Up to this time the child had belonged to the mother, but he slept with his mother and father. Although he was “babied” until this time, he also learned many necessary things. First the infant learned not to cry. In a nomadic life nothing that could betray the band to the nearby food animals or to lurking enemies could be allowed. Hence some early travelers remarked that mothers stifled the cries of very young, even newborn infants, by a hand over the mouth. He learned that in the presence of elders he did not speak unless spoken to. He learned that his father’s medicine bag, hanging at the head of his bed, was not to be handled. He learned that women did not have “sacred” medicine bundles but might have personal fire-bags or charms, etc.
He learned that there were ways of doing things and of not doing things. He must have observed many times how the camp was pitched, and how the house was used – the separate sleeping quarters and living quarters. He learned that before the family ate, the father always gave thanks to Someone Out There, and that a piece of choice meat was always thrown in the fire as an offering before the family partook of any. He also observed that the people gave public thanks to the animal that had given its life for them. He would learn that extra care was taken to use all of the meat, and to properly dispose of any waste bones or tissues so that the spirit of the animal would not be offended. He grew up knowing these things.
Up to the age of four, parents made much of their children, doing without food if necessary to sustain them. On his mother’s back, he was taken to the tribal functions, heard the stories and songs, felt the rhythm of the dancing, and saw many things that an infant was not expected to know the meaning of.
Above all, he knew that the Indian lived in two worlds, the world of his everyday experiences, and the world of his dreams. The latter was as important as the former. Even as a little child, if he dreamed as children do, nobody would hush him with the remark, “Oh it’s just a dream”. To the Indian a dream was a communication from the supernatural world, which was very real and significant to him. In fact, his elders often told their dreams, and took them very seriously as communications from the world beyond. They listened to the child’s dream with as much respect.
Suddenly, on the birth of another baby to the family or when he was able to chew and digest regular food, the infant was hurled into another phase of his life. He was turned over to an elder — an aunt or uncle, or a grandparent. For the next few years his whole life was a preparation to experience The Dream or the “Vision”.
In the meantime both little boys and little girls had privileges which were denied to the women and older girls. The children could roam behind the camp, and into the bush where the men went, and from which the food also came. For the child, the bush was a place of mystery, where not only the familiar animals roamed, but also where the shadows of the ancient giant animals from the long-ago times might be encountered.
The grandparents were the custodians of tribal lore, which they imparted by stories – many, many stories. The stories and accompanying songs were of “how-things-came-to-be” and “how-things-were” in the tribal past. These songs and stories the child learned word for word.
Indian children had few toys to play with. As soon as they could walk they were expected to share in the tribal life, the chores being assumed according to that custom assigned to men and women. Like white children they learned many customs and rituals, which we might call superstitions. For example, as the first set of teeth dropped out they were thrown towards the rising sun to make the new set grow more rapidly. Is this any more superstitious than leaving our baby teeth for the “tooth fairy”?
Above all, the boys had to learn to endure pain without cries or tears. Not that they were painfully punished. Nobody raised a hand to a child in anger. Indians were inexpressibly shocked to see a white men strike his child. Teasing was the accepted way to chide, not punish, a child.
On the other hand, adults did not interfere when boys “played games” which white parents would not have allowed. Contests of strength and stoic endurance went far beyond what children could be expected to endure – but they did – and the first to cry or moan was utterly ashamed and he shamed his family as well. Such things as pulling fingers, pulling hair, or pulling ears, or twisting limbs almost to the severing point, were not the worst. Two boys might wrap arms around each other and have a hot coal dropped between their chests. They would hold the clutch without a grimace, much less a cry. Such “games” were an apprenticeship in learning to fight and die without dishonor.
When white children went to church boarding schools with Indian children at Grouard, Sturgeon Lake or Peace River, the “cruelty” of the Indian boys was almost unendurable to the whites until the nuns put a stop to it, – the first “softening” of the Indian in the white man’s world.
