Chapter 22 [Vol. II, pp. 307-325]

A description of the natives of Louisiana; of their manners and customs, particularly those of the Nachez and their language.

[307] In the concise history which I have given of the people of Louisiana, and in several other places where I have happened to mention them, the reader may have observed that these nations do not all have the same character, although they are neighbors of one other. One therefore ought not to expect a perfect uniformity in their manners, nor that I should describe all the different usages that prevail in different parts, which would create a disagreeable medley, and confound ideas which cannot be too clear. My design is only to make known, from the general character of these people, what course we ought to observe in order to draw advantage from our intercourse with them. I shall however be more particular in speaking of the Natchez, a populous [308] nation among whom I have lived for the space of eight years, and whose sovereign, war chief, and chief temple guardian were among my most intimate friends. Their manners were more civilized, their manner of thinking more just and full of sentiment, their customs more reasonable, and their ceremonies more natural and serious--distinguishing this nation from all others. It was easy to recognize them as more refined and polite.

In general, all the natives of America are extremely well made; very few are to be found shorter than five feet and a half, and many are taller than that. Their legs seem as if they were sculpted in a mould; they are muscular, and their calves are firm. They are long waisted; their head is upright and somewhat flat in the upper part, and their features are regular. They have black eyes, and thick black hair without curls. If we see none that are extremely fat and plump, neither do we meet with any so lean as if they were consumptive. The men in general are better than the women; they are more muscular, and [309] the women more plump and fleshy. The men are almost all large and the women of a middle size. But some amongst the women are well proportioned in their size and height, being nothing like European women who are of giant proportions or as short as dwarves. I’ve seen but a single woman as short as four and a half feet tall, who although she was well proportioned, lacked the courage to appear before the Frenchmen until three or four years after their arrival. She still would not have done so if by chance some Frenchmen hadn’t discovered her.

I have always been inclined to think that the care they take of the children in their infancy contributes greatly to their fine shape, although the climate has also its share in that, for the French Creoles of Louisiana are all large, well shaped, and of good flesh and blood.

As soon as a Natural woman gives birth, she goes to the water and washes herself and the infant. Then she returns to her bed and puts her infant in the cradle, which is all [310] prepared. This cradle is about two feet and a half long, eight to nine inches broad, and is artistically made of straight pieces of cane along its length. At the end the pieces are cut in half and refolded underneath to make the foot of the cradle; in all, it is no more than a half a foot tall. This cradle is very light--since it weighs no more than two pounds, it generally lies on the bed with the mother, who then can easily suckle her infant and keep him in the warm hut, where he cannot catch cold no matter how little he is covered. The infant is rocked end-ways so that the brain will not be shaken like those who are rocked side to side as is done in France and elsewhere. Also, in rocking the infant end-ways, the Naturals need not worry about tipping the cradle over. They make a light bed from Spanish moss and the infant is laid on its back in the cradle, fastened to it by the shoulders, the arms, the legs, the thighs, and the hips, leaving the stomach and torso free. The head is placed upon a pillow of hide filled with Spanish Moss, and does not rise above the edge of the cradle, in order to keep the head as low as the shoulders. [311] Over the forehead are laid two bands of deerskin that keep the head on the cushion, and renders that part flat. A child in this state can scarcely move; it is rocked endwise by putting the cradle on two pieces of cane that make it rock back and forth. Once the child is a month old, they put under its knees garters made of buffalo’s wool which is very soft, and above the ankle bones they bind the legs with thread of the same wool for the breadth of three or four inches. These ligatures the child wears until it is four or five years old.

The infants of the Naturals are born white, but they soon turn brown, because they are rubbed with bear’s oil and exposed to the sun. They let them crawl about upon all fours, without walking them about upright, as they are still too weak to support the weight of their bodies. They rub them with oil for two reasons; first of all to render the sinews more flexible: in the second place, to prevent the flies from biting them when they are all bare and left to themselves in this manner. [312]

They do not put these infants onto their feet until they are more than a year old, and when they begin to raise themselves up, they always have a young girl of from ten to twelve years to hold them under the armpits. They let these children suckle as long as it pleases them; at least unless the mother finds herself pregnant, when she no longer nurses.

When the boys approach twelve years a bow and arrow are made for them, proportioned to their strength. To train them, they tie up a little bunch of grass of the size of the wrist and long as the hand, and attach it with four cords on the end of a pole a little pointed, about ten feet above the ground. The one of these young boys who knocks down the bunch of grass receives the reward of praise from an old man, who is always present. The one who shoots best is named the young warrior. The one who shoots less well, but who is almost as adroit, is named the apprentice warrior, and so on with the others who are praised for their earnestness rather than for their hits.

