Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Illumination Used by Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North-West Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



The employment of artificial light among the Indians was limited by their simple habits and needs to the camp-fire and the torch, in which respect they are found in the same culture grade as the Malay, the Negro, and the majority of [other people]. The camp-fire, built for the purpose of cooking food or furnishing heat, supplied most of the needed light. On special occasions large bonfires were made when ceremonies were held and nocturnal illumination was required. As a makeshift for the torch, a brand was taken from the camp-fire. When a continuous light was desired the fire was fed with slivers of wood set up in a circle and fed from one end where a gap was left in the circle, as among the Cherokee; or when a temporary light was wanted among the Indians of British Columbia a little oil was thrown on the coals. The torches were of pine knots, rolls of bark, cane, or other inflammable material, but bundles of resinous wood, or masses of resin were almost never made, the form of the Indian torch being of the most primitive character. They were used by night for hunting and fishing; for instance, deer were "weequashed," or "jacked," by means of torches, and fish were speared and birds captured by light from pine knots, especially among the eastern Indians. Lamps, however, have been possessed from time immemorial by the [Inuit], and they are the only aborigines of the hemisphere who had such utensils. In S. Alaska the lamp has a narrow wick-edge and is in the shape of a flat-iron; along the tundra N. of St. Michael it is a saucer of clay or atone; northward to point Barrow it is gibbous with wide wick-edge and made of soapstone. The length of the wick-edge of the [Inuit] lamp has been observed to vary with the latitude, that is, the higher the latitude the longer the night, hence the greater need for light, which is met by lengthening the margin of the lamp on which the moss wick is placed, so that while in S. Alaska the wick edge is 2 or 3 in. long, in Smith sd. it is 36 in. in length, and between these geographical extremes there is an increase in the size of the lamp from lower to higher latitudes. In at least two localities in the United States the bodies of fish were burned for light - the candle-fish of the N. W. coast and a fresh-water fish of Penobscot r. in Maine .


Torches and fires were used for signalling at night; the Apache set fire to the resinous spines of the saguaro, or giant cactus, for this purpose. The picturesque and remarkable Fire-dance of the Navaho described by Matthews is a good example of the use of illumination in ceremonies. Among many tribes fire forms an essential part of a ceremony; in some cases, where Indians have been induced to rehearse a night ceremony by day, they do not omit the fire, though artificial light is not required. A law of the Iroquois League required that a messenger approaching a camp fire or village at night should carry a torch in order to show the absence of hostile intent. See Fire-making.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., p. 215.





© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College