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The Aborigines of Canada

This is a chapter from the book "The Dawn of Canadian History: A Chronicle of Aboriginal Canada" by Stephen Leacock.

Of the uncounted centuries of the history of the red man in America before the coming of the Europeans we know very little indeed. Very few of the tribes possessed even a primitive art of writing. It is true that the Aztecs of Mexico, and the ancient Toltecs who preceded them, understood how to write in pictures, and that, by this means, they preserved some record of their rulers and of the great events of their past. The same is true of the Mayas of Central America, whose ruined temples are still to be traced in the tangled forests of Yucatan and Guatemala. The ancient Peruvians also had a system, not exactly of writing, but of record by means of QUIPUS or twisted woollen cords of different colours: it is through such records that we have some knowledge of Peruvian history during about a hundred years before the coming of the Spaniards, and some traditions reaching still further back. But nowhere was the art of writing sufficiently developed in America to give us a real history of the thoughts and deeds of its people before the arrival of Columbus.

This is especially true of those families of the great red race which inhabited what is now Canada. They spent a primitive existence, living thinly scattered along the sea-coast, and in the forests and open glades of the district of the Great Lakes, or wandering over the prairies of the west. In hardly any case had they any settled abode or fixed dwelling-places. The Iroquois and some Algonquins built Long Houses of wood and made stockade forts of heavy timber. But not even these tribes, who represented the furthest advance towards civilization among the savages of North America, made settlements in the real sense. They knew nothing of the use of the metals. Such poor weapons and tools as they had were made of stone, of wood, and of bone. It is true that ages ago prehistoric men had dug out copper from the mines that lie beside Lake Superior, for the traces of their operations there are still found. But the art of working metals probably progressed but a little way and then was lost,--overwhelmed perhaps in some ancient savage conquest. The Indians found by Cartier and Champlain knew nothing of the melting of metals for the manufacture of tools. Nor had they anything but the most elementary form of agriculture. They planted corn in the openings of the forest, but they did not fell trees to make a clearing or plough the ground. The harvest provided by nature and the products of the chase were their sole sources of supply, and in their search for this food so casually offered they moved to and fro in the depths of the forest or roved endlessly upon the plains. One great advance, and only one, they had been led to make. The waterways of North America are nature's highway through the forest. The bark canoe in which the Indians floated over the surface of the Canadian lakes and rivers is a marvel of construction and wonderfully adapted to its purpose: This was their great invention. In nearly all other respects the Indians of Canada had not emerged even from savagery to that stage half way to civilization which is called barbarism.

These Canadian aborigines seem to have been few in number. It is probable that, when the continent was discovered, Canada, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, contained about 220,000 natives--about half as many people as are now found in Toronto. They were divided into tribes or clans, among which we may distinguish certain family groups spread out over great areas.

Most northerly of all was the great tribe of the Eskimos, who were found all the way from Greenland to Northern Siberia. The name Eskimo was not given by these people to themselves. It was used by the Abnaki Indians in describing to the whites the dwellers of the far north, and it means 'the people who eat raw meat.' The Eskimo called and still call themselves the Innuit, which means 'the people.'

The exact relation of the Eskimo to the other races of the continent is hard to define. From the fact that the race was found on both sides of the Bering Sea, and that its members have dark hair and dark eyes, it was often argued that they were akin to the Mongolians of China. This theory, however, is now abandoned. The resemblance in height and colour is only superficial, and a more careful view of the physical make-up of the Eskimo shows him to resemble the other races of America far more closely than he resembles those of Asia. A distinguished American historian, John Fiske, believed that the Eskimos are the last remnants of the ancient cave-men who in the Stone Age inhabited all the northern parts of Europe. Fiske's theory is that at this remote period continuous land stretched by way of Iceland and Greenland from Europe to America, and that by this means the race of cave-men was able to extend itself all the way from Norway and Sweden to the northern coasts of America. In support of this view he points to the strangely ingenious and artistic drawings of the Eskimos. These drawings are made on ivory and bone, and are so like the ancient bone-pictures found among the relics of the cave-men of Europe that they can scarcely be distinguished.

The theory is only a conjecture. It is certain that at one time the Eskimo race extended much farther south than it did when the white men came to America; in earlier days there were Eskimos far south of Hudson Bay, and perhaps even south of the Great Lakes.

