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Metlakahtla and the North Pacific Mission of the Church Missionary Society

By Eugene Stock

London: Church Missionary House, 1880.

Chapter I. The Field of Labour

British Columbia, now forming part of "The Dominion of Canada," includes within its limits several islands, of which Vancouver's is the principal, and that part of the continent of North America, west of the Rocky Mountains and east of Alaska, which is included between the 49 deg. and the 60 deg. parallels of north latitude.

English connection with this part of the world may be said to date from an exploratory voyage made by Captain Cook in 1776, when he landed at Friendly Cove and Nootka Sound, and took possession of them in the name of his sovereign. He supposed at the time that these places were on the mainland, and it was not until Captain Vancouver, an officer in the English Navy, was despatched in 1792 to the Pacific, that he discovered that Nootka and Friendly Cove were on the west side of the island which now bears his name, and which is sometimes spoken of as the gem of the Pacific.

In 1793, Alexander Mackenzie, one of the most enterprising pioneers in the employment of the North-West Fur Company, who had already discovered the mighty river since named after him, crossed the Rocky Mountains, and pushed his way westward, until he stood on the shores of the Pacific. Some years later, in 1806, Mr. Simon Frazer, another employe of the same Company, gave his name to the great river that drains British Columbia, and established the first trading post in those parts. After the amalgamation of this Company with the Hudson's Bay Company, other posts were established, such as Fort Rupert, on Vancouver's Island, and Fort Simpson, on the borders of Alaska, then belonging to Russia, but subsequently sold by her to the United States.

In 1858, the discovery of gold in the basin of the Fraser river, on the mainland, attracted a large number of gold-diggers from California, and among them a considerable body of Chinese. To maintain order among a motley population of lawless habits, British Columbia was formed into a colony, with its capital at Victoria, on Vancouver's Island.

Official returns, made a few years ago, gave the number of Indians in British Columbia as 31,520, distributed over the islands and mainland. They belong to several distinct families or nations, speaking distinct languages, subdivided into a multitude of tribes speaking different dialects of their own. Thus the Hydahs of Queen Charlotte's Islands are altogether distinct from the Indians of Vancouver's Island, where, indeed, those on the east coast are distinct from those on the west. Again, on the mainland, the Indians on the sea-board are distinct from the Indians of the interior, from whom they are divided by the Cascade range of mountains. These inland Indians are of more robust and athletic frame, and are altogether a more vigorous race.

Among the coast tribes, however, there are great differences, those to the north being far superior to those in the south. Those who know the Indians well declare that it would be impossible to find anywhere finer looking men than the Hydahs, Tsimsheans, and some of the Alaskan tribes. "They are," writes one, "a manly, tall, handsome people, and comparatively fair in their complexion."

The Indians on the sea-board of the mainland, and those on the east coast of Vancouver's Island who have affinity with one another, have been grouped into three principal families or nations. The first of these is met with at Victoria and on the Fraser river, and may be called the Chinook Indians, from the language which is principally in use. In the second division may be comprised the tribes between Nanaimo on the east coast, and Fort Rupert at the extreme north of Vancouver's Island, and the Indians on the mainland between the same points. The Tsimsheans, a third family, cluster round Fort Simpson, and occupy a line of coast extending from the Skeena river to the borders of Alaska.

On his arrival at Fort Simpson, on the 1st of October, 1857, Mr. Duncan found located there, to quote his own words in a recent official report, "Nine tribes, numbering (for I counted them) about 2,300 souls. These proved to be just one-third of the tribes speaking the Tsimshean language. Of the other eighteen tribes, five were scattered over 100 miles of the coast south of Fort Simpson, other five occupied the Naas river, and the remaining eight tribes lived on the Skeena river--the whole of the twenty-seven tribes numbering then not over 8,000 souls, though I at first set them down at 10,000. In addition to the Tsimshean tribes which I have mentioned, I found that Indians of other two distinct languages frequented the Fort for trade. These were the Alaska Coast Indians, whose nearest village was only some fifteen miles north of Fort Simpson, and the Hydahs from Queen Charlotte's Islands."

The tribal arrangements among the Tsimsheans are very much the same as among other Indian clans. Each tribe has from three to five chiefs, one of whom is the acknowledged head. Among the head chiefs of the various tribes one again takes preeminence. At feasts and in council the chiefs are seated according to their rank. As an outward mark, to distinguish the rank of a chief, a pole is erected in front of his house. The greater the chief the higher the pole. The Indians are very jealous in regard to this distinction.

