Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Rupert Brooke > Text of Indians

An essay by Rupert Brooke

The Indians

Title:     The Indians
Author: Rupert Brooke [More Titles by Brooke]

When I was in the East, I got to know a man who had spent many years of his life living among the Indians. He showed me his photographs. He explained one, of an old woman. He said, "They told me there was an old woman in the camp called Laughing Earth. When I heard the name, I just said, 'Take me to her!' She wouldn't be photographed. She kept turning her back to me. I just picked up a clod and plugged it at her, and said, 'Turn round, Laughing Earth!' She turned half round, and grinned. She _was_ a game old bird! I joshed all the boys here Laughing Earth was my girl--till they saw her photo!"

There stands Laughing Earth, in brightly-coloured petticoat and blouse, her grey hair blowing about her. Her back is towards you, but her face is turned, and scarcely hidden by a hand that is raised with all the coyness of seventy years. Laughter shines from the infinitely lined, round, brown cheeks, and from the mouth, and from the dancing eyes, and floods and spills over from each of the innumerable wrinkles. Laughing Earth--there is endless vitality in that laughter. The hand and face and the old body laugh. No skinny, intellectual mirth, affecting but the lips! It was the merriment of an apple bobbing on the bough, or a brown stream running over rocks, or any other gay creature of earth. And with all was a great dignity, invulnerable to clods, and a kindly and noble beauty. By the light of that laughter much becomes clear--the right place of man upon earth, the entire suitability in life of very brightly-coloured petticoats, and the fact that old age is only a different kind of a merriment from youth, and a wiser.

And by that light the fragments of this pathetic race become more comprehensible, and, perhaps, less pathetic. The wanderer in Canada sees them from time to time, the more the further west he goes, irrelevant and inscrutable figures. In the east, French and Scotch half-breeds frequent the borders of civilisation. In any western town you may chance on a brave and his wife and a baby, resplendent in gay blankets and trappings, sliding gravely through the hideousness of the new order that has supplanted them. And there will be a few half-breeds loitering at the corners of the streets. These people of mixed race generally seem unfortunate in the first generation. A few of the older ones, the 'old- timers', have 'made good,' and hold positions in the society for which they pioneered. But most appear to inherit the weaknesses of both sides. Drink does its work. And the nobler ones, like the tragic figure of that poetess who died recently, Pauline Johnson, seem fated to be at odds with the world. The happiest, whether Indian or half-breed, are those who live beyond the ever-advancing edges of cultivation and order, and force a livelihood from nature by hunting and fishing. Go anywhere into the wild, and you will find in little clearings, by lake or river, a dilapidated hut with a family of these solitaries, friendly with the pioneers or trappers around, ready to act as guide on hunt or trail. The Government, extraordinarily painstaking and well-intentioned, has established Indian schools, and trains some of them to take their places in the civilisation we have built. Not the best Indians these, say lovers of the race. I have met them, as clerks or stenographers, only distinguishable from their neighbours by a darker skin and a sweeter voice and manner. And in a generation or two, I suppose, the strain mingles and is lost. So we finish with kindness what our fathers began with war.

The Government, and others, have scientifically studied the history and characteristics of the Indians, and written them down in books, lest it be forgotten that human beings could be so extraordinary. They were a wandering race, it appears, of many tribes and, even, languages. Not apt to arts or crafts, they had, and have, an unrefined delight in bright colours. They enjoyed a 'Nature-Worship,' believed rather dimly in a presiding Power, and very definitely in certain ethical and moral rules. One of their incomprehensible customs was that at certain intervals the tribe divided itself into two factitious divisions, each headed by various chiefs, and gambled furiously for many days, one party against the other. They were pugnacious, and in their uncivilised way fought frequent wars. They were remarkably loyal to each other, and treacherous to the foe; brave, and very stoical. "Monogamy was very prevalent." It is remarked that husbands and wives were very fond of each other, and the great body of scientific opinion favours the theory that mothers were much attached to their children. Most tribes were very healthy, and some fine-looking. Such were the remarkable people who hunted, fought, feasted, and lived here until the light came, and all was changed. Other qualities they had even more remarkable to a European, such as utter honesty, and complete devotion to the truth among themselves. Civilisation, disease, alcohol, and vice have reduced them to a few scattered communities and some stragglers, and a legend, the admiration of boyhood. Boys they were, pugnacious, hunters, loyal, and cruel, older than the merrier children of the South Seas, younger and simpler than the weedy, furtive, acquisitive youth who may figure our age and type. "We must be a Morally Higher race than the Indians," said an earnest American businessman to me in Saskatoon, "because we have Survived them. The Great Darwin has proved it." I visited, later, a community of our Moral Inferiors, an Indian 'reservation' under the shade of the Rockies. The Government has put aside various tracts of land where the Indians may conduct their lives in something of their old way, and stationed in each an agent to protect their interests. For every white man, as an agent told me, "thinks an Indian legitimate prey for all forms of cheating and robbery."

