Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

The Indian In His Wigwam
Characteristics of The Red Race of America
From Original Notes and Manuscripts
By Henry R. Schoolcraft
New York
Dewitt & Davenport
Tribune Buildings

This is a lengthy book and covers many of the Red Race who are not native to New York State. Pertinent parts of the book will be posted. abjerry
Thanks to Pamela Wozniak and David Collins for loaning this book for the purpose of using it on our website.

No. I.

THE North American tribes have the elements of music and poetry. Their war songs frequently contain flights of the finest heroic sentiment, clothed in poetic imagery. And numbers of the addresses of the speakers, both occasional and public, abound in eloquent and poetic thought " We would anticipate eloquence," observes a modern American writer, " from an Indian. He has animating remembrances-a poetry of language, which exacts rich and apposite metaphorical allusions, even for ordinary conversation-a mind which, like his body, has never been trammelled and mechanized by the formalities of society; and passions which, from the very outward restraint imposed upon them, burn more fiercely within." Yet, it will be found that the records of our literature, scattered as they are, in periodicals and ephemeral publications, rather than in works of professed research, are meagre and barren, on these topics. One of the first things we hear of the Indians, after their discovery, is their proneness to singing and dancing. But however characteristic these traits may be, and we think they are eminently so, it has fallen to the lot of but few to put on record specimens, which may be appealed to, as evidences of the current opinion, on these heads. With favourable opportunities of observation among the tribes, we have but to add our testimony to the difficulties of making collections in these departments, which shall not compromise the intellectual character of the tribes, whose efforts are always oral, and very commonly extemporaneous. These difficulties arise from the want of suitable interpreters, the remoteness of the points at which observations must he made, the heavy demands made upon hours of leisure or business by such inquiries, and the inconvenience of making notes and detailed memoranda on the spot. The little that it is in our power to offer, will therefore be submitted as contributions to an inquiry which is quite in its infancy, and rather with the hope of exciting others to future labours, than of gratifying, to any extent, an enlightened curiosity on the subject.

Dancing is both an amusement and a religious observance, among the American Indians, and is known to constitute one of the most wide spread traits in their manners and customs. It is accompanied, in all cases, with singing, and, omitting a few cases, with the heating of time on instruments. Tribes the most diverse in language, and situated at the greatest distances apart, concur in this. It is believed to be the ordinary mode of expressing intense passion, or feeling on any subject, and it is a custom which has been persevered in, with the least variation, through all the phases, of their history, and probably exists among- the remote tribes, precisely at this time, as it did in the era of Columbus. It is observed to be the last thing- abandoned by bands and individuals, in their progress to civilization and Christianity. So true is this, that it may be regarded as one of the best practical proofs of their advance, to find the native instruments and music thrown by, and the custom abandoned.

Every one has heard of the war dance, the medicine dance, the wabeno dance, the dance of honour (generally called the begging dance,) and various others, each of which has its appropriate movements, its air, and its words. There is no feast, and no religious ceremony, among them, which is not attended with dancing and songs. Thanks are thus expressed for success in hunting, for triumphs in war, and for ordinary providential cares. Public opinion is called to pressing- objects by a dance, at which addresses are made, and in fact, moral instructions and advice are given to the young-, in the course of their being assembled at social feasts and dances. Dancing is indeed the common resource, whenever the mass of Indian mind is to be acted on. And it thus stands- viewed in its necessary connection with the songs and addresses, in the room of the press, the newspaper, and the periodical. The priests and prophets have, more than any other class, cultivated their national song's and dances, and may be regarded as the skalds and poets of the tribes. They are generally the composers of the song's, and the leaders in the dance and ceremonies, and it is found, that their memories are the best stored, not only with the sacred songs and chants, but also with the traditions, and general lore of the tribes.

