As I alluded to last time, I'm spending some time immersed in Michigan, via the excellent local libraries: proletarian car-factory novels, rock crit madmen, Elmore Leonard. It's awesome. And while it's a pleasure to actually dip into writers (Oates, Roethke) I've been acquainted with for years without ever really reading, I really light up when I'm digging into the archives: opening books that I suspect (and the vestigal checkout slip in the back confirms) haven't been cracked for years and encountering messages from the past that crackle with the foreign intelligence of another time.
Today's offering is from a 1956 book that does its own digging: Mentor L. Williams's edition of the influential (but apparently poorly selling) "Indian tales" collected, mainly in northern Michigan, by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. Published originally in 1839 under the title Algic Researches ("Algic" was a term made up by Schoolcraft, the federal Indian agent in Sault Ste Marie, to describe the native peoples and languages of northeast North America), the tales found their greatest influence in the 1850s through Longfellow's Hiawatha, a publishing phenomenon for which Schoolcraft served as its Holinshed.
There are plenty of stories to tell about all of that, but my favorite tidbit from Williams's edition is included in an appendix, an extensive questionnaire that Lewis Cass, the governor of the Michigan Territory (and future Democratic nominee for president), sent out in the early 1820s to gather data on the Indian tribes in the territory. I don't know much more useful background on Cass (in whose employ Schoolcraft also managed the other feat for which he is remembered, tracking the source of the Mississippi) or his investigations, but it's the questions themselves that draw me. Freighted both as inquisitive demands of an invading force and as poignant expressions of human curiosity, they seem equally the questions you might ask of your enemy, a possible friend, or yourself.
Here is a sample, from the dozens of questions that Williams quotes (and the hundreds more he doesn't):
- What is the original name of the tribe?
- What is the present Indian name?
- Do they indulge in any prognostics respecting the weather?
- What do they think of the meteors, called shooting stars?
- What do they think of the ocean?
- Are there wind instruments [and], if so, are they used exclusively, as is said, by the young men in love?
- Do they believe in ghosts?
- Do they believe in the moral superintendence of any invisible being over the affairs of the world?
- Do they ever eat human flesh, and if so, upon what occasions and with what ceremonies?
- Do they ever visit one another for the purpose of conversation?
- By what do they regulate their course in an unknown country?
- Do they exhibit strong feelings of love, friendship, or affection?
- Is it common with them to endeavor to conceal such feelings?
- When they return home, after being long absent, how do they conduct themselves?
- What is their reason for sparing the lives of snakes?