© Duane A. Cline 2000
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PHYSICAL APPEARANCE OF WAMPANOAG NATIVES
A number of early European observers were quick to admire the physical appearance of the male natives. Giovanni de Verrazano, the earliest of the European observers recorded his observations of the New England Indians as follows:
“This is the goodliest people and of the fairest condition that we have found in this voyage; they exceed us in bigness, they are the color of brass, some of them incline to whiteness, others are of a yellow color, with long black hair which they carefully turn and deck up: they are of a sweet and pleasant countenance.”
He described the female Indians to be “comely to behold: very graceful and well formed: of a sweet and pleasant countenance” and well mannered.
Other observers described them as tall, straight, muscular and well-proportioned. Obesity and deformities were rare indeed. Their cheekbones were high and prominent - the eyes widely separated.
William Wood, in 1634, described the natives as:
“...amiable to behold,” and“...high foreheaded, black ey'd, black haired, broad shouldered, brawny armed, long and slender handed, out-nosed, out-breasted, small waisted, lanke bellied, well thighed, flat kneed, handsome growne leggs, and small feet…”
The skin was a light and tawny or bronzed color and remarkably clear. They seem to have had gleaming white teeth which were sound and regular. John Josselyn also made note of the whiteness of their teeth, “which the natives account the most necessary and best parts of man. The teeth of the elderly might be worn down from much eating of stone-ground cornmeal, but were seldom missing.
Samuel de Champlain called them handsome, adding, “They exceed us in size.” [Remains from a burial site have been measured and it was found the average height to be about five feet, ten inches.]
John Smith considered them well-proportioned and goodly people. Few or none were cross-eyed, blind, lame or hunchbacked.
Observers in the years that followed described the Indian women as attractive, well-proportioned, physically well favored, of middle height and with finely cut features. All observers agreed as to their erect carriage and ability to bear great burdens without stooping. The girls and young women, not yet bent by their burdens, were likely to have been every bit as attractive as their colonial counterparts.
The women kept their skin smooth with fish oil and eagle fat. As with men, red pigment was mixed to give a reddish coloration. In addition, bright red was applied to the forehead, temples and cheeks. Young women favored a black pigment around the eyes and on the forehead. The body also received its share of decorative paints.
The youngsters' physical qualities seem to have drawn special praise. Roger Williams reported: “Their children are never Rickety nor shall you ever see a Bandy-leg'd or Crooked Indian.” “No fools among Indians, but some are born deaf and so dumb.” The general good health among the young Indians was in marked contrast to the misery of children reported in the Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Click here to view a "Wampanoag Time Stick" September 2002
Click here to view a "Wampanoag Lullaby" September 2002
Roger Williams, who worked closely with the Indians reported: “For the temper of the braine in quick apprehension and accurate judgments to say no more, the most high and Sovereign Creator hath not made them inferior to Europeans.” William Wood also found their understanding quick, judgment good, and memory strong.
Father Paul le Jeune, writing of the Canadian Algonquins who were related to the New England Indians, reported: “I have not seen anyone who does not frankly admit that the Savages are more intelligent than our ordinary peasants.” He even went so far as to suggest that laborers be sent from France to work for the Indians.
BODY PAINTING & THE TERM “RED MEN”
Painting of the face was common with both men and women. Red was the preferred color. It was also liberally spread over the body. This love of staining the body red could well have been the reason for early settlers referring to them as “red men.” Roger Williams made note of the red coloring on face and body as follows: “...their red painting which they most delight in, and is both the Barke of the Pine, as also a red earth.” The bulk of this paint seems to have been brought from the iron outcrops near Katahdin and elsewhere in central Maine.
George Weymouth noted seven Indians from the Maine area who had stripes of blue painted across theirs chins, upper lips and nose.
Bear grease, with or without coloring, protected the skin from insects and chill. At times the body was smoked with burning sage, sweetgrass or such aromatic plants.
HAIR STYLES FOR MEN
Their hair was straight, black and glossy-and no lack of it. Baldness was a rarity. No boy could wear his hair long until he reached the age of sixteen. Then, like his elders, he would pamper his hair more than the women. It was dressed daily with bear fat to give it a sheen, and frequently soot was added to deepen the natural black color.
Hair styles for the men were limited only by the wearer's imagination. The most popular was the cockscomb-a strip of hair running down the center of the head. The hairdo was kept short and stiff with paints and grease-the sides of the scalp were shaved or plucked. King Philip's Wampanoag warriors preferred this style. Often artificial roaches of deer bristles, dyed to a brilliant red, were tied to the head to heighten the effect.
Others wore the hair to the shoulders, in which case it might be braided or left trailing down the back of the head like a scalp lock. Bits of shell, stones, metal and the like were often tied into the hair for decoration. Some tied the crown hair into a top knot or let it dangle down, much like a horse's tail. Others shaved their heads on one side and let the hair grow long on the other. There were others who shaved all but a small tuft, the scalp lock, at the back of the head. It was an invitation for the enemy to grab the hairy handle as a trophy if he dared. William Wood noted that “...other cuts they have as their fancie befools them, which would torture the wits of a curious Barber to imitate.”
Click here to view a typical "Hairstyles for men"
HAIRSTYLES FOR WOMEN
Their hair was glossy black. Dyes were rarely used, for gray hair was a rarity among the Indians. Occasionally, vermilion and bear fat were used to spark up a part of the hair. Long hair was admired, and indeed it often hung down to the hips. Sometimes it was gathered into a bunch down the back-much like a beaver tail-or braided. Occasionally the hair over the forehead was trimmed into bangs.
Men rarely used other decorative paints unless on the warpath. Every warrior painted himself as he wished-always with the hope of frightening his enemies. He was an expert with background colors, figures of birds and animals, and particularly the clan symbols across his chest. Various colors were used, especially black, yellow and vermilion. These paints were kept in small, individual bags. There were also bags of fat to be used to mix the dry pigments into a paste. These were contained in a larger bag and carried by both men and women.
Tattoos were popular. William Wood tells how upon the cheeks of the superior males there were “certain portraitures of Beares, Deeres, Mooses, Wolves...Eagles, Hawkes” incised permanently in ink, which were thought to be permanent decorations on clan members. He also noted round impressions on their arms and breasts, though he was uncertain of their purpose. In tattooing, the skin was pierced with a sharp stone or bone sliver and black dye worked into the deeper layers. Cheeks were a usual place for tattooing. Some Indians went a step further by burning designs into the skin with a hot tool, sometimes searing a length along the lateral arms.
Click here to view a typical "New England Indian Family"
Click here for Physical Appearance Vocabulary.
Click here for illustrations of Indian Clothing
Last modified September 7, 2002
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