Since from their tenderest years they are threatened by the old man if they are [313] obstinate or do any harm, this happens rarely, and they fear and respect him more than anyone else. This old man is the eldest in the family and is often a great-grandfather or great-great-grandfather, for these Naturals live a long time. Although they may have no gray hair until they become great-grandfathers, we saw some who were completely gray-haired, and, having grown tired of living, could no longer stand on their legs, though having no sickness nor infirmity other than old age. For this reason, it was necessary to carry them out of the hut to take air or for any other necessity; this help is never refused to these old men. The respect one has for them is so great in their family that they are seen as judges; their advice is treated as law. An old man heading a family is called Father by all of the children of his hut whether they are nephews or great-nephews. The Naturals say often that such a man is their father, meaning the head of the family; and when they want to speak of their own father, they call such a man their real father.

If the young people should happen to fight, something that I neither saw nor heard of during the time I lived [314] among them, they would be threatened with banishment far from the nation, as persons unworthy to dwell with others. It is often repeated to them that if they are struck they should be cautious about retaliating. I have already said that I have studied them a very long time, but I have never heard of any such disputes or beatings among the young people or the grown men.

They have no police among them except reason, because in following exactly the law of nature they have no contentions, and thus have no need for judges.

As fast as the children grow the men and women take care to accustom those of their sex to the labors and exercises which are suitable to each, and they have no trouble in occupying them with these tasks. But it must be admitted that the girls and the women work more than the men and boys, who have not many other labors than those of hunting, fishing, and cutting wood, of which the women carry even the smallest piece. Finally, they have the cornfields to make and weed. On the days of rest they amuse themselves by making mattocks, according to their fashion, paddles, and [315] oars; but these utensils once made last for a long time. On the other hand the woman has to bring up her children, to pound the maize in order to nourish the family, to feed the fire, and to manufacture many utensils that involve great labor and do not last long, like pottery, mats, clothing, and a thousand other similar things of which I have spoken in the article on the labors of the natives.

When the children are from ten to twelve years old they are accustomed little by little to carrying small burdens, which are increased with age. A traveler has told me that the nations of the North make their children carry very large burdens. I can hardly believe this, because I have always noticed that all the nations, without exception, take great care with their youth, and that all believe they must not push young people too hard, nor marry them until they are about twenty-five years old, as otherwise they would become enervated. Without a doubt, he who saw them carrying great loads did not pay attention to what they were carrying. These young people were traveling in the company [316] of their mothers and their fathers. They had to carry the smoked meat that one calls jerky ["les plats côtés"]; this is a thin meat that hunters take from the sides of the beef carcass. No one goes without it, however little they might have. When it is smoked and dry, it is a little like parchment skin; a large load might weigh only twenty pounds. One cannot judge this without having seen it; it's hard to imagine that a young man could carry such a large burden. But I’ve always thought that such a reasonable people would not give the heaviest loads to their children, because they manage them well, so that later their bodies are ready to do for themselves things that require a lot of strength.

Racing is from time to time the exercise of the youths, but they are not permitted to exhaust themselves over a long distance, nor by repeated running, for fear lest they overheat themselves. The swiftest at this exercise sometimes mock those who are slower, but the old man who directs them prevents this raillery from going too far, for he carefully avoids subjects of quarrel and [317] discord among them. It is, without doubt, for this reason that they never let them wrestle, in order to cut short anything that might give birth to disputes among them. I am well persuaded that this education, added to the gentleness of their character and that of the climate, renders them so sociable among themselves and with those who come to know them.

In order that the youths maintain that agility which running exacts at the same time that it gives it, the youths are early accustomed to bathe every morning to fortify the sinews and to harden them in the cold and by the fatigue, besides teaching them how to swim so that they may be able to flee from or pursue an enemy. For this purpose an old man is chosen to call them, every morning of the year, until they know how to swim well, boys and girls without exception. This is another labor for the mothers, who go there to teach their infants, who are compelled to go from the age of three years. Those who already know fairly well how to swim make a great noise in winter beating the water to drive away the alligators and to warm themselves. The old man [318] tells them this; they must believe it.

All that I have so far reported enables one to see sufficiently well that the women are very much tied down by work, and I am able to assure you that I have almost never seen them enjoying any leisure. However, I have never heard them complain of their sufferings, unless it was for those which the children give them, which arise as much from the anxiety which maternal love gives as from the labors which they have around them. Besides, the labors of their state having become familiar from their earliest youth, they give themselves to them without repugnance.

The girls are warned from their earliest years that if they are lazy or awkward they will have only a lout for a husband. By this means they are made to emulate one another and to see who will do best. I have noticed in all the countries that I have visited that the girls make good use of this threat.

Let not one think on that account that the young men are entirely lazy. Their occupations, indeed, are not of such long duration, but they are much more painful, and, as they need more strength, reason demands that they preserve [319] their youth so much the more, without being exempted from the exercises. Great attention is paid never to beat them in infancy, for fear lest a bad blow might wound them. I leave the reader to decide whether it would inspire more sense in a child to use fear alone, or to use beatings to give them an education which vanishes as soon as they are away from the impression of the blows that they were obliged to receive in order to learn to think well.

