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Life Amongst the Modocs

The Indian's Account of the Creation
Chapter XIX

By Joaquin Miller

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Note: I have included the entire chapter 19 from Joaquin Miller's Life Amongst the Modocs: Unwritten History.  Although the entire chapter is well worth reading, the tale concerning the grizzly bears and the creation of the Native Americans begins in the middle of the chapter, and you can skip the long introduction and jump right to the gizzly tale if you wish. Also in the same chapter is Miller's brief re-telling of  how Mt. Shasta was created.

I now became almost thoroughly an Indian.  The clash and struggle of the world below had ground upon my nerves, and I was glad to get away.  Perhaps by nature I inclined to the dreamy and careless life of the Arabs of America; certainly my sympathies had always been with them, and now my whole heart and soul entered into the wild life in the forest.  In fact from the first few months I had spent with these people--a sort of prisoner--I had a keen but inexpressed desire to be with them and them alone.
 Now my desire was wholly gratified.  I had seen my last, my only friend depart, and had shut the door behind him with a slam--a sort of fierce delight that I should be left alone in the wilderness.

No more plans for getting money; nor more reproach from fast and clever men who managed the lower world; no more insults from the coarse and insolent; no more bumping of my head against the customs and proprieties of a half, and hence tyrannical, civilization;--nothing, it seemed to me now, but rest, freedom, absolute independence.

Did I dread and fear the primeval curse that God has put upon all men, and so seek to hide away from Him in the dark deep forests of Shasta?

I think not.  I think rather that all men have more or less of the Arab in their natures; and but for the struggles for gold, the eddies and currents of commerce, and the emulation of men in art, and the like, we should soon become gipsies, Druids, and wanderers in the wild and fragrant woods that would then repossess the lands.

Maybe after a while, when the children of men are tired and weary of the golden toy they will throw it away, rise up and walk out into the woods, never more to return to cities, to toil, to strife, to thraldom.

But the Indian's life to an active mind is monotonous, and so I found it there; listless, dull, and almost melancholy.  We rode, we fished, we hunted, and hunted, and fished, and rode, and that was nearly all we could do by day.  If, however, we had no intense delights we had no great concern.  We dreamed dreams and built castles higher than the blue columns of smoke that moved towards the heavens through the dense black boughs above.  And so the seasons wore away.

Under all this, of course, there was another current, deep and exhaustless.  Indians have their loves, and as they have but little else, these fill up most of their lives.  That I had mine I do not deny; and how much this had to do with my remaining here I do not care to say.  Nor can I bring my will to write of myself in this connection.  These things must remain untold.  They were sincere then, and shall be sacred now.

At night, when no wars or excitement of any kind stirred the village, they would gather in the chief's or other great bark lodges around the fires, and tell and listen to stories; a red wall of men in a great circle, the women a little back, and the children still behind, asleep in the skins and blankets.  How silent!  You never hear but one voice at a time in an Indian village.

The Indians say the Great Spirit made this mountain first of all.  Can you not see how it is? they say.  He first pushed down snow and ice from the skies through a hole which he made in the blue heavens by turning a stone round and round, till he made this great mountain, then he stepped out of the clouds on to the mountain top, and descended and planted the trees all around by putting his finger on the ground.  Simple and sublime!

The sun melted the snow, and the water ran down and nurtured the trees and made the rivers.  After that he made the fish for the rivers out of the small end of his staff.  He made the birds by blowing some leaves which he took up from the ground among the trees.  After that he made the beasts out of the remainder of his stick, but made the grizzly bear out of the big end, and made him master over all the others.  He made the grizzly so strong that he feared him himself, and would have to go up on the top of the mountain out of sight of the forest to sleep at night, lest the grizzly, who, as will be seen, was much more strong and cunning then than now, should assail him in his sleep.  Afterwards, the Great Spirit wishing to remain on earth, and make the sea and some more land, he converted Mount Shasta by a great deal of labour into a wigwam, and built a fire in the centre of it and made it a pleasant home.  After that his family came down, and they all have lived in the mountain ever since.  They say that before the white man came they could see the fire ascending from the mountain by night and the smoke by day, every time they chose to look in that direction.


