INDIAN CUSTOMS AND DANCES.
BEFORE we had any right to look for my husband's return, I one day received a message inviting me to come up to the new house. We all went in a body, for we had purposely staid away a few days, expecting this summons, of which we anticipated the meaning.
Plante, in full glee, was seated astride of a small keg on the roof; close beside the kitchen chimney, on the very summit of which he had planted a green bough. To this he held fast with one hand, while he exultingly waved the other and called out,
"Eh! ban, Madame John! à cette heure, pour le rigal!"
"Yes, Plante, you are entitled to a treat, and I hope you will not enjoy it the less that Pillon and Manaigre are to share it with you."
A suitable gratification made them quite contented with their "bourgeoise," against whom Plante had sometimes been inclined to grumble, "because," as he said, "she had him called up too early in the morning." He might have added, because, too, she could not understand the philosophy of his coming in to work in his own garden, under the plea that it was too wet and rainy to work in Monsieur John's.
It was with no ordinary feelings of satisfaction, that we quitted the old log tenement for our new dwelling, small and insignificant though it was.
I was only too happy to enjoy the luxury of a real bed-chamber, in place of the parlor floor which I had occupied as such for more than two months. It is true that our culinary arrangements were still upon no improved plan. The clay chimney was not of sufficient strength to hold the trammel and pot-hooks, which at that day had not been quite superseded by the cooking-stove and kitchen-range. Our fire was made as in the olden time, with vast logs behind, and smaller sticks in front, laid across upon the andirons or dogs. Upon the sticks were placed such of the cooking-utensils as could not be accommodated on the hearth, but woe to the dinner or the supper, if through a little want of care or scrutiny one treacherous piece was suffered to burn away. Down would come the whole arrangement -- kettles, saucepans, burning brands and cinders, in one almost inextricable mass. How often this happened under the supervision of Harry or little Josette, while the mistress was playing lady to some visitor in the parlor, "'twere vain to tell."
Then, spite of Mons. Plante's palisades round the chimney, in a hard shower the rain would come pelting down, and, the hearth unfortunately sloping a little the wrong way, the fire would become extinguished; while the bark on the roof; failing to do its duty, we were now and then so completely deluged, that there was no resource but to catch up the breakfast or dinner and tuck it under the table until better times -- that is, till fair weather came again. In spite of all these little adverse occurrences, however, we enjoyed our new quarters exceedingly.
Our garden was well furnished with vegetables, and even the currant bushes which we had brought from Chicago with us, tied in a bundle at the back of the carriage, had produced us some fruit.
The Indian women were very constant in their visits and their presents. Sometimes it was venison -- sometimes ducks or pigeons -- whortleberries, wild plums, or cranberries, according to the season -- neat pretty mats for the floor or the table -- wooden bowls or ladles, fancy work of deer-skin or porcupine quills. These they would bring in and throw at my feet. If through inattention I failed to look pleased, to raise the articles from the floor and lay them carefully aside, a look of mortification and the observation, "Our mother hates our gifts," showed how much their feelings were wounded. It was always expected that a present would be received graciously, and returned with something twice its value.
Meantime, week after week wore on, and still was the return of "the master" delayed.
The rare arrival of a schooner at Green Bay, in which to take passage for Detroit, made it always a matter of uncertainty what length of time would be necessary for a journey there and back again -- so that it was not until the last of August that he again reached his home. Great was his surprise to find us so nicely "moved and settled," and under his active supervi-sion, the evils of which we had to complain were soon remedied.
My husband had met at Fort Gratiot, and brought with him, my young brother, Julian, whom my parents were sending, at our request, to reside with us. Edwin was overjoyed to have a companion once more, for he had hitherto been very solitary. They soon had enough to occupy their attention, for, in obedience to a summons sent to the different villages, the Indians very shortly came flocking in to the payment.
There was among their number this year, one whom I had never seen before -- the mother of the elder Day-kau-ray. No one could tell her age, but all agreed that she must have seen upwards of a hundred winters. Her eyes dimmed, and almost white with age -- her face dark and withered, like a baked apple -- her voice tremulous and feeble, except when raised in fury to reprove her graceless grandsons, who were fond of playing her all sorts of mischievous tricks, indicated the very great age she must have attained.
She usually went upon all fours, not having strength to hold herself erect. On the day of the payment, having received her portion, which she carefully hid in the corner of her blanket, she came crawling along and seated herself on the door-step, to count her treasure.
My sister and I were watching her movements from the open window.
Presently, just as she had, unobserved as she thought, spread out her silver before her, two of her descendants came suddenly upon her. At first they seemed begging for a share, but she repulsed them with angry gestures, when one of them made a sudden swoop, and possessed himself of a tolerable handful.
