General Customs and Peculiarities of North American Indians

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We notice in the Indian a remarkable gravity and innate dignity, which leads him to avoid, with the most scrupulous care, all involuntary or impulsive expression of his feelings. This is not confined to the occasions upon which he calls forth his powers of endurance in suffering the most cruel torments with apparent insensibility or even with exultation, but enters into all the acts of his daily life. He betrays no unseemly curiosity or impatience under circumstances that would naturally excite both in the highest degree. Has he been long absent from home on a war-path, or on a visit to cities of the whites; has he learned some great and threatening danger, or has the intelligence reached him of the death of those whom he most values; his conduct and method of communicating his adventures or his information, are governed by the same deliberation and immobility.

Returning half famished from an unsuccessful hunt, he enters his wigwam, and sits down unquestioned, showing no symptom of impatience for food. His wife prepares his refreshment, and after smoking his pipe, and satisfying his hunger, he volunteers an account of his experience. Catlin gives a striking description of the meeting between a chief named Wi-jun-jon, who had just returned from an embassy to Washington, and his family. He landed from the steamer at his home in the far West, “with a complete suit en militaire, a colonel’s uniform of blue, presented to him by the president of the United States, with a beaver hat and feather, with epaulets of gold with sash and belt, and broadsword; with high-heeled boots with a keg of whiskey under his arm, and a blue umbrella in his hand. In this plight and metamorphose, he took his position on the bank amongst his friends his wife and other relations; not one of whom exhibited, for an half hour or more, the least symptoms of recognition, although they knew well who was before them.” The conduct of the chief was of the same character, but, half an hour afterwards, ” a gradual, but cold and exceedingly formal recognition began to take place,” after which, all went on as if he had never been absent. This strange demeanor does not, by any means, result from real indifference, but from the supposed propriety of suppressing any outbreak of emotion. No doubt all the parties to the scene above described, were in a state of the greatest curiosity and excitement, and the family doubtless felt the most exuberant joy at the reunion; but custom, or their ideas of good taste, prohibited the exhibition of a ” scene.” Those who are best acquainted with the character of the Indians agree that with them the ties of family affection are exceedingly strong and enduring. The most touching descriptions are given of the manner in which they mourn for the dead, and of the tender and faithful remembrance of lost relatives that no length of time seems to obliterate. Carver says, “I can assert that, notwithstanding the apparent indifference with which an Indian meets his wife and children after a long absence, an indifference proceeding rather from custom than insensibility, he is riot unmindful of the claims either of connubial or parental tenderness.”

The same author who had witnessed the most bloody and savage scenes of Indian warfare, and who was familiar with the cruelties and unrelenting spirit of revenge peculiar to the race, candidly bears witness to their good qualities:

“No people,” he says, “can be more hospitable, kind and free. The honor of their tribe and the welfare of their nation is the first and most predominant emotion of their hearts; and fro m hence proceed in a great measure all their virtues and their vices. , No selfish views ever influence their advice or obstruct their consultations. They are at once guided by passions and appetites, which they hold in common with the fiercest beasts that inhabit their woods, and are possessed of virtues which do honor to human nature.”

The Indians are naturally taciturn, but fond of set speeches. Their oratory is of no mean order, and is distinguished for a pithiness, a quaintness, and occasionally a vein of dry sarcasm, which have never been surpassed. We have specimens of some of their orations, upon great occasions, which are models of stirring eloquence, adorned with metaphors and similes, which breathe the true spirit of poetry.

The most pleasing traits in the character of these strange people are their reverence for age, their affection for their children, their high notions of honor, and their keen sense of justice. The great stigma upon the whole race is their deliberate and systematic cruelty in the treatment of captives. It is hard to account for this, but it really appears, upon investigation, to be rather a national custom, gradually reaching a climax, than to have arisen from any innate love of inflicting pain. It is perfectly certain that, if the children of the most enlightened nation on earth should be brought up in occasional familiarity with scenes like those witnessed at the execution of a prisoner by the American savages, they would experience no horror at the sight. We need not seek farther than the history of religious and political persecutions in Europe, or the cruelties practiced on reputed witches in our own country, to satisfy us that the character of the Indians will suffer little by comparison with that of their contemporaries of our own race.