Hunting Grizzly Bear at Squaw Valley on the east side of Mount Shasta
Painting by Thomas Hill courtesy of the Montagne Collection

This, I have no doubt, is true.  Mount Shasta is even now, in one sense of the word, an active volcano.  Sometimes only hot steam, bringing up with it a fine powdered sulphur, staining yellow the snow and ice, is thrown off.  Then again boiling water, clear at one time and then muddy enough, boils up through the fissures and flows off into a little pool within a hundred feet of the summit.  It is very unsettled and uncertain.  Sometimes you hear most unearthly noises even a mile from the little crater, as you ascend, and when you approach, a tumult like a thousand engines with whistles of as many keys; then again you find the mountain on its good behaviour and sober enough.

Once it was thought a rare achievement to make the ascent of Mount Shasta; now I find that almost every summer some travellers and residents make the ascent.  This must not be undertaken, however, when the arid sage brush plains of the east are drawing the winds across from the sea.  You would at such a time be blown through the clouds like a feather.

Two days only are required to make the crater from the ranches in Shasta valley at the north base of the mountain.  The first day you ride through the dense forest--a hard day's journey indeed--up to  the snow line, where you sleep, leave your horses, and with pike and staff confront the ice and snow.

I ascended this mountain the last time more than fifteen years ago.  It was soon after I first returned to the Indians.  I acted as guide for some travelling, solemn, self-important-looking missionaries in black clothes, spectacles and beaver hats.  They gave me some tracts, and paid me for my services in prayers and sermons.  The memories of the trip were so unpleasant that I never had courage or desire to undertake it again.

There is but one incident in it all that I have ever recalled with pleasure.  I had come out of the forest like a shadow, timid, shrinking, sensitive, to these men: like an Indian, eager to lead them, to do them any service for some kind words, some sympathy, some recognition from these great, good men, wise and learned, who professed to stand so near the throne eternal, who were so anxious for the heathen.  I led and fed and watered and groomed their horses.  I watched while they slept, spread their blankets beneath the trees on the dry soil, folded and packed them, headed the gorges, shunned the chaparral and bore on my own shoulders all the toils, and took on my own breast all the dangers of the day.  I found them the most sour, selfish, and ungrateful wretches on earth.  But I led them to the summit--two of them only--panting, blowing, groaning at every step.  The others had sat down on blocks of ice and snow below.  These two did not remain a moment.  They did not even lift their eyes to the glory that lay to the right or to the left.  What to them was the far faint line of the sea to the west; the long white lakes that looked like snow drifts, a hundred miles away to the east?  Had they not been on the summit?  Had they not said a prayer and left tracts there?  Could they not have that to say, to report, to write about?  Was all this not enough?

Hastily, indeed, they muttered something, hurriedly drew some tracts from their pockets, brought far away into this wilderness by these wise, good men, for the benighted heathen, then turned as if afraid to stay, and retraced their steps.

I hated these men, so manifestly unfit for anything like a Christian act--despised them, not their books or their professed work.  When I had swept my eyes around on the space below and photographed the world for myself, I turned and saw these tract-leaves fluttering at my feet, in the wind, in the snow, like the wings of a wounded bird.  A strange, fierce fit of inspiration possessed me then.  I drew my bowie-knife, drove it through the open, fluttering leaves, and pinned them to the snow, then turned to descend the mountain, with a chuckle of delight.

These wild people of the forest, about the base of Mount Shasta, by their valour, their savage defiance of the white man, and many commendable traits, make good their claim to be called the first of the land.  They are much nobler, physically, than any other tribes of Indians found between the Nez-Percés of the north and the Apaches of the south.  They raise no grain, rarely dig roots, but subsist chiefly on meat, acorn bread, nuts and fish.

These Indians have a great thirst for knowledge, particularly of the location and extent of countries.  They are great travellers.  The fact is, all Indians are great travellers.  In any tribe, even in the deserts of Arizona, or the tribes of the plains, you will find guides who can lead you directly to the sea to the west, or the Sierras to the east.  A traveller with them is always a guest.  He repays the hospitality he receives by relating his travels and telling of the various tribes he has visited, their extent, location, and strength.  No matter if the traveller is from a hostile tribe, he is treated well and allowed to pass through any part of the country, and go and come when he likes.  Having no fortresses, and being constantly on the move, makes it perfectly safe for them to let their camps and locations be known to all.

