Birth, Nursing, and Education of Infants; Education and Amusements of Youth,” by John Dunn Hunter, discusses Native-American children and child rearing. Hunter lived mostly among the Kansas and the Osage, between around 1800 and 1816.


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“Birth, Nursing, and Education of Infants; Education and Amusements of Youth,” by John Dunn Hunter (from Memoirs of a Captivity Among the Indians of North America, 3rd ed. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1824; pp. 263-267)

[NOTE: This is an excerpt from the longer chapter on “Family Government, Occupation, and Economy”. Hunter lived primarily among the Kansas and Osage, leaving his adoptive people around 1816.]

Their infants, wrapped in skins, are secured with belts to a small thin piece of board placed along the back. As they grow older, should the weather be mild, the skins are removed altogether, and no other dresses are substituted for them, except in very cold weather, till near the period of puberty.

When travelling, the mother places the board to which the infant is secured on her back, and supports it in this manner for the whole distance of the journey. While resting, or at work, she suspends it perpendicularly from the side of her lodge, the arm of a tree, or a post she has erected for the purpose. She administers food to it when she thinks it is hungry; disregards its crying; and seldom unbinds or soothes it to rest, except when she herself retires for sleep.

When the temperature is mild, they bathe their children daily from their birth till they are able to walk alone, in order to make their skins hardy, and capable of resisting the extreme changes of the weather, to which they are more particularly exposed in early life. When sufficiently old and strong, they wean and suffer them to run about: this is gene-

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p. 264

rally between the age of two and three years. They would, no doubt, deviate from this practice sometimes, did they not apprehend that such conduct would be stigmatized by a pair of bowed legs, which would bear witness against their parental care and good qualities to the whole tribe.

Should the child be a boy, this period is to the mother peculiarly interesting; because she now takes it with her in all her visits, witnesses its playful, empassioned, or vindictive emotions and conduct, with is infantile fellows; and feels her soul bowed down with mortification and grief, or swelled with pride and joy, as she discovers the ignoble traits of cowardice, or the innate characters of courage, to unfold themselves in the offspring of her hopes. They are seldom long together without quarrelling, and pretty generally make a bold fight, though they are not permitted to continue it: should the case be otherwise, the disappointed mother soon returns to her lodge; and thence commences a very extraordinary discipline. She begins by placing a rod in his hand; assists him to beat and make flee the dog, or any thing else that may come in his way, and then encourages him to pursue. An adept in this, she teazes and vexes him, creates an irritable temper, submits to the rod, and flees before him with great apparent dread. when skilled in this branch, she strikes him with her hand, pulls his hair, &c., which her now hopeful boy retaliates in a spiteful and becoming manner. Some time having passed in this way, by which her pupil has learned to bear pain without dread, she takes him again on a visit, and I

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p. 265

have never known an instance of a second disppointment in these trials of courage. They are thenpermitted to play with the other children of the village, and to quarrel and make up as well as they can.

After this conceived salutary course of discipline, the parents bring them back to their accustomed subjection, by a steady and determined course of government.

There is nothing connected with the education of the female part of the children that requires to be noticed, except it be their early entrance with the boys into sports and amusements in imitation of the grown people. A particular account of these cannot prove generally interesting; nevertheless, as they are connected with, and indeed constitute parts of Indian education, they appear to me of sufficient importance to be briefly noticed. Those in which they most frequently engage, are the dances, which they soon learn to perform with accuracy, and with the same variety as practised by the older ones. Running races, wrestling, jumping, and swimming, also engross much of their time. They perform these sports in a manner very similar to what is practised among civilized people: and therefore I shall not attempt their description. Playing the hoop is performed on an oblong level piece of ground, prepared for the purpose. Three parallel lines run the whole length of the plot, at about fifteen yards' distance from each other. On the exterior ones, the opposing parties, which generally consist of from twelve to eighteen persons, arrange themselves about ten paces apart, each individual fronting intermediate

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p. 266

to his two opposite or nearest opponents. On the central line, extended a few paces beyond the wings of the two parties, stand two persons facing each other; it is their part of the play alternately to roll a hoop of about the diameter of a common hogshead, with all their strength, from one to the other. The object for triumph between these two is, wh shall catch his opponent's hoop the oftenest, and of the contending parties, which shall throw the greatest number of balls through the hoop as it passes rapidly along the intervening space. Judges are appointed, usually from among the old men, to determine which party is victorious, and to distribute the prizes, which, on some particular occasions, consist of beaver and deer skins, mockasins, leggings, &c., but more usually of shells, nuts, and other trifles.

Throwing the tomahawk, and shooting with the bow, are practised with great perseverance and zeal, and form no inconsiderable or unimportant part of their amusement. In regard to the first, the whole art consists in strength and precision, and in accommodating the motions of the arm and hand to the distance, so as invariably to cause the edge of the tomahawk to strike the mark, and it is attained to an astonishing degree of perfection by the Indians.

In sham battles, another of their amusements, all the feelings of the warrior are excited. The contending parties secrete themselves in the woods and prairie grass, and reciprocally practise on each other surprise and open attack, before or after which, as

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p. 267

the case may be proper, the war whoop is raised, and the feats of real warfare are imitated.

Councils are afterwards held; the pipe of peace smoked; and as much gravity observed as though the fate of the nation depended on their deliberations. These sports are finally terminated in the dance of peace, and other rejoicings, in which the young squaws usually take a part. All these various sports are encouraged and promoted by the older Indians, with the avowed purpose of qualifying the minds and habits, and preparing the bodies of the younger for the more important offices of war and hunting; to excel in which constitutes their first duty, and is the acme of their ambition.

The rest of the Indian's education, apart from what is acquired by experience, is obtained from the discourses of the aged warriors, who, from the services rendered their country, have high claims on its gratitude and respect. Such was Tshut-chenau, as mentioned page 20.; and similar to his are the doctrines they generally teach. The elderly women also frequently perform these offices, more particularly as they relate to narratives and traditions, of which they are by the consent of custom the unerring and sacred depositories.


[NOTE: Hunter describes the lessons taught him and his friends by Tshut-che-nau; the excerpt begins on p. 20:]

This [p. 21] venerable worn-out warrior would often admonish us for our faults, and exhort us never to tell a lie. “Never steal, except it be from an enemy, whom it is just that we should injure in every possible way. When you become men, be brave and cunning in war, and defend your hunting grounds against all encroachment. Never suffer your squaws or little ones to want. Protect the squaws and strangers from insult. On no account betray your friend. Resent insults—revenge yourselves on your enemies. Drink not the poisonous strong-water of the white people; it is sent by the Bad Spirit to destroy the Indians. Fear not death; none but cowards fear to die. Obey and venerate the old people, particularly your parents. Fear and propitiate the Bad Spirit, that he may do you no harm;—love and adore the Good Spirit, who made us all, who supplies our hunting grounds, and keeps us alive.”

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