It is the custom of the officiating orator, while the chant is going on, to walk to and fro in the council-house. When the hymn is finished, he breaks out into a passionate invocation to their forefathers, and a lament over the degeneracy of the times. This, as the French missionaries inform us, was a favorite topic of Indian speakers. 1 Among the Iroquois, who could look back to an era of genuine statesmen and heroes, the authors of their constitution, this complaint must have had a peculiar force and Sincerity. After this appeal to the founders of their state, there naturally followed an address to the Council and the people, reciting "all the rules they decided on, which they thought would strengthen the house." By "the house" was meant, of course, the house of many hearths, to which they likened their confederacy. The "rules" or laws which follow require some explanation, that their full value may be understood.
The first law prescribes that when a chief dies his office shall not perish with him. This is expressed, in their metaphorical style, by an injunction that the "horns," or insignia of office, shall not be buried with the deceased chief, but shall be taken off at his death, to be transferred to his successor. This rule is laid down in the most urgent and impressive terms. "We should perhaps all perish if his office is buried with him in his grave." This systematic transmission of official rank was, in fact, the vital principle of their government. It was in this system that their federal union differed
from the frequent and transitory confederacies common among the Indian tribes. In general, among nearly all the tribes, the rank of a chief was personal. It was gained by the character and achievements of the individual, and it died with him. Hence their government and policy, so far as they can be said to have had any, were always uncertain and fluctuating. No person understood the Indian usages better than Zeisberger. His biographer has well described the difference which existed in this respect between the Iroquois and their neighbors. "The Algonkins," he writes, "knew nothing of regular government. They had no system of polity; there was no unity of action among them. The affairs even of a single tribe were managed in the loosest manner." After briefly, but accurately, delineating the Iroquois system of councils, he adds: "Thus they became both a political and a military power among the aborigines; the influence of their league was felt everywhere, and their conquests extended in every direction." 1 The principle that "the chief dies but the office survives,"--the regular transmission of rank, title and authority, by a method partly hereditary and partly elective,---was the principle on which the life and strength of the Iroquois constitution depended.
Next followed a provision of hardly less importance. The wars among the Indian tribes arise almost always from individual murders. The killing of a tribesman by the members of another community concerns his whole people. If satisfaction is not promptly made, war follows, as a matter of course. 2 The founders of the Iroquois commonwealth decreed that wars for this cause should not be allowed to rise between any of their cantons. On this point a special charge was given to
the members of the Great Council. They were enjoined (in the figurative language employed throughout the Book) not to allow the murder to be discussed in a national assembly, where the exasperation of the young men might lead to mischief, but to reserve it for their own consideration; and they were required as soon as possible to bury all animosities that might arise from it. The figure employed is impressive. They were to uproot a huge pine-tree--the well-known emblem of their League--disclosing a deep cavity, below which an underground stream would be swiftly flowing. Into this current they were to cast the cause of trouble, and then, replacing the tree, hide the mischief forever from their people.
How strictly in spirit these injunctions were followed, and with what good effect, their whole history shows. A notable instance of the readiness and ingenuity of their statesmen in finding the means of public reconciliation in such cases is given in the Jesuit narrative. On the 24th of July, 1657, a great council was held at Onondaga to consider three matters, all of special import. First in order was the necessity of appeasing a threatened quarrel between two of the leading nations, the Senecas and the Caniengas, caused by a misadventure in which a Seneca "captain" had been killed by some warriors of the eastern nation. Next in importance was the reception of a large party of Frenchmen, headed by Father Francis le Mercier, the Superior of the Jesuit missionaries in Canada, who had come to form a settlement among the Iroquois. And, finally, they had to prepare the plan and the means for an expedition against some hostile tribes. Before the meeting of the Council the Frenchmen had paid a formal visit to the Seneca delegates, whom they found "filling the air with songs of mourning" for their slaughtered chief, and had manifested their sympathy by a present, "to alleviate the grief" of the mourners. This incident seems to have suggested to the assembled councillors a method of effecting
--or at least of announcing--the desired accommodation, and of paying at the same time a happy compliment to their reverend visitors. By common consent the affair was referred to the arbitrament of the Father Superior, by whom the difference was promptly settled. 1 It was not necessary for the politic senators to inform their gratified visitors that the performance in which they thus took part was merely a formality which ratified, or rather proclaimed, a foregone conclusion. The reconciliation which was prescribed by their constitution had undoubtedly been arranged by previous conferences, after their custom in such matters, before the meeting of the Council. 2 So effective was this provision of their constitution that for more than three centuries this main cause of Indian wars was rendered innocuous, and the "Great Peace" remained undisturbed. This proud averment of their annalists, confirmed as it is for more than half the period by the evidence of their white neighbors, cannot reasonably be questioned. What nation or confederacy of civilized Europe can show an exemption from domestic strife for so long a term?