A story-teller is held in great repute; but he is not permitted to lie or romance under any circumstances.  All he says must bear the stamp of truth, or he is disgraced for ever.  Telling stories, their history, traditions, travels, and giving and receiving lessons in geography, are their chief diversion around their camp and wigwam fires at night; except the popular and never-exhausted subject of their wars with the white man, and the wrongs of their race.

Geography is taught by making maps in the sand or ashes with a stick.  For example, the sea a hundred miles away is taken as a base.  A long ling is drawn there, and rivers are led into the sea by little crooked marks in the sand.  Then sand or ashes are heaped or thrown in ridges to show the ranges of mountains.

This tribe is defined as having possessions of such and such an extent on the sea.  Another tribe reaches up this river so far to the east of that tribe, and so on, till a thousand miles of the coast are mapped out with tolerable accuracy.  In these exercises each traveller, or any one who by his age, observation, or learning, is supposed to know, is expected to contribute his stock of information, and aid in drawing the chart correctly.  I have seen the great Willamette valley, hundreds of miles away, which they call Pooakan Charook, very well drawn, and the location of Mount Hood pointed out with precision.  They also chart out the great Sacramento valley, which they call Noorkan Charook, or South Valley.  This valley, however, although a hundred miles away, is almost in sight.  They trace the Sacramento River correctly, with its crooks and deviations, to the sea.

Their code of morals, which consists chiefly of a contempt of death, a certainty of life after death, temperance in all things, and sincerity, is taught by old men too old for war; and these lessons are given seldom, generally after some death or disaster, when the young men are depressed and not disposed to listen to tales or take part in any exercises around the camp.  The women never attempt to teach anything, or even to correct the children.  In fact, the children are rarely corrected.  To tell the truth, they are not at all vicious.  I recall no rudeness on their part, or disrespect for their parents or travellers.  They were fortyfold more civil than are the children of the whites.

Quite likely this is because they have not so many temptations to do wrong as white children have.  They have a natural outlet for all their energies; they can hunt, fish, trap, dive, and swim, run in the woods, ride, shoot, throw the lance, do anything they like in like directions, and only receive praise for their achievements.

There is a story published that these Indians will not ascend Mount Shasta for fear of the Great Spirit there.  This is only partly true.  They will not ascend the mountain above the timber line under any circumstances; bit it is not fear of either good or evil spirit that restrains them.  It is their profound veneration for the Good Spirit:  the Great Spirit who dwells in this mountain with his people as in a tent.

This mountain, as I said before, they hold is his wigwam, and the opening at the top whence the smoke and steam escapes is the smoke-place of his lodge, and the entrance also from the earth.  Another mistake, which I wish to correct, is the statement of one writer, that they claim the grizzly bear as a fallen brother, and for this reason refuse to kill or molest him.  This is far from the truth.  Instead of the grizzly bear being a bad Indian undergoing a sort of purgatory for his sins, he is held to be a propagator of their race.
The Indian account of their creation is briefly this.  They say that one late and severe spring-time many thousand snows ago, there was a great storm about the summit of Shasta, and that the Great Spirit sent his youngest and fairest daughter, of whom he was very fond, up to the hole in the top, bidding her speak to the storm that came up from the sea, and tell it to be more gentle or it would blow the mountain over.  He bade her do this hastily, and not put her head out, lest the wind would catch her in the hair and blow her away.  He told her she should only thrust out her long red arm and make a sign, and then speak to the storm without.

The child hastened to the top, and did as she was bid, and was about to return, but having never yet seen the ocean, where the wind was born and made his home, when it was white with the storm, she stopped, turned, and put her head out to look that way, when lo! the storm caught in her long red hair, and blew her out and away down and down the mountain side.  Here she could not fix her feet in the hard, smooth ice and snow, and so slid on and on down to the dark belt of firs below the snow rim.

Now, the grizzly bears possessed all the wood and all the land even down to the sea at that time, and were very numerous and very powerful.  They were not exactly beasts then, although they were covered with hair, lived in the caves, and had sharp claws; but they walked on two legs, and talked, and used clubs to fight with, instead of their teeth and claws as they do now.