The reservations are the better in proportion as they are further from the towns and cities. The one I saw was peopled by a few hundred Stonies, one of the finest and most untouched of the tribes. Of these Laughing Earth had made one, but alas! a few years before she had become

"a portion of the mirthfulness
That once she made more mirthful."

The Indians occupy themselves with a little farming and hunting, and with expeditions, and live in two or three small scattered villages of huts and tents. But the centre of the community is the little white- washed house where the agent has his office. Here we sat, he and I, and talked, behind the counter. The agent is father, mother, clergyman, tutor, physician, solicitor, and banker to the Indians. They wandered in and out of the place with their various requests. The most part of them could not talk English, but there was generally some young Indian to interpret. An old chief entered. His grey hair curled down to his broad shoulders. He had a noble forehead, brown, steady eyes, a thin, humorous mouth. His cow had been run over by the C.P.R. What was to be done? and how much would he get? The affair was discussed through an interpreter, a Canadianised young Indian in trousers, who spat. Some of the men, especially the older ones, have wonderful dignity and beauty of face and body. Their physique is superb; their features shaped and lined by weather and experience into a Roman nobility that demands respect. Several such passed through. Then came an old woman, wizened and loquacious, bent double by the sack of her weekly provision of meat and flour. She required oil, was given it, secreted it in some cranny of the many-coloured bundle that she was, and staggered creakily off again.

The office emptied for a while. Then drifted in a younger man, tall, with that brown, dog-like expression of simplicity many Indians wear. He was covered by a large grey-coloured blanket, over his other clothes. He puffed at a pipe and stared out of the window. The agent and I continued talking. You must never hurry an Indian. Presently he gave a little grunt. The agent said, "Well, John?" John went on smoking. Five minutes later, in the middle of our conversation, John said suddenly, "Salt." He was staring inexpressively at the ceiling. "Why, John," said the agent, "I gave you enough salts on Thursday to last you a week." John directed his gaze on us, and smoked dumbly. "Still the stomach?" inquired the agent, genially. John's expression became gradually grimmer, and he moved one hand slowly across till it rested on his stomach. An impassive, significant hand. After a courteous pause the agent rose, poured some Epsom salts out of a large jar, wrapped them in paper, and handed them over. John secreted them dispassionately in some pouch among the skins and blankets that wrapped him in. We went back to our conversation. Five minutes after he grunted, suddenly. Again five minutes, and he departed. His wife--a plump, patient young woman--and his solemn-eyed, fat, ridiculous son of four, were sitting stolidly on the grass outside. It obviously made no difference if he took one hour or seven over his business. They mounted their tiny ponies and trotted briskly off.... I suppose one is apt to be sentimental about these good people. They're really so picturesque; they trail clouds of Fenimore Cooper; and they seem, for all their unfitness, reposefully more in touch with permanent things than the America that has succeeded them. And it is interesting to watch our pathetic efforts to prevent or disarm the effects of ourselves. What will happen? Shall we preserve these few bands of them, untouched, to succeed us, ultimately, when the grasp of our 'civilisation' weakens, and our transient anarchy in these wilder lands recedes once more before the older anarchy of Nature? Or will they be entirely swallowed by that ugliness of shops and trousers with which we enchain the earth, and become a memory and less than a memory? They are that already. The Indians have passed. They left no arts, no tradition, no buildings or roads or laws; only a story or two, and a few names, strange and beautiful. The ghosts of the old chiefs must surely chuckle when they note that the name by which Canada has called her capital and the centre of her political life, Ottawa, is an Indian name which signifies 'buying and selling.' And the wanderer in this land will always be remarking an unexplained fragrance about the place-names, as from some flower which has withered, and which he does not know.

[The end]
Rupert Brooke's essay: The Indians