Among some of those nations which included an extensive confederacy, where a system of government had become settled by usage, and the authority of the chief had been strengthened by long submission to him and his predecessors, an arbitrary monarchy seems to have prevailed; but among the smaller tribes, the authority of the chief was rather advisory than absolute. There was generally a king who held hereditary office, and exercised the powers of a civil governor by virtue of his descent, while to lead the warriors in battle, the bravest, most redoubted, and sagacious of the tribe was elected. These two chief offices were not unfrequently united in the same person, when the lawful sachem, from a spirit of emulation, or from natural advantages, showed himself worthy of the position.

All matters of national interest were discussed at a solemn council, consisting of the principal men of the tribe, and at which great decorum and formality were observed. As the debate proceeded, the whole conclave, whenever a remark from the orator speaking excited their approbation, would give expression to their approval by a guttural ejaculation.

A natural instinct of retributive justice ordained that the crime of murder should be punished by the hand of the deceased person’s nearest relative. An interesting incident, connected with this custom, is told in a notice of the public life of the Hon. Pierre A. Rost, of Louisiana, given in the United States Law Magazine, for March, 1852. He is here said to have been the first to suggest the propriety of interference in these matters on the part of the State Courts. In a drunken fray, an Indian had been accidentally killed. ” The relatives of the deceased were absent at the time; but they soon heard of his death, and came from the Indian Territory to exact blood for blood from the homicide. He was advised to flee, but would not, and, in blind submission to the law of the red man, agreed to deliver himself on a certain day to be shot. The Court was then sitting, and Mr. Rost proposed to the presiding judge to prevent the horrid sacrifice, by giving the victim a fair trial by jury, many members of which were known and respected by the relatives of the deceased, and impressing upon the latter the necessity of abiding by the verdict, whatever it might be.” This was done, and every thing was conducted with due form and solemnity. The Indian witnesses gave the most satisfactory answers when questioned as to their ideas of the obligation of an oath, and, after a full hearing, the defendant was acquitted. The decision was translated to the complainants, and they were told that to kill the prisoner would now be murder, and would subject them to the penalties of that crime.

“Mr. Rost then rose, and stated to the Court that the prosecutors had left their hunting-ground to come and avenge the death of their relative, as it was their duty to do; that justice had been done to the accused, but that was not sufficient. Justice must also be done to the other side; they must be indemnified for the inconvenience they had been put to, and the loss they had sustained; and, as the coffers of the treasury would not unlock at the bidding of his honor, he moved that the bar, jury, and bystanders, contribute a sufficient amount to satisfy them. This was done as soon as proposed, and the prosecutors declared themselves satisfied.”

The institution of marriage among the American Indians is by no means so restrictive a system as that adopted by enlightened nations. It is for the most part dissoluble at the pleasure of the parties, and polygamy is extensively practiced. As with other barbarous nations, the woman is compelled to undergo the drudgery of daily labor, while her lord and master lounges indolently about the village, except at times when his energies are called forth for hunting or war. When once engaged in these pursuits, his fixedness of purpose, and the readiness with which he will undergo the extremes of toil, exposure, hunger, and privation, is marvelous.


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MLA Source Citation:

Brownell, Charles De Wolf. Indian Races of North and South America: Comprising an account of the principal aboriginal races; a description of their national customs, mythology, and religious ceremonies, the history of their most powerful tribes, and of their most celebrated chiefs and warriors; their intercourse and wars with the European settlers; and a great variety of anecdote and description, illustrative of personal and national character. Hartford, Conn., Chicago,E. B. & R.C. Treat; [etc., etc.]: Hurlbut, Scranton & Co. 1864. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 15 April 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/general-customs-and-peculiarities-of-north-american-indians.htm - Last updated on Feb 18th, 2013


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