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13 January, 2012
Letters On Literature|
On Books About Red Men
by Lang, Andrew
|To Richard Wilby, Esq., Eton College, Windsor.
My Dear Dick,--It is very good of you, among your severe studies at
Eton, to write to your Uncle. I am extremely pleased to hear that
your football is appreciated in the highest circles, and shall be
happy to have as good an account of your skill in making Latin
I am glad you like "She," Mr. Rider Haggard's book which I sent you.
It is "something like," as you say, and I quite agree with you, both
in being in love with the heroine, and in thinking that she preaches
rather too much. But, then, as she was over two thousand years old,
and had lived for most of that time among cannibals, who did not
understand her, one may excuse her for "jawing," as you say, a good
deal, when she met white men. You want to know if "She" is a true
story. Of course it is!
But you have read "She," and you have read all Cooper's, and
Marryat's, and Mr. Stevenson's books, and "Tom Sawyer," and
"Huckleberry Finn," several times. So have I, and am quite ready to
begin again. But, to my mind, books about "Red Indians" have always
seemed much the most interesting. At your age, I remember, I bought
a tomahawk, and, as we had also lots of spears and boomerangs from
Australia, the poultry used to have rather a rough time of it.
I never could do very much with a boomerang; but I could throw a
spear to a hair's breadth, as many a chicken had occasion to
discover. When you go home for Christmas I hope you will remember
that all this was very wrong, and that you will consider we are
civilized people, not Mohicans, nor Pawnees. I also made a stone
pipe, like Hiawatha's, but I never could drill a hole in the stem,
so it did not "draw" like a civilized pipe.
By way of an awful warning to you on this score, and also, as you
say you want a true book about Red Indians, let me recommend to you
the best book about them I ever came across. It is called "A
Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner, during
Thirty Years' Residence among the Indians," and it was published at
New York by Messrs. Carvill, in 1830.
If I were an American publisher, instead of a British author (how I
wish I was!) I'd publish "John Tanner" again, or perhaps cut a good
deal out, and make a boy's book of it. You are not likely to get it
to buy, but Mr. Steevens, the American bookseller, has found me a
copy. If I lend you it, will you be kind enough to illustrate it on
separate sheets of paper, and not make drawings on the pages of the
book? This will, in the long run, be more satisfactory to yourself,
as you will be able to keep your pictures; for I want "John Tanner"
back again: and don't lend him to your fag-master.
Tanner was born about 1780; he lived in Kentucky. Don't you wish
you had lived in Kentucky in Colonel Boone's time? The Shawnees
were roaming about the neighbourhood when Tanner was a little boy.
His uncle scalped one of them. This made bad feeling between the
Tanners and the Shawnees; but John, like any boy of spirit, wished
never to learn lessons, and wanted to be an Indian brave. He soon
had more of being a brave than he liked; but he never learned any
more lessons, and could not even read or write.
One day John's father told him not to leave the house, because from
the movements of the horses, he knew that Indians were in the woods.
So John seized the first chance and nipped out, and ran to a walnut
tree in one of the fields, where he began filling his straw hat with
walnuts. At that very moment he was caught by two Indians, who
spilled the nuts, put his hat on his head, and bolted with him. One
of the old women of the tribe had lost her son, and wanted to adopt
a boy, and so they adopted Johnny Tanner. They ran with him till he
was out of breath, till they reached the Ohio, where they threw him
into a canoe, paddled across, and set off running again.
In ten days' hard marching they reached the camp, and it was worse
than going to a new school, for all the Indians kicked John Tanner
about, and "their dance," he says, "was brisk and cheerful, after
the manner of the scalp dance!" Cheerful for John! He had to lie
between the fire and the door of the lodge, and every one who passed
gave him a kick. One old man was particularly cruel. When Tanner
was grown up, he came back to that neighbourhood, and the first
thing he asked was, "Where is Manito-o-geezhik?"
"Dead, two months since."
"It is well that he is dead," said John Tanner. But an old female
chief, Net-ko-kua, adopted him, and now it began to be fun. For he
was sent to shoot game for the family. Could anything be more
delightful? His first shot was at pigeons, with a pistol. The
pistol knocked down Tanner; but it also knocked down the pigeon. He
then caught martins--and measles, which was less entertaining. Even
Indians have measles! But even hunting is not altogether fun, when
you start with no breakfast and have no chance of supper unless you
The other Red Indian books, especially the cheap ones, don't tell
you that very often the Indians are more than half-starved. Then
some one builds a magic lodge, and prays to the Great Spirit.
