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Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon and Columbia Rivers
Chapter XVIII


AFTER closing the drama of the Pacific Fur Company we shall now raise the curtain a little, and take a cursory peep at the Indians of the interior; but more particularly of the Oakinaekens.

The origin of savage nations is mixed up with so much fable that it is scarcely possible, through the mist of tradition, to trace their descent clearly to any source: nor can this surprise us when we consider how unsatisfactory the most learned inquiries often prove, with respect to the origin of many civilized nations. Indeed, all that can be aimed at is to state distinctly and fairly the opinions handed down from one generation to another, and currently believed by the people themselves.

The origin of the Oakinackens is thus related Long ago, when the sun was young, to use their own expression, and not bigger than a star, there was an island far off in the middle of the ocean, called Samah-tuma-whoolah, or White Man's Island. The island was full of inhabitants of gigantic stature, and very white, and it was governed by a tall white woman, called Scomalt. The good woman Scomalt, possessing the attributes of a deity, could create whatever she pleased. The white people on this island quarrelled among themselves, and many were killed in the affray, which conduct so enraged Scomalt that she drove all the wicked to one end of the island, then broke off the part on which they stood, and pushed it adrift to the mercy of the winds and waves. There they floated about for a length of time, not knowing whither they went. They were tossed about on the face of the deep till all died but one man and woman, and this couple finding the island beginning to sink with them made a canoe, and paddling for many days and nights, going in a westerly direction, they came to a group of islands, and kept steering through them till they made the main land—the land which they now inhabit—but they say that it has grown much larger since that time. This couple, when first expelled from the island of their forefathers, were very white, like the other inhabitants of the island; but they suffered so much while floating on the ocean that they became dark and dingy from the exposure, and their skins have retained that colour ever since. From this man and woman all the Indians of the continent have their origin; and as a punishment for their original wickedness, they were condemned by the great Scomalt to poverty, degradation, and nakedness, and to be called Skyloo, or Indians.

The religion of the Oakinackens, like that of all Indian tribes, is difficult to understand, and still more difficult to explain. They, however, believe in a good and an evil spirit, who preside over the destinies of man, and that all good actions will be rewarded, and all evil deeds punished in a future state. The good spirit, or master of life, they call Elemehum-kill-anwaist, or Sky-appe; and the bad spirit, Kisht-samah, or Chacha; both are invincible, and keep constantly moving to and fro through the air, so that nothing can be done unknown to them. They believe that all good Indians after death go to the Elemehum-killan-waist, and that the wicked who kill and steal, go to the Kisht-samah. On all solemn occasions they offer up a short prayer to the good spirit for his assistance and help. They have no places of worship, public or private. The god whom they adore is invincible. In all their religious ceremonies the great pipe of peace is smoked as a peace-offering to the Elemehuinkill-an-waist, and also on all occasions of peace or war, or other matters of state; and this is done by holding the pipe (when filled and lighted) first to the east, or rising sun, and drawing three whiffs; then to the west or setting sun; next to the heavens above; and, lastly, to the earth beneath—in each case taking care to draw three whiffs. This religious part of the ceremony is gone through only by the chief when the first pipe is filled, before entering upon business. Then the chief hands the pipe to his next neighbour, who smokes without any ceremony, and he to the next, and so on. At the conclusion of the business there is no ceremony observed.

They believe that this world will have an end, as it had a beginning; and their reason is this, that the rivers and lakes must eventually undermine the earth, and set the land afloat again, like the island of their forefathers, and then all must perish. Frequently they have asked us when it would take place—the its-owl-eigh, or end of the world.

The Oakinackens inhabit a very large tract of country, the boundary of which may be said to commence at the Priest's Rapids on the south; from thence, embracing a space of upwards of one hundred miles in breadth, it runs almost due north until it reaches the She Whaps, making a distance of more than five hundred miles in length; within this line the nation branches out into twelve tribes, under different names. These form, as it were, so many states belonging to the same union, and are governed by petty chiefs, who are, in a manner, independent; nevertheless, all are ready to unite against a common enemy. These tribes, beginning at the southern boundary and taking each according to its locality, may be classed as follows:—Ska-moy-nuin-aehs, Ke-waiight-chen.-unanghs, Pisa-cows, Ineome-can-étook, Tslll-ane, Inti-étook, Battle -le -mule-emauch, or Meat-who, In-4pellum, Sin-poh-ell-ecch, Sin-whoyelp-pe-took, Sa-milk-a-nuigh, and Qakinacken, which is nearly in the centre. All these tribes, or the great Oakinacken nation, speak the same Ianguage; but often differ a good deal from one another as to accent. The whole nation, or twelve tribes taken together, could never muster above six hundred warriors. The number of souls I was never able to ascertain correctly; but, considering the extent of country they possess, they, are far from being numerous. I should say there are not more than fifteen persons to every square mile. The Oakinackens are not a warlike people; fishing and hunting, and not war, are their usual occupations.

