Thursday, October 13, 2011

Chief Pontiac the Early Years Illustrated


We love our country principally because of the political freedom its government allows us. As we study its history, the lives of its heroes, and the struggles they have made for the liberties we enjoy, our patriotism grows stronger.
Pontiac loved his country, too, but in a much simpler and more personal way, as you will understand when you have learned about the proud chieftain's boyhood and youth.
The birds scarcely know the forest so well as he did. When he was a tiny baby,—a fat, brown, little pappoose,—his mother used to bundle him up in skins, strap him to a board, and carry him on her back when she went to gather the bark of the young basswood tree for twine. As the strong young squaw sped along the narrow path, soft and springing to her moccasined feet with its depth of dried pine needles, the baby on her back was well content. Even if he felt cross and fretful the regular motion pleased him; the cool dim green of the forest rested him; the sweet smell of the pines soothed him; and the gentle murmur of the wind in the tree tops soon lulled him to sleep.[Pg 60]
When the mother clambered over a large tree trunk that had fallen across the path and the little pappoose was jolted wide awake, he did not cry. His beady black eyes followed every stray sunbeam and every bounding rabbit, or chance bird with wonder and delight. When his mother went to work she placed his rude cradle beside a tree where he could look on, out of harm's way. He was very little trouble, and she always took him with her when she went to get cedar bark, to gather rushes for mats and herbs for dyes, to pick up fagots for the fire, or to get sap from the sugar tree. So it happened that when he grew up Pontiac could not remember a time when the dark forest did not seem like home to him.
As soon as he was old enough to understand words, he heard his mother laughing with her neighbors about[Pg 61] the men in the village who stayed about their wigwams like women. Now, he thought that a wigwam or bark lodge was a very pleasant place. The small, dark, oven-shaped room, smoky and foul with the smell of fish and dirt, was home to him—the mud floor, worn smooth and hard with use, was strewn with mats and skins which served for chairs and beds. There was a fireplace in the center, and over it a rack on which smoked fish hung, well out of the reach of the wolf-like dogs that lay about gnawing at old bones. It was usually dry in wet weather, warm in cold weather, and cool when the sun was hot. It was where he went for food when he was hungry; it was where he slept on soft buffalo robes and bear skins when he was tired; it was where he heard good stories, and, best of all, it was where his mother spent most of her time.
But before Pontiac was many years old he knew that the wigwam was the place for women and children, and that it was a shame for a man not to follow the deer through the forest, and go upon the warpath. He saw that if a man stayed at home and loved ease and comfort his squaw would scold him with a shrill tongue. But if he went off to hunt, it was different. Then, when he came home for a short time, he might lounge on a bear skin while his squaw worked hard to make him happy, cooking his meals, fetching clear water from the spring, and dressing the skins he had brought from the hunt.
Pontiac liked to watch his mother while she stood weaving the wet rushes into mats to cover the lodge in summer, or while she sat on the floor with her feet crossed[Pg 62] under her, making baskets out of sweet grass or embroidering with brightly dyed porcupine quills. But if he showed his pleasure or offered to help her, she looked stern and shook her head, saying, "Go out into the field and run; then you will be swift when you are a man;" or "go into the forest and shoot rabbits with your little bow and arrow, so that you may one day be a great hunter like your father."
All this made little Pontiac feel that the great fields and forests were his—his to find his pleasure in while he was a boy; his to find his work in when he should become a man.
He learned, too, that his very life depended on the forests he loved. He could never forget the cruel winter days when he had asked his mother again and again for fish and meat, and she had told him to be still and wait till his father brought meat from the forest. And he had waited there long with his hollow-eyed mother, crouching before the feeble fire, starving with hunger. He had strained his ears toward the great white forest only to hear the wail of the winds and the howl of the wolves. But at last the yelp of the dogs was sure to be heard, and then the half-frozen hunters would appear, dragging the deer over the crusted snow.


