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Impearls: AFitW: Miche-Coute-Ouinque

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Earthdate 2006-07-26

Miché-Couté-Ouinque   by Alexis de Tocqueville

We had been advised to call on a Mr. Williams who since he had long been trading with the Chippewa Indians and had a son settled at Saginaw, could give us useful information.  When we had already gone several miles into the forest, and were beginning to be afraid that we might have missed our man’s house, we met an old man busy working in a small garden.  We went up to him.  It was Mr. Williams himself.  He received us with great kindness and gave us a letter for his son.  We asked him if we had anything to fear from the Indian tribes whose territory we were going to cross.  Mr. Williams rejected that suggestion with something like indignation:  “No! no!” he said, “you can go forward without fear.  For my part I should sleep more soundly surrounded by Indians than by whites.”  I note this as the first favourable view of the Indians that I have heard since coming to America.  In thickly populated parts of the country men only speak of them with a mixture of fear and scorn, and I think that there they do in fact give cause for these two feelings.  One can see above what I thought myself when I met the first of them at Buffalo.  As you go on in this diary and follow me going among the European population on the frontiers and among the Indian tribes themselves, you will get both a more worthy and a fairer conception of the first inhabitants of America.

When we had left Mr. Williams we went on our way through the forests.  From time to time a little lake (the district is full of them) appeared like a silver sheet beneath the leaves of the forest.  It is difficult to conceive the charm pervading these pretty places where man has not yet come to live and where profound uninterrupted silence reigns.  I have been through terrifying solitudes in the Alps where nature rejects the work of man, and where even in its very horror the sheer grandeur of the scene has something that transports one’s soul with excitement.  Here the solitude is as profound but does not bring the same sensations to birth.  All that one feels in passing through these flowery wildernesses where everything, as in Milton’s Paradise, is ready to receive man, is a quiet admiration, a gentle melancholy sense, and a vague distaste for civilised life; a sort of primitive instinct that makes one think with sadness that soon this delightful solitude will have changed its looks.  In fact already the white race is advancing across the forest that surrounds it, and in but a few years the European will have cut the trees that are now reflected in the limpid waters of the lake, and forced the animals that live on its banks to retreat to new wildernesses.

Always keeping on our way, we came to a district of a different aspect.  The ground was no longer level, but cut by hills and valleys.  Some of these hills have the wildest possible look.  It was in one of these picturesque spots, when we had suddenly turned round to admire the imposing sight behind us, that we saw to our great surprise close to our horses’ crupper an Indian who seemed to be following on our tracks.  He was a man of about thirty, large and wonderfully well proportioned as they almost all are.  His shining black hair fell long his shoulders except for two tresses fixed on top of his head.  His face was striped with black and red.  He was dressed in a sort of very short blue blouse.  He wore red mittas: they are a sort of trousers that only come to the thighs, and his feet were clad in moccasins.  A knife hung at his side.  In his right hand he held a long carbine, and in his left two birds that he had just killed.  The first sight of this Indian made no agreeable impression on us.  The place was ill-chosen to resist an attack: on our right a pine forest rose to immense heights, and on our left a deep ravine led down to a stream that flowed over rocks hidden by the dense foliage, towards which we were descending like blind men!  It was a matter of a moment to put our hands on our rifles, turn round and face the Indian across the road.  He stopped, too.  We stayed half a minute in silence.  His face had all the characteristic traits that distinguish the Indian race from all others.  In his black eyes shone that savage fire which still lights up the eyes of half-castes and is not lost until the second or third generation of white blood.  His nose was arched in the middle and slightly blunt at the tip; his cheekbones were very high and his well defined mouth exposed two rows of shining white teeth which proved well enough that the savage, cleaner than his American neighbour, did not spend his day chewing tobacco leaves.  I have said that when we turned and put our rifles at the ready, the Indian had halted.  As we quickly looked him over, he remained completely impassive, with steady, unmoved gaze.  When he saw that we had no hostile feeling on our side, he began to smile; probably he saw that he had frightened us.  That was the first time that I had seen how completely gaiety changes the physiognomy of these savage men.  I have later noticed the same a hundred times.  An Indian in serious mood and an Indian smiling, are two entirely different beings.  There is something of savage majesty in the immobility of the former which, against one’s will, inspires fear.  When the same man breaks into a smile, his whole face assumes an expression of naïveté and goodwill that gives it real charm.

