This installment is the end of the Introduction. Next week Chapter 1. Notre-Dame des Anges.
Our special project presenting the definitive account of France in Canada by Francis Parkman, one of America’s greatest historians.
A notice of the superstitious ideas of the Indians would be imperfect without a reference to the traditional tales through which these ideas are handed down from father to son. Some of these tales can be traced back to the period of the earliest intercourse with Europeans. One at least of those recorded by the first missionaries, on the Lower St. Lawrence, is still current among the tribes of the Upper Lakes. Many of them are curious combinations of beliefs seriously entertained with strokes intended for humor and drollery, which never fail to awaken peals of laughter in the lodge-circle. Giants, dwarfs, cannibals, spirits, beasts, birds, and anomalous monsters, transformations, tricks, and sorcery, form the staple of the story. Some of the Iroquois tales embody conceptions which, however preposterous, are of a bold and striking character; but those of the Algonquins are, to an incredible degree, flimsy, silly, and meaningless; nor are those of the Dahcotah tribes much better. In respect to this wigwam lore, there is a curious superstition of very wide prevalence. The tales must not be told in summer; since at that season, when all Nature is full of life, the spirits are awake, and, hearing what is said of them, may take offence; whereas in winter they are fast sealed up in snow and ice, and no longer capable of listening.
[The prevalence of this fancy among the Algonquins in the remote parts of Canada is well established. The writer found it also among the extreme western bands of the Dahcotah. He tried, in the month of July, to persuade an old chief, a noted story-teller, to tell him some of the tales; but, though abundantly loquacious in respect to his own adventures, and even his dreams, the Indian obstinately refused, saying that winter was the time for the tales, and that it was bad to tell them in summer.
Mr. Schoolcraft has published a collection of Algonquin tales, under the title of Algic Researches. Most of them were translated by his wife, an educated Ojibwa half-breed. This book is perhaps the best of Mr. Schoolcraft’s works, though its value is much impaired by the want of a literal rendering, and the introduction of decorations which savor more of a popular monthly magazine than of an Indian wigwam. Mrs. Eastman’s interesting Legends of the Sioux (Dahcotah) is not free from the same defect. Other tales are scattered throughout the works of Mr. Schoolcraft and various modern writers. Some are to be found in the works of Lafitau and the other Jesuits. But few of the Iroquois legends have been printed, though a considerable number have been written down. The singular History of the Five Nations, by the old Tuscarora Indian, Cusick, gives the substance of some of them. Others will be found in Clark’s History of Onondaga.]
It is obvious that the Indian mind has never seriously occupied itself with any of the higher themes of thought. The beings of its belief are not impersonations of the forces of Nature, the courses of human destiny, or the movements of human intellect, will, and passion. In the midst of Nature; the Indian knew nothing of her laws. His perpetual reference of her phenomena to occult agencies forestalled inquiry and precluded inductive reasoning. If the wind blew with violence, it was because the water-lizard, which makes the wind, had crawled out of his pool; if the lightning was sharp and frequent, it was because the young of the thunder-bird were restless in their nest; if a blight fell upon the corn, it was because the Corn Spirit was angry; and if the beavers were shy and difficult to catch, it was because they had taken offence at seeing the bones of one of their race thrown to a dog. Well, and even highly developed, in a few instances, — I allude especially to the Iroquois, — with respect to certain points of material concernment, the mind of the Indian in other respects was and is almost hopelessly stagnant. The very traits that raise him above the servile races are hostile to the kind and degree of civilization which those races so easily attain. His intractable spirit of independence, and the pride which forbids him to be an imitator, reinforce but too strongly that savage lethargy of mind from which it is so hard to rouse him. No race, perhaps, ever offered greater difficulties to those laboring for its improvement.
To sum up the results of this examination, the primitive Indian was as savage in his religion as in his life. He was divided between fetich- worship and that next degree of religious development which consists in the worship of deities embodied in the human form. His conception of their attributes was such as might have been expected. His gods were no whit better than himself. Even when he borrows from Christianity the idea of a Supreme and Universal Spirit, his tendency is to reduce Him to a local habitation and a bodily shape; and this tendency disappears only in tribes that have been long in contact with civilized white men. The primitive Indian, yielding his untutored homage to One All-pervading and Omnipotent Spirit, is a dream of poets, rhetoricians, and sentimentalists.
– The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century Introduction by Francis Parkman
The below is from Francis Parkman’s Introduction.
If, at times, it may seem that range has been allowed to fancy, it is so in appearance only; since the minutest details of narrative or description rest on authentic documents or on personal observation.
Faithfulness to the truth of history involves far more than a research, however patient and scrupulous, into special facts. Such facts may be detailed with the most minute exactness, and yet the narrative, taken as a whole, may be unmeaning or untrue. The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time. He must study events in their bearings near and remote; in the character, habits, and manners of those who took part in them, he must himself be, as it were, a sharer or a spectator of the action he describes.
With respect to that special research which, if inadequate, is still in the most emphatic sense indispensable, it has been the writer’s aim to exhaust the existing material of every subject treated. While it would be folly to claim success in such an attempt, he has reason to hope that, so far at least as relates to the present volume, nothing of much importance has escaped him. With respect to the general preparation just alluded to, he has long been too fond of his theme to neglect any means within his reach of making his conception of it distinct and true.