It was hard to say whether this prohibition was worse than the necessity to sit at a desk for a stipulated number of hours a day. In his camp, the Indian child had the utmost freedom to roam at will in the bush. The parents might be anxious, but would not always interfere for it was assumed that “some animal was calling him”. In fact he might not be missed, for the whole camp was the child’s “home” once he left his mother – or in case he were orphaned.
An extreme case of what seemed like unforgivable adult unconcern occurred at Fort St. John early in the century. Chief Wolf had at the time four wives and thirty-four children. In the fall, the band left for their trapping grounds around Fort Nelson. A four-year old boy had wandered off, and, before anybody missed him, the band was away. Before anybody found him the bitter winter had passed, and he was seen, clad in the scantiest of clothing. He was discovered scrounging with the dogs for the scraps of food. He was healthy!
At this time he would not yet have a distinctive name. In the summer some surveyors adopted him and sent him down to Fort Vermilion to the mission school where he was given the name St. John Peace.
Only in a society where children were given the utmost freedom, and had been set outside parental authority, could such an incident occur. The “extended family” of close relatives could easily cause a child to be “mislaid”.
As soon as a toddler left his mother’s care, the whole band became his parents, and teachers. In a society where romantic love and public expressions of love would be shocking, affection for little children was displayed without apology. Certainly in the traditional extended family the child did not lack affection, cuddling, and approval. From babyhood the boy was expected to be “manly”, not “womanly”, and the little girl was expected to learn the womanly arts, for only by both could the tribe survive.
Skills came no more naturally or instinctively to Indian children than to any other. They had to be learned and perfected by long teaching and practice starting when they were two years old. The Indians showed much more respect for a little child’s abilities. On the other hand, little fingers never got rapped because they were not as adept as a grownup’s.
The extended family was recognized by the manner of addressing each other. The direct form of address was seldom used – all elderly people were called “grandmother” or “grandfather” as a form of respect, younger adults as “aunt” and “uncle”. Contemporaries in age were “cousin” – close relatives by exact titles “sister of my father”, “brother of my mother”. The elders used the title of “son” or “daughter” for the young ones. The Indian family seemed to respect, at all times, the individual. Even if an enemy found himself in an Indian tipi he was “brother” as long as he was a guest.
Little girls were taught in most tribes to speak low and gently. Boys, too, were taught to speak quietly and thoughtfully. If one had nothing important to say, he should say nothing. Even today, older Indians who have been brought up in a truly native atmosphere have notably soft, slow speech. The habit of silence was often interpreted by white men – even missionaries who should have known better, – as sullenness or lack of intelligence. When white people, even today, make rude remarks or ask impertinent questions, the older Indians answer with silence.
Another Indian characteristic was rigorously taught – the strict control of visible emotions. Temper tantrums were not tolerated because it showed loss of self-control and dignity, and uncontrolled anger in adult life endangered the tribe.
It may be that the expulsion of the band that are now known as Sarcee was caused by the anger of the man whose gun was a target for a dog’s natural instinct to record his passing by. When a woman laughed, the gun’s owner shot the dog in anger. In the ordinary course of tribal justice – the dog’s owner would have made restitution for the insult by a gift of meat or a pair of moccasins. For some reason, a serious fight was precipitated in which many were killed. The expulsion of the gun’s owner and all his family seems to have been agreed upon by all concerned. Something more than a dog’s misdemeanor must have been at stake. There were many occasions when there was fun and boisterous play among the youngsters when they were alone. But in the presence of elders, guests or strangers, a grave manner, and quiet, controlled, conduct were the only “good manners”. Ceremony and ritual took care of any awkward situations.
Smiles were for intimates only. It was not polite to grin at a stranger. There are peoples in the interior of Asia today who consider that showing the teeth is an act of aggression. Here apparently the Cree were and still are a much more happy-go-lucky people, but the more serious Beavers were considered unfriendly, even hostile and aloof. Ernest Thompson Seton wrote, “Nothing seems to anger the educated Indian today more than the oft-repeated absurdity that his race was of a gloomy, silent nature. Anyone that has ever lived in an Indian village knows what a scene of joy and good cheer it normally was. In every gathering there was always one recognized fun-maker who led them all in joke and hilarious jest. Their songs, their speeches, their fairy tales, are full of fun and dry satire. The reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology…set forth these facts.”
