Wednesday, 8 October 2008
Our Erroneous Ideas of the Indians
Our Erroneous Ideas of the Indians
Facts versus Fiction
by A. Hyatt Verrill
From ‘Famous Western’, April 1953. Digital Capture Oct 2008 by Doug Frizzle
WE HAVE been dealing with, or fighting, Indians for the past three centuries and more; thousands of tourists, and others, have seen thousands of Indians of our West and Southwest; thousands of Indians have fought shoulder-to-shoulder with their white comrades in the two World Wars and in Korea; and hundreds of Indians dwell in our great cities, working at innumerable trades and professions, employed in many industries and mingling freely with the "white-skins." Yet the average white man does not recognize an Indian when he sees one.
His mental picture of an Indian is a hawk-nosed individual, grim-faced, red-skinned, attired in buckskin and wearing a so-called "war bonnet" or a upstanding "scalp lock." As a Maine Wabenaki declared when I criticised him for wearing a plains-Indian headdress, "White men won't believe I'm an Indian unless I wear a war-bonnet."
On one occasion, when I mentioned the fact that there was a large Indian population in New York City, a friend skeptically declared he never had seen one—whereupon I wagered a dinner that I could show him a dozen Indians within two hours, and that he would not recognize any of them as Indians.
I won the bet easily. At the garage where I kept my car, the elevator-operator was a full blooded Comanche —mistaken for an Italian by my skeptical friend. A mechanic, whom I knew, was a Delaware; a subway guard was an Ojibway. There was a Wabenaki clerk in a grocery; a Mikmak in a sporting-goods shop; a Sioux dentist and several more—in addition to some Apache and Caugnawaga steel-workers at a new building being erected. In this connection it is of interest to note that the steel-workers who are members of the Caugnawaga tribe—whose home is near Montreal —are considered the best in the world.
Nearly all of the younger men are engaged in this hazardous profession and are sent far and near wherever there is structural Steel-work to be done. Many have been employed on the New York skyscrapers—including the Empire State Building-—and on the New York and the Golden Gate bridges.
Members of the tribe have carried on their trade in South America, Africa, Asia, and Europe; for where-ever there is structural steel-work to be done, the probability is that there will be Caugnawaga Indians on the job.
Next to them in this profession are the Apaches of our Southwest; yet, many of the white steel-workers are unaware that the men working with them are Indians. Rarely does an Indian announce that he is an Indian, and when they use their English names there is little to hint of their identity.
One white steel-worker told me he had been working among Indians for years, sharing the same bunkhouses with them when away from home, eating and drinking with them, and never suspected they were Indians. "I asked a lot of 'em what nationality they were," he told me, "and they always said 'American'—and damned if they ain't."
But an Indian, or a person with a good percentage of Indian blood, or even a white man who has been long among the Indians, recognizes an Indian at once. My wife is more than half-Indian, yet never have I known a white person to suspect her Indian blood—although Indians invariably recognize it at once.
The majority of white persons, aside from those who live near reservations, or are in more or less direct contact with Indians, know very little about the Indian; and what they think they know is usually wrong.
One of the most prevalent—and almost universal—misconceptions is that all Indians are red. They are referred to as Redmen, Redskins, or Red Indians; yet I have never seen Indians with skins that rightfully could be called red, unless they had been smeared with red ochre.
The color of their skins varies with the tribe; they may be olive; ochreous; brown of various shades; tan-color; dead-leaf color; or even dark brown, or almost black. Moreover, there is a certain amount of individual variation—just as among the white there are brunettes, blondes and redheads—and in the cases of Indians whose parents are of different tribes the offspring may take after either parent. Many of our North American Indians are no darker than a rather swarthy white man or brunette woman; others are rich olive, or light ochreous. But the majority are pale brown, much the same color as a suntanned white person. The majority of South and Central American tribes are dead-leaf color—or light brown— while the Mexican Indians of pure blood vary from almost-white to very deep brown, and even black.
Neither is the Indian's hair always coarse, straight and intense black. Many tribes have fine silky, wavy hair that may be black or dark brown. Sometimes there are true redheads and albinos, or partial albinos that may be blondes.
