Indian Use of Illumination

Indian Use of Illumination – The employment of artificial light among the Indians was limited by their simple habits and needs to the camp-fire and the torch, in which respect they are found in the same culture grade as other indigenous groups. The camp-fire, built for the purpose of cooking food or furnishing heat, supplied most of the needed light, On special occasions large bonfires were made when ceremonies were held and nocturnal illumination was required. As a makeshift for the torch, a brand was taken from the camp-fire. When a continuous light was de sired the fire was fed with slivers of wood set up in a circle and fed from one end where a gap was left in the circle, as among the Cherokee; or when a temporary light was wanted among the Indians of British Columbia a little oil was thrown on the coals. The torches were of pine knots, rolls of bark, cane, or other inflammable material, but bundles of resinous wood, or masses of resin were almost never made, the form of the Indian torching of the most primitive character. They were used by night for hunting and fishing; for instance, deer were “weequashed,” or “jacked,” by means of torches, and fish were speared and birds captured by light from pine knots, especially among the eastern Indians. Lamps, however, have been possessed from time immemorial by the Eskimo, and they are the only aborigines of the hemisphere who had such utensils. In s. Alaska the lamp has a narrow wick-edge and is in the shape of a flat-iron ; along the tundra North of St Michael it is a saucer of clay or stone; northward to Point Barrow it is gibbous, with wide wick-edge and made of soapstone. The length of the wick-edge of the Eskimo lamp has been observed to vary with the latitude, that is, the higher the latitude the longer the night, hence the greater need for light, which is met by lengthening the margin of the lamp on which the moss wick is placed, so that while in South Alaska the wick edge is 2 or 3 in. long, in Smith Island it is 36 in. in length, and between these geographical extremes there is an increase in the size of the lamp from lower to higher latitudes. In at least two localities in the United States the bodies of fish were burned for light the candle-fish of the N. W. coast and a fresh- water fish of Penobscot River in Maine.

Torches and fires were used for signaling at night; the Apache set fire to the resinous spines of the saguaro, or giant cactus, for this purpose. The picturesque and remarkable Fire-dance of the Navaho described by Matthews is a good example of the use of illumination in ceremonies. Among many tribes fire forms an essential part of a ceremony; in some cases, where Indians have been induced to rehearse a night ceremony by day, they do not omit the fire, though artificial light is not required. A law of the Iroquois League required that a messenger approaching a campfire or village at night should carry a torch in order to show the absence of hostile intent. See Fire Making.

Consult Further :

  1. Hough (1) Development of Illumination, Smithson. Rep. 1901, 1902.
  2. The Range of the Eskimo Lamp, Am. Anthrop., Apr. 1898.
  3. The Lamp of the Eskimo, Rep. Nat. Mus. 1896, 1898.
  4. Matthews, Mountain Chant. 5th Rep. B. A. E., 1887.

Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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