SOME ACCOUNT OF THE KNISTENEAUX INDIANS.
These people are spread over a vast extent of country. Their language
is the same as that of the people who inhabit the coast of British
America on the Atlantic, with the exception of the Esquimaux, and
continues along the coast of Labrador, and the gulf and banks of
St. Laurence to Montreal.
The line then follows the Utawas river to its source; and continues from
thence nearly West along the highlands which divides the waters that
fall into Lake Superior and Hudson’s Bay. It then proceeds till it
strikes the middle part of the river Winipic, following that water to
the Lake Winipic, to the discharge of the Saskatchiwine into it; from
thence it accompanies the latter to Fort George, when the line, striking
by the head of the Beaver river to the Elk river, runs along its banks
to its discharge in the Lake of the Hills; from which it may be carried
back East, to the Isle a la Crosse, and so on to Churchill by the
Missinipi, The whole of the tract between this line and Hudson’s Bay and
Straits (except that of the Esquimaux in the latter), may be said to be
exclusively the country of the Knisteneaux. Some of them indeed, have
penetrated further West and South to the Red River, to the South of Lake
Winipic, and the South branch of the Saskatchiwine.
They are of a moderate stature, well proportioned, and of great
activity. Examples of deformity are seldom to be seen among them.
Their complexion is of a copper colour, and their hair black, which is
common to all the natives of North America. It is cut in various forms,
according to the fancy of the several tribes, and by some is left in the
long, lank, flow of nature. They very generally extract their beards,
and both sexes manifest a disposition to pluck the hair from every part
of their body and limbs. Their eyes are black, keen, and penetrating;
their countenance open and agreeable, and it is a principal object of
their vanity to give every possible decoration to their persons. A
material article in their toilets is vermilion, which they contrast with
their native blue, white, and brown earths, to which charcoal is
Their dress is at once simple and commodious. It consists of tight
leggins, reaching near the hip: a strip of cloth or leather, called
assian, about a foot wide, and five feet long, whose ends are drawn
inwards and hang behind and before, over a belt tied round the waist for
that purpose: a close vest or shirt reaching down to the former garment,
and cinctured with a broad strip of parchment fastened with thongs
behind; and a cap for the head, consisting of a piece of fur, or small
skin, with the brush of the animal as a suspended ornament: a kind of
robe is thrown occasionally over the whole of the dress, and serves both
night and day. These articles, with the addition of shoes and mittens,
constitute the variety of their apparel. The materials vary according
to the season, and consist of dressed moose-skin, beaver prepared with
the fur, or European woollens. The leather is neatly painted, and
fancifully worked in some parts with porcupine quills, and moose-deer
hair: the shirts and leggins are also adorned with fringe and tassels;
nor are the shoes and mittens without somewhat of appropriate
decoration, and worked with a considerable degree of skill and taste.
These habiliments are put on, however, as fancy or convenience suggests;
and they will sometimes proceed to the chase in the severest frost,
covered only with the slightest of them.
Their head-dresses are composed of the feathers of the swan, the eagle,
and other birds. The teeth, horns, and claws of different animals, are
also the occasional ornaments of the head and neck. Their hair, however
arranged, is always besmeared with grease. The making of every article
of dress is a female occupation; and the women, though by no means
inattentive to the decoration of their own persons, appear to have a
still greater degree of pride in attending to the appearance of the men,
whose faces are painted with more care than those of the women.