Although the majority of Indians' eyes are brown or black, many—especially among our eastern tribes—have gray, hazel or green eyes. This is not because of any admixture of white blood, for the earliest discoverers and explorers noted the great variation in the physical make-up of the Indians.
MOST ERRONEOUS also are the popular ideas of the Indian's physical characteristics and appearance. He is pictured as a tall, athletic, splendidly-built man, stoical and dignified; a man with a broad face, square chin, high and prominent cheek-bones, aquiline nose, thin lips, and narrow eyes—in other words the Indian-head nickel Indian. It is true that all these characteristics may be found among members of some tribes, but they are by no means typical of the majority.
As a rule, Indians are not usually tall; and, as a whole, they average less in stature than white men. Many of the South American Indians are almost dwarfs, the men averaging barely five feet in height and the women a trifle over four feet. As a general rule, the average Indian is neither a power fully-built, nor a physically well-proportioned man. In their youth, most Indians are rather slender and sinewy rather than muscular; but as they grow older they become stocky, and often fat and paunchy. Many—especially among the plains tribes—have bandy legs, and because nearly all Indians place one foot in front of the other when walking, they usually are pigeon-toed. Also, from carrying loads or packs on their backs, the majority of the forest-dwelling Indians habitually stoop and are far from erect.
Environment also plays a large part in the Indian's physical characteristics. Forest (and mountain-dwelling) tribes, who walk a great deal, usually have well-proportioned bodies and limbs; but in the case of river Indians—especially those of tropical America—the chests and shoulders are usually developed out of all proportion to the lower trunk and limbs —the result of constant paddling and little walking through many generations.
The features of Indians vary as widely as the colors of their skins or other characteristics. Many of the North American tribes—as well as some Mexican, Central American and South American tribes—have aquiline noses, prominent cheekbones, and the other popularly-accepted Indian features. But there are more Indians who have low-bridged, rather broad flat noses, full rounded cheeks, fairly thick lips, full eyes, and pointed, receeding chins.
It would be fully as foolish and impossible to attempt to picture the various European races as all alike in their physical characteristics as to consider the American Indians in that manner.
Moreover, Indians vary fully as much in their mental characters, as in appearance. All Indians are not by any means stoical, taciturn, dignified. or lacking a sense of humor. In the presence of strangers (if white persons) Indians usually are shy, suspicious and self-conscious; but among themselves, or associated with whites who have won their confidence and friendship, they are talkative, and full of fun; they laugh, chatter and gossip as freely as anyone. I have yet to find an Indian who does not possess a keen sense of humor; and, as a rule, they like practical jokes. Very often they will see the "point" of a humorous story much more quickly than a white man.
THE AGE-OLD belief that Indian babies do not cry is entirely wrong. Indian children as a rule are quieter, and less given to squalling, than are white children; but crying babies among many tribes are as numerous and as exasperating as among white families. However, at a very early age they are taught not to cry—at least audibly—and to be seen, not heard.
A great deal of nonsense has been written and told as to the Indians' immunity to pain and sufferings. An Indian may not show indications of pain or agony, for by a sort of self-hypnosis—or auto-suggestion—he can place himself in a semi-anaesthesia, during which he does not suffer as he would normally. But unless he is prepared for the ordeal, and has time to work himself into this state, he is as susceptible to pain as anyone else; and in case of a sudden unexpected pain, he will often yell or exclaim like any ordinary human being. Many a time I have seen an Indian jump up and emit an agonized cry when he sat on a lively hornet, or trod on a thorn; but I have seen the same man stand knee-deep in a nest of voracious, biting ants while gathering the female "honey ants" that are considered a great delicacy; and although the man's legs were covered with blood from the ants' bites he was apparently insensible to the pain. I have known an Indian to pry an aching tooth from his gums, or permit his fingers to be amputated without the use of an anaesthetic, and not even groan, while the same man would howl and jump about on one foot when a loose rock rolled on his toe.