Pontiac's father was a war chief. But it did not follow that therefore Pontiac would be a war chief. He[Pg 63] would have to prove himself strong and brave, a good hunter and a good warrior, or his tribe would choose some more able leader.
Pontiac, like most small boys, took his father for his pattern. His ambition was to be like him. But he was told early, "Be a good Indian. Be a good Ottawan. Be true to your tribe. Be a strong man and help your people. But don't think about being chief. The greatest brave must be chief of the Ottawas."
Yet, Indians love glory and perhaps in the bottom of their hearts Pontiac's father and mother hoped that he would one day be a chieftain. At any rate they did all they could to train him to be a worthy Indian.
They were sometimes very severe with him. If he was rude to strangers or to old people; if he lost his temper and threw ashes at his comrades; if he told a falsehood, he was beaten. He had broken the laws of the Great Spirit, and the Great Spirit had commanded that parents should beat their children with rods when they did wrong. The boy understood this and he tried to take his punishment bravely that he might regain the[Pg 64] good will of the Great Spirit. He stood quite still and endured heavy blows without whimpering or flinching.
He learned, too, to endure hunger and great fatigue without complaint. He raced, and swam, and played ball, and wrestled with other boys till his body was strong and straight and supple. He played at hunting and war in the forest, until his eyes became so sharp that no sign of man or beast escaped them.
But he did not depend altogether on his eyes for information. He could find his way through a forest in the dark, where the dense foliage hid the stars. Perhaps the wind told him the direction by the odors it brought. He could tell what kind of trees grew about him by the feel of their bark, by their odor, by the sound of the wind in the branches. He did not have to think much about his course when on a journey. His feet seemed to know the way home, or to the spring, or to the enemy's camp. And if he had traveled through a wilderness once he knew the way the next time as well as any boy knows his way to school.
While Pontiac was training his body, his parents took care that he should not grow up in ignorance of the religion and the history of his people. He heard much about the Great Spirit who could see all he did and was angry when he said or did anything dishonest or cowardly.
The laws of the Great Spirit were fixed in the boy's mind, for his mother was always repeating them to him. She would say as he left the wigwam: "Honor the gray-[Pg 65]headed person," or "Thou shalt not mimic the thunder;" "Thou shalt always feed the hungry and the stranger," or "Thou shalt immerse thyself in the river at least ten times in succession in the early part of the spring, so that thy body may be strong and thy feet swift to chase the game and to follow the warpath."[1]
[1]Translated from the Ottawa language by A. Blackbird.
In the evenings the older members of the family and some visiting Indians sat around the fire and told stones about the Great Spirit and many other strange beings, some good and some evil. They told, too, wonderful tales about omens and charms. The same story was told over and over again, so that in time little Pontiac knew by heart the legends of the Ottawas. He remembered and firmly believed all his life stories that as a child he listened to with awe, in his father's wigwam.
In the same way he heard about the great deeds of the warriors of his tribe; and he came to think there were no people in the world quite equal to the Ottawas. He heard of other tribes that were their foes and he was eager to go to war against them.
As he grew older he heard a good deal about men, not only of another tribe but of another race, the palefaces, who were trying to get the lands of the Indians. Then he thought less about being an Ottawa and conquering other Indians; while every day he felt more and more that he was an Indian and must conquer the white man. He wished he could unite the tribes in friendship and lead them against these strangers who were so many and so[Pg 66] strong, and who had come to drive the Indians from their homes and hunting grounds.
Such thoughts made Pontiac very serious. Obeying the commands of the Great Spirit, the young Indian often blackened his face with a mixture of charcoal and fish-oil, and went into the depths of the forest, where he remained for days without food, praying and thinking earnestly about the future.
He formed his own plans, but he hid them in his heart. He practised keeping his feelings and thoughts to himself, and spoke only when he was very sure he was right. This habit soon gained him a reputation for gravity and wisdom.