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Gary R Varner

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Leland Among the Indians
by Gary R Varner   
Not "rated" by the Author.
Last edited: Thursday, October 23, 2008
Posted: Thursday, April 10, 2008

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A chapter in the forthcoming book, Charles Leland: Journalist, Adventurer, Folklorist by Gary R. Varner

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Leland had always been interested in Native Americans and he viewed them as America’s gypsies. As Pennell wrote, the Indians “grow very Gypsy-like, while over them always is the mystery of their race and their legends.” (1) In fact, he eventually became enamored of their ways and history.

In 1866, Leland was on a journalistic assignment, which took him across three thousand miles of the American West, documenting the new railroad line. During this trip, he stopped at Fort Riley, Kansas where he purchased a whip from a local Kaw Indian. The Kaw are a Siouan group.  

According to Leland’s account of the event, which he wrote of in his memoirs, he took several of his party with him to meet with the Indians with the intent to buy more of the whips. When the Indians appeared to question the authenticity of his money, he replied Washitaw, which is a Pawnee word for “good.” At once, the Kaw became excited and a verbal exchange between Leland and the Kaw commenced.


“…Great was the amazement and delight of the Kaws…and their chief curiously inquired, ‘You Kaw?’ To which I replied, ‘O nitchee, me Kaw, Washita good Injun me.’ He at once embraced me with frantic joy, as did the others, to the great amazement of my friends. A wild circular dance was at once improvised to celebrate my reception into the tribe; at once our driver Brigham dryly remarked that he didn’t wonder they were glad to get me, for I was the first Injun ever seen in that tribe with a whole shirt on him. 


“The Indians yelled and drummed at the Reception Dance. ‘Now you good Kaw—good Injun you be—all same me,’ said the Chief….From that day I was called the Kaw chief…I rode and whooped like a savage.” (2)


Apparently, the dance was the only memorable event of his “initiation” for nothing else transpired from his meeting. He did meet with some Apaches later on this trip but it wasn’t until 1882 that he began to collect the legends and traditions of the Passamaquoddy Indians of New Brunswick. It was these stories that would become The Algonquin Legends published in 1884.

Current scholars believe that Leland’s account suggest that he may have been a racist. Thomas Parkhill, Associate Professor at St. ThomasUniversity, wrote:


“His description of his encounter with the Kaw tribe, written in November 1866 for Eastern newspaper readers, cast the members of this Plains nation in a very bad light. For Leland the Kaw were part of the ‘wild tribes’ and thus still a threat to the US conquest of that territory…The Kaw, still trying to follow an older life-way, Leland describes as ‘miserable, shirking, thievish-looking specimens.” (3)


However, Leland’s use of “Injun” and his other disparaging remarks practically disappears by the time The Algonquin Legends is published in 1884 (although he continued to refer to the Indians as “Injuns” just a year before his death). As Parkhill points out, “…Leland was anxious for his audience to see the stories of his “Indians” as infused with all that was noble, trustworthy, with lofty moral values. To accomplish this Leland made approving use of the “Indian” stereotype.” (4)

This, of course, was not the first time that authors would manipulate the reading public in order to garner sales. His true feelings probably were in the middle of these two extremes.

Pennell used to visit Leland at the Indian camps at Campobello where he was collecting the various legends for his book. She would write, “With their dark faces, their love of bright colours, their courteous manner, their outdoor life, the Indians were enough like Gypsies for me quickly to feel at home amongst them. …I was allowed to sit there while Tomah [an Indian informant] told his stories, and the Rye [Leland] made his notes, interrupting every now and then, with that emphatic outstretched hand of his, to settle some difficulty or get the uttermost meaning of the last ‘By Jolly!’.” (5)

 Soon, with the help of additional materials supplied by a missionary among the Micmacs, the wife of the local Indian agent, and an Indian member of the Main legislature, Leland had amassed a huge amount of ethnographic material on the Indians of the North East. By the end of the winter of 1884 the book was published by Houghton, Mifflin and Company.

According to Pennell Leland “allowed himself the luxury of a theory. He attributed the Algonquin sagas to a Norse origin—he compared them to the Eddas, and their heroes to Odin and Thor and Loki.” (6)

Pennell noted “unconventionality in treatment and independence in theory are anathema to the folk-lorist and comparative mythologist.” (7)

It is true that established researchers are inclined to dispute any theory, regardless of how much evidence accompanies it, if it doesn’t fit within the narrow confines of “established science.” However, Leland’s theory, like many other claims he would make, was so far out of the range of possibility that his reputation was once again in jeopardy. In an obituary written by Frederick York Powell, a noted Professor of Modern History, Leland was remembered thusly:


“He could and did made careful and exact notes (this of his folk-lore researches in general), but when he put the results before the public, he liked to give them the seal of his own personality and to allow his fancy to play about the stories and poems he was publishing, so that those who were not able quickly to distinguish what was folk-lore and what was Leland were shocked and grumbled (much to his astonishment and even disgust), and belittled his real achievement.”


Pennell noted that his book on Algonquin legends “fared worse, for the book was in many quarters violently criticized….One reason for his love for the Children of Light [the Indians] of his own country was that they, with their myths, had given ‘a fairy, an elf, a naiad, or a hero, to every rock and river and ancient hill in New England,’ and that he, by collecting these myths, could repeople his native land with fairies of yore, and walk in spirit trodden paths, and find goblins in the woods.” (8)

It was this romanticism of Leland’s which created the mythic world in his image. An image of a traditional witchcraft cult, a noble race of Indians, gypsies and pagans that, in actuality, did exist but not as Leland pictured them.

