Early Life Among the Indians
Two Languages Among the Indians - Their Religious Beliefs - A Secret Order Similar to Those of the Civilized World - The Happy Hunting Grounds - The Mysterious River
During my early association with the Indians I discovered that at times when the head men and chiefs were congregated and discussing some private subjects they used a language that I could not understand, and I inquired of others what they were saying, who, like myself, could not understand them, and all the reply I could get from such people was: "That is Chief Talk." From that time forward I interested myself in the matter and preserved until Buffalo told me there were many secrets in the Indian nation known only to the initiated, and that it was connected with their religious belief. I continued to preserve and intercede with Buffalo until he finally he told me he would take my case before the council and it was possible that I might be allowed to receive a part of the secrets, but said no white man had ever been admitted that he knew of and thought my case a hopeless one. This was after I had been adopted as the son of Chief Buffalo, and through his intercession I was at last admitted to the order, and what I have seen of this world leads me to think it resembles very much the secret orders of white men, and I claim that it is impossible for any one not a member to be able to give any sign correctly, though some may claim their ability to do so. In many cases applicants are admitted by few get through. I also claim to be the only white man on earth that ever gained that distinction. This may seem like the argument of a braggadocio, but I will give any man in the world all the opportunity he may desire of showing me any knowledge or the ceremonies and signs belonging to the order and if he is able to show it aright I will publicly admit that he is possessed of the knowledge that I claim belongs only to myself among the white race. There is much that I could say upon this subject that would be interesting reading, but to say much more would be interesting reading, but to say much more would be the commencement of an exposition which under no circumstances would I divulge. The oaths and pledges that I gave in gaining entrance to an elevation in the order were made in the presence of the Almighty God and are sacred to me as though they had been made in any temple of the Most High, and there can be no order in existence where any member could feel the weight of his obligations more keenly or absolutely than I do. There are some things that were secretes in the order that I may mention. For instance, show me a wigwam that has been built by direction of a chief who was a member of this order or an old framework of one, and I will tell you the number of the party that inhabited it, the number of males and the number of females, the direction from which they came and the direction of their departure. This was done for the information of those that might follow or to assist the chief in hunting up his people in case he needed them in council or to repel an invasion, and his posted men who were following up revolving portion of his people could quickly tell if any were missing from a previous count. Old, very old tradition with the Indians is that all are created equal - that the earth is given them for a temporary purpose and that they are to have the use of all they see, but are not to dig or delve into the Great Spirit's treasures that lie hidden in the earth, except for such as absolutely necessary for their existence comfort. They had a belief that there could not or should not be such a thing as individual or tribal ownership of lands or to search in the Great Spirit's possessions to find what He had hidden there for his own use and benefit. That to search for such hidden treasures would provoke the Great Spirit and greatly jeopardize their chances of ever reaching the "happy hunting grounds," and when the white men came among them to make treaties they had no idea that whites though for a moment that Indians own the lands or their hidden treasures, but supposed they look upon their occupancy of the earth the same as the Indians did - which was tenants at will, of the Almighty. You therefore see that the theory that the ancient Indians worked the mine of the country for profit must be abandoned. Then Indians, as shown by tradition, did and still do believe that the "happy hunting grounds" lie just beyond a mighty and beautiful river, over which the cross immediately after death, provided their whole life here had been such as to entitle them to pass without a prohibition on the banks on this side, and those who had lived a life beyond redemption were washed away in a mighty river, while those whose lives had not been perfect were held to await the final judgment. They also believe that the conduct of the friends they had left behind had much to do with a favorable or unfavorable decision at the river. Another firm belief they had was that should one of their number, who was at the river awaiting judgment, attempt to evade the judgment by crossing the river before the sentence, he would be washed away and that would be his eternal ending. The later believe is in accordance with Indian belief from first to last, to never attempt to evade a duty, however slight or great, but like a man, to stand for the right thing and fear not. In this they believe that no matter how upright a man had been through his whole life, if after death he should seek to evade the judgment, his entire future was lost. When once across the river he was beyond all tribulations and in a land of perpetual sunshine and with all friends that had gone before him. Now to show you the attention they paid to the graves of their dead and the consistency of their remembrances of their deceased friends, which in their belief, was necessary to a favorable consideration of their friend's case at the river, they