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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Education of a Young Chief

By George Copway (1818–1869)

[Born in Ontario Co., Canada, 1818. Died at Lac-des-Deux-Montagnes, Quebec, Canada in 1869. Recollections of a Forest Life: or, the Life and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowk, or George Copway, Chief of the Ojibway Nation. 1847.—Second Edition. 1851.]

I WAS born in Nature’s wide domain! The trees were all that sheltered my infant limbs—the blue heavens all that covered me. I am one of Nature’s children; I have always admired her; she shall be my glory; her features—her robes, and the wreath about her brow—the seasons—her stately oaks, and the evergreens—her hair, ringlets over the earth—all contribute to my enduring love of her; and wherever I see her, emotions of pleasure roll in my breast, and swell and burst like waves on the shores of the ocean, in prayer and praise to Him who has placed me in her hand. It is thought great to be born in palaces, surrounded with wealth: but to be born in Nature’s wide domain is greater still!…

I remember the tall trees, and the dark woods—the swamp just by, where the little wren sang so melodiously after the going down of the sun in the west—the current of the broad river Trent—the skipping of the fish, and the noise of the rapids a little above. It was here I first saw the light; a little fallen-down shelter, made of evergreens, and a few dead embers, the remains of the last fire that shed its genial warmth around, were all that marked the spot. When I last visited it, nothing but fir-poles stuck in the ground, and they were leaning on account of decay. Is this dear spot, made green by the tears of memory, any less enticing and hallowed than the palaces where princes are born? I would much more glory in this birthplace, with the broad canopy of heaven above me, and the giant arms of the forest trees for my shelter, than to be born in palaces of marble studded with pillars of gold! Nature will be Nature still, while palaces shall decay and fall in ruins. Yes, Niagara will be Niagara a thousand years hence! The rainbow, a wreath over her brow, shall continue as long as the sun, and the flowing of the river—while the work of art, however impregnable, shall in atoms fall!

Our wigwam we always carried with us wherever we went. It was made in the following manner: Poles were cut about fifteen feet long; three with crotches at the end, which were stuck in the ground some distance apart, the upper ends meeting, and fastened with bark; and then other poles were cut in circular form and bound round the first, and then covered with plaited reeds, or sewed birch-bark, leaving an opening on the top for the smoke to escape. The skins of animals formed a covering for a gap, which answered for a door. The family all sat, tailor-fashion, on mats. In the fall and winter they were generally made more secure, for the purpose of keeping out the rain and cold. The covering of our wigwam was always carried by my mother, whenever we went through the woods. In the summer it was easier and pleasanter to move about from place to place than in the winter. In the summer we had birch-bark canoes, and with these we travelled very rapidly and easily. In the winter everything was carried upon the back. I have known some Indians carry a whole deer—not a small one, but a buck. If an Indian could lift up his pack off the ground by means of his arms, it was a good load, not too light nor too heavy. I once carried 196 pounds weight of flour, twelve pounds of shot, five pounds of coffee, and some sugar, about a quarter of a mile, without resting—the flour was in two bags. It felt very heavy. This was since I travelled with the missionaries, in going over one of the portages in the west.

Our summer houses were made like those in gardens among the whites, except that the skeleton was covered with bark….

My father generally took one or two families with him when he went to hunt; all were to hunt, and place their gains into one common stock till spring (for they were often out all winter), when a division took place.

The change of seasons changed also our mode of living, as well as the places where we had our wigwams. In the fall we gathered the wild rice, and in the winter we were in the interior. Some winters we suffered most severely, on account of the depth of snow, and the cold; our wigwams were often buried in snow. We not only suffered from the snow and the cold, but from hunger. Our party would be unable to hunt, and being far from the white settlements, we were often in want of food….

