Oak Openings by James Fenimore Cooper
Who will believe that, with a smile whose blessing Would, like the patriarch's, soothe a dying hour; With voice as low, as gentle, and caressing As e'er won maiden's lips in moonlight bower; With look like patient Job's, eschewing evil; With motions graceful as the birds in air; Thou art, in sober truth, the veriest devil That e'er clinched fingers in a captive's hair? --HALLECK'S Red-Jacket.
Although the arrival of the runner was so totally unexpected, it scarcely disturbed the quiet of that grave assembly. His approaching step had been heard, and he was introduced in the manner mentioned, when the young chief resumed his seat, leaving the messenger standing near the centre of the circle, and altogether within the influence of the light. He was an Ottawa, and had evidently travelled far and fast. At length he spoke; no one having put a single question to him, or betrayed the least sign of impatient curiosity.
"I come to tell the chiefs what has happened," said the runner. "Our Great Father from Quebec has sent his young men against the Yankees. Red warriors, too, were there in hundreds--" here a murmur of interest was slightly apparent among the chiefs--"their path led them to Detroit; it is taken."
A low murmur, expressive of satisfaction, passed round the circle, for Detroit was then the most important of all the posts held by the Americans, along the whole line of the great lakes. Eye met eye in surprise and admiration; then one of the older chiefs yielded to his interest in the subject, and inquired:
"Have our young men taken many pale-face scalps?"
"So few that they are not worth counting. I did not see one pole that was such as an Indian loves to look on."
"Did our young men keep back, and let the warriors from Quebec do all the fighting?"
"No one fought. The Yankees asked to be made prisoners, without using their rifles. Never before have so many captives been led into the villages with so little to make their enemies look on them with friendly eyes."
A gleam of fierce delight passed athwart the dark features of Peter. It is probable that he fell into the same error, on hearing these tidings, as that which so generally prevailed for a short time among the natives of the old world, at the commencement of both of the two last wars of the republic, when the disasters with which they opened induced so many to fall into the fatal error of regarding Jonathan as merely a "shopkeeper." A shopkeeper, in a certain sense, he may well be accounted; but among his wares are arms, that he has the head, the heart, and the hands to use, as man has very rarely been known to use them before. Even at this very instant, the brilliant success which has rendered the armed citizens of this country the wonder of Europe, is reacting on the masses of the old world, teaching them their power, and inciting them to stand up to the regularly armed bands of their rulers, with a spirit and confidence that, hitherto, has been little known in their histories. Happy, thrice happy will it be, if the conquerors use their success in moderation, and settle down into the ways of practical reason, instead of suffering their minds to be led astray in quest of the political jack-o'-lanterns, that are certain to conduct their followers into the quagmires of impracticable and visionary theories. To abolish abuses, to set in motion the car of state on the track of justice and economy, and to distinguish between that which is really essential to human happiness and human rights, and that which is merely the result of some wild and bootless proposition in political economy, are the great self-imposed tasks that the European people seem now to have assumed; and God grant that they may complete their labors with the moderation and success with which they would appear to have commenced them!
As for Peter, with the curse of ignorance weighing on his mind, it is to be presumed that he fancied his own great task of destroying the whites was so much the lighter, in consequence of the feeble defence of the Yankees at Detroit. The runner was now questioned by the different chiefs for details, which he furnished with sufficient intelligence and distinctness. The whole of that discreditable story is too prominent in history, and of too recent occurrence, to stand in need of repetition here. When the runner had told his tale, the chiefs broke the order of their circle, to converse the more easily concerning the great events which had just occurred. Some were not backward in letting their contempt for the "Yankees" be known. Here were three of their strong places taken, in quick succession, and almost without a blow. Detroit, the strongest of them all, and defended by an army, had fallen in a way to bring the blush to the American face, seemingly leaving the whole of the northwestern frontier of the country ravished from the red man, exposed to his incursions and depredations.
"What does my father think of this?" asked Bear's Meat of Peter, as the two stood apart, in a cluster of some three or four of the principal personages present. "Does the news make his heart stronger?"
"It is always strong when this business is before it. The Manitou has long looked darkly upon the red men, but now his face brightens. The cloud is passing from before his countenance, and we can begin again to see his smile. It will be with our sons as it was with our fathers. Our hunting-grounds will be our own, and the buffalo and deer will be plenty in our wigwams. The fire-water will flow after them that brought it into the country, and the red man will once more be happy, as in times past!"