would divide whatever they were possessed of and place a portion of it on the graves, until such time as they felt that their sacrifices had resulted in a favorable decision of their friend's case at the river. The period of this sacrifice would be kept up depended on the collective opinions of the friends that were left behind as to the probable time it would take to compass a favorable decision, and if, in the opinion of the friends of the dead, he would not promptly pass the final tribunal, the ceremony would be kept up at the grave indefinitely with the firm belief that at the last of this intercession would avail and result in the passage of their friend to the "happy hunting grounds," where their forefathers were. It is a universal practice with the Chippewa to sit with sick person incessantly till the breath had left his body, keeping up a constant beating on a drum to keep the bad spirit away and to let the spirit of the dying go in peace and in the possession of the good spirit. This practice has always been condemned by the missionaries and teachers as being the Me-de-wa religion, the real meaning of which neither missionaries nor teachers ever understood. The Indian belief is that both the good and the bad spirits constantly hover around a sick bed and that the sound of the drum kept the bad spirit away; that the good spirit cannot be offended; that if they can only keep the bad spirit away until death takes place the good spirit immediately takes charge of the soul and carries it to the river, where it pleads with the Great Spirit for its immediate transportation to the good land. Now in regard to the custom of Indians carrying game and eatables and distributing them at the graves of their dead as a token of their remembrance and as a mode they had adopted for pleading to the Great Spirit. Everybody knows that the chief subsistence of Indians in olden times, and even yet, is game, no great stock of which can be laid away for future use, which made the procurement of food a daily struggle for existence, and no Indian, from all I could ever learn was well fed. They had feasts as well as others, but food was a scarcity, and from this fact all will admit that to part with a portion of their food was the greatest sacrifice they could endure, and it was for this reason and none other that this system was adopted. To think for a moment that the Indians were so devoid of expedients as not to be able to adopt any other plan of remembering their dead is bosh and nonsense. The Indian people were in all essentials a band of brothers and aside from family relations they nationality extended. As an example, one hunter who by reason of his better sense and ability to devise new and improved methods for capturing game had succeeded in bringing to camp a large moose or other animal, such as is not frequently secured by the average hunter, a feast upon this animal would always follow, as was the custom, the only reward the hunter got was the distinction he had won by his marvelous prowess. Everybody was invited to this feast and was expected to be present, and all who had buried friends not gone a sufficient length of time to have secured their passage across the river were expected to take a small portion of this meat as an offering of sacrifice to their graves. The bond of unity was never lost sight of, a favor to one was a favor to all and an insult upon one was an insult upon all, and in either cases the act was never forgotten or allowed to become rusty in their minds. As I have mentioned of the secret order among the Indians in early days, and that they had signs by which they were enabled to hunt up the different bands and families of the tribe, I will say that they also had other signs, one of which was a sign of recognition that called for protection the same as a flag of truce, and I will mention a case where it was used to good advantage. There is now a man living at Ironwood, Michigan, to whom this incident may be referred to for its correctness. His name is William Whitesides, a photographer at that place. In the fall of the year 1865 Indian Agent Webb left Bayfield, Wisconsin for Grand Portage, Minnesota, near the mouth of the Pigeon River, to make an annuity payment to the Chippewa Indians on the north shore of Lake Superior. Mr. Whitesides and myself embarked with him on this voyage as passengers, not being in any way connected with the business of Mr. Webb. When the boat was anchored, about 4 pm, in the bay just inside the island a messenger came from the Indian village in a canoe an inquired of General Webb if he had brought specie for the money payment, and if not they did not wish to have him and intimated that it would not to be safe to do so. Mr. Webb replied, through his interpreter, that he had not brought specie but had brought all the goods that had been promised them and paper money. The messenger said they would not accept greenbacks; consequently they did not desire him to land at all and then went back to the shore. This led to a long talk between General Web and the men aboard the schooner as to what had better be done, and it was decided as the weather just then was unfavorable to lift anchor, they would depart the net morning, as there was not a man on board who thought it would be advisable to attempt a landing. I told General Webb that if he would have his men lower a yawl I would scull it ashore and find out what the trouble was if I could. All pronounced me crazy and Agent Webb said I would be foolish to attempt it, but the boat was lowered and I got into it feeling satisfied that there was some Indian on the shore that would recognize the sign I intended giving them, as soon as I was clear of the schooner and sufficiently near the shore to be distinctly seen by the Indians I gave the sign and immediately saw that it had been recognized, for the Indians began to move up to the shore and seat themselves upon the beach.
