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Legends, Traditions, and Laws of the Iroquois, or Six Nations, and History of the Tuscarora Indians


The more you read, and the better you understand Indian history, the more you will be impressed with the injustice which has been done the Iroquois, not only in dispossessing them of their inheritance, but in the estimation which has been made of their character. They have been represented, as seen in the transition state, the most unfavorable possible for judging correctly. In the chapter of National Traits of Character, I have in two or three instances quoted Washington Irving and might again allow his opinions to relieve my own from the charge of partiality. He says, in speaking of this same subject, that “the current opinion of Indian character is too apt to be formed from the miserable hordes which infest the frontiers, and hang on the shirts of settlements. These are too commonly composed of degenerate beings, corrupted and enfeebled by the voice of society, without being benefited by its civilization.”

“The proud independence which formed the main pillar of motive virtue has been spoken down, and the whole moral fabric lies in ruins. The spirits are humiliated and debased by a sense of inferiority, and their native courage cowed and daunted by the superior knowledge and power of their enlightened neighbors. Society has advanced upon them like one of a those withering airs that will sometimes breed desolation over a whole region of fertility. It has enervated their strength, multiplied their diseases, and superinduced upon their original barbarity the law-vices of artificial life. It has given them a thousand superfluous wants, while it has diminished their means of mere existence. It has driven before it the animals of the chase, who fly from the sound of the axe and the smoke of the settlement and seek refuge in the depths of remote forests, and yet untrodden wilds. Thus do we often find the Indians in the frontiers to be mere wrecks and remnants of once powerful tribes, who have lingered in the vicinity of settlements, and sunk into precarious and vagabond existence. Poverty, repining and hopeless poverty—a canker on the mind before unknown to them—corrodes their spirits and blights every free and noble qualities of their nature. They loiter like vagrants about the settlements among spacious dwellings, replete with elaborate comforts, which only renders them more sensible of the comparative wretchedness of their own condition. Luxury spreads its ample board before their eyes, but they are excluded from the banquet; plenty revels over the fields, but they are starving in the midst of abundance. The whole wilderness blossomed into a garden, but they feel as reptiles that infest them. How different was their state while undisputed lords of the soil? Their wants were few, and the means of gratification within their reach, they saw every one among them sharing the same lot, enduring the same hardships, feeding on the same aliments, arrayed in the same rude garment. No roof then rose under whose sheltering wings, that was not ever open to the homeless stranger, no smoke curled among the trees, but he was welcome to sit down by its fire and join the hunter in his repast.”

In discussing Indian character, writers have been too prone to indulge in vulgar prejudice and passionate exaggeration, instead of the candid temper of the true philosopher. They have not sufficiently considered the peculiar circumstance in which the Indians have been placed, and the peculiar principles under which they having been educated. No being acts more rigidly from rule than the Indians, his whole conduct is regulated according to some general maxims early implanted in his mind. The moral laws which govern him are few, but he conforms to them all. The white man abounds in laws and religion, morals, and manners, but how many of them does he violate. In their intercourse with the Indians the white people were continually trampling upon their religion and their sacred rights. They were expected to look merely on while the graves of their fathers were robbed of their treasures, and the bones of their fathers were left to bleach upon the fields. And when exasperated by the brutality of their conquerors, and driven to deeds of vengence, there was very little appreciation of the motives which influenced them, and no attempt was made to palliate their cruelties.

It was their custom to bury the dead with their best clothing, and the various implements they had been in the habit of using whilst living. If it was a warrior that they were preparing for burial, they placed his tomahawk by his side and his knife in his shield; with the hunter, his bow and arrows and implements for cooking his food; with the woman, their kettles and cooking apparatus and also food for all. Tobacco was deposited in every grave; for to smoke was an Indian’s idea of felicity in the body and out of it, and in this there was not so much difference as one might wish, between them and gentlemen of a paler hue.

Among the Iroquois, and many other Indian nations, it was the custom to place the dead upon scaffolds, built for the purpose, from tree to tree, or within a temporary inclosure, and underneath a fire was kept burning for several days.

They had known instances of persons reviving after they were supposed to be dead, and this led to the conclusion that the spirit sometimes returned to animate the body after it had once fled. If there was no signs of life for ten days, the fire was extinguished and the body left unmolested until decomposition had begun to take place, when the remains were buried, or, as was often the case, kept in the lodge for many years. If they were obliged to desert the settlement where they had long resided, these skeletons were collected from all the families and buried in one common grave, with the same ceremonies as when a single individual was interred.