Dancing is thus interwoven throughout the whole texture of Indian society, so that there is scarcely an event important or trivial, private or public, which is not connected, more or less intimately, with this rite. The instances where singing is adopted, without dancing, are nearly confined to occurrences of a domestic character. Among these, are wails for the dead, and love songs of a simple and plaintive character. Maternal affection evinces itself, by singing words, to a cheerful air, over the slumbers of the child, which, being suspended in a kind of cradle receives, at the same time avibratory motion. Children have likewise certain chants, which they utter in the evenings, while playing around the lodge door, or at other seasons of youthful hilarity. Some of the Indian fables are in the shape of duets, and the songs introduced in narrating their fictitious tales, are always sung in the recital.

Their instruments of music are few and simple. The only wind instrument existing among them is the Pibbegwon, a kind of flute, resembling in simplicity the Arcadian pipe. It is commonly made of two semicylindrical pieces of cedar, united with fish glue, and having a snake skin, in a wet state, drawn tightly over it, to prevent its cracking. The holes are eight in number, and are perforated by means of a lit of heated iron. It is blown like the flagolet, and has a similar orifice or mould piece.

The TAYWA'EGUN, (struck-sound-instrument,) is a tamborine, or one-headed drum, and is made by adjusting a skin to one end of the section of a moderate sized hollow tree. When a heavier sound is required, a tree of larger circumference is chosen, and both ends closed with skins. The latter is called MITTIGWUKEEK; i. e. Wood-Kettle-Drum, and is appropriately used in religious ceremonies, but is not, perhaps, confined to this occasion.

To these may he added a fourth instrument, called the SHESHEGWON, or Rattle, which is constructed in various ways, according to the purpose or means of the maker. Sometimes it is made of animal bladder, from which the name is derived, sometimes of a wild gourd; in. others, by attaching the dried hoofs of the deer to a slick. This instrument is employed both to mark time, and to produce variety in sound.


Common as the Indian songs are, it is found to be no ordinary acquisition to obtain accurate specimens of them. Even after the difficulties of the notation have been accomplished, it is not easy to satisfy the requisitions of a correct taste and judgment, in their exhibition. There is always a lingering fear of misapprehension, or misconception, on the part of the interpreter-or of some things being withheld by the never sleeping suspicion, or the superstitious fear of disclosure, on the part of the Indian. To these must be added, the idiomatic and imaginative peculiarities of this species of wild composition-so very different from every notion of English versification. In the first place there is no unity of theme, or plot, unless it be that the subject,-war for instance, is kept in the singer's mind. In the next place both the narration and the description, when introduced, is very imperfect, broken, or disjointed. Prominent ideas flash, out, and are dropped. These are often most striking and beautiful, but we wait in vain for any sequence. A brief allusion-a shining symbol, a burst of feeling or passion, a fine sentiment, or a bold assertion, come in as so many independent parts, and there is but little in the composition to indicate the leading theme which is, as it were, kept in mental reserve, by the singer. Popular, or favourite expressions are often repeated, often transposed, and often exhibited with some new shade of meaning. The structure and flexibility of the language is highly favourable to this kind of wild Improvisation. But it is difficult to translate, and next to impossible to preserve its spirit. Two languages more unlike in all their leading characteristics, than the English and the Indian were never brought into contact. The one monosyllabic, and nearly without inflections-the other polysyllabic, polysynthetic and so full of inflections of every imaginative kind, as to be completely transpositive-the one from the north of Europe, the other, probably, from Central Asia, it would seem that these families of the human race, had not wandered wider apart, in their location, than they have in the sounds of their language, the accidence of their grammar and the definition of their words. So that to find equivalent single words in translation, appears often as hopeless as the quadrature of the circle.

The great store-house of Indian imagery is the heavens. The clouds, the planets, the sun, and moon, the phenomena of lightning, thunder, electricity, aerial sounds; electric or atmospheric, and the endless variety produced in the heavens by light and shade, and by elemental action,-these constitute the fruitful themes of allusion in their songs and poetic chants. But they are mere allusions, or broken description, like touches on the canvass, without being united to produce a perfect object. The strokes may be those of a master, and the colouring exquisite ; but without the art to draw, or the skill to connect, it will still remain but a shapeless mass.

