Gateway to the Classics: Stories of American Explorers by Wilbur F. Gordy
Stories of American Explorers by  Wilbur F. Gordy

The Indians

Tribes and Clans

As we have learned, Columbus called the people of the New World Indians. They were divided into tribes, and each tribe had at least one chief. There were Indian clans, also, the members of which were thought to be related to each other in the same way as you are related to your uncles, aunts, cousins, and so on. A clan was generally named after some animal or bird, whose figure or picture it used as its emblem. For instance, an Indian of the wolf clan tattooed on his breast the picture of a wolf; an Indian of the hawk clan tattooed on his breast the picture of a hawk.

The Indians did not all look alike nor dress alike. They did not live in the same kind of houses. In fact, with respect to size, dress, houses, and manner of life, the Indian tribes living in various parts of the country differed from each other quite as much as the English differed from the Spanish, the French, or the Dutch.

How the Indians Looked

Although the Indians of the many tribes did not look alike, we may say, in general, that they had straight black hair, small black eyes, high cheekbones, and were of a reddish-brown or copper color. The women wore their hair long. The men, in most of the tribes, shaved their heads except at the top, where they left a scalp-lock. Of this we shall hear a little more as our story proceeds.

How They Dressed

Before the white men came, the dress of the Indians was made largely of the skins of wild animals. The men wore a strip of skin a foot or more wide and a number of feet long. This was held in place by a belt around the waist, the ends, decorated with beads, hanging down in front and behind. The men also wore leggings of buckskin.

For festive occasions they had robes of skin. Sometimes these were embroidered with porcupine quills, bird feathers, beads, and other finery. The Indians were fond of ornaments, and liked to wear necklaces made of elks' teeth, bears' claws, and beads.

Instead of wearing shoes of leather, as we do, they wore moccasins. The various tribes had different ways of shaping them. The simplest kind of moccasin had one seam behind the heel and one over the foot. More elaborate patterns had a piece over the instep, much embroidered. Some also had flaps, which hung down from the ankle. But whatever the variety of detail, they were all alike in one respect, and that was in having no soles. Thus they were soft and noiseless, and made the best kind of covering for a hunter's foot. The pieces of the moccasin were sewed together, although the Indians had no needles and thread such as we use. Their needle was a small bone of a fish, and their thread the sinews of a deer or some other animal.

The Indian woman, called a squaw, wore a loose upper garment with short sleeves, and apron, leggings, and moccasins. The leggings and moccasins were sometimes made of one piece.

The Village and the Wigwam

Many of the Indians lived in villages. These were nearly always small, seldom having more than a few hundred people in them, and as a rule even less. In many tribes these villages consisted of wigwams, which were occupied by single families. To construct a wigwam a few poles were planted in a circle, and the ends gathered together and fastened at the top, where a hole was left for the smoke to escape.

The wigwam, both within and without, was covered by skins, mats, or bark. Sometimes a bearskin served for a door. There was no floor except the bare earth, and no carpet. There were no chairs and there were no tables, but around the sides of the wigwam the Indian sometimes put brush or skins of animals, to sit or lie upon. There was also a platform or shelf for provisions and for the household utensils.

The Indians were hospitable to strangers, and whenever one found his way to a wigwam they were ready to give him both food and shelter. Suppose we pay an imaginary visit to one of the wigwams. Let us push aside the bear-skin that serves as a door and enter. Although it may be a cold day, there is no stove nor fireplace, for this frail structure has no chimney. But in the centre of the room we find a fire in a hole or pit, where the squaw is cooking something to eat. The wigwam is somewhat smoky, but much of the smoke is going out through the opening at the top. After a short time we may get used to the thick atmosphere and not mind it any more than the Indians do.

Food and Cooking

The Indians usually had but one meal in the day together. At other times, when hungry, they ate alone. Indian corn furnished the principal article of food, but besides corn the Indians raised beans, pumpkins, and melons. They used little salt, because they could not get it. At times they had very little food for long periods, during which they had to live on such light diet as berries, roots, seeds, and herbs.