The ignis fatuus of human happiness employs all minds, all faculties, all pens, and all theories, just at this particular moment. A thousand projects have been broached, will continue to be broached, and will fail, each in its time, showing the mistakes of men, without remedying the evils of which they complain. This is not because a beneficent Providence has neglected to enlighten their minds, and to show them the way to be happy, here and hereafter; but because human conceit runs, pari passu, with human woes, and we are too proud to look for our lessons of conduct, in that code in which they have been set before us by unerring wisdom and ceaseless love. If the political economists, and reformers, and revolutionists of the age, would turn from their speculations to those familiar precepts which all are taught and so few obey, they would find rules for every emergency; and, most of all, would they learn the great secret which lies so profoundly hid from them and their philosophy, in the contented mind. Nothing short of this will ever bring the mighty reform that the world needs. The press may be declared free, but a very brief experience will teach those who fancy that this one conquest will secure the victory, that they have only obtained King Stork in the lieu of King Log; a vulgar and most hideous tyrant for one of royal birth and gentle manners. They may set up the rule of patriots by profession, in place of the dominion of those who have so long pretended that the art of governing descends from male to male, according to the order of primogeniture, and live to wonder that love of country should have so many weaknesses in common with love of itself. They may rely on written charters for their liberties, instead of the divine right of kings, and come perchance to learn, that neither language, nor covenants, nor signatures, nor seals avail much, as against the necessities of nations, and the policy of rulers. Do we then regard reform as impossible, and society to be doomed to struggle on in its old sloughs of oppression and abuses? Far from it. We believe and hope, that at each effort of a sage character, something is gained, while much more than had been expected is lost; and such we think will continue to be the course of events, until men shall reach that period in their history when, possibly to their wonder, they will find that a faultless code for the government of all their affairs has been lying neglected, daily and hourly, in their very hands, for eighteen centuries and a half, without their perceiving the all-important truth. In due season this code will supersede all others, when the world will, for the first time, be happy and truly free.
There was a marked resemblance between the hopes and expectations of Peter, in reference to the overthrow of his pale-face enemies on the American continent, and those of the revolutionists of the old world in reference to the overthrow of their strong-intrenched foes on that of Europe. Each fancies success more easy of attainment than the end is likely to show; both overlook the terrible power of their adversaries; and both take the suggestions of a hope that is lively rather than enlightened, as the substitute for the lessons of wisdom.
It was some little time ere the council had so far regained its calm, as to think of inviting the missionary to resume his discourse. The last had necessarily heard the news, and was so much troubled by it, as to feel no great disposition to proceed; but Peter intimating that "the ears of his friends were open," he was of opinion it would be wisest to go on with his traditions.
"Thus it was, my children," Parson Amen continued, the circle being just as quiet and attentive as if no interruption had occurred--"the Great Spirit, selecting from among the nations of the earth, one to be his chosen people. I cannot stop, now, to tell you all he did for this nation, in the way of wonders and powers; but, finally, he placed them in a beautiful country, where milk and honey abounded, and made them its masters. From that people, in his earthly character, came the Christ whom we missionaries preach to you, and who is the great head of our church. Although the Jews, or Israelites, as we call that people, were thus honored and thus favored of the Manitou, they were but men, they had the weaknesses of men. On more than one occasion they displeased the Great Spirit, and that so seriously as to draw down condign punishment on themselves, and on their wives and children. In various ways were they visited for their backsliding and sins, each time repenting and receiving forgiveness. At length the Great Spirit, tired of their forgetfulness and crimes, allowed an army to come into their land, and to carry away as captives no less than ten of their twelve tribes; putting their people in strange hunting-grounds. Now, this happened many thousands of moons since, and no one can say with certainty what has become of those captives, whom Christians are accustomed to call 'the lost tribes of Israel.'"
Here the missionary paused to arrange his thoughts, and a slight murmur was heard in the circle as the chiefs communed together, in interested comments on what had just been said. The pause, however, was short, and the speaker again proceeded, safe from any ungracious interruption, among auditors so trained in self-restraint.
