Primary tabs


Customs and Peculiarities of the Indians.

The juxta-position of the white and red man on the same theatre of action, has imparted to the progress of civilization more of the character and coloring of romance, than our fierce and sustained struggle for political power and pre-eminence. There is something untold in the history of the red men -- a mysterious charm exerted by the aboriginal race, which, though unseen, is not unfelt, -- which has begun already to throw a magic spell over our literature, and which may be expected to exert no inconsiderable influence on the future efforts of the poet, the orator, the scholar, and the man of genius. What is this charm? What is this influence? What is this mysterious power, which, operating so quietly and in so unostentatious a manner, is to make itself so deeply felt through all future time? It is that which is exerted by the genius, rites, customs, traditions, and other peculiarities of a singular, original people, whose destinies Providence, however strongly we may desire to sever the tie, has connected indissolubly with our own. It is impossible that this influence, running through our entire history, permanent in its nature, and producing in various respects, important and extensive results, should not operate largely in giving tone and character to our literature. It will be felt as widely, if not as beneficially, in the province of the nation's mind, as the dews of night, or the light and heat of morning, which fertilize its soil. If the institutions of chivalry and the crusades -- if the martial spirit, -- if the wild and semi-barbarous rites of the feudal period, -- if the belief in astrology, witchcraft, and the miraculous power of men, which caused a superstitious people to tremble in a darker age, -- if the union of Pagan and Christian, of the refined and rude in sustaining the same institutions and celebrating the same rites in an era of greater intelligence; -- if all these causes produced surprising effects upon the intellectual character and progress of Europeans, and gave a certain cast to thought and public sentiment, as they appear in the productions of their men of genius -- is it to be supposed that no deep and pervading influence is to be exerted on our national literature, by an association so rare and extraordinary as that of two races of men of entirely different character, genius, habits, and temperament, acting together in the bosom of the same community, through the lapse of centuries? It cannot, in the nature of things, be so. What is literature? What is its province? Not to inquire merely into the mysteries of the animal and mineral kingdoms of nature; not to scan deeply the laws which govern the revolutions of the heavenly bodies, and of the earth on its own axis; -- not even to settle the relations which matter and mind,


time and space, number and quantity, bear to each other. No. Literature is the study of man, -- of man, as a moral agent. -- of man placed on the theatre of action, and acting with a high object in view, -- of man, in the history of his passions, his temptations, his struggles and his triumphs. Whether applied to individuals or nations, literature is the record of mental development; of mind acting upon mind; -- and contributing to a high degree of moral and intellectual progress. It achieves its victories by competition, and not by isolated effort, and its character depends on that of the individuals who are brought together, and who exert a reciprocal influence on each others' movements. It is not strange that such associations should lead to important results. A novel, bold, original, imaginative people, of a genius wholly unique in the history of our race, -- all whose rites and customs are of a wild and peculiar order; such a people placed in immediate contact, and acting side by side, with a nice of cool, calculating, inquisitive thinkers, possessing a decidedly philosophical turn of thought, must, in their bearing on the national mind, give birth to a bold, racy, vigorous and original literature, full of the inspirations of genius and poesy.

The very obscurity in which the earlier Indian annals are involved, has been attended with one advantage; and that, it would seem, in our day, not a slight one; which is, that it has served to heighten the marvellous character of Indian traditions, and has thus rendered them a fitting and first rate material to be wrought into the frame work of fictitious narrative. Our men of talents -- such writers as Cooper, Bird, and our own novelist, Simms -- seem fully to understand this matter. In commenting upon the features of this peculiar race, imagination is not strictly bound down to precedents, but is left free to range over a novel and extended theatre, fearless of the lash of criticism, for having exceeded the boundaries of truth, so long as it keeps within those of probability. The truth in this instance is sufficiently exciting without the aid of fancy, and it is because what is behind the scenes may be more wonderful still, and yet be true, that the Indian character is employed with greater effect in the machinery of works of fiction, than in any other with which we are acquainted. Who can say whether the Uncas of Cooper, or the Sanutee of Simms does, or does not, come up to the true standard of Indian heroism? Who is competent to set up stable landmarks and true copies for the imitation of the artist? None but the Indians themselves; and the Mohican is no where to be found in our forests; he is gathered to the bones of his fathers; and the last enslaved remnants of the Yemassee race have nearly passed over tee stage. The novelist, therefore, is left at liberty to constitute him self his own umpire, in doubtful cases. He has the protestant and American privilege


of judging for himself; and if he succeeds in catering for the public appetite with tastefully prepared and well-spiced viands -- if his tales are well-wrought, suited to the humor of the age, and calculated to elevate public sentiment he will receive, as he deserves, the general gratitude for successful efforts. Few will have the temerity, as few will possess the ability to call in question the vraisemblance of his pleasing and finished portraits, and he will probably have done as much for the cause of letters, in the opinion of his readers, and even of posterity, as the more assuming, though scarcely more veracious historian.

