They were a pestilence, coming upon us in so many ways- with guns, knives drawn behind empty handshakes, bringing sickness and fire. No matter how many we killed, no matter how firmly we stood, they just kept coming. It was we who saw our numbers dwindling, our villages emptied or turned to ash. The death and desecration and misery was beyond what our gods had prepared us for. There were no ancestral stories to tell in the night which were more brutal than what we’d seen in the day, and so there was no wisdom to draw on… no comfort. In the end, staring at their piece of paper, the one they said would make it all stop, I took the pen and did the only thing left for me to do- I drew a tiny little elk’s head.
It dawned on me only recently that in the vaults and safes and state of the art library humidors which house the priceless historical paper trail of the American ascent, there are legal documents, many still binding, which, beside the paragraphs of legalese, the caveats, the statutes, the declarations, and the protocol, feature, of all things, small enigmatic drawings of woodland creatures.
Beside heavy wax seals you’ll find the beaver, the wolf, the turtle, and the deer, in a loose free-hand application of ink. The eagle, which eventually became a symbol of the American State, and seems ever present in the form of impossibly intricate etchings, might conceivably have made its first appearance in the annals of American documents⊕ as an Indian Chief’s totemic signature.
Quote: “Not much is understood about the exact function of totem symbols, or indeed what totems meant to the individuals who made their mark on documents. The following quote from Benjamin Slight (1844), offers a fairly typical explanation of what Europeans of the time believed these symbols to mean: When their signature is required to any document of any kind, in connexion with their names, they affix what is called their tootams, having the same juxtaposition as the seal of an English transaction. The tootam is a rude sketch of some fish, fowl or animal, which is designative of the tribe to which the individual belongs, or expressive of the name, he as an individual, bears.
Totem symbols may well have reflected band or family affiliation, and may also have suggested territorial or community ancestry, but they may have also referred to personal names or descriptive characteristics of the individual who adopted the symbol. Generally, these symbols remain a mystery, and perhaps rightly so, given the sometimes quite private and personal importance they had for the individual.” -Neal Ferris, Preface to Deeds/Nations by Greg Curnoe.
Quote: “A totem could be used to represent an individual or a group. Original documents signed by Native Americans using their totem are extremely rare. Most researchers who look at printed versions of documents signed by Native Americans, such as peace treaties, are familiar with the phrase “made his mark,” followed by an “X.” The impression left by these printed documents are that Native Americans were devoid of a written means of expression and that even tribal leaders were reduced to signing critical documents such as treaties with a crude mark. Actually the Native American’s totem, or signature, was often a fine drawing that reflected a characteristic of the individual’s name or a central event in their life. Because printers had difficulty inexpensively reproducing these art-like totems, the practice arose of simply stating that the signer had “made his mark” and placing an “X” in the appropriate location on the printed document.” -Clarke Historical Library at CMU.
Of course animal totems were by no means only used as signatures-
And they painted on grave-posts,
On the graves yet unforgotten,
Each his own ancestral Totem,
Each the symbol of his household;
Figures of the Bear and Reindeer,
Of the Turtle, Crane and Beaver,
Each inverted as a token
That the owner was departed,
That the Cheif who bore the symbol
Lay beneath in dust and ashes.
-Longfellow, Song of Hiawatha.
Were it not for the grim circumstances of their creation the very thought of our weighty and hallowed American historical documents being peppered here and there with naive drawings of indigenous animals would make me smile, surprising and counterintuitive as it feels. In context, however, the little creatures take on a mournful aspect which force you instead to visualize anxious and uncertain hands hovering just above dubious pieces of paper. Naive as they may appear, these animal drawings may actually have more import and consequence for the hands that created them than any ever made.
The materials for this post were adapted from the following:
A History of the Art of Writing
Clarke Historical Library
American Historical and Literary Antiquities
College of William and Mary, Swem Library
The Canadian Encyclopedia
The Empire State: A Compendious History of the Commonwealth of New York.
The image which began this post was adapted from Clarke Library’s page The Native American Treaty Signers in the Great Lakes Region.
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