Literature of the North American Indians
It is an astounding but gratifying proof of the rapid march
of civilization, that periodical literature springs up and flourishes among
tribes and nations which, but twenty or thirty years ago, had hardly
advanced a few steps beyond barbarism. A Cherokee newspaper
has for some time been published, and in the Sandwich Islands a
gazette has recently been established; and a file of a paper called
"the Indian Phœnix," published in the United States, under the
superintendence of an Indian editor, and addressed exclusively to his
countrymen, has just fallen under our notice. These are pleasing facts
for the consideration of every true philanthropist, and stable data on
which the philosopher may argue that the day is not far distant when
the rays of knowledge shall illumine every nation of the earth. Wherever
a newspaper is established, ignorance must diminish; for the newspaper
is not only the effect, but the cause of civilization,—not only
the work itself, but the means by which the work is performed. The
Indian Phœnix is published in the English language at Washington,
and is from thence distributed among these roving aborigines, not
only in every part of the United States, but throughout the vast
territories of Mexico and Texas. The paper is not only edited, but
printed by Indians; and, whatever may be said of the intellectual
portions of it, the mechanical parts will certainly bear comparison
with the provincial journals of England, and are much before the
newspapers of several of the nations of Europe, those of Germany
and Portugal for instance, which are as wretched specimens of typography
as it is now possible to meet with.
For the amusement of our readers we shall proceed to make
a few extracts from these very curious journals. The principles which are
advocated therein will, no doubt, appear startling at first sight; but a
little reflection will show, that, although strange, they are not
altogether unfounded. These men have, by the strong arms of European
civilization, been driven from the wild forests inherited by their
forefathers, the woods they hunted in have been converted into corn-fields,
and the clear waters of the lonely rivers beside which they dwelt have
been contaminated by the refuse of smoky manufactories, and rendered
busy with the sails and paddle-wheels of enterprising commerce.
The civilization which thus came upon the land from afar
has now reached its original inhabitants; and the Indians, savages
no more, have begun to employ the arts of peace and the powerful
weapons of opinion to reconquer a portion of the broad lands of which
they have been despoiled. The struggles in Texas, and the unsettled
state of Mexico, have caused them to turn their eyes in that
direction; and they have been inspired by the hope that Mexico is
to be the region in which all the scattered tribes will be collected
together to form one great independent nation. It is not intended in
this brief notice to speculate upon the probability or improbability of
such a scheme, or to say whether or not these dispersed and dismembered
clans, without leader or bond of union, will ever be able to
accomplish so gigantic a project. It is sufficient to state that such is
their object, in order that the reader may understand the allusions in
the extracts which we shall place before him. The following will show
the prose these Indians are capable of writing (we shall come to their
poetry by and by), and will also give an idea of their political creed.
In the leading article of the first number, the editor says,
"Our creed may be met with in these words. We render unto
the self-esteemed civilized world the things which are the self-esteemed
civilized world's, and unto the long-oppressed, yet noble, elevated,
and dignified Indian the things which once belonged and shall again belong to him."
These sentiments, and their open avowal, although they
may not cause the settler to tremble for the safety of his homestead, ought
nevertheless to make the statesman ponder well on the condition
and aspirations of this ill-used race. The editor continues:
"In the deep gloom of the future position of these countries
we see no evidence of a single periodical grasping with energetic vision
the coming time. Alone, therefore, do we step on the arena of public
opinion. With nerved heart and nerved hand shall we advance: the
curiosity of the many, the surprise of others, the encouragement of
the few, the denunciations of the National Gazette, or New York
American, or all who may follow in their fetid and nauseous trail,
shall not turn wide one of the barbed arrows which shall now and
henceforth be launched unsparingly at all who cross our path."—"We
are not mad, most noble Festus, but speak the words of truth and soberness."
The following little bit of Scriptural exposition will, no
doubt, cause a smile even on the grave faces of the learned doctors who are
versed in Biblical knowledge. The Indians, stigmatized by the civilized
nations of the earth for the cruel practice of scalping their fallen
enemies, bring forward the authority of our sacred book in their
justification. Even David, the man after God's own heart, and one of
the finest poets the world ever produced, went out on the war-path
like a Mohican or a Cherokee, and bore away the scalps of his enemies!
The editor hints that this alone would warrant the assertion
which has been so often put forth, that America was peopled by the
lost ten tribes of Israel. He says,
"We invite the attention—we throw down the gauntlet
of defiance to all and every civilized Christian in Europe or America to gainsay
or dispute the correctness or validity of the inferences and facts
stated below. The Scriptures say,
"'And Michal, Saul's daughter, loved David; and they told Saul,
and the thing pleased him.
"'And Saul said, I will give him her that she may be a snare to
him, and that the hand of the Philistines may be against him.
"'And Saul said, Thus shall ye say to David: the king
desireth not any dowry, but a hundred foreskins of the Philistines, to be
avenged on the king's enemies. But Saul thought to make David
fall by the hand of the Philistines.
"'Wherefore David arose, he and his men, and slew of the
Philistines two hundred men, and David brought their foreskins, and they
gave them in full toll to the king, that he might be the king's son-in-law.'