She tried to rise, to pursue him, but was unable to do more than clutch the remainder, and utter the most unearthly screams of rage. At this instant the boys raised their eyes and perceived us regarding them. They burst into a laugh, and with a sort of mocking gesture they threw her the half-dollars, and ran back to the pay-ground.
I think there was but little earnest in their vexatious tricks, for she seemed very fond of them, and never failed to beg something of "her father," that she could bestow upon them.
She crept into the parlor one morning, when straightening herself up, and supporting herself by the frame of the door, she cried in a most piteous tone -- "Shaw-nee-aw-kee! Wau-tshob-ee-rah Thsoonsh-koo-nee-noh!" (Silver-man, I have no looking-glass.) Her "father" smiling and taking up the same little tone, cried in return,
"Do you wish to look at yourself, Mother?"
The idea seemed to her so irresistibly comic, that she laughed until she was fairly obliged to seat herself upon the floor and give way to her enjoyment. She then owned that it was for one of the boys that she wanted the little mirror. When her father had given it to her, she found that she had "no comb," then that she had "no knife," then that she had "no calico shawl," until it ended, as it generally did, by Shaw-nee-aw-kee paying pretty dearly for his joke.
When the Indians arrived and when they departed, my sense of "woman's rights" was often greatly outraged. The master of the family, as a general thing, came leisurely bearing his gun and perhaps a lance in his hand. The woman, with the mats and poles of her lodge upon her shoulders, her pappoose, if she had one, her kettles, sacks of corn, and wild rice, and not unfrequently, the household dog perched on the top of all. If there is a horse or pony in the list of family possessions, the man rides, the squaw trudges after.
This unequal division of labor is the result of no want of kind, affectionate feeling on the part of the husband. It is rather the instinct of the sex to assert their superiority of position and importance, when a proper occasion offers. When out of the reach of observation, and in no danger of compromising his own dignity, the husband is willing enough to relieve his spouse from the burden that custom imposes on her, by sharing her labors and hardships.
The payment had not passed without its appropriate number of complimentary and medicine dances. The latter take place only at rare intervals -- the former whenever an occasion presents itself -- demanding a manifestation of respect and courtesy.
It is the custom to ask permission of the person to be complimented, to dance for him. This granted, preparation is made by painting the face elaborately, and marking the person, which is usually bare about the chest and shoulders, after the most approved pattern. All the ornaments that can be mustered, are added to the hair, or head dress. Happy is he, who, in virtue of having taken one or more scalps, is entitled to proclaim it by a corresponding number of eagle's feathers. The less fortunate make a substitute of the feathers of the wild turkey, or, better still, of the first unlucky "rooster" that falls in their way. My poor fowls, during the time of payment, were always thoroughly plucked.
When their preparations are completed, the dancers assemble at some convenient place, and then come marching to the spot appointed, accompanied by the music of the Indian drum and shee-shee-qua or rattle. They range themselves in a circle and dance with violent contortions and gesticulations, some of them graceful, others only energetical, the squaws, who stand a little apart, and mingle their discordant voices with the music of the instruments, rarely participating in the dance. Occasionally, however, when excited by the general gaiety, a few of them will form a circle outside and perform a sort of ungraceful, up and down movement, which was no merit, save the perfect time which is kept, and for which, the Indians seem, without exception, to possess a natural ear.
The dance finished, which is only when the strength of the dancers is quite exhausted, a quantity of presents are brought and placed in the middle of the circle, by order of the party complimented. An equitable distribution is made, by one of their number; and the object of all this display having been accomplished, they retire.
The medicine-dance is carried on chiefly to celebrate the skill of the "Medicine-man," in curing diseases. This functionary belongs to a fraternity who are sup-posed to add to their other powers some skill in interpreting the will of the Great Spirit in regard to the conduct of his people. He occasionally makes offerings and sacrifices which are regarded as propitiatory. In this sense, the term "priest" may be deemed applicable to him. He is also a "prophet" in so far as he is, in a limited degree, an instructor, but does not claim to possess the gift of foretelling future events.
A person is selected to join the fraternity of the "Medicine-man" by those already initiated, chiefly on account of some skill or sagacity that has been observed in him. Sometimes it happens that a person who has had a severe illness which has yielded to the prescriptions of one of the members, is considered a proper object of choice from a sort of claim thus established.
