Published on January 3, 2013 by Casey
St. Louis University, January 10, 1847.
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VERY REV. AND DEAR FATHER PROVINCIAL, – Agreeably to my promise, I send you the account given by the Potawotomies, residing at Council Bluffs, respecting their own origin, and the causes which gave rise to their “great medicine,” and juggling, considered by them as of the highest antiquity. Such superstitions, indeed, are found to exist among all the tribes of the American continent, differing only in the form and the accompanying ceremonies. The Nanaboojoo of the Potawotomies, the Wieska of the Objibbeways, the Wizakeshak of the Crees, the Sauteux and the Black-Feet, the Etalapasse of the Tchinouks on the coast of the Pacific, can, among these different tribes, be traced up to the same personage.
I send it verbatim, as it was communicated to me by Potogojecs, one of the most intelligent chiefs of the Potawotomie nation. Though fabulous, it is not entirely devoid of interest; it should excite us to offer up our prayers the more fervently to the Great Father of Light, for these poor benighted children of the forest, and beg of Him to send good and worthy laborers into this vast vineyard. Having enquired of this chief what he thought of the Great Spirit, of the Creator, and of the origin of his religion, or great medicine, he replied as follows: “I will give you a faithful account of what my tribe believes in these matters. We have not, like you, books to transmit our traditions to our children; it is the duty of the old men of the nation to instruct the young people in whatever relates to their belief, and their happiness.
“Many among us believe, that there are two Great Spirits who govern the universe, but who are constantly at war with each other. One is called the Kchemnito, that is, the Great Spirit, the other Mchemnito, or the Wicked Spirit. The first is goodness itself, and his beneficent influence is felt everywhere; but the second is wickedness personified, and does nothing but evil. Some believe that they are equally powerful, and, through fear of the Wicked Spirit, offer to him their homage -and adoration. Others, again, are doubtful which of them should be considered the more powerful, and accordingly endeavor to propitiate both, by offering to each an appropriate worship. The greater part, however, believe as I do, that Kchemnito is the first principle, the first great cause, and consequently ought to be all-powerful, and to whom alone is due all worship and adoration ; and that Mchemnito ought to be despised and rejected!
“Kchemnito at first created a world, which he filled with a race of beings having nothing but the appearance of men-perverse. ungrateful, wicked clogs-that never raised their eyes to heaven to implore the assistance of the Great Spirit. Such ingratitude aroused him to anger, and he plunged the world in a great lake, where they were all drowned.. His anger thus appeased, he withdrew it from the waters, and created anew a beautiful young man, who, however, appeared very sad, and being dissatisfied with his solitary condition, grew weary of life. Kchemnito took pity on him, and gave him, during sleep, a sister, as a companion to cheer his loneliness. When he awoke and saw his sister he rejoiced exceedingly – his melancholy instantly disappeared. They spent their time in agreeable conversation and amusement, living for many years together in a state of innocence and perfect harmony, without the slighest incident to mar the happiness of their peaceful solitude.
“The young man had a dream, for the first time, which he communicated to his sister, `Five young men,’ said he, `will come this night, and rap at the door of the lodge-the Great Spirit forbids you to laugh, to look at them, or give an answer to any of the first four, but laugh, look, and speak, when the fifth presents himself.’ She acted according to his advice. When she heard the voice of the fifth, she opened the door to him, laughing at the same time very heartily; he entered immediately, and became her husband. The first of the five strangers, called Sama, (tobacco.) having received no answer, died of grief; the three others, Wapekone, (pumpkin,) Eshketamok, (water-melon,) and Kojees, (the bean,) shared the fate of their, companion. Taaman, (maize,) the bridegroom, ;buried his four companions, and from their graves there sprung up, shortly after, pumpkins, water-melons, beans, and tobacco-plants in sufficient abundance to supply their wants during the whole year, and enable them to smoke to the manitous, and in the council. From this union are descended the American Indian nations.
“A great manitou came on earth, and chose a wife from among the children of men. He had four sons at a birth; the first born was called Nanaboojoo, the friend of the human race, the mediator between man and the Great Spirit; the second was named Chipiapoos, the man of the dead, who presides over the country of the souls ; the third, Wabosso, as soon as he saw the light, fled towards the north, where he was changed into a white rabbit, and under that name is considered there as a great manitou ; the fourth was Chakekenapok, the man of flint, or fire-stone. In coming into t1I– world he caused the death of his mother.
“Nanaboojoo, having arrived at the age of manhood, resolved to avenge the death of his mother, (for among us revenge is considered honorable) ; he pursued Chakekenapok all over the globe. Whenever he could come within reach of his brother, he fractured some member of his body, and after several renconters, finally destroyed him by tearing out his entrails. All fragments broken from the body of this man of stone then grew up into large rocks ; his entrails were changed into vines of every species, and took deep root in all the forests ; the flint-stones scattered around the earth indicate where the different combats took place. Before fire was introduced among us, Nanaboojoo taught our ancestors how to form hatchets, lances, and the points of arrows, in order to assist us in killing our enemies in war, and animals for our food. Nanaboojoo and his brother, Chipiapoos, lived together retired from the rest of mankind, and were distinguished from all other beings by their superior qualities of body and mind. The manitous that dwell in the air, as well as those who inhabit the earth and the waters, envied the power of these brothers, and conspired to destroy them. Nanaboojoo discovered and eluded their snares, and warned Chipiapoos not to separate himself from him a single moment. Notwithstanding this admonition, Chipiapoos ventured alone one day upon Lake Michigan; the manitous broke the ice, and he sank to the bottom, where they hid the body. Nanaboojoo became inconsolable when he missed his brother from his lodge ; he sought him everywhere in vain, he waged war against all the manitous, and precipitated an infinite number of them into the deepest abyss. He then wept, disfigured his person, and covered his head, as a sign of his grief, during six years, pronouncing from time to time, in sad and mournful tones, the name of the unhappy Chipiapoos.