But if on our imaginary visit we arrive in the wigwam, during a time when food is plentiful and while a meal is being prepared, perhaps we shall see a piece of meat on a sharpened stick cooking over the fire, or roasting on the coals. We may see a cake made of Indian corn pounded fine, baking before the fire. Possibly we shall find in a wooden bowl some succotash, made by boiling corn and beans together. Or, again, it may be that meat, fish, corn, beans, and perhaps other things, are all boiling together.

We are amused to see how the Indians boil their food and heat water. Their kettles are made of unglazed pottery and wood, which cannot be put over the fire. The squaw, therefore, has to heat water by throwing hot 'stones into it. If our host invites us to sit down and eat with him, as he most certainly will, we may look for plates, but we shall find none. We may look for cups and saucers and knives and forks, too, but we shall find none. If, however, we are to be welcome guests, we must do as the Indians do. We must each dip our hands into the kettle, draw out what we wish, and eat it by using our fingers for knives and forks. Perhaps we shall find a kind of flesh that we never ate before,—dog flesh,—but we must eat without questioning.

The Indian wigwam we have visited may serve as a general type of most Indian wigwams throughout the land, though some tribes had their own peculiar ways of living. The Iroquois, for example, lived in houses which were very different from those occupied by the tribes living in New England. Of course the food of the Indians along the Atlantic coast was not precisely the same as that of the Indians on the great Western prairies. On the prairies abounded animals such as the buffalo, which were never seen in the East.

When the Indians on the plains killed a buffalo, it was their habit to skin it. Then they made a hole in the ground, something like a bowl in shape, where they put the buffalo skin, hairy side down, and filled it with water. This served as a sort of kettle. In a fire near by they heated stones, and dropped them into the water to make it hot enough to boil the buffalo meat. After they had cooked and eaten their meal they cut the rest of the meat into strips and hung it up in the sun to dry. This kind of drying was called jerking, and when meat was dried in this way it would keep a long time, and could be cooked as it was needed. Sometimes the dried strips were smoked over the fire. At other times the squaws pounded the fresh meat and mixed it with fat. This mixture they called pemmican, and the Northern Indians used it a good deal for food.

The Man's Work

It is sometimes said that the squaw had to do all the work. People who say this believe that the Indian brave was lazy, and wished to make a slave of his wife. But this is not true, for the man had his work to do as the woman had hers.

In some of the tribes the men gathered the materials for the wigwam, and the women set up the poles and put the parts together. When the family moved, as it often did, it carried along those portions of the wigwam that were worth saving.

The man did not, as a rule, carry any of the burdens, because he had to be ready to protect himself and his family from the attacks of enemies. He also had to be free to hunt for the food that he and his family needed.

Sometimes dogs were used to help them, for before the white men came the Indians had no horses. But if there were no dogs the woman, or squaw, acted as a beast of burden, carrying the skins and the various articles used in the household.

It is surprising how large a load the dog could carry. A pole was fastened on each side, and on these poles packs, often weighing from seventy-five to one hundred pounds, were placed for the dog to pull behind him. After the white man came and brought the horse, the Indian in some of the tribes used this animal to help him in his moving.

Many of the Indian tribes lived mainly by hunting and fishing. These occupations were not a pastime or a kind of sport, as with most of us, but were work. If the Indian had not got food by hunting and fishing, he would have starved. Much of his time was taken up also by making war upon other tribes.

The Squaw's Part of the Work

The woman's work kept her busy about the home. She prepared the meals, made the clothing, such as it was, and the various articles used in the household. She tended the patches of corn, melons, beans, squashes, and pumpkins. Her farming implements were very simple, for generally she had only a pointed stick with which to scratch the ground. She was indeed fortunate when she had a hoe made of the shoulder-blade of the buffalo or elk. She also gathered wood, made fires, set up the wigwams, and, as we have seen, did the principal part of the moving. Among her other occupations were making pottery, weaving baskets, and dressing skins.

In dressing buffalo skins, the Indians who lived on the Western plains first stripped the skin from the body of the buffalo. Next they fastened it to the ground by pegs, and thus stretched it as tightly as they could. They carefully spread it, with the flesh side up, in such a way that the sun could blaze upon it until the skin was dry and hard. After it was dry they rubbed it with fat till it was soft and pliable. It was then ready for use.