When he is about to be initiated, a great feast is made, of course at the expense of the candidate, for in the most simple, as in the most civilized life, the same principle of politics holds good, "honors must be paid for." An animal is killed and dressed, of which the people at large partake -- there are dances and songs and speeches in abundance. Then the chief Medicine-man takes the candidate and privately instructs him in all the ceremonies and knowledge necessary to make him an accomplished member of the fraternity. Sometimes the new member selected is still a child. In that case he is taken by the Medicine-man so soon as he reaches a proper age, and qualified by instruction and example to become a creditable member of the fraternity.
Among the Winnebagoes, there seems a considerable belief in magic. Each Medicine-man has a bag or sack, in which is supposed to be enclosed some animal, to whom in the course of their pow-wows, he addresses himself; crying to him in the note common to his imagined species. And the people seem to be persuaded that the answers which are announced are really communications in this form, from the Great Spirit.
The Indians appear to have no idea of a retribution beyond this life. They have a strong appreciation of the great, fundamental virtues of natural religion -- the worship of the Great Spirit, brotherly love, parental affection, honesty, temperance and chastity. Any infringement of the laws of the Great Spirit, by a departure from these virtues, they believe will excite his anger, and draw down punishment. These are their principles. That their practice evinces more and more, a departure from them, under the debasing influences of a proximity to the whites, is a melancholy truth, which no one will admit with so much sorrow as those who lived among them, and esteemed them, a quarter of a century ago, before this signal change had taken place.
One of the first improvements that suggested itself about our new dwelling, had been the removal of some very unsightly pickets surrounding two or three Indian graves, on the esplanade in front of the house. Such, however, is the reverence in which these burial-places are held, that we felt we must approach the subject with great delicacy and consideration.
My husband at length ventured to propose to Mrs. "Pawnee Blanc," the nearest surviving relative of the person interred, to replace the pickets with a neat wooden platform.
The idea pleased her much, for through her intimacy in Paquette's family, she had acquired something of a taste for civilization. Accordingly a little structure about a foot in height, properly finished with a moulding around the edge, was substituted for the worn and blackened pickets, and it was touching to witness the mournful satisfaction with which two or three old crones would come regularly every evening at sunset, to sit and gossip over the ashes of their departed relatives.
On the fine, moonlight nights too, there might often be seen a group sitting there, and enjoying what is to them a solemn hour, for they entertain the poetic belief that "the moon was made to give light to the dead."
The reverence of the Indians for the memory of their departed friends, and their dutiful attention in visiting and making offerings to the Great Spirit, over their last resting-places, is an example worthy of imitation among their more enlightened brethren. Not so, however, with some of their customs in relation to the dead.
The news of the decease of one of their number is a signal for a general mourning and lamentation -- it is also, in some instances, I am sorry to say, when the means and appliances can be found, the apology for a general carouse.
The relatives weep and howl for grief -- the friends and acquaintance bear them company through sympathy. A few of their number are deputed to wait upon their "father," to inform him of the event, and to beg some presents "to help them," as they express it, "dry up their tears."
We received such a visit one morning, not long after the payment was concluded.
A little drunken Indian, named by the French people around, "Old Boilvin," from his resemblance to an Indian Agent of that name, at Prairie du Chien, was the person on account of whose death the application was made. "He had been fishing," they said, "on the shores of one of the little lakes near the Portage, and having taken a little too much 'whiskee,' had fallen into the water and been drowned." Nothing of him had been found but his blanket on the bank, so there could be no funeral ceremonies, but they were prepared to make a great lamentation about him.
Their father presented them with tobacco, knives, calico and looking-glasses, in proportion to what he thought might be their reasonable grief at the loss of such a worthless vagabond, and they departed.
There was no difficulty, notwithstanding the stringent prohibitions on the subject, in procuring a keg of whiskey from some of the traders who yet remained, so armed with that and their other treasures, they assembled at an appointed spot, not far from the scene of the catastrophe, and sitting down with the keg in their midst, they commenced their affliction. The more they drank the more clamorous became their grief; and the faster flowed their tears.
In the midst of these demonstrations a little figure, bent and staggering, covered with mud and all in disorder, with a countenance full of wonder and sympathy, approached them and began,
"Why's what? what? Who's dead?"
"Who! dead?" repeated they, looking up in astonishment, "Why, you're dead! you were drowned in Swan Lake! Did not we find your blanket there? Come, sit down and help us mourn."
The old man did not wait for a second invitation. He took his seat and cried and drank with the rest, weeping and lamenting as bitterly as any of them, and the strange scene was continued as long as they had power to articulate, or any portion of the whiskey was left.
Mrs. John H. Kenzie, Wau-Bun, the "Early Day" in the Northwest. Chicago : D. B. Cooke & Co., 1857. p. 354-366.
From the Memorial Library Department of Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-Madison.