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Six Nations Indian’s Character, Moral and General
Posted By Dennis Partridge On In Native American,New York | No Comments
It is often claimed for the Indian that, before the white man put him in the way of a freer indulgence of his unhappy craving for drink, he was as moral a being as one unrenewed by Divine grace could be expected to be. Unfortunately, this statement involves no definition of what might be considered moral, under the circumstances. Now, there will be disagreeing estimates of what a moral character, upon which there has been no descent of heavenly grace, or where grace has not supervened to essay its recreation, or its molding anew, should be; and there will also, I think, be divergent views as to a code of morals to be practiced which shall comport with the exhibition of a reasonably seemly morality. I cannot, at least, concur in that definition of a moral character, upon which no operation of Divine grace has been expended, for its raising or its beautifying, which accepts that of the pagan Indian as its highest expression; and, distinctly, hesitate to affirm that a high moral instinct inheres in the Indian, or that such is permitted to dominate his mind; and, when I find one of these very writers who claim for him a high inborn morality, discovering in him such indwelling monsters as revenge, mercilessness, implacability, the affirmation falters not the less upon my tongue. That very many of the graver crimes laid at the Indian’s door, and the revolting heinousness of which the records of our courts reveal; may be traced to his prescribing for himself, and practicing, a lax standard of morals, is a statement which it would be idle to dispute. That the marriage tie exacts from him not the most onerous of interpretations, and that the scriptural basis for a sound morality, involved in the declaration, “and they twain shall be one flesh,” not seldom escapes, in his case, its full and due honoring, are, likewise, affirmations not susceptible of being refuted. That, for instance, is not a high notion of marital constancy (marital is scarcely the term, for I am speaking now of the pagan, who rejects the idea of marriage, though often, I confess, living happily and uninterruptedly with the woman of his choice) which permits the summary disruption of the bond between man and woman; nor is paternal responsibility rigorously defined by one, who causes to cease, at will, his labor and care for, and support of, his children, leaving the reassuring of these to those children contingent upon the mother finding some one else to give them and herself a home.
To follow a lighter vein for a moment. The Police Magistrate at Brantford, before whom many of these little domesticities come for their due appreciation (for they disclose, often, elements of really baffling complexity) not less than their ventilation and unravelling, is an eminently peace-loving man, and quite an adept at patching up such-like conjugal trifles. He will dispense from his tribunal sage advice, and prescribe remedial measures, which shall have untold efficacy, in dispelling mutual mistrust, restoring mutual confidence, and bringing about a lasting re-union. He will interpose, like some potent magician, to transform a discordant, recriminating, utterly unlovely couple, into a pair of harmless, peaceable, love-consumed doves. There rises before my mind a case for illustration. A couple lived on the Reserve, whose domestic life had become so completely embittered that every vestige of old-time happiness had fled. The agency of the Police Magistrate was sought to decree terms of separation, as there was an adamantine resolve on the part of each to no longer live with the other. Thus, in a frame of mind altogether repelling the notion of conversion to gentler views, or the idea of laudable endeavor, on the part of another, to instil milder counsels, being availingly expended, they repaired to the Police Magistrate’s office. He, by invoking old recollections on either side, and judiciously inviting them to a retrospection of their former mutual courtesies, and early undimmed pleasures, gradually brought the would-be sundered people to a wiser mind. I believe there have only been two or three outbursts of domestic infelicity since.
Certain notions, bound up with the Indian’s practice, in times now happily passed away, of polygamy, may be construed into an advocacy of the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Bill, which engaged the attention of Parliament last session, and bids fair to take up the time and thought of our legislators, in sessions yet to come. The Indian usually sought to marry two sisters, holding that the children of the one would be loved and cared for more by the other than if the wives were not related. The concurrent existence of both mothers is, of course, presumed here. The question remains to be asked, would the children of the one sister, were their mother dead, be as well loved and cared for by the surviving sister, were she called upon to exercise the functions of a step-mother; and would the children of the dead sister love the children of the living sister, were they not viewed upon the same footing as those children?
That the Indian, the Christian Indian, frequently contemns the means unsparingly used, and the attempts and arguments put forth, by his spiritual overseers, to restrain his immoral propensities, to bridle his immoral instinct, and to ameliorate and elevate, generally, his moral tone, I fear, will not be gainsaid. That very many, on the other hand, practice a high morality, and set before themselves an exalted conception of conjugal duty, and strive, with a full-hearted earnestness, to fulfill that conception, none would-be so blind or so unjust as to deny.
There are some features in the Indian character to which unstinted praise is due, and shall be rendered.
He is very hospitable; and (herein nobly conserving his traditions) it is in no wise uncommon for him to resign the best of the rude comforts he has, in the way of accommodation, to some belated one, and content himself with the scantest of those scant comforts, impressing, at the same time, with his native delicacy, the notion, that he courts, rather than shrinks from, the almost penitential regime. Though one would naturally think, that the scorn of material comforts, suggested here, and which many others of his acts evince, would scarcely breed indolence in the Indian, yet this is with him an almost unconquerable weakness. It is, indeed, so ingrained within him, as to resist any attempt, on his own part, to excise it from his economy; and as to defy extirpating or uprooting process sought to be enforced by another. The Indian is, in truth, a supremely indolent being, and testifying to an utter abandonment of himself to the power of indolence over him, has often been known, when recourse solely to the chase was permitted him for the filling of his larder, to delay his steps to the forest, until the gnawing pangs of hunger should drive him there, as offering him the only plan for their appeasing.