My father and another Indian, by the name of Big John, and myself, went out hunting; my father left his family near the mission station, living in the wigwam. While we were out on the hunting-grounds, we found out that some Indians had gone before us on the route up the river, and every day we gained upon them; their tracks were fresh. The river and the lakes were frozen, and we had to walk on the ice. For some days together we did not fire a gun, for fear they would hear it and go from us, where we could not find them. At length we found them by the banks of the river—they were Nah-doo-ways, or Mohawks, from Bay Quinty; there were seven of them, tall fellows. We shook hands with them; they received us kindly. My father had determined to take all they had, if we should overtake them. After they gave us a good dinner of boiled beaver, my father stepped across the fire and ripped open two packs of beaver furs, that were just by him. He said to them: “We have only one custom among us, and that is well known to all; this river and all that is in it are mine. I have come up the river behind you, and you appear to have killed all before you. This is mine, and this is mine,” he said, as he touched with the handle of his tomahawk each of the packs of beaver, otter, and muskrat skins. I expected every moment to see my father knocked down with a tomahawk, but none dared touch him; he counted the skins, and then threw them across the fire-place to us. After this was done, the same thing took place with the guns; only one was left them to use on their way home. He talked to them by signs, and bade them, as the sailors say, “weigh anchor, and soon be under way”; they left, and we took possession of the temporary wigwam they had built. We never saw them afterwards on our hunting-grounds, though some of them have been there since.

My father was ever kind and affectionate to me, particularly after the death of my brother, which was occasioned by the going off of a gun, the load passing through the arm, and so fractured it that it soon mortified and caused his death. He believed in persuasion; I know not that he ever used harsh means, but would talk to me for hours together. As soon as it was dark he would call me to his side and begin to talk, and tell me that the Great Spirit would bless me with a long life if I should love my friends, and particularly the aged. He would always take me with him when going anywhere near, and I learned his movements, for I watched him going through the woods. Often would he tell me that when I should be a man that I must do so and so, and do as he did, while fording the rivers, shooting the deer, trapping the beaver, etc. I always imitated him while I was a hunter.

My mother was also kind and affectionate; she seemed to be happy when she saw us enjoying ourselves by her; often she would not eat much for days together; she would leave all for us! She was an industrious woman; in the spring she made more sugar than any one else; she was never idle while the season for gathering wild rice lasted.

I was taught early to hunt the deer. It was a part of our father’s duty to teach us how to handle the gun as well as the bow and arrow. I was early reminded to hunt for myself; a thirst to excel in hunting began to increase; no pains were spared, no fatigue was too great, and at all seasons I found something to stimulate me to exertion, that I might become a good hunter. For years I followed my father, observed how he approached the deer, the manner of getting it upon his shoulders to carry it home, etc. The appearance of the sky, the sound of the distant waterfalls in the morning, the appearance of the clouds and the winds, were to be noticed. The step, and the gesture, in travelling in search of the deer, were to be observed.

Many a lecture I received when the deer lay bleeding at the feet of my father; he would give me an account of the nobleness of the hunter’s deeds, and said that I should never be in want whenever there was any game, and that many a poor aged man could be assisted by me. “If you reverence the aged, many will be glad to hear of your name,” were the words of my father. “The poor man will say to his children, ‘my children, let us go to him, for he is a great hunter, and is kind to the poor; he will not turn us away empty.’ The Great Spirit, who has given the aged a long life, will bless you. You must never laugh at any suffering object, for you know not how soon you may be in the same condition; never kill any game needlessly.” Such was his language when we were alone in the woods. Ah! they were lessons directed from heaven.

In the spring but few deer are killed, because they were not in good order, the venison being poor, and the skin so thin, that it was no object to kill them. To hunt deer in the summer was my great delight, which I did in the following manner: During the day I looked for their tracks, as they came on the shore of the lake or river during the night to feed. If they came on the bank of the river, I lighted pitch-pine, and the current of the river took the canoe along the shore. My lantern was so constructed that the light could not fall on one spot, but sweep along the shore. The deer could see the light, but were not alarmed by it, and continued feeding on the weeds. In this way I have approached so close that I could have reached them with my paddle. In this manner our forefathers shot them, not with a gun, as I did, but with the bow and arrow. Bows were made strong enough, so that the arrows might pierce through them.