Every Indian family has a distinguishing crest, or "totem," as it is called in some places. This crest is usually some bird, or fish, or animal; particularly the eagle, the raven, the finback whale, the grisly bear, the wolf, and the frog. Among the Tsimsheans and their neighbours, the Hydahs, great importance is attached to this heraldry, and their crests are often elaborately engraved on large copper plates from three to five feet in length, and about two in breadth. These plates are very highly valued, and are often heir-looms in families. No Indian would think of killing the animal which had been taken for his crest. While two members of the same tribe are allowed to intermarry, those of the same crest are prohibited from doing so under any circumstances. The child always takes the mother's crest: if she belonged to a family whose crest was the eagle, thru all her children take the eagle for their crest.

The most influential men in a tribe--not excluding the chiefs--are the medicine men. Captain Mayne, R.N., thus speaks of them:--[Four Years in British Columbia, and Vancouver Island, p. 260 (Murray, 1862).]

"Their initiation into the mysteries of their calling is one of the most disgusting ceremonies imaginable. At a certain season, the Indian who is selected for the office retires into the woods for several days, and fasts, holding intercourse, it is supposed, with the spirits who are to teach him the healing art. He then suddenly reappears in the village, and, in a sort of religious frenzy, attacks the first person he meets and bites a piece out of his arm or shoulder. He will then rush at a dog, and tear him limb from limb, running about with a leg or some part of the animal all bleeding in his hand, and tearing it with his teeth. This mad fit lasts some time, usually during the whole day of his reappearance. At its close he crawls into his tent, or falling down exhausted is carried there by those who are watching him. A series of ceremonials, observances, and long incantations follows, lasting for two or three days, and he then assumes the functions and privileges of his office. I have seen three or four medicine men made at a time among the Indians near Victoria, while twenty or thirty others stood, with loaded muskets, keeping guard all round the place to prevent them doing any mischief. Although a clever medicine man becomes of great importance in his tribe, his post is no sinecure either before or after his initiation. If he should be seen by anyone while he is communing with the spirits in the woods, he is killed or commits suicide, while if he fails in the cure of any man he is liable to be put to death, on the assumption that he did not wish to cure his patient. This penalty is not always inflicted, but, if he fails in his first attempt, the life of a medicine man is not, as a rule, worth much. The people who are bitten by these maniacs when they come in from the woods consider themselves highly favoured."

Mr. Duncan, in 1857, gave the following painfully curious description of the medicine men--

"The superstitions connected with this fearful system are deeply rooted here, and it is the admitting and initiating of fresh pupils into these arts that employ numbers, and excite and interest all, during the winter months. This year I think there must have been eight or ten parties of them, but each party seldom has more than one pupil at once. In relating their proceedings I can give but a faint conception of the system as a whole, but still a little will show the dense darkness that rests on this place.

"I may mention that each party has some characteristics peculiar to itself, but, in a more general sense, their divisions are but three, viz, those who eat human bodies, the dog eaters, and those who have no custom of the kind. Early in the morning the pupils would be out on, the beach, or on the rocks, in a state of nudity. Each had a place in front of his own tribe, nor did intense cold interfere in the slightest degree. After the poor creature had crept about, jerking his head and screaming for some time, a party of men would rush out, and, after surrounding him, would commence singing. The dog eating party occasionally carried a dead dog to their pupil, who forthwith commenced to tear it in the most dog like manner. The party of attendants kept up a low growling noise, or a whoop, which was seconded by a screeching noise made from an instrument which they believe to be the abode of a spirit. In a little time the naked youth would start up again, and proceed a few more yards in a crouching posture, with his arms pushed out behind him, and tossing his flowing black hair. All the while he is earnestly watched by the group about him, and when he pleases to sit down they again surround him and commence singing. This kind of thing goes on, with several different additions, for some time. Before the prodigy finally retires, he takes a turn into every house belonging to his tribe, and is followed by his train. When this is done, in some cases he has a ramble on the tops of the same houses, during which he is anxiously watched by his attendants, as if they expected his flight. By-and-bye he condescends to come down, and they then follow him to his den, which is marked by a rope made of red bark being hung over the doorway, so as to prevent any person from ignorantly violating its precincts. None are allowed to enter that house but those connected with the art; all I know, therefore, of their further proceedings is, that they keep up a furious hammering, singing, and screeching for hours during the day.

"Of all these parties, none are so much dreaded as the cannibals. One morning I was called to witness a stir in the camp which had been caused by this set. When I reached the gallery I saw hundreds of Tsimsheans sitting in their canoes, which they had just pushed away from the beach. I was told that the cannibal party were in search of a body to devour, and if they failed to find a dead one, it was probable they would seize the first living one that came in their way; so that all the people living near to the cannibals' house had taken to their canoes to escape being torn to pieces. It is the custom among these Indians to burn their dead; but I suppose for these occasions they take care to deposit a corpse somewhere, in order to satisfy these inhuman wretches.