The principal family of the Oakinacken nation bears the title or name of Conconnipe, being the name of the place where the members of it generally reside, which is situate about nine miles up the beautiful stream of the same name. The head, or principal chief of this family, died last year, leaving the inheritance or chieftainship to Quilla-chin-eigh-an, his eldest son, about twenty-five years of age. The old man himself was called Who-why-laugh, or Red Fox.

The old chief was a venerable and worthy savage: his influence was great over a wide circle, not only at home, but abroad among the neighbouring tribes. The Red Fox had been many times with his young men at the Great Salt Lake, as they call it, meaning the Pacific, the direct road to which, across the mountains, is almost due west to where they fall on the sea-coast, in about the 49th degree of north latitude. They take generally fifteen days to make the journey, sometimes more, sometimes less, according to circumstances. Traffic is their object: they carry along with them the wild hemp of the interior, prepared and neatly put up into small parcels, which they give in exchange for the higua and trinkets. The hemp is used for making fishing-nets, and is always in great demand on the coast. The higua, which has already been noticed, is the most valuable commodity among the Indians to be found west of the Rocky Mountains, being the circulating medium throughout the country.

The royal insignia of an Indian king or chief is simple, and is always known in the camp. The Oakinacken emblem is a white wolf-skin, fantastically painted with rude figures of different colours—the head and tail decorated with the higua, bears' claws, and the teeth of different animals—suspended from a pole, in a conspicuous place near the chief's lodge.

On our first arrival among this people, the wolf- skin was always to be seen waving conspicuously from the pole; but as they began to associate and got accustomed to us, they became less particular in exhibiting the ensigns of royalty. But although they occasionally threw off the savage ferocity and wild aspect peculiar to savages in general, yet they could not be brought, even after years of friendly intercourse, to change their habits of life. The morose, sullen, and unsociable disposition still remained the same; whereas, on the contrary, the white man almost immediately falls into the customs and ways of the savages. An Indian accustomed to squat on the ground, and double himself up in the lodge, is long, long indeed before he can reconcile himself to sit in a chair; but the white man is at once at home in the Indian lodge, and becomes as easy and contented sitting, squatting, or lying amongst dirt and filth, dogs and fleas, as if in his arm-chair at home— showing how much more easy and natural it is for civilized men to degenerate, than for the savage to elevate himself to the habits of civilized men; but here I should observe, that the Oakinackens are by no means ferocious or cruel, either in looks, habits, or dispositions; but are, on the contrary, rather an easy, mild, and agreeable people.

The government, or ruling power among the Oakinackens, is simple yet effective, and is little more than an ideal system of control. The chieftainship descends from father to son: it is, however, merely a nominal superiority in most cases. Their general maxim is, that Indians were born to be free, and that no man has a natural right to the obedience of another, except he be rich in horses and has many wives; yet it is wonderful how well the government works for the general good, and without any coercive power to back the will of the chief, he is seldom disobeyed: the people submit without a murmur. On all state occasions, of peace or war, the chief has the assistance of a council; that is, he calls all the great men together, they form a ring, sometimes in the chief's lodge, sometimes in the open air. No one is admitted into the council, except he can show some marks or trophy of war, or has performed some praiseworthy deed, according to their ideas, or else he must be rich in horses or have many wives; or, lastly, he may be called by the chief, and that entitles him to a seat without any other qualification. The council being seated, and the ceremonial pipe smoked, the chief, in his usual sitting posture, holds down his head, as if looking to the ground, then opens the business of the meeting by a speech, closing every sentence with great emphasis, the other councillors vociferating approbation. As soon as the chief is done speechifying, others harangue also; but only one at a time. The decision of the council is sure to be zealously carried into effect; but, in all ordinary matters, the chief is not more conspicuous than any other individual, and he seldom interferes in family affairs, or the ordinary routine of daily occurrences: and this, I think, adds greatly to the dignity of his character.

Each nation or principal tribe has generally two chiefs; one for the village, and another called the war-chief. The former is the head of the tribe; and, as already observed, holds his office by lineal descent: the latter is elective, and chosen by the voice or whim of the majority of the people. Every morning at the dawn of day, the head chief rides or walks round the camp or village, and harangues as he goes: the business of the day is then and there settled; but he never interferes with the affairs of families or individuals. All the movements of the camp, as a whole, as well as hunting and other matters of consequence, are settled by the chief's authority alone; and all weightier matters, of peace or war, are settled by the chief and council.

