Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:

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


Hospitality Among 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.]



Hospitality, distinguished from charity, was a cardinal principle in every Indian tribe. The narratives of many pioneer explorers and settlers, from De Soto and Coronado , Amidas and Barlow, John Smith and the Pilgrims, down to the most recent period, are full of instances of wholesale hospitality toward the white strangers, some­times at considerable cost to the hosts. Gift dances were a feature in every tribe, and it was no uncommon occurrence on the plains during the summer season for large dancing parties to make the round of the tribes, re­turning in the course of a month or two with hundreds of ponies given in return for their entertainment. Every ceremonial gathering was made the occasion of the most lavish hospitality, both in feasting and the giving of presents. In some languages there was but one word for both generosity and bravery, and either was a sure avenue to distinction. A notable exemplification of this was the in­stitution of the potlatch among the tribes of the N. W. coast, by which a man saved for half a lifetime in order to give away his accumulated wealth in one grand distribution, which would entitle him and his descendants to rank thereafter among the chiefs. In tribes where the clan system pre­vailed the duty of hospitality and mutual assistance within the clan was inculcated and sacredly observed, anyone feeling at liberty to call on a fellow-clansman for help in an emergency without thought of refusal. The same obligation existed in the case of formal comradeship between two men. Among the Aleut, according to Veniaminoff, the stran­ger received no invitation on arriving, but decided for himself at which house he chose to be a guest, and was sure to receive there every attention as long as he might stay, with food for the journey on his departure.


On the other hand it cannot be said that the Indian was strictly charitable, in the sense of extending help to those unable to recipro­cate either for themselves or for their tribes. The life of the savage was precarious at best, and those who had outlived their usefulness were very apt to be neglected, even by their own nearest relatives. Hospitality as between equals was a tribal rule; charity to the help­less depended on the disposition and ability of the individual.


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. 203.




© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College