The Tar Baby and the Tomahawk: Race and Ethnic Images in American Children's Literature, 1880-1939


The Algonquin Medicine-Boy.

Algonquins from the Ottawa River were making an expedition against their enemies, the Iroquois— the redoubtable Five Nations, whose villages extended through what is now northern and central New York. Forty canoes laden will swarthy warriors had crossed the St. Lawrence, passed through the Richelieu, and were in the northern waters of Lake Champlain.

For years the Mohawks, one of the most war-like of the Five Nations, had brought war to the homes of the Algonquins, and a counter raid was being made. The Canadian warriors had high hopes of success, since French soldiers from Quebec were with them, and the white man's firearm was still a terror to the Indian. Only one thought dampened the ardor of the Algonquins. Wahiawa, their great medicine-man, skilled in planning raids and wars, was dead. Wahiawa, who was more wily than any magician among the Iroquois; more cunning than the fox; more wise than the serpent. Wahiawa, who, as it was rumored, could not be killed by mortal hand, whose name was a dread to all enemies of the Algonquins. Disease had crept upon him, and Wahiawa was dead.

Forty Algonquin warriors were in each of thirty-nine canoes; there were also a dozen craft carrying the French soldiers. Another canoe held two warriors, also Anguel, the medicine-man; and with him the son of dead Wahiawa, Uncoma, a lad of fourteen who came to see how his people made war.

Anguel rose in the canoe and addressed the members of the little fleet:

"It is time, my children, to land and build our camp. Then Anguel will learn whether the spirits promise victory if you fight to-morrow."

The Indians obeyed and went ashore on the island since called Isle La Motte. A small wigwam covered with brightly colored skins of the deer and moose served as the medicine¬man's temple. Into this crept Anguel to commune with the deities. Uncoma stood just outside, ready to make known to the assembled warriors the oracular words spoken to Anguel.

The Frenchmen, lounging at one side of the camp-ground, looked with scornful eyes at the solemn concourse of Indians. They thought it strange such stout fighters could be so childish.

Now the slight poles of the wigwam began to shake as though agitated by the presence ol mighty spirits, and soon muttering voices, supposed to belong to the gods themselves, were heard in earnest converse with Anguel.

"The spirits say," interrupted Uncoma, "you must light to-morrow, for then you will be terrible to your enemies, and the frightened Iroquois will try to hide himself beneath the moss of the forest. When you have won the battle, you shall rest and least, giving thanks to the gods and presents to the medicine man."

The assembly broke up, and a roughly fortified camp was built; now they were in the land of the Iroquois, and it would not do to be careless. That night Uncoma laid by the side of his instructor, Anguel.

"Tell me," said the boy, "why do you deceive the warriors? They thought spirits shook the tent, but I saw your hand grasping the poles, and it was you, not the spirits, that spoke."


"O son of Wahiawa," replied Anguel, "your father could persuade men by his wisdom; but [illustration - "Canoes laden with swarthy warriors had crossed the St. Lawrence."] we lesser prophets must deceive if we would keep our influence. It is right for these dull warriors to fight to-morrow, for they are now well fed and in good courage; it is for their advantage, and so I thought it wise to say the gods bade them to fight."

This reasoning did not quite satisfy Uncoma, and he fell asleep pondering over the duties of a medicine-man. He was almost sorry to think of what might come to him in the office he inherited.

By sunrise the canoes were again journeying southward, stealing along the west shore of the lake. During the forenoon the Algonquins saw smoke as of camp fires rising into the air above a wooded point which stretched far into the water. Scouts were sent forward to learn the cause. They reported a camp of Dutch traders from Fort Orange, and, gathered around the traders, many Mohawk wigwams. An attack was planned, and soon the Iroquois, busy in exchanging furs for the wares of the white man, were startled by the war-cry of the Algonquins.

The Mohawks, assisted by the Dutchmen, intrenched themselves behind a rude barricade, and tried to make a stand against the invaders.

The commander of the French soldiers called on the besieged men to surrender; but even he doubted his ability to protect prisoners from the fury of his savage allies; the band inside the barricade seemed willing to die, but not to become captives.

