TRAITS OF INDIAN CHARACTER.
By Washington Irving
"In the general mode of estimating the savage character, we may perceive a cast degree of vulgar prejudice, and passionate exaggeration, without any of the temperate discussion of true philosophy. No allowance is made for the difference of circumstances, and the operations of principles under which they have been educated. Virtue and vice, though radically the same yet differ widely in their influence on human conduct, according to the habits and maxims of society in which the individual is reared. No being acts more rigidly from rule than the Indian. His whole conduct is regulated according to some general maxims early implanted in his mind. The moral laws that govern him, to be sure, are but few, but then he conforms to them all. The white man abounds in laws of religion, morals, and manners; but how many does he violate?
"A common cause of accusation against the Indians is, the faithlessness of their friendships, and their sudden provocations to hostility. But we do not make allowance for their peculiar modes of thinking and feeling, and the principles by which they are governed. Besides, the friendship of the whites towards the poor Indians, was ever cold, distrustful, oppressive, and insulting. In the intercourse with our frontiers they are seldom treated with confidence, and are frequently subject to injury and encroachment. The solitary savage feels silently but acutely; his sensibilities are not diffused over so wide a surface as those of the white man, but they run in steadier and deeper channels. His pride, his affections, his superstitions, are all directed towards fewer objects, but the wounds inflicted on them are proportionably severe, and furnish motives of hostility which he cannot sufficiently appreciate. Where a community is also limited in number, and forms, as in an Indian tribe, one great patriarchal family, the injury of the individual is the injury of the whole; and as their body politic is small, the sentiment of vengeance is almost instantaneously diffused. One council fire is sufficient to decide the measure.- Eloquence and superstition combine to inflame their minds. The orator awakens all their martial ardor, and they are wrought up to a kind of religious desperation, by the visions of the prophet and the dreamer."
"An instance of one of these sudden exasperation, arising from a motive peculiar to the Indian character, is extant in an old record of the early settlement of Massachusetts. The planters of Plymouth had defaced the monuments of the dead at Passouagessit, and had plundered the grave of the sachem's mother of some skins with which it had been piously decorated. Everyone knows the hallowed reverence which the Indians entertain for sepulchers of their kindred.- Even now, tribes that have passed generations exiled from the abodes of their ancestors, when by chance they have been traveling on some mission to our seat of government, have been known to turn aside from the highway for many miles distance, and guided by wonderfully accurate tradition, have sought some tumulus [sic], buried perhaps in woods, where the bones of their tribe were anciently deposited; and there have passed some time in silent lamentation over the ashes of their forefathers. Influenced by this sublime and holy feeling, the sachem, whose mother's tomb had been violated, in the moment of indignation, gathered his men together, and addressed them in the following beautiful simple pathetic harangue-which has remained unquoted for nearly two hundred years-a pure specimen of Indian eloquence, and an affecting monument of filial piety in a savage."
"When last the glorious light of all the sky was underneath this globe, and birds grew silent, I began to settle, as my custom is, to take repose. Before mine eyes were last closed, me thought I saw a vision, at which my spirit was much troubled, and trembling at that doleful sight, a spirit cried aloud-behold my son, whom I have cherished; see the breasts that gave thee suck, the hands that lapped thee warm & fed thee oft! canst thou forget to take revenge of those wild people, who have defaced my monument in a despiteful manner, disdaining our antiquities and honorable customs. See now, the sachem's grave lies like the common people defaced by an ignoble race. Thy mother doth complain, and implores thy aid against this thievish people, who have newly intruded in our land. If this be suffered I shall not rest quiet in my everlasting habitation. This said, the spirit vanished, and I, all in a sweat not able scarce to speak, began to get some strength and recollect my spirits that were fled, and determined to demand your counsel, and solicit your assistance."
"Another cause of violent outcry against the Indians, is their inhumanity
to the vanquished. This originally arose partly from political and partly
from superstitious motives. Where hostile tribes are scanty in their numbers,
the death of several warriors completely paralyzes their power; and many an
instance occurs in Indian history, where a hostile tribe, that had long been
formidable to its neighbor, has been broken up and driven away, by the capture
and massacre of its principal fighting men. This is a strong temptation
to the victor to be merciless, not so much to gratify any cruelty of revenge,
as to provide of future security. But they had other motives originating in
a superstitious idea, common to barbarous nations, and even prevalent among
the Greeks and Romans-that the manes of their deceased friends, slain in battle,
were soothed by the blood of the captives. But those that are not thus
sacrificed are adopted into their families, and treated with the confidence
and affection of relatives and friends; nay, so hospitable and tender is their
entertainment, that they will often prefer to remain with their adopted brethren,
rather than return to the home and friends of their youth."
"The inhumanity of the Indians towards their prisoners has been heightened since the intrusion of the whites. We have exasperated what was formerly a compliance with policy and superstition into a gratification of vengeance. They cannot but be sensible that we are the usurpers of their ancient dominion, the cause of their degradation, & the gradual destroyers of their race. They go forth to battle, smarting with injuries and indignities which they have individually suffered from the injustice and the arrogance of white men, and they are driven to madness and despair, by the wide spreading desolation and the overwhelming ruin of our warfare.- We set them an example of violence, by burning their villages and laying waste their slender means of subsistence; and then wonder that savages will not show moderation and magnanimity towards men, who have left them nothing but mere existence and wretchedness."
