The Swastika: The Earliest Known Symbol & its Migrations
The Cross Among The American Indians
Introduction Of the Cross Into America.
Professor Holmes is, in the judgment of the author, correct when he insists upon the aboriginal character of the cross in America. We all understand how it is stated that the Spanish missionaries sought to deny this and to connect the apparition of St. Thomas with the appearance of the cross. Professor Holmes (1) says:
The first explorers were accompanied by Christian zealots who spared no effort to root out the native superstition and introduce a foreign religion of which the cross was the all-important symbol. This emblem was generally accepted by the savages as the only tangible feature of a new system of belief that was filled with subtleties too profound for their comprehension. As a result, the cross was at cone introduced into the regalia of the natives, at first probably in a European form and material, attached to a string of beads in precisely the manner they had been accustomed to suspend their own trinkets and gorgets; but soon, no doubt, delineated or carved by their own hands upon tablets of stone and copper and shell in the place of their own peculiar conceptions.
There is sufficient evidence, and to spare, of the aboriginal use of the cross in some of its forms, without resorting to the uncertain and forced explanation of its introduction by Christian missionaries. It is possible that the priests and explorers were, like Colonel Mallery's missionary, mistaken as to the interpretation given to the cross by the Indians. Dr. Hoffman, in his paper on the "Midéwiwin or Grand Medicine Society of the Ojibwa," (2) states the myth of the re-creation of the world "as thrown together in a mangled form by Hennepin." Dr. Hoffman observes:
It is evident that the narrator has sufficiently distorted the traditions to make them conform as much as practicable to the Biblical story of the birth of Christ.
And on the same page he quotes from Pêre Marquette, who says:
"I was very glad to see a great cross set up in the middle of the village, adorned with several white skins, red girdles, bows, and arrows, which that good people offered to the Great Manitou to return him their thanks for the care he had taken of them during the winter, and that he had granted them a prosperous hunting."
Marquette [comments Dr. Hoffman] was, without doubt, ignorant of the fact that the cross is the sacred post, and the symbol of the fourth degree of the Midéwiwin, as is fully explained in connection with that grade of society. The erroneous conclusion that the cross was erected as an evidence of the adoption of Christianity and, possibly as a compliment to the visitor was a natural one on the part of the priest, but this same symbol of the Midé society had probably been erected and bedecked with barbaric emblems and weapons months before anything was known of him.
Most aboriginal objects bearing crosses are from localities along the Ohio River and through Kentucky and Tennessee, a locality which the early Christian missionaries never visited, and where the cross of Christ was rarely, if ever, displayed until after that territory became part of the United States. Per contra, the localities among the Indians in which the early missionaries most conducted their labors --- that is to say, along the Great Lakes and throughout northern Illinois --- produce the fewest number of aboriginal crosses. This was the country explored by Fathers Marquette, Lasalle, and Hennepin, and it was the scene of most of the Catholic missionary labors. Professor Holmes seems to have recognized this fact, for he says: (3)
The cross was undoubtedly used as a symbol by the prehistoric nations of the South, and, consequently, that it was probably also known in the North. A great majority of the relics associated with it in the ancient mounds and burial places are undoubtedly aboriginal. In the case of the shell gorgets, the tablets themselves belong to an American type, and are highly characteristic of the art of the Mississippi Valley. A majority of the designs engraved upon them are also characteristic of the same district.
The author agrees heartily with Professor
Holmes's argument in this matter, and his conclusion, when he says of
these objects (p. 270):
The workmanship is purely aboriginal. I have not seen a single example of engraving upon shell that suggested a foreign hand or a design, with the exception of one (cross), that could claim a European derivation.
There have been numerous European or Catholic crosses, as well as many other objects of European manufacture or objects of civilized types, found among the Indians. There have been silver crosses found with images of the Virgin thereon, with Latin inscriptions, or of roman letters; there have been glass beads, iron arrowheads, and divers other objects found in Indian graves which bore indubitable evidence of contact with the whites, and no one with any archæological experience need be deceived into the belief that these were aboriginal or pre-Columbian manufacture. As a general rule, the line of demarkation between objects of Indian manufacture and those made by the whites is definite, and no practiced eye will mistake the one for the other. There may be exceptions, as where the Indian has lived with the whites or a white man with the Indians, or where an object is made with intent to deceive. In such cases one may have more trouble in determining the origin of the object.
There were many Indians who died and were buried within a century past, whose graves might contain many objects of white man's work. Black Hawk and Red Jacket are examples, and, possibly, King Philip. Indian graves have been opened in New England and New York containing the gun or firelock of the occupant of the grave buried with him, and that this was evidence of European contact there can be no doubt. So there have been hundreds, possibly thousands of Indians buried since the Columbian discovery down to within the last decade whose graves contain white man's tools or implements. But no person with any archæological experience need be deceived by these things. The theory that the Latin or Greek crosses or Swastikas shown on these gorgets, disks, and pottery furnish evidence of contact by the aborigines with Europeans in post-Columbian times is without foundation and inadmissible.
1. Second Ann. Rep. Bureau of Ethnology, p. 269. [Back]
2. Seventh Ann. Rep. Bureau of Ethnology, p. 155. Back
3. Second Ann. Rep. Bureau of Ethnology, p. 269. Back
H. Mis. 90, pt. 2------60