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DISCOURSE

ON

THE RELIGION OF THE INDIAN TRIBES

OF

NORTH AMERICA.

Mr. President, and

Gentlemen of the Historical Society,

In surveying those portions of American history, from which I might select a subject for the present occasion, it appeared to me, that the religion of the Indian tribes of North America, had not been viewed with that largeness of observation, which is the characteristic of enlightened philosophy. Various causes may be mentioned, which have hitherto conspired to prevent, or to impede, such an examination. In the first place, the horror, proceeding from the cruelties of their warfare, forbade the calmness of investigation. As long as they were formidable, curiosity was overpowered by terror; and there was neither leisure, nor inclination, to contemplate their character as a portion of the human family, while the glare of conflagration reddened the mid

The white men of

night sky, and the yells of the savage, mingling with the shrieks of butchered victims, rode, as portentous messengers, upon every gale. But that state of things has long ceased to exist. America have become too numerous, to fear any longer the effects of savage barbarity; and the tales, which once carried terror to the stoutest heart, are now scarcely heard beyond the precincts of the nursery. In the room of fear, should now arise a sentiment of pity. "The red men are melting," to borrow the expressive metaphor of one of their most celebrated warriors*"like snow before the sun ;" and we should be anxious, before it is too late, to copy the evanescent features of their character, and perpetuate them on the page of history.

But when fear ceases, contempt is a natural consequence. The Indian, whose character was once so lofty and independent, is now seen begging at our doors for the price of his perdition; and, as our foot spurns the suppliant, we are apt to think, that nothing, connected with one so vile, can be worthy of our attention. But is it fair to judge from so vitiated a specimen? When a race of men are mingled with others, who consider them as inferiors, they inevitably become so. Submission to contempt, is an acknowledgment of its justice. If, therefore, the

* The noted Miami Chief Mishikinakwa, or Little Turtle, who contributed most to the defeat of St. Clair. See Volney's View of the soil and climate of the United States. Supplement, No. VI. Philad. 1804, p. 385.

Indian would avoid degradation, he must retire from the habitations of white men; and if we wish to see him in his original character, we must follow him to his native forests.-There, surely, he is worthy of our attention. The lovers of the physical sciences, explore the woods of America, to cull her plants, and to investigate the habits of her animals. Shall not the lovers of the moral sciences, be equally ardent and industrious? Shall man, who stands at the summit of earthly creation, be forgotten, amid the general scrutiny?

The sources of prejudice which I have mentioned, influence the examination of every subject, connected with the Indian character: there are peculiar difficulties, with regard to that on which I have chosen to address you.

The Indians themselves are not communicative in relation to their religion; and it requires a good deal of familiar, attentive, and I may add, unsuspected observation, to obtain any knowledge respecting it. Hence, many who have been transiently resident among them, have very confidently pronounced, that they have no religion; an assertion, which subsequent and more accurate travellers, have shown to be entirely unfounded.*

Those, also, on whom we rely for information, have either been too little informed to know what to observe, or they have been influenced by peculiar

* See Note A.

modes of thinking, which have given a tinge to all they have said on the subject.

The various speculations, for example, on the question, whence America was peopled, led to many misrepresentations of the religious rites of its inhabitants; and affinities were discovered which existed no where but in the fancy of the inventor. Gomara, Lerius, and Lescarbot, inferred from some resemblances of this kind, that America was peopled by the Canaanites when they were expelled by Joshua; and the celebrated Grotius, adopting the sentiment of Martyr, imagined that Yucatan was first peopled by Ethiopians, and that those Ethiopians were Christians!*

The human mind derives pleasure from paradox, for the same reason that it delights in wit. Both produce new and surprising combinations of thought; and the judgment, being overpowered by the fervours of imagination, becomes for a time insensible to their extravagance.

It is well known, that, among the philosophers of Europe, the opinion has very generally prevailed, that the natives of America were, both as to physical and mental powers, a feeble race; and, impressed with this belief, they hardly considered the religion of the Indians as worthy of minute attention. The celebrated historian of America, has unconsciously fallen into this error, at the very moment in

* See Note B.

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