"These, then, are some of the things and scenes which occur in the day during the winter months, while the nights are taken up with amusements--singing and dancing. Occasionally the medicine parties invite people to their several houses, and exhibit tricks before them of various kinds. Some of the actors appear as bears, while others wear masks, the parts of which are moved by strings. The great feature in their proceedings is to pretend to murder, and then to restore to life, and so forth. The cannibal, on such occasions, is generally supplied with two, three, or four human bodies, which he tears to pieces before his audience. Several persons, either from bravado or as a charm, present their arms for him to bite. I have seen several whom he has thus bitten, and I hear two have died from the effects."

One of the most curious and characteristic customs of the Indians of British Columbia is the giving away of property at feasts. Mr. Duncan gives the following account of it:--

"These feasts are generally connected with the giving away of property. As an instance, I will relate the last occurrence of the kind. The person who sent the aforementioned invitations is a chief who has just completed building a house. After feasting, I heard he was to give away property to the amount of four hundred and eighty blankets (worth as many pounds to him), of which one hundred and eighty were his own property and the three hundred were to be subscribed by his people. On the first day of the feast, as much as possible of the property to be given him was exhibited in the camp. Hundreds of yards of cotton were flapping in the breeze, hung from house to house, or on lines put up for the occasion. Furs, too, were nailed up on the fronts of houses. Those who were going to give away blankets or elk-skins managed to get a bearer for every one, and exhibited them by making the persons walk in single file to the house of the chief. On the next day the cotton which had been hung out was now brought on the beach, at a good distance from the chief's house, and then run out at full length, and a number of bearers, about three yards apart, bore it triumphantly away from the giver to the receiver. I suppose that about six hundred to eight hundred yards were thus disposed of.

"After all the property the chief is to receive has thus been openly handed to him, a day or two is taken up in apportioning it for fresh owners. When this is done, all the chiefs and their families are called together, and each receives according to his or her portion. Thus do the chiefs and their people go on reducing themselves to poverty. In the case of the chiefs, however, this poverty lasts but a short time; they are soon replenished from the next giving away, but the people only grow rich again according to their industry. One cannot but pity them, while one laments their folly.

"All the pleasure these poor Indians seem to have in their property is in hoarding it up for such an occasion as I have described. They never think of appropriating what they gather to enhance their comforts, but are satisfied if they can make a display like this now and then; so that the man possessing but one blanket seems to be as well off as the one who possesses twenty; and thus it is that there is a vast amount of dead stock accumulated in the camp doomed never to be used, but only now and then to be transferred from hand to hand for the mere vanity of the thing.

"There is another way, however, in which property is disposed of even more foolishly. If a person be insulted, or meet with an accident, or in any way suffer an injury, real or supposed, either of mind or body, property must at once be sacrificed to avoid disgrace. A number of blankets, shirts, or cotton, according to the rank of the person, are torn, into small pieces and carried off."

The religion of the Tsimsheans is thus described:--

"The Tsimsheans, I find, believe in two states after death: the one good, and the other, bad; the morally good are translated to the one, and the morally bad are doomed to the other. The locality of the former they think to be above, and that of the latter is somewhere beneath. The enjoyment of heaven and the privations of hell they understand to be carnal. They do not suppose the wicked to be destitute of food any more than they were here, but they are treated as slaves and are badly clothed.

"The idea they entertain of God is that He is a great chief. They call Him by the same term as they do their chiefs, only adding the word for above--thus, 'shimanyet' is chief, and 'lakkah' above: and hence the name of God with them is Shimanyet Lakkah. They believe that the Supreme Being never dies: that He takes great notice of what is going on amongst men, and is frequently angry, and punishes offenders. They do not know who is the author of the universe, nor do they expect that God is the author of their own being. They have no fixed ideas about these things, I fully believe; still they frequently appeal to God in trouble; they ask for pity and deliverance. In great extremities of sickness they address God, saying it is not good for them to die.

"Sometimes, when calamities are prolonged or thicken, they get enraged against God, and vent their anger against Him, raising their eyes and hands in savage anger to Heaven, and stamping their feet on the ground. They will reiterate language which means 'You are a great slave!'"

