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They lived crowded lives. Few in number by modern demographic standards, even before European diseases tore through their villages like the wrath of God, their world was multitudinous, densely populated by active, sentient, and sensitive spirits, spirits with consciences, memories, and purposes, that surrounded them, instructed them, impinged on their lives at every turn. No less real for being invisible, these vital spirits inhered in the heavens, the earth, the seas, and everything within. They drove the stars in the sky and gave life and sensibility to every bird, animal, and person that existed, and they were active within the earth’s materials—rocks, hills, lakes, and rivers—and in the wind, the cold, the heat, and the seasons.
These purposeful, powerful spiritual forces that crowded the Indians’ world required respect; care had to be taken not to offend them. One must act prudently, obey ancient precepts, learn complex prescriptions, and take advice from the gracious and sage. There were right ways and wrong ways. There were life-giving empowerments and tangles of prohibitions. When the rules were broken, people suffered.
The earth’s generosity, on which survival depended, could be jealously withheld. Profligacy, waste, irreverence could offend. Though a community’s life depended on the success of the hunt, one might not slaughter animals recklessly. They too were protected by patron spirits, by “elder brothers,” by soul spirits of their kind capable of retribution for insults and wanton killings; they too had rights to life and, properly, only limited reasons for dying. Hunting therefore had its rituals: was in itself a form of ritual—a religious, at times a mystic, rite essential not only for survival but also for the maintenance of order and balance in the world. So the Micmacs in Nova Scotia, out of respect for their prey, strove to prevent any drop of beaver blood from falling on the ground, and when that animal’s flesh was boiled into soup, they were careful never to allow the broth to drip into the fire. They refused to eat the embryos of moose for fear of their mothers’ retribution. Bones had to be disposed of with care. To treat these remains crudely, to throw them to the dogs or toss them about randomly, would offend the animals’ kin and their presiding spirits, who would thereafter prevent their easy capture. So too the creative spirits, who watched jealously over the success of procreation, might resent the punishment of children and remove them from human hands; children were treated indulgently.
Since the myriad, immanent spirits were everywhere alert, everywhere sensitive and reactive, the whole of life was a spiritual enterprise, and the rules of behavior had to be finely drawn. Propitiating the anima of beavers, who were greatly respected, was especially demanding, and there were significant distinctions: those that were trapped had to be treated differently from those that were otherwise killed. There were special rules for dealing with birds and animals caught in nets; the sex of captured animals mattered in their treatment. Respectful of the animals’ spirits, Penobscot hunters would not eat the first deer or moose they killed each season, the Chipaways in the north offered up to ritual the first fish caught in a new net, and Eastern Abenaki boys had to give away their first kill, however small. And everywhere great attention had to be given to the ways that bears, patrician animals, were killed and consumed. Before or after bears were slain (it made no difference which, since in either case their spirits were alive), they had to be addressed with ceremonial honor and with apologies for the necessity of killing them; their carcasses had to be disposed of reverentially.
In this magico-animist world taboos abounded. To obey them would minimize offenses and so help maintain stability; to violate them would lead to disaster. The possible effects of women’s “uncleanliness” and their procreative processes had to be strenuously controlled. When menstruating, Micmac women were not allowed to eat the flesh of beavers, whose spirits would be insulted, nor drink out of common kettles. Huron women, when pregnant, were excluded from the area of the hunt since they would frustrate the capture of any animals they happened to glance at. And childless women were banished when bear meat was being brought in and consumed.
The universe in all its elements, animate and inanimate, was suffused with spiritual potency—manitou, the Algonquian peoples called it—that empowered each entity to function in its distinctive way and that embraced all of life’s diversity in an ultimately unified and comprehensive state of being. Children, Calvin Martin writes, were taught “that nothing was profane.” There were few gradations in value or levels of superiority among animate things; nor were any species truly alien or any objects completely insensate. Animals no less than men belonged to “nations,” lived in communal dwellings, conferred together sociably, danced and played together, fought in familiarly human ways, and acted in everything they did according to rules and precepts no less judicious and spiritually self-protective than those that shaped the behavior of men. The dignity of trees had to be acknowledged when they were felled, sometimes by sprinkling tobacco, which had peculiar powers, on the ground around them. The west wind—the seasons—thunder—too had purposes.
