Monday, May 14, 2012

Native American Corn Song



The zea, mais, originally furnished the principal article of subsistence among all the tribes of this race, north and south. It laid at the foundation of the Mexican and Peruvian types of civilization, as well as the incipient gleamings of it, among the more warlike tribes of the Iroquois, Natchez, Lenapees, and others, of northern latitudes. They esteem it so important and divine a grain, that their story-tellers invented various tales, in which this idea is symbolized under the form of a special gift from the Great Spirit. The Odjibwa-Algonquins, who call it Mon-dá-min, that is, the Spirit's grain or berry, have a pretty story of this kind, in which the stalk in full tassel, is represented as descending from the sky, under the guise of a handsome youth, in answer to the prayers of a young man at his fast of virility, or coming to manhood.
It is well known that corn-planting, and corn-gathering, at least among all the still uncolonized tribes, are left entirely to the females and children, and a few superannuated old men. It is not generally known, perhaps, that this labour is not compulsory, and that it is assumed by the females as a just equivalent, in their view, for the onerous and continuous labour of the other sex, in providing meats, and skins for clothing, by the chase, and in defending their villages against their enemies, and keeping intruders off their territories. A good Indian housewife deems this a part of her prerogative, and prides herself to have a store of corn to exercise her hospitality, or duly honour her husband's hospitality, in the entertainment of the lodge guests.
The area of ground planted is not, comparatively, large. This matter is essentially regulated by the number of the family, and other circumstances. Spring is a leisure season with them, and by its genial and reviving influence, invites to labour. An Indian female has no cows to milk, no flax to spin, no yarn to reel. Even those labours, which, at other seasons fall to her share, are now intermitted. She has apukwas to gather to make mats. Sugar-making has ended. She has no skins to dress, for the hunt has ended, the animals being out of season. It is at this time that the pelt grows bad, the hair becomes loose and falls off, and nature itself teaches the hunter, that the species must have repose, and be allowed a little time to replenish. Under these circumstances the mistress of the lodge and her train, sally out of the lodge into the corn-field, and with the light pemidge-ag akwut, or small hoe, open up the soft ground and deposit their treasured mondamin.
The Indian is emphatically a superstitious being, believing in all sorts of magical, and secret, and wonderful influences. Woman, herself, comes in for no small share of these supposed influences. I shrewdly suspect that one half of the credit we have been in the habit of giving the warrior, on the score of virtue, in his treatment of captives, is due alone to his superstitions. He is afraid, at all times, to spoil his luck, cross his fate, and do some untoward act, by which he might, perchance, fall under a bad spiritual influence.
To the wéwun, or wife—the equá, or woman, to the guh or mother,—to the equázas, or girl, and to the dánis, or daughter, and shéma, or sister, he looks, as wielding, in their several capacities, whether kindred or not, these mystic influences over his luck. In consequence of this, the female never walks in the path before him. It is an unpropitious sign. If she cross his track, when he is about to set out on a hunting, or war excursion, his luck is gone. If she is ill, from natural causes, she cannot even stay in the same wigwam. She cannot use a cup or a bowl without rendering it, in his view, unclean.
A singular proof of this belief, in both sexes, of the mysterious influence of the steps of a woman on the vegetable and insect creation, is found in an ancient custom, which was related to me, respecting corn-planting. It was the practice of the hunter's wife, when the field of corn had been planted, to choose the first dark or overclouded evening, to perform a secret circuit, sans habilement, around the field. For this purpose she slipt out of the lodge in the evening, unobserved, to some obscure nook, where she completely disrobed. Then taking her matchecota, or principal garment in one hand, she dragged it around the field. This was thought to ensure a prolific crop, and to prevent the assaults of insects and worms upon the grain. It was supposed they could not creep over the charmed line.
But if corn-planting be done in a lively and satisfied, and not a slavish spirit, corn-gathering and husking is a season of decided thankfulness and merriment. At these gatherings, the chiefs and old men are mere spectators, although they are pleased spectators, the young only sharing in the sport. Who has not seen, the sedate ogema in such a vicinage, smoking a dignified pipe with senatorial ease. On the other hand, turning to the group of nature's red daughters and their young cohorts, it may be safely affirmed that laughter and garrulity constitute no part of the characteristics of civilization. Whatever else custom has bound fast, in the domestic female circle of forest life, the tongue is left loose. Nor does it require, our observation leads us to think, one tenth part of the wit or drollery of ancient Athens, to set their risible faculties in motion.
[If one of the young female huskers finds a red ear of corn, it is typical of a brave admirer, and is regarded as a fitting present to some young warrior. But if the ear be crooked, and tapering to a point, no matter what colour, the whole circle is set in a roar, and wa ge min is the word shouted aloud. It is the symbol of a thief in the cornfield. It is considered as the image of an old man stooping as he enters the lot. Had the chisel of Praxitiles been employed to produce this image, it could not more vividly bring to the minds of the merry group, the idea of a pilferer of their favourite mondámin. Nor is there any doubt on these occasions, that the occurrence truly reveals the fact that the cornfield has actually been thus depredated on.
The term wagemin, which unfolds all these ideas, and reveals, as by a talisman, all this information, is derived in part, from the tri-literal term Waweau, that which is bent or crooked. The termination in g, is the animate plural, and denotes not only that there is more than one object, but that the subject is noble or invested with the importance of animated beings. The last member of the compound, min, is a shortened sound of the generic meen, a grain, or berry. To make these coalesce, agreeably to the native laws of euphony, the short vowel i, is thrown in, between the verbal root and substantive, as a connective. The literal meaning of the term is, a mass, or crooked ear of grain; but the ear of corn so called, is a conventional type of a little old man pilfering ears of corn in a cornfield. It is in this manner, that a single word or term, in these curious languages, becomes the fruitful parent of many ideas. And we can thus perceive why it is that the word wagemin is alone competent to excite merriment in the husking circle.
This term is taken as the basis of the cereal chorus or corn song, as sung by the northern Algonquin tribes. It is coupled with the phrase Paimosaid,—a permutative form of the Indian substantive made from the verb, pim-o-sa, to walk. Its literal meaning is, he who walks, or the walker; but the ideas conveyed by it, are, he who walks at night to pilfer corn. It offers, therefore, a kind of parallelism in expression, to the preceding term. The chorus is entirely composed of these two terms, variously repeated, and may be set down as follows:
When this chant has been sung, there is a pause, during which someone who is expert in these things, and has a turn for the comic or ironic, utters a short speech, in the manner of a recitative, in which a peculiar intonation is given, and generally interrogates the supposed pilferer, as if he were present to answer questions, or accusations. There can be no pretence, that this recitative part of the song is always the same, at different times and places, or even that the same person should not vary his phraseology. On the contrary, it is often an object to vary it. It is a perfect improvisation, and it may be supposed that the native composer is always actuated by a desire to please, as much as possible by novelty. The whole object indeed is, to keep up the existing merriment, and excite fun and laughter.
The following may be taken as one of these recitative songs, written out, on the plan of preserving the train of thought, and some of those peculiar interjections in which these languages so much abound. The chorus alone, it is to be observed, is fixed in its words and metre, however transposed or repeated, and, unlike an English song, precedes the stanza or narrative.


