Stumanu, A Flathead Boy

Stumanu, A Flathead Boy
Stumanu, A Flathead Boy

The Chinook are a tribe of Indians inhabiting the shores of the Columbia river, near the Pacific ocean. They practice the savage custom of flattening the foreheads of their infants by means of a board applied to that part, whence they are called Flatheads by the whites, as others are called Nez Percé, Pierced Nose Indians, although neither of these terms is used among themselves. Most of those Indians who flatten the head also pierce the nose. These singular customs were found, by the first discoverers, among the savages on the shores of the Atlantic; but they seem to have become extinct in our country, except in the distant region of the Columbia. The name Flathead having been arbitrarily given, some explanation is necessary to avoid confusion.

The term Flathead was formerly applied, vaguely, to all the Indians inhabiting the unexplored regions about the Rocky Mountains, except the Blackfeet; but as the country became better known, the name was confined to a small nation, who still bear it, and are not recognized among us by any other, and who live chiefly in the gorges of the mountains, and on the plains on either side. They do not, however, flatten the head, nor have they any term in their language to express this idea. Beyond them, on the Columbia river, are numerous tribes who pierce the nose and flatten the fore head, who are mostly included under the name of Nez Percé but the name Flathead is not commonly used in reference to them.

The nation, to which our hunters and trappers apply the name of Flathead the Flatheads of the Rocky Mountains are a very interesting people. They are honest, hospitable, and kindly disposed towards the whites. They excel most other Indians in simplicity and frankness of character. The Blackfeet, a numerous tribe inhabiting the same region, a treacherous, vindictive, and warlike people, are the implacable enemies of the Flatheads, and harass them continually. This war is of the most uncompromising character; the Blackfeet pursue their enemies with unceasing hostility, driving them from place to place, hunting them down with untiring vigilance, and allowing them no rest. But though forced to fly from their foes, in consequence of their vastly inferior numbers, the Flatheads singly are more than a match for their enemies in boldness and physical strength; and as they never receive any quarters from their cruel oppressors, they fight with the most desperate courage when forced into action. Exposed to the greatest extremes and hardships to which the savage state is incident, and chased continually by their enemies, who use every artifice to decoy and surprise them, they are as wild, as watchful, and almost as fleet as the antelope of the prairies.

They are admirable horsemen. Without any fixed residence, roving throughout the year, engaged often in hunting the buffalo, and more frequently in rapid flight from imminent danger, the Flathead and his horse are inseparable; and such is the skill acquired by constant practice, that one of this tribe will mount an unbroken horse without saddle or bridle, and retain his seat, in spite of all the efforts of the enraged animal to dislodge him. A friend of the writer saw this feat performed by Incilla, the present chief of the tribe, on the plains east of the Rocky Mountains. The chief threw himself upon the back of a wild horse recently taken, holding in one hand a small flag, and in the other a hoop covered with a skin, after the fashion of a tambourine. On being turned loose, the animal dashed off, rearing and pitching, and using the most violent exertions to disengage himself from his fearless rider, who, clinging with his heels, maintained his seat, in spite of the efforts of the horse to throw him. When he wished to check the speed of the animal, he blinded him by throwing the flag across his face; while he guided him, by striking him with the tambourine, on the one side or the other of the head. This exercise he continued, scouring the plain at full speed, and directing the course of the furious steed at will, until the latter was wearied out and subdued.

Westward of the Flatheads, a number of small tribes are found scattered along the shores of the Columbia, to the Pacific ocean, all of whom belong to the Nez Perces nation, by which we mean only, that they acknowledge the tie of kindred, and speak a common language, for they do not appear to be united by any other bond, and have no national organization. They are on friendly terms with the Flatheads, but have not the bold and manly character of that tribe; on the contrary, they are ignorant and timid. They subsist by hunting and fishing, but chiefly by the latter; are miserably poor, inoffensive, and peaceable. They pierce the dividing cartilage of the nose, and thrust a bone several inches in length through the orifice, to remain until the wounded part is completely healed; and they flatten the head by confining it between boards, one of which passes across the forehead, flattening that part, so that the ascent from the nose to the top of the head is almost without a curve. The effect produced is said to be extremely disgusting.

The Indians in the vicinity of the mountains excel in horseman ship; those on the Columbia are expert in the management of their canoes, in which they embark fearlessly on the waves of the Pacific in the roughest weather; and such is their skill that they keep afloat amid the angry billows, when it would seem impossible that such frail vessels could live. The upsetting of a canoe, in such circumstances, is of little consequence, for these Indians are such admirable swimmers, that they right their canoes when over turned, bail out the water, and resume their seats; or if necessary, abandon them, and swim to the shore.

