The Shagganappi

by Emily Pauline Johnson

Sons of Savages

Life-Training of the Redskin Boy-Child.

    THE Redskin boy-child who looks out from his little cradle-board on a world of forest through whose trails his baby feet are already being fitted to follow is not many hours old before careful hands wrap him about with gay-beaded bands that are strapped to the carven and colored back-board that will cause him to stand erect and upright when he is a grown warrior. His small feet are bound against a foot support so that they are exactly straight; that is to start his walk in life aright.
    He is but an atom in the most renowned of the savage races known to history, a people that, according to the white man’s standard, is uncivilized, uneducated, illiterate, and barbarous. Yet the upbringing of every Red Indian male child begins at his birth, and ends only when he has acquired the learning considered essential for the successful man to possess, and which has been predetermined through many ages by many wise ancestors.
    His education is twofold, and always is imparted in “pairs” of subjects—that is, while he is being instructed in the requisites of fighting, hunting, food getting, and his national sports, he takes with each “subject” a very rigid training in etiquette, for it would be as great a disgrace for him to fail in manners of good breeding as to fail to take the war-path when he reaches the age of seventeen.


    The education of an Iroquois boy is begun before he can even speak. The first thing he is taught is courage— [Page 123] the primitive courage that must absolutely despise fear—and at the same time is thoroughly grounded in the first immutable law of Indian etiquette, which is that under no conceivable conditions must one ever stare, as the Redskin races hold that staring marks the lowest level of ill-breeding.


    His second subject is religious training. While he is yet a baby in arms he is carried “pick-a-back” in his mother’s blanket to the ancient dances and festivals, where he sees for the first time, and in his infant way participates in, the rites and rituals of the pagan faith, learning to revere the “Great Spirit,” and to anticipate the happy hunting grounds that await him after death.
    At the end of a long line of picturesque braves and warriors who circle gracefully in the worshipping dance, his mother carries him, her smooth, soft-footed, twisting step lulling him to sleep, for his tiny, copper-colored person, swinging to every curve of the dance, soon becomes an unconscious bit of babyhood. But the instant he learns to walk, he learns, too, the religious dance-steps. Then he rises to the dignity of being allowed to slip his hand in that of his father and take his first important steps in the company of the men.
    Accompanying his religious training is the all-important etiquette of accepting food without comment. No Indian talks of food, or discusses it while taking it. He must neither commend nor condemn it, and a child who remarks upon the meals set before him, however simple the remark may be, instantly feels his disgrace in the sharpest reproof from his parents. It is one of the unforgivable crimes.


    His third subject is to master the tricks of food-getting. His father, or more often his grandfather, takes [Page 124] him in hand at an early age, and minutely trains him in all the art and artifice of the great life-fight for food both for himself and for those who may in later years be dependent on him. He is drilled assiduously in hunting, fishing, trapping, in game calls, in wood and water lore; he learns to paddle with stealth, to step in silence, to conceal himself from the scent and sight of bird and beast, to be swift as a deer, keen as an eagle, alert as a fox.
    He is admonished under no conditions, save in that of extreme hunger or in self-defense, to kill mating game, or, in fact, to kill at all save for food or to obtain furs for couch purposes. Wanton slaying of wild things is unknown among the uncivilized Red Indians. When they want occupation in sport or renown, they take the warpath against their fellow-kind, where killing will flaunt another eagle-feather in their crest, not simply another pair of antlers to decorate their tepee.
    With this indispensable lesson in the essentials of living always comes the scarcely less momentous one of utter unimportance of youth. He is untiringly disciplined in the veneration of age, whether it be in man or woman. He must listen with rapt attention to the opinions and advice of the older men. He must keep an absolute silence while they speak, must ever watch for opportunities to pay them deference.


    If he happens, fortunately, to be the son of a chief of ancient lineage, the fact that he is of blood royal will not excuse him entering a door before some aged “commoner.” Age has more honor than all his patrician line of descent can give him. Those lowly born but richly endowed with years must walk before him; he is not permitted to remain seated if some old employee is standing even at work; his privilege of birth is as nothing compared with the honor of age, even in his father’s hireling. [Page 125]
    The fourth thing he must master is the thorough knowledge of medicinal roots and herbs—antidotes for snake-bite and poison—also the various charms and the elementary “science” of the medicine man, though the occupation of the latter must be inherited, and made in itself a life study. With this branch of drilling also is inculcated the precept of etiquette never to speak of or act slightingly of another’s opinion, and never to say the word “No,” which he is taught to regard as a rude refusal. He may convey it by manner or action, but speak it—never.
    And during the years he is absorbing this education he is unceasingly instructed in every branch of warfare, of canoe-making, of fashioning arrows, paddles and snow-shoes. He studies the sign language, the history and legends of his nation; he familiarizes himself with the “archives” of wampum belts, learning to read them and to value the great treaties they sealed. He excels in the national sports of “lacrosse,” “bowl and beans,” and “snow snake,” and when, finally, he goes forth to face his forest world he is equipped to obtain his own living with wisdom and skill, and starts life a brave, capable, well-educated gentleman, though some yet call him an uncivilized savage. [Page 126]