"We see from this," (continues the editor of the Phœnix,)
"that David, who was a great Jewish warrior, went out on the war-path not
from any motive of war, or to revenge the death of his fallen comrades;
but for what? Why, to get a marriage portion to lay before
the king of the Jewish nation. And what was this marriage portion?
Lo! it was one hundred scalps of the
Philistines. * * * * *
At the conclusion we are told that Michal, Saul's daughter,
loved him. Why? Because he was a great warrior, who had taken many scalps,
and, moreover, David behaved himself wisely, that is, cunning, in taking
of scalps from the Philistines, so that his name was much set by. As
the Jews were in the time of Saul and David, so are the Indian
tribes of the West and of North America. They go out on the war-path,
they return with scalps; and the daughters of the tribe sing,
as in the days of David, 'The warrior Dutch hath slain his tens, but
the warrior Smith hath slain his fifties in the villages of the Tarwargans.'"
The following is a specimen of the poetry,—one of the
war-songs of these regenerated Indians. We cannot say it is quite equal to the
prose, but it is certainly more curious.
"Indian chiefs, arise!
The glorious hour's gone forth,
And in the world's eyes
Display who gave you birth!
Indian chiefs, let us go
In arms to Mexico;
Till the Spanish blood shall flow
In a river at our feet.
Then, manfully despising
The pale faces' yoke,
Let your tribes see you rising
Till your chains is broke!"
Fastidious readers may object both to the vigour and the grammar
of the above; but we have still richer specimens in store for them.
The song continues:
"As rose the tribes of Judah
In days long past and gone,
I'll lead you to as good a
Land to be your own.
Cherokee! in slumbers
Why lethargic wilt thou lie?
Arise, and bring thy numbers
Us to ally.
Arouse! Oh, then, awake thee!
And hasten to my standard;
For I will ne'er forsake thee,
But ever lead the vanguard!
Come on, the brave Oneida,
The promised land divide a-
-Mong you when you're there."
The rhymes of "Judah" and "good a" and "standard" and "vanguard,"
are tolerably original; but they are beaten hollow by that of
the last verse, "Oneida" and "divide a-"!—"-Mong you when you're
there," is a sequel which has much more truth than elegance in it.
"-Mong you (when you're there?)" we would suggest as a new and
improved reading of the passage. The following is in a much more
elevated style; there is a rough vigour about it which many of our
own namby-pamby poetasters would do well to imitate. The rhymes
are also more felicitous, and the measure and grammar
"The mountain sheep are sweeter,
But the valley sheep are fatter;
We therefore deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter.
We planned an expedition:
We met a host, and quelled it;
We took a strong position,
And killed the men who held it!"
The above stanza is unique. Every line tells; and there is a
raciness, a tartness about it, if we may so express it,
which is quite delightful.
"The valley sheep are fatter;
We therefore deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter."
Many ballads have been written about Rob Roy, who also
had a sneaking inclination for the "fat sheep" of other people: but the
daring simplicity of these lines has never been surpassed.
The song continues:
"On Norte's richest valley,
There herds of kine were browsing;
We made a nightly sally
To furnish our carousing.
Fierce soldiers rushed to meet us,
We met them, and o'erthrew them;
They struggled hard to beat us,
But we conquered them, and slew them!
As we drove our prize at leisure,
Santa Anna marched to catch us;
His rage surpassed all measure,
Because he could not match us.
He fled to his hall pillars;
But, ere our force we led off,
Some sacked his house and cellars,
While others cut his head off."
Poetry has always been allowed some licence, and we suppose
we must pass over the assertion in the last line, by merely observing by
the way that Santa Anna is, in vulgar phrase, still "alive and kicking."
The song ends thus:
"We then, in strife bewildering,
Spilt blood enough to swim in;
We orphaned many children, (childering)
And widowed many women.
The eagles and the ravens
We glutted with the foemen;
Their heroes and their cravens,
Their lancers and their bowmen.
As for Santa Anna, their blood-red chief,
His head was borne before us;
His wine and beasts supplied our feasts,
And his overthrow our chorus."
The foregoing extracts are all in a warlike strain. We will
now give a few specimens of the softer lyrics in which these scalpers
indulge. The Irish melodies of Moore are, it appears, not unknown
even amongst them; and that they are admired, the following imitation,
or rather parody, of one of the most beautiful of them will
"There is not in the wide world a valley so sweet
As that Mexican vale in whose bosom "lakes" meet.
Oh! the last ray of feeling and life must depart,
Ere the bloom of that valley shall fade from my heart!
Yet it was not that nature had shed o'er the scene
Her purest of crystal, and brightest of green;
'Twas not the soft magic of streamlet or hill:
Oh, no, it was something more heart-touching still!
'Twas remembrance of all,—Montezuma—his throne—
The power and the glory of Aztek all gone!
Like the leaves of the forest in autumn are strewn,
Were the splendour and hope of that race overthrown.
But the day-star is rising unclouded and bright,
That shall clear and illumine long ages of night,
And restore to that valley the Indian race,
And leave of their white lords no longer a trace.