As a result of their situation the Eskimos led a very different life from that of the Indians to the south. They must rely on fishing and hunting for food. In that almost treeless north they had no wood to build boats or houses, and no vegetables or plants to supply them either with food or with the materials of industry. But the very rigour of their surroundings called forth in them a marvellous ingenuity. They made boats of seal skins stretched tight over walrus bones, and clothes of furs and of the skins and feathers of birds. They built winter houses with great blocks of snow put together in the form of a bowl turned upside down. They heated their houses by burning blubber or fat in dish-like lamps chipped out of stones. They had, of course, no written literature. They were, however, not devoid of art. They had legends and folk-songs, handed down from generation to generation with the utmost accuracy. In the long night of the Arctic winter they gathered in their huts to hear strange monotonous singing by their bards: a kind of low chanting, very strange to European ears, and intended to imitate the sounds of nature, the murmur of running waters and the sobbing of the sea. The Eskimos believed in spirits and monsters whom they must appease with gifts and incantations. They thought that after death the soul either goes below the earth to a place always warm and comfortable, or that it is taken up into the cold forbidding brightness of the polar sky. When the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, streamed across the heavens, the Eskimos thought it the gleam of the souls of the dead visible in their new home.

Farthest east of all the British North American Indians were the Beothuks. Their abode was chiefly Newfoundland, though they wandered also in the neighbourhood of the Strait of Belle Isle and along the north shore of the Gulf of St Lawrence. They were in the lowest stage of human existence and lived entirely by hunting and fishing. Unlike the Eskimos they had no dogs, and so stern were the conditions of their life that they maintained with difficulty the fight against the rigour of nature. The early explorers found them on the rocky coasts of Belle Isle, wild and half clad. They smeared their bodies with red ochre, bright in colour, and this earned for them the name of Red Indians. From the first, they had no friendly relations with the Europeans who came to their shores, but lived in a state of perpetual war with them. The Newfoundland fishermen and settlers hunted down the Red Indians as if they were wild beasts, and killed them at sight. Now and again, a few members of this unhappy race were carried home to England to be exhibited at country fairs before a crowd of grinning yokels who paid a penny apiece to look at the 'wild men.'

Living on the mainland, next to the red men of Newfoundland lay the great race of the Algonquins, spread over a huge tract of country, from the Atlantic coast to the head of the Great Lakes, and even farther west. The Algonquins were divided into a great many tribes, some of whose names are still familiar among the Indians of to-day. The Micmacs of Nova Scotia, the Malecite of New Brunswick, the Naskapi of Quebec, the Chippewa of Ontario, and the Crees of the prairie, are of this stock. It is even held that the Algonquins are to be considered typical specimens of the American race. They were of fine stature, and in strength and muscular development were quite on a par with the races of the Old World. Their skin was copper-coloured, their lips and noses were thin, and their hair in nearly all cases was straight and black. When the Europeans first saw the Algonquins they had already made some advance towards industrial civilization. They built huts of woven boughs, and for defence sometimes surrounded a group of huts with a palisade of stakes set up on end. They had no agriculture in the true sense, but they cultivated Indian corn and pumpkins in the openings of the forests, and also the tobacco plant, with the virtues of which they were well acquainted. They made for themselves heavy and clumsy pottery and utensils of wood, they wove mats out of rushes for their houses, and they made clothes from the skin of the deer, and head-dresses from the bright feathers of birds. Of the metals they knew, at the time of the discovery of America, hardly anything. They made some use of copper, which they chipped and hammered into rude tools and weapons. But they knew nothing of melting the metals, and their arrow-heads and spear-points were made, for the most part, not of metals, but of stone. Like other Indians, they showed great ingenuity in fashioning bark canoes of wonderful lightness.

We must remember, however, that with nearly all the aborigines of America, at least north of Mexico, the attempt to utilize the materials and forces supplied by nature had made only slight and painful progress. We are apt to think that it was the mere laziness of the Indians which prevented more rapid advance. It may be that we do not realize their difficulties. When the white men first came these rude peoples were so backward and so little trained in using their faculties that any advance towards art and industry was inevitably slow and difficult. This was also true, no doubt, of the peoples who, long centuries before, had been in the same degree of development in Europe, and had begun the intricate tasks which a growth towards civilization involved. The historian Robertson describes in a vivid passage the backward state of the savage tribes of America. 'The most simple operation,' he says, 'was to them an undertaking of immense difficulty and labour. To fell a tree with no other implements than hatchets of stone was employment for a month. ...Their operations in agriculture were equally slow and defective. In a country covered with woods of the hardest timber, the clearing of a small field destined for culture required the united efforts of a tribe, and was a work of much time and great toil.'

The religion of the Algonquin Indians seems to have been a rude nature worship. The Sun, as the great giver of warmth and light, was the object of their adoration; to a lesser degree, they looked upon fire as a superhuman thing, worthy of worship. The four winds of heaven, bringing storm and rain from the unknown boundaries of the world, were regarded as spirits. Each Indian clan or section of a tribe chose for its special devotion an animal, the name of which became the distinctive symbol of the clan. This is what is meant by the 'totems' of the different branches of a tribe.