When we saw our man had cheered up, we spoke to him in English.  He let us talk on undisturbed, and then made a sign that he did not understand a word.  We offered him a little brandy which he accepted at once and without thanks.  Still talking in sign language we asked for his birds which he gave in exchange for a small piece of money.  Having made his acquaintance like that, we gave him a wave and went off at a fast trot.  After a quarter of an hour’s rapid going, when I turned again, I was amazed to see the Indian.  He moved with the agility of a wild animal without uttering a single word or seeming to quicken his pace.  We stopped, he stopped.  We went on again, he went on again.  We broke into a full gallop.  Our horses brought up in the wilderness went over all obstacles.  The Indian broke into a double; I saw him sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left of my horse, leaping over the bushes and landing again noiselessly.  One would say it was one of those wolves of Northern Europe who follow riders in the hope that they will fall from their horses and be the more easily devoured.  The sight of this unchanging figure who, sometimes lost in the darkness of the forest, sometimes appearing in broad daylight, seemed to hover at our side, ended by getting on our nerves.  As we could not think what could induce this man to follow us at such a rate — and perhaps he had been doing so for a very long time before we first noticed him — it came into our heads that he might be leading us into an ambush.  While worrying about that idea, we saw in the wood in front of us the muzzle of another carbine.  Soon we came up to the man who carried it.  At first we took him for an Indian.  He was dressed in a sort of short frock-coat which, fastened round his loins, outlined an upright, well made body; his neck was bare and there were moccasins on his feet.  When we got near and he raised his head, we saw at once that he was a European, and we stopped.  He came up to us: shook hands warmly, and entered into conversation:  “Do you live in the wilderness?” — “Yes, there is my house,” he pointed through the leaves to a hut much more wretched than ordinary log-houses.  “Alone?” — “Alone.” — “And what then are you doing here?” — “I go through the forest and kill the game I meet to right and left of my path, but one does not get good shots now.” — “And you like this sort of life?” — “More than any other.” — “But are you not afraid of the Indians?” — “Afraid of the Indians!  I would rather live among them than in the society of the whites.  No! no!  I am not afraid of the Indians.  They are worth more than we, provided we have not brutalized them with our strong drinks, the poor creatures!”  We then pointed out to our new acquaintance the man who was following us so persistently and who then had stopped a few paces from us and stood as still as a milestone.  “He is a Chippewa,” said he, “or as the French call them a Sauteur.  I bet he is coming back from Canada where he has received the yearly presents from the English.  His family should not be far from here.”  This said, the American made a sign to the Indian to come up, and began to talk very fluently to him in his language.  It was strange to see what pleasure these two men, so different in birth and manners, took in exchanging ideas with one another.  Clearly they were discussing the respective merits of their weapons.  The white, having looked at the savage’s rifle very carefully:  “There is a fine carbine,” said he.  “No doubt the English have given it to him to use against us, and he will not fail to do so as soon as there is a war.  That is how the Indians draw on their heads all the ills that weigh them down.  But they know no better, the poor fellows.” — “Are the Indians skilled in using these long, heavy rifles?” — “There are no shots like the Indians,” our new friend answered warmly in tones of the greatest admiration.  “Look at the little birds he sold to you, sir.  They are pierced by a single bullet and I am very sure that he only fired two shots to get them.  Oh!” he added, “there is nothing happier than an Indian in the country from which we have not yet driven the game.  But the big animals sense our coming more than three hundred miles off, and as they retreat they make as it were a desert in front of us, in which the poor Indians cannot live unless they cultivate the ground.”

As we started on our way again:  “When you pass this way again,” our new friend called out, “knock on my door.  It is a pleasure to see white faces in these parts.”

I have recorded this conversation which in itself has nothing remarkable in it, to introduce the reader to a type of man whom we met very frequently thereafter on the verge of the inhabited land.  They are Europeans who despite the habits of their youth, have ended up by finding inexpressible charm in the freedom of the wilderness.  Taste and passion draw them to the solitudes of America, while their religion, principles and ideas attach them to Europe, so that they combine love of the savage life with the pride of civilisation, and prefer the Indians to their compatriots without however looking on them as their equals.

So we went on our way again, and still making the same rapid progress, in half an hour we reached a pioneer’s house.  An Indian family had established their temporary dwelling in front of this cabin.  An old woman, two young girls and several children were crouched round a fire by whose heat the remains of a whole roebuck were cooking.  On the grass a few paces away a stark naked Indian was basking in the sun, while a small child rolled in the dust near him.  It was that that brought our silent companion to a halt; he left us without saying good-bye, and went to sit sedately down by his compatriots.  What can have induced that man to follow our horses’ tracks like that for two leagues?  That is something we never could guess.  After we had lunched in that place, we mounted our horses and went on our way through high but not dense forest trees.  The copse had been burnt sometime before, as one could see by the charred remains of some trees lying on the ground.  The soil is now covered with ferns which stretched away as far as one could see under the foliage of the forest.