A very curious tradition respecting the first appearance of white men on the coast was related some years ago to Mr. Duncan by an old chief:--

"A large canoe of Indians were busy catching halibut in one of these channels. A thick mist enveloped them. Suddenly they heard a noise as if a large animal was striking through the water. Immediately they concluded that a monster from the deep was in pursuit of them. With all speed they hauled up their fishing lines, seized the paddles, and strained every nerve to reach the shore. Still the plunging noise came nearer. Every minute they expected to be engulfed within the jaws of some huge creature. However, they reached the land, jumped on shore, and turned round in breathless anxiety to watch the approach of the monster. Soon a boat, filled with strange-looking men, emerged from the mist The pulling of the oars had caused the strange noise. Though somewhat relieved of fear, the Indians stood spell bound with amazement. The strangers landed, and beckoned the Indians to come to them and bring them some fish. One of them had over his shoulder what was supposed only to be a stick, presently he pointed it to a bird that was flying past, a violent poo went forth, down came the bird to the ground. The Indians died. As they revived again they questioned each other as to their state, whether they were dead, and what each had felt. The whites then made signs for a fire to be lighted. The Indians proceeded at once, according to their usual tedious fashion of rubbing two sticks together. The strangers laughed, and one of them, snatching up a handful of dry grass, struck a spark into a little powder placed under it. Instantly flashed another poo and a blaze. The Indians died. After this the new comers wanted some fish boiling. The Indians therefore put the fish and water into one of their square wooden buckets, and set some stones in the fire, intending when they were hot, to cast them into the vessel, and thus boil the food The whites were not satisfied with this way. One of them fetched a tin kettle out of the boat, put the fish and the water into it, and then, strange to say, set it on the fire. The Indians looked on with astonishment. However, the kettle did not consume, the water did not run into the fire Then, again, the Indians died. When the fish was eaten, the strangers put a kettle of rice on the fire. The Indians looked at each other and whispered, 'Akshahn, akshahn,' or 'Maggots, maggots.' The rice being cooked, some molasses were produced and mixed with it. The Indians stared, and said, 'Coutzee um tsakah ahket,' or 'The grease of dead people.' The whites then tendered the rice and molasses to the Indians, but they only shrank away in disgust. Seeing this, to prove their integrity, they sat down and enjoyed it themselves. The sight stunned the Indians, and again they all died. Some other similar wonders were worked, and the profound stupor which the Indians felt each time come over them they termed death. The Indians' turn had now come to make the white strangers die. They dressed their heads and painted their faces A nok nok, or wonder working spirit possessed them. They came slowly, and solemnly seated themselves before the whites, then suddenly lifted up their heads and stared. Their reddened eyes had the desired effect. The whites died."

Among the Indians of British, Columbia no Protestant Missionary had laboured prior to 1857. Some Roman Catholic priests, however, had been in the country, and of them Captain Mayne writes:--["Four Years in British Columbia," p. 305.]

"If the opinion of the Hudson's Bay people of the interior is to be relied upon, the Roman Catholic priests effected no real change in the condition of the natives. The sole result of their residence among them was, that the Indians who had been brought under their influence had imbibed some notions of the Deity, almost as vague as their own traditions, and a superstitious respect for the priests themselves, which they showed by crossing themselves devoutly whenever they met one. Occasionally, too, might be seen in their lodges, pictures purporting to represent the roads to Heaven and to Hell, in which there was no single suggestion of the danger of vice and crime, but a great deal of the peril of Protestantism. These coloured prints were certainly curious in their way, and worth a passing notice. They were large, and gave a pictorial history of the human race, from the time when Adam and Eve wandered in the garden together, down to the Reformation. Here the one broad road was split into two, whose courses diverged more and more painfully. By one way the Roman Catholic portion of the world were seen trooping to bliss; the other ended in a steep bottomless precipice over which the Protestants might be seen falling. [A fac-simile of a similar picture appeared in the Church Missionary Gleaner, of March, 1880.] Upon the more sensible and advanced of the Indians, teaching such as this had little effect. I remember the chief of the Shuswap tribe, at Kamloops, pointing out to me such an illustration hanging on his wall, and laughingly saying, in a tone that showed quite plainly how little credence he attached to it, 'There are you and your people,' putting his finger as he spoke on the figures tumbling into the pit."

"Of such kind was the only instruction that the Indiana had received prior to 1857. Its influence was illustrated in that year at Victoria, where a Roman Catholic Bishop and several priests had been resident for some time, and were known to have exerted themselves among the Songhie Indians who reside there. A cross had been raised in their village, and some of them had been baptized; but when these were called before the bishop for confirmation, they refused to come unless a greater present of blankets was made to them than had been given at their baptism. The bishop was said to have been very angry with the priests when this came to his knowledge; he having very possibly been deceived by them as to the condition of the Indians. I am informed that he had a large heart painted upon canvas, through which be drew a blanket, and represented it to the Indians as symbolical of their condition."

How the Indians were brought to know the way of God more perfectly, and to choose it for themselves, it will be the purpose of the following chapters to show.

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