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Ch. 3 - The Aborigines of Canada

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

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.

Stephen Leacock

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