Such kinds of work as we have just considered kept the squaw busy much of the time. But her most important duty was the care of the children. She had a queer looking cradle for her little pappoose, as she called the Indian child. Perhaps we might better call the Indian cradle a cradle-board. It was from two to three feet long and nearly a foot wide, and covered with skins and grass and moss. The child was wrapped in clothing or blankets and fastened to this cradle-board. Thus secured, the pappoose was sometimes carried on the mother's back while she was travelling or working. Sometimes she tied up the cradle-board to the branch of a tree. It did no good for the pappoose to cry, for the squaw paid no attention to the crying. Hence, the little fellow soon learned to suffer hunger or thirst or pain without a whimper or a tear.

The cradle-board was kept in use until the pappoose was nearly two years old. At an early age, or as soon as he could hold a bow and arrow, he was taught to shoot at a mark. That was a part of his training. He never went to a school like yours, but it was necessary for him to learn how to shoot the bow and arrow and to throw the tomahawk.

He had to learn to swim like a fish and dive like a beaver, to climb trees like a squirrel and to run like a deer. He had to learn how to set traps for wild animals, and how to hunt and kill them. He was taught to howl like a wolf, to bleat like a fawn, to quack like a duck, and to gobble like a turkey. By imitating these wild creatures he could better get near them in order to kill them.

The Indian Hunter and Warrior

He also had to learn how to track his enemies, and how to conceal his own tracks when trying to get away from his enemies. He had to become a brave, strong warrior, and be able to kill his foe, and to prevent his foe from killing him. In hunting, the Indian sometimes wore the head and skin of the animal that he wished to kill. In such a disguise, he would steal upon the animal and strike it down. Stealing upon an animal in this way is called stalking.

Sometimes the Indian would go out with a torch at night, and thus approach the animal and kill it while it was staring at him. Sometimes with a torch he would go out in a boat at night and spear fish.

But one of the most important parts of the man's work was to make war upon his enemies. Sometimes before going to war the Indians would hold a council, where the leading warriors spoke. When the council was over, the Indian chief would paint his body black from head to foot and go out into the forest to consult the spirits.

On his return to the village the Indians made ready for the war-dance. They drove a painted post into the ground, and then formed a great circle around it. When all was ready the warriors whirled about this pole, hooting and yelling, while the boys and squaws beat time with drums. Soon a chief leaped inside of the circle and struck the post with his tomahawk. When he did this the dancers stopped their hideous noises and stood still. Then the chief chanted the story of his brave deeds and those of his ancestors. He told how many prisoners he had captured and how many scalps he had taken from the heads of his enemies. When he finished, some other warrior stepped inside the circle and did the same thing.

After the war-dance the Indians started off stealthily through the forest, in single file. Their favorite method of fighting was to surprise their enemies by making a sudden dash upon them. They would thus be likely to kill or capture more warriors than they themselves lost.

An Indian always tried to get the scalp of his enemy. This he did by cutting from the top of the head a small piece of skin to which was attached the scalp-lock. Every Indian warrior, as we have seen, shaved his head, leaving only the scalp-lock. It was a point of honor with the Indian to get as many scalp-locks as he could. Sometimes he displayed them in his wigwam, to show how great a warrior he was.

Treatment of Captives

On returning, the war party would often bring captives—some of whom they might adopt into the tribe. For the Indians at times were glad to do this because their numbers were often much thinned by war.

Sometimes, however, the captives were tortured and put to death. One of the favorite means of trying their courage was to have them run the gauntlet. The warriors, squaws, old men, and boys would form two long lines, each facing the other. Thus standing, each Indian was armed with a stick, a club, a tomahawk, or a stone, with which to strike the prisoner as he ran; The poor wretch would dart rapidly between the lines, and each Indian would try to strike him a blow as he passed. He was fortunate if in a little while he was not so weakened by the blows that he could not run at all. But the Indians did not care to kill him at this time, as they preferred to keep him and burn him to death. While burning him they tortured him in various ways. You see they were a very cruel people. They had not learned to be kind.