The women are admitted to a greater degree of equality with the men, than among the other American tribes, -because in fishing and in managing the canoe, they are equally expert, and as they share all the toils and dangers of the other sex, they naturally become the companions and equals, and in virtue of their superior industry, the better halves, of their lords and masters. In the savage state, where the employments of the men are confined to war and hunting, a certain degree of contempt attaches to the weaker sex, who are unfit for such rude toils, and a timid or imbecile man is, in derision, compared to a woman. But a different relation exists between the sexes, where the employments are such that both engage in them alike, and where both contribute equally to the support of their families.

The Columbia River was discovered by Captain Grey of Boston, in the ship Columbia, from which it received its name. Afterwards, Captains Lewis and Clark, of the army of the United States, with a small escort, performed a journey over land to the mouth of that river, under the auspices of the government, and for the purpose of exploration. This was one of the most remarkable journeys of which we have any account; the extent of the territory explored, the dangers and privations encountered, the great number of the savage tribes visited, and the successful prosecution of the enterprise, display a degree of courage and perseverance never excelled by any scientific travelers. A well digested account of the expedition was published, written, from the notes of Lewis and Clark, by a gentleman who, in that work, gave to his country the first fruits of a genius, which, in its riper brilliancy, has since become the pride and admiration of his countrymen. The discoveries made by these tourists, turned the attention of the mercantile world to this wild and unfrequented region, which now became the scene of an animated competition. John Jacob Astor, of New York, a German by birth, who came in early life an indigent adventurer to our shores, and had, by his unwearied industry and un-rivalled talents for business, amassed a princely fortune, matured a plan for securing to his adopted country the fur trade of that coast. The government, to whom he communicated his project, was too weak, at that time, to give any aid to an uncertain enterprise, which might involve a heavy expenditure, and by possibility endanger its relations with foreign powers; and could only encourage the scheme by its approbation. A fine ship was equipped for the voyage by Mr. Astor, and placed under the charge of Captain Thorn, an intelligent officer bred in the American navy, and who had been but a short time previous, enrolled in the gallant band that gained so much glory in the Tripolitan war; while a party of hardy men, under Mr. Theodore Hunt, set out from St. Louis, to cross the continent, and meet the vessel at the mouth of the Columbia. After a prosperous voyage round Cape Horn, the ship reached her destination; but an unfortunate affray occurring with the natives, Captain Thorn suffered himself to be surprised; the whole crew were massacred, and the vessel destroyed. Mr. Hunt was more successful. After a protracted journey, attended by toils and perils the most incredible and discouraging, this dauntless party found them selves on the shores of the Columbia river, but in a condition too exhausted to enable them to carry out the plan proposed. They had accomplished much in overcoming the difficulties of the journey, and inspecting that vast field for commercial enterprise, of which scarcely any thing had been known but its existence. Mr. Astor persevered in his design; a trading post, called Astoria, was established on the Columbia, a few miles from its mouth, and hunters were employed who scattered themselves over the whole region watered by the tributaries of that river. The British fur traders, who had already pervaded the whole of the vast territory lying north of the great lakes, as well as the wilderness country lying within the north-western boundaries of the United States, penetrated also into these solitudes, and established a strong post called Fort Vancouver, in honor of the navigator, for whom, without any sufficient evidence, the discovery of the Columbia was claimed, and another called Fort Colville. When the war of 1812, between the United States and Great Britain, was declared, the Americans were compelled to abandon this country, to which their government could not extend its protection; but when, by the treaty of peace negotiated at Ghent, it was provided that the belligerent parties should mutually surrender the places taken during the war from each other, Astoria was formally delivered up by the British government, which, by this act, distinctly recognized the territorial rights of the American people. Subsequently, how ever, the question of jurisdiction was opened, and to prevent collision, it was agreed, that, for a period of ten years, the subjects and citizens of both governments might occupy the disputed territory for the purpose of hunting and traffic, without prejudice to the claims of either country. Since then, the whole region west of the Rocky Mountains, has been traversed by numerous bands of British and American trappers. A few wealthy and enterprising individuals residing chiefly at St. Louis, in the state of Missouri, have organized regular companies, for the purpose of carrying on this trade, which has been prosecuted with an admirable degree of efficiency and success. Large parties, composed of hunters, well’ mounted and armed, annually leave St. Louis, attended by pack horses, and on some occasions by wagons, carrying merchandise and stores for the expedition. The leaders are men of talent and courage, and the discipline that of a rigid military police. After passing the settlements of the United States, and the hunting-grounds of the Indian tribes with whom pacific relations have been established by treaty, they have to traverse immense wilds inhabited by the Blackfeet, and other roving bands, who live in perpetual war, and among whom safety can be secured only by unceasing vigilance. The march is conducted with the greatest precaution, and the camp is always guarded by sentinels. All this is beautifully told in Washington Irving’s Astoria, a work which is not more commendable for the gracefulness of its style, than for the fidelity with which it describes the adventures of the trappers in the wilderness. The subject is one with which we are familiar, and we therefore refer to Mr. living’s delightful work with confidence; and forbear from repeating what has been narrated with an ease of style which would render dull the recital of any other pen, upon the same topic.

