Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

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


Ethics and Morals of the Indians of Canada



[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 American 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.]



It is difficult for a person knowing only one code of morale or manners to appreciate the customs of another who has been reared in the knowledge of a different code; hence it has been common for such a one to conclude that the other has no manners or no morals. Every community has rules adapted to its mode of life and surroundings, and such rules may be found more rigorously observed and demanding greater self-denial among savages than among civilised men. Notwithstanding the differences which necessarily exist between savage and civilised ethics, the two systems must evidently have much in common, for from the days of Columbus to the present, travellers have given testimony of customs and manners of Indians, who were still in the barbarous or the savage stage, which displayed a regard for the happiness and well-being of others.


It is often difficult to tell how much of Indian manners and morals may have been derived from white people; but there are still some tribes which have held aloof from the intrusive race and have been little contaminated by it, and we have the testimony of early writers to guide us. The latter may be narrow in their judgment of Indian conduct while they are accurate in describing it.


To discuss the rise of ethics among primitive peoples would lead too far afield; but it is clear from all that is known of the natives of this continent that there existed among them standards of right conduct and character. Both from folk-lore and other sources we learn of conscience among the Indians and of their dread of its pangs. The Navaho designate conscience by a term which signifies "that standing within me which speaks to me." Abundant evidence might be adduced to show that Indians are often actuated by motives of pure benevolence and do good merely from a generous delight in the act.


Social ethics obtained among all the tribes, and public opinion was the power that compelled the most refractory to obedience. A system of ethics having once taken shape, the desire for the approval of one's associates and the wish to live at peace furnished sufficient incentive for compliance with the less onerous rules. But these motives were not sufficient in matters of graver import. Some tribes had executive bands, which had limited power to punish offenders in certain cases, such as violation of the orders of the tribal council; but among other tribes there was no established power to punish, nor were there even the rudiments of a court of justice. The pagan Indian is destitute of the faith in heaven and hell, which affords a strong incentive to moral life among many of our own people; but he has faith in good and bad luck, and frequently attaches different imaginary punishments to different offences. Some regard various inanimate objects as the agents of these punishments. "May the cold freeze you!" "May the fire burn you!" "May the waters drown you!" are their imprecations.


When during the tribal hunt runners were sent out to seek a herd of buffalo, they had to give, on their return to camp, their report in the presence of sacred emblems in attestation of the truth of their statement. Scouts must report accurately or meet disgrace. The successful warrior must not claim more than his due; otherwise he would not be permitted to receive the badge of honours rightfully won. The common punishment for lying in many of the tribes was the burning of the liar's tent and property by tribal sanction. Not to keep a promise deliberately given was equivalent to lying. There are many instances of Indians keeping their word even at the risk of death.


Honesty was inculcated in the young and exacted in the tribe. In some communities the rule was limited in its operation to those within the tribe itself, but it was not uncommon to find its obligations extended to allies and to all friendly tribes. As war removed all ethical barriers, pillage was legitimate. The stealing of horses was a common object of war parties, but only from a hostile tribe. When a theft was committed the tribal authorities demanded restitution; the loss of the property taken, flogging, and a degree of social ostracism constituted the punishment of the thief. Instances could be multiplied to show the security of personal effects in a tribe. The Zuñi, for example, on leaving home, close and seal the door with clay, and it remains inviolate. The Nez Percés and many other tribes lean a pole across the door to indicate the absence of the family, and no one molests the dwelling.


Murder within the tribe was always punished, either by exile, by inexorable ostracism and the making of gifts to the kindred of the slain, or by suffering the murderer to become the lawful victim of their vengeance.


Truth, honesty and the safeguarding of human life were everywhere recognized as essential to the peace and prosperity of a tribe, and social customs enforced their observance; the community could not otherwise keep together, much less hold its own against enemies, for except where tribes were allies, or bound by some friendly tie, they were mutual enemies. An unaccredited stranger was always presumably an enemy.


Adultery was punished. The manner of punishment varied among the tribes, the choice being frequently left to the aggrieved party. Among the Apache it was the common custom to disfigure an erring woman by cutting off her nose.


The care of one's family was regarded as a social duty and was generally observed. This duty sometimes extended to one's relations.


While the young were everywhere taught to show respect to their elders, and while years and experience were supposed to bring wisdom, yet there were tribes among which it was the custom to abandon or to put to death the very old. Where this custom prevailed the conditions of life were generally hard, and the young and active found it difficult to secure food for themselves and their children. As the aged could not take care of themselves, and they were an encumbrance to travel, they acquiesced in their fate as a measure of prudence and economy, dying in order that the young might live and the tribe maintain its existence.


The cruel punishment of witchcraft everywhere among the tribes had its ethical aide. The witch or wizard was believed to bring sickness or death to members of the community; hence for their security the sorcerer must be put to death. The custom was due to a lack of knowledge of the causes of disease and to mistaken ethics.


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., pp. 153-154.







© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College