Most of the popular conceptions of Indians have been derived from stories of our more familiar tribes, from lurid Wild West literature, and the motion pictures. Most persons speak of any Indian's dwelling as a wigwam or a tepee, and think at once of a conical tent of bark, skins or painted canvas. But the bark wigwam was the home of some of our eastern and northern tribes, while the tepee was the home of the nomadic plains Indians. Neither the tepee nor the wigwam was universal. There were many more Indians who dwelt in houses of logs, wattles, earth or sod, and with thatched roofs, than in conical homes of bark or skins. Many of our eastern Indians built substantial houses. The "long houses" of the Iroquois were of logs, and villages of loghouses, enclosed by palisades of logs, were common.
The Mandans built bee-hive-like domed houses of sods; the Navajos were partial to "wikiups" of brush and sods; the Pueblos erected adobe houses, as did many of the Mexican Indians. The Seminoles, and most tribes of tropical America, lived in open sheds raised several feet above the ground and roofed with thatch. Some tribes—even in New England— lived in houses that were partly underground, while Indians in mountainous areas often made their houses of stones.
There are also a great many erroneous ideas regarding the Indians' "war whoops"; scalping; facial painting; and "war bonnets". Many Indians never heard or uttered a "war whoop", and would not have known what it meant; thousands of Indians never took a scalp, and never had any desire to do so.
WOODLAND Indians, such as those of our eastern tribes, moved as silently as possible; and anything even slightly resembling a war-whoop would have been fatal to them. They were led and guided by the counterfeited notes of birds; the chirps of insects; the hoot of an owl, or by other forest-sounds; and even when they attacked, they did so silently—or at the most shouted defiance and taunts at their foes.
When the mounted plains Indians attacked, they often yelled and shouted; but there was no typical recognized or universally-used war whoop.
Scalping, with a few exceptions, was restricted to the North American Indians; and many of the tribes never scalped a fallen enemy, until after the white men began paying bounties for scalps. But when the whites paid more for a scalp than for a prime beaver-skin, the Indians decided that scalps possessed some magical or "medicine" power and commenced taking scalps on their own account. Scalps, after all, are merely trophies; and many tribes much preferred a war-trophy in the shape of a dried or shrunken head, the ribs of an enemy; a thigh-bone; a skull; a hand; or even an enemy's teeth.
Neither did all the North American Indians wear '"scalp-locks". This was a custom of certain eastern and northern tribes—a sort of "come and get it if you can" challenge; but far more numerous were the tribes who wore their hair as it grew, either braiding it in long plaits; brushing it in a pompadour; or "bobbing" it in quite modern style.
The "terror-inspiring, hideous painting" of the Indians in battle was not intended to frighten the foe as much as to serve as a camouflage, the colors and designs blending with the lights and shadows and the surroundings. Also, painting faces and bodies had both a symbolic and a ''medicine'' significance; while finally it served as a means of identification. Each individual had some particular colors and designs that he used, and each tribe and band had certain distinctive forms of painting. This as very important, for when two war-parties of Indians often closely related—met in battle, the painting served to distinguish friend from foe. It was all an open book to the Indians but a meaningless lot of colored pigments and weird patterns to the white man, who was not thoroughly versed in Indians' ways.
It is rarely that we see a magazine-illustration, or a motion-picture, of an Indian battle that the braves are not shown wearing the so-called "war-bonnets" with long feathered "tails". As a matter of fact, no Indian in his senses would go to war wearing one of these showy contraptions. An Indian, when about to attack an enemy, tries to remain as inconspicuous as possible; and nothing is more conspicuous than the feather-tailed "war bonnet".
Moreover, it is a cumbersome affair; the long "tails" would get in his way and interfere with his mounted activities. At times, some of the slain Indians did wear the feathered headpiece during attacks on wagon trains and soldiers; but never the tailed "war-bonnet" which we have come to associate with all Indians, although confined to the plains tribes. In fact "war-bonnet" is a misnomer; as one of my Sioux friends declared, "It should be called 'peace-bonnet'". It was worn only during pageants, dances, ceremonials, councils and similar affairs—or when an Indian wanted to "dress up" in all his finery. Probably the most interesting feature of the "war-bonnet" is its history, for it was derived from the age-old pleated cloth-and-lace headdress of the huipile costume of the Totonacs (Tajin) Indians of Vera Cruz and the Xapotec women of southern Mexico. As the huipile headdress spread northward, the pleated cloth was replaced by feathers, and was adopted by the Kickapoos of northwestern Mexico. When the Kickapoos moved into our southwest the showy headdress became popular with the Comanches, Kiowas and other tribes—until it was almost universally used by all of the plains Indians.