“While this truce continued, the manitous consulted upon the means best calculated to appease the anger of Nanaboojoo, without, however, coming to any conclusion; when four of the, oldest and wisest, who had had no hand in the death of Chipiapoos, offered to accomplish the difficult task. They built a lodge close to that of Nanaboojoo, prepared an excellent repast, and filled a calumet with the most exquisite tobacco. They journeyed in silence towards their redoubted enemy,. each carrying under his arm a bag, formed of the entire skin of some animal, an otter, a lynx, or a beaver, well provided with the most precious medicines, (to which, in their superstitious practices, they attach a supernatural power). With many kind expressions, they begged that he would condescend to accompany them. He arose immediately, uncovered his head, washed himself, and followed them. When arrived at their lodge, they offered him a cup containing a dose of their medicine, preparatory to his initiation. Nanaboojoo swallowed the contents at a single draught, and found himself completely restored. They then commenced their dances and their songs; they also applied their medicine bags, which, after gently blowing them at him, they would then cast on the ground; at each fall of the medicine bag, Nanaboojoo perceived that his melancholy, sadness, hatred, and anger disappeared, and affections of an opposite nature took possession of his soul. They all joined in the dance and song-they ate and smoked together. Nanaboojoo thanked them for having initiated him in the mysteries of their grand medicine.
” The manitous brought back the lost Chipiapoos, but it was forbidden him to enter the lodge; he received, through a chink, a burning coal, and was ordered to go and preside over the region of souls, and there, for the happiness of his uncles and aunts, that is, for all men and women, who should repair thither, kindle with this coal a fire which should never be extinguished.
“Nanaboojoo then re-descended upon earth, and, by order of the Great Spirit, initiated all his family in the mysteries of the grand medicine. He procured for each of them a bag well furnished with medicines, giving them strict orders to perpetuate these ceremonies among their descendants, adding at the same time, that these practices, religiously observed, would cure their maladies, procure them abundance in the chase, and give them complete victory over their enemies. (All their religion consists in these superstitious practices, dances and songs; they have the most implicit faith in these strange reveries.)
” Nanaboojoo is our principal intercessor with the Great Spirit; lie it was that obtained for us the creation of animals for our food and raiment. He has caused to grow those roots and herbs which are endowed with the virtue of curing our maladies, and of enabling us, in time of famine, to kill the wild animals. He has left the care of them to Mesakkummikokwi, the great-grandmother of the human race, and in order that we should never invoke her in vain, it has been strictly enjoined on the old woman never to quit the dwelling. Hence, when an Indian makes the collection of roots and herbs which are to serve him as medicines, he deposits, at the same time, on the earth, a small offering to Mesakkummikokwi. During his different excursions over the surface of the earth, Tanaboojoo killed all such animals as were hurtful to us, as the mastodon, the mammoth, etc. He has placed four beneficial spirits at the four cardinal points of the earth, for the purpose of contributing to the happiness of the human race. That of the north procures for us ice and snow, in order to aid us in discovering and following the wild animals. That of the south gives us that which occasions the growth of our pumpkins, melons, maize and tobacco. The spirit placed at the west gives us rain, and that of the east gives us light, and commands the sun to make his daily walks around the globe. The thunder we hear is the voice of spirits, having the form of large birds, which Nanaoojoo has placed in the clouds. When they cry very loud we burn some tobacco in our cabins, to make them a smoke-offering and appease them.
” Nanaboojoo yet lives, resting himself after his labors, upon an immense flake of ice, in the Great Lake, (the North Sea). We fear that the whites will one day discover his retreat, and -drive him off, then the end of the world is at hand, for as soon as he puts foot on the earth, the whole universe will tale fire, and every living creature will perish in the flames! ”
In their festivities and religious assemblies, all their songs turn upon some one or other of these fables. When the chief had finished this history, I asked him whether he had any faith in what he had just related. ” Assuredly I have, for I have had the happiness to see and entertain three old men of my nation, who penetrated far into the north, and were admitted into the presence of Nanaboojoo, with whom they conversed a long time. He confirmed all that I have recounted to you ! ”
Our savages believe that the souls of the dead, in their journey to the great prairie of their ancestors, pass a rapid current, over which the only bridge is d single tree, kept constantly in violent agitation, managed, however, in such a way, that the souls of perfect men pass it in safety, whilst those of the wicked slip off the tree into the water and are lost forever.
Such is the narration given to me by the Potawotomi chief, comprising all the articles of the creed held by this tribe, we can hardly fail to recognize in it, much obscured by the accumulation of ages, the tradition of the universal deluge, of the creation of the universe, of Adam and Eve; even some traces of the incarnation are found in the birth of Nanaboojoo, he was descended of parents, one of whom only, his mother, was of the human race ; he is, moreover, the intercessor between God and man.
I recommend myself to your prayers.
I remain, with sentiments of profound respect and esteem, your obedient humble servant and brother in Christ.
P, J. DE SMET, S. J.