The Algonquins knew nothing of the art of writing, beyond rude pictures scratched or painted on wood. The Algonquin tribes, as we have seen, roamed far to the west. One branch frequented the upper Saskatchewan river. Here the ashes of the prairie fires discoloured their moccasins and turned them black, and, in consequence, they were called the Blackfeet Indians. Even when they moved to other parts of the country, the name was still applied to them.

Occupying the stretch of country to the south of the Algonquins was the famous race known as the Iroquoian Family. We generally read of the Hurons and the Iroquois as separate tribes. They really belonged, however, to one family, though during the period of Canadian history in which they were prominent they had become deadly enemies. When Cartier discovered the St Lawrence and made his way to the island of Montreal, Huron Indians inhabited all that part of the country. When Champlain came, two generations later, they had vanished from that region, but they still occupied a part of Ontario around Lake Simcoe and south and east of Georgian Bay. We always connect the name Iroquois with that part of the stock which included the allied Five Nations--the Mohawks, Onondagas, Senecas, Oneidas, and Cayugas,--and which occupied the country between the Hudson river and Lake Ontario. This proved to be the strongest strategical position in North America. It lies in the gap or break of the Alleghany ridge, the one place south of the St Lawrence where an easy and ready access is afforded from the sea-coast to the interior of the continent. Any one who casts a glance at the map of the present Eastern states will realize this, and will see why it is that New York, at the mouth of the Hudson, has become the greatest city of North America. Now, the same reason which has created New York gave to the position of the Five Nations its great importance in Canadian history. But in reality the racial stock of the Iroquois extended much farther than this, both west and south. It took in the well-known tribe of the Eries, and also the Indians of Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac. It included even the Tuscaroras of the Roanoke in North Carolina, who afterwards moved north and changed the five nations into six.

The Iroquois were originally natives of the plain, connected very probably with the Dakotas of the west. But they moved eastwards from the Mississippi valley towards Niagara, conquering as they went. No other tribe could compare with them in either bravery or ferocity. They possessed in a high degree both the virtues and the vices of Indian character--the unflinching courage and the diabolical cruelty which have made the Indian an object of mingled admiration and contempt. In bodily strength and physical endurance they were unsurpassed. Even in modern days the enervating influence of civilization has not entirely removed the original vigour of the strain. During the American Civil War of fifty years ago the five companies of Iroquois Indians recruited in Canada and in the state of New York were superior in height and measurement to any other body of five hundred men in the northern armies.

When the Iroquoian Family migrated, the Hurons settled in the western peninsula of Ontario. The name of Lake Huron still recalls their abode. But a part of the race kept moving eastward. Before the coming of the whites, they had fought their way almost to the sea. But they were able to hold their new settlements only by hard fighting. The great stockade which Cartier saw at Hochelaga, with its palisades and fighting platforms, bore witness to the ferocity of the struggle. At that place Cartier and his companions were entertained with gruesome tales of Indian fighting and of wholesale massacres. Seventy years later, in Champlain's time, the Hochelaga stockade had vanished, and the Hurons had been driven back into the interior. But for nearly two centuries after Champlain the Iroquois retained their hold on the territory from Lake Ontario to the Hudson. The conquests and wars of extermination of these savages, and the terror which they inspired, have been summed up by General Francis Walker in the saying: 'They were the scourge of God upon the aborigines of the continent.'

The Iroquois were in some respects superior to most of the Indians of the continent. Though they had a limited agriculture, and though they made hardly any use of metals, they had advanced further in other directions than most savages. They built of logs, houses long enough to be divided into several compartments, with a family in each compartment. By setting a group of houses together, and surrounding them with a palisade of stakes and trees set on end, the settlement was turned into a kind of fort, and could bid defiance to the limited means of attack possessed by their enemies. Inside their houses they kept a good store of corn, pumpkins and dried meat, which belonged not to each man singly but to the whole group in common. This was the type of settlement seen at Quebec and at Hochelaga, and, later on, among the Five Nations. Indeed, the Five Nations gave to themselves the picturesque name of the Long House, for their confederation resembled, as it were, the long wooden houses that held the families together.

All this shows that the superiority of the Iroquois over their enemies lay in organization. In this they were superior even to their kinsmen the Hurons. All Indian tribes kept women in a condition which we should think degrading. The Indian women were drudges; they carried the burdens, and did the rude manual toil of the tribe. Among the Iroquois, however, women were not wholly despised; sometimes, if of forceful character, they had great influence in the councils of the tribe. Among the Hurons, on the other hand, women were treated with contempt or brutal indifference. The Huron woman, worn out with arduous toil, rapidly lost the brightness of her youth. At an age when the women of a higher culture are still at the height of their charm and attractiveness the woman of the Hurons had degenerated into a shrivelled hag, horrible to the eye and often despicable in character. The inborn gentleness of womanhood had been driven from her breast by ill-treatment. Not even the cruelest of the warriors surpassed the unhallowed fiendishness of the withered squaw in preparing the torments of the stake and in shrieking her toothless exultation beside the torture fire.