"Children, I shall not now say anything touching the birth of Christ, the redemption of the world, and the history of the two tribes that remained in the land where God had placed his people; for that is a part of the subject that comes properly within the scope of my ordinary teaching. At present I wish only to speak of yourselves; of the red man of America, of his probable origin and end, and of a great discovery that many of us think we have made, on this most interesting topic in the history of the good book. Does any one present know aught of the ten lost tribes of whom I have spoken?"
Eye met eye, and expectation was lively among those primitive and untaught savages. At length Crowsfeather arose to answer, the missionary standing the whole time, motionless, as if waiting for a reply.
"My brother has told us a tradition," said the Pottawattamie. "It is a good tradition. It is a strange tradition. Red men love to hear such traditions. It is wonderful that so many as ten tribes should be lost, at the same time, and no one know what has become of them! My brother asks us if we know what has become of these ten tribes. How should poor red men, who live on their hunting-grounds, and who are busy when the grass grows in getting together food for their squaws and pappooses, against a time when the buffalo can find nothing to eat in this part of the world, know anything of a people that they never saw? My brother has asked a question that he only can answer. Let him tell us where these ten tribes are to be found, if he knows the place. We should like to go and look at them."
"Here!" exclaimed the missionary, the instant Crowsfeather ceased speaking, and even before he was seated. "Here--in this council--on these prairies--in these openings--here, on the shores of the great lakes of sweet water, and throughout the land of America, are these tribes to be found. The red man is a Jew; a Jew is a red man. The Manitou has brought the scattered people of Israel to this part of the world, and I see his power in the wonderful fact. Nothing but a miracle could have done this!"
Great was the admiration of the Indians at this announcement! None of their own traditions gave this account of their origin; but there is reason to believe, on the other hand, that none of them contradict it. Nevertheless, here was a medicine-priest of the pale- faces boldly proclaiming the fact, and great was the wonder of all who heard, thereat! Having spoken, the missionary again paused, that his words might produce their effect. Bear's Meat now became his interrogator, rising respectfully, and standing during the colloquy that succeeded.
"My brother has spoken a great tradition," said the Menominee. "Did he first hear it from his fathers?"
"In part, only. The history of the lost tribes has come down to us from our fathers; it is written in the good book of the pale-faces; the book that contains the word of the Great Spirit."
"Does the good book of the pale-faces say that the red men are the children of the people he has mentioned?"
"I cannot say that it does. While the good book tells us so much, it also leaves very much untold. It is best that we should look for ourselves, that we may find out some of its meanings. It is in thus looking, that many Christians see the great truth which makes the Indians of America and the Jews beyond the great salt lake, one and the same people."
"If this be so, let my brother tell us how far it is from our hunting-grounds to that distant land across the great salt lake."
"I cannot give you this distance in miles exactly; but I suppose it may be eleven or twelve times the length of Michigan."
"Will my brother tell us how much of this long path is water, and how much of it is dry land?"
"Perhaps one-fourth is land, as the traveller may choose; the rest must be water, if the journey be made from the rising toward the setting sun, which is the shortest path; but, let the journey be made from the setting toward the rising sun, and there is little water to cross; rivers and lakes of no great width, as is seen here, but only a small breadth of salt lake."
"Are there, then, two roads to that far-off land, where the red men are thought to have once lived?
"Even so. The traveller may come to this spot from that land by way of the rising sun, or by way of the setting sun."
The general movement among the members of the council denoted the surprise with which this account was received. As the Indians, until they have had much intercourse with the whites, very generally believe the earth to be flat, it was not easy for them to comprehend how a given point could be reached by directly opposite routes. Such an apparent contradiction would be very likely to extort further questions.
"My brother is a medicine-man of the pale-faces; his hairs are gray," observed Crowsfeather. "Some of your medicine-men are good, and some wicked. It is so with the medicine-men of the red-skins. Good and bad are to be found in all nations. A medicine-man of your people cheated my young men by promising to show them where fire- water grows. He did not show them. He let them smell, but he did not let them drink. That was a wicked medicine-man. His scalp would not be safe did my young men see it again"--here the bee-hunter, insensibly to himself, felt for his rifle, making sure that he had it between his legs; the corporal being a little surprised at the sudden start he gave. "His hair does not grow on his head closer than the trees grow to the ground. Even a tree can be cut down. But all medicine-men are not alike. My brother is a good medicine-man. All he says may not be just as he thinks, but he believes what he says. It is wonderful how men can look two ways; but it is more wonderful that they should go to the same place by paths that lead before and behind. This we do not understand; my brother will tell us how it can be."