Ohiyesa, the educated Sioux, writes in Indian Boyhood, “There is scarcely anything so exasperating to me as the idea that the natives of the country have no sense of humour or faculty for mirth…I don’t believe I have ever heard a real hearty laugh away from the Indians’ fireside. I have often spent a entire evening in laughter with them, until I could laugh no more…However, Indian humour consists as much in the gestures and inflections of the voice as in words, and is really untranslatable.”
Another observer, Col. I Dodge in Our Wild Indians, wrote this: “The Indians (in their aboriginal state) are habitually and universally the happiest people I ever saw”. Theft was unknown. A child might pick up what another person had clearly discarded. White men learned not to leave valuables scattered about, but anything that indicated a closed door was protection enough.
To share with others was taught from infancy, not just within the immediate family, but with all.
Another quality that a child learned very early was patience. In a hunting society, impetuous or over-hasty conduct might hurt the whole band’s success. The white man soon learned that until he was on the verge of starvation and extinction, an Indian would not be “pushed around.” To hurry was undignified unless there was an important reason.
These and all other disciplinary lessons were taught by what we call “parables”. Wesakajak for the Crees and Usakindje for the Beavers was a folk-character who got himself into all kinds of human situations, good and bad. He was rewarded by success or appropriately punished to fit his crime. The myths, which many white people still consider just superstition were lessons in “cause and effect”. Example by the elders was the best teacher, and failing that, the loss of privileges taught the little ones what was acceptable and what was not.
Nevertheless the male child would have his own sponsor or tutor. Usually it was his father’s brother who prepared him for the experience ahead – the vision. He must learn to make a bow and arrows, and must be able to use them. Boys spent all their spare time at target practice or stalking game silently so as not to crack a twig. They learned to observe bent or broken grass stems or bits of hair and judge the age, sex, and time of passing of all kinds of game. From time to time the uncle would test the boy’s endurance – or teach him the lore he needed to know to survive in the bush. And he taught him what he should expect at the time he achieved his “vision”.
All this time the child had only the secret name given to him at birth, known only to the shaman, and the elders – and the nickname that he earned by his own conduct – often a mocking or critical one.
In the tipis around the fire in the long night, he learned the songs and stories that kept alive the history, myths and legends, sufferings and victories of his people, and he learned to recite them, word for word.
If he were very ill, he might have experienced the “magic” of the shaman’s medicine. He knew what it was to be born, and to die – and how to die with a song on his lips. By eight or ten years of age a child was already becoming an adult. As with white children, childhood passed into adolescence, but the change was more marked.
We know more about the experiences of boys than about girls because few if any women have come close enough to the women of any tribe to receive their personal confidences.
At the end of childhood, a girl’s life became much more restricted than that of a boy. First the older women built a little teepee to which the girl withdrew for a while, attended only by older female relatives. The ritual for a girl and for a married woman was the same. Each month she camped apart for several days in a small brush hut, drinking from a special birch-bark cup. Her mother or female relatives brought her dried meat and dried fish. If she ate fresh meat or fresh fish at this season she would spoil the hunters’ luck. Since even to look at a hunter would impair his success in the chase, she covered her eyes whenever she left her shelter. She might not walk in a hunter’s trail, or touch his beaver net, though she could handle his knife, axe or snowshoes. If she looked inside the den of a black bear that a hunter had slain he would kill no others; and if she walked through running water no more fish would be caught in that stream. Several foods were forbidden to women who were able to bear children. They could not eat eggs, for then labour would be accompanied by much pain. Eating a beaver that had drowned meant they would choke in their chests or become consumptive. Only when a woman became old and unable to bear more children were these food taboos lifted from her.