In war excursions great attention is paid to the flight of birds, particularly those of the carnivorous species, which are deemed typical of war and bravery, and their wing and tail feathers are appropriated as marks of honor, by the successful warrior. When the minds of a war party have been roused up to the subject, and they are prepared to give utterance to their feelings by singing and dancing, they are naturally led to appeal to the agency of this class of birds. Hence the frequent allusions to them, in their songs. The following stanza is made up of expressions brought into connection, from different fragments, but expresses no more than the native sentiments: -
The eagles scream on high,
They whet their forked beaks,
Raise-raise the battle cry,
'Tis fame our leader seeks.
Generally the expressions are of an exalted and poetic character, but the remark before made of their efforts in song, being discontinuous and abrupt, apply with peculiar force to the war songs. To speak of a brave man-of a battle-or the scene of a battle; or of the hovering of birds of prey above it, appears sufficient to bring up to the warrior's mind, all the details consequent on personal bravery or heroic achievement. It would naturally be expected, that they should delight to dwell on scenes of carnage and blood : but however this may be, all such details are omitted or suppressed in their war songs, which only excite ideas of noble daring.
The birds of the brave take a flight round the sky,
They cross the enemy's line,
Full happy am I-that my body should fall,
Where brave men love to die.
Very little effort in the collocation and expansion of some of their sentiments, would impart to these bold and unfettered raphsodies, an attractive form, among polished war songs.

The strain in which these measures are sung, is generally slow and grave in its commencement and progress, and terminates in the highest note. While the words admit of change, and are marked by all the fluctuation of extempore composition, the air and the chorus appear to be permanent, consisting not only of a graduated succession of fixed sounds, but, always exact in their enunciation, their quantity, and their wild and startling musical expression. It has always appeared to me that the Indian music is marked by a nationality, above many other traits, and it is a subject inviting future attention. It is certain that the Indian ear is exact in noting musical sounds, and in marking and beating time. But little observation at their dances, will be sufficient to establish this fact. Nor is it less certain, by attention to the philology of their language, that they are exact in their laws of euphony, and syllabical quantity. How this remark may consist with the use of unmeasured and fluctuating poetry in their songs, it may require studied attention to answer. It is to be observed, however, that these songs are rather recited, or chanted, than sung. Increments of the chorus are not unfrequently interspersed, in the body of the line; which would otherwise appear deficient in quantity ; and perhaps rules of metre may be found, by subsequent research, which are not obvious, or have been concealed by the scantiness of the materials, on this head, which have been examined. To determine the airs and choruses and the character of the music, will prove one of the greatest facilities to this inquiry. Most of the graver pieces, which have been written out, are arranged in metres of sixes, sevens, and eights. The lighter chants are in threes or fours, and consist of iambics and trochees irregularly. Those who have translated hymns into the various languages, have followed the English metres, not always without the necessity of elision or employing constrained or crampt modes of expression. A worse system could not have been adopted to show Indian sentiment. The music in all these cases has been like fetters to the free, wild thoughts of the native singer. As a general criticism upon these translations, it may be remarked that they are often far from being literal, and often omit parts of the original. On the other hand, by throwing away adjectives, in a great degree, and dropping all incidental or side thoughts, and confining the Indian to the leading thought or sentiment, they are, sometimes, rendered more simple, appropriate, and effective. Finally, whatever cultivated minds among the Indians, or their descendants may have done, it is quite evident to me, from the attention I have been able to give the subject, that the native compositions were without metre. The natives appear to have sung a sufficient number of syllables to comply with the air, and effected the necessary pauses, for sense or sound, by either slurring over, and thus shortening, or by throwing- in floating particles of the language, to eke out the quantity, taken either from the chorus, or from the general auxiliary forms of the vocabulary.

