indian tongues, and not infrequently to all languages by whomsoever spoken.

If like admirable characteristics are asserted for other tongues he is apt to view them but as derivatives from one original. Thus he is led to overlook the great truth that the mind of man is everywhere practically the same, and that the innumerable differences of its products are indices merely of different stages of growth or are the results of different conditions of environment. In its development the human mind is limited by no boundaries of tribe or race.

Again, a long acquaintance with many tribes in their homes leads to the belief that savage people do not lack industry so much as wisdom. They are capable of performing, and often do perform, great and continuous labor. The men and women alike toil from day to day and from year to year, engaged in those tasks that are presented with the recurring seasons. In civilization, hunting and fishing are often considered sports, but in savagery they are labors, and call for endurance, patience, and sagacity. And these are exercised to a reasonable degree among all savage peoples.

It is probable that the real difficulty of purchasing quantities of food from Indians has, in most cases, not been properly understood. Unless the alien is present at a time of great abundance, when there is more on hand or easily obtainable than sufficient to supply the wants of the people, food can not be bought of the Indians. This arises from the fact that the tribal tenure is communal, and to get food by purchase requires a treaty at which all the leading members of the tribe are present and give consent.

As an illustration of the improvidence of the Indians generally, the habits of the tribes along the Columbia River may be cited. The Columbia River has often been pointed to as the probable source of a great part of the Indian population of this country, because of the enormous supply of salmon furnished by it and its tributaries. If an abundant and readily obtained supply of food was all that was necessary to insure a large population, and if population always increased up to the limit of food supply, unquestionably the theory of repeated migratory waves of surplus population from the Columbia Valley would be plausible enough. It is only necessary, however, to turn to the accounts of the earlier explorers of this region, Lewis and Clarke, for example, to refute the idea, so far at least as the Columbia Valley is concerned, although a study of the many diverse languages spread over the United States would seem sufficiently to prove that the tribes speaking them could not have originated at a common center, unless, indeed, at a period anterior to the formation of organized language.

The Indians inhabiting the Columbia Valley were divided into many tribes, belonging to several distinct linguistic families. They all were in the same culture status, however, and differed in habits and arts only in minor particulars. All of them had recourse to the salmon of the Columbia for the main part of their subsistence, and all practiced similar crude methods of curing fish and storing it away for the winter. Without exception, judging from the accounts of the above mentioned and of more recent authors, all the tribes suffered periodically more or less from insufficient food supply, although, with the exercise of due forethought and economy, even with their rude methods of catching and curing salmon, enough might here have been cured annually to suffice for the wants of the Indian population of the entire Northwest for several years.

In their ascent of the river in spring, before the salmon run, it was only with great difficulty that Lewis and Clarke were able to provide themselves by purchase with enough food to keep themselves from starving. Several parties of Indians from the vicinity of the Dalles, the best fishing station on the river, were met on their way down in quest of food, their supply of dried salmon having been entirely exhausted.

Nor is there anything in the accounts of any of the early visitors to the Columbia Valley to authorize the belief that the population there was a very large one. As was the case with all fish-stocked streams, the Columbia was resorted to in the fishing season by many tribes living at considerable distance from it; but there is no evidence tending to show that the settled population of its banks or of any part of its drainage basin was or ever had been by any means excessive.

The Dalles, as stated above, was the best fishing station on the river, and the settled population there may be taken as a fair index of that of other favorable locations. The Dalles was visited by Ross in July, 1811, and the following is his statement in regard to the population:

The main camp of the Indians is situated at the head of the narrows, and may contain, during the salmon season, 3,000 souls, or more; but the constant inhabitants of the place do not exceed 100 persons, and are called Wy-am-pams; the rest are all foreigners from different tribes throughout the country, who resort hither, not for the purpose of catching salmon, but chiefly for gambling and speculation.2

And as it was on the Columbia with its enormous supply of fish, so was it elsewhere in the United States.