The Indian Method of Sending Quick Messages

When a war party had won a victory, they would often wish that their friends at home should get the good news as soon as possible. The Indians had, of course, no newspapers, telegraph lines, and telephones, as we have, but they had various ways of sending messages to people at a distance. For instance, the war party might kindle a fire on a hillside. The smoke going up from one large fire might mean that the party was successful, and the smoke from ten small fires might signify that the party had brought back ten scalps. In such ways rising lines of smoke would tell various things to the friends of the war party many miles away, just as the telegraph or telephone now conveys messages to our distant friends.

The Canoe and the Dugout

The Indian had no modern means of travel like our wagons, trolley cars, or railway trains, but he moved about a good deal. He often found it necessary to move for the sake of finding new hunting-grounds or places for fishing. As I have already told you, he would most likely have starved but for the food which he got by hunting and fishing.

Sometimes in journeying through the forest he took a path made by wild animals. But it was much easier for him to travel by water, and in doing this he found the canoe very useful. In passing through the forest, from one body of water to another, he carried the canoe on his shoulders. Sometimes, then, the canoe had to carry its owner and sometimes the owner had to carry the canoe. It therefore had to be of light weight.

The bark canoe was made of a framework of strips of wood, fastened closely together by tough roots or by sinews. This framework was covered with pieces of bark that were sewed together, sometimes by long roots. The whole was made watertight by covering the seams with pitch and grease. Sometimes such a bark canoe would hold fifty people.

The Indians made also a kind of boat by hollowing the trunk of a huge tree. Having cut the tree down, partly by burning and partly by chopping with a stone axe, they would burn out a part of the trunk, and by the use of stones or shells scoop it into shape. Such a boat, made from a single giant log, would sometimes accommodate fifty or sixty warriors.

The Indian knew all the rivers and lakes and streams within a long distance of his home. He could shoot the rapids, and could easily carry his canoe over the carrying-places along which he had to pass in making his journeys. A tract of land lying between two bodies of water was called a carrying-place, or portage.

He could travel hundreds of miles without the use of a compass. This was easy for him, because he could find his way through the woods by watching the position of the sun above the horizon.

It must have been a lonely life that the Indian led when, as often happened, he was by himself in the woods. There were times when an Indian hunter would be gone from the village for months, all alone in his canoe.

The Indian in Winter

In the winter, when the lakes and rivers were frozen, the canoe was no longer useful. Then, when the Indian brave wished to go abroad, he took his snow-shoes with him. These were two or three feet in length and a foot or more in width, with curved sides tapering at the front and back. They were light and strong, and were often made of a maple-wood frame, filled in with a network of deer's hide or sinews. They were fastened at the back of the foot by a cord or thongs extending over the instep, and had a small loop in front for the toes. With his snow-shoes the Indian could travel forty miles a day, and could even overtake a deer or moose.

During the winter the Indian warrior spent most of his time in eating and sleeping, and in making the weapons that he used in warring, hunting, and fishing. But mingled with his work was much that he enjoyed. For instance, he was fond of telling about his deeds. At night the Indians would sit around the fire and hear the stories told by warriors. To these recitals the children and the squaws listened eagerly, and in this way the children learned a great deal of the history of their people.

The Medicine-Bag and the Medicine-Man

Before going to hunt, the Indian consulted his medicine-bag, which was made of the skins of animals and birds and reptiles. It looked something like a pouch, but just what it contained no one but its owner knew. The Indian commonly fastened it to his clothing or carried it in his hand. It was always stuffed with grass, moss, or something of that sort, and often kept hidden under the clothing. It was carefully closed, and seldom opened. We know, at all events, that it contained the things that seemed to him to have magic qualities. The most sacred thing in it was, very likely, some scrap or relic, like a tooth, a bone, or the claw of an animal or bird. This was dear to the Indian because, as he thought, it protected him from danger or evil of every kind.

He believed that not only every man and every animal has a spirit,—or manitou, as he called it,—but that trees, rocks, streams, flowers, stones, and, in fact, all things, have spirits. There were good spirits, which were ready to help men, and there were bad ones, which were ready to hurt them. If an Indian had a disease, it was because some bad spirit had entered his body.

