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The Character of the Five Indian Natios of Canada

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  • The Character of the Five Indian Natios of Canada

    The Character of the Five Indian Nations of Canada, by Lord Cadwallader Colden[*]
    "The Five Nations are a poor and generally called a barbarous people, bred under the darkest ignorance; and yet a bright and noble genius shines through these clouds. None of the greatest Roman heroes have discovered a greater love of country or contempt of death, than these people called barbarians have done, when liberty came in competition. Indeed I think our Indians have outdone the Romans in this particular. Some of the greatest of those Roman heroes have murdered themselves to avoid shame or torments; but our Indians have refused to die meanly, or with but little pain when they thought their country's honour would be at stake by it; but have given their bodies willingly to the most cruel torments of their enemies, to show, as they said, that the Five Nations consisted of men, whose courage and

    resolution could not slacken. But what, alas! have we Christians done to make them better, we have indeed reason to be ashamed that these infidels by our conversation and neighbourhood, are become worse than they were before they knew us. Instead of Virtue we have only taught them Vice, that they were entirely free from before that time. The narrow vices of private interest, have occasioned this and will occasion greater, even public mischief, if the governors of the people do not put a stop to these growing evils, If these practices be winked at, instead of faithful friends that have manfully fought our battles for us, the Five Nations will become faithless thieves and robbers, and join with every enemy that can give hope of plunder.

    "If care were taken to plant and cultivate in them that general benevolence to mankind, which is the true first principles of virtue, it would effectually eradicate those horrid vices occasioned by their unbounded revenge; and then they no longer would deserve the name of barbarians, but would become people whose friendship might add honour to the British nation.

    "The Greeks and Romans were once as much barbarians as our Indians are now, and deified the heroes that first taught them those virtues, from whence the grandeur of those renowned nations wholly proceeded. A good man however, will feel more real satisfaction and pleasure from the sense of having in any way forwarded the civilizing of a barbarous nation, or having multiplied the number of good men, than from the fondest hopes of such extravagant honours.

    "The Five Nations consist of so many tribes or nations joined together, without any superiority of one over the other The union has continued so long that nothing is known to Europeans of the origin of it. They are known by the names of Mohawks, Oneidoes, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Sennekas. Each of these nations is again divided into three tribes or families, who distinguish themselves by three different names or ensigns; the Tortoise, the Bear, and the Wolf; and the Sachems, or old men of these families put

    their ensign or marks of their family to every public paper, when they sign it.

    "Each of these nations is a republic of itself, and is governed in all public affairs by its own Sachems, the authority of these rulers is gained by and consists wholly in the opinion the rest of the nation have of their wisdom and integrity. They never execute their resolutions by force upon any of their people. Honour and esteem are their principal rewards; as shame and being despised their punishments. These leaders and captains in like manner obtain their authority by the general opinion of their courage and conduct; and lose it by a failure in those virtues. These great men, both Sachems and captains, are generally poorer than the common people, for they uniformly give away and distribute all the presents or plunder they get in their treaties or in war, so as to leave nothing to themselves.

    "There is not a man in the ministry of the Five Nations, who has gained his office otherwise than by merit; there is not the least salary or any sort of profit annexed to any office to tempt the covetous or sordid; but on the comrary, every unworthy action is unavoidably attended with the forfeiture of their commission, for the authority is only the esteem of the people, and ceases the moment that esteem is lost.

    "The Five Nations think themselves superior to mankind, and call themselves Ongue -- honwe, that is, men surpassing all others. All the nations round them have for many years entirely submitted to them, and pay a yearly tribute to them of wampum."[*]

    Lord of Dung!1

  • #2


    The following continuation of their character is by James Buchannan, Esq., of New-York:

    "They dare neither make war nor peace without the consent of the Mohawks. Two old men of this tribe commonly go about every year or two, to receive this tribute; and I have had opportunity to observe what anxiety the poor Indians were under while these two old men remained in that part of the country where I was. An old Mohawk Sachem, in a poor blanket and dirty shirt, may be seen issuing his orders with as arbitrary authority as a Roman dictator. It is not, however for the sake of tribute they make war, but from notions of glory, which they have ever most strongly imprinted on their minds; and the further they go to seek an enemy, the greater glory is gained. The Five Nations in their love of liberty and of their country, in their bravery in battle, and their constancy in enduring labour and torments, equal the fortitude of the most renowned Romans.

    "I shall finish their character by what their enemy Monsieur De la Potherie in his history of North America, says of them; 'when we speak in France of the Five Nations, they are thought, by a common mistake, to be mere barbarians, always thirsting after human blood; but their true character is very different. They are indeed the fiercest and most formidable people in North America, and at the same time are a polite and judicious as can well be conceived; and this appears from the management of all the affairs which they transact, not only with the French and English, but likewise with almost all the Indian nations of this vast continent.'

