Popular Science Monthly/Volume 41/September 1892/The Delaware Indian as an Artist
|THE DELAWARE INDIAN AS AN ARTIST.|
WHEN a considerable collection of the stone and bone handiwork of the Delaware Indians has been brought together, and with this material before us we picture to ourselves the people in possession of the country when first visited by the Dutch and Swedes, and afterward by the English, the thought arises that considerable importance must be given to a chance remark of Peter Kalm, who spent the winter of 1748-'49 in New Jersey to wit: "At the first arrival of the Swedes in this country, and long after that time, it was filled with Indians. But as the Europeans proceeded to cultivate the land, the Indians sold their land, and went further into the country. But in reality few of the Indians really left the country in this manner; most of them ended their days
before, either by wars among themselves, or by the small-pox, a disease which the Indians were unacquainted with before their commerce with the Europeans, and which since that time has killed incredible numbers of them." Again, our author states: "The Indians formerly, and about the time of the first settling of the Swedes, were more industrious and laborious in every branch of business than they are now." In other words, they were not known at their best, even by those who had earliest opportunities of observing them, and what they habitually used and constantly produced, perhaps, but a century or two before the advent of the European, was far superior to their cleverest handiwork in the seventeenth century. The European had to do with a diseased, discouraged, and disappearing people. It is safe to assert that history, as pertaining to the Delaware Valley, would have been widely different had the European been forced to deal, not with the Lenni Lenâpé as they then were, but as they had been. True, there were statesmen still among them; intellects equal to any with which they had to cope; but the spirit that once seems to have animated the whole nation was broken. The Indians of the seventeenth century were living-011 the memory of departed glory. Not one of the many writers that have given us an account of what he saw in use among these people, when the Indian still possessed
the land, refers to many a curious form of stone or bone object, that now for want of knowledge on the subject we call an "ornament" or take refuge behind so convenient a term as "implement." That such objects are full of meaning, could we but decipher it, there is not a doubt.
It is true that, until the products of their handicraft were replaced by similar objects of European manufacture, the Indians were adepts in flint-chipping; made from pebbles shapely axes; carved wooden mortars and even large canoes, and fashioned well-designed pipes both of stone and clay. But what of the far more artistic bird-shaped stones, the so-called ceremonial objects, elaborate gorgets, and even idols? These are found to-day in sufficient numbers to indicate that they were once a prominent if not common feature of every village; but how could they have been overlooked by the Europeans who described their axes and arrow-points, if still in use? They had, it is logical to assume, disappeared from the scene; or, retained, were "relics" in the eyes of their possessors. It is not unwarranted to say, as concerning the Delaware Valley, that when Cornelius Mey discovered the Delaware River, there were Indian "relics" then to be had; and had it dawned upon the mind of some bright Lenâpé then, he could have gathered, as the antiquities of his own country, objects bearing the same relationship to him that his own axe and arrows do to
us. The Indian of 1600 was, at least in some respects, the degenerate descendant of the aborigine of a. d. 1000, or later.
If, then, it may be asked, the Delaware Indians produced, in prehistoric times, objects exhibiting a more advanced culture than did their descendants in historic times or just preceding them, where are such objects now? Has tangible evidence of this assertion been produced? In the Delaware Valley I think it has. There have occasionally been found in single graves, or lying in or on the ground, unassociated articles, clearly of Indian origin, and
yet not similar to the ordinary "finds" characteristic of Indian village sites. For instance, there have been burial-places examined in this river valley, from which scores of skeletons have been taken, and with them only the most commonplace objects were found, and many an interment was without any object of stone, bone, or clay. On the other hand, in some lonely spot, some little knoll in a forest, or prominent ridge of earth extending out upon a level meadow tract, a single grave has been found, where objects of a high grade of workmanship and suggesting a distinct advance over the historic Indian occurred. The whole character of the interment was different from that of the average or ordinary Indian grave. There is obvious danger, it is true, from drawing too broad a conclusion from a few such graves. Doubtless the Indian "king" would be interred with greater pomp and with finer possessions than the Indian warrior; but in such instances as I have mentioned, the objects found have been different in character as well as of superior workmanship. In such a matter the best that can be done, with our present stock of knowledge, is to express, tentatively of course, that this or that condition was probably true; and surveying the whole valley, after twenty years of tramping
about it from the mountains to the sea, I have been forcibly impressed with the evidence, first, of man's antiquity in this region, of his gradual progress from a very primitive to a more cultured condition, and of retrogression at the dawn of the historic period.
