I have heard the speaker, on these occasions, after quoting the war actions of their distinguished chieftains, who fell in battle, urging them as a copy of imitation to the living—assure the audience, that such a death, in defence of their beloved land, and beloved things, was far preferable to some of their living pictures, that were only spending a dying life, to the shame and danger of the society, and all of their beloved things, while others died by their virtue, and still continue a living copy. Then, to soften the thoughts of death he tells them, they who died in battle are only gone to sleep with their beloved forefathers; (for they always collect the bones) ―and mentions a common proverb they have, Neetak Intάhāh, “The days appointed, or allowed him, were finished.” And this is their firm belief; for they affirm, that there is a certain fixt time, and place, when, and where, every one must die, without any possibility of averting it. They frequently say, “Such a one was weighed on the path, and made to be light;” ascribing life and death to God’s unerring and particular providence; which may be derived from a religious opinion, and proverb of the Hebrews, that “the divine care extended itself, from the horns of the unicorn, to the very feet of the lice.” And the more refined part of the old heathens believed the like. The ancient Greeks and Romans, who were great copiers of the rites and customs of the Jews, believed there were three destinies who presided over human life, and had each of them their particular office; one held the distaff of life, while another spun the thread, and Atropos cut it off: a strong but wild picture of the divine fire, light, and spirit. When Virgil is praising the extraordinary virtue of Ripheus, who was killed in defence of his native city, Troy, he adds, Diis aliter visumest, ―submitting to the good and wise providence of the gods, who thought fit to call him off the Stage. However, he seems to be perplexed on the subject; as he makes fate sometimes conditional;
________Similis si cura fuisset,
Nec pater omnipotens Trojam nec fata vetabant
“If the usual proper care had been taken, neither Jupiter nor fate would have hindered Troy from standing at this time.” But if the time of dying was unalterably fixed, according to the Indian system, or that of our fatalists, how would its votaries reconcile the scheme of divine Providence? which must be in conformity to truth, reason, and goodness, ―and how explain the nature of moral good and evil? On their principle, self-murder would be a necessary act of a passive being set on work by the first mover; and his obligations would be proportionable, only to his power and faculties; which would excuse the supposed criminal from any just future punishment for suicide. But religion, and true reason, deny the premises, and they themselves will not own the consequence.
Though the Indians do not use salt in their first-fruit-oblation till the forth day; it is not to be doubted but they formerly did. They reckon they cannot observe the annual expiation of sins, without bear’s oil, both to mix with that yearly offering, and to eat with the new sanctified fruits; and some years they have a great deal of trouble in killing a sufficient quantity of bears for the use of this religious solemnity, and their other sacred rites for the approaching year; for at such seasons they are hard to be found, and quite lean. The traders commonly supply themselves with plenty of this oil from winter to winter; but the Indians are so prepossessed with a notion of the white people being all impure and accursed, that they deem their oil as polluting on those sacred occasions, as Josephus tells us the Jews reckoned that of the Greeks. An Indian warrior will not light his pipe at a white man’s fire if he suspects any unsanctified food has been dressed at it in the new year. And in the time of the new-ripened fruits, their religious men carry a flint, punk, and steel, when they visit us, for fear of polluting themselves by lighting their pipes at our supposed Loak ookproose, “accursed fire,” and spoiling the power of their holy things. The polluted would, if known, be infallibly anathamatized, and expelled from the temple, with the women, who are suspected of gratifying their vicious taste. During the eight days festival, they are forbidden even to touch the skin of a female child: if they are detected, either in cohabiting with, or laying their hand on any of their own wives, in that sacred interval, they are stripped naked, and the offender is universally deemed so atrocious a criminal, that he lives afterwards a miserable life. Some have shot themselves dead, rather than stand the shame, and the long year’s continual reproaches cast upon them, for every mischance that befalls any of their people, or the ensuing harvest, ― a necessary effect of the divine anger, they say, for such a crying sin of pollution.