"I believe I understand what it is that my children would know. They think the earth is flat, but the pale-faces know that it is round. He who travels and travels toward the setting sun would come to this very spot, if he travelled long enough. The distance would be great, but the end of every straight path in this world is the place of starting."
"My brother says this. He says many curious things. I have heard a medicine-man of his people say that the palefaces have seen their Great Spirit, talked with him, walked with him. It is not so with us Indians. Our Manitou speaks to us in thunder only. We are ignorant, and wish to learn more than we now know. Has my brother ever travelled on that path which ends where it begins? Once, on the prairies, I lost my way. There was snow, and glad was I to find tracks. I followed the tracks. But one traveller had passed. After walking an hour, two had passed. Another hour, and the three had passed, Then I saw the tracks were my own, and that I had been walking, as the squaws reason, round and round, but not going ahead."
"I understand my friend, but he is wrong. It is no matter which path the lost tribes travelled to get here. The main question is, whether they came at all. I see in the red men, in their customs, their history, their looks, and even in their traditions, proof that they are these Jews, once the favored people of the Great Spirit."
"If the Manitou so well loves the Indians, why has he permitted the pale-faces to take away their hunting-grounds? Why has he made the red man poor, and the white man rich? Brother, I am afraid your tradition is a lying tradition, or these things would not be so."
"It is not given to men to understand the wisdom that cometh from above. That which seemeth so strange to us may be right. The lost tribes had offended God; and their scattering, and captivity, and punishment, are but so many proofs of his displeasure. But, if lost, we have reason to believe that one day they will be found. Yes, my children, it will be the pleasure of the Great Spirit, one day, to restore you to the land of your fathers, and make you again, what you once were, a great and glorious people!"
As the well-meaning but enthusiastic missionary spoke with great fervor, the announcement of such an event, coming as it did from one whom they respected, even while they could not understand him, did not fail to produce a deep sensation. If their fortunes were really the care of the Great Spirit, and justice was to be done to them by his love and wisdom, then would the projects of Peter, and those who acted and felt with him, be unnecessary, and might lead to evil instead of to good. That sagacious savage did not fail to discover this truth; and he now believed it might be well for him to say a word, in order to lessen the influence Parson Amen might otherwise obtain among those whom it was his design to mould in a way entirely to meet his own wishes. So intense was the desire of this mysterious leader to execute vengeance on the pale-faces, that the redemption of the tribes from misery and poverty, unaccompanied by this part of his own project, would have given him pain in lieu of pleasure. His very soul had got to be absorbed in this one notion of retribution, and of annihilation for the oppressors of his race; and he regarded all things through a medium of revenge, thus created by his feelings, much as the missionary endeavored to bend every fact and circumstance, connected with the Indians, to the support of his theory touching their Jewish origin.
When Peter arose, therefore, fierce and malignant passions were at work in his bosom; such as a merciful and a benignant deity never wishes to see in the breast of man, whether civilized or savage. The self-command of the Tribeless, however, was great, and he so far succeeded in suppressing the volcano that was raging within, as to speak with his usual dignity and an entire calmness of exterior.
"My brothers have heard what the medicine-man had to say," Peter commenced. "He has told them that which was new to them. He has told them an Indian is not an Indian. That a red man is a pale-face, and that we are not what we thought we were. It is good to learn. It makes the difference between the wise and the foolish. The palefaces learn more than the red-skins. That is the way they have learned how to get our hunting-grounds. That is the way they have learned to build their villages on the spots where our fathers killed the deer. That is the way they have learned how to come and tell us that we are not Indians, but Jews. I wish to learn. Though old, my mind craves to know more. That I may know more, I will ask this medicine- man questions, and my brothers can open their ears, and learn a little, too, by what he answers. Perhaps we shall believe that we are not red-skins, but pale-faces. Perhaps we shall believe that our true hunting-grounds are not near the great lakes of sweet water, but under the rising sun. Perhaps we shall wish to go home, and to leave these pleasant openings for the pale faces to put their cabins on them, as the small-pox that they have also given to us, puts its sores on our bodies. Brother--" turning toward the missionary-- "listen. You say we are no longer Indians, but Jews: is this true of all red men, or only of the tribes whose chiefs are here?"
