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From the New York Observer.
LETTERS FROM THE WEST.
GREEN BAY, Sept. 7, 1380
MESSRS. EDITORS -- On the 24th ult. Erastus Root, John T. Mason, and James McCall, commissioners form the President of the United States, organized and opened a council at Green Bay, composed of themselves, of chiefs of the New York Indians lately removed to Green Bay, and chiefs of the Menomenie and Winnebago nations, for the purpose of settling certain differences between the New York Indians on one side, and their brethren the Menomenies and Winnebagoes on the other. It is not my design in this letter to enter upon the subject matter of this council particularly, (for that is a very grave and momentous concern, and deserving the most grave consideration of this whole nation, and I shall, therefore, consider it in a separate place,) but only to give some brief description of its manner and circumstances. The commissioners arrived at Green Bay on the 10th ult. by steam-boat; and immediately despatched runners to notify the parties concerned, of the time and place and business of the council, and ordered the chiefs and principal men too in attendance. It is a custom of government, when they call a convention of Indians for public purposes, to deal out rations to all who attend during the council; men, women and children. And as the ultimatum of an Indian's desires, in his wild condition, is to get wherewithal to eat and drink for the time being, such a convocation is sure to bring together all who can conveniently attend. Those Indians especially, who keep upon the margin of the waters, carry their all in their canoes -- their house and all their furniture of life and war; and wherever they set up their lodge, which they do with as much expedition as a soldier erects his tent, there is their home. At this council, about 2,000 were convened: three-fourths of whom were Menomenies, the settlement of Green Bay being in the heart of their country; the other fourth being nearly equal numbers of New York Indians and Winnebagos and Chippeways. Of the chiefs and principal men, the New York Indians had the most numerous representation, as their tribes, though small, are several; the Menomenies next, and the Winnebagos fewest, their country being more distant. In all there were thirty chiefs -- a grave assembly of red men, sitting before their fathers, the commissioners in solemn and eventful council. A temporary booth was erected in the open plain, the commissioners having their seat at the head, surrounded with stenographers and citizens; in front and facing them, sat the chiefs of the nations represented. And such another motley congregation of human beings, one would suppose had never got together, as the commonality of the Indians, who crowded round as spectators: some naked, few with any covering but a blanket, carelessly drawn around the body below the waist, and ready to fall; looking as if they had never been washed or combed since they were born; bedaubed with paints of all colors, some in shades as black as Erchus; their eyes sparkling and flashing like snakes in anger, a fair representation of the worst pictures of the evil one; some with one side of the face red and the other black; others showing many colors, most fantastically arranged: one with one feather in the hair, another with two, and another with twenty or less; some sitting, some standing some lying upon their breasts with their heads sticking up like snakes in the grass each furnished with a pipe, and tobacco pouch of the skin of some animal, the pipes varying in length from four feet to four inches; every one girt with a cincture about his loins, to which is suspended a knife, in a leathern case, devoted to all the imaginable purposes of a knife; and nameless other appearances, which language is inadequate to describe, all waiting to see and hear.
But there was another group, called Indians sitting by themselves, whose dress, manners, countenance, and whole appearance exhibited all the decencies of common civilized life. They looked and acted like men, who respected themselves and were respected by others. Their presence and demeanor would not have been unsuited to any grave parliamentary assembly. These were the New York Indians. I had often seen them at their own villages in the state of New York, but I never knew how to respect them before. I never knew it was possible for other human beings to be sunk so far below them, as to place them upon such a proud pre-eminence. All wore the same natural complexion, and all were evidently of the same stock. But here was a class elevated -- distinguished by such marks of superiority, as to make the difference between them and their wild, untutored brethren, wider than would appear by bringing together the highest rank and meanest class, that could be found in Europe. And during the whole session of the council, for a period of eight days, the New York Indians rose higher and higher, and their wild brethren sunk deeper and deeper, by comparison. Indeed, the scenes of Green Bay, since I arrived, have been so absorbing, that I seem to have forgotten the rest of the world; the wickedness so great and the manners so corrupt, that any mind, not altogether reprobate to virtue, would sigh and seek for a more healthful moral atmosphere. For my own part, I have found it a refuge and a luxury to fall into the society of the chiefs and principal men of the New York Indians. Among them I could be sure of exemption from any thing vulgar, profane, indecent, or intemperate. For moral worth for good manners, for politeness, they have risen and towered above every thing around them, during this long protracted, public occasion.