This was an assurance to me that I would be protected and when the yawl had reached the bank the Indians assisted in pulling it up on the beach where it would be safe from washing away. After getting on shore a few Indians recognized me as the interpreter who had previously been with Mr. Webb. They shook hands with me, saying: "We heard that you were no longer with Mr. Webb." I told him I was no longer in his employ now, but was only a passenger. I then began to inquire what the trouble was, and quickly discovered that they had been getting bad advise from the traders, the same as given to the Sioux previous to the massacre at New Ulm, and for the same reason - they wished to profit by the difference in value then existing between specie and greenbacks and had advised the Indians to accept nothing but specie in payment of their annuities. I told them the agent was not to blame for not having gold and silver to pay them. He had brought what the great father had sent him to give them and if they refused to received it he would be compelled to take it away and store it in some warehouse and await orders as to what he should do with it, as it was not at all likely that he would attempt to come back again before spring and that my advice would be to accept it under protest or the promise of the agent that he would see that the difference in value between gold and greenbacks was made good to them at the next payment. This resulted in three chiefs getting into a canoe and going back to the boat with me and they told the agent that they would accept what he had brought upon his promise to make up the difference on his next trip. The next morning the goods and money were distributed, and a more peaceable and orderly payment I never witnessed. It was all brought about by my knowledge of the secret sign, for as soon as the chiefs discovered I was a member of their secret society my word and advice went almost the same as law. I mentioned this one case only as there is a living witness to the statement, but I have often found it useful in my intercourse with the Indians. I will now undertake to show with what love superstitious awe, reverence or by such term as you may see fit to call it, the Indians hold the Great Spirit and to what extent they will go in keeping secret a matter, the revelation of which might, in their estimation, provoke the Great Spirit. The custom of holding religious councils, which is as old as tradition goes, is begun by assembling in a wigwam where some one, generally a chief, calls the attention of his hearers to the main matter under consideration. Then each person present in turn is expected to add remarks upon the subject, which is being considered, giving information of any experiences he may have had personally since the last council. Back in the 1840's and when one of these councils was being held at La Pointe, about twenty miles from Ashland, an old man who had, by the help and guidance of the Great Spirit, as the Indians imagined, discovered a place where pure silver could be obtained which the Indians in those days used for ornaments. An especial use they put it to was mounting pipes that were to be used on special occasions, such as a visit to the great father, and whenever silver was wanted this particular old man was asked to provide it as he alone knew the secret location. For years he had obtained it whenever wanted. He would start out alone and unobserved and return with the silver, but no one knew where he went or by what route. Neither did they consider it a matter of their concern. In fact they considered it would be greatly wronging the Great Spirit them to inquire after the secret that He had vouchsafed to the old man, with much agitation, arose to make his speech, and I saw there was something coming from him that was not expected. He told his people that as they knew he had for many years been the possessor of the secret where the silver was found, it was with much regret that he must tell them that the Great Spirit was angry with him for he could no longer find the place where the silver was. He then described the outlook of the place, but did not give its geographical location. He described it as being a narrow passage at first through which his body would only pass with much exertion, gradually growing larger until he could proceed on his hands and knees, and finally large enough to stand erect. He reported that it was a huge cave where he could pick up or chip off such pieces as he required, and I will add that the Indians believe it was not right, in cases of this kind, where they were getting rare specimens, to take of such but sparingly and under no circumstances to search for what was hidden, but would take only such parts or pieces as the Great Spirit had left in sight for their use and benefit. Another example is where an Indian had found a silver bar, from which he cut with his hatchet a piece that weighed a pound, and never to his dying day, a good many years afterwards, would he reveal the place he found it. I have many times seen this piece of silver and weighed it, in fact it was in my possession a number of years, and this Indian three times started with me to the place where he had found it, and as many times backed out and each time after going, as I afterward learned, to within one-half mile of