It was this creative and romantic notion of Leland’s that got him in trouble time and again. Parkhill wrote of one of Leland’s Algonquin myths:


“We already know that Leland constructed ‘Of Glooskap’s Birth…’ if not out of whole cloth, at least out of pieces of material that should have caused him to hesitate. We also know he was persistent to the point of showing disrespect to his consultants. This characteristic of his story-gathering technique calls attention to his overall folklore collecting methods.” (9)


It was this method, which, years later, produced Aradia: The Gospel of the Witches. Leland’s other methods included providing liquor and tobacco to his Indian friends, as well as small cash gifts. Leland would pay $1 for every eight pages of legend. Parkhill writes, “By ordering stories of a certain length, no doubt to conform to his reader’s expectations and perhaps to keep his project in budget, Leland was no longer merely gathering stories, he was shaping them.” (10)


In fact, he often rewrote the stories to fit his perception of what would interest his readers. This appears to have been a fault that plagued him throughout his career, both as a journalist and as a folklorist. His rewrites were often identified by his contemporary reviewers who saw his “heavy editing hand” at work.

It wasn’t just the legends that he altered freely either. In particular a birchbark illustration by Tomah Joseph, one of Leland’s Indian informants, was used as an illustration in Leland’s piece on Algonquin legends which appeared in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine. Reportedly, the same illustration, although “improved” by Leland, was used for the frontispiece of Algonquin Legends. The two are obviously different. In the original by Joseph the illustration is that of Mikamwes, an “other-than-human person.” The figure is sitting on a stream bank amid water plants and holding a long stick-like object in the water. The “improved” version shows a similar figure but with pointed ears. Leland’s caption under the altered illustration reads “The Indian Puck, or Robin Goodfellow” and “The Mik un Wess always wears a red cap like a Norse Goblin.” In fact, the original illustration shows a figure without a cap or with pointed ears. His purpose in this fabrication was to give credence to his theory that the Algonquin myths originated in Norse lore. His effort to prove his theories with altered stories and illustrations was tireless. Parkhill noted that Joseph Campbell, yet again taken by Leland’s myths, “unwittingly chose [the illustration of Mikunwesu] to grace the Table of Contents of his Atlas, thus ensuring ‘the eclectic folklorist’s’ work would endure for generations.”(11)  

He was involved in the same deception up until his death, writing to his co-author of Kulóskap the Master, J. Dyneley Prince on January 27, 1902, “…I think I had better do the birch-bark drawings, having had much practice therein under first-class Injun teachers.” (12)

As indicated, Leland’s treatment of the Algonquin myths was purely to advance his Norse theory. As Parkhill noted, “Matching detail for detail, Leland forces this ‘Indian’-Norse connection at every turn.” (13)

Leland had written an article in the Atlantic Monthly in 1884 and presented a lecture to the Royal Society of Literature in 1886 with the premise that the Algonquin traditions had originated in the Norse Eddas. According to Leland, “there is hardly a song in the Norse collection which does not contain an incident found in the Indian poem-legends, while in several there are many such coincidences.” (14)

According to Parkhill, Leland’s legends were obviously so out of touch with reality “they might well be laughed at. Considering what he felt was in the balance, he could not just pass them on untouched. He must show that they were worthy of attention, even if that meant adding a little here and there, changing a lot here and there.” (15) Parkhill also pointed out that Leland never missed a change for self-aggrandizement so the legends had to be worthy of his name, even if that meant they bore no semblance to their original character. 


Leland also had an interesting view of grave robbing, excusing his forays into pot hunting but condemning others for the same act. He wrote in his Memoirs:

‘…one morning there was brought in an old silver cross which had just been found in an Indian grave on the margin of the lake, not very far away.  I went there with some others.  It was evidently the grave of some distinguished man who had been buried about a hundred years ago.  There were the decayed remains of an old-fashioned gun, and thousands of small beads adhering, still in pattern, to the tibiæ.  I dug up myself—in fact they almost lay on the surface, the sand being blown away—several silver bangles, which at first looked exactly like birch-bark peelings, and, what I very much prized, two or three stone cylinders or tubes, about half an inch in diameter, with a hole through them.  Antiquaries have been much puzzled over these, some thinking that they were musical instruments, others implements for gambling. I also purchased from a boy a red stone pipe-head, which was found in the same grave.”

He then righteously states, “A frequent source of grief to me has been to see objects of great value, illustrating some point in archæology, seized as ‘curiosities’ by ignorant wealthy folk.” (16) His scholarship was similarly conducted. 

Leland’s use of manipulation and deception in his research and writing of The Algonquin Legends were perfected during this time and were used to the fullest with the publication of Aradia in 1899. 





1. Pennell, Elizabeth Robins. Charles Godfrey Leland a Biography, Vol. 2. London: Archibald Constable & Co. Ltd., 1906, 229

2. Ibid. 231-232.

3. Parkhill, Thomas C. Weaving Ourselves into the Land: Charles Godfrey Leland, “Indians,” and the Study of Native American Religions. Albany: State University of New York 1997, 50.

4. Ibid.

5. Pennell, op cit., 235.

6. Ibid., 237.

7.  Ibid.

8.  Pennell, op cit., 238.

9. Ibid, 52.

10. Ibid. 54.

11. Parkhill, op cit., 59.

12. Pennell, op cit., 243.

13. Parkhill, op cit.,61.

14. As quoted in Parkhill, 62.

15. Ibid., 105.

16. Leland, Charles G. MemoirsLondon: William Heinemann 1894, 360.



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