"Of all red men, as I most sincerely believe. You are now red, but once all of your people were fairer than the fairest of the pale- faces. It is climate, and hardships, and sufferings that have changed your color."
"If suffering can do that," returned Peter, with emphasis, "I wonder we are not black. When all our hunting-grounds are covered with the farms of your people, I think we shall be black."
Signs of powerful disgust were now visible among the listeners, an Indian having much of the contempt that seems to weigh so heavily on that unfortunate class, for all of the color mentioned. At the south, as is known, the red man has already made a slave of the descendants of the children of Africa, but no man has ever yet made a slave of a son of the American forests! That is a result which no human power has yet been able to accomplish. Early in the settlement of the country, attempts were indeed made, by sending a few individuals to the islands; but so unsuccessful did the experiment turn out to be, that the design was soon abandoned. Whatever may be his degradation, and poverty, and ignorance, and savage ferocity, it would seem to be the settled purpose of the American Indians of our own territories--unlike the aborigines who are to be found farther south--to live and die free men.
"My children," answered the missionary, "I pretend not to say what will happen, except as it has been told to us in the word of God. You know that we pale-faces have a book, in which the Great Spirit has told us his laws, and foretold to us many of the things that are to happen. Some of these things have happened, while some remain to happen. The loss of the ten tribes was foretold, and has happened; but their being found again, has not yet happened, unless indeed I am so blessed as to be one of those who have been permitted to meet them in these openings. Here is the book--it goes where I go, and is my companion and friend, by day and by night; in good and evil; in season and out of season. To this book I cling as to my great anchor, that is to carry me through the storms in safety! Every line in it is precious; every word true!"
Perhaps half the chiefs present had seen books before, while those who now laid eyes on one for the first time, had heard of this art of the pale-faces, which enabled them to set down their traditions in a way peculiar to themselves. Even the Indians have their records, however, though resorting to the use of natural signs, and a species of hieroglyphics, in lieu of the more artistical process of using words and letters, in a systemized written language. The Bible, too, was a book of which all had heard, more or less; though not one of those present had ever been the subject of its influence. A Christian Indian, indeed--and a few of those were to be found even at that day--would hardly have attended a council convened for the objects which had caused this to be convened. Still, a strong but regulated curiosity existed, to see, and touch, and examine the great medicine-book of the pale-faces. There was a good deal of superstition blended with the Indian manner of regarding the sacred volume; some present having their doubts about touching it, even while most excited by admiration, and a desire to probe its secrets.
Peter took the little volume, which the missionary extended as if inviting any one who might so please, to examine it also. It was the first time the wary chief had ever suffered that mysterious book to touch him. Among his other speculations on the subject of the manner in which the white men were encroaching, from year to year, on the lands of the natives, it had occurred to his mind that this extraordinary volume, which the pale-faces all seemed to reverence, even to the drunkards of the garrisons, might contain the great elements of their power. Perhaps he was not very much out of the way in this supposition; though they who use the volume habitually, are not themselves aware, one-half the time, why it is so.
On the present occasion, Peter saw the great importance of not betraying apprehension, and he turned over the pages awkwardly, as one would be apt to handle a book for the first time, but boldly and without hesitation. Encouraged by the impunity that accompanied this hardihood, Peter shook the leaves open, and held the volume on high, in a way that told his own people that he cared not for its charms or power. There was more of seeming than of truth, however, in this bravado; for never before had this extraordinary being made so heavy a draft on his courage and self-command, as in the performance of this simple act. He did not, could not know what were the virtues of the book, and his imagination very readily suggested the worst. As the great medicine-volume of the pale-faces, it was quite likely to contain that which was hostile to the red men; and this fact, so probable to his eyes, rendered it likely that some serious evil to himself might follow from the contact. It did not, however; and a smile of grim satisfaction lighted his swarthy countenance, as, turning to the missionary, he said with point--
"Let my brother open his eyes. I have looked into his medicine-book, but do not see that the red man is anything but a red man. The Great Spirit made him; and what the Great Spirit makes, lasts. The pale- faces have made their book, and it lies."