To a spectator and stranger to Indian councils, the most interesting part was the extemporaneous speeches of the chiefs, which were delivered, longer, or shorter, by more or less, on every day of the public deliberations. The principle speakers were four of the Menomenie chiefs; two of the Winnebagos; and two or three of the New York Indians. Those who distinguished themselves were, The Brave, Josette, and Bear's Grease. of the Menomenies; Four Legs, the far famed chief and warrior of the Winnebagoes; John Metoxen and Daniel Bread, the former a Stockbridge, the later Oneida. I have here given their names in English. The elocution of the New York Indians was unadorned in style, and mild in manner. Resting principally upon their written communications, they had not much to say. Their education and longer intercourse with the white has entirely disrobed them of their native wildness of Indian eloquence. John Metoxen, however, on the last day of council, as all attempts at reconciliation and adjustment of differences had failed addressed himself sentimentally to his brethren the Menomenies and Winnebagos, and also to the commissioners, in a strain most sublime and touching; and with respect and delicacy towards the feelings of all concerned, unrivalled. Metoxen is about sixty years of age, an exemplary Christian of uncommon meekness, and a chief ruler in the civil and religious concerns of his tribe. By the language and manner, he first brought us all into the presence of God, so that we felt ourselves to be there. He then appealed to the solemn engagements between the New York Indians, on the one hand, and the Menomenies and Winnebagoes, on the other: he called the commissioners to witness the repeated ' solemn pledges of government to secure the fulfilment of these engagements: he depicted the unfortunate progress and result of the present council; with inimitable delicacy and with becoming manliness, he feelingly confessed his diffidence in the present measures of government relating to this affair; solemnly declared, that his only confidence now rested in the God of nations, who had propounded himself the guardian of the oppressed, and the avenger of their wrongs; and whatever might become of himself, this family, and his people, he felt that it was not his last only prerogative to surrender their cause into the hands of this god. 'God is witness,' said he, lifting up his eyes to heave. 'Brothers, I have no more to say.' And with the public deliberation terminated, and the council was dissolved.
It is understood, of course, that the chiefs in all cases spoke in council in their native tongue, and waited for their speeches to be interpreted, sentence by sentence; sometimes passing through two and three languages. The people interested in these deliberations, and who claimed to understand them, speak five different languages. When the commissioners spoke, their addresses passed directly into the languages of the New York Indians, which are two; but mediately through the French into Menomenie and Winnebago. When a Menomenie chief spoke -- for the commissioners, it passed through French into English; for the Winnebagos, through French into Winnebago; for the New York Indians, through French and English into their languages. And vice versa. The necessity of employing the French language arose from the want of an interpreter immediately between English and the languages spoken by the Menomenies and Winnebagos. The Chippeway language is more or less common to all the Indians of this region; but they do not like to trust it in public negotiations, as some of their chiefs do not understand it well. This language would have made the communication more direct; and has, heretofore, been employed in public treaties, with these nations. The New York Chiefs generally speak English, but are not at home except in their own tongue. The Brotherstown nation, having been formed of the small remnants of several tribes, have left their original languages in entire desuetude, and speak and understand not but English.