Those who have seen those wild and hardy trappers, and who know any thing of the severe privations and fearful dangers, encountered by them in the wilderness, would scarcely expect to find science or religion marching in such rude companionship. But danger itself is alluring to the ardent temperament, while true piety, and the genuine love of science are un-appalled by its terrors. Many gentlemen have been induced by curiosity alone, to accompany these parties, and a valuable family of missionaries, under the charge of the Rev. Jason Lee, of the Methodist Episcopal Church, has already settled on the Willamette river, a branch of the Columbia. Although missions have not, heretofore, been successful, among the Indians, we think that, considering the pacific character of the people, and the favorable auspices under which this attempt has been commenced, much good from it may be confidently expected.

The portrait which accompanies this article, represents an interesting individual. He is one of that distant tribe inhabiting the most western extremity of our continent a Chinook, belonging to a band of the great family of Nez Perces. The name Stumanu has no particular meaning that we have been able to discover; the only account he could give of it himself, is that he was called by it after his grandfather, who is still living. He was born in a Chinook village on the Columbia River, about seven miles from its mouth; and having lost his father, when he was but two years old, was brought up by an uncle, who at an early age initiated him in the business of fishing, and in such other employments as engage the attention of that indolent race. In speaking of the skill of his tribe in the management of their canoes, he stated that he had often been alone on the ocean, when overtaken by storms, and had never felt the slightest alarm, but would right his little vessel, when overturned, and pursue his voyage as if nothing had happened.

Shortly after the establishment of the mission family on the Willamette, this youth, being favorably impressed in regard to the advantages of civilization, voluntarily determined to place him self at the school, and applied to Doctor M’Laughlin, a benevolent gentleman, at the British Fort Vancouver, who had taken a lively interest in the missionary enterprise, for his advice on the subject. He cheerfully gave the applicant a letter of introduction to the Rev. Mr. Lee, superintendent of the Willamette station; and thus encouraged, Stumanu, taking his younger brother by the hand, proceeded to the school, to offer himself and his brother as pupils. They were cheerfully admitted, and this youth soon proved himself a valuable acquisition to the school. He quickly showed a great fondness, as well as an aptitude, for learning, was industrious and useful on the farm, and won esteem by the most amiable qualities of temper. He possessed, what was remarkable in an Indian, a decidedly mechanical genius, and excelled in the construction of tools and implements, and in the imitation of any simple articles of furniture that came under his notice, so that the mission family were fully repaid for the expenses of his education and subsistence by his labor. His good sense, sobriety of temperament, and equability of disposition, rendered him altogether a person of uncommon interest.

Stumanu was about twenty years of age when this portrait was taken; he was about five feet in stature, thick set, and strongly made. He was on a visit to the Atlantic cities in company with the Rev. Mr. Lee, who was on a tour for the purpose of raising funds to support his valuable establishment. At New York, Philadelphia, and other places, the young Indian addressed large congregations, in his native tongue, on the destitute condition of his people, their readiness to learn from the white people, and the ample field that was spread open to those whose benevolence might induce them to take pity on the poor savages of the farther west. Some of these addresses were of a very impressive character, and Mr. Lee, who interpreted them, assured the congregations that what Stumanu said was wholly his own in conception and language. On the eve of the departure of the Rev. Mr. Lee to the scene of his labors on the Willamette, Stumanu, flushed with the prospect of once more mingling with his kindred and friends, and gratified with all he had seen of the white man’s capacity and powers, was taken suddenly ill, in New York, and after a short but severe attack, died on the 29th of May, 1839.

McKenny, Thomas & Hall, James & Todd, Hatherly & Todd, Joseph. History of the Indian tribes of North America: with biographical sketches and anecdotes of the principal chiefs. Embellished with one hundred portraits from the Indian Gallery in the War Department at Washington. Philadelphia: D. Rice & Co. 1872.

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