The female dress is formed of the same materials as those of the other
sex, but of a different make and arrangement. Their shoes are commonly
plain, and their leggins gartered beneath the knee. The coat, or body
covering, falls down to the middle of the leg, and is fastened over the
shoulders with cords, a flap or cape turning down about eight inches,
both before and behind, and agreeably ornamented with quill-work and
fringe; the bottom is also fringed, and fancifully painted as high as
the knee. As it is very loose, it is enclosed round the waist with a
stiff belt, decorated with tassels, and fastened behind. The arms are
covered to the wrist, with detached sleeves, which are sewed as far as
the bend of the arm; from thence they are drawn up to the neck, and the
corners of them fall down behind, as low as the waist. The cap, when
they wear one, consists of a certain quantity of leather or cloth, sewed
at one end, by which means it is kept on the head, and, hanging down the
back, is fastened to the belt, as well as under the chin. The upper
garment is a robe like that worn by the men. Their hair is divided on
the crown, and tied behind, or sometimes fastened in large knots over
the ears. They are fond of European articles, and prefer them to their
own native commodities. Their ornaments consist in common with all
savages, in bracelets, rings, and similar baubles. Some of the women
tattoo three perpendicular lines, which are sometimes double: one from
the centre of the chin to that of the under lip, and one parallel on
either side to the corner of the mouth.
Of all the nations which I have seen on this continent, the Knisteneaux
women are the most comely. Their figure is generally well proportioned,
and the regularity of their features would be acknowledged by the more
civilized people of Europe. Their complexion has less of that dark
tinge which is common to those savages who have less cleanly habits.
These people are, in general, subject to few disorders. The lues
venera, however, is a common complaint, but cured by the application of
simples, with whose virtues they appear to be well acquainted. They are
also subject to fluxes, and pains in the breast, which some have
attributed to the very keen and cold air which they inhale; but I should
imagine that these complaints must frequently proceed from their
immoderate indulgence in fat meat at their feasts, particularly when
they have been preceded by long fasting.
They are naturally mild and affable, as well as just in their dealings,
not only among themselves, but with strangers. They are also generous
and hospitable, and good-natured in the extreme, except when their
nature is perverted by the inflammatory influence of spirituous liquors.
To their children they are indulgent to a fault. The father, though he
assumes no command over them, is ever anxious to instruct them in all
the preparatory qualifications for war and hunting; while the mother is
equally attentive to her daughters in teaching them every thing that is
considered as necessary to their character and situation. It does not
appear that the husband makes any distinction between the children of
his wife, though they may be the offspring of different fathers.
Illegitimacy is only attached to those who are born before their mothers
have cohabited with any man by the title of husband.
It does not appear, that chastity is considered by them as a virtue; or
that fidelity is believed to be essential to the happiness of wedded
life, Though it sometimes happens that the infidelity of a wife is
punished by the husband with the loss of her hair, nose, and perhaps
life; such severity proceeds from its having been practised without his
permission: for a temporary interchange of wives is not uncommon: and
the offer of their persons is considered as a necessary part of the
hospitality due to strangers.
When a man loses his wife, it is considered as a duty to marry her
sister, if she has one; or he may, if he pleases, have them both at the
It will appear from the fatal consequences I have repeatedly imputed to
the use of spirituous liquors that I more particularly consider these
people as having been, morally speaking, great sufferers from their
communication with the subjects of civilized nations. At the same time
they were not, in a state of nature, without their vices, and some of
them of a kind which is the most abhorrent to cultivated and reflecting
man. I shall only observe, that incest and bestiality are among them.
When a young man marries, he immediately goes to live with the father
and mother of his wife, who treat him, nevertheless, as a perfect
stranger, till after the birth of his first child: he then attaches
himself more to them than his own parents; and his wife no longer gives
him any other denomination than that of the father of her child.
The profession of the men is war and hunting, and the more active scene
of their duty is the field of battle, and the chase in the woods. They
also spear fish, but the management of the nets is left to the women.