it. On his death-bed he told his son to tell me, when he should next see me, to go just one-half mile towards the setting sun from the moss covered log where he had turned back from his first visit with me and I would find it, but between the time he had gone to show me and the time he told his son where I could find it, I lost my eye-sight and although I have tried, since my eye-sight has been partially restored, to find the place, I have never been able to do so. It is now about seventy years found the piece of silver, but where he found it is still a mystery, for if anyone had ever found the place they probably would have seen the piece from which the Indian cut the specimen he brought in which plainly showed the marks of his hatchet at each stroke made in securing it from the piece he had found. He came to his death by falling through a hole in a defective dock at Bayfield, Wisconsin. The American Fur Company knew of this find and tried all the persuasion and strategy of which they were capable to extract this secret from the Indian without avail. When the old man found the silver his brother was in company with him. They had stopped by a creek to rest, as they were carrying home a deer they had killed. He often told me the circumstances of the find. He said they had stopped to rest and get a drink from the creek and while seated there had smoked, and after he finished he pounded out the ashes from his tomahawk pipe on a stone near him and then in a sort of pastime way he began tapping his pipe on different stones near, when he discovered that the sound of one was different from the rest, and that a little moss had gathered over it, which he brushed off and discovered the point of a silver bar. At first he thought it lead and said to his brother: "We have something to make bullets from." Another story in connection, which I will not vouch for entirely, is that the American Fur Company devised a plan by which they would decoy his brother with whiskey to the spot. They first gave him a few drinks, and promised him more as they went along to the place whey wished him to point out and told him that in case he succeeded in showing them the bar from which the piece had been cut, he should receive a heap of presents. Some say he was promised a house to live in. At any rate they go him into a canoe with another Indian to help him paddle across the water to the main land, over which he was to proceed to the place where the silver was found. The company men were to go in another boat, but just as this brother was to start the idea flashed across his mind that his canoe was the proper place to carry the bottle of whiskey, and he would not budge another step until the men gave him the whiskey. Although the men were almost certain the scheme would miscarry if they let him have the bottle, it was their only show, for he would not go without it, and after a consultation it was decide to let him have it. The chance they took proved a slim one for the Indians were wildly drunk before they had proceeded half way across the water, when they both fell to fighting over the bottle and were drowned. Although some parts of this is true, I will not guarantee that all of it would have borne investigation, but enough of it was true to carry to the living brother the conviction that the Great Spirit was displeased by the actions of his brother in attempting to reveal the secret and he was drowned by the will of the Great Spirit, was the reason why the old man would not show it to me. The circumstances connected with this case I often think over; How the old man started with me on three occasions, and each time would begin to falter about the same distance from home, but he would keep on until his conscience would no longer allow him to proceed, the reproach he felt by reason of his belief caused him to turn back, the fear the Great Spirit would be offended, was too much for his untutored mind. He feared should show me the spot it would result in digging and taking away from the Great Spirit the treasure that He had hidden for his own benefit, and all the glitter of prospective wealth, should the mine prove valuable, could not drive out this fear. I give these incidents, which look more like stories and history, for I firmly believe the two places I have mentioned will be discovered, and should this occur, some may be living who can connect the stories with the find and thus establish the fact that the poor Indian knew of them, but by reason of religious zeal, would not disclose it lest those hidden treasures of the Great Spirit should be appropriated to the use of man, and their hidden recess be desecrated. There were parties living on the Apostle Islands, and in the surrounding country, subsequent to the advent of the American Fur Company, who have seen this piece of silver. One is still living at Bayfield, Wisconsin; his name is Ervin Leihy, who, until le, was a member of the firm of Leihy & Garnich, of Ashland, Wisconsin, who established a hardware business there in 1872. For years after it became known that I had more knowledge of the whereabouts of the silver bar than anyone else except the old Indian, I was watched if I undertook to go to the woods by parties in the hire of men I could mention, which prevented me from making any extensive search for the deposit until