In such a world, reciprocity was the key to stability, to happiness, in the end to survival. Injuries had to be requited, insults repaid, losses recovered. Raids were launched, wars were fought, over the failure of reciprocal trade, and to capture prisoners who might replace deaths or abductions incurred in previous conflicts (“mourning wars”) and to restore lost dignity and pride. Body parts—severed heads or hands—of warriors who had fought improperly might be offered to victims’ families to maintain the stability of tribal relations. Village life and political alliances were based on reciprocity: the fear of supernatural retribution was in itself a form of social control. Productive land had to be left fallow to recover the nourishment of which it had been robbed; rich fishing grounds had to be vacated to prevent irreversible depletion; girls given in marriage had somehow to be replaced, by compensation to a woman’s family “for the loss of her valuable labor and child-bearing potential.”
But reciprocity, the maintenance of equilibrium, the restoration of balance—among people, between people and their environment, and among the elemental forces of life—was a complex process, full of mysteries that people struggled to comprehend. When the world went wrong—when there were droughts, epidemics, unaccountable wars, frustrated hunts—familiar remedies could be resorted to: well-known rituals, sanctioned patterns of self-abasement and self-denial, symbolic gestures, cunning exhortations. But often the sources of disturbance, of the insults to the system, were hidden; only direct communication with the ultimate powers could help, and that was the work of experts: doctors of esoteric lore and divination, shamans, magi, sorcerers.
The shamans, authoritative cosmologists and custodians of the myths of creation, could make personal contact with the immanent powers, penetrate the mysteries of lost balances, identify forgotten violations of taboo or offenses that demanded apologies, and recommend the proper forms of recovery. They could even diagnose the ultimate causes of physical illnesses that defied herbal cures, and find remedies in magical chants, amulets, rattles, and sucking procedures that rid the body of the disbalancing, destructive spirit. For they, above all others, knew that physical nature was only part of the great universe whose ultimate forces were spiritual. So in these emergencies, the shamans, the powwows, the sorcerers and soothsayers transcended physicality—in trances, by hallucinogenic drugs, by hypnotic, mind-blinding incantations, perhaps in epileptic seizures—in order to penetrate the deeper recesses of being and connect with spiritual sources. They emerged from these encounters with mandates that could be strange, at times frightening, entailing everything from symbolic gestures and prayerful dances to warfare, torture, and cannibalism.
But ordinary people too had an avenue of direct access to the controlling anima, though it was an erratic, at times perplexing route requiring imaginative interpretation—through dreams.
Centuries would pass before European civilization would match the Indians’ understanding of the importance of dreams. They were not seen as random, superficial ephemera that expired with the light of day, but as cold reality, profoundly meaningful experiences that had to be understood. The Hurons and Senecas, a Jesuit reported in i649, believed that, quite beyond one’s conscious wishes,
our souls have other desires, which are, as it were, inborn and concealed. These, they say, come from the depths of the soul, not through any knowledge, but by means of a certain blind transporting of the soul to certain objects; these transports might, in the language of philosophy, be called desideria innata, to distinguish them from the former, which are called desideria elicita. Now they believe that our soul makes these natural desires known by means of dreams, which are its language. Accordingly, when these desires are accomplished, it is satisfied; but . . . if it be not granted what it desires, it becomes angry . . . [and] often it . . . revolts against the body, causing various diseases, and even death.
Dreams were probes of ultimate realities, and anticipations of the future. Correctly understood they could guide one’s behavior into safe channels, prevent disasters to oneself or to one’s people, and ease anxieties that could not be consciously acknowledged.
Dreams as portents made demands. To ease one’s latent troubles, to satisfy one’s guiding spirit, or to anticipate some approaching disaster, a dream might clearly require one to do things that appeared bizarre but that were logical in the greater system of which the palpable world was only a part. A dream might oblige one to find sexual gratification with two married women; to sacrifice ten dogs; to burn down one’s cabin; even to cut off one’s finger with a sea shell, to fulfill symbolically a nightmare dream of torture. The worst nightmares were experienced by the young, groping apprehensively for maturity; by warriors, who knew that capture in warfare often ended in torture; and by the old, facing sickness and death—from all of whom society demanded fortitude and stoic endurance. A warrior who dreamed of being burned alive by his captors had his people singe him repeatedly with torches, but then, hoping that a symbol might substitute for his agonies and life, killed a dog, roasted it, and ate it in a public feast in the way sacrificed enemies might be eaten. Another, driven to accomplish a dream of captivity, had himself stripped naked, dragged through his own village, ridiculed and reviled, and tied up for execution; but then, having sung his death song, he stopped, hoping that this proximate enactment would be acceptable as suffering enough.