The females of this nation are in the same subordinate state with those
of all other savage tribes, but the severity of their labour is much
diminished by their situation on the banks of lakes and rivers, where
they employ canoes. In the winter, when the waters are frozen, they
make their journeys, which are never of any great length, with sledges
drawn by dogs. They are, at the same time, subject to every kind of
domestic drudgery; they dress the leather, make the clothes and shoes,
weave the nets, collect wood, erect the tents, fetch water, and perform
every culinary service; so that when the duties of maternal care are
added, it will appear, that the life of these women is an uninterrupted
succession of toil and pain. This, indeed, is the sense they entertain
of their own situation; and under the influence of that sentiment, they
are sometimes known to destroy their female children, to save them from
the miseries which they themselves have suffered. They also have a
ready way, by the use of certain simples, of procuring abortions, which
they sometimes practise, from their hatred of the father, or to save
themselves the trouble which children occasion: and, as I have been
credibly informed, this unnatural act is repeated without any injury to
the health of the women who perpetrate it.
The funeral rites begin, like all other solemn ceremonials, with
smoking, and are concluded by a feast. The body is dressed in the best
habiliments possessed by the deceased, or his relations, and is then
deposited in a grave lined with branches; some domestic utensils are
place on it, and a kind of canopy erected over it. During this
ceremony, great lamentations are made, and if the departed person is
very much regretted, the near relations cut off their hair, pierce the
fleshy part of their thighs and arms with arrows, knives, etc, and
blacken their faces with charcoal. If they have distinguished
themselves in war, they are sometimes laid on a kind of scaffolding; and
I have been informed, that women, as in the East, have been known to
sacrifice themselves to the manes of their husbands. The whole of the
property belonging to the departed person is destroyed, and the
relations take in exchange for the wearing apparel, any rags that will
cover their nakedness. The feast bestowed on the occasion, which is, or
at least used to be, repeated annually, is accompanied with eulogiums on
the deceased, and without any acts of ferocity. On the tomb are carved
or painted the symbols of his tribe, which are taken from the different
animals of the country.
Many and various are the motives which induce a savage to engage in war.
To prove his courage, or to revenge the death of his relations, or some
of his tribe, by the massacre of an enemy. If the tribe feel themselves
called upon to go to war, the elders convene the people, in order to
know the general opinion. If it be for war, the chief publishes his
intention to smoke in the sacred stem at a certain period, to which
solemnity, meditation and fasting are required as preparatory
ceremonials. When the people are thus assembled, and the meeting
sanctified by the custom of smoking, the chief enlarges on the causes
which have called them together, and the necessity of the measures
proposed on the occasion. He then invites those who are willing to
follow him, to smoke out of the sacred stem, which is considered as the
token of enrolment; and if it should be the general opinion that
assistance is necessary, others are invited, with great formality, to
join them. Every individual who attends these meetings, brings
something with him as a token of his warlike intention, or as an object
of sacrifice, which, when the assembly dissolves, is suspended from
poles near the place of council.
They have frequent feasts, and particular circumstances never fail to
produce them, such as a tedious illness, long fasting, etc. On these
occasions it is usual for the person who means to give the
entertainment, to announce his design, on a certain day, of opening the
medicine-bag, and smoking out of his sacred stem. This declaration is
considered as a sacred vow that cannot be broken. There are also stated
periods, such as the spring and autumn, when they engage in very long
and solemn ceremonies. On these occasions dogs are offered as
sacrifices, and those which are very fat, and milk-white, are preferred.
They also make large offerings of their property, whatever it may be.
The scene of these ceremonies is in an open inclosure on the bank of a
river or lake, and in the most conspicuous situation, in order that such
as are passing along or travelling, may be induced to make their
offerings. There is also a particular custom among them, that, on these
occasions, if any of the tribe, or even a stranger, should be passing
by, and be in real want of any thing that is displayed as an offering,
he has a right to take it, so that he replaces it with some article he
can spare, though it be of far inferior value; but to take or touch any
thing wantonly is considered as a sacrilegious act, and highly insulting
to the great Master of Life, to use their own expression, who is the
sacred object of their devotion.