At this time, there was a family of grizzlies living close up to the snow.  The mother had lately brought forth, and the father was out in quest of food for the young, when, as he returned with his club on his shoulder and a young elk in his left hand, he saw this little child, red like fire, hid under a fir bush, with her long hair trailing in the snow, and shivering with fright and cold.  Not knowing what to make of her, he took her to the old mother, who was very learned in all things, and asked her what this fair and frail thing was that he had found shivering under a fir-bush in the snow.  The old mother Grizzly, who had things pretty much her own way, bade him leave the child with her, but never mention it to any one, and she would share her breast with her, and bring her up with the other children, and maybe some great good would come of it.

The old mother reared her as she promised to do, and the old hairy father went out every day with his club on his shoulder to get food for his family till they were all grown up, and able to do for themselves.

"Now," said the old mother Grizzly to the old father Grizzly, as he stood his club by the door and sat down one day, "our oldest son is quite grown up, and must have a wife.  Now, who shall it be but the little red creature you found in the snow under the black fir-bush."  So the old grizzly father kissed her, said she was very wise, then took up his club on his shoulder, and went out and killed some meat for the marriage feast.

They married, and were very happy, and many children were born to them.  But, being part of the Great Spirit and part of the grizzly bear, these children did not exactly resemble either of their parents, but partook somewhat of the nature and likeness of both.  Thus was the red man created; for these children were the first Indians.

All the other grizzlies throughout the black forests, even down to the sea, were very proud and very kind, and met together, and, with their united strength, built for the lovely little red princess a wigwam close to that of her father, the Great Spirit.  This is what is now called "Little Mount Shasta."

After many years, the old mother Grizzly felt that she soon must die; and, fearing that she had done wrong in detaining the child of the Great Spirit, she could not rest till she had seen him and restored him his long-lost treasure, and asked his forgiveness.

With this object in view, she gathered together all the grizzlies at the new and magnificent lodge built for the Princess and her children, and then sent her eldest grandson to the summit of Mount Shasta, in a cloud, to speak to the Great Spirit and tell him where he could find his long-lost daughter.

When the Great Spirit heard this he was so glad that he ran down the mountain-side on the south so fast and strong that the snow was melted off in places, and the tokens of his steps remain to this day.  The grizzlies went out to meet him by thousands; and as he approached they stood apart in two great lines, with their clubs under their arms, and so opened a lane by which he passed in great state to the lodge where his daughter sat with her children.

But when he saw the children, and learned how the grizzlies that he had created had betrayed him into the creation of a new race, he was very wroth, and frowned on the old mother Grizzly till she died on the spot.  At this the grizzlies all set up a dreadful howl; but he took his daughter on his shoulder, and turning to all the grizzlies, bade them hold their tongues, get down on their hands and knees, and so remain till he returned.  They did as they were bid, and he closed the door of the lodge after him, drove all the children out into the world, passed out and up the mountain, and never returned to the timber any more.

So the grizzlies could not rise up any more, or use their clubs, but have ever since had to go on all-fours, much like other beasts, except when they have to fight for their lives, when the Great Spirit permits them to stand up and fight with their fists like men.

That is why the Indians about Mount Shasta will never kill or interfere in any way with a grizzly.  Whenever one of their number is killed by one of these kings of the forest, he is burned on the spot, and all who pass that way for years cast a stone on the place till a great pile is thrown up.  Fortunately, however, grizzlies are not plentiful about the mountain.

In proof of the truth of the story that the grizzly once walked and stood erect, and was much like a man, they show that he has scarcely any tail, and that his arms are a great deal shorter than his legs, and that they are more like a man than any other animal.

These Indians burn their dead.  I have looked into this, and, for my part, I should at the last like to be disposed of as a savage.

There is no such thing as absolute independence.  You must ask for bread when you come into the world, and will ask for water when about to leave it.  Freedom of body is equally a myth, and a demagogue's text; though freedom of mind is a certainty, and within the reach of all, grand duke or galley-slave, peasant or prince.