Sometimes, however, the true meanings and mandates of dreams were not obvious, but hidden, lying deep beneath manifest appearances. Expert analysts—the shamans—would be called in to penetrate the mysteries and prescribe the right courses of action. But not only the shamans: village elders, concerned for the fate of their people, might join in the search for a dream’s meaning. There were even rites by which a whole community might gather to probe the riddle of an individual’s mysterious dream, combining forces to discover its meaning and the correct, the relieving, course of action.
Dreams could be deeply disturbing, upsetting the balance of life by their portents and the demands they made. But for people crowded and jostled by exigent spirits, stability—psychological as well as social—was in any case a fragile achievement. The psychological pressures, especially on men, could be intense. They were expected to be proud, courageous, resourceful, independent, defiant in the face of savage adversity, and at the same time devout in their reverence for the animating forces of the world and for their personal guardian spirits. Above all, they were hunters and warriors, and they were expected to excel as both. It was not merely courage that was required in hunting and warfare but reckless courage, heedless courage. Danger was not to be feared and evaded, but sought: it provided the ultimate tests of manhood. So their vivid war paint, whose color and design conveyed specific meanings—brilliant daubs of red for battles—was meant to startle the enemy, intimidate him, and weaken his confidence, but it also had the effect of heightening a warrior’s visibility and declaring his fearlessness and his disdain for danger.
A man who failed conspicuously as a hunter—whose technical skills were inadequate, whose nerve gave way at a crucial moment, who lacked the stamina for month-long searches in snow and ice—would be shamed, publicly disgraced, his humiliation destructive of status and of economic, even marital, prosperity. Against such outcomes they were trained from early childhood. As boys they were carefully instructed in the skills and fortitude of hunters and warriors, and their courage was tested in puberty rites. In some regions these passages from childhood were vague in structure, mild and diffused, though they usually involved some form of ritual self-abasement to invoke one’s guardian spirit, whose presence would ever thereafter be represented in the pouch of charms one carried with one. In other regions, however, puberty rites were rigorous and severe. Nothing could be more demanding than the Powhatans’ huskanaw, a process required of adolescent sons of leading families that could last for several months and was calculated to be so physically devastating as to wipe out all memory of earlier life, with its emotional ties of dependence. Some did not survive the ordeal of beatings, starvation, drug-induced bouts of madness, confinement in narrow “sugar-loaf” cages, and the tortuous recovery through contrived setbacks. Among those who, at the end of it all, failed to show the expected marks of total transformation and were made to repeat the procedure, death was not uncommon. So Europeans who heard vaguely of the ordeal, but who never actually witnessed or understood the whole of it, concluded that the natives indulged in human sacrifices to the feared god of evil, punishment, and power, Okse.
The Powhatans’ huskanaw initiated males into a crowded, delicately balanced, and perilous world, the stability of which might easily be upset and which might end in the devastation of military defeat. That ultimate threat was always there, even among such peaceful peoples as the horticulturists and fishing folk of New England. Among the Powhatans of the Virginian plain, battling furiously against or as allies of a would-be native overlord, and among the aggressive Iroquois and their Huron and Algonquian victims in upcountry New York and the eastern Great Lakes, warfare, with all its personal horrors, was commonplace. Raiding parties, seeking revenge, tribute, or restitution, devastated whole villages, pillaging stores of food, destroying crops and habitations, butchering the wounded, and carrying off the women, children, and defeated warriors. The women and children who survived were often adopted as replacements for the victors’ recently deceased kinfolk, but the captured warriors were brought home as trophies, along with severed hands, feet, and heads. Beaten continuously, the prisoners were often maimed—fingers chopped or bitten off to incapacitate them for further warfare, backs and shoulders slashed—then systematically tortured, by women gashing their bodies and tearing off strips of flesh, by children scorching the most sensitive parts of their immobilized bodies with red-hot coals—while judgment was passed on whether they would live as dependents, in effect as slaves, or die. If spared, their lives as slaves involved brutal humiliation, complete repudiation of their former lives, and changes of name. While they might eventually rise to prominence in their new society, they were seldom free of the stigma of subjection. If condemned, they would most likely be burned to death after disembowelment, some parts of their bodies having been eaten and their blood drunk in celebration by their captors. This was the ultimate test, for which warriors had fearfully prepared. But it was not so much death they feared as shameful death, a cringing, pitiful death in which one begged for life. Those who died properly were those who withstood the agony not only uncomplainingly but defiantly, mocking, singing, laughing at their torturers until the end.