ANOTHER popular fallacy is that Indians are beardless, or that they pull out or shave off any hairs that appear on their faces. Some tribes, it is true, have little or no beard; but others have well-developed beards and have to shave daily. Some do pull out the hairs or shave, but others have well developed mustaches and beards. Today many of the Pawnees, Navajos, and other North American tribes have mustaches; and it is not at all unusual to see full-blooded Indians with heavy, bushy beards.
No doubt it will surprise many persons to learn that the Indian men were not lazy and idle, and that the women did not perform all the labor. In reality, both sexes had their duties and allotted tasks. The men hunted, fished, fought, made weapons, canoes, snowshoes and other things; but it was essential to the safety of the family and tribe that the men should not waste their strength in tasks which the women could do as well, if not better. Between battles and hunts, the men rested and made their ceremonial and dress ornaments; carved fishhooks, and attended to many small tasks that women were not allowed to do. The women cared for the children, tanned hides, made garments, cooked the meals, and performed other household duties.
When nomadic tribes were on the march the women attended to the taking down and setting up of the lodges and carried the burdens; but this was essential, in order to permit the men to protect the travellers from enemies; scout out a route; and secure food— all duties that could not be done if the men were encumbered with burdens. But when the forest-dwelling tribes moved from one locality to another, the men carried burdens, portaged and paddled the canoes, and performed many of the tasks essential to making camp—in addition to hunting and providing food.
Among most tribes of Indians everywhere, there are certain tasks and occupations which arc strictly those of the men—while others are just as strictly confined to the women. Among our plains tribes, all ceremonial objects, "medicine" weapons and shields, headdresses, war trophies, etc., were made by the men.
Taken all in all, the division of labor between Indian men and women is very similar to that of white folks. The man is the (or at least should be) the wage-earner and provider, while the woman attends to the housekeeping, the rearing of the children, and drudgery. From the Indians' point of view the average white man is much lazier, and leaves more work to his woman than do the Indians.
Although we often hear or read of Indian "Princesses," Princes, and "Kings" there never were kings, princes, princesses or royal families among the Indians of North America. It was seldom that a chief inherited the leadership; for in most cases he was selected because of his bravery and prowess in battle and in hunting, or because of his oratorial ability; his wisdom, or other superior qualities. Even in cases where the chieftanship was hereditary, the sons and daughters of the chief were not princes or princesses. They may have had a certain amount of social priority, but that was all; and even a hereditary chief could be deposed, and another man elected as chief, if the Council so decided. Moreover, it was not unusual for certain tribes—such as the Iroquois—to have women chiefs; and a great many famous Indians, who are always referred to as chiefs, were not chiefs at all. Osceola was never a Seminole chief; Sitting Bull was not a chief but a medicineman or Shaman; and in many cases an Indian might be a War Chief, who led his braves to battle, yet had little or no say in other tribal matters.
IT IS NOW common custom to address, and refer to, any Indian as ''chief". Even the Indians themselves do this, for the term "chief"—applied to an Indian—is very much the same as our "Mister" or "Sir", titles that once were restricted to the knights and nobility.
Still another prevalent, but false, idea is that all Indians are cruel and treacherous. Broadly speaking I would say that Indians are neither cruel nor treacherous. Granted that some, such as the Aztecs, had a cruel and bloodthirsty religion demanding human sacrifices, yet they were humane otherwise, passionately fond of flowers, pets and music, and were not at all treacherous. Had they been so, the ''Conquest of Mexico" would have been a very different undertaking. It is also true that some tribes—although not by all by any means—tortured their captive enemies; but this, from the Indians' standpoint, was not cruelty but an honor. It gave the prisoner a chance to prove his bravery and stoicism; and many an Indian would have felt grossly insulted if he had known he would not be tortured when made a prisoner.
