Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/November 1890/Some Lessons from Barbarism

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1195293Popular Science Monthly Volume 38 November 1890 — Some Lessons from Barbarism1890Elaine Goodale Eastman



IN the course of several years' conscientious effort to civilize those barbarians within our borders—the American Indians—I have been unwillingly impressed by the fact that barbarism offers several points of evident superiority to our civilization. It is well known that whole tribes of Indians—indeed, all of them to some extent—have been demoralized and degraded by contact with the lowest whites, and are no longer fair types of the barbarian. A few others have been transformed by schools and lands in severalty into commonplace farming communities, with no very striking features of their own. Let us consider briefly the peculiar customs and habits of thought of the wilder tribes of Sioux —a strong, typical aboriginal race —and let us not be afraid or ashamed to admit that barbarism has valuable lessons for civilization.

The first thing about them to attract the attention of a stranger would probably be their dress. The ignorant and narrow-minded sneer at it because it is unlike the one to which they are accustomed —to them it is nothing but "savage finery." The cosmopolitan observer, who recognizes the real superiority of most of the "national costumes" of European and Asiatic countries to that conventional standard ugly, extravagant, and unhygienic —which seems unhappily destined to supplant them —this man perceives immediately the beauty and propriety of the Indian's dress.

The blanket is convenient, comfortable, and eminently graceful. The fringed buckskin hunting-shirt, leggings, and moccasins have been approved and adopted for more than a century by the intelligent frontiersman, as the best thing possible for the hunter in color, cut, and material. The moccasin especially is acknowledged to be the most perfect foot-covering ever invented. Absolutely comfortable, ornamental, and appropriate, it is worn very commonly by white men, and women too, who have to do with Indians or live near them, and it is the last article of native dress which the "civilized" Indian unwillingly resigns.

The loose, scant robe of the women, with wide flowing sleeves, is almost exactly similar to the well-known Japanese dress, and it is therefore unnecessary to affirm that it is pretty, modest, delightfully comfortable, and ingeniously adapted to the necessities of a primitive existence. I have myself worn it in the wilderness with complete satisfaction, and know by experience how fully it meets the various exigencies of camp life. It requires only five yards of calico, and can be made in two hours! Oh for the ease and freedom, physical, mental, and moral, of a fixed standard of feminine dress which neither deforms, exaggerates, indelicately displays, nor ridiculously cumbers the female form —a dress suitable for all women upon every occasion, and requiring small outlay of time or money or thought! What we all really admire is the healthy, beautiful woman —not the elaborate toilet —and a bit of artistic coloring or graceful lines of drapery are as attainable in a five-cent calico as in a five-dollar brocade.

Another lesson, which many over-civilized people are already learning, is that of outdoor life —life close to Nature. Does not he who "camps out" all summer in the Adirondacks or on the sea-beaches become for the time being a healthy and happy savage? It is scarcely worth while to expatiate upon the sanitary virtues of camp life —as much for the mind as for the body. Every really natural, vigorous, live, thinking person dreads the enervating effects of our artificial indoor existence, in overheated, overfurnished rooms, at luxurious, appetite-destroying tables, and longs for and if possible obtains for himself, during at least a few weeks out of the year, a life mainly on horseback or afoot, at the oar or in the surf; a fine savage hunger, appeased by few and plain dishes; an apotheosis of sleep on a bed of balsam in the tent, or in a hammock under the stars!

So much being granted, it is to be remembered that the Indian can give the white man innumerable "points" on the manner and method of "camping out." Instinctively, or perhaps we should say because of generations of training, he knows the best way to do everything. He is never careless, bungling, or ignorant; but deliberate, systematic, and exact to a degree which is the despair of the uninstructed pale-face. He shrinks neither from danger nor exertion in the pursuit of his ends, yet he never for a moment submits to unnecessary discomfort.