The third rule or ordinance which the founders enacted "to strengthen the house" is of a remarkable character. It relates to the mortuary usages of the people; and when these are understood, the great importance of this law becomes apparent. Among the Indians of the Huron-Iroquois family the ordinary mourning for the dead became exaggerated into
customs of the most extravagant character, exhausting the time and strength of the warriors, and devouring their substance. The French missionaries have left us an account of these singular usages among the Hurons, some of which excited their respect, and others their astonishment. "Our savages," they wrote, "are in no way savage as regards the duties which nature herself requires us to render to the dead. You would say that their efforts, their toils and their commerce had no other end than to amass the means of honoring the departed. They have nothing too precious for this object. To this they devote their robes of skins, their hatchets and wampum, in such profusion that you would fancy they made nothing of them; and yet these are the riches of their country. Often in midwinter you will see them going almost naked, while they have at home, laid up in store, good and handsome robes, which they keep in reverence for the dead. This is their point of honor. In this, above all, they seek to show themselves magnificent." 1
During the three days that preceded the burial of the dead, or the removal of his remains to the scaffold, the wails, groans and lamentations of the relatives and neighbors resounded in the cabin where he lay. All the stored riches were brought forth and lavished in gifts "to comfort the mourners." The mourning did not end with the burial; in fact, it may be said to have then only begun. The "great mourning," as the missionaries term it, lasted for six days longer, during which the mourners lay, face downward, upon their mats, and enveloped in their robes, speechless, or replying only by an ejaculation to those who addressed them. During this period they had no fire in the house, even in winter; they ate their food cold, and left the cabin only at night, and as secretly as possible. The "lesser mourning" lasted for a year, during which they refrained from oiling their hair, attended public festivals rarely, and only (in the case of women) when their mothers ordered, and were forbidden to marry again.
This, however, was not all. Once in twelve years was held a great ceremony of reinterment,---a solemn "feast of the dead," as it was called. Until the day of this feast arrived, funeral rites in honor of the departed were repeated from time to time, and feasts were held, at which, as the expression was, their names were revived, while presents were distributed, as at the time of their death. The great Feast of the Dead, however, was the most important of all their ceremonies. The bodies of all who had died in the nation during the preceding twelve years were then exhumed, or removed from the scaffolds on which they had been laid, and the festering corpses or cleansed bones were all interred together in a vast pit lined with robes of beaver skins, the most precious of all their furs. Wampum, copper implements, earthenware, the most valued of their possessions, were cast into the pit, which was then solemnly closed with earth. While the ceremony was going on, rich presents of all descriptions, the accumulations of the past twelve years, were distributed by the relatives of the deceased among the people. In this distribution, strange to say, valuable fur robes were frequently cut and torn to pieces, so as to be rendered worthless. A lavish display and reckless destruction of wealth were deemed honors due to the shades of the departed. 1
The Attiwandaronks, or Neutrals, who were the nearest neighbors of the Iroquois, were still more extravagant in their demonstrations of affection for their lost friends. They, too, had their feasts of the dead, at regular intervals. In the meantime the bodies were kept in their houses as long as possible--"until the stench became intolerable." Then, when this proximity could no longer be borne, the remains were left for a period to decay on a scaffold in the open air. After a time the remaining flesh was removed from the bones,
which were arranged on the sides of their cabins, in full view of the inmates, until the great day of general interment. With these mournful objects before their eyes, renewing constantly the sense of their loss, the women of the household were excited to frequent outbursts of grief, expressed in wailing chants. 1
That the Iroquois in ancient times had funeral customs similar to those of their sister nations, and not less revolting, cannot be doubted. How these shocking and pernicious usages were abolished at one swoop is shown by the brief passage in the Book of Rites now under discussion. The injunctions are laconic, but full of meaning. When a death occurs, the people are told, "this shall be done." A delegation of persons, officially appointed for the purpose, shall repair to the dwelling of the deceased, bearing in a pouch some strands of mourning wampum. The leader, holding these strands, and standing by the hearth, shall address, in the name of the whole people, a few words of comfort to the mourners. And then "they shall be comforted," and shall go on with their usual duties. To this simple ceremony--supplemented, in the case of a high chief, by the rites of the "Condoling Council,"--the preposterous funeral usages, which pervaded the lives and wasted the wealth of the other nations of this stock, were reduced, by the wisdom of the Iroquois legislators.