A few leagues further on my horse cast a shoe, which caused us keen anxiety.  Luckily near there we found a planter who succeeded in shoeing it again.  Had it not been for that meeting, I doubt if we could have gone any further, as we were nearing the end of the clearings.  This same man who thus enabled us to go on our way, advised us to press our pace, as the sun was beginning to sink and there were two good leagues between us and Flint River where we intended to pass the night.

Soon, in fact, we began to be enveloped in deep darkness.  We had to keep going.  The night was clear but freezing.  So deep a silence, so complete a calm, prevailed in these forests that one might say that all the forces of nature were, as it were, paralysed.  One could only hear the unwelcome buzz of mosquitoes and the noise of our horses’ hoofs.  From time to time one could see an Indian fire with an austere, unmoving profile outlined against the smoke.  At the end of an hour we came to a place where the road forked.  Two paths opened there.  Which to choose?  The choice was crucial.  One of them led to a stream the depth of which we did not know, the other to a glade.  The moon which was then coming up showed us a valley full of debris.  Further on we saw two houses.  It was so important not to lose out way in such a place at such an hour, that we decided to make inquiries before going any further.  My companion stayed to look after the horses, and I, throwing my rifle over my shoulder, went down the valley.  Soon I realized that I was coming into quite a recent clearing; immense trees with their branches still on them covered the ground.  Jumping from one to another I succeeded in getting fairly quickly close to the houses, but the same stream we had seen before came between me and them.  Luckily its course was blocked at this spot by huge oaks felled, no doubt, by the pioneer’s axe.  I managed to slide along these trees and reach the other bank at last.  I moved cautiously up to the two houses, being afraid that they might be Indian wigwams.  They were still not yet finished, I found the doors open and no one answered my voice.  I came back to the banks of the stream and could not forbear stopping a few minutes in admiration of the sublime horror of the scene.  This valley was shaped like an immense arena and, like a black drapery, the foliage of the woods surrounded it on all sides, while in the middle the moonlight breaking through formed the shadows into a thousand fantastic shapes dancing in silence over the brash of the forest.  No other sound whatsoever, no breath of life broke the silence of this solitude.  At length I thought about my companion, and called him at the top of my voice to tell him the result of my search, and get him to cross the stream and come and join me.  My voice long re-echoed in the surrounding solitudes.  But I got no answer.  I shouted again and listened again.  The same silence of the dead reigned in the forest.  I became anxious and ran along the stream to find the way across it lower down.  When I got there I heard the horses’ hoofs in the distance and soon after Beaumont himself appeared.  Surprised at my long absence, he had decided to come down to the stream; he had already got into the shallows when I called him.  My voice could not reach him then.  He told me that he too had made every effort to make himself heard, and, like me, had got frightened at not receiving any answer.  Without the ford that served as a meeting place, perhaps we should have spent a great part of the night looking for one another.  We set out once more on our way promising each other firmly that we would not separate again, and three-quarters of an hour on from there at last we saw a clearing, two or three cabins, and what gave us greatest pleasure, a light.  The stream that ran like a violet thread along the bottom of the valley, sufficed to prove that we had arrived at Flint River.  Soon the barking of dogs echoed through the wood and we found ourselves opposite a log-house and only separated from it by a fence.  Just as we were getting ready to get over it, the moon revealed a great black bear on the other side, which standing upright on its haunches and dragging its chain, made as clear as it could its intention of giving us a fraternal welcome.  “What a devil of a country is this,” I said, “where one has bears for watch dogs.” — “We must call out,” said my companion.  “If we try to pass the fence, we shall have difficulty in making the porter listen to reason.”  So we shouted our heads off so successfully that at last a man appeared at the window.  Having looked at us in the moonlight he said, “Come in, gentlemen.  Trinc, go to bed.  To your kennel I tell you.  Those are not robbers.”  The bear went waddling back, and we went in.  We were half dead with fatigue.  We asked our host if we could have some oats.  “Certainly,” he answered; and at once started mowing the nearest field with complete American calm, and just as if he was doing it in the very middle of the day.  In the meanwhile we dismounted and for want of stables tied our horses to the fence over which we had just passed.  Having thus taken thought for the companions of our journey, we thought about our own sleeping arrangements.  There was only one bed in the house.  Beaumont having won the toss for it, I wrapped myself in my cloak and lying down on the floor, fell into the deep sleep befitting a man who has done fifteen leagues on horseback.



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