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(voyage icon)1835

Pictographic Petition to the President

from Historical and statistical information respecting the history, condition, and prospects of the Indian tribes of the United States
by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft   1851

In the month of January, 1849, a delegation of eleven Chippewas, from Lake Superior, presented themselves at Washington, who, amid other matters not well digested in their minds, asked the government for a retrocession of some portion of the lands which the nation had formerly ceded to the United States, at a treaty concluded at Lapointe, in Lake Superior, in 1842. They were headed by Oshcabawiss, a chief from a part of the forest-country, called by them Monomonecau, on the head-waters of the River Wisconsin. Some minor chiefs accompanied them, together with a Sioux and two boisbrules, or half-breeds, from the Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. The principal of the latter was a person called Martell, who appeared to be the master-spirit and prime mover of the visit, and of the motions of the entire party. His motives in originating and conducting the party, were questioned in letters and verbal representations from persons on the frontiers. He was freely pronounced an adventurer, and a person who had other objects to fulfil, of higher interest to himself than the advancement of the civilization and industry of the Indians. Yet these were the ostensible objects put forward, though it was known that he had exhibited the Indians in various parts of the Union for gain, and had set out with the purpose of carrying them, for the same object, to England. However this may be, much interest in, and sympathy for them, was excited. Officially, indeed, their object was blocked up. The party were not accredited by their local agent. They brought no letter from the acting Superintendent of Indian Affairs on that frontier. The journey had not been authorized in any manner by the department. It was, in fine, wholly voluntary, and the expenses of it had been defrayed, as already indicated, chiefly from contributions made by citizens on the way, and from the avails of their exhibitions in the towns through which they passed; in which, arrayed in their national costume, they exhibited their peculiar dances, and native implements of war and music. What was wanting, in addition to these sources, had been supplied by borrowing from individuals.

Martell, who acted as their conductor and interpreter, brought private letters from several persons to members of Congress and others, which procured respect. After a visit, protracted through seven or eight weeks, an act was passed by Congress to defray the expenses of the party, including the repayment of the sums borrowed of citizens, and sufficient to carry them back, with every requisite comfort, to their homes in the north-west. While in Washington, the presence of the party at private houses, at levees, and places of public resort, and at the halls of Congress, attracted much interest; and this was not a little heightened by their aptness in the native ceremonies, dancing, and their orderly conduct and easy manners, united to the attraction of their neat and well-preserved costume, which helped forward the object of their mission.

The visit, although it has been stated, from respectable sources, to have had its origin wholly in private motives, in the carrying out of which the natives were made to play the part of mere subordinates, was concluded in a manner which reflects the highest credit on the liberal feelings and sentiments of Congress. The plan of retrocession of territory, on which some of the natives expressed a wish to settle and adopt the modes of civilized life, appeared to want the sanction of the several states in which the lands asked for lie. No action upon it could therefore be well had, until the legislatures of these states could be consulted.

But if there were doubts as to the authority or approval of the visit on the part of either the Chippewas or frontier officers of the government, these very doubts led the party, under the promptings of their leader, to resort to the native pictorial art, which furnishes the subject of this notice. Picture-writing, in some of its shades, has long been noticed as existing among the western Indians. By it not only exploits in war and hunting are known to be recorded, but such devices are not unfrequently seen drawn on the smooth and often inaccessible faces of rocks, on which they are frequently observed to be painted, and sometimes fretted in. A still more common exhibition of the mode is observed in the Indian adjedatig, or grave-post; and it constitutes a species of notation for their meda and hunting songs.

In the instance now before us, it is resorted to, to give authority to delegates visiting the seat of government. These primitive letters of credence were designed to supply an obvious want on the presentation of the delegation at Washington. Their leader was too shrewd not to know that letters of this kind would be required in order to enable him to stand, with authority, before the chief of the Indian Bureau, the Secretary of War, and the President.

The following, are exact transcripts of the rolls on a reduced scale. ... The material is the smooth inner coats of the bark of the betula papyracea, or white birch of northern latitudes. To facilitate description, each of the pictographs, or traced-sheets, and each of the figures of the several inscriptions, has been numbered. The names of the persons whose totemic bearings are alone introduced into these transcripts, have been written down from the lips of the interpreter. In this way, and from a comparison of the scrolls with other data possessed on the same branch, the whole story has been secured. The chiefs and warriors of the five several villages who united in the objects of the visit--for there were some temporary and other objects, besides the one above named, which are not necessary to be mentioned, were represented alone by the symbols, or figures of animals which typify their clans, or totems. Their names were written down from the lips of their interpreter.

It will be seen, that by far the greatest number of the totems or clans here named, are represented by well-known species of quadrupeds, birds, or fishes, of the latitudes in which the Chippewas now live. The totemic devices would, therefore, appear to be indigenous and local, and to have little claim to antiquity. A few of them are mythological, which will be pointed out as we proceed.