The popular opinion of the Indian, and more especially of the Iroquois, who, as Mr. Parkman well observes, is an "Indian of the Indians," represents him as a sanguinary, treacherous and vindictive being, somewhat cold in his affections, haughty and reserved toward his friends, merciless to his enemies, fond of strife, and averse to industry and the pursuits of peace. Some magnanimous traits are occasionally allowed to him; and poetry and romance have sometimes thrown a glamour about his character, which popular opinion, not without reason, energeticaliy repudiates and resents. The truth is that the circumstances under which the red and white races have encountered in North America have been such as necessarily to give rise to a wholly false impression in regard to the character of the aborigines. The European colonists, superior in civilization and in the arts of war, landed on the coast with the deliberate intention of taking possession of the country and displacing the natives. The Indians were at once thrown on the defensive. From the very beginning they fought, not merely for their land, but for their lives; for it was from their land that they drew the means of living. All wars between the whites and the Indians, whatever the color or pretence on either side, have been on both sides wars of extermination. They have been carried on as such wars always have been and always will be carried on. On the side of the stronger there have been constant encroachments, effected now by menace and now by cajolery, but always prefaced by the display and the insolence of superior power. On the side of the weaker there have been alternations of sullen acquiescence and of fierce and fruitless resistance.
[paragraph continues] It is not surprising that under such circumstances the character of each party has been presented to the other in the most forbidding light.
The Indians must be judged, like every other people, not by the traits which they display in the fury of a desperate warfare, but by their ordinary demeanor in time of peace, and especially by the character of their social and domestic life. On this point the testimony of missionaries and of other competent observers who have lived among them is uniform. At home the Indians are the most kindly and generous of men. Constant good humor, unfailing courtesy, ready sympathy with distress, and a truly lavish liberality, mark their intercourse with one another. The Jesuit missionaries among the Hurons knew them before intercourse with the whites and the use of ardent spirits had embittered and debased them. The testimony which they have left on record is very remarkable. The missionary Brebeuf, protesting against the ignorant prejudice which would place the Indians on a level with the brutes, gives the result of his observation in emphatic terms. "In my opinion," he writes, "it is no small matter to say of them that they live united in towns, sometimes of fifty, sixty, or a hundred dwellings, that is, of three or four hundred households; that they cultivate the fields, from which they derive their food for the whole year; and that they maintain peace and friendship with one another." He doubts "if there is another nation under heaven more commendable in this respect", than the Huron nation of the Bear," among whom he resided. "They have," he declares, "a gentleness and an affability almost incredible for barbarians." They keep up "this perfect goodwill," as he terms it, "by frequent visits, by the aid which they give one another in sickness, and. by their festivals and social gatherings, whenever they are not occupied by their fields and fisheries, or in hunting or trade." "They are," he continues, "less in their own cabins than in
those of their friends. If any one falls sick, and wants something which may benefit him, everybody is eager to furnish it. Whenever one of them has something specially good to eat, he invites his friends and makes a feast. Indeed, they hardly ever eat alone." 1
The Iroquois, who had seemed little better than demons to the missionaries while they knew them only as enemies to the French or their Huron allies, astonished them, on a nearer acquaintance, by the development of similar traits of natural goodness. "You will find in them," declares one of these fair-minded and cultivated observers, "virtues which might well put to blush the majority of Christians. There is no need of hospitals among them, because there are no beggars among them, and indeed, none who are poor, so long as any of them are rich. Their kindness, humanity and courtesy not merely make them liberal in giving, but almost lead them to live as though everything they possess were held in common. No one can want food while there is corn anywhere in the town." It is true that the missionaries often accuse the Iroquois of cruelty and perfidy; but the narrative shows that these qualities were only displayed in their wars, and apparently only against enemies whose cruelty and perfidy they had experienced.
We can now see that the plan of universal federation and general peace which Hiawatha devised had nothing in itself so surprising as to excite our incredulity. It was, indeed, entirely in accordance with the genius of his people. Its essence was the extension to all nations of the methods of social and civil life which prevailed in his own nation. If the people of a town of four hundred families could live in constant "peace and friendship," why should not all the tribes of men dwell together in the same manner? The idea is one which might readily have occurred to any man of benevolent feelings and thoughtful temperament. The project
in itself is not so remarkable as the energy and skill with which it was carried into effect. It is deserving of notice, however, that according to the Indian tradition, Hiawatha was impelled to action mainly by experience of the mischiefs which were caused in his own nation through a departure from their ordinary system of social life. The missionaries, in describing the general harmony which prevailed among the Hurons, admit that it was sometimes disturbed. There were "bad spirits" among them, as everywhere else, who could not always be controlled. 1 Atotarho, among the Onondagas, was one of these bad spirits; and in his case, unfortunately, an evil disposition was reinforced by a keen intellect and a powerful will. His history for a time offered a rare instance of something approaching to despotism, or the Greek "tyranny," exercised in an Indian tribe. A fact so strange, and conduct so extraordinary, seemed in aftertimes to require explanation. A legend is preserved among the Onondagas, which was apparently devised to account for a prodigy so far out of the common order of events. I give it in the words in which it is recorded in my journal. 2
"Another legend, of which I have not before heard, professed to give the origin both of the abnormal ferocity and of the preterhuman powers of Atotarho. He was already noted as a chief and a warrior, when he had the misfortune to kill a peculiar bird, resembling a sea-gull, which is reputed to possess poisonous qualities of singular virulence. By his contact with the dead bird his mind was affected. He became morose and cruel, and at the same time obtained the power of destroying men and other creatures at a distance. Three sons of Hiawatha were among his victims. He attended the
[paragraph continues] Councils which were held, and made confusion in them, and brought all the people into disturbance and terror. His bodily appearance was changed at the same time, and his aspect became so terrible that the story spread, and was believed, that his head was encircled by living snakes."
The only importance of this story is in the evidence it affords that conduct so anti-social as that of Atotarho was deemed to be the result of a disordered mind. In his case, as in that of the Scottish tyrant and murderer, "the insane root that took the reason prisoner," was doubtless an unbridled ambition. It is interesting to remark that even his fierce temper and determined will were forced to yield at last to the pressure of public opinion, which compelled him to range himself on the side of peace and union. In the whimsical imagery of the narrative, which some of the story-tellers, after their usual fashion, have converted from a metaphor to a fact, Hiawatha "combed the snakes out of the head" of his great antagonist, and presented him to the Council changed and restored to his right mind.
85:1 Relation for 1636, p. 117.
86:1 Relation of 1636, p. 118: "Ostez quelques mauvais esprits, qui se rencontrent quasi partout," etc.
86:2 This story was related to me in March, 1882, by my intelligent friend, Chief John Buck, who was inclined to give it credence,--sharing in this, as in other things, the sentiments of the best among his people.