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Boyhood and Girlhood
Digital History ID 634

Author:   John Heckewelder
Date:1819

Annotation: A Moravian minister describes childrearing practices among the Indians of Pennsylvania.


Document: The first step that parents take toward the education of their children, is to prepare them for future happiness, by impressing upon their tender minds, that they are indebted for their existence to a great, good and benevolent Spirit, who not only has given them life, but has ordained them for certain great purposes. That he has given them a fertile extensive country well stocked with game of every kind for their subsistence, and that by one of his inferior spirits he has also sent down to them from above corn, pumpkins, squashes, beans and other vegetables for their nourishment; all which blessings their ancestors have enjoyed for a great number of ages. That this great Spirit looks down upon the Indians, to see whether they are grateful to him and make him a due return for the many benefits he has bestowed, and therefore that it is their duty to show their thankfulness by worshipping him, and doing that which is pleasing to his sight....

They are then told that their ancestors, who received all this from the hands of the great Spirit...must have been informed of what would be most pleasing to this good being...and they are directed to look up for instruction to those who know all this, to learn from them, and revere them for their wisdom and the knowledge which they possess; this creates in the children a strong sentiment of respect for their elders, and a desire to follow their advice and example. Their young ambition is then excited by telling them that they were made the superiors of all other creatures, and are to have power over them; great pains are taken to make this feeling take early root, and it becomes in fact their ruling passion through life; for no pains are spared to instill into them that by following the advice of the most admired and extolled hunter, trapper or warrior, they will at a future day acquire a degree of fame and reputation, equal to that which he possesses; that by submitting to the counsels of the aged, the chiefs, the men superior in wisdom, they may also rise to glory, and be called Wisemen, an honourable title, to which no Indian is indifferent. They are finally told that if they respect the aged and infirm, and are kind and obliging to them, they will be treated in the same manner when their turn comes to feel the infirmities of old age....

When...instruction is given in the form of precepts, it must not be supposed that it is done in an authoritative or forbidding tone, but, on the contrary, in the gentlest and most persuasive manner: nor is the parent's authority ever supported by harsh or compulsive means; no whips, no punishments, no threats are ever used to enforce commands or compel obedience. The child's pride is the feeling to which an appeal is made, which proves successful in almost every instance. A father needs only to say in the presence of his children: “I want such a thing done; I want one of my children to go upon such an errand; let me see who is the good child that will do it!” The word good operates, as it were, by magic, and the children immediately vie with each other to comply with the wishes of their parent....

In this manner of bringing up children, the parents, as I have already said, are seconded by the whole community....The whole of the Indian plan of education tends to elevate rather than depress the mind, and by that means to make determined hunters and fearless warriors....

They are to learn the arts of hunting, trapping, and making war, by listening to the aged when conversing together on those subjects, each, in his turn, relating how he acted, and opportunities are afforded to them for that purpose. By this mode of instructing youth, their respect for the aged is kept alive.... [Initiation ceremonies]

By certain methods which I shall presently describe, they put the mind of a boy in a state of perturbation, so as to excite dreams and visions; by means of this they pretend that the boy receives instructions from certain spirits or unknown agents as to his conduct in life, and he is informed of his future destination and of the wonders he is to perform in his future career through the world.

When a boy is to be thus initiated, he is put under an alternate course of physic and fasting, either taking no food whatever, or swallowing the most powerful and nauseous medicines, and occasionally he is made to drink decoctions of an intoxicating nature, until his mind becomes sufficiently bewildered, so that he sees or fancies that he sees visions, and has extraordinary dreams, for which, of course, he has been prepared before hand. He will fancy himself flying through the air, walking under ground, stepping from one ridge or hill to the other across the valley beneath, fighting and conquering giants and monsters, and defeating whole hosts by a single arm. Then he has interviews with the Mannitto [Manitou] or with spirits, who inform him of what he was before he was born and what he will be after his death. His fate in this life is laid entirely open before him, the spirit tells him what is to be his future employment, whether he will be a valiant warrior, a mighty hunter, a doctor, a conjurer, or a prophet. There are even those who learn or pretend to learn in this way the time and manner of their death.

When a boy has been thus initiated, a name is given to him analogous to the visions that he has seen, and to the destiny that is supposed to be prepared for him. The boy, imagining all that happened to him while under perturbation, to have been real, sets out in the world with lofty notions of himself, and animated with courage for the most desperate undertakings.

Source: John Heckewelder, Account of the History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Natives who once inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (1819), 98-103, 238-41.

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