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TRAITS OF INDIAN CHARACTER.
In the present times, when popular feeling is gradually becoming hardened by war, and selfish by the frequent jeopardy of life or property, it is certainly an inauspicious moment to speak in behalf of a race of beings, whose very existence has been pronounced detrimental to public security. But it is good at all times to raise the voice of truth, however feeble; to endeavour if possible to mitigate the fury of passion and prejudice, and to turn aside the bloody hand of violence. Little interest, however, can probably be awakened at present, in favour of the misguided tribes of Indians that have been drawn into the present war. The rights of the savage have seldom been deeply appreciated by the white man-in peace he is the dupe of mercenary rapacity ; in war he is regarded as a ferocious animal, whose death is a question of mere precaution and convenience. Man is cruelly wasteful of life when his own safety is endangered and he is sheltered by impunity--and little merey is to be expected from him who feels the sting of the reptile, and is conscious of the power to destroy.
It has been the lot of the unfortunate aborigines of this country, to be doubly wronged by the white men—first, driven from their native soil by the sword of the invader, and then darkly slandered by the pen of the historian. The former has treated them like beasts of the forest; the latter has written volumes to justify him in his outrages. The former found it easier to exterminate than to civilize; the latter to abuse than to discriminate. The hideous appellations of savage and pagan, were sufficient to sanction the deadly hostilities of both; and the poor wanderers of the forest were persecuted and dishonoured, not because they were guilty, but because they were ignorant.
The same prejudices seem to exist, in common circulation, at the present day. We form our opinions of the Indian character from the miserable hordes that infest our frontiers. These, however, are degenerate beings, enfeebled by the vices of society, without being benefited by its arts of living. The independence VOL. II. Nem Series.
of thought and action, that formed the main pillar of their character, has been completely prostrated, and the whole moral fabric lies in ruins. Their spirits are debased by conscious inferiority, and their native courage completely daunted by the superior knowledge and power of their enlightened neighbours. Society has advanced upon them like a many-headed monster, breathing every variety of misery. Before it went forth pestilence, famine, and the sword; and in its train came the slow, but exterminating curse of trade. What the former did not sweep away, the latter has gradually blighted. It has increased their wants, without increasing the means of gratification. It has enervated their strength, multiplied their diseases, blasted the powers of their minds, and superinduced on their original barbarity the low vices of civilization. Poverty, repining and hopeless poverty--a canker of the mind unknown to sylvan life-corrodes their very hearts.They loiter like vagrants through the settlements, among spacious habitations replete with artificial comforts, which only render them sensible of the comparative wretchedness of their own condition. Luxury spreads its ample board before their eyes, but they are expelled from the banquet. The forest which once furnished them with ample means of subsistence has been levelled to the ground waving fields of grain have sprung up in its place; but they have no participation in the harvest; plenty revels around them, but they are starving amidst its stores; the whole wilderness blossoms like a garden, but they feel like the reptiles that infest it.
How different was their case while yet the undisputed lords of the soil. Their wants were few, and the means of gratifying them within their reach. They saw every one around them sharing the same lot, enduring the same hardships, living in the same cabins, feeding on the same aliments, arrayed in the same rude garments. No roof then rose, but what was open to the houseless stranger; no smoke curled among the trees, but he was welcome to sit down by its fire, and join the hunter in his repast. “ Fon," says an old historian of New England,“ their life is so void of care, and they are so loving also, that they make use of those things they enjoy as common goods, and are therein so compassionate that rather than one should starve through want, they would starve all: thus do they pass their time merrily, not regard
ing our pomp, but are better content with their own, which some men esteem so meanly of.” Such were the Indians while in the pride and energy of primitive simplicity: they resemble those wild plants that thrive best in the shades of the forest, but which shrink from the hand of cultivation, and perish beneath the influence of the sun.
In the general mode of estimating the savage character, we may perceive a vast degree of vulgar prejudice, and passionate exaggeration, without any of the temperate discussion of true philosophy. No allowance is made for the difference of circumstances, and the operations of principles under which they have been educated. Virtue and vice, though radically the same, yet differ widely in their influence on human conduct, according to the habits and maxims of the society in which the individual is reared. No being acts more rigidly from rule than the Indian. His whole conduct is regulated according to some general maxims early implanted in his mind. The moral laws that govern him, to , be sure, arę but few, but then he conforms to them all. The white man abounds in laws of religion, morals, and manners; but how many does he violate?