Rhyme is permitted by the similarity of the sounds from which the vocabulary is formed, but the structure of the language does not appear to admit of its being successfully developed in this manner. Its forms are too cumbrous for regularly recurring expressions, subjected at once to the laws of metre and rhyme. The instances of rhyme that have been observed in the native songs are few, and appear to be the result of the fortuitous positions of words, rather than of art. The following juvenile see-saw is one of the most perfect specimens noticed, being exact in both particulars :
Ne osh im aun
NE way be naun.
These are expressions uttered on sliding-a carved stick down snow banks, or over a glazed surface of ice, in the appropriate season, and they may be rendered with nearly literal exactness, thus:
My sliding stick
I send quick-quick.
Not less accurate in the rhyme, but at lines of six and eight feet, which might perhaps be exhibited unbroken, is the following couplet of a war song:
Au pit she Mon e tog
NE mud wa WA wau we ne gog.
The Spirit on high,
Repeats my warlike name.

In the translation of hymns, made during the modern period of missionary effort, there has been no general attempt to secure rhyme ; and as these translations are generally due to educated natives, under the inspection and with the critical aid of the missionary, they have evinced a true conception of the genius of the language, by the omission of this accident. Eliot, who translated the psalms of David into the Massachusetts language, which were first printed in 1661, appears to have deemed it important enough to aim at its attainment: but an examination of the work, now before us, gives but little encouragement to others to follow his example, at least while the languages remain in their present rude and uncultivated state. The following is the XXIII Psalm from this version :
1. Mar teag nukquenaabikoo
shepse nanaauk God.
Nussepsinwahik ashkoshqut
nuttinuk ohtopagod.
2. Nagum nukketeahog kounoh.
wutomohkinuh wonk
Nutuss (oo)unuk ut sampoi may
newutch (oo)wesnonk.
3. Wutonkauhtamut pomushaon
mupp(oo)onk (oo)nauhkoe
Woskehettuonk mo nukqueh tamco
newutch k(oo)wetomah:
4. Kuppogkomunk kutanwohon
nish n(oo)nenehikquog
K(oo)noch(oo) hkali anquabhettit
warne nummatwomog
5. Kussussequnum nuppuhkuk
weetepummee nashpea
Wonk woi God n(oo)tallamwaitch
pomponetupohs hau
6. (OO)niyeuonk monaneteonk
Tohsohke pomantam wekit God
michem nuttain pish *.

This appears to have been rendered from the version of the psalms appended to an old edition of King James' Bible of 1611, and not from the versification of Watts. By comparing it with this, as exhibited below, there will be found the same metre, eights and sixes, the same syllabical quantity, (if the notation he rightly conceived,) and the same coincidence of rhyme at the second and fourth lines of each verse; although it required an additional verse to express the entire psalm. It could therefore be sung to the ordinary tunes in use in Eliot's time, and, taken in connection with his entire version, including the Old and New Testament, evinces a degree of patient assiduity on the part of that eminent missionary, which is truly astonishing :
The Lord is my shepherd, I'll not want,
2. He makes me down to lie
In pastures green : he leadeth me
the quiet waters by.
3. My soul he doth restore aga.
and me to walk doth make
Within the paths of righteousness
E'en for his own name's sake.

*Eliot employed the figure 8, set horizontally, to express a peculiar sound. otherwise he used the English alphabet in its ordinary powers. Note from 2002 typist (oo) is the closest I could match the horizontally set 8, ajb.
4. Yea, though I walk in death's dark vale,
yet will I fear none ill;
For thou art with me and thy rod
and staff me comfort still.
5. My table thou hast furnished .
in presence of my foes ;
My head thou dost with oil annoint,
and my cup overflows.
6. Goodness and mercy all my life
shall surely follow me ,
And in God's house forevermore
my dwelling- place shall be.
The harmony of numbers has always detracted from the plain sense, and the piety of thought, of the scriptures, which is the probable cause of so many failures on the subject. In the instance of this Psalm, it will be observed, by a comparison, that Watts, who has so generally succeeded, does not come up, in any respect, to the full literal meaning of the original, which is well preserved, with the requisite harmony, in the old version.

