Published on January 31, 2013 by Casey
An excerpt from Potawatomi author Simon Pokagon’s autobiography, including a legend about the four season sisters.
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UNTIL twelve years old I could speak only nin-gaw odaw-naw-naw (my mother-tongue). Before then I had bitter thoughts of the white men; regarding them as robbers of the worst sort, and destitute of all love or sympathy for our race. When I saw them I fled and hid myself, like the young partridge from the hawk.
About that time I became acquainted with Edward Coles, a travelling Indian missionary, who frequently called at our wigwam in Pokagon, my father’s village, in Southwestern Michigan. He had had a fair English education, and was a fine Christian teacher. He saw how bitterly I felt toward the dominant race, and often told me that the better class were as good as our own people, and that I was very prejudiced. No doubt this was the case, and was due to the fact, that the white men who generally came in contact with the Indians were the worst of their kind. He also said that numbers of white men believed in Kigi Manito, — the God we worshipped, — and that many, many years before, He had sent from Waw-kwi (Heaven) to their forefathers His son Jesus, whom they murdered, and that He arose from the dead, and ascended to Heaven; that He now there stood, with open arms, ready to receive all who put their trust in Him; and that when life was ended here, they would dwell with Him in Waw-kwi forever. I could not understand how white men could be so good as red men, and yet be guilt of taking the life of a noble chief who had come to save them. I inquired of him if those white men who had brought ruin upon our people, by selling them fire-water, would be permitted to enter the garden of Waw-kwi. He claimed that if they would quit their accursed business, and humbly repent, and try to repair the great wrong they had done, it was barely possible they might enter the land of promise. This noble Christian missionary greatly impressed me with the wonderful things white men could do, through the mighty inventions and discoveries they had made; and these so excited my love of the marvellous, that my youthful heart thirsted night and day to drink from the fountain of knowledge at the white man’s school.
About this time my dear father died; and, soon after, my mother,
on the advice of one of the Catholic Fathers, sent me to Notre Dame School, near South Bend, Indiana, where I remained four or five years. But, desiring a more liberal education than I was likely to get there, I sought out my old missionary friend Coles, and laid before him my great anxiety to go to school at Oberlin, Ohio, where race and color were disregarded. The good man finally persuaded my mother to send me to that school. I was about to leave home, when, to my surprise, some of the older members of the Pokagon band objected to my going to the white man’s school; believing it would displease the Great Spirit for a son of the Great Chief, who had passed into the hunting-ground beyond, to attend the Pale-face school.
I listened to their admonitions and advice; well knowing their objection was too weak for consideration. Yet, I must confess that their words lingered about my heart, and worried me, in spite of all my reasoning; and I said to myself, “Pokagon, such superstition you must inherit from your race.” I was troubled; for I thought I should not be able to compete in my studies with white class-mates, who would have better sense than to worry over that which they did not believe.
A short time after this I mentioned to one of the most intelligent of my class-mates, that on the following day I was going into an advanced class. He replied, “You had better wait until Monday.” “Why so?” I asked. “Because,” said he, “to-morrow is Friday — an unlucky day — and very likely, if you start then, you will always be at the tail-end of your class.” This foolish suggestion, coming from such a source, fairly staggered me; and yet it encouraged me to know that my rival had weak points like those which had lessened my faith in myself.
Notwithstanding the superstitions of our Algonquin fathers, they were no idol-worshippers. Their “religion” taught them that each mountain, stream, and lake had its spirit that governed and ruled over it. They also believed that some deity controlled the winds and waves, and rode upon the clouds; commanding the storm, and guiding the whirlwind in its course.
They believed in four sister-deities, who controlled the four seasons of the year. Bi-bon (Winter) brought down from the north agon (the snow), and, with her chilly fingers, touched the lakes and streams; leaving them ice-bound, until her sister Sig-wan (Spring) came. She, with her warm breath, melted the snow and ice; letting the imprisoned lakes and streams go free, clothing the naked trees in robes of green, covering the earth with grass and fragrant flowers, filling the air with
song-birds and insect life, and the waters with fish, and working with might and main until the arrival of her sister Ne-bin (Summer) on hasty wings, to help on the work Sig-wan had so well begun. Man, beasts, and fowls sought the shade, to avoid the scorching sunshine of her face. Last of all, the oldest sister, Baw-waw-gi (Autumn), came to ripen all the fruit, grain, and nuts; painting in gold and red the forest leaves, which for a few short days flaunted their glories in the breeze, then shed themselves, leaving their parent branches to combat with the winter’s storms.
Our forefathers did not grasp the grand idea of an infinite, all-wise being whose presence is everywhere. Hence they believed that these deities, scattered throughout the world, were the agents of a mighty chief, one Mi-chi Ogaw-maw, who ruled all the rest. They saw the beauty of his face in the rainbow; the majesty of his eyes flashed in the clouds; the terror of his voice thundered in the storm, rumbled in the earthquake, and roared in the sea. They taught their children, that Ke-sus (the sun) represented the eyes of this mighty Kigi Manito by day; that Te-bik Kesus and Anong (the moon and stars) were his eyes by night; and that they could not hide their words or acts from him.Indians never swear in their own language; and, as they generally believe all white men to be Christians, they do not understand why so many should indulge in profanity.
Our traditions show most clearly that the children were obedient to their parents, kind to the old and unfortunate, and respectful to all. They had no cigarettes to smoke, no fire-water to drink, no saloons to lounge in. As a race they were held in great Nature’s lap, close to her heart: they listened to her words, and obeyed, as they understood them. All believed in the immortality of the soul.
I never saw nor heard of an Indian atheist. Their Heaven was not paved with gold and precious stones; but it was a grand, romantic paradise of forests and wide, extended plains, — filled with beasts and birds, with lakes and streams swarming with fish close to shore, — where want never came, and where all were contented and happy.
Among the most ancient traditions of our race is one that our first parents found themselves here surrounded by beasts of prey without number, whose physical strength far exceeded theirs, and whose young had greater strength and more knowledge than the Indian children. Stones and clubs were used for weapons, until the bow and arrow were invented; and but for the fact, that a manito was impressed upon the human countenance, before which the fiercest brute stood in awe, our first parents and their children would have been destroyed from off the face of the earth.