General Customs and Peculiarities of North American Indians
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Native American Peculiarities
The general appearance of a North American Indian can be given in few words; the resemblance between those of different tribes with the exceptions to which we have referred being full as close as between different nations of either of the great families into which the human race has been arbitrarily divided. They are about of the aver age height which man attains when his form is not cramped by premature or excessive labor; but their erect posture and slender figure give them the appearance of a tall race. Their limbs are well formed, but calculated rather for agility than strength, in which they rarely equal the more vigorous of European nations. They generally have small feet.
The most distinguishing peculiarities of the race are, the reddish or copper color of the skin, the prominence of the cheekbone, and the color and quality of the hair. This is not absolutely straight, but somewhat wavy, and has not inaptly been compared to the mane of the horse less from its coarseness than from its glossy hue and the manner in which it hangs. Their eyes are universally dark. The women are rather short, with broader faces, and a greater tendency to obesity, than the men; but many of them possess a symmetrical figure, with an agreeable and attractive countenance.
It was formerly quite a general impression that the Indians were destitute of beards. This error resulted from the almost universal custom prevalent among them of eradicating what they esteemed a deformity. Tweezers, made of wood or muscle shells, served to pluck out the hairs as soon as they appeared; and, after intercourse with the whites commenced, a coil of spiral wire was applied to the same use. It was esteemed greatly becoming among the men to carry this operation still farther, and to lay bare the whole head, with the exception of a top-knot, or ridge like the comb of a cock, in which feathers or porcupine quills were fantastically interwoven.
Of the hideous custom of flattening the head, and the means by which it was accomplished, we shall speak when describing the tribes among whom it was practiced.
No nations on the Eastern continent approach so nearly to the American Indians, in bodily conformation, as do certain tribes of Tartars. A similarity in habits of life, in dress, festivals, and games, is also observable between the two nations. This combined with the proximity of their countries, and the ease with which a passage could be affected, would seem to afford a rational presumption as to the direct origin of no small portion of the red tribes of North America. Who can undertake to decide, however, as to what admixture of races has here taken place, or how often fresh arrivals, from different portions of Eastern Asia, have given rise to new colonies, or destroyed, by amalgamation, the distinctive characteristics of the earlier people. Above all, can we account for the wonderful remains of antiquity described in another chapter, by referring them to the same races as were found inhabiting these wilds when the white man first ventured to explore them?
The difficulty of the subject is sufficiently manifest from the contradictory conclusions drawn by laborious but dogmatic antiquaries; and still more by the doubt and uncertainty in which more candid but equally diligent laborers in the same field have confessed their researches to have resulted.
There have not been wanting those who have maintained the theory that the Indians were indigenous to America. Some who have adopted this idea consider that it involves the doctrine of a separate creation, while others, that they might not discard the ordinarily received opinion that all mankind have sprung from a single pair, place the seat of paradise somewhere upon the Western continent, and consider the Eastern nations as descendants of emigrants from America.
However interesting these speculations may prove to the antiquary, they must appear simply wearisome to the reader who is not willing to give the subject a full investigation. The two hemispheres remained sundered for so long a period, that the history of their former connection by intercourse of their respective inhabitants is now reduced to little more than speculation; and we will pass to matters of which we can speak with certainty, and which appeal more closely to our sympathies, and attract our attention with more lively interest than such groping amid the dim relics of antiquity.
A knowledge of the habits and peculiarities of the Indians can be acquired in the most pleasing manner by the perusal of their history, interspersed as it is with the quaint descriptions of old chroniclers, who wrote when the events and scenes were vividly impressed upon their minds, and before modern refinements had done away with that directness of expression which marks their narratives.
Such details make, moreover, a far stronger impression upon the memory than can be effected by a series of dry generalities. We shall therefore refer the reader to the historical portion of this work for most of the information, which we shall attempt to convey.
In this, and in the ensuing pages, we may frequently speak of usages and characteristics, as belonging to a past age, which are still to be observed among the more remote Western tribes. The difficulty of always drawing the distinction in a series of such general remarks as are here submitted, must form our excuse for such seeming anachronisms.