Much might be said of the skill of the Delaware Indian in all of the many phases of his industry, but I propose only to speak of him as an artist. A love of bright colors was always, and is, a prominent characteristic, and probably the first attempt at personal adornment was the attachment to the person of feathers and small stones of bright hues. Mica and quartz crystals are common in graves. The glitter and glistening of these would be sure to attract. But what of the next step, that of shaping from formless masses objects that strike the fancy of the wearer? To shape a pebble that it might better meet the needs of a club-head or hatchet called for little skill, and the labor of making an axe has recently been shown to be but slight; but the idea of symmetry was developed and cultivated until a weapon was finally produced that can not be improved upon. The same is true of chipping from flint points for arrow-shafts. A mere splinter of stone, if sharp and narrow, would be as effective as any shape that could be devised; but such chance splinters do not appear to have been used, except directly after the invention of the bow and arrow; and, so far as is now discoverable, a series of artistically designed patterns have been in use for hundreds of years. Fig. 1 represents four arrow-points such as are common everywhere in the valley of the Delaware. The flint-worker who made these had something more than mere utilitarianism in his constitution. A love of the beautiful, of symmetry, of neatness, call it what you will, was well developed. Not one of these would kill a bird or beast one whit quicker than the simple triangular arrow-point; and yet these more elaborate forms are more abundant than those of simpler outline.
I am tempted to suggest that possibly the late (comparatively speaking) use of jasper, here in the valley of the Delaware, may have been generally adopted largely because of the bright colors of that material. Of various tints, and often so veined that even a small object might be partycolored, it is little wonder that the use of jasper became so wide-spread, and argillite in a measure neglected; and yet the latter served every purpose, and from the days of Palaeolithic man to the coming of the Dutch and Swedes was never discarded. But argillite is dull gray when old, and never bright or glossy, however newly chipped; while the jasper was red or yellow, green, blue, or variegated, and never lost its brilliancy. Little wonder it was in such demand, and the labor of mining undergone. Its color, doubtless, had much to do with its adoption.
Symmetry, as developed in fashioning the axe and celt, which were pecked and not chipped, as were arrow-points, soon led to the same methods being applied to stone for the production of more elaborately designed objects, and the so-called "ceremonial" forms were made. Fig. 2 represents a nearly faultless example of these common "relics," the purpose of which can only be conjectured. The Indian who shaped this specimen was no "'prentice-hand." He may not have been an artist in the common acceptation of that term; but he needed, to say the least, very little instruction to make him one. Objects of this character are of such remarkable abundance, although seldom of such beauty of finish as is this, that the relic-hunter in his tramps over the fields is continually wondering what they were intended for. I have found fragments of twenty in one day, and this more than once; but they are not, I think, found in the ordinary clustered graves of the Indians. In single graves, with other odd forms, they have occasionally been found. Fig. 2 is perforated at the middle, and so was intended to be attached to a handle. As a baton-head it would be an attractive object, and, if the staff was further decorated with bright feathers and other trinkets, the whole would be very effective in dance or parade. But what became
of them all in the days of the first European settlers? Could it be possible they were still in common use, and yet not one writer make mention of them?
