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The Elders Of The Kinds

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The Onondaga story of the beginnings of things closes with these words: "Moreover, it is verily thus with all things that are contained in the earth here present, that they severally retransform or exchange their bodies. It is thus with all things that sprout and grow, and, in the next place, with all things that produce themselves and grow, and, in the next place, all the man-beings. All these are affected in the same manner, that they severally transform their bodies, and, in the next place, that they retransform their bodies, severally, without cessation" (Hewitt, 21 ARBE, pp. 219-20).

Savages, and perhaps all people who live near to Nature, are first and inevitably Heracliteans: for them, as for the Greek philosopher, all things flow, the sensible world is a world of perpetual mutation; bodies, animate and inanimate, are but temporary manifestations — outward shadows of the multitude of shape-shifting Powers which govern the spectacle from behind the scene. Yet even the savage, conscious as he is of the impermanency of sensible things, detects certain constant forms, persistently reappearing, though in various individual embodiments. These forms are the natural kinds — the kindreds or species into which Nature is divided; they are the Ideas of things, as a greater Greek than Heraclitus would say; and the Indians all develop into Platonists, for they hold that each natural kind has its archetype, or Elder (as they prefer), dwelling in an invisible world and sustaining the temporary lives of all its earthly copies by the strength of its primal being.

The changing seasons themselves — which, for all peoples beyond the tropics, are the great facts governing the whole strategy of life — become fixed in a kind of constancy, and are eventually personified into such beings as we still fancifully form for Spring and Summer and Winter and Autumn. To be sure, the seasons are not so many for peoples whose sustenance is mainly obtained by the chase: for them, the open and closed, the green and the white, are the important divisions of the year. The Iroquois say that Winter is an old man of the woods, who raps the trees with his war-club: in very cold weather one can hear the sharp sound of his blows; while Spring is a lithe young warrior, with the sun in his countenance. The Montagnais were not sure whether the two Seasons were manlike, but they told Père Le Jeune that they were very sure that Nipin and Pipoun were Iiving beings: they could even hear them talking and rustling, especially at their coming. "For their dwelling-place they share the world between them, the one keeping upon the one side, the other upon the other; and when the period of their stay at one end of the world has expired, each goes over to the locality of the other, reciprocally succeeding each other. Here we have, in part, the fable of Castor and Pollux," comments the good Father. "When Nipinoukhe returns, he brings back with him the heat, the birds, the verdure, and restores life and beauty to the world; but Pipounoukhe lays waste everything, being accompanied by the cold winds, ice, snows, and other phenomena of Winter. They call this succession of one to the other Achitescatoueth; meaning that they pass reciprocally to each other's places." Perhaps as charming a myth of the seasons as could be found is the Cherokee tale of "the Bride from the South." The North falls in love with the daughter of the South, and in response, to his ardent wooings is allowed to carry her away to his Northland, where the people all live in ice houses. But the next day, when the sun rises, the houses begin to melt, and the people tell the North that he must send the daughter of the South to her native land, for her whole nature is warm and unfit for the North.

But it is especially in the world of animals that the spirits of the Kinds are important. "They say," says Le Jeune, speaking of these same Montagnais (whose beliefs, in this respect, are typical), "that all animals, of every species, have an elder brother, who is, as it were, the source and origin of all individuals, and this elder brother is wonderfully great and powerful. The elder of the Beaver, they tell me, is perhaps as large as our cabin, although his Junior (I mean the ordinary Beaver) is not quite as large as our sheep. If anyone, when asleep, sees the elder or progenitor of some animals, he will have a fortunate chase; if he sees the elder of the Beavers, he will take Beavers; if he sees the elder of the Elks, he will take Elks, possessing the juniors through the favor of their senior whom he has seen in the dream. I asked them where these elder brothers were. `We are not sure,' they answered me, `but we think the elders of the birds are in the sky, and that the elders of the other animals are in the water.' In another connexion the Father tells the following story, which he had from a Montagnais: "A man, having traveled a long distance, at last reached the Cabin or house of God, as he named him who gave him something to eat. All kinds of animals surround him [the god], he touches them, handles them as he wishes, and they do not fly from him; but he does them no harm, for, as he does not eat, he does not kill them. However, he asked this new guest what he would like to eat, and having learned that he would relish a beaver, he caught one without any trouble, and had him eat it; then asked him when he in-tended going away. `In two nights,' was the answer. `Good,' said he, `you will remain two nights with me.' These two nights were two years; for what we call a year is only a day or a night in the reckoning of him who procures us food. And one is so contented with him that two winters, or two years, seem only like two nights. When he returned to his own country he was greatly astonished at the delay he had experienced." The god of the cabin is, no doubt, Messou (Manabozho), the Algonquian demiurge, for he is "elder brother to all beasts" and the ruler of animal life. Similarly, the Iroquoian demiurge Iouskeha is the bringer and namer of the primal animals: "They believe that animals were not at liberty from the beginning of the world, but that they were shut up in a great cavern where Iouskeha guarded them. Perhaps there may be in that some allusion to the fact that God brought all the animals to Adam," adds Père Brébeuf; and in the Seneca version of the Iroquoian genesis, the youth who brings the animals from the cavern of the Winds does, in fact, perform the office of Adam, giving them their several names.



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