There is one species of oral composition existing among all the tribes, which, from its peculiarities, deserves to be separately mentioned. I allude to the hieratic chants, choruses and incantations of their professed prophets, medicine men and jugglers-constituting, as these men do, a distinct order in Indian society, who are entitled by their supposed skill, wisdom or sanctity, to exercise the offices of a priesthood. Affecting mystery in the discharge of their functions, their songs and choruses are couched in language which is studiously obscure, oftentimes cabalistic, and generally not well understood by any but professed initiates.

Nothing, however, in this department of my inquiries, has opened a more pleasing view of society, exposed to the bitter vicissitudes of Indian life, than the little domestic chants of mothers, and the poetic see-saws of children, of which specimens are furnished. These show the universality of the sentiments of natural affection, and supply another proof, were any wanting, to demonstrate that it is only ignorance, indolence and poverty, that sink the human character, and create the leading distinctions among the races of men. Were these affections cultivated, and children early taught the principles of virtue and rectitude, and the maxims of industry, order and cleanliness, there is no doubt that the mass of Indian society would be meliorated in a comparatively short period ; and by a continuance of efforts soon exalted from that state of degradation, of which the want of letters and religion have been the principal causes. In presenting these specimens of songs, gathered among the recesses of the forest, it is hoped it will not be overlooked, by the reader, that they are submitted as facts or materials, in the mental condition of the tribes, and not as evidences of attainment in the arts of metre and melody, which will bear to be admitted or even criticised by the side of the refined poetry of civilized nations. And above all, not as efforts to turn Indian sentiments to account, in original composition. No such idea is entertained. If materials be supplied from which some judgment may be formed of the actual state of these songs and rude oral compositions, or improvisations, the extent of the object will have been attained. But even here, there is less, with the exception of a single department, i. e. versification and composition by cultivated natives, than it was hoped to furnish. And this little, has been the result of a species of labour, in the collection, quite disproportionate to the result. It is hoped at least, that it may indicate the mode in which such collections may be made, among the tribes, and become the means of eliciting materials more worthy of attention.

This much seemed necessary to he said in introducing the following specimens, that there might not appear, to the reader, to be an undue estimate placed on the literary value of these contributions, and translations, while the main object is, to exhibit them in the series, as illustrations of the mental peculiarities of the tribes. To dismiss them, however, with a bare, frigid word for word translation, such as is required for the purposes of philological comparison, would by no means do justice to them, nor convey, in any tolerable degree, the actual sentiments in the minds of the Indians. That the opposite error might not, at the same time, be run into, and the reader be deprived altogether of this means of comparison, a number of the pieces are left with literal prose translations, word for word as near as the two languages will permit. Others exhibit both a literal, and a versified translation.

All the North American Indians know that there is a God ; but their priests teach them that the devil is a God, and as he is believed to be very malignant, it is the great object of their ceremonies and sacrifices, to appease him.

The Indians formerly worshipped the sun, as the symbol of divine intelligence.

Fire is an unexplained mystery to the Indian ; he regards it as a connecting link between the natural and spiritual world. His traditionary lore denotes this.

Zoroaster says : " When you behold secret fire, without form, shining flashingly through the depths of the whole world-hear the voice of fire." One might suppose this to have been uttered by a North American Indian.

Copyright 1998, -- 2003. Berry Enterprises. All rights reserved. All items on the site are copyrighted. While we welcome you to use the information provided on this web site by copying it, or downloading it; this information is copyrighted and not to be reproduced for distribution, sale, or profit.

Contents Introduction Links Home