Hence, it was important for an Indian to have power over both good and bad spirits, and he could exercise this power by using certain magic words or by having about him something magical that would protect him.

The Indian believed that all his evils—like pain, disease, and death—came from bad spirits. But there was a cure, for the medicine-man was supposed to know how to control the spirits. When an Indian was sick the medicine-man danced about his patient, shaking his frightful rattles in order to drive out the bad spirit.

Another method of curing a disease was to have the patient take a vapor bath. He was put into a low but or lodge of bark or skin, which was airtight and had but one opening. Water was poured upon heated stones within this cabin, and the steam soon filled the place and made the sick man sweat. Then the patient rushed out, even when the weather was bitterly cold, or was carried out into an icy stream or lake, or was rolled in a snow-bank. This treatment was likely either to cure him or kill him.

How They Treated Their Dead

The Indians had various methods of burial. Sometimes they used graves, stone pits, or huts; sometimes they placed the corpse in a tree or on a scaffold, and sometimes they put it where they knew birds or beasts would eat it.

The tribes that buried their dead buried also weapons, tools, food, and drink with the bodies of their dead. They believed that the dead man's spirit would need in the other world the things he used in this world. They knew that the things they buried with the dead body did not themselves go with the spirit of the dead, but they thought that the spirits of these things did.

After the Indians got horses they sometimes killed the favorite horse of the dead man. When burying a young child, some tribes killed a dog, so that its spirit might go with the spirit of the young child and help him find his way to the spirit world.

Wrong Ideas about the Indians

It has often been said that the Indians could hear and see better than the white man. But this is not true, if we compare the Indian hunter with the white backwoodsman. The Indian was brought up in the woods, and he had to learn to hunt and trap animals there and protect himself from his enemies. If he did not hear and see well, he did not succeed in hunting, in finding his enemies, or in escaping them when they were trying to find him. Keen sight and alert hearing were as necessary to him as were the bow and arrow and the tomahawk and club. But this was equally true of the white warrior when he lived in the woods, for he, too, had to use his eyes and ears just as the Indian did, and he could hear and see as well as the Indian.

There is another mistake made about the Indian. Some people think that he was by nature gloomy and serious, but such was not the case. He was almost always cheerful, and liked to be with other people. The reason why the white men thought he was not cheerful was because in their presence he was solemn and dignified on public occasions.

We often hear it said also that the Indian could endure much pain without showing any signs of suffering. He could and did when he was in pub-lie. He could endure great torture without making a moan, because he thought it was cowardly for a warrior to cry out in the presence of enemies, no matter how much pain he suffered. But in his private home-life he was often very childish, sometimes making a great ado over a little suffering.

How the White Man Changed the Indian's Life

Before the white man came, the Indian lived a very simple life as a hunter, fisherman, and warrior. He had no goats or sheep or horses or cows as we have now in the country. As already noted, he had dogs, but he had to get his horses and other domestic animals from the traders. He was at first very much afraid of horses, but afterward he used them to great advantage in making war upon other Indian tribes and upon the white men.

The Indian soon learned also how to use the gun. This made a great difference in the life of the Indian. Before the white man came, the principal weapons he had were the bow and arrow, the club, and the tomahawk. These he used with much skill, but they did not help him to get his food and kill his enemies as easily as did the gun.

In these ways the whites greatly changed the Indian's life by making it easier for him to get his food and do his work.

As you grow older you will learn that ever since the white man came to. this country, several hundred years ago, he has been teaching the Indian the methods and customs of civilized life.

How Contact with Indian Life Changed the Life of the White Man

But the Indian also changed the life of the white man. For when the early settler went out into the woods he had to live very much as the Indian did, and fight him in true Indian fashion. He had to learn how to track his foe. He had to learn how to conceal his trail when he was going through the forest. He not only dressed as the Indians did, but he also lived in simple houses very much like their wigwams. He ate such food as they were likely to find in the forest, and, like them, he often suffered for lack of food. More than once hungry settlers received food from Indians. As you read about the early English settlements in various parts of New England and in Virginia, you will see how many times the Indians, in their kindness, kept the poor white settlers from starving.

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