It is due, that I should say something of the speeches of the wild Menomenies and Winnebagoes. No conception of romance, in my own mind, had ever reached the wildness and extravagance of their thoughts, or of their manner of expressing them. And besides this, when occasion demands, they are as close and rigid matter-of-fact people as any that can be named. And, that they are not wanting in parliamentary cunning and wit, I need only refer to the two instances already recited, in which they brought the commissioners to a complete pause, and compelled them to adjourn. The few facts in their possession, they knew well how to manage; and they are certainly possessed of unrivalled skill in magnifying trifles and dignifying nothings. They will deliver themselves of the following sentence, which by the by, is only one word: 'Yeresotavakaranyetakowa,' in a manner to astound all your senses, and raise the highest expectation; and when it comes to be interpreted, it reads: The largest fiddle possible. The Menomenie and Winnebago chiefs uniformly commenced their addresses, and (after waiting for the interpreter to perform his office) almost every sentence, with a strong mono-syllabic exclamation, involving very emphatically the guttural and aspirate elements, signifying:
Attention -- hear -- I am about to speak. It would be mockery for any but an Indian to attempt to exemplify it. The chiefs would always address themselves directly to the commissioners, as if they understood. And when they had finished a sentence, wait for the interpreter. And I do not remember to have heard a single sentence of a Menomenie, or Winnebago chief, in council, whether the subject were important, or trifling, or in whatever degree it might have either of these characters, when it was not superlatively marked with a loud and vehement elocution, an impassioned and violent manner, as if the fate of the world, or the universe, were depending. And if the sentiment uttered met with the approbation of their people, a deep and loud guttural, or ventral grunt, expressed their applause at the end of every sentence, which was more or less clamorous, through the multitude, according to the degree of interest they felt. And I question whether any orators of a civilized people, ancient or modern, were ever better supported by the generous applause and loud acclamations of their auditors. And it was impossible not to observe the increased animation of the speakers by this cause, as also the quick sympathy between themselves and their people. If the thought, when interpreted, seemed trifling to us, it was not always so to them. Indians, like children, are often amused with trifles, and exhaust their gravest meditations on tribes. Like children they can be pleased, and even delighted with a toy. But sometimes they stand up and show themselves like men, and men of the highest order. They are not great by education, but on the instant, for an occasion. 'There is a spirit in man, and God hath given him understanding.' Nature is in the Indian, ' when a high demand, an imperious call challenges its proof, it comes like the lightning, astounds like the thunder. And now and then we had such proofs during the deliberations of this council. The Indian, when occasion puts him to it, is unrivalled for a sentimental appeal, a delicate allusion, or a sublime flight. For the severity of sarcasm, and the keenness of wit, he is not wanting. For the generosity of his nature, it is without bounds in his better moods. He knows no inheritance but the wide world, and all he has he will give to him who want it.
Of sarcasm and wit, of the moral sublime, and of superlative delicacy, I have already given examples, or made sufficient references. Of power over sentiment, I would quote the following: It was intimated to the Indians, by the commissioners, towards the close of the deliberations, that the usual presents from government on such occasions would be withholden, because they had refused to come to an adjustment of difference. One of the Menomenie chief's saw at a glance the desolateness of their prospects, and rose instantly from his seat and made the following speech, 'Fathers' said he, 'when you sent to call us to this council, we were building canoes to gather the wild rice, that our families might have bread to eat in the winter. But, as soon as we heard your voice, we left our canoes upon stocks unfinished, and came directly to this place. Fathers, the rice harvest is now come, our canoes are not built, and we shall have no bread for our families.' And when it is understood, that the first wind that comes after the wild rice is ready for harvest, will waste it all, the force of this appeal can better be appreciated. It was overwhelming. As an instance of their generosity: When the New York Indians came here and opened negotiation for some of their lands, they freely offered their whole territory, and they would never have quarrelled about the division, but for the meddling interference and wicked policy of the whites.
Indian speeches in public council, always abound in religious sentiments, or a grateful recognition of divine Providence, and in friendly congratulations. This sort of religion may be accounted for, perhaps from their own child-like improvidence, and their more immediate dependence on the providence of God. Their other affections are also so child-like, that friendship and kindness are dear to them. I may say, in one word, that the speeches of the Indian chiefs on these occasions demonstrated almost every attribute of greatness and littleness, much to admire and much to laugh at. The consistency of the Menomenies and Winnebagoes, in all the positions they assumed from the beginning to the end of the deliberations, was remarkable. They never swerved an iota, nor could they be dislodged. This firmness, I supposed, was very much owing to the counsel they received behind the curtain.
Of all the interesting scenic exhibitions of this convention of Indians, their war dances are especially worthy of note. But I must reserve this feature of Indian character to a future opportunity.
Yours gentlemen, etc.