Quebec History Marianopolis College

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


Child Life 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.]


[For further information consult the page at the Encyclopedia of North American Indians ]



The subject of Indian child life has been but very lightly treated by ethnologists, although the child is in fact the strongest bond of family life under a system which allowed polygamy and easy separation. Both parents alike were entirely devoted to their children, and bestowed upon them the fullest expression of affection and solicitude. The relation of parent to child brings out all the highest traits of Indian character.


Among some tribes, notably those of the plains, in anticipation of the new arrival the father prepares the wooden frame of the cradle which is to be its portable bed until it is able to walk. The body of the cradle, with its ornamentation of bead or quill design, fringes and bangles, is made either by the grandmother or by some woman noted in the tribe for her superior expertness. There were many well-marked varieties of cradle, differing with the tribe. Among the Choctaw, Catawba, and other former tribes of the Southern states, and among the Chinookan and Salishan tribes of the Columbia, there was used a special attachment which, by continued pressure upon the forehead while the bones were still soft, produced the so-called "flat-head," esteemed with these tribes a point of beauty. One cradle was used for successive infants in the same family.


The newborn infant is commonly treated at once to a cold bath, and turned over to another matron to nurse until the mother's health is restored. Among the Hopi, ashes or sacred meal are rubbed on the newborn babe. Lactation is long continued, even for 2 years or more, and in rare cases much longer. With all the affection of the mother, the women are almost completely ignorant of ordinary sanitary rules as to feeding, exposure, etc., with the result that infant mortality is exceedingly high in almost every tribe, many children being born, but only a small proportion coming to maturity, so that even in former times the tribal population remained almost stationary. The child's sisters or cousins of the baby are its attendants, while the mother is occupied with other duties, and perform their work with the instinct of little mothers. The child is kept in its cradle usually only during a journey or while being carried about, and not, as is commonly supposed, during most of the time. At home it rolls about upon the grass or on the bed without restraint. Formerly, except in extreme weather, no clothing was worn during waking hours up to the age of from 5 to 10 years, according to the tribe and climate, and in some tribes this practice still prevails. The child may be named soon after birth, or not for a year or more after, this child name, like the first teeth, being discarded as the boy or girl grows up for another of more important significance. The child name is often bestowed by the grandparent.


Twins are usually regarded as uncanny, and are rather feared, as possessing occult power. With some Oregon and other coast tribes they were formerly regarded as abnormal and one or both were killed. There are well authenticated instances of deformed children being put to death at birth. On the other hand, children crippled by accident are treated by parents and companions with the greatest tenderness.


Among the Plains tribes the ceremonial boring of the ears for the insertion of pendants is often made the occasion of a more or less public celebration, while the investment of the boy with the breechcloth at the age of 9 or 10 years is observed with a quiet family rejoicing. The first tatooing and the first insertion of the labret are also celebrated among the tribes practising such customs. In many or most tribes the boys passed through an initiation ordeal at an early age, sometimes as with the Zuni, as young as 5 years . With the Hopi and Zuni the child is lightly whipped with yucca switches when initiated into the Kachina priesthood. With the Powhatan of Virginia, if we can believe the old chroniclers, the boys, who may have been about 10 years of age at the time, were actually rendered unconscious, the declared purpose being to take away the memory of childish things so that they should wake up as men. On the plains the boys at about the same age were formally enrolled into the first degree of the warrior society and put under regular instruction for their later responsibilities.


Children of both sexes have toys and games, the girls inclining to dolls and "playing house," while the boys turn to bows, riding, and marksmanship. Tops, skates of rib-bones, darts, bummers, balls, shinny, and hunt-the-button games are all favourites, and wherever it is possible nearly half the time in warm weather is spent in the water. They are very fond of pets, particularly puppies, which the little girls frequently dress and carry, upon their backs like babies, in imitation of their mothers. Among the Zuni and Hopi wooden figurines of the principal mythologic characters are distributed as dolls to the children at ceremonial performances, thus impressing the sacred traditions in tangible form.


Girls are their mothers' companions and are initiated at an early period into all the arts of home life-sewing, cooking, weaving, and whatever else may pertain to their later duties. The boys as naturally pattern from their fathers in hunting, riding, or boating.


Boys and girls alike are carefully instructed by their elders, not only in household arts and hunting methods, but also in the code of ethics, the traditions, and the religious ideas pertaining to the tribe. The special ceremonial observances are in the keeping of the various societies. The prevalent idea that the Indian child grows up without instruction is entirely wrong, although it may be said that he grows up practically without restraint, as instruction and obedience are enforced by moral suasion alone, physical punishment very rarely going beyond a mere slap in a moment of anger. As aggressiveness and the idea of individual ownership are less strong with the Indian than with his white brother, so quarrels are less frequent among the children, and fighting is almost unknown. Everything is shared alike in the circle of playmates. The Indian child has to learn his language as other children learn theirs, lisping his words and confusing the grammatical distinctions at first; but with the precocity incident to a wild, free life, he usually acquires correct expression at an earlier age than the average white child.


At about 15 years of age in the old days, throughout the eastern and central region, the boy made solitary fast and vigil to obtain communication with the medicine spirit which was to be his protector through life; then, after the initiatory ordeal to which, in some tribes, he was subjected, the youth was competent to take his place as a man among the warriors. For a year or more before his admission to full manhood responsibilities the young man cultivated a degree of reserve amounting even to bashfulness in the presence of strangers. At about the same time, or perhaps a year or two earlier, his sister's friends gathered to celebrate her puberty dance, and thenceforth child life for both was at an end.


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. 90-92. See the entry under child rearing at the Encyclopedia of North American Indians.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College