"It is a common thing to exclaim against new forms of cruelty, while, reconciled by custom, we wink at long established atrocities. What right does the generosity of our conduct give us to rail exclusively at Indian warfare. With all the doctrines of Christianity, and the advantages of cultivated morals to govern and direct us, what horrid crimes disgrace the victories of Christian armies. Towns laid in ashes; cities given up to the sword; enormities perpetrated, at which manhood blushes, and history drops the pen. Well may we exclaim at the outrages of the scalping knife; but where, in the records of Indian barbarity, can we point to a violated female?"
"We stigmatize the Indians also as cowardly and treacherous, because they use stratagem in warfare, in preference to open force; but in this they are fully authorized by their rude code of honor. They are early taught that stratagem is praiseworthy; the bravest warrior thinks it no disgrace to lurk in silence and take every advantage of his for. He triumphs in the superior craft and sagacity by which he has been enabled to surprise and massacre an enemy. Indeed, man is naturally more prone to subtlety than open valor, owing to his physical weakness in comparison with other animals. They are endowed with natural weapons of defence; with horns, with tusks, with hoofs and talons; but man has to depend on his superior sagacity In all his encounters, therefore, with these, his proper enemies, he has to resort to stratagem; and when he perversely turns his hostility against his fellowman, he continues the same subtle mode of warfare."
"The natural principle of war is to do the most harm to our enemy, wit the least harm to ourselves; and this of course is to be effected by cunning. That chivalric kind of courage which teaches us to despise the suggestions of prudence, and to rush in the face of certain danger, is the offspring of society, and produced by education. It is honorable, because in fact it is the triumph of lofty sentiment over an instinctive repugnance to pain, and over those selfish yearnings after personal ease and security which society has condemned as ignoble. It is an emotion kept up b pride, and the fear of shame; and thus the dread of real evils is overcome by the superior dread of an evil that exists but in the mind. This may be instanced in the case of a young British officer of great pride, but delicate nerves, who was going for the first time into battle. Being agitated by the novelty and awful peril of the scene, he was accosted by another officer of a rough and boisterous character.- "What, sir," cried he, "do you tremble?" "Yes sir," replied the other, "and if you were half as much afraid as I am you would run away." This young officer signalized himself on many occasions by his gallantry, tho had he been brought up in savage life, or even in a humbler and less responsible situation, it is more than probable he could never have ventured into open action."
"Besides, we must consider how much the quality of open and desperate courage is cherished and stimulated by society.- It has been the theme of many a spirit stirring song, and chivalric story. The minstrel has sung of it to the loftiest strain of his lyre- the poet has delighted to shed around it all the splendors of fiction-and even the historian has forgotten the sober gravity of narration, and burst forth into enthusiasm and rhapsody in its praise. Triumphs and gorgeous pageants have been its reward-monuments, where art has exhausted its skill, and opulence its treasures, have been erected to perpetuate a nation's gratitude and admiration. Thus artificially excited, courage has arisen to an extraordinary and factitious degree of heroism, and arrayed in all the glorious "pomp and circumstance" of war, this turbulent quality has even been able to eclipse many of those quiet, but invaluable virtues, which silently ennoble the human character, and swell the tide of human happiness."
"But if courage intrinsically consist in the defence of danger and pain, the life of the Indian is a continual exhibition of it. He lives in a perpetual state of hostility and risk.- Peril and adventure are congenial to his nature or, rather, seem necessary to arouse his faculties and give an interest to existence. Surrounded by hostile tribes, he is always equipped for fight with his weapons in his hands. He traverses wildernesses, exposed to the hazards of lonely sickness, of lurking enemies or pining famine. Stormy lakes present no obstacle to his wanderings; in his light canoe of bark, he sports like a feather on their waves, & darts with the swiftness of an arrow down the roaring rapids of the rivers. Trackless wastes of snow, rugged mountains, the glooms of swamps and morasses, where poisonous reptiles curl among the rank vegetation, are fearlessly encountered by this wanderer of the wilderness. He gains his food by the hardships and dangers of the chase; he wraps himself in the spoils of the bear, the panther, and the buffalo, and sleeps among the thunders of the cataract.
"No herb of ancient or modern days can surpass the Indian in his lofty contempt of death, and the fortitude with which he sustains all the varied torments with which it is frequently inflicted. Indeed we here behold him rising superior to the white man, merely in consequence of peculiar education. The latter rushed to glorious death at the cannon's mouth; the former coolly contemplates its approach, and triumphantly endures it, amid the torments of the knife and the protracted agonies of fire. He even takes a savage delight in taunting his persecutors and provoking their ingenuity of torture; and as the devouring flames prey on his very vitals and the flesh shrinks from the sinews, he raises his last song of triumph, breathing the defiance of an unconquered heart, and invoking the spirits of his fathers to witness that he dies without a groan.