In considering these remarkable laws, it becomes evident that the work which Hiawatha and Dekanawidah accomplished was really a Great Reformation, not merely political, but also social and religious. They desired not only to establish peace among the nations, but also to abolish or modify such usages and beliefs as in their opinion were injurious to their
people. It is deserving of notice that a divinity unknown, at least in name, to the Hurons, received special reverence among the Iroquois. The chief characters of the Huron pantheon were a female deity, Ataensic, a sort of Hecate, whom they sometimes identified with the moon, and her grandson, Juskeha, who was sometimes regarded as the sun, and as a benevolent spirit, but most commonly in their stories appears as a fantastic and capricious goblin, with no moral attributes whatever. In the Iroquois mythology these deities are replaced by a personage of a much higher character. Taronhiawagon, the Holder of the Heavens, was with them the Master of Life. He declared his will to them in dreams, and in like manner disclosed future events, particularly such as were important to the public welfare. He was, in fact, the national god of the Iroquois. It was he who guided their fathers in their early wanderings, when they were seeking for a place of abode. He visited them from time to time, in person, to protect them from their enemies and to instruct them in useful arts.
It is possible that the Iroquois Taronhiawagon may have been originally the same as the Huron Juskeha. Some eminent authorities on Indian mythology are inclined to this opinion. On the other hand, the earlier Jesuit missionaries give no hint of such identity, and the Tuscarora historian, Cusick, seems to distinguish between these divine personages. But whether we accept this view or seek for any other origin, there seems reason to suppose that the more exalted conception of this deity, who is certainly, in character and attributes, one of the noblest creations of the North American mythologies, dates from the era of the confederacy, when he became more especially the chief divinity and protector of the Kanonsionni. 1
67:1 See the Relation of 1639, p. 57: "C'est la plainte ordinaire des Capitaines [of the Hurons] que tout se va perdant, à faute de garder les formes et coustoumes de leurs ancestres."
68:1 De Schweinitz: Life of Zeisberger, p. 39.
68:2 Relation, of 1636, p. 119. "C'est de la que naissent les guerres, et c'est un sujet plus que suffisant deprendre les armes contre quelque Village quand il refuse de satisfaire par les presents ordonnez, pour celuy qui vous aurait tué quelq'un des vostres."--Brebeuf, on the Hurons.
70:1 "On tint ce grand conseil le 24 du mois de Juillet, où toutes les Nations remisent entre les mains d'Achiendase (qui est nostre Père Superieur) le differend d'entre les Sonnontoüeronnons et les Agnieronnons, qui fut bientot terminé."--Relation of 1657, p. 16.
70:2 For a curious instance of the manner in which questions to be apparently decided by a Council were previously settled between the parties, see the Life of Zeisberger, p. 190: "Gietterowane was the speaker on one side, Zeisberger on the other. These two consulted together privately,---Zeisberger unfolding the import of the strings [of wampum which he had brought as ambassador] and Gietterowane committing to memory what he said."
71:1 Brebeuf, Relation of 1636, p. 128.
72:1 See the Relation for 1636, p. 131. A most vivid and graphic. description of these extraordinary ceremonies is given in Parkman's admirable work, The Jesuits in North America, Chapter 7.
73:1 "Cet object qu'ils ont devant les yeux, leur renouvellant continuellement le resentiment de leurs pertes, leur fait ordinairement ietter des cris, et faire des lamentations tout à fait lugubres, le tout en chanson. Mais cela ne se fait que par les femmes."--Relation of 1641, p. 73.
74:1 See for Taronhiawagon the Jesuit Relations for 1670, pp. 47, 66, and for 1671, p. 17: also Cusick, pp. 20, 22, 24, 34. For Juskeha, see the Relation for 1635, p. 34; 1636, pp. 101-103; 1640, p. 92. Lafitau in one place makes Tharonhiawagon a deified man, and in another the grandson of Ataensic.--Murs des Sauvages Ameriquains, Vol. I, p. 146 and p. 244.