Volume II, chapter 24 (pp352-362)

The Manners and Customs of the Naturals continued: The Feasts of the Natchez

Since I had given the Great Sun the gift of my priceless loupe, my visits to the Temple Guardian became so frequent that I had every opportunity to learn of the Natchez feasts, which are at once religious and political. The Great Sun kept his word and never left me without game. The Temple Guardian, now my close friend, was so conscious of his duty as to carry out the orders he received with scrupulous exactitude. In fact these people are brought up in a most perfect submission to their sovereign; the authority that he exerts over them is absolutely despotic, and can be compared only to that of the first Ottoman emperors. He is, like them, absolute master of the lives and estates of his subjects. [353] He disposes of them according to his pleasure; his will is the only law. And by an advantage the Ottomans never enjoyed, there are neither seditious movements to fear, nor any attempts on his person. When he orders a man who has merited it to be put to death, the unhappy condemned individual neither begs, nor makes intercession for his life, nor seeks to escape. The order of the sovereign is executed on the spot and no one objects. The relatives of the Great Sun partake of his authority more or less according to their nearness in blood to him.

In fact, the Tattooed Serpent had recently put to death three men who had arrested a Frenchmen and tied him up for torture and execution. This even though we were at the time at war with the Natchez. The Frenchmen whom Serpent Piqué loved very much, was M. de St. Hilaire, surgeon at Saint Catherine’s, not far from Fort Rosalie. He was called to this fort and en route was taken by the Natchez in an ambush. At the time that I write this, M. de St. Hilaire is still alive in Paris and is in good health.

I said that feasts were equally religious and political. They are religious in that they seem to be instituted [354] for the purpose of thanking the Great Spirit for the blessings he has sent to mankind. They are political in that the subjects pay their sovereign the tribute they owe. Since he created the great empire for them, many give to him in order to serve him. A number of warriors attach themselves to him to follow him wherever he goes and hunt for him, though he imposes no explicit corvee. What he receives from the people seems less an obligation than a voluntary homage offered and an expression of love and recognition.

This nation starts its year in the month of March, as we have done for a long time in Europe, and divides the year into thirteen moons. This thirteenth moon is added to finish off the year and to align the time with the revolutions of the planet and sun. At the beginning of each new moon, one celebrates a feast that takes its name from the names of the first fruits harvested at the beginning of the previous month or from animals typically hunted. I tried to keep record of the detail of each holiday but this exercise became too exhausting. I will satisfy myself by describing [355] a few of them as briefly as possible, but always with enough to make the genius of these peoples clearly known.

The first moon is that of the deer. The New Year brings a universal joy. To further celebrate this feast, an interesting event, which is held dear in memory, is re-enacted. Long, long ago, a Great Sun suddenly heard a great tumult in his village, and went quickly to quiet it, only to fall into the hands of a hostile nation that had come to ambush them. But then his warriors, having run immediately to his assistance, took him back and put their enemies in flight.

In order to remember this honorable deed from their history, all the warriors parade themselves, in two bodies distinguished by the color of their plumes. One party has white plumes; the other, which represents the enemy, has red ones. The two bands ready themselves for the ambush. The first stays near the cabin of the Great Sun, while that of the enemy, at the head of which is the Great War Chief, advances first, to a short [356] distance, making many movements and contortions and uttering great cries. The Great Sun then comes out of his cabin, in all his regalia, rubbing his eyes as if he has just awakened. The enemies throw themselves upon him and endeavor to carry him away, until the other warriors rush up and take him out of their hands. This action takes place without any injury on either side and without quarrels, but not without noise. The cries of the enemies while attacking are their death songs; those of the nation attacked are cries of fear and terror. The sound of some seems to encourage them. The enemy continues its death songs so long as the Great Sun is in their hands. The nation, running at its enemies, approaches them. Both make many movements that are stratagems of war; they last a half an hour. During this time, the Sun defends himself with a war club of the ancient pattern, made of wood. He knocks down a great number of the enemy without touching them. The mere motion of the blow throws them down and the blow approaches so near their heads that one would say [357] that he struck them. I was surprised to see this venerable old man, the Great Sun, playing such a magnificent role with so much activity and address. His glance shot terror into the hearts of his enemies, as witnessed by their different cries, for it must be observed that all these cries, though without any articulation, are distinct and have their own meanings. Finally, the nation being attacked arrives and grapples with the enemies. The latter tremble on seeing the fury painted in the eyes and the gestures of the arrivals. The cries change. Those who represent the Natchez knock down a great number of the enemy, who get up again after the Natchez have passed beyond them. Finally, the enemy flees and they are pursued as far as the woods, which are represented by a thicket of canes, such as are always left lying around for the young people. The Natchez then bring back their prince, and, satisfied with a complete victory, and at having rescued the Great Sun from such a great danger, utter cries of joy, which resound through the air and echo off the neighboring woods in turn. The entire nation sees his return and demonstrates its satisfaction by redoubled [358] cries of joy mingled with love, which appear genuine. The old men, the women, and the children are merely spectators along the edge of the open space. They endeavor to imitate the warriors by their cries of joy. In a word, the general happiness is so lively and so natural that it offers an interesting spectacle, and I avow sincerely that I have taken as much pleasure in this mimic warfare as in any comic piece I have ever seen presented in the theater. It is certainly true that a battle of this kind sharply fixes the attention of the spectator, because it is only a pantomime and besides the gestures, it is necessary to know how to distinguish the different cries.