When I have said that the Indian is hospitable, I have said that he is kind and considerate, for these are involved with the other. He has much of native delicacy and politeness; and though, from deep-seated prepossession, he denies the woman equal footing with himself; and, though through misconception of woman’s true purpose and mission in the world, or through failing to apprehend that higher, greater, more palpable helpfulness she brings to man (all these, because self-dictated, self-enforced) he commits to her much of the drudgery, and imposes upon her many of the heavy burdens, of life, the Indian is not wholly devoid of chivalric instinct.
He is usually reticent in his manner with strangers, (but this is readily explained by his imperfect command of English, and his reluctance to expose his deficiency) though voluble to the last degree when he falls in with his own people.
The Indian has been lauded and hymned by Longfellow and others as the hunter par excellence; but, to apply this to his present condition, and look there for its truth, would be idle. The incitements to indulge his taste for hunting are now so few, and of such slight potency, and the opportunities for giving it play so narrowed down, and so rare, that the pursuit of the chase has become well-nigh obsolete, and something to him redolent only, as it were, with the breath of the past. As the Indian is at present circumstanced and environed, he can beat up little or no game, and his poverty frequently putting out of his reach the procuring of the needful sporting gear, where he does follow hunting, it is pursued with much-weakened ardor, and often bootless issue. He is moved now to its pursuit, solely with the hope of realizing a paltry gain from the sale of the few prizes he may secure.
Though his reputation as a hunter has so mournfully declined, the Indian is yet skilled in tracking rabbits, in the winter season, the youth, particularly, finding this a pleasant diversion. I trust I do not invoke the hasty ire of the sportsman if, in guilelessness of soul, I call this hunting. This very circumscribing of the occasions, and inefficacy of the motive powers, for engaging in hunting, will tend, it is hoped, to correct the indolent habits that the Indian nurses, and the inveteracy of which I have just dwelt upon, and emphasized; for it will not, I think, be denied that his former full-hearted pursuit of the chase (in submission, largely though it was, to imperious calls of nature), is responsible, mainly, for the inherence of this unpleasing trait. Though, of course, hunting in its very nature, enforces a certain activity, it is an activity, so far as any beneficent impressing of the character is concerned, void of wholesomeness, and barren of solid, lasting results; and, viewed in this way, an activity really akin to indolence. With the craving for hunting subdued, the Indian may take up, with less distraction, and devote himself, to good advantage, to his farming, and to industrial callings.
Want of energy and of steadiness of purpose are with the Indian conspicuous weaknesses, and their bearing upon his farming operations may be briefly noticed. He will not devote himself to his work in the fields with that full-intentioned mind to put in an honest day’s toil, that the white man brings to his work, often being beguiled, by some outside pleasure or amusement, into permitting his day’s work to sustain a break, which he laments afterwards in a melancholy refrain, of farming operations behind, and domestic matters unhinged, generally. Though the white has endeavored (and I the more gladly bear my witness to these attempts at the redemption of the Indian from some of his weaknesses, since the white has been so freely charged with ministering to his appetite for drink, and to the evil side of his nature generally) to infuse these qualities of energy and resolution into the Indian, my observation has not yet discerned them in him. Though irresolute himself, the Indian will not tolerate, but is sufficiently warm in his disapprobation, of any unmanly surrender to weakness or vacillation on the part of whites set in authority over him.
He imbibes freely (I fear the notion of a certain physiological process is embraced by some minds, and that these words will be taken as curtly enunciating the Indian’s besetting weakness; but pray be not too eager to dissever them from what is yet to come, as I protest that I am not now wishing to revert to this sad failing). He imbibes freely–the current fashions of the hour amongst whites. If raffling, for instance, be held in honor as a method for expediting the sale of personal effects, the Indian will adapt the practice to the disposal of every conceivable chattel that he desires to get off his hands.
The Indian very frequently has the crime of perjury alleged against him, though what is assumed to be perjury is usually demonstrated to have nothing whatever of that element in it.
These imputations come about in this way: If the Indian, about to give evidence, be declared to have a reasonable mastery of English, the Court, sometimes rather hastily, I think, dispenses with the interpreter, in order to save time. A question is put to a witness, who, though not understanding it sufficiently to appreciate its full import and bearing, yet protesting, in a self-sufficient spirit, that he does (for the Indian likes to have imputed to him extensive knowledge of English) returns an answer apart from the truth, and one which he really never intended to give, and becomes, through the interpreter, committed to it on the records.
Or, the allegation may arise after this fashion:–The interpreter, having to master several different languages, will almost insensibly, in the confusion of idioms, misinterpret what has been said. The outrageous prevalence of this supposed perjury would of itself point to an explanation of this kind, since, we cannot believe that the Indian wishes to canonize untruthfulness.
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