Cereal chorus.Wagemin! wagemin!
Thief in the blade,
Blight of the cornfield
Recitative.See you not traces, while pulling the leaf,
See you not traces, while pulling the leaf,
Plainly depicting the TAKER and thief?
See you not signs by the ring and the spot,
How the man crouched as he crept in the lot?
Is it not plain by this mark on the stalk,
That he was heavily bent in his walk?
Old man be nimble! the old should be good,
But thou art a cowardly thief of the wood.
Cereal Chorus.Wagemin! wagemin!
Thief in the blade,
Blight of the cornfield
Recitative.Where, little taker of things not your own—
Where is your rattle, your drum, and your bone?
Surely a Walker so nimble of speed,
Surely he must be a Meta [13] indeed.
[Pg 183]See how he stoops, as he breaks off the ear,
Nushka! [14] he seems for a moment in fear;
Walker, be nimble—oh! walker be brief,
Hooh![15] If it is plain the old man is the thief.
Cereal Chorus.Wagemin! wagemin!
Thief in the blade,
Blight of the cornfield
Recitative.Wabuma![16] corn-taker, why do you lag?
None but the stars see you—fill up your bag!
Why do you linger to gaze as you pull,
Tell me, my little man, is it most full?
A-tia![17] see, a red spot on the leaf,
Surely a warrior cannot be a thief!
Ah, little night-thief, be deer your pursuit,
And leave here no print of your dastardly foot.