The consciousness of unsatisfied pecuniary obligation does not, as a rule, weigh heavily on the Indian mind, nor does it usually awaken, or offer food for, burdensome reflection.
The Indian Act, which decrees his minority, disables him from entering into a contract of any kind, though it scarcely needs any statement from me to assure my hearers that the law does not secure, nor does the majestic arm of that law exact, from him, the most rigid compliance.
The Indian will make and tender to a white creditor his promissory note with a gleeful complacency. There are usually two elements contributing, in perhaps equal degree, to produce in him this complacent frame of mind: The first, that, for removing from his immediate consideration a debt, he is adopting a temporizing expedient, which in no way vouches for, and in no sense bespeaks, the ultimate payment of the debt; the other, that his act records his sense of rebellion against a restrictive law, ever welling up in his breast, and seeking such-like opportune vent for its relief.
In trading with a merchant, who, appreciating the wiliness of his customer, felt a natural concern about trading upon as safe a basis as might be secured, it was, until quite recently, customary with the Indian to anticipate his interest-money, in paying for his goods. That the merchant might have a guarantee that previous instances of the setting on foot of this plan in the individual Indian’s case, had not effected the entire appropriation or exhaustion of his allowance, or that in the immediate transaction with him, the Indian’s allowance would not be exceeded, a chief of the particular tribe to which the Indian belonged, who was assumed to keep track of the various amounts that at different times impaired the interest-fund, signed an order for him to tender to the merchant; and in order that the Superintendent might properly award and pay the balance coming, these orders would go into his possession, before he should proceed with the season’s payments. Now, however, the place and times at which interest payments are made, are not allowed to be viewed by merchants and others as a collection depôt, or as occasions on which their orders from Indians may be confirmed, or debts from those Indians made good.
The merchant, foreseeing that a large proportion of the debts from Indians that he books are not recoverable, will frequently–and I presume there is nothing savoring of dubious dealing in the matter–add, perhaps, thirty or forty per cent. to the usual retail price of the goods sold to them, that the collection of some of the debts may, as it were, offset the loss from those that are irrecoverable.
It is not pleasant to impugn the character of the Indian for uprightness and probity, but that there is no conspicuous prevalence of these qualities with him, I fear, can be sufficiently demonstrated. I am disposed to ascribe this state of things, to a large extent, to the operation of the Indian Law. If the Indian who buys, and does not pay, and who never intends to pay, were not exempted from the salutary lesson which the distraint, at suit of a creditor, upon his goods, teaches, he would not seek to evade payment of his debts.
If, again, the Indian were not regarded as one “childlike,” shall I say, “and bland” (no! I must dissever these words from the otherwise apt quotation, as, though this be to proclaim how immeasurably he has fallen, and to dissipate cherished popular beliefs about him, I conceive him to be bland, without being so decreed by the law) there would be a manifest accession to his fund of self-respect. The idea of holding him a minor, and as one who cannot be kept to his engagements is a mistake, and its effect is only to stimulate the dishonest bent of his nature, prompting him to take advantage of his white brother in every conceivable way, where the latter’s business relations with him are concerned.