"No, no--Peter, Peter, thou utterest wicked words. But the Lord will pardon thee, since thou knowest not what thou sayest. Give me the sacred volume, that I may place it next my heart, where I humbly trust so many of its divine precepts are already entrenched."
This was said in English, under the impulse of feeling, but being understood by Peter, the latter quietly relinquished the Bible, preparing to follow up the advantage he perceived he had gained, on the spot.
"My brother has his medicine-book, again," said Peter, "and the red men live. This hand is not withered like the dead branch of the hemlock; yet it has held his word of the Great Spirit! It may be that a red-skin and a pale-face book cannot do each other harm. I looked into my brother's great charm, but did not see or hear a tradition that tells me we are Jews. There is a bee-hunter in these openings. I have talked with him. He has told me who these Jews are. He says they are people who do not go with the pale-faces, but live apart from them, like men with the small-pox. It is not right for my brother to come among the red men, and tell them that their fathers were not good enough to live, and eat, and go on the same paths as his fathers."
"This is all a mistake, Peter--a great and dangerous mistake. The bee-hunter has heard the Jews spoken of by those who do not sufficiently read the good book. They have been, and are still, the chosen people of the Great Spirit, and will one day be received back to his favor. Would that I were one of them, only enlightened by the words of the New Testament! No real Christian ever can, or does now despise a son of Israel, whatever has been done in times past. It is an honor, and not a disgrace, to be what I have said my friends are."
"If this be so, why do not the pale-faces let us keep out hunting- grounds to ourselves? We are content. We do not wish to be Jews. Our canoes are too small to cross the great salt lake. They are hardly large enough to cross the great lakes of sweet water. We should be tired of paddling so far. My brother says there is a rich land under the rising sun, which the Manitou gave to the red men. Is this so?"
"Beyond all doubt. It was given to the children of Israel, for a possession forever; and though you have been carried away from it for a time, there the land still is, open to receive you, and waiting the return of its ancient masters. In good season that return must come; for we have the word of God for it, in our Christian Bible."
"Let my brother open his ears very wide, and hear what I have to say. We thank him for letting us know that we are Jews. We believe that he thinks what he says. Still, we think we are red men, and Injins, and not Jews. We never saw the place where the sun rises. We do not wish to see it. Our hunting-grounds are nearer to the place where he sets. If the pale-faces believe we have a right to that distant land, which is so rich in good things, we will give it to them, and keep these openings, and prairies, and woods. We know the game of this country, and have found out how to kill it. We do not know the game under the rising sun, which may kill us. Go to your friends and say, 'The Injins will give you that land near the rising sun, if you will let them alone on their hunting-grounds, where they have so long been. They say that your canoes are larger than their canoes, and that one can carry a whole tribe. They have seen some of your big canoes on the great lakes, and have measured them. Fill all you have got with your squaws and pappooses, put your property in them, and go back by the long path through which you came. Then will the red man thank the pale-face and be his friend. The white man is welcome to that far-off land. Let him take it, and build his villages on it, and cut down its trees. This is all the Injins ask. If the pale-faces can take away with them the small-pox and the fire-water, it will be better still. They brought both into this country, it is right that they should take them away.' Will my brother tell this to his people?"
"It would do no good. They know that the land of Judea is reserved by God for his chosen people, and they are not Jews. None but the children of Israel can restore that land to its ancient fertility. It would be useless for any other to attempt it. Armies have been there, and it was once thought that a Christian kingdom was set up on the spot; but neither the time nor the people had come. Jews alone can make Judea what it was, and what it will be again. If my people owned that land, they could not use it. There are also too many of us now, to go away in canoes."
"Did not the fathers of the pale-faces come in canoes?" demanded Peter, a little sternly.
"They did; but since that time their increase has been so great, that canoes enough to hold them could not be found. No; the Great Spirit, for his own wise ends, has brought my people hither; and here must they remain to the end of time. It is not easy to make the pigeons fly south in the spring."
This declaration, quietly but distinctly made, as it was the habit of the missionary to speak, had its effect. It told Peter, and those with him, as plainly as language could tell them, that there was no reason to expect the pale-faces would ever willingly abandon the country, and seemed the more distinctly, in all their uninstructed minds, to place the issue on the armed hand. It is not improbable that some manifestation of feeling would have escaped the circle, had not an interruption to the proceedings occurred, which put a stop to all other emotions but those peculiar to the lives of savages.