A common cause of accusation against the Indians is, the faithlessness of their friendships, and their sudden provocations to hostility. But we do not make allowance for their peculiar modes of thinking and feeling, and the principles by which they are governed. Besides, the friendship of the whites towards the
poor Indians, was ever cold, distrustful, oppressive, and insulting. In the intercourse with our frontiers they are seldom treated with confidence, and are frequently subject to injury and encroachment The solitary savage feels silently but acutely ; his sensibilities are not diffused over so wide a surface as those of the white man, but they run in steadier and deeper channels. His pride, his affections, his superstitions, are all directed towards fewer objects, but the wounds inflicted on them are proportionably severe, and furnish motives of hostility which we cannot sufficiently appreciate. Where a community is also limited in number, and forms, as in an Indian tribe, one great patriarchal family, the injury of the individual is the injury of the whole; and as their body politic is small, the sentiment of vengeance is almost instantaneously diffused. One council fire is sufficient to decide the measure. Flo.
quence and superstition combine to inflame their minds.
The orator awakens all their martial ardour, and they are wrought up to a kind of religious desperation, by the visions of the Prophet and the Dreamer.
An instance of one of these sudden exasperations, arising from a motive peculiar to the Indian character, is extant in an old record of the early settlement of Massachusetts. The planters of Plymouth had defaced the monuments of the dead at Passonagessit, and had plundered the grave of the sachem's mother of some skins with which it had been piously decorated. Every one knows the hallowed reverence which the Indians entertain for the sepulchres of their kindred. Even now, tribes that have passed generations, exiled from the abodes of their ancestors, when by chance they have been travelling, on some mission, to our seat of government, have been known to turn aside from the highway, for many miles distance, and guided by wonderfully accurate tradition, have sought some tumulus, buried perhaps in woods, where the bones of their tribe were anciently deposited; and there have passed some time in silent lamentation over the ashes of their forefathers. Influenced by this sublime and holy feeling, the sachem, whose mother's tomb had been violated, in the moinent of indignation, gathered his men together, and addressed them in the following beautifully simple and pathetic harangue--an harangue which has remained unquoted for nearly two hundred years--a pure specimen of Indian eloquence, and an affecting monument of filial piety in a savage.
“ When last the glorious light of all the sky was underneath this globe, and birds grew silent, I began to settle, as my custom is, to take repose. Before mine eyes were fast closed, methought I saw a vision, at which my spirit was much troubled, and, trembling at that doleful sight, a spirit cried aloud-behold my son, whom I have cherished; see the breasts that gave thee suck, the hands that lapped thee warm and fed thee oft! canst thou forget to take revenge of those wild people, who have defaced my monument in a despiteful manner, disdaining our antiquities and honourable customs. See now, the sachem's grave lies like the common people, defaced by an ignoble race. Thy mother doth complain, and implores thy aid against this thievish people, who have newly intruded in our land. If this be suffered I shall not rest quiet in
my everlasting habitation.—This said, the spirit vanished, and I, all in a sweat, not able scarce to speak, began to get some strength and recollect my spirits that were fled, and determined to demand your counsel, and solicit your assistance.”
Another cause of violent outcry against the Indians, is their inhumanity to the vanquished. This originally arose partly from political and partly from superstitious motives. Where hostile tribes are scanty in their numbers, the death of several warriors completely paralyzes their power; and many an instance occurs in Indian history, where a hostile tribe, that had long been formidable to its neighbour, has been broken up and driven away, by the capture and massacre of its principal fighting men. This is a strong temptation to the victor to be merciless, not so much to gratify any cruelty of revenge, as to provide for future security. But they had other motives, originating in a superstitious idea, common to barbarous nations, and even prevalent among the Greeks and Romans--that the manès of their deceased friends, slain in battle, were soothed by the blood of the captives. But those that are not thus sacrificed are adopted into their families, and treated with the confidence and affection of relatives and friends; nay, so hospitable and tender is their entertainment, that they will often prefer to remain with their adopted brethren, rather than return to the home and the friends of their youth.
The inhumanity of the Indians towards their prisoners has been heightened since the intrusion of the whites. We have exasperated what was formerly a compliance with policy and superstition into a gratification of vengeance. They cannot but be sensible that we are the usurpers of their ancient dominion, the cause of their degradation, and the gradual destroyers of their race. They go forth to battle, smarting with injuries and indignities which they have individually suffered from the injustice and the arrogance of white men, and they are driven to madness and des. pair, by the wide-spreading desolation and the overwhelming ruin of our warfare. We set them an example of violence, by burning their villages and laying waste their slender means of subsistence; and then wonder that savages will not show moderation and magnanimity towards men, who have left them nothing but mere existence and wretchedness.
It is a common thing to exclaim against new forms of cruelty,