after I had lost my eyesight. I know of silver and native gold also being found in the vicinity of Ashland by different men from time to time. One man in particular who claimed to hail from Missouri, found tow or three specimens of gold, which I saw. I am well acquainted with the locality where he had his camp, where he left when he went away a rude map, which, although indefinite, would give a person acquainted with the locality an idea of the country he wished to describe by his map, and later on, in company with Col. Whittlesey, of Cleveland, Ohio, a geological expert, I spent several days in the vicinity indicated by this map, but we failed in our attempt to locate the particular place where he may have found the specimens. At the time the Missourian left he said he would go below and form a company and return. He said he had been offered a big sum by the American Fur Company to explore the location on their account, but had refused it, and proposed to explore on his own account, but he never returned, to my knowledge. Col. Whittlesey told me that the formation of rock he found at this time led him to believe that gold was located in the immediate vicinity, but said: "I have studied geology for forty years, more or less of the time, but I find when I get into this country I am entirely at sea, but I believe gold or silver, or both, will be found at the junction of the trap rock and granite, and think in all cases that the gold, silver and cooper is north of the iron, first coming the cooper, which my be found anywhere in the trap and conglomerate therewith, and that silver will be found with it also, and that silver-lead exists somewhere in that section of country." The Indians have always told me that there was no doubt of there being large deposits of precious metals in and around Lake Superior, particularly on the south and west sides. I have also met and talked with Indians who thought such deposits existed on the north shore particularly in the region of Pigeon River, and back in the interior thirty or forty miles and I have seen fine specimens brought in by them to Grand Portage, one which was purchased by Clark W. Thompson, Superintendent of Indian Affairs of the Northwest, then stationed at St. Paul, and in talking with the party who brought in the specimens, I should judge by what little he would say, that the silver was found in a cave or crevice of rock, and as I was anxious to find out where it might be, I took every occasion that presented itself to ply the Indians with questions that might lead to its immediate location, but I was unsuccessful, only learning that the place was not likely to be discovered by any casual observer, even though he might happen near it. I have talked with many men who do not like to give Indians credit for their claims of finding these things as they were wholly ignorant of geology or any other information that would lead them to search in right places for such metals, but I account for their finds in this way, for I know they did find them as a matter of fact, and as there was no mining going on in any of this country at the time, they must have found the specimens native and without searching in the earth for them. The Indian in those days often lived in one locality for from ten days to six weeks, and made their stay always the longest in sugar making time, and as hunting was their only occupation, they had occasion to become familiar with every locality in their vicinity, and as they moved frequently, the whole country came under their explorations. The Indians' nature was to closely search for dens of animals, and no matter how dangerous looking a cave or cavern was, the Indian was in his elements until the last nook and niche was visited, and as many of the most valuable fur bearing animals were found in such places, they were especially looked after, and as the women's duty in those days was to do all the labor in moving camps, pitching them in new places, and doing all work attached to camp duty, the men's time was all taken up outside of camp. Indians in those days live to a good age, from 100 to 125 years was not at all uncommon. You readily see what a thorough knowledge of the whole country they must have had. There would probably not be a rock, tree, stream or lake that they could not speak of by reason of some peculiarity he had noticed. I never knew of one Indian divulging to another any discovery he had made, the nature of which would lead to his being considered and acknowledged as a child of the Good Spirit, and any Indian was considered as a favorite with the Great Spirit who could bring the proof, by specimen or otherwise, of anything that was not a common knowledge or theory. Each Indian had his own exclusive hunting ground, which was pointed out to him and described by the chief, whenever a new location was settled, and none encroached upon the hunting domain of another. Thus each man had an opportunity of becoming a favorite with the Great Spirit if by his researches he could find or discover any new thing or theory that was not commonly known, and although an Indian received no distinction of title or other advantage by reason of his discoveries, except the distinction of being favored by the Great Spirit, the natural sequence was that each man thoroughly search his own domain.