We owe this singular people much -- not for their tender mercies towards us -- but in the Indians, with all their furiousness and other repulsive traits, we recognise the instruments which Divine Providence has employed for our benefit and national advancement. The courage of our ancestors was strengthened and their ability increased by their frequent competitions with this savage foe. Their perpetual struggles about acres with an enemy always active and vigilant, prepared their minds and sharpened their wits for that greater controversy near at hand, in which liberty itself was at stake, just as the violent disputes of the school-men in the middle ages, about unimportant doctrines, successfully disciplined the intellect for those more difficult achievements in abstract science, which afterwards formed an era in its history. If liberty and the arts of civilization are worth preserving, they are worth a struggle. The hero who remains too long out of camp and remote from the scene of danger, becomes indifferent to martial glory. Nations, as well as individuals, become tame, dispirited and contemptible, who either do nothing, or who are without an object to call forth their energies. Attention must be frequently directed to new and exciting themes, and the powers and passions of the soul roused to vigorous and sustained exertion, or life itself will soon become a burthen. If the ocean had always remained unruffled by the tempest, piety would have wanted some of its motives, and the world been deprived of some of the most magnificent descriptions ever drawn by the pen of genius. The actors in the late Florida campaigns received the finishing part of their education and acquired their best experience of life on the battle ground of the savage. Their strength was tested, their activity stimulated, and their ambition roused by the occasion, and they are doubtless better prepared to combat successfully the difficulties and discharge honorably the duties that appertain to the lot of humanity, than those who, passing their serene hours amid the shades of retirement, were exempt from the agitations of so stirring an encounter.

The Indian languages are adapted to the purposes of an imaginative


people. They are replete with metaphor and figure, indicating a genius for lofty and nervous eloquence -- a trait for which they are remarkable. No languages are more copious, or embrace a more extended vocabulary of significant terms. The peculiarities of the Indian dialects are beginning to attract the attention of the learned, not merely as a philological study, but with a view to settle, if practicable, that vexed question, which has so much occupied philosophical inquirers in respect to the origin of the Indian tribes, and, as far as language is conclusive of the point, it justifies the inference, that the Indians are an original people and not of European, Asiatic or African extraction. There is not another language on the face of the globe that resembles the Indian tongues so nearly in its construction, as to indicate that they belonged originally to one and the same people. They are, on the contrary, unique in their formation, and stamped with remarkable and peculiar traits. Their most prominent characteristic is that which has been termed their polysynthetic or syntactic construction, a property by means of which they interweave the most significant sounds or syllables, of each single word, so as to form a compound that will awaken in the mind at once all the ideas singly expressed by the words from which they are taken, and which gives singular power and significance to their language. These combinations are made with exquisite skill, after a regular method and with fewer exceptions and anomalies than are to be found in any other language. The Latin, and more especially the Greek, abound in compounds; but the Indian tongues far surpass in this respect the classical languages of antiquity. A single word in their expressive dialects, often conveys an entire sentiment, for the utterance of which we should employ five or six different parts of speech. This must be regarded the perfection of language; and when we consider, that they are capable of combining an almost infinite number of ideas, "by innumerably versed inflexions of the same radical word with the aid of pronominal affixes," we become absolutely lost in astonishment at the wonderful powers of their language. If poverty of speech indicates, as is usually supposed, poverty of thought, how rich must this people be in the elements of genius! It is not surprising that those who think they can best acquire a knowledge of human nature by studying the various methods in which men communicate their ideas to each other, by means of language, should be scarcely able, when they turn their attention to the copiousness of the Indian tongues, to restrain the movements of enthusiasm. What! shall a savage people, without even an alphabet, and without the aid of the powerful arts of writing and printing, concentrate their ideas in forms equally beautiful and far more comprehensive than those employed by the most polite and educated people, and by a single magic and