Tanner often did this, and he would then dream how the Great Spirit
appeared to him as a beautiful young man, and told him where he
would find game, and prophesied other events in his life. It is
curious to see a white man taking to the Indian religion, and having
exactly the same sort of visions as their red converts described to
the Jesuit fathers nearly two hundred years before.
Tanner saw some Indian ghosts, too, when he grew up. On the bank of
the Little Saskawjewun there was a capital camping-place where the
Indians never camped. It was called Jebingneezh-o-shin-naut--"the
place of two Dead Men." Two Indians of the same totem had killed
each other there. Now, their totem was that which Tanner bore, the
totem of his adopted Indian mother. The story was that if any man
camped there, the ghosts would come out of their graves; and that
was just what happened. Tanner made the experiment; he camped and
fell asleep. "Very soon I saw the two dead men come and sit down by
my fire opposite me. I got up and sat opposite them by the fire,
and in this position I awoke." Perhaps he fell asleep again, for he
now saw the two dead men, who sat opposite to him, and laughed and
poked fun and sticks at him. He could neither speak nor run away.
One of them showed him a horse on a hill, and said, "There, my
brother, is a horse I give you to ride on your journey home, and on
your way you can call and leave the horse, and spend another night
with us." So, next morning, he found the horse and rode it, but he
did not spend another night with the ghosts of his own totem. He
had seen enough of them.
Though Tanner believed in his own dreams of the Great Spirit, he did
not believe in those of his Indian mother. He thought she used to
prowl about in the daytime, find tracks of a bear or deer, watch
where they went to, and then say the beast's lair had been revealed
to her in a dream. But Tanner's own visions were "honest Injun."
Once, in a hard winter, Tanner played a trick on the old woman. All
the food they had was a quart of frozen bears' grease, kept in a
kettle with a skin fastened over it. But Tanner caught a rabbit
alive and popped him under the skin. So when the old woman went for
the bears' grease in the morning, and found it alive, she was not a
But does not the notion of living on frozen pomatum rather take the
gilt off the delight of being an Indian? The old woman was as brave
and resolute as a man, but in one day she sold a hundred and twenty
beaver skins and many buffalo robes for rum. She always entertained
all the neighbouring Indians as long as the rum lasted, and Tanner
had a narrow escape of growing up a drunkard. He became such a
savage that when an Indian girl carelessly allowed his wigwam to be
burned, he stripped her of her blanket and turned her out for the
night in the snow.
So Tanner grew up in spite of hunger and drink. Once, when
starving, and without bullets, he met a buck moose. If he killed
the moose he would be saved, if he did not he would die. So he took
the screws out of the lock of his rifle, loaded with them in place
of bullets, tied the lock on with string, fired, and killed the
Tanner was worried into marrying a young squaw (at least he says he
did it because the girl wanted it), and this led to all his sorrows-
-this and a quarrel with a medicine-man. The medicine-man accused
him of being a wizard, and his wife got another Indian to shoot him.
Tanner was far from surgeons, and he actually hacked out the bullet
himself with an old razor. Another wounded Indian once amputated
his own arm. The ancient Spartans could not have been pluckier.
The Indians had other virtues as well as pluck. They were honest
and so hospitable, before they knew white men's ways, that they
would give poor strangers new mocassins and new buffalo cloaks.
Will it bore you, my dear Dick, if I tell you of an old Indian's
death? It seems a pretty and touching story. Old Pe-shau-ba was a
friend of Tanner. One day he fell violently ill. He sent for
Tanner and said to him: "I remember before I came to live in this
world, I was with the Great Spirit above. I saw many good and
desirable things, and among others a beautiful woman. And the Great
Spirit said: 'Pe-shau-ba, do you love the woman?' I told him I
did. Then he said, 'Go down and spend a few winters on earth. You
cannot stay long, and you must remember to be always kind and good
to my children whom you see below.' So I came down, but I have
never forgotten what was said to me.
"I have always stood in the smoke between the two bands when my
people fought with their enemies . . . I now hear the same voice
that talked to me before I came into the world. It tells me I can
remain here no longer." He then walked out, looked at the sun, the
sky, the lake, and the distant hills; then came in, lay down
composedly in his place, and in a few minutes ceased to breathe.
If we would hardly care to live like Indians, after all (and Tanner
tired of it and came back, an old man, to the States), we might
desire to die like Pe-shau-ba, if, like him, we had been "good and
kind to God's children whom we meet below." So here is a Christmas
moral for you, out of a Red Indian book, and I wish you a merry
Christmas and a happy New Year.