The scene of private sacrifice is the lodge of the person who performs
it, which is prepared for that purpose, by removing every thing out of
it, and spreading green branches in every part. The fire and ashes are
also taken away. A new hearth is made of fresh, earth, and another fire
is lighted. The owner of the dwelling remains alone in it; and he
begins the ceremony by spreading a piece of new cloth, or a well-dressed
moose-skin neatly painted, on which he opens his medicine-bag and
exposes its contents, consisting of various articles. The principal of
them is a kind of household god, which is a small carved image about
eight inches long. Its first covering is of down, over which a piece of
birch-bark is closely tied, and the whole is enveloped in several folds
of red and blue cloth. This little figure is an object of the most
pious regard. The next article is his war-cap, which is decorated with
the feathers and plumes of scarce birds, beavers, and eagle’s claws,
etc. There is also suspended from it a quill or feather for every enemy
whom the owner of it has slain in battle. The remaining contents of the
bag are, a piece of Brazil tobacco, several roots and simples, which are
in great estimation for their medicinal qualities, and a pipe. These
articles being all exposed, and the stem resting upon two forks, as it
must not touch the ground, the master of the lodge sends for the person
he most esteems, who sits down opposite to him; the pipe is then filled
and fixed to the stem. A pair of wooden pincers is provided to put the
fire in the pipe, and a double-pointed pin, to empty it of the remnant
of tobacco which is not consumed. This arrangement being made, the men
assemble, and sometimes the women are allowed to be humble spectators,
while the most religious awe and solemnity pervades the whole. The
Michiniwais, or Assistant, takes up the pipe, lights it, and presents it
to the officiating person, who receives it standing and holds it between
both his hands. He then turns himself to the East, and draws a few
whiffs, which he blows to that point. The same ceremony he observes to
the other three quarters, with his eyes directed upwards during the
whole of it. He holds the stem about the middle between the three first
fingers of both hands, and raising them upon a line with his forehead,
he swings it three times round from the East, with the sun, when, after
pointing and balancing it in various directions, he reposes it on the
forks: he then makes a speech to explain the design of their being
called together, which concludes with an acknowledgment for past
mercies, and a prayer for the continuance of them, from the Master of
Life. He then sits down, and the whole company declare their
approbation and thanks by uttering the word _ho!_ with an emphatic
prolongation of the last letter. The Michiniwais then takes up the pipe
and holds it to the mouth of the officiating person, who, after smoking
three whiffs out of it, utters a short prayer, and then goes round with
it, taking his course from East to West, to every person present, who
individually says something to him on the occasion; and thus the pipe is
generally smoked out; when, after turning it three or four times round
his head, he drops it downwards, and replaces it in its original
situation. He then returns the company thanks for their attendance, and
wishes them, as well as the whole tribe, health and long life.
These smoking rites precede every matter of great importance with more
or less ceremony, but always with equal solemnity. The utility of them
will appear from the following relation.
If a chief is anxious to know the disposition of his people towards him,
or if he wishes to settle any difference between them, he announces his
intention of opening his medicine-bag and smoking in his sacred stem;
and no man who entertains a grudge against any of the party thus
assembled can smoke with the sacred stem; as that ceremony dissipates
all differences, and is never violated.
No one can avoid attending on these occasions; but a person may attend
and be excused from assisting at the ceremonies, by acknowledging that
he has not undergone the necessary purification. The having cohabited
with his wife, or any other woman, within twenty-four hours preceding
the ceremony, renders him unclean, and, consequently, disqualifies him
from performing any part of it. If a contract is entered into and
solemnised by the ceremony of smoking, it never fails of being
faithfully fulfilled. If a person, previous to his going a journey,
leaves the sacred stem as a pledge of his return, no consideration
whatever will prevent him from executing his engagement.
The chief, when he proposes to make a feast, sends quills, or small
pieces of wood, as tokens of invitation to such as he wishes to partake
of it. At the appointed time the guests arrive, each bringing a dish or
platter, and a knife, and take their seats on each side of the chief,
who receives them sitting, according to their respective ages. The pipe
is then lighted, and he makes an equal division of every thing that is
provided. While the company are enjoying their meal, the chief sings,
and accompanies his song with the tambourine, or shishiquoi, or rattle.