The Great Sun, having been led back to his cabin, rests there and recovers from the violent movements he has gone through, which are such that an actor of thirty would have difficulty in sustaining them for such a long time. After all, this prince was more than ninety years old. While he rests, the warriors who have represented the enemies rejoin the people one after another, and, pretending to be ignorant as to whether their sovereign is wounded or not, because they do not see him appear, utter [359] sighs so plaintive that they draw pity from strangers. This entire spectacle is very amusing, and not being entirely satisfied with what the Chief Temple Guardian told me about them, I wished to see these feasts with my own eyes. Now I have seen them more than once.

Scarcely has the Great Sun rested half and hour when he comes out without his crown. Cries of joy and respectful salutation are heard from all sides, but they cease as soon as they see him take the road to the temple. He stops in the middle of the plaza opposite the temple, before which he performs a kind of adoration, bowing very low, and without bending his knees. He takes up a little earth, which he throws on his head, and then turns successively toward the four quarters of the earth, doing the same thing in each direction. Then, without changing his position, he looks fixedly at the temple, which lies to the south of him. He extends his arms horizontally (or in a cross) and remains as motionless as a statue. He stays in this pose about half an hour. Then the Grand Master of Ceremonies comes to relieve him and do the same thing. This one is himself relieved at [360] the end of a similar period of time by the Great War Chief, who remains there equally long.

During this kind of prayer that the prince makes, a profound silence is preserved. When he has returned to his cabin, plaintive cries begin again and cease only when the two chiefs have completed their ceremony, because then the Great Chief comes out of his cabin, dressed with the ornaments that proclaim his dignity. These include the crown or feather diadem which I have described in the article on clothing. A necklace of large pearls and feathers hangs form the diadem. They bring his throne, which is a large stool with four feet made form one piece of wood. As soon as the sovereign appears on his throne, cries of happiness are heard and last until the end of the feast. This throne is covered with a beautiful skin, well painted and ornamented with different designs. He seats himself on his throne, and the warriors cover his shoulders with a beautiful bison robe and his feet with many peltries. The women make him presents of different kinds, uttering meanwhile loud cries [361] of joy, and the last one who brings them terminates the feast.

All these ceremonies outside being finished, the Suns lead the sovereign back into his cabin. If there are strangers, he has them invited in to eat. One can stay and take a walk until evening, if one wishes to see the dance which takes place on every feast day in the cabin of the Great Sun. His cabin is at least thirty feet on each side and about twenty feet high. It is, like the temple, built on a mound of earth about eight feet high and sixty feet wide.

The second moon feast, which corresponds to our month of April, is that of the Strawberries. The women and the children gather great quantities of them and as they are abundant in this country, one can surmise the Great Sun should not lack for them. The French also benefit from this great harvest. The warriors make their offering of skewered ducks, which they prepare for with a special hunting trip.

The third moon is that of the Small Grain. This moon is often anticipated with impatience, as their harvest of the large [362] grain never suffices to nourish them from one grain harvest to the next.

The fourth is that of the Watermelons, which takes place in the month of June. This month, and the preceding one, are those in which the sardine, which I have spoken of, returns up the Mississippi.

The fifth moon is that of the Peaches; this corresponds with our month of July. During this time, one also gathers raisins, if the birds have let them ripen.

The sixth is that of the Mulberries; it is in the month of August. At this feast, one also brings birds to the Great Sun.