The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXXII. Non-English Writings II

§ 7. Gnomic Wisdom

There was something akin to oratory, and in the nature of sermonizing, which occurred in connection with the initiation of youth into tribal responsibility. Certain of the Elders, regarded as the repositories of tribal wisdom, were required to expound it from time to time, but always in connection with tribal mysteries, so that there is very little of it accessible in its original form. It probably tended to fall into aphoristic balance like the Wisdom of Solomon and the Almanac of Poor Richard.

  • Would you choose a councillor,
  • Watch him with his neighbour’s children.
  • Sioux.
  • Do not stand wishing for the fish in the water,
  • Go home and make a spear.
  • Puget Sound.
  • Something of the high simplicity and clarity of aboriginal moralizing can be gathered in the writings of a man of such pure Indian stock as Charles Eastman. No one can associate intimately with Indians without continually surprising from them such apt and balanced utterances as this, from the last of the Catalinans:

  • I always remember what the old men told me: that the world is God.
  • Literary allusion, drawn from their folk or hero-tales, is part of the Amerind daily speech. Of an affair which makes a great stir without getting forward the Micmac will say: “It goes like the canoe that the Partridge made.” The point of the comparison is in the fable of the Partridge who, observing that a canoe goes faster when the ends are well rounded, conceived the brilliant idea of a canoe which should be rounded on the sides also. The result was a bowl-shaped structure which went round and round without progress.