Another mode of hunting on the lakes, preferred by some, is shooting without a light. Many were so expert, and possessed such accuracy in hearing, that they could shoot successfully in the dark, with no other guide than the noise of the deer in the water; the position of the deer being well known in this way on the darkest night. I will here relate an occurrence which took place in 1834. My father and I were hunting on the river Trent, in the night; after we had shot two deer, and while returning homewards, we heard the noise of a deer’s footsteps. The night was dark as pitch. We approached the deer. I asked my father at what part of the animal I should aim. He replied, “at the head or neck.” I poised my gun and fired; hearing no noise I concluded that my game was sure. I lighted some pitch-pine and walked towards the spot from which the noise had come. The deer lay dead and bleeding. On examination, I found that I had shot it just below the ear. In the fall of the year, also, I was accustomed to hunt; the meat was very fine, and the skins (from which our moccasons were made) were much thicker at this season. Those that could track the deer on fallen leaves, and shoot one each day, were considered first-rate hunters. The fall is the best time to determine the skill of the huntsman.

Of all animals the bear is the most dangerous to hunt. I had heard so many stories about its cunning that I dreaded to meet one. One day a party of us were going out to hunt the bear, just below Crooke’s Rapids. After we had made a temporary place to stay for several days, we marched in file; after a while we halted, each took a different direction. My father said: “My son, you had better loiter behind the rest. Do not go far, for you may lose yourself.” We parted—I took my course, and the rest theirs. I trembled for fear I should see what I was hunting for! I went only where I least expected to see a bear, and every noise I heard in the woods I thought must be one. As I stood on an old mossy log, there was such a crack on the side of the hill that my heart leaped within me. As I turned and looked, there was a large bear running towards me! I hid myself behind a tree—but on he came; I watched him; he came like a hogshead rolling down hill; there were no signs of stopping; when a few feet from me, I jumped aside, and cried Yah! (an exclamation of fear). I fired my gun without taking sight; in turning suddenly to avoid me, he threw up the earth and leaves; for an instant I was led to believe that the bear was upon me. I dropped my gun and fell backwards, while the bear lay sprawling just by me. Having recovered, I took up my gun, and went a few feet from where I fell, and loaded my gun in a hurry. I then sought for a long pole, and with it I poked it on its side, to see if it was really dead. It did not move—it was dead; but even then I had not courage to go and touch it with my hands. When all was over, and I had told my father I had killed a bear, I felt as though my little leggings could hardly contain me. In examining it, I found the ball had gone through its heart….

When about five years old, I commenced shooting birds, with a small bow and arrow. I have shot many a bird, but am no more a marksman. I used to feel proud when I carried home my own game. The first thing that any of the hunters shot was cooked by the grandfather and grandmother, and there was great rejoicing, to inspire the youthful hunter with fresh ardor. Day after day I searched for the gray squirrel, the woodpecker, the snipe, and the snow-bird, for this was all my employment.

The gun was another instrument put into my hands, which I was taught to use both carefully and skilfully. Seldom do accidents occur from the use of fire-arms among our people. I delighted in running after the deer, in order to head and shoot them. It was a well known fact that I ranked high among the hunters. I remember the first deer I ever shot,—it was about one mile north of the village of Keene. The Indians, as has just been said, once had a custom, which is now done away, of making a great feast of the first deer that a young hunter caught; the young hunter, however, was not to partake of any of it, but wait upon the others. All the satisfaction he could realize was to thump his heels on the ground, while he and others were singing the following hunter’s song:

  • “Ah yah ba wah, ne gah me koo nah vah!
  • Ah yah wa seeh, ne gah me koo nah nah.”

  • The fattest of the bucks I’ll take,
  • The choicest of all animals I’ll take.
  • In the days of our ignorance we used to dance around the fire. I shudder when I think of those days of our darkness. I thought the Spirit would be kind to me if I danced before the old men; and day after day, or night after night, I have been employed with others in this way. I thank God that those days will never return.