    "They strictly form a Roman maxim, to increase their strength by encouraging other nations to incorporate with them, and adopt many captives taken in battle, who afterwards have become Sachems and Captains. The cruelty the Indians use in war, is deservedly held in abhorrence; but who ever has read the history of the far famed heroes of Greece and Rome, will find them little, if at all better, even
    [p. 305]
    in this respect. Does the behaviour of Achilles to Hector's dead body appear less savage! But Achilles had a Homer to blazon forth his virtues; not so with the unlettered Indian; every pen is dipped in gall against him. Witness the Carthagenians, and Phoenicians offering their children in sacrifice, and in latter days behold men professing Christianity, outstripping all true or fabled cruelty, blasphemously or impiously, under the idea of honouring God.

    "Previous to setting out on any warlike expedition, they have a feast, to which all the noted warriors of the nation are invited; when they have the war dance to the beat of kettle drums. The warriors are seated on two rows; each rises in turn, and sings the deeds he has performed; so that they work up their spirits to a high degree of enthusiasm. They come to these dances with faces painted in a frightful manner to make themselves look terrible to their enemies. By these war songs they preserve the history of their great achievements.[*] The solemn reception of these warriors, and the acclamations of applause which they receive at their return, cannot but have on their hearer the same effect in raising an emulation for glory, that a triumph had on the old Romans. After their prisoners are secured, they never offer them the least bad treatment, but on the contrary will rather starve themselves than suffer them to want; and I have been always assured that there is not one instance of their offering the least violence to the chastity of any woman that was their captive. The captives are generally distributed among those who have lost a member of their family in battle. If they are accepted, they enjoy all the privileges the person had; but if otherwise, they die in torment to satiate the revenge of those who refuse them.

    "They use neither drum nor trumpet, nor any kind of musical instruments in their wars; their throats serve them on
    [p. 306]
    all occasions. We find the same was practised by Homer's heroes:

    Thrice to its pitch, his lofty voice he rears,
    O friend! Ulysses' shouts invade my ears.

    The hospitality of these Indians is no less remarkable than their other virtues. As soon as any stranger comes among them, they are sure to offer him victuals; if a number arrive, one of their best houses is cleaned for their accommodation, and not unfrequently they are accommodated with female society while they remain; but this latter mark of simple hospitality is not now to be found among any of the Indian tribes who have had much intercourse with the whites. The two following traits of character in the Mohawks, M Colden states as having come under his own knowledge; he states that when last in their country, the Sachems told him they had an Englishman who had run from his master in New-York: that they never would deliver him up to be punished, but that they would pay the value to the master. Another man made his escape from Albany Jail, where he was in prison for debt; the Mohawks received him, and, as they protected him against the sheriff, they not only paid the debt for him, but gave him land over and above sufficient for a good farm whereon he lived when M. Colden was last there.

    "Polygamy is not usual among them, and in case of separation according to the natural course of all animals, the children follow the mother. The women bring forth their children with much ease, and without any help, and soon after delivery return to their usual employment. They alone perform all the drudgery about the house, plant the corn, labour at it, cut the firewood, carry it home and on their marches bear the burdens. The men, disdaining all kind of labour, employ themselves alone in hunting; at times when it is not proper to hunt, the old men are found in companies in conversation, the young men at their exercises, shooting at marks, throwing the hatchet, wrestling
    [p. 307]
    or running: and the women all busy at labour in the fields. The ancient state of Lacedomon resembles that of the Five Nations, their laws and customs being formed to render the mind and bodies of the people fit for war. Theft is very scandalous and rare. There is one vice which they have acquired since they became acquainted with the Europeans, of which they knew nothing before, drunkenness, all, males and females, are awfully given to this vice; they have not been taught to abhor it; on the contray, the traders encourage it for the profit they gain on the Suque, and the bargains they obtain while intoxicated; and this imported vice, from men professing Christianity, has destroyed greater numbers than all their wars and diseases put together.

    "As to what religion they have it is difficult to judge of them, because the Indians that speak English and live near us, have learned many things of us, and it is not easy to distinguish the notions they had originally among them, from those they have learned of the Christians. It is certain they have no kind of public worship, and I am told they have no radical word signifying God; that is, one simple expression for the Deity, but use a compound word that signifies preserver, sustainer, or master of the universe. Their funeral rites seem to infer an idea of a future existence. They make a large hole in which the body can be placed upright, or upon its haunches; they dress the corpse in all their finery, and put wampum and other things into the grave with it and the relations suffer not grass or any weeds to grow on the grave or near it, and frequently visit it with lamentations."


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