The Indian Council has a province more important than that which our Municipal Councils exercise. Its decisions as to disputes growing out of real estate transactions, unless clearly wrong, have in them the force of law.
The ordinary Council is a somewhat informal gathering as regards a presiding officer or officers, and, also, in respect of that essential feature of a quorum, for which similar bodies among ourselves hold out so exactingly. The Chiefs of the tribes, who, alone, are privileged to participate in discussions, can scarcely be looked upon in the light of presidents of the meeting; nor can there be discovered in the privileges or duties of any one of them the functions of a presiding officer.
The Chiefs of the Mohawk and Seneca, who sit on the left of the house, initiate discussion on all questions. The debating is then transferred to the opposite side of the house, where are seated the Chiefs of the Tuscarora, Oneidas, and Cayuga, and is carried on by these Chiefs. The Chiefs of the Onondagas, who are called “Fire-Keepers” (of the origin of the name “Fire-Keeper,” I will treat further, anon) then speak to the motion, or upon the measure, and, finally, decide everything; and they are, in view of this power of finality of decision with all questions, regarded as the most important Chiefs among the confederated tribes. The decision of the “Fire-Keepers” does not, by any means, always show concurrence in what may have been the consensus of opinion expressed by previous speakers, very frequently, indeed, embodying sentiments directly opposite to the weight of the judgment with those speakers. As illustrating, more pointedly, the arbitrary powers committed to these Chiefs, they may import into the debate a fresh and hitherto unbroached line of discussion, and, following it, may argue from a quite novel standpoint, and formulate a decision based upon some utterly capricious leaning of their own. I have not been able to learn whether the decision of these Chiefs, to be valid, requires to be established by their unanimous voice, or simply by a majority of the body.
The reason or cogency of the system of debate followed in the Indian Council has not seemed to me clearly demonstrable; nor is the cause for the honor attaching to the Chiefs of the Mohawks and Seneca, and of the Onondagas, respectively, of commencing and closing discussion, very explicable. I believe, however, that the principle of kinship subsisting between the tribes, the Chiefs of which are thus singled out for these duties, governs, in some way, the practice adopted; and am led, also, to imagine that exceptional functions, in other matters as well, vest in these Chiefs; and that they enjoy, in general, precedence over the Chiefs of the other tribes.
The Chiefs in Council take cognizance of the internal concerns, and control and administer, generally, the internal affairs, of the community. There are often special and extraordinary deliberations of the body, which involve discussion upon points that transcend the operation of the Indian Acts, and require the Government to be represented; and, in these cases, the Indian Superintendent, whose presence is necessary to confer validity on any measure passed, is the presiding officer.
As mention is made here of the Superintendent, or, as his title runs in full, the Visiting Superintendent and Commissioner, it will be opportune now to define his powers, so far as I understand them.
It may be said, in general, that he exercises supervisory power over everything that concerns the well-being and interests of the Indian. By the representations made by him to the Government in his reports (and by those, of course, who hold the like office in other Indian districts) has been initiated nearly every law, or amendment to a law, which the pages of the Indian Acts disclose.
He will often watch (though in his commission no obligation, I believe, rests upon him to do this) the trial of an Indian, where some one of the graver crimes is involved, that he may, perchance, arrive at the impelling cause for its perpetration. This may have had its origin, perhaps, in the criminal’s having over-indulged in drink, or in his having resigned himself to some immoral bent; or it may have been connected, generally, with some deluging of the community with immorality. If, haply, the origin of the crime be traced, the Superintendent embodies in his report a recommendation looking to a change in the law, which shall tend to suppress and control the evil. If there be indication that a particular order of crime prevails, or that, unhappily, some new departure in its melancholy category is being practiced, it will, again, be his place to represent the situation to the Government, to the end that a healthier state of things may be brought about. He is authorized, in certain cases, to make advances on an individual Indian’s account, and, also, on the general account, where some emergency affecting the entire tribe arises, such as a failure of the crops, confronting the Indian with the serious, and, but for this Governmental provision, insuperable, difficulty of finding the outlay for seeding for the next season’s operations.
It is customary for the Superintendent to attend important examinations of the Indian schools, that he may have light upon the pupils’ progress, and may report accordingly.
Where an occurrence of unusual moment in the history of any of the Churches takes place; the projecting, perhaps, of some fresh spiritual campaign amongst the Indians; or one, marking some specially auspicious event, he will often lend his presence, with the view to enlightenment as to the spiritual state of his charges.
I have already said, that through the agency of the Superintendent, the Indian receives his interest-money, and it may, perhaps, be interesting to detail the manner in which this is usually drawn. The tribes are told off for this purpose, and, I believe, certain other purposes, into a number of bands; and a given day is set (or, perhaps, three or four days are assigned) whereon the members of a particular band shall be privileged to draw. If the drawing of the money be not marked by that expedition which the plan is designed to secure, but rather suggests that there are a number of stragglers yet to come forward to exercise their right, the turn of another band comes, and so on, the straggling ones of each band being treated with last.
It is usual for the head of each family to draw for himself and his domestic circle.
The present incumbent of the Superintendent’s office is a gentleman of fine parts, and one who has striven, during a term of nearly twenty years, with tact and ability, to conserve the interests of the Indian. Speaking of tact, the Indian character exacts a large display of it from one whose relation to him is such as that which the Superintendent occupies, his overseer and, to a large extent, his mentor. There have been outcries against his course in some matters, though these have been indulged in only a small section; but the Indian chafes under direction, and is, for the most part, a chronic grumbler; and his discontent frequently finds expression in delegations to the Government, which, though they may be planned with the view of ventilating some grievance, are more generally conceived of by him in the light of happy expedients for giving play to his oratory, or for setting about to establish his pretensions to eminence in that regard, in a somewhat exacting quarter; or, mayhap, for conveying to the powers that be, by palpable demonstration, the fact of his continued existence, and more, of his continued dissatisfied existence.
But to return to the Council. Where complaint of irregular dealing is preferred by either party to a transfer or sale of real estate, it comes within the scope of the Chief’s powers to decree an equitable basis upon which such transfer or sale shall henceforward be viewed, and carried out. The jurisdiction of the Chiefs also ranges over such matters as the considering of applications from members of the various tribes for licensing the sale to whites of timber, stone, or other valuable deposit, with which the property of such applicants may be enriched; and they likewise treat with applications for relief from members of the tribes, whom physical incapacity debars from earning living, or who have been reduced to an abject state of poverty and indigence; and have authority to supplement the interest-annuities of such, should they see fit, with suitable amounts.
The silent adjudging of a question is something abhorrent to the genius of the Indian, and is in reality unknown. Dishonoring thus the custom, he can grandly repudiate the contemptuous epithet of “voting machine;” so unsparingly directed against, and pitilessly fastening upon, certain ignoble legislators among ourselves. The manner of proceeding that obtained with the Ojibway was somewhat different from the practice I have detailed, and I allude to it now, because the tribe of the Delaware, who are now treated as an off-shoot of the Oneidas, and are merged with their kin in the Six Nations, belonged originally to the Ojibway. With them the decision was come to according to the opinions expressed by the majority of the speakers–a plan resolving itself into the system of a show of hands (or a show of “tongues”, which shall it be?) it having been customary for all who proposed to pass upon a measure to speak as well. The issue upheld by the greater number of hands shown, naturally, as with us, succeeded. Where a measure, in the progress of discussion, proved unpopular, it was dropped, an arrangement which should convey a wise hint to certain bodies I wot of.
It will be readily gathered from what has been said, that the method of voting, in order to establish what is the judgment of the greater number, does not prevail with the Indian Councils.