Even the practice of agriculture, with its result of providing a more certain and bountiful food supply, seems not to have had the effect of materially augmenting the Indian population. At all events, it is in California and Oregon, a region where agriculture was scarcely practiced at all, that the most dense aboriginal population lived. There is no reason to believe that there ever existed within the limits of the region included in the map, with the possible exception of certain areas in California, a population equal to the natural food supply. On the contrary, there is every reason for believing that the population at the time of the discovery might have been many times more than what it actually was had a wise economy been practised.

The effect of wars in decimating the people has often been greatly exaggerated. Since the advent of the white man on the continent, wars have prevailed to a degree far beyond that existing at an earlier time. From the contest which necessarily arose between the native tribes and invading nations many wars resulted, and their history is well known. Again, tribes driven from their ancestral homes often retreated to lands previously occupied by other tribes, and intertribal wars resulted therefrom. The acquisition of firearms and horses, through the agency of white men, also had its influence, and when a commercial value was given to furs and skins, the Indian abandoned agriculture to pursue hunting and traffic, and sought new fields for such enterprises, and many new contests arose from this cause. Altogether the character of the Indian since the discovery of Columbus has been greatly changed, and he has become far more warlike and predatory. Prior to that time, and far away in the wilderness beyond such influence since that time, Indian tribes seem to have lived together in comparative peace and to have settled their difficulties by treaty methods. A few of the tribes had distinct organizations for purposes of war; all recognized it to a greater or less extent in their tribal organization; but from such study as has been given the subject, and from the many facts collected from time to time relating to the intercourse existing between tribes, it appears that the Indians lived in comparative peace. Their accumulations were not so great as to be tempting, and their modes of warfare were not excessively destructive. Armed with clubs and spears and bows and arrows, war could be prosecuted only by hand-to-hand conflict, and depended largely upon individual prowess, while battle for plunder, tribute, and conquest was almost unknown. Such intertribal wars as occurred originated from other causes, such as infraction of rights relating to hunting grounds and fisheries, and still oftener prejudices growing out of their superstitions.

That which kept the Indian population down sprang from another source, which has sometimes been neglected. The Indians had no reasonable or efficacious system of medicine. They believed that diseases were caused by unseen evil beings and by witchcraft, and every cough, every toothache, every headache, every chill, every fever, every boil, and every wound, in fact, all their ailments, were attributed to such cause. Their so-called medicine practice was a horrible system of sorcery, and to such superstition human life was sacrificed on an enormous scale. The sufferers were given over to priest doctors to be tormented, bedeviled, and destroyed; and a universal and profound belief in witchcraft made them suspicious, and led to the killing of all suspected and obnoxious people, and engendered blood feuds on a gigantic scale. It may be safely said that while famine, pestilence, disease, and war may have killed many, superstition killed more; in fact, a natural death in a savage tent is a comparatively rare phenomenon; but death by sorcery, medicine, and blood feud arising from a belief in witchcraft is exceedingly common.

Scanty as was the population compared with the vast area teeming with natural products capable of supporting human life, it may be safely said that at the time of the discovery, and long prior thereto, practically the whole of the area included in the present map was claimed and to some extent occupied by Indian tribes; but the possession of land by the Indian by no means implies occupancy in the modern or civilized sense of the term. In the latter sense occupation means to a great extent individual control and ownership. Very different was it with the Indians. Individual ownership of land was, as a rule, a thing entirely foreign to the Indian mind, and quite unknown in the culture stage to which he belonged. All land, of whatever character or however utilized, was held in common by the tribe, or in a few instances by the clan. Apparently an exception to this broad statement is to be made in the case of the Haida of the northwest coast, who have been studied by Dawson. According to him3 the land is divided among the different families and is held as strictly personal property, with hereditary rights or possessions descending from one generation to another. “The lands may be bartered or given away. The larger salmon streams are, however, often the property jointly of a number of families.” The tendency in this case is toward personal right in land.

Indian Linguistic Families of America North of Mexico, 1891

Linguistic Families


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