FROM THE MISSIONARY HERALD.
RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS OF THE SENECAS
COMMUNICATED BY MR. HARRIS
I have consulted with some of the oldest and most respectable men of the nation concerning their traditions, and find but little that will probably be interesting. Their traditions respecting the divine character, and beings either god or evil, are so much mingled with fable, and partake so largely of the spirit of the marvelous,as to become disgustingly tedious. It is easy, however, to trace the influence of the Roman Catholic church upon the religious creed of the Indians; as it is well known that the Catholics have, during the two last centuries, exerted themselves considerably to convert the six nations to their faith. The uninstructed Indian's idea of hell is purgatory outright. On this account, it is the more difficult to ascertain with precision what ideas in their religious opinions are purely Indian.
The ages of the old men who were consulted, all respectable chiefs, are severally, 81, 64, 57, and 55. These men state that the first attempt, they ever recollect to have been made, to teach their people the Gospel of Christ, was a fruitless effort by the Rev. Samuel Kirkland, about 65 or 70 rears ago.* He remained with them at their village (now Geneva) near two years; had begun to excite some attention among the Indians, and had opened a school for the instruction of their children, when the person with whom Mr. Kirkland lived, of whose hospitality he had always faithfully shared, suddenly fell down dead. The superstition of the Indians was such at that time, as to lead them to account of this man's death, on the supposition, that it was a judgment of Heaven on the person for harboring some wicked person; and they soon after passed a resolve that he, Mr.K., be expelled the village. He was afterwards accepted by the Oneidas.- This was about the first of their intercourse with the whites, as nearly as they can recollect. Another attempt was made for their spiritual benefit, at Tuscarora, about 30 years ago, by Rev. Mr. Holmes, a Baptist minister, in the employ of the New York Missionary Society. His offer to instruct them in the Christian religion was accepted by the three leading chiefs,and the frame of a house was erected at their expense, for his accommodation. But the young warriors were so determined in their opposition,that it was necessary to dismiss him.
The attempt that proved most successful in doing away their prejudices,was made by Mr. Hyde, who came to them in the capacity of a teacher.- The minister appointed to labor with him, they refused.
By means of these several attempts, their attention was gradually called to the importance of the Christian religion. Before this, they regarded God as no other than a man; a person of similar appearance and disposition to themselves. They supposed him good looking, and always naked, well painted, having pieces of dog skin around each leg, and each arm, and blankets of dog skin around his shoulders. This being they were in the habit of invoking twice a year; once early in the fall, and again in the latter part of the winter. At the season, the great yearly sacrifice of the white dog was made.
This sacrifice was attended with great form and ceremony. The people were previously strictly enjoined to prepare themselves for the approaching solemnities. The young robust hunters were taxed a deer apiece, for the necessary supply of provisions, during the continuance of the feasts; and contributions were expected from different quarters. Three councils must be held to make inquiry if all things were ready. At the third sitting, a day was appointed when the solemnities should begin. One person was always sent through the village to give notice of the determination, by saying, 'tomorrow, at such an hour, on the firing of a salute, you must expect our uncles to appear:' meaning two select men, whose business it was to go round from house to house, in the dead of night, dressed in complete suits of black bear skin, with wreaths of braided corn-husks around their heads and ankles, and a corn-pounder in their hand. Approaching a house they would always thump against the door, sometimes exclaiming as they entered, 'Now expect to see the big heads;' meaning the great respect must be shown to persons whose office is pre-eminently sacred. They would then enter the lodge, go to the further extremity of it, thumping on the floor as they went; and on returning, one would begin, in a ceremonious manner to draw a stick across the ashes, while the other would converse in a very solemn tone on the nature and importance of paying due attention to their religious rites. They would then retire. This ceremony would be again repeated the next night for the purpose of rousing the people to a sense of their obligations to attend on the worship of their god. On this second visit,the people were reminded to remember all their dreams, which they would be at liberty to propose at the first general meeting, with a view to let the conjurors who chose, guess them out, in some such manner as Samson put forth his riddle to the men of Tininath. The fortunate discoverers (if any were sufficiently expert, and if not, the chiefs) were obliged to furnish the dreamer with something that would correspond to the nature of the dream; for instance, if any person was favored with an interesting dream respecting a canoe, or gun, or bow and arrow, some imitation of these things must be made and presented to the individual, who ever regarded it as one of the most sacred of things, as a guide in all his wanderings on earth, and a passport even to the heavenly paradise.
