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RELIGION OF THE INDIAN TRIBES
By S. F. JARVIS, D. D., A. A. S.
(Of New York.)
In surveying those portions of American history, from which I might select a subject for the present occasion, it appeared to me that the religion of the Indian tribes of North America, had not been viewed with that largeness of observation, which is the characteristic of enlightened philosophy. Various causes may be mentioned, which have hitherto conspired to prevent, or to impede, such an examination. In the first place, the horror proceeding from the cruelties of their warfare, forbade the calmness of investigation. As long as they were formidable, curiosity was overpowered by terror; and there was neither. leisure, nor inclination, to contemplate their character as a portion of the human family, while the glare of conflagration reddened the midnight sky, and the yells of the savage, mingling with the shrieks of butchered victims, rode, as portentous messengers, upon every gale. But that state of things has long ceased to exist." The white men of America have become too numerous, to fear any longer the effects of savage barbarity; and the
tales, which once carried terror to the stoutest heart, are now scarcely heard beyond the precincts of the nursery. In the room of fear, should now arise a sentiment of pity. “ The red men are melting;” to borrow the expressive metaphor of one of their most celebrated warriors *_" like snow before the sun;" and we should be anxious, before it is too late, to copy the evanescent features of their character, and perpetuate them on the page of history.
But when fear ceases, contempt is a natural consequence. The Indian, whose character was once so lofty and independent, is now seen begging at our doors for the price of his perdition; and, as our foot spurns the suppliant, we are apt to think, that nothing, connected with one so vile, can be worthy of our attention. But is it fair to judge from so vitiated a specimen ? When à race of men are mingled with others, who consider them as inferiors, they inevitably become so. Submission to contempt, is an acknowledgment of its justice. If, therefore, the Indian would avoid degradation, he must retire from the habitations of white men; and if we wish to see him in his original character, we must follow him to his native forests. -- There, surely, he is worthy of our attention. The lovers of the physical sciencés explore the woods of America, to cull her plants, and to investigate the habits of her animals. Shall not the lovers of the moral sciences, be equally ardent and industrious? Shall man, who
* The noted Miami Chief Mishikinakwa, or Little Turtle, who contributed most to the defeat of St. Clair. See Volney's View of the Soil and Climate of the United States. Supplement, No. VI. Philad, 1804, p. 385.
stands at the summit of earthly creation, be forgotten amid the general scrutiny?
The sources of prejudice which I have mentioned, influence the examination of every subject, connected with the Indian character: there are peculiar difficulties, with regard to that on which I have chosen to address you.
The Indians themselves are not communicative in relation to their religion; and it requires a good deal of familiar, attentive, and I may add, unsuspected observation, to obtain any knowledge respecting it. Hence, many who have been transiently resident atrong them, have very confidently pronounced, that they have no religion ; an assertion, which subsequent and more accurate travellers, have shown to be entirely unfounded.
Those, also, on whom we rely for information, have either been too little informed to know what to observe, or they have been influenced by peculiar modes of thinking, which have given á tinge to all they have said of the subject.
The various speculations, for example, on the question, whence America wàs peopled, led to many misrepresentations of the religious rites of its inhabitants; and affinities were discovered which existed ño where but in the fancy of the inventor. Gomara, Lerius, and Lescarbot, inferred from some resemblances of this kind, that America was peopled by the Canaanites when they were expelled by Joshua; and the celebrated Grotius, adopting the sentiment of Martyr, imagined that Yucatan was first peopled by Ethiopians, and that those Ethiopians were Christians!
The human mind derives pleasure from paradox,
iman for the same reason that it delights in wit. Both produce new and surprising combinations of thought; and the judgment, being overpowered by the fervour of imagination, becomes for a time insensible to their extravagance.
It is well known, that, among the philosophers of Europe, the opinion has very generally prevailed, that the natives of America were, both as to physical and mental powers, a feeble race; and, impressed with this belief, they hardly considered the religion of the Indians as worthy of minute attention. The celebrated historian of America, has unconsciously fallen into this error, at the very moment in which he was censuring others, for suffering their relation of facts to be perverted, by an attachment to preconceived theories *.
Volney, in opposition to the sentiments of Rousseau, has endeavoured to sink the character of the savage, in the same proportion as that eccentric author sought to raise it. On the subject of the Indian religion especially, no one should be read with greater caution. He who could imagine that Christianity was only an astronomical allegory, and that the birth of our Saviour meant no more than that the sun had entered the constellation Virgo, can hardly be considered as perfectly sane, even when he treats on the religion of heathens t. We need not be sur
* See Robertson's America, þook iv. $. vii.
opo See Les Ruines, ou Meditations sur les Revolutions des Empires, par M. Volney. Nouvelle edition corrigée, Paris, 1792, 8vo. chap. 22. p. 185. 221-4. In this work, Volney had the hardihood to maintain, not only thật