Annual Gatherings in the Valley of the Grand River -- A Great Feast in the Spring of 1674 -- Preparations for the Feast -- Cooking -- The Purification -- The Assembly

Every spring, after the hunt was over, a large number of Indians of the Ottawa, Pottawatamie, Chippewa, and other tribes, were accustomed to return to the vicinity of the rapids of the Grand River, and here, in the spring of 1764, one of their most memorable annual feasts was celebrated. Again the valley of the Grand Rapids was thickly dotted with curious wigwams, and in every quarter for more than half a mile a busy scene was presented. On this particular occasion, it is stated that more than four thousand Indians -- men, women and children -- assembled to have their annual pow-wo. No soon had the multitude collected than they began preparations. A curiously shaped, oblong tent was erected near the site of what was afterwards known as the Baptist Mission. It was about thirty feet long and twenty wide. A large quantity of bark was collected and placed in huge piles near at hand, to be used as a covering for the tent in the event of rain. This work performed, they next made three small excavations near each other in the middle of the tent, and after filling them with hard, round stones, fires were built upon them and kept burning constantly for three days. In the meantime small tents were being put up in rows, extending up and down the west bank of the river for a considerable distance. These rows of wigwags were about thirty feet apart, thus affording a splendid thoroughfare between them. All along on either side of this broad avenue, fires were built and kettles placed over them containing a variety of savage delicacies, such as sturgeon, sturgeon eggs, venison, and such game as the country afforded. In a majority of instances the cooking was conducted in the rudest manner, and the dishes served up were of such a nature as would sicken, rather than feast a civilized person. We shall forbear giving any details of their style of culinary, and be contended with saying that it was of such a character as not to admit of a description here.

At intervals along the valley might have been seen groups of Indians lounging lazily upon the grass, indulging in a game of hazard, or recounting to each other singular stories of their own heroic deeds. In every quarter a free social intercourse prevailed. The meeting appeared to be one of old friends, and each seemed anxious to related his wonderful experience to the other. Feasting and conviviality prevailed everywhere in the broad valley; and with the bright sunlight dancing up on the troubled bosom of the rapids; with acres of curiously formed tents, and long rows of smouldering fires mingling their curling smokes; with thousands of strange, brawny Indian forms, painted and adorned, moving quickly to and fro -- the scene was a curious and interesting blending of nature and savage pastime.

Muskets and war clubs, scalping-knives and tomahawks were laid aside, and each soul seemed, for the time being, to throw off every care of life, and to indulge his or her savage nature on the broadest principles of unrestrained, untrammelled freedom. Here the children of the forest once more enjoyed the pleasures of their annual feast uninterrupted by any barrier of civilization. Only one white man's presence marred the curious harmony of the occasion. This was in the person of a French traveler and explorer who, whaving skirted the western border of Lake Michigan, was now exploring the source of the Grand River. Arriving at this extensive but temporary settlement, he found the savages both friendly and hospitable, and accepted an invitation to mingle with them in some of the amusements of the occasion.

One phase of this broad, living picture was the sign of approaching danger to the eye of the French traveler. Not far from the tent of the principal chief lay five barrels of whisky, although at this stage of the proceedings not one had been opened.

Returning to the scene of action at the large tent spoken of at the beginning of this chapter, we find the heralds of the great chief busily engaged dragging, by means of rude wooden tongs, the hot stones from the embers of the three smouldering fires, and carrying them to the smaller tent, not more than twenty paces distant. The latter had been formed by twining together the tops of small trees, and covering them with to a smaller tent, not more than twenty paces distant. The latter had been formed by twining together the tops of small trees, and covering them with blankets from top to bottom. In the center of this tent the Indians had dug out the heart, carefully removing it at some distance, and were now filling the excavation with the hot stones, already mentioned. When this had been completed, three of the leading chiefs, after removing their scanty clothing, provided themselves each with a sort of splint broom, and entered the small tent. Vessels of water were passed in and sprinkled upon the hot stones by the chiefs, who muttered a curious prayer as they waved the dripping brooms over the steaming mass.

This was called the exercise of purification, and must, indeed, have been a painful one to the three subjects within. This was kept up for nearly an hour, until the blankets which covered the tent were dripping with the evaporated steam. After the chiefs had been thoroughly steamed, and thereby purified, they came forth, their tawny skin presenting a par-boiled appearance, and passed into the large tent. Taking seats upon a small platform which had been erected at one end of the enclosure, and being provided with small red blankets with which to cover their nakedness, they busied themselves wiping the great drops of sweat from their bodies, while the principle young men and women who had come to the feast came in, in solemn procession, and occupied seats the circle of mats that had been carefully arranged for the purpose.

Document Source: Tuttle, Charles R., History of Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids: Tuttle & Cooney, 1874.
Transcriber: Jennifer Godwin
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