Since we are always more or less dependent, a wise and just man will seek to make the load as light as possible on his fellows.  Socrates disliked to trouble even so humble and coarse a person as his jailer.  Mahomet mended his own clothes, and Confucius waited on himself till too feeble to lift a hand.

If these wise men were careful not to take the time of others to themselves, when living and capable of doing or saying something for the good of their fellows in return, how much more careful we should be not to do so when dead--when we can help nothing whatever, and nothing whatever can help or harm us!

Holding this, I earnestly desire that my body shall be burned, as soon as the breath has left it, in the sheets in which I die, without any delay, ceremony, or preparation, beyond the building of a fire.  There shall be no tomb or inscription of any kind.  If a man does any great good, history will take note of it.  If he has true friends, he will live in their hearts while they live, and that is certainly as long as he could live on marble, in a village churchyard, or elsewhere.

The waste of toil and money, which means time, taken from the poor and needy by the strong and wealthy, in conducting funerals and celebrating doubtful virtues by building monuments, is something enormous.  Even good taste, to say nothing of this great sacrifice of time, should rise above a desire to ride to the grave in a hundred empty carriages, and crop up through the grass in shameless boast of all the virtues possible, chiselled there.  Particularly in an age when successful soap-boilers, or packers of pork, rival the most refined in the elegance of tombs and flourish of epitaphs.  Another good reason why I protest against this display about the dead, is that so much is done about the worthless and worn-out body, that the mind is constantly directed down into the dismal grave, instead of being lifted to the light of heaven with the immortal spirit.  One good reason is enough for anything.

Besides, there is a waste of land in the present custom that is inexcusable.  Remember, all waste time, all waste labour, all waste land, is loss.  That loss must be borne by some one, some portion of the country; and it is not the wealthy or refined who must bear it.  True, they may directly take the money from their purses, but indirectly all such losses are borne by the poor.  Sift it down and you will see.  Death to the poor man is a terrible thing, made tenfold terrible by the present custom of internment.  He sees that even in death there is a distinction between him and his master, and that he is still despised.  The rich man goes to his marble vault, which is to the poor a palace, in pomp and display of carriages, attended by the dignitaries of the Church, while he, the poor and despised, is quietly carted away to a little corner set apart for the poor.  Of course, a strong and philosophic mind would laugh at this, but to the poor it is a fearful contrast.  "Death is in the world," and throws a shadow on the poor that may, in part, be lifted when all are interred alike--burned in one common fire.

These Indians, as I have before intimated, never question the immortality of the soul.  Their fervid natures and vivid imaginations make the spirit world beautiful beyond description, but it is an Indian's picture, not a Christian's or Mahomedan's.  No city set upon a hill, no palaces curtained in silk and peopled by beautiful women:  woods, deep, dark, boundless, with parks of game and running rivers; and above and beyond all, not a white man there.

I have seen half-civilized Indians who are first-rate disbelievers, but never one who is left to think for himself.  When an Indian tries to understand our religion he stumbles, as he does when he tries to understand us in other things.

The marriage ceremony of these people is not imposing.  The father gives a great feast, to which all are invited, but the bride and bridegroom do not partake of food.  A new lodge is erected and furnished more elegant than any other of the village, by the women, each vieing with the other to do the best in providing their simple articles of the Indian household.

In the evening, while the feast goes on and the father's lodge is full of guests, the women and children come to the lodge with a great number of pitch torches, and two women enter and take the bride away between them:  the men all the time taking no heed of what goes on.  They take her to the lodge, chanting as they go, and making a great flourish with their torches.  Late at night the men rise up, and the father and mother, or those standing in their stead, take the groom between them to the lodge, while the same flourish of torches and chant goes on as before.  They take him into the lodge and set him on the robes by the bride.  This time the torches are not put out, but are laid one after another in the centre of the lodge.  And this is the first fire of the new pair, which must not be allowed to die out for some time.  In fact, as a rule, in time of peace Indians never let their lodge-fires go out so long as they remain in one place.

When all the torches are laid down and the fire burns bright, they are supposed to be married.  The ceremony is over, and the company go away in the dark.  Late in the fall, the old chief made the marriage-feast, and at that feast neither I nor his daughter took meat, or any part. . . . . .


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