sonorous word, convey to the listening ear and the vivid imagination, whole masses of thought and sentiment! Strange as this may seem, it is no more true than wonderful, and finds its solution only in the wisdom and beneficence of that all powerful Creator, who, while he makes none perfect, has employed the appropriate means of dispensing an even-handed justice to the different races of men. J. J. Rousseau was not so erratic in his speculations as some have supposed, when he asserted that savage life possessed some peculiarities which gave it a superiority over even the refinements of civilization. In the richness of a sonorous and comprehensive language, significant of thought and tender sentiment, they are not surpassed, if they are equalled, by any language of antiquity or christendom.

These views may appear extravagant to those who have not turned their attention to the history of the Indian dialects; but the doubts of the most skeptical will vanish when they are made acquainted with the very considerable progress made by foreigners, and latterly by our own countrymen, in this novel department of inquiry. It may appear strange, that the learned men of the older countries should have first occupied the ground and anticipated us in these literary labours. We have an apology, however, in the fact, that while they were enjoying the patronage of established governments, Americans were in the midst of strife and turmoil, settling a new and wild country, and building up new political institutions. The researches of the historical committee of the American Philosophical Society -- of the Catholic missionaries of Canada and South America, and of the United Brethren, are deserving of the highest praise, and have imparted to a subject so little known to the literary world, an intense and absorbing interest. We have, it is true, few such men among us as the Baron Von Humboldt and Professors Vater and Adelung. who, to opulence and literary leisure, have united an eager curiosity and untiring industry in the study of the Indian dialects; but we have men whose superior experience, derived from a long intercourse with the Indians themselves, enables them to correct the errors even of those distinguished linguists, and who have done much to unfold and settle principles, and place in a true light the peculiarities of these tongues.

The style best calculated for popular effect, is probably that in which the sentences are brief, pointed, and full of meaning. Such is the style of Tacitus and Bonaparte, and such is the style of Webster, and generally, that of Channing. Such, too, is the character of the Indian eloquence, it is the natural mode adopted by those who, as they say, dislike prolixity, and wish to concentrate their ideas into a narrow compass. Each sentence


stands singly by itself, in the character of an apothegm; without however losing the thread which connects it with what goes before and what follows. The involved style -- the long paragraph -- requires more sustained attention, and is more apt to fatigue the mind of the listener. Still, it must be confessed, that there is an abruptness in the nervous and sententious harangues of the savage, which would jar harshly upon the ear, were it not relieved and set off by their fine and appropriate imagery. Their minds are full of poetical conceptions, borrowed from their direct intercourse with nature and the external world. In their stirring appeals, we see none of the obstructions of the metaphysician, but a clear discernment of the whole truth in relation to the main matter, leads to a prompt, full, and forcible utterance. We perceive, too, that they feel deeply, -- that they sympathise with all animated nature, and that the heavens and the earth, the ocean and the river, the beasts, the birds, and the trees, are mysteriously linked together in their imagination, suggest thoughts, and supply illustrations. Add to this, that the effects of their oratory are greatly heightened by an elocution so perfect and faultless, that it would seem to have been acquired in the school of the accomplished rhetorician. There is a written style and a spoken style, which differ from each other in their features and accompaniments. Where the heart is to be touched, the passions roused, and the understanding brought convincingly over to one or the other side of a vexed question, the living and breathing orator, suiting the intonations of his voice, and the expressions of his countenance, to the sentiments by which he is himself deeply moved, and accompanying the uttered appeal with appropriate gesticulation, has a great advantage over the mere inanimate page or lifeless image, however touching or beautiful these may be. -- The Indian orator fully understands this secret, and has attained in great perfection, an art which the ambitious statesman, through a life's long labor, is often unable thoroughly to acquire, -- the art of conveying, by a few magic words, into the minds of a popular assembly, the sentiments which actuate his own breast, and which are of public and practical import. Providence seems to have compensated him for his ignorance of those arts of civilization which are employed to act on the general mind, by endowing him with greater tact and ability in public speaking, as those who, by the circumstances of their birth, or by reason of accident or misfortune, lose their eyesight, are distinguished by higher intellectual gifts and graces, than fall to the lot of the majority of mankind. Perhaps there is not a finer specimen of nervous eloquence on record than the speech of the famous Indian chief, Oceola, delivered at the Seminole Agency, in 1834. Most of the Seminole Chiefs had spoken, and Oceola rising, to conclude the conference,


addressed the agent in the following laconic and determined style:

"The sentiments of the nation have been expressed. There is little more to be said. The people in council have agreed; by their chiefs they have uttered. It is well: it is truth, and must not be broken. When I make up my mind, I act. If I speak, what I say, I will do. Speak or not speak, what I resolve, I execute. The nation have consulted; have declared; -- they should perform; what should be, shall be. There remains nothing worth words! If the hail rattles; let the flowers be crushed; -- the stately oak of the forest will lift its head to the sky and the storm, towering and unscathed."

To one ignorant of his language, the Indian, it is said, appears to speak rapidly. We complain, however, of the same fault in all foreigners, in our intercourse with them; and they throw back the reproach with equal zeal upon us -- a cool, calculating people, who are apt to think twice before we speak once. May not the whole fault consist in our slow apprehension of the terms of a language that is unknown to us? Ignorance must be the source of this, as well as of most of our errors.

The religious mythology of the Indians, and of all idolatrous nations, is admirably adapted to the purposes of fiction and poetry. These require, for their success, a peculiar machinery. The supernatural must constantly be brought into play, in order to eke out and accelerate the slow progress of events. The epic poets, novelists, and dramatic writers, need not be appealed to in proof of this assertion. Genius propounds difficulties, but it requires a witch, a goblin, or a sorceress, to get men out of their trouble. The christian religion is too sacred a subject to minister to the purposes of fiction: it is too sober a reality. It is too easily understood. Men resort to the dark, the hidden, and the intricate, when they aim at effect. It is true, that ‘Paradise Lost’ is entitled, by way of pre-eminence, a theological poem, but every body knows that the poet moves about in a world of his own creation; that his heaven is of too material an order to be strictly orthodox; and that his imagination supplies incident, and gives coloring to fact. We cannot analyze the work upon any known principles but those which governed his great predecessors, Homer and Virgil. His heroes fight as bravely as Achilles, and their panoply is as complete as that furnished by Minerva. The structure of the poem, complicated, yet grand, is fashioned after a heathen model; its moral only is drawn from the Scriptures. The same remarks are true of Chateaubriand's spiritual epic, ‘The Martyrs.’ But the American superstitions are adequate to all the purposes of a writer whose aim is to interest, astonish, and startle the imagination, by facts at once authentic and extraordinary. They


are perhaps more fully embodied by Mr. Simms, in his ‘Yemassee,’ than in any other work of fiction. That gentleman has succeeded in awakening a deep and living interest in facts that had an unquestionable basis in the popular faith. I know of scarcely any scene in the whole range of dramatic composition more thrilling, than that in which the sentence of outlawry is about to be executed upon the unfortunate Occonestoga, but is finally prevented by the interposition of Matiwan, who slays her own son. -- And here the intense interest excited is enlisted in behalf of poor, unenlightened human nature. No miracle is attempted to be wrought before the face of the gaping multitude; no spirit is raised; no goblin, witch, or fairy, passes over the stage. We are startled and terrified, it is true, but only by human beings; men and women are the actors; we see their strange gestures; we hear their deafening yells: the voice of the prophet pronounces the doom; it is repeated by the great chief of the nation, and father of the victim, -- by the matrons and maidens, -- by the old men and the young warriors. The dreaded executioner approaches, and lifts the fatal knife, when in rushes the mother, and slays her only son, preferring the death to the disgrace of one she loved! It is a fine scene, and affords proof that the world of reality, which we have been accustomed to look upon as tame and uninteresting, furnishes sources of the marvellous as deeply exciting to the feelings and imagination, as any that are the unquestionable offspring of fairy land.


There is a moonlight of the heart,
A lonely, sad expanse of light;
Cold as the meteors that impart,
Strange lustre to the wintry night:
A vacant being, which though lit,
By gleams that haunt it from the sky;
Still feels cold phantoms o'er it flit,
The shapes of those who should not die.

These are the memories of the past,
Gray watchers on the waste of years,
Shadows of hopes that could not last,
And loves, forever born in tears.
The mellowed music that they bring,
Falls sweet but sad upon the heart, --
Around whose brink, they sit and sing,
Of death, -- and will not thence depart.