Though the light was stubborn, every advantage was in favor of the attacking party, and before sunset the only survivors of the band that defended the barricade were a few Mohawk warriors who had been wounded and made prisoners. The Dutchmen were all slain, their breastplates being no protection against the skilled bowmen of the Algonquins.


Uncoma was kept in the background during the fighting; but now that the battle was over he ran forward to examine the strange accoutrements of the Dutchmen. Back of the barricade he noticed a mound of leaves rudely heaped together. Throwing these aside, he saw the rounded top of a steel breastplate, from beneath which a faint sound was heard. A hole had been dug, and covered by the breastplate; in this cavity was a flaxen-haired white child, a girl less than twelve years old.

The little girl might have been slain by the victorious Indians had not Uncoma restrained them. He comforted her as best he could, and led her away from the bloody scene. She knew a few words of the Indian language, and thus could give some account of herself. Her father, who had come north to barter with the friendly Mohawks, had brought her with him. There seemed [illustration - "He built a fire and roasted the grouse." (See Next Page.)] but little danger, as the terror of the Mohawk warriors usually kept the Champlain region clear of hostile Indians. When the camp was attacked, her father had put her where he thought she would be safe from the Indian arrows. Now her father was killed, and his Gretchen a captive among the cruel Algonquins— tales of whom had so frightened her."

"Do not fear," said Uncoma. "They shall not hurt you. I am the son of Wahiawa, and, young as I am, can protect you."

Although Uncoma spoke thus boldly, he had some misgivings, and that night he questioned Anguel as to the probable fate of the captives.

"Already," said the medicine-man, "the warriors are drinking the liquors brought by the Dutch traders; to-morrow every Indian will be wild and bloodthirsty. It is useless for even you— son of Wahiawa, and the only Serpent left among the Algonquins— to attempt to interfere for the captives. Moreover, the law of the tribe gives warriors the right to prisoners taken in battle."

Uncoma lay awake thinking. The white child who already had roused his pity and friendship must not be abandoned to the cruel warriors. The lad resolved upon a plan to save her—a plan which kept his thoughts busy until far into the night.

It was past midnight when Uncoma grasped his bow and arrows, slipped from the side of the sleeping Anguel, and stole away into the darkness.

Stealthily he flitted through the woods to where the captives were. The guards seemed sleepy or maybe tipsy, and it was an easy matter to move to the spot in which the Dutch girl had sobbed herself to sleep. He lifted his knife to sever the few thongs that bound her. His foot must have pressed somewhat too heavily upon the moss, for a twig snapped beneath it, with a sharp report. An Indian guard close to Uncoma's side started and peered around. The boy knew the surer way to silence this fellow was
to plunge the knife into his heart: what mattered a stupid warrior more or less? Yet Uncoma had enlisted in the cause of mercy, and this would be a bad beginning.

"Lie still and close your eyes, friend," he whispered to the guard, "or you will anger the spirits with whom I, Uncoma, am communing."

In supernatural awe the sentinel buried his face in the moss. Uncoma cut the thongs, and the child awoke from troubled dreams to see the kind face of her boy protector. He signed her to follow as silently and quickly as she could. Both wore moccasins and moved with inaudible footsteps. When out of hearing of the guards, Uncoma seized the girl's hand and ran as fast as the darkness and roughness of their path would allow. He did not slacken the pace until Gretchen was breathless. Then they walked again, [illustration - "'See!' he cried, 'on the boy's wrist is the totem of the serpent-clan! He must not be killed.'"] and, as it seemed to her, had walked many miles when a gray light in the east foretold the dawn, and Uncoma permitted a halt.

The girl was hungry, and cried for food. Uncoma, in his anxiety to rescue her, had forgotten to bring provisions. But he had bow and arrows, and there must be game in the woods. Leaving his tired and weeping charge, he started forth. The forest creatures were hardly awake, and it began to seem as though he must return empty-handed, when he noticed some little balls on the branch of a spruce-tree. Uncoma stepped nearer and saw each ball was a fluffy mass of feathers. His arrow sped from the bow, and a half-grown grouse fell to the ground. The noise of the arrow, and the fall on the fry leaves below, alarmed the old bird; in a moment she was alert. Before the boy could fit another arrow to the bow, she was off and her young ones whirring after her.