The manners of the Oskinackens are agreeable, easy, and unassuming, and their dispositions mild. They are at times subject to gusts of passion, but it soon blows over; and, on the whole, they are a steady, sincere, shrewd, and brave people- They are generally of the middle size, light, and well made, and better featured and handsomer in their persons, though darker, than the Chinooks or other Indians along the sea-coast. The circumstances of climate will perhaps account for this difference of complexion. Their hair is generally jet black, long, and rather coarse; they have dark black eyes, with teeth white as ivory, well set and regular.

The women wear their hair neatly clubbed on each side of the head behind the ears, and ornamented with double rows of the snowy higua, which are, among the Oakinackens, called Shet-la-cane; but they keep it. shed or divided in front. The men's hair is queued or rolled up into a knot behind the head, and ornamented like that of the women; but in front it fafls or hangs down loosely before the face, covering the forehead and the eyes, which causes them every now and then to shake the head, or use the hands to uncover their eyes. The young persons of both sexes always paint their faces with red and black bars, extremely well designed.

The men live an active life; between hunting, fishing, war, and making canoes and domestic implements, they are always employed and industrious. Nor are the women less busy—curing fish, drying meat, dressing leather, collecting roots and fire-wood; with their domestic and family affairs, their whole time is occupied; and, indeed, they may be said to serve in the double capacity of wife and slave. They have in general an engaging 'sweetness, are good housewives, modest in their demeanour, affectionate and chaste, and strongly attached to their husbands and children. Each family is ruled by the joint will or authority of the husband and wife, but more particularly by the latter. At their meals, they generally eat separately and in succession—man, woman, and child.

The greatest source of evil existing among this otherwise happy people is polygamy. All the chiefs and other great men have invariably a plurality of wives: for he that has not one is neither chief nor great man, according to their ideas of greatness, and is looked upon with contempt. Many have two, three, four, or five, according to their means and influence; but those wives do not at all times remain together,—indeed, that would be utterly impossible,—but at different camps where their relations are; so that the husband goes from camp to camp occasionally to visit them, keeping seldom more than one or two at a time with himself. The greatest favourite is of course his constant companion. Indeed, brawls and squabbles constantly ensue when several wives meet; and what is still more revolting, the husband of the eldest daughter of the family is entitled by their laws to take to wife all her sisters as they grow up, if able to maintain them.

The dress or costume is nearly the same for men and women. It is simple, neat, and convenient, and serves unchanged for both winter and summer, hot and cold, wet and dry, day and night. That of the young females consists of a robe or garment of deer-skin, down to their ankles, well dressed, and soft as chamois, with long, wide sleeves, fringed and ornamented with beads, and the more valuable higuas with a belt around the waist, adorned with the teeth of animals, beads, and trinkets, and is far from being unbecoming. Leggings, or Indian stockings, trimmed with all the showy ornaments of Indian fancy; shoes, and a loose robe of deer-skin, thrown carelessly round the body, constitute the whole of their dress at all seasons of the year. While new, white, and clean, it has a pleasing appearance; nor does clothing of our manufacture ever become an Indian woman so well as her own native dress; but as they have no change of clothing, nor any bedclothes excepting an additional skin thrown over them, their garments soon become shabby and unsightly.' A new garment once put on remains until it is either worn to rags, or rotten with grease and filth on their backs. Those, however, worn by young people of a certain age, both male and female, are frequently bestowed on their elders when half worn, and replaced by another new suit; so that the younger folks of good circumstances are always well dressed and clean.

The men's garments seldom descend below the knee; and in lieu of being ornamented like those of the women, with gaudy trinkets, they are wrought and garnished in a very fanciful manner with porcupine-quills. During winter the men wear long detached sleeves or mittens up to their shoulders, made of the wolf or fox skins, which are united or fastened together by a string across the shoulders. While on their hunting excursions, they also wear caps made of the skins of the wolf or bear, with the ears erect; their heads being thus metamorphosed into wolves' or bears' heads, they are enabled to approach the game with greater facility. But it is not the head alone that is masked or disguised: I have seen a fellow get into a deer-skin, stripped for the purpose, with the skin of the head and horns complete, walk off on all fours, and get actually among a herd of deer without their taking notice of the deception. But the wolf is the animal they seem to imitate the best. An Indian concealed in a wolf's hide, pulls the skin of the wolfs head, with the face, eyes, and nose entire, over his own head, the ears erect, and tail in its proper place, will walk, run, and frisk about on his hands and feet, so that he can scarcely be distinguished from the real animal itself There is no bird nor beast of which they cannot imitate the voice so as to decoy it within their reach. Hunting is a favourite excise with all Indians; and the Oakinackens are very fond of displaying their dexterity in riding, and decoying the animals of the chase. All classes of them paint the face, particularly the young. Painting, and dressing, and decking the hair, is their chief glory; but they are nowise particular about other parts of their persons


 


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