Chateaubriand's memoirs, VII, 9

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VII, 8 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> VII, 10

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book VII - Chapter 9
Chapter 9: Twelve days in a cabin – Changing customs among the savages – Birth and death – Montaigne – Song of the adder –The little Indian girl, the original of Mila

London, April to September 1822.

I stayed for twelve days with my doctors, the Indians of Niagara. I saw tribes there who had come from Detroit or from the country to the centre and east of Lake Erie. I enquired about their customs; for a few small gifts I obtained re-enactments of their ancient rites, since the rites themselves scarcely exist now. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the American War of Independence, the savages still ate their prisoners, or rather the dead ones: an English captain, ladling some soup from an Indian woman’s cooking pot with a ladle, retrieved a hand.

The Indian customs associated with birth, and death, are the least eroded, since they have not been thoughtlessly lost, like those of the segments of life which separate them; they are not things of passing fashion. In order to honour him, the new-born child still has the most ancient name of his family bestowed upon him; that of his grandmother for instance: since names are always taken from the maternal line. From that moment, the child occupies the place of the woman whose name he has received; in speaking to him, one grants him the status of the relative brought to life again by the name; so an uncle may address his nephew by the title of grand-mother. This custom, laughable thought it may seem, is nevertheless touching. It resurrects the ancient dead; it recreates in the feebleness of the first years of life, the feebleness of the last; it brings together the extremities of life, the beginning and end of a family; it confers a species of immortality on their ancestors and imagines them present in the midst of their descendants.

In what concerns the dead, it is easy to find signs of the savage’s attachment to sacred relics. Civilised nations, in order to preserve their country’s memories, have the mnemonics of writing and the arts; they have cities, palaces, spires, columns, obelisks; they have the marks of the plough on once-cultivated fields; their names are cut in bronze and marble, their actions recorded in their histories.

Nothing of that appertains to the peoples of the wilderness: their names are not written on the trees; their huts, built in a few hours, vanish in a moment; the sticks with which they labour barely scratch the earth, and cannot even raise a furrow. Their traditional songs die with the last memory that retains them, vanishing with the last voice that repeats them. The tribes of the New World have only one monument: their graves. Take the bones of their fathers from these savages, and you take from them their history, their laws and even their gods; you remove from those men, for future generations, the proof of their existence as that of their extinction.

I wished to hear the songs of my hosts. A little fourteen-year old Indian girl, called Mila, a very pretty girl (Indian women are only pretty at that age) sang something quite delightful. Was this not the very couplet cited by Montaigne? ‘Adder stay now! Stay now, Adder, so my sister may take from the pattern of your markings, the embroidery and style of a fine belt I may give my beloved: so shall your beauty and decoration be preferred forever above all other snakes.’

The author of the Essais met with Iroquois at Rouen who, according to him, were very reasonable people: ‘But, still,’ he adds, ‘they do not wear breeches!’

If I ever publish the stromateis or follies of my youth, as Saint Clement of Alexandria did, Mila will appear there.