In the Dakota lodge we have the perfection of a canvas house, as was practically admitted when it was made the model for the Sibley army tent, now in such general use. Of course, the original lodge of tanned buffalo-hide was warmer and more durable and more completely water-proof; but even now that this is unattainable, the conical tent of the Dakotas remains the best that has been devised. I have tried them all, and nothing would induce me to use any other. It is more roomy and convenient and a thousand times prettier, because of its circular form, than a "wall-tent," besides being less liable to blow over in a high wind. It is perfectly ventilated as well as warmed by the central fire with its opening above; and the chimney-flaps, which are regulated according to the direction of the wind, carry off all the smoke. It can be turned in a few moments into a cool, shady awning in hot weather, and instantly made almost storm-proof in case of a sud-en thunder-shower. The women are adepts at making and breaking camp in the shortest possible time. I have ridden into camp in a cold, drenching rain, at dark and almost as soon as I had contrived with stiffened limbs to dismount from my pony, remove the saddle and bridle, and picket him out, the tepee would be up, beds arranged, a fire made, water fetched, and supper under way —in short, the height of cozy comfort awaiting me.

The men are equally apt at calculating distances, predicting weather, selecting a camping-ground, discovering water in unlikely places, tracking men or animals —in short, in every variety of woodcraft and plainscraft. Both men and women know how to make available a hundred products of nature of which no white man has ever learned the use. They can build a fire in a treeless country, obtain food from the barren wastes in unexpected forms —it may be of a small land-turtle or hidden water-weed —and nearly every leaf or herb, it appears, can be smoked, or steeped, or smelled of, or lias some medicinal or edible quality. They are skillful in cooking even such articles of food as they have borrowed from us; and I should never expect, while camping with white people, to taste such admirable hot biscuit as the Indian women will bake on a bed of coals in a common fryingpan, or to see coffee browned and prepared with such dexterity and dispatch.

Indians scrupulously respect the rights of the individual to his personal possessions, and to such privacy as is possible in tent life. Each member of the party has his own bed, seat, and especial corner of the tepee, upon which no other ever intrudes, unless compelled by the exigencies of hospitality; and each one keeps his own blankets, clothing, arms, and ornaments in exactly the same place, with reference to the door of the lodge, and observes the same order in packing and repacking throughout the trip. Although the household utensils may be few in number, each has its proper function, and they are much less likely to be promiscuously devoted to various uses than is the disorderly camp equipage of the average white man. Every night the moccasins are neatly mended, and the harness, if any part has given way, repaired in such fashion as to be stronger than before —the little work-bag, containing awls, sinews, and strips of buckskin, is every housewife's companio n—and it may be added that bathing is frequently indulged in and garments washed at lake or river side at very short intervals.

Although we have barely touched upon some of the practical lessons to be learned from the savage, we will turn from these to deeper and fundamental questions of social and political organization. Do we really believe that the framework of our modern society is solidly and honestly built? Do we not condemn in almost unqualified terms its false standards, artificial distinctions, and ridiculous elaborations of purely conventional laws? I do not want to be misunderstood as saying that there is nothing arificial or conventional in the social system of our typical barbarian; this would not be strictly true: nevertheless, it is refreshing to dwell among a comparatively simple people a people whose etiquette is easily learned and based upon an instinctive sense of propriety; who know no prearranged division into classes; whose every-day hospitality is not determined by the desire for or the ability to afford display, but solely by the actual need of the chance guest. It is delightful to hear people come straight to the point, tell home truths, talk frankly and ask frank questions, call a spade a spade, and be as unconscious as a child of any possible motive for doing otherwise. A naïve curiosity, a strong sense of humor, a childlike abandon to the simple pleasures of the hour, a responsive and receptive quality of mind, and real courtesy of manner, are all characteristic of our barbarian in his hours of social relaxation. He has his faults, but these are always en evidence: what we have determined for once frankly to consider is, not what the poor Indian lacks, but in what he actually surpasses us.

I scarcely dare to go deeper, and to compare the modified form of communism and the exceedingly simple mode of government which prevails among these Indians with our political system, so heartily abused and so earnestly defended. It has occurred to me, nevertheless, that the college-bred Indian, the product of our nineteenth-century forcing process for savages, might study with no little wonder and dismay the modern writers on dress-reform, and the enthusiastic advocates of an outdoor life; that he might find his brain begin to whirl as he rose upon the topmost wave of progress, and discovered in Henry George, in Edward Bellamy, in Tolstoi, that the prophets of the new era were trying to make the world unlearn all that it had so recently taught him, and that their red-hot schemes of reformation bore many of the familiar features of that effete "barbarism" which he had so painfully discarded.

Is it barely possible, after all, that the fundamental equality of man, the necessity of equalizing burdens and benefits, the grace to "judge not" and to "give to him that asketh," in the Tolstoian sense, are some of the lessons to be learned from barbarism?