Where women are on such a footing as this it is always ill with the community at large. The Hurons were among the most despicable of the Indians in their manners. They were hideous gluttons, gorging themselves when occasion offered with the rapacity of vultures. Gambling and theft flourished among them. Except, indeed, for the tradition of courage in fight and of endurance under pain we can find scarcely anything in them to admire.

North and west from the Algonquins and Huron-Iroquois were the family of tribes belonging to the Athapascan stock. The general names of Chipewyan and Tinne are also applied to the same great branch of the Indian race. In a variety of groups and tribes, the Athapascans spread out from the Arctic to Mexico. Their name has since become connected with the geography of Canada alone, but in reality a number of the tribes of the plains, like the well-known Apaches, as well as the Hupas of California and the Navahos, belong to the Athapascans. In Canada, the Athapascans roamed over the country that lay between Hudson Bay and the Rocky Mountains. They were found in the basin of the Mackenzie river towards the Arctic sea, and along the valley of the Fraser to the valley of the Chilcotin. Their language was broken into a great number of dialects which differed so widely that only the kindred groups could understand one another's speech. But the same general resemblance ran through the various branches of the Athapascans. They were a tall, strong race, great in endurance, during their prime, though they had little of the peculiar stamina that makes for long life and vigorous old age. Their descendants of to-day still show the same facial characteristics--the low forehead with prominent ridge bones, and the eyes set somewhat obliquely so as to suggest, though probably without reason, a kinship with Oriental peoples.

The Athapascans stood low in the scale of civilization. Most of them lived in a prairie country where a luxuriant soil, not encumbered with trees, would have responded to the slightest labour. But the Athapascans, in Canada at least, knew nothing of agriculture. With alternations of starvation and rude plenty, they lived upon the unaided bounty of tribes of the far north, degraded by want and indolence, were often addicted to cannibalism.

The Indians beyond the mountains, between the Rockies and the sea, were for the most part quite distinct from those of the plains. Some tribes of the Athapascans, as we have seen, penetrated into British Columbia, but the greater part of the natives in that region were of wholly different races. Of course, we know hardly anything of these Indians during the first two centuries of European settlement in America. Not until the eighteenth century, when Russian traders began to frequent the Pacific coast and the Spanish and English pushed their voyages into the North Pacific,--the Tlingit of the far north, the Salish, Tsimshian, Haida, Kwakiutl-Nootka and Kutenai. It is thought, however, that nearly all the Pacific Indians belong to one kindred stock. There are, it is true, many distinct languages between California and Alaska, but the physical appearance and characteristics of the natives show a similarity throughout.

The total number of the original Indian population of the continent can be a matter of conjecture only. There is every reason, however, to think that it was far less than the absurdly exaggerated figures given by early European writers. Whenever the first explorers found a considerable body of savages they concluded that the people they saw were only a fraction of some large nation. The result was that the Spaniards estimated the inhabitants of Peru at thirty millions. Las Casas, the Spanish historian, said that Hispaniola, the present Hayti, had a population of three millions; a more exact estimate, made about twenty years after the discovery of the island, brought the population down to fourteen thousand! In the same way Montezuma was said to have commanded three million Mexican warriors--an obvious absurdity. The early Jesuits reckoned the numbers of the Iroquois at about a hundred thousand; in reality there seem to have been, in the days of Wolfe and Montcalm, about twelve thousand. At the opening of the twentieth century there were in America north of Mexico about 403,000 Indians, of whom 108,000 were in Canada. Some writers go so far as to say that the numbers of the natives were probably never much greater than they are to-day. But even if we accept the more general opinion that the Indian population has declined, there is no evidence to show that the population was ever more than a thin scattering of wanderers over the face of a vast country. Mooney estimates that at the coming of the white man there were only about 846,000 aborigines in the United States, 220,000 in British America, 72,000 in Alaska, and 10,000 in Greenland, a total native population of 1,148,000 from the Mississippi to the Atlantic.

The limited means of support possessed by the natives, their primitive agriculture, their habitual disinclination to settled life and industry, their constant wars and the epidemic diseases which, even as early as the time of Jacques Cartier, worked havoc among them, must always have prevented the growth of a numerous population. The explorer might wander for days in the depths of the American forest without encountering any trace of human life. The continent was, in truth, one vast silence, broken only by the roar of the waterfall or the cry of the beasts and birds of the forest.

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