But, besides symmetrically shaping stone into ornamental forms, the Delaware Indian was given to ornamenting the smooth surfaces of objects by series of lines and dots, in such regular manner that the eye is pleased. A simple example of this phase of ornamentation is shown in Fig. 3. This is a common gorget, the outline of which is purely fanciful. But it is rendered more attractive by parallel and oblique lines, arranged in a manner that suggests not so much hap-hazard fancy as the highly conventonalized representation of some animal form. This is confirmed, I think, by referring to Fig. 4, which represents another Fig. 7.-Miniature Wooden Mask. Delaware Indian. specimen of gorget of most interesting character. The difference between the two is very decided, and yet the relationship is not lost. What, indeed, the figure depicted on this circular gorget is intended for is problematical. That it is animal-like no one will dispute. And with the two gorgets described, both of which are very old and made of stone, compare the illustration here given (Fig. 5) of the handle of a wooden spoon, of very recent date. Here we see the same ornamentation or representation of the same idea. It is scarcely probable that this should have been accidental, and is, further, an exemplification Fig. 8.—Miniature Wooden Mask. Delaware Indian. of the expression of an idea by symmetrically arranged lines, and not an effort merely to relieve the monotony of a plain surface.
We are now brought to consider realistic representations of familiar objects. The human face is one of these; and whether the Indian first made a few lines and dots to express it, or correctly depicted it, is difficult to determine. It can be made to appear very forcibly, upon a smooth surface, by two dots and two lines, thus: •|•; but did the Indian ever adopt such means? I have never seen it, but Fig. 6 is certainly an approach to such simplicity of illustration. This interesting-specimen was recently found on an island in the Susquehanna Valley, and certainly is a most striking example of effective portraiture by means of a few lines and dots.
Having shown how a stone surface was altered to produce either a purely ornamental or a pictorial effect, let me offer now some striking examples of how the artistic efforts of the Indian showed themselves in carving in other substances than stone. This was, of course, a much more difficult matter. Stone is, if not Fig. 9.—Carved Antler. Delaware Indian. too hard, easily shaped by hammering, its surface yielding to constant hammering with another stone. To shape a bit of wood is another matter, but that the Indian was abundantly capable of this, I offer Fig. 7 as evidence. Here we have an instance of the artist's skill in more than one direction. As we look at the illustration, we see the human face grotesquely represented, and at the same time the portrait is equally good, or almost so, of a barn owl (Strix pratincola). To accomplish this the artist must have had a clear conception of many of the rules of his profession.
Fig. 8 brings us, perhaps, to the highest point reached by the Delaware Indians in artistic effort. Here we have a portrait of an Indian, it may be, and at any rate a correct representation of the Indian countenance. This and the preceding, having metal and porcelain about them, were certainly made after European contact, unless we can suppose that the eyes originally were bits of copper, and these becoming detached, were replaced, in one case, with bits of sheet silver, and in the other with small white beads. This is not altogether improbable, and that the objects themselves really antedate the Columbian discovery. They are certainly very old.
Perhaps more striking than either of the wooden carvings is that represented in Fig. 9, which is an example of carved antler, where we have a combination of representations, all realistic, and absolutely perfect in their way. The human face is a marvel of aboriginal skill. The series of lines and dots are regular, and the faintly outlined snake's tongue is true to nature; as is also the end of the object, which represents with marked fidelity the rattle of the rattlesnake. The Indian who could make this carving had a wide range of capabilities in the line of artistic representation.
And now a word, in conclusion, with reference to pictorial representation, where many objects, and these in action, are concerned. We know how, in recent times, the Western Indian depicted with spirit a fight with other Indians or a buffalo-hunt. If, then, in prehistoric time and at the time of the continent being first peopled with Europeans, our Delaware Indian was capable of such artistic efforts as have been briefly commented upon in the preceding pages, might he not likewise have essayed in this direction also, and recorded events by the grouping of men and animals on slabs of stone? The pictured rocks on the Susquehanna show a disposition to accomplish this on a large scale; but I refer more particularly to ornament gorgets. It is scarcely safe, and certainly not logical, to decry such specimens, however startling the subject treated or artistically accomplished. Perhaps through some such pictured stone we may yet learn that the Indian was present when the last mastodon and giant elk in the valley of the Delaware bit the dust.