The guest who has first eaten his portion is considered as the most
distinguished person. If there should be any who cannot finish the
whole of their mess, they endeavour to prevail on some of their friends
to eat it for them, who are rewarded for their assistance with
ammunition and tobacco. It is proper also to remark, that at these
feasts a small quantity of meat or drink is sacrificed, before they
begin to eat, by throwing it into the fire, or on the earth.
These feasts differ according to circumstances; sometimes each man’s
allowance is no more than he can despatch in a couple of hours. At
other times the quantity is sufficient to supply each of them with food
for a week, though it must be devoured in a day. On these occasions it
is very difficult to procure substitutes, and the whole must be eaten
whatever time it may require. At some of these entertainments there is
a more rational arrangement, when the guests are allowed to carry home
with them the superfluous part of their portions. Great care is always
taken that the bones may be burned, as it would be considered a
profanation were the dogs permitted to touch them.
The public feasts are conducted in the same manner, but with some
additional ceremony. Several chiefs officiate at them, and procure the
necessary provisions, as well as prepare a proper place of reception for
the numerous company. Here the guests discourse upon public topics,
repeat the heroic deeds of their forefathers, and excite the rising
generation to follow their example. The entertainments on these
occasions consist of dried meats, as it would not be practicable to
dress a sufficient quantity of fresh meat for such a large assembly;
though the women and children are excluded.
Similar feasts used to be made at funerals, and annually, in honour of
the dead; but they have been, for some time, growing into disuse, and I
never had an opportunity of being present at any of them.
The women, who are forbidden to enter the places sacred to these
festivals, dance and sing around them, and sometimes beat time to the
music within them; which forms an agreeable contrast.
With respect to their divisions of time, they compute the length of
their journeys by the number of nights passed in performing them; and
they divide the year by the succession of moons. In this calculation,
however, they are not altogether correct, as they cannot account for the
The names which they give to the names are descriptive of the several
May Atheiky o Pishim Frog Moon.
June Oppinu o Pishim The Moon in which
birds begin to lay
July Aupascen o Pishim The Moon when
birds cast their
August Aupahou o Pishim The Moon when
the young birds
begin to fly.
September Waskiscon o Pishim The Moon when
the moose deer
cast their horns.
October Wisac o Pishim The Rutting-Moon.
November Thithigon Pewai Hoar-Frost Moon.
Kuskatinsyoui Ice Moon.
December Pawatchicananasis Whirlwind-Moon.
January Kushapawasticanum Extreme cold
o Pishim Moon.
February Kichi Pishim Big Moon; some
say, Old Moon.
March Mickysue Pishim Eagle Moon.
April Niscaw o Pishim Goose Moon.
These people know the medicinal virtues of many herbs and simples, and
apply the roots of plants and the bark of trees with success. But the
conjurers, who monopolize the medical science, find it necessary to
blend mystery with their art, and do not communicate their knowledge.
Their materia medica they administer in the form of purges and clysters,
but the remedies and surgical operations are supposed to derive much of
their effect from magic and incantation. When a blister rises in the
foot from the frost, the chafing of the shoe, etc., they immediately
open it, and apply the heated blade of a knife to the part, which,
painful as it may be, is found to be efficacious. A sharp flint serves
them as a lancet for letting blood, as well as for scarification in
bruises and swellings. For sprains, the dung of an animal just killed
is considered as the best remedy. They are very fond of European
medicines, though they are ignorant of their application: and those
articles form an inconsiderable part of the European traffic with them.
Among their various superstitions, they believe that the vapour which is
seen to hover over moist and swampy places, is the spirit of some person
lately dead. They also fancy another spirit which appears, in the shape
of a man, upon the trees near the lodge of a person deceased, whose
property has not been interred with them. He is represented as bearing
a gun in his hand, and it is believed that he does not return to his
rest, till the property that has been withheld from the grave has been
sacrificed to it.