Project Canterbury

Metlakahtla and the North Pacific Mission of the Church Missionary Society

By Eugene Stock

London: Church Missionary House, 1880.

Chapter III. Beginning Work

On the night of October 1st Mr. Duncan landed at the Fort. Like other Hudson's Bay Company trading posts, this "Fort" consisted of a few houses, stores, and workshops, surrounded by a palisade twenty feet high, formed of trunks of trees. Close by was the Tsimshean village, comprising some two hundred and fifty wooden houses, well-built, and several of them of considerable size. A day or two after his arrival, Mr. Duncan had a significant glimpse of the kind of savages to whom he was presently to proclaim the Gospel of Peace:--

"The other day we were called upon to witness a terrible scene: An old chief, in cool blood, ordered a slave to be dragged to the beach, murdered, and thrown into the water. His orders were quickly obeyed. The victim was a poor woman. Two or three reasons are assigned for this foul act: one is, that it is to take away the disgrace attached to his daughter, who has been suffering some time from a ball wound in the arm. Another report is, that he does not expect his daughter to recover, so he has killed this slave in order that she may prepare for the coming of his daughter into the unseen world. I think the former reason is the most probable. I did not see the murder, but, immediately after, I saw crowds of people running out of those houses near to where the corpse was thrown, and forming themselves into groups at a good distance away. This, I learnt, was from fear of what was to follow. Presently two bands of furious wretches appeared, each headed by a man in a state of nudity. They gave vent to the most unearthly sounds, and the two naked men made themselves look as unearthly as possible, proceeding in a creeping kind of stoop, and stepping like two proud horses, at the same time shooting forward each arm alternately, which they held out at full length for a little time in the most defiant manner. Besides this, the continual jerking of their heads back, causing their long black hair to twist about, added much to their savage appearance. For some time they pretended to be seeking the body, and the instant they came where it lay they commenced screaming and rushing round it like so many angry wolves. Finally they seized it, dragged it out of the water, and laid it on the beach, where I was told the naked men would commence tearing it to pieces with their teeth. The two bands of men immediately surrounded them, and so hid their horrid work. In a few minutes the crowd broke again in two, when each of the naked cannibals appeared with half of the body in his hands. Separating a few yards, they commenced, amid horrid yells, their still more horrid feast. The sight was too terrible to behold."

Just at the same time another feature in the character of the Indians was painfully illustrated. On October 7th he wrote:--

"Immediately after dinner the second officer of the Fort, who had not been absent more than a minute, came rushing back, to report that an Indian had just been murdered close to the Fort gates. On repairing to the gallery, I saw this shocking sight. Several Indians, with muskets in their bands, were hovering about the dying man, and one or two ventured to go near and assist him. He was shot in the right breast, and apparently dying, but seemingly conscious of what had happened. In a few minutes two Indians, looking as fierce as tigers, carrying muskets, came bounding to the spot, and, after ordering all away, one of them immediately fired at the poor fellow as he lay on the ground, and shot him in the arm. They then as quickly bounded away. The head chief was the murderer. Being irritated by some other chiefs while partly intoxicated, he vented his rage upon the first stranger that came in his way, and, after shooting him, ordered two of his men to finish the horrible deed."

But the young missionary, though saddened, was not discouraged. The more barbarous and degraded he found the Indians to be, the more vivid was his sense of their need of the Gospel; and was anything too hard for the Lord? So he continued vigorously his study of the language, assisted by an Indian named Clah. Taking an English dictionary, he succeeded, by unwearied industry, in ascertaining the Tsimshean equivalents for fifteen hundred of the most necessary words. At the same time he set about making friends with the people. During the winter, when the severe cold and the deep snow kept them much indoors, he visited every house in turn, and on Jan. 14th he wrote:--

"To-day we have finished our calls. I have been inside 140 houses, all large and strong buildings. The largest would measure, I imagine, about sixty by forty feet. One house I was not permitted to enter, as they had not finished their sorceries for the season. However they sent me out an account of their family. In all, I counted 2,156 souls, namely, 637 men, 756 women, and 763 children; and, making an addition for those away procuring fuel, and those at the Fort, I estimate the sum-total of residents to be 2,325, which is rather over than under the true number. The total number rendered by themselves, which of course includes all that belongs to them, whether married into other tribes or living south, is 2,567. These are divided into nine tribes, but all speak the same language, and have one general name--Tsimshean, So far as I am at present able to make out, I calculate that there are seventeen other tribes, all living within fifty miles of this place, which either speak Tsimshean or something very near to it.

"It would be impossible for me to give a full description of this my first general visit, for the scenes were too exciting and too crowded to admit of it. I confess that cluster after cluster of these half-naked and painted savages round their fires was, to my unaccustomed eyes, very alarming. But the reception I met with was truly wonderful and encouraging. On entering a house I was saluted by one, two, or three of the principal persons with 'Clah-how-yah,' which is the complimentary term used in the trading jargon. This would be repeated several times. Then a general movement and a squatting ensued, followed by a breathless silence, during which every eye was fixed upon me. After a time several would begin nodding and smiling, at the same time reiterating, in a low tone, 'Ahm, ahm ah ket, Ahm Shimauyet' ('Good, kind person, good chief'). My interpreter would then ask them to let us know how many they had in their family, which was instantly followed by a deafening clamour. Sometimes the vociferation was so general that it was really bewildering to hear it. Everybody was talking and trying to outdo the rest, and nobody was