The young grouse he had killed was no larger than a pigeon, but it would make a breakfast for a child. As for himself, like most Indian boys, he was trained to bear privation, and took pride in showing indifference to hunger.

He returned to Gretchen, built a fire, and roasted the grouse. While she breakfasted he
unfolded his plan. They would follow some trail to a Mohawk village. As the Mohawks were friends of the Dutch, she would then be safe; but he, Uncoma, must leave her at the village outskirts, and return to Canada as best he could. An Algonquin lad could expect no mercy from the Mohawks.

Uncoma was making a couch for the tired child by spreading his mantle of beaver-skins over the moss, when a scream from her caused him to look up. She was staring at a bushy evergreen, where its heavy lower branches rested upon the ground. Following her glance, he saw a pair of menacing eyes gleaming from out the shadows. The young savage had been taught to act promptly; he seized his most deadly weapon—the keen flint tomahawk thrust through his belt—and hurled it at the peering eyes. There was an angry howl, and Uncoma, grasped from behind, was thrown to the ground.

A dozen dusky figures glided from out the underbrush, and the tall Mohawk warrior who had seized Uncoma stood over him, looking down with a grim frown.

"Why is the Algonquin boy and the white child in the land of the Mohawks? See, he is too quick with his tomahawk."

From under the evergreen an Indian was crawling. The boy's weapon had gashed his ear, and the warrior was furious with pain and outraged dignity. He moved to where Uncoma lay, and raised his knife.

"This whelp of the Algonquins must die," he muttered, "or the wound of the Mohawk brave will not heal."

Gretchen, who was watching with terrified eyes, screamed wildly; but Uncoma looked at the raised steel with steady gaze, though his hand convulsively clutched the earth. Perhaps this movement saved his life, for, as the blade was about to descend, one of the warriors caught and held the avenging arm. "See!" he cried, "on the boy's wrist is the totem of the Serpent-clan—the clan of great medicine men which is sacred among all the tribes of the lakes and the river. He must not be killed."

The warriors crowded around to gaze at the image of the rattlesnake tattooed on the boy's wrist—the sacred symbol worn only by the chief magicians and their chosen successors.

Uncoma was ignorant of the full power of the totem which his father, Wahiawa, had tattooed upon his wrist, and which he alone of all Algonquins now had the right to wear; even it he had known its power, the morbid pride of an Indian might have forbidden his taking advantage of it to escape death. He was still solicitous for the welfare of the little maid, and so assumed all the dignity of his priestly rank as he addressed the now submissive Mohawks:

"Take this child safely and quickly to her people at Fort Orange; as for me, I wish guides to the great river which flows between the lands of the Iroquois and the Algonquins. Tell the Serpents of the Iroquois that among the Algonquins one only of their clan is alive, and he soon will visit them to be taught the secrets of the sacred wampum."

Yellow-haired Gretchen wapt at parting with her young protector; but Uncoma did not dare unbend his dignity, and contented himself with ordering the Indians to take her safely to her people, or else fear the wrath of the Great Spirit. The Mohawks then separated into two parties: Gretchen, placed on a litter, was carried southward toward Fort Orange; while the guides of Uncoma took a northwest course to the St. Lawrence.

The boy felt safe among his new friends, and so bade them take him direct to Canada. He feared to let them know the existence of the Algonquin war-party.

In due season Gretchen reached the Dutch settlement, and told of the destruction of the trading-party and her own rescue by the medicine-boy.

For many years Uncoma, last of his line and chief medicine-man of the Algonquins, wisely guided his people; but even he could not prevent the gradual annihilation to which they were doomed. In the latter days, when the Algonquin name was almost forgotten, an aged Indian stalked among the huts of Montreal. The good priests looked upon old Uncoma with kindly eyes, for his was a voice that had always been heard for peace and mercy.