About the year 1738, the Cheerake received a most depopulating shock, by the small pox, which reduced them almost one half, in about a year’s time: it was conveyed in to Charles-town by the Guinea-men, and soon after among them, by the infected goods. At first it made slow advances, and as it was a foreign, and to them a strange disease, they were so deficient in proper skill, that they alternately applied a regimen of hot and cold things, to those who were infected. The old magi and religious physicians who were consulted on so alarming a crisis, reported the sickness had been sent among them, on account of the adulterous intercourses of their young married people, who the past year, had in a most notorious manner, violated their ancient laws of marriage in every thicket and broke down and polluted many of the honest neighbours bean-plots, by their heinous crimes, which would cost a great deal of trouble to purify again. To those flagitious crimes they ascribed the present disease, as a necessary effect of the divine anger; and indeed the religious men chanced to suffer the most in their small fields, as being contiguous to the town-house, where they usually met at night to dance, when their corn was out of the stalks; upon this pique, they shewed their priest-craft. However, it was thought needful on this occasion, to endeavor to put a stop to the progress of such a dangerous disease: and as it was believed to be brought on them by their unlawful copulation in the night dews, it was thought most practicable to try to effect the cure, under the same cool element. Immediately, they ordered the reputed sinners to lie out of doors, day and night, with their breast frequently open to the night dews, to cool the fever: they were likewise afraid, that the diseased would otherwise pollute the house, and by that means, procure all their deaths. Instead of applying warm remedies, they at last in every visit poured cold water on their naked breasts, sung their religious mystical song, Yo Yo, &c. with a doleful tune, and shaked a calabash with the pebble-stones, over the sick, using a great many frantic gestures, by way of incantantion. From the reputed cause of the disease, we may rationally conclude their physical treatment of it, to be of a true old Jewish descent; for as the Israelites invoked the deity, or asked a blessing on everything they undertook, so all the Indian Americans seek for it, according on the remaining faint glimpse of their tradition.
When they found their theological regimen had not the desired effect, but that the infection gained upon them, they held a second consultation, and deemed it the best method to sweat their patients, and plunge them into the river, ―which was accordingly done. Their rivers being very cold in summer, by reason of the numberless springs, which pour from the hills and mountains―and the pores of their bodies being open to receive the cold, it rushing in through the whole frame, they immediately expired: upon which, all the magi and prophetic tribe broke their old consecrated physicpots, and threw away all the other pretended holy things they had for physical use, imagining they had lost their divine power by being polluted; and shared the common fate of their country. A great many killed themselves; for being naturally proud, they are always peeping into their looking glasses, and are never genteelly drest, according to their mode, without carrying one hung over their shoulders: by which means, seeing themselves disfigured, with hope of regaining their former beauty, some shot themselves, others cut their throats, some stabbed themselves with knives, and others with sharp-point canes; many threw themselves with sullen madness into the fire, and there slowly expired, as if they had been utterly divested of the native power of feeling pain.
I remember, in Tymάse, one of their towns, about ten miles above the present Fort Prince-George, a great head-warrior, who murdered a white man thirty miles below Cheeòwhee, 247 as was proved by the branded deerskins he produced afterward―when he saw himself disfigured by the small pox, he chose to die, that he might end as he imagined his shame. When his relations knew his desperate design, they narrowly watched him, and took away every sharp instrument from him. When he found he was balked of his intention, he fretted and said the worst things their language could express, and shewed all the symptoms of a desperate person enraged at his disappointment, and forced to live and see his ignominy; he then darted himself against the wall, with all his remaining vigour, ―his strength being expended by the force of his friends opposition, he fell sullenly on the bed, as if by those violent struggles he was overcome, and wanted to repose himself. His relations through tenderness, left him to his rest―but as soon as they went away, he raised himself, and after a tedious search, finding nothing but a thick and round hoe-helve, he took the fatal instrument, and having fixed one end of it in the ground, he repeatedly threw himself on it, till he forced it down his throat, when he immediately expired. ―He was buried in silence, without the least mourning.
[#11] Cherokee: “Varieties of Shame: Date of Death, Pollution, and the Disfigurement of Smallpox,” from James Adair, The History of the American Indians, ed. Kathryn E. Holland Braund, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005, pp. 90-91, 152, 252-53. Originally published: London: Edward and Charles Dilly, 1775.