The Indians believe that thunder is the voice of an immense invisible bird that comes at times to warn them that the Great Spirit is displeased with something they have done, and that it always comes when the county is already storm-vexed, as the time is then opportune to add its voice to the naturally saddened feelings of the people, thereby making its presence more effective. The lightning they believe to be flashes from the eyes of this enormous bird, and when the storm is fierce and the flashes vivid it is taken as a warning that their bad deeds are many and that their retribution must be great. When one is killed by the fluid they believe it is a judgment sent by the Great Spirit through the agency of this mysterious bird. They call this bird Che-ne-me-ke. When they see distant flashes of lightning and do not hear the voice, as they believe, of this great bird, they know it is at a distance, but still believe it is teaching a lesson to distant people and will soon be with them. But should a storm pass by without the voice and flashes coming near them they are happy again, for they feel relieve, believing that the bird is not angry with them. They firmly believe this bird to be an agency of the Almighty, which is kept moving about to keep an eye on the wrong doings of the people. When a tree is stricken and set on fire, the lesson it wishes to impart has been given and the rain is sent to prevent the fire from destroying the country. There is a point of land in this part of the country that the Indians call Pa-qua-a-wong - meaning a forest destroyed by the great thunderbird. I have visited this place. It is now almost barren. The timber which was once upon it having been destroyed by lightening and the Indians believe that the storm bird destroyed this forest to show its wrath, that they might profit by the lesson. A hunting party of Indians were once caught on this barren in a thunderstorm and took refuge under the trunk of a fallen tree, which had been burnt sufficiently on the underside to give them shelter. One of the party, in his hurry to get out of the rain, left his gun standing against the log. The lightning struck it, running down the barrel and twisting it into many shapes and destroying it and the owner of this gun was thereafter pointed out by the whole band as the person upon whom the storm bird desired to bestow its frowns. So deep seated are their convictions upon this point that there is not enough language in the Indian tongue or words enough in the English vocabulary to convince them of their error. The quotation is a truthful one, which says, "They saw God in the clouds and heard Him in the winds." Since white men came among them the Indians they have not been slow to learn. I have often heard them remark, "The earth is the white man's heaven and money is his god." The true Indian belief as regards the earth is that it is the mother of al things, vegetable, animal and human. They place the sun as the father and the air as life. The reason they put forth in support of this belief is that if air is taken from anything, either human, animal or vegetable it will immediately die, and that the sun is the father, for to cover up or shut out from the rays of the sun any plant, grass, or vegetable, it will wither and droop; but let the rays of the sun strike it and it will immediately spring to new life. The also believe there is a temporary mother who guards all things in their youth, when natures further development is left to the sun. You will see that the Indian pronunciation of sun is as near our pronunciation of Jesus as two human tongues can speak it, they pronouncing sun as "geses". They believed in what they saw; they read the signs in the heavens as manifestations from the Great Spirit and they looked upon them for their guidance the same as white people look upon the bible to get an understanding of what our creator would have us see and understand. Take from the white race their bible and their science and the Indian religion is as orthodox as any now extant. One thing is certain; they believed in their religion and practiced what they preached. No hypocrite was ever known among them.
Contributed and used with permission on this site by Timm Severud. The Lac Courte Oreilles Historical Preservation Office created this reproduction.Timm Severud manually typed it in and some minor changes to text have been made from the original, to correct spelling mistakes, and slight grammar mistakes. There is no copyright on this book or this reproduction. Feel free to use and share with others. Enjoy what I consider the best historical biography I have ever read. T.L.S.
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