On the third day, these heralds, perfectly naked and well painted, would repeat essentially the same ceremony, with increasing earnestness and zeal; would take up in a kind of scoop or shovel, part of the ashes, and scatter it round the room, saying, 'This we do out of regard to god, who is our son.' They would then be followed by others, men and women, performing the same ceremony, going from house to house, doing the same thing, and repeating the same words. The next day, six of the best men in the village would be sent round to state to the people, that they had come to visit them in company with god himself; who they pretended made one of their number. 'Your son,' they would say with great stillness and solemnity,'has come to visit you.'
After this ceremony had been performed, the next thing was to attend on the great annual sacrifice of the white dog. The dog on being strangled, was highly painted and adorned with ribbons, and suspended to a post previously prepared. The officiating priest, at the proper time, would advance, take down the dog, lay it on the pile of wood already in flames, and throw upon the consuming victim a handful or two of Indian tobacco.- After this, the priest would begin to pray as follows:- 'Here, our son, is a present for you, from you parents; we present you with this dog, of the skin of which you can make garments for yourself; we also present you with little tobacco-a very little.- We pray that you will accept it as coming from your faithful and loving parents. Have mercy on us, and send us all those things that are necessary for our comfort and happiness,' 'c. This is the only time, the Indians say, in which they ever pretend to pray; but the priest actually prayed in this manner, and the people listened with the most profound attention.
After this ceremony was concluded, the people, old and young, would begin to dance; while some person would sing. Usually when the dancing commenced, the most unbounded revelry commenced. And as they were conducted chiefly in the night, very great licentiousness was practiced although everything of the kind was strictly forbidden by the officiating priest. It was generally expected that, at these seasons, husbands and wives would be parted from each other, and deeds of darkness, and crimes of high order be committed with supposed impunity.
These Indians never had any idea of being called to any future account whatever their conduct might be, if they properly attended upon these solemnities, which they believed their god had prescribed. They believed, indeed, that persons notoriously wicked and base in their dispositions and habits, could not expect to go directly to the heavenly paradise; but would be compelled to take a road which must lead to the residence of Nis-hi-o-no, the evil spirit, who would take great pleasure in scourging them severely, and then permit them to pass on. They thought that their god really made all things to grow, and governed the world. But the individuals of whom I made inquiries believe that the Indians generally consulted, in a more devout and humble manner, their household gods, than they did their great deity himself.+ These household gods were generally images made of wood, and sometimes the representations of things which had given to them officially, in answer to their dreams. One of these images was erected a number of years ago at the Allegheny reservation. It was made from a large pine log, and was 14 feet in height. The native dances were generally performed around this image while it lasted.
There was a set of men among this people, who were styled prophets.- They professed to hold intercourse with spiritual beings, and with their god himself. Among these was the great Allegheny prophet, who several years ago lived at the Allegheny reservation. This man had obtained, by his proficiency in the arts of enchantment, a great ascendancy over the religious prejudices of the people. The last year of his life he prophesied that he should die at such a time; and he did actually die about the time predicted, a natural death, as the Indians suppose. This fact appears very unaccountable to the Indians even now. They say, they hope he was a good man, though ignorant, and that perhaps he has gone to heaven.
* The missionary who died several years ago at Oneida Castle.
+ It cannot probably be well ascertained that the worship paid to these images did not commence subsequently to the intercourse of the Roman Catholics, and did not have its origin in the ceremonies of that church.- Ed.