By sparing their youth in this manner the body grows, shapes itself, and becomes strong without trouble. In their youth they follow the men to the hunt only to learn the rules and to accustom themselves to be patient. Beyond that they are not employed in any rough work, in order not to weaken them and render them incapable of going to war and doing work which exacts much strength. But when they are grown men they work the field or waste, and prepare it to receive seed. They go hunting and to war, dress skins, cut down trees, make their bows and arrows, and aid [320] each other in building their cabins.

I admit, however, that much more time is left to them than to the women, but this time is not always lost. On the contrary, I find it very well employed. These people have no assistance from writing, and are able to preserve their own history only through tradition. Thus it is impossible for them to learn it except by frequent conversations. The old men are the depositaries of this, and as it has been very faithfully transmitted from generation to generation they call it " the ancient word." What contributes much to preserve it in all its purity is that they do not teach it to all the young people indifferently. This tradition is all of their science and the only authority on which they are able to base their reasonings. This is why reason makes them vividly conscious of the fact that they ought not to waste this treasure, and that the surest means of preserving it unaltered is not to entrust such a precious deposit to people who have not the prudence necessary to make good use of it, or who in a little while would entirely deform it by additions or by [321] omissions equally damaging to the truth They therefore choose for this purpose those among the youths of whom they had the best opinion in order to teach them past things. Moreover, this choice is very easy for them, because the children are always under their eyes and the old men are in a very good position to know them, the same cabin ordinarily embracing the same family.

Most of the Natchez speak the common language [Mobilian jargon] fairly well and I understood in such a way to be able to comprehend that which had to do with the needs of life and for that which concerned trade. However, I also wanted to learn the language of this nation [Natchez], so that I could talk to the women who simply don’t speak the common language and who often bring us many of the necessary things in life. I would be quite at ease questioning them and answering them back. What increased my desire to know their language was the desire to educate myself about the history of this nation, which seemed to me distinct amongst the others and which I had heard celebrated for its spirit and its good qualities.

So, I told my slave to ask [322] some of her relatives among the Natchez to come to my place. Through the good relations that I had with him whom she brought to see me, I convinced him to arrange for me to interview those who were most respected.

The first that I met was the Chief Temple Guardian. I devoted myself to getting to know him, without relying on the superiority that we naturally have over them through our enlightenment, our sciences, and our arts. I was charmed to behold a man who, better than any other, could give me the instruction I wished for about their religion, their temple, which I saw from the first days of my arrival, and the eternal fire that was maintained there. What also gave me great pleasure was that he knew the common language; I had through this means much greater capacity. I offered him much friendship and with him I behaved in a way that was so well mannered, so frank, and so liberal, conforming altogether into their manners of civility, that I was fully assured of his trust. I made myself a true friend, and as I found in him all of the candor, spirit, and prudence that I could [323] have wanted, I sincerely accorded him my friendship. It was through his own enterprise that I came to know the Great Sun, or Sovereign of the Nation, and his brother the Tattooed Serpent who was the chief warrior. This way, in little time, I attracted great attention among the Natchez. I easily learned the language of the people and I did not delay to learn a little of that of the Nobles, which I learned through the frequency with which I encountered certain ones and through putting what I already knew into use.

I will refrain from giving here a dictionary of the Natchez language. This would be a very useless thing, since this nation, or, better said, the few who have remained, have mixed into the Chickasaw tribe, among whom they later took refuge. As for the trade jargon [Mobilian], it is better learned through practice than through the learning of rules. In any case, this language is not so necessary now as during the time in which I lived in this area, for we are no longer such close neighbors nor such close relations to the Naturals.

Therefore, I will say only that the language of the Natchez is easily pronounced and expressive in its terms; they often speak figuratively like the Orientals [324]. The Natchez in particular do this more than the other peoples of Louisiana. They have two languages, that of the Nobles and that of the people; both are very rich. I will give two or three examples of these two languages. The thing signified is the same in both languages although the words of each haven’t any resemblance to each other. When I address a man of the people, I say to him, aquenan, which means "listen;" if, on the contrary, I want to speak to a Sun or a noble, I say to him magani, "listen." And if a man of the people has arrived at my place I would say tachté-cabanacté meaning "there you are" or "I’m pleased to see you", which is like our greeting. To a Sun, I say the same thing by the word apapegouya-iche. Then, according to their custom, I say to a man of the people, petchi, meaning "sit down", but if it’s a Sun, I say to him caham, which also signifies "sit down". These words must suffice to show the difference between the two languages since these language differences exist only to distinguish the Suns and Nobles from the common people.

Women speak the same language [325] as the men, but they use softening affectations in their way of pronouncing, unlike the men who speak more seriously. This pronunciation is so affected that even the women make fun of those who speak as they do. This is a fault that the French don’t pick up except through greater exposure to women than to men. I didn’t learn this difference except in spending time with the nobles, who pointed it out to me. The Great Sun even said one day at the last meeting we had: "Learn, then, to speak to the men; you speak the same language as the women". From this strong comment I set myself to understand what he could have been saying and to hear it for myself. From then on I no longer thought of anything but composing questions to the Temple Guardian about their religion, their habits, their origin, and on all subjects that piqued my curiosity.