They did not suppose the spirit was instantaneously transferred from earth to Heaven, but that it wandered in aerial region for many moons. In later days they only allowed ten days for its flight. Their period for mourning continued only whilst the spirit is wandering, as soon as they believe it has entered Heaven they commenced rejoicing, saying, there is no longer cause for sorrow, because it is now where happiness dwells forever. Sometimes a piteous wailing was kept up every night for a long time, but it was only their bereavement that they bewailed, as they did not fear about the fate of those who died. Not until they had heard of Purgatory from the Jesuits, or endless woe from Protestants, did they look upon death with terror, or life as anything but a blessing.

They were sometimes in the habit of addressing the dead, as if they could hear. The following are the words of a mother as she bends over her only son to look for the last time upon his beloved face: “My son, listen once more to the words of thy mother. Thou wast brought into life with her pains, thou wast nourished with her life. She has attempted to be faithful in raising you up. When you were young she loved you as her life. Thy presence has been a source of great joy to her. Upon thee she depended for support and comfort in her declining days. But thou hast outstripped her and gone before. Our wise and great Creator has ordered it thus. By his will, I am left yet, to taste more of the miseries of this world. Thy relations and friends have gathered about thy body to look upon thee for the last time. They mourn, as with one mind, thy departure from among us. We, too, have but a few days more and our journey will be ended. We part now, and you are conveyed out of our sight. But we shall soon meet again, and shall look upon each other, then we shall part no more. Our Maker has called thee home, and thither will we follow.”

After the adoption of the league of the Iroquois, and they dwelled in villages, this was one of the duties enjoined by their religious teacher at their festivals: “It is the will of the Great Spirit that you reverence the aged, even though they be helpless as infants.” And also, “Kindness to the orphan, and hospitality to all.” “If you tie up the clothes of an orphan child, the Great Spirit will notice it, and reward you for it.” “To adopt an orphan, and bring them up in virtuous ways, is pleasing to the Great Spirit.” “If strangers wander about your abode, welcome him to your home, be hospitable towards him, speak to him with kind words, and forget not, always to make mention of the Great Spirit.”

The Indians lamentations, on being driven far away from the graves of their fathers, have been the theme of all historians and travelers. It can be easily imagined how those who so loved their homes and revered their fathers’ graves, would become fierce with indignation and rage, on seeing themselves treated as without human feeling, and the sacred relics of the dead ploughed up and scattered as indifferently as the stones, or the bones of the moose and the deer of the forest. It was this feeling that often prompted them to acts of hostility, which those who experienced them, ascribed to wanton cruelty and barbarity.

In many of the villages there was a strangers home, a house, for strangers where they were placed, while the old men went about collecting skins for them to sleep upon, and food for them to eat, expecting no reward.

They called it very rude for them to stare at them as they passed in the streets, and said that they had as much curiosity as the white people, but they did not gratify it by intruding upon them, by examining them. They would sometimes hide behind trees in order to look at strangers, but never stood openly and gaze at them.

Their respective attention to missionaries was often the result of their rules of politeness, as it is a part of the Indian’s code. Their councils are eminent for decorum, and no person is interrupted during a speech. Some Indians, after respectfully listening to a missionary, thought they would relate to him some of their legends, but the good man could not restrain his indignation, but pronounced them foolish fables, while what he told them was sacred truth. The Indian was, in his turn, offended, and said, we listened to your stories, why do you not listen to ours? you are not instructed in the common rules of civility.

A hunter, in his wandering for game, fell among the back settlements of Virginia, and on account of the inclemency of the weather, sought refuge at the house of a planter, whom he met at the door. He was refused admission. Being both hungry and thirsty, he asked for a bit of bread and a cup of cold water. But the answer to every appeal was, “ You, shall have nothing here, get you gone you Indian dog!

Some months afterwards this same planter lost himself in the woods, and after a weary day of wandering, came to an Indian cabin, into which he was welcomed. On inquiring the way and distance to the settlement, and finding it was too far to think of going that night, he asked if he could remain. Very cordially the inmates replied, that he was at liberty to stay, and all they had was at his service. They gave him food, they made a bright fire to cheer and warm him, and supplied him with clean deer-skin for his couch, and promised to conduct him the next day on his journey. In the morning the Indian hunter and the planter set out together through the forest, when they came in sight of the white man’s dwelling, the hunter, about to leave, turned to his companion, and said, “Do you not know me?” The white man was struck with horror, that he had been so long in the power of one whom he had so inhumanly treated, and expected now to experience his revenge. But on beginning to make excuses, the Indian interrupted him saying, “when you see a poor Indian fainting for a cup of cold water, don’t say again, ‘get you gone, you Indian dog.’“ and turned back to his hunting grounds. Which best deserved the appellation of a christian, and to which will it most likely be said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, ye have done it unto me.”