Sweet "Mexican valley," how calm shall we rest
In thy bosom of shade, when thy sons are all blest!
When 'neath the fig-tree and the vine of each man
They shall sing to the praise of the Almighty one!
When the storm of the war, and its bloodshed, shall cease,
And our hearts, like her lakes, be mingled in peace!"
Interspersed through the papers are various imitations
of our poets, especially of Scott, Byron, and Mrs. Hemans. As an apology for
the plagiarisms, the editor places over the poet's corner the following motto:
"To the living poets we beg to say, that it not being fair for them
to monopolize the best words in the language we write in, to say nothing
of the ideas, we take free liberty with them when need is.
We will make them amends two years hence when they come to see
us in the valleys of Mexico. To the illustrious dead we shall fully
explain our reasons when we may chance to meet them in the 'great elsewhere.'"
The next specimen is an imitation of Ossian, a bard
whose poetry must necessarily possess many charms for them.
"Come, all ye warriors! come with your chief—come!
The song rises like the sun in my soul! I feel the joys of other times. The
Cherokee was on the land of Arkansas. The strange warriors of the
prairie were rich in horses. We said in our souls, why not give the
Tarwargans of their abundance? Six of our warriors were found on
the great prairie, advancing like the moon among clouds, concealed
from the view. Days had passed when they approached the
wigwams of the Tarwargans. A narrow plain spreads beneath, covered
with grass and aged trees. The blue course of a stream is
there. The horses were secured. Their feet were slowly advancing
towards the wigwams. Not without eyes were the Tarwargans.
The warriors had not been invisible. High hopes of prairie horses
and the scalps of the enemy fill their souls. A blast came upon
them. The sound of rifles was heard in the air. Three of the warriors
fell! The tomahawk descended, and they were left in their
shame without scalps. Two warriors fled together. Smoke
(a warrior) fled not: he rushed for safety, and laid himself low with
his rifle among the briers. Shouts of triumph are heard. The Tarwargans
return. The slain are dragged to the dancing-ground—oh,
grief! oh, revenge! Did you not know the heart of Smoke?
Placed in the ground are three stakes; tied are the scalpless dead!
Upright they sit. Oh, grief! the derision of the Tarwargans! 'Cunning
warriors are ye, oh, Cherokees! but your scalps are at our feet.'"
The following, which the editor assures us is a literal
translation from an old song highly popular among the aboriginal tribes of
Mexico, is interesting. The poetry of the original is so sublime that
the translator, in despair of equalling it in rhyme, has given it us in
"Mexitli Tetzauhteotl (the Terrible God) o-ah!
o-ah! o-ah! The son of the woman of Tula. The green plume is on his head,
the wing of the eagle is on his leg; his forehead is blue, like the
firmament. He carries a spear and buckler, and with the fir-tree of
Colhuacan he crushes the mountains! O-ah! o-ah! o-ah! Mexitli Tetzauhteotl!"
"Mexitli Tetzauhteotl! o-ah! o-ah! o-ah!
my father ate the heart of Xochimilco! Where was Painalton, the god of the swift
foot, when the Miztecas ran to the mountains? 'Fast, warrior,
fast!' said Painalton, the brother of Mexitli. His foot-print is on
the snows of Istaccihuatl, and on the tops of the mountains of Orizaba.
Toktepec, and Chinantla, and Matlalzinco were strong warriors,
but they shook under his feet as the hills shake when the king
of hell groans in the caverns. So my father killed the men of the
south, the men of the east, and the men of the west, and Mexitli
shook the fir-tree with joy, and Painalton danced by night among the
stars! O-ah! o-ah! Mexitli Tetzauhteotl!"
"Mexitli Tetzauhteotl! o-ah! o-ah!
Where is the end of Mexico? It begins in Huehuetapallan in the north, and who
knows the end of Huehuetapallan? In the south it sees the land of crocodiles and
vultures,—the bog and the rock where man cannot live. The sea
washes it on the east, the sea washes it on the west, and that is the
end: who has looked to the end of the waters? Mexico is the land
of blossoms,—the land of the tiger-flower, and the cactus-bud that
opens at night like a star,—the land of the dahlia, that ghosts come
to snuff at. It is a land dear to Mexitli! O-ah! o-ah! Mexitli
"Mexitli Tetzauhteotl! o-ah! o-ah! o-ah! Who were
the enemies of Mexico? Their heads are in the wall of the house of skulls,
and the little child strikes them as he goes by with a twig. Once
Mexico was a bog of reeds, and Mexitli slept on a couch of bulrushes.
Our god now sits on a world of gold, and the world is
Mexico. Will any one fight me? I am a Mexican. Mexitli is the
god of the brave. Our city is fair on the island, and Mexitli sleeps
with us. When he calls me in the morning, I grasp the quiver,—the
quiver and the axe,—and I am not afraid. When he winds his horn
from the woods, I know that he is my father, and that he will look at
me while I fight. Sound the horn of battle; I see the spear of a
foe. Mexitli Tetzauhteotl, we are the men of Mexico! O-ah!
o-ah! Mexitli Tetzauhteotl!
With this extract we shall conclude our notice
of this very curious subject, promising, however, to return to it at a future period.