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The Aborigines of Canada

Of the uncounted centuries of the history of the red man in America before the coming of the Europeans we know very little indeed. Very few of the tribes possessed even a primitive art of writing. It is true that the Aztecs of Mexico, and the ancient Toltecs who preceded them, understood how to write in pictures, and that, by this means, they preserved some record of their rulers and of the great events of their past. The same is true of the Mayas of Central America, whose ruined temples are still to be traced in the tangled forests of Yucatan and Guatemala. The ancient Peruvians also had a system, not exactly of writing, but of record by means of QUIPUS or twisted woolen cords of different colors: it is through such records that we have some knowledge of Peruvian history during about a hundred years before the coming of the Spaniards, and some traditions reaching still further back. But nowhere was the art of writing sufficiently developed in America to give us a real history of the thoughts and deeds of its people before the arrival of Columbus.

This is especially true of those families of the great red race which inhabited what is now Canada. They spent a primitive existence, living thinly scattered along the sea-coast, and in the forests and open glades of the district of the Great Lakes, or wandering over the prairies of the west. In hardly any case had they any settled abode or fixed dwelling-places. The Iroquois and some Algonquins built Long Houses of wood and made stockade forts of heavy timber. But not even these tribes, who represented the furthest advance towards civilization among the savages of North America, made settlements in the real sense. They knew nothing of the use of the metals. Such poor weapons and tools as they had were made of stone, of wood, and of bone. It is true that ages ago prehistoric men had dug out copper from the mines that lie beside Lake Superior, for the traces of their operations there are still found. But the art of working metals probably progressed but a little way and then was lost,--overwhelmed perhaps in some ancient savage conquest. The Indians found by Cartier and Champlain knew nothing of the melting of metals for the manufacture of tools. Nor had they anything but the most elementary form of agriculture. They planted corn in the openings of the forest, but they did not fell trees to make a clearing or plough the ground. The harvest provided by nature and the products of the chase were their sole sources of supply, and in their search for this food so casually offered they moved to and fro in the depths of the forest or roved endlessly upon the plains. One great advance, and only one, they had been led to make. The waterways of North America are nature's highway through the forest. The bark canoe in which the Indians floated over the surface of the Canadian lakes and rivers is a marvel of construction and wonderfully adapted to its purpose: This was their great invention. In nearly all other respects the Indians of Canada had not emerged even from savagery to that stage half way to civilization which is called barbarism.

These Canadian aborigines seem to have been few in number. It is probable that, when the continent was discovered, Canada, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, contained about 220,000 natives--about half as many people as are now found in Toronto. They were divided into tribes or clans, among which we may distinguish certain family groups spread out over great areas.

Most northerly of all was the great tribe of the Eskimos, who were found all the way from Greenland to Northern Siberia. The name Eskimo was not given by these people to themselves. It was used by the Abnaki Indians in describing to the whites the dwellers of the far north, and it means 'the people who eat raw meat.' The Eskimo called and still call themselves the Innuit, which means 'the people.'

The exact relation of the Eskimo to the other races of the continent is hard to define. From the fact that the race was found on both sides of the Bering Sea, and that its members have dark hair and dark eyes, it was often argued that they were akin to the Mongolians of China. This theory, however, is now abandoned. The resemblance in height and color is only superficial, and a more careful view of the physical make-up of the Eskimo shows him to resemble the other races of America far more closely than he resembles those of Asia. A distinguished American historian, John Fiske, believed that the Eskimos are the last remnants of the ancient cave-men who in the Stone Age inhabited all the northern parts of Europe. Fiske's theory is that at this remote period continuous land stretched by way of Iceland and Greenland from Europe to America, and that by this means the race of cave-men was able to extend itself all the way from Norway and Sweden to the northern coasts of America. In support of this view he points to the strangely ingenious and artistic drawings of the Eskimos. These drawings are made on ivory and bone, and are so like the ancient bone-pictures found among the relics of the cave-men of Europe that they can scarcely be distinguished.

The theory is only a conjecture. It is certain that at one time the Eskimo race extended much farther south than it did when the white men came to America; in earlier days there were Eskimos far south of Hudson Bay, and perhaps even south of the Great Lakes.

As a result of their situation the Eskimos led a very different life from that of the Indians to the south. They must rely on fishing and hunting for food. In that almost treeless north they had no wood to build boats or houses, and no vegetables or plants to supply them either with food or with the materials of industry. But the very rigor of their surroundings called forth in them a marvelous ingenuity. They made boats of seal skins stretched tight over walrus bones, and clothes of furs and of the skins and feathers of birds. They built winter houses with great blocks of snow put together in the form of a bowl turned upside down. They heated their houses by burning blubber or fat in dish-like lamps chipped out of stones. They had, of course, no written literature. They were, however, not devoid of art. They had legends and folk-songs, handed down from generation to generation with the utmost accuracy. In the long night of the Arctic winter they gathered in their huts to hear strange monotonous singing by their bards: a kind of low chanting, very strange to European ears, and intended to imitate the sounds of nature, the murmur of running waters and the sobbing of the sea. The Eskimos believed in spirits and monsters whom they must appease with gifts and incantations. They thought that after death the soul either goes below the earth to a place always warm and comfortable, or that it is taken up into the cold forbidding brightness of the polar sky. When the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, streamed across the heavens, the Eskimos thought it the gleam of the souls of the dead visible in their new home.

Farthest east of all the British North American Indians were the Beothuks. Their abode was chiefly Newfoundland, though they wandered also in the neighborhood of the Strait of Belle Isle and along the north shore of the Gulf of St Lawrence. They were in the lowest stage of human existence and lived entirely by hunting and fishing. Unlike the Eskimos they had no dogs, and so stern were the conditions of their life that they maintained with difficulty the fight against the rigor of nature. The early explorers found them on the rocky coasts of Belle Isle, wild and half clad. They smeared their bodies with red ochre, bright in color, and this earned for them the name of Red Indians. From the first, they had no friendly relations with the Europeans who came to their shores, but lived in a state of perpetual war with them. The Newfoundland fishermen and settlers hunted down the Red Indians as if they were wild beasts, and killed them at sight. Now and again, a few members of this unhappy race were carried home to England to be exhibited at country fairs before a crowd of grinning yokels who paid a penny apiece to look at the 'wild men.'

The Dawn of Canadian History, A Chronicle of Aboriginal Canada, 1915


Chronicle of Aboriginal Canada

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