Neither must we forget that the standards by which we judge cruelty, and other matters, are not the standards of other people. What may appear cruel to one person may not seem so to another. Most Spaniards regard bullfighting as a legitimate sport, but look upon football and hockey as brutal. We may shudder at vivisection but we calmly split a living lobster in half, or gut and clean a living fish. We hunt and shoot birds and beasts and cause them unspeakable agonies, yet we rarely regard hunting as a cruel sport. Although we shoot a horse with a broken leg, or kill some injured domestic animal to put it out of its misery, we use every effort— and every known means—to prolong the life and the sufferings of a beloved one whose death we know positively is certain.
There are many tribes of Indians who are most tender-hearted, and would never knowingly cause pain or suffering under any considerations. I have seen Indian men, while hunting, stop and pick up a fledgling, and go to great trouble to replace it in its nest. I have seen Indians change the site selected for their camp in order not to disturb a nesting bird, or a litter of helpless creatures. I have seen an Indian in need of meat lower his weapon when he saw a fawn accompanying the doe he was about to kill. Many a time I have watched Indians, after hauling a fish-net, carefully gather and throw back the fish they did not want, whereas a white man would probably have left them to gasp and die on dry land. Neither must we forget that, in most instances, the white men's cruelties were far greater and more awful than those of the Indians. From the very first they killed women and children, often putting them to torture. No Indian "atrocities" exceeded the cavalry raids on peaceful Indian villages and the massacres of women, men and children.
The atrocities of the Spanish conquerors and their followers have never been equalled; and well within the memories of many, the world shuddered at the almost incredible tortures inflicted upon the Indians of the Putumayo and other districts in South America. When the Indians failed to bring in the quantity of raw rubber the white men demanded, arms, feet, ears, noses, tongues were cut off; eyes were blinded; and entire tribes were exterminated during the great rubber boom.
Much the same may be said in respect to Indian honesty and treachery. Until the Indian has come into close contact with white men he is as a rule, reliable and honest. He will keep his promises, and his word—like that of the traditional Chinese—is as good as his bond. I have known an Indian to travel over five hundred miles through forests, across plains, along rapid-filled rivers merely to return ten dollars to a white man, who had advanced the money for the purchase of a hammock—which, later on, the Indian could not obtain. In Chile, a banker told me that he would always loan a Mapuche Indian any amount he desired, and would not demand a note nor inspect the Indians' crops or flocks; he had never lost a cent.
WHEREVER I have travelled among Indians I have always trusted them, and never yet has one broken a promise, failed to keep his word, tried to betray me, or in any way been treacherous—although I have been among reputed hostiles who, God knows, have suffered enough at the hands of white men to have been forgiven if they repaid any member of the white race in kind. I have never found a truly primitive Indian who was a thief. I have dwelt for weeks and months in Indian villages where the houses were open sheds, and where all my possessions and trade-goods—priceless and coveted beyond words by the Indians— were fully exposed and unprotected. Yet never have I had a single item stolen.
Very often the women and children would take some object and either wear it, or carry it off to show their friends; but invariably they brought the thing back, or brought something in exchange for the article they had taken. This is regarded as simple trade.
It is a very different matter when Indians are at war, or when an Indian meets an enemy; the Indian then, feels it is up to the best man to win, and he believes thoroughly in the old adage that "All is fair in love and war."
Treachery at such times is all a part of the game, and he expects his foe to employ the same tactics. It is all a game of wits, just as in our so-called "civilized" warfare. Yet, in their dealings with the whites, I do not know of a single authentic case of the North American Indians breaking a promise, or violating a treaty, until the white men had done so first. Nor a single instance of Indian hostility when first meeting white men.
Finally we must not judge the Indians of today by incidents that took place in the early days of our history or during our Indian wars. The ways and the characteristics of our Indians have changed as much, if not more than those of the palefaces; and that reminds me of another error on our part. The Indian term applied to white men, when accurately and literally translated, is "white-skin", not "paleface", which is more appropriate and descriptive. Neither is the proverbial "How" a query. The Indian greeting is "A-Hau" or "Peace be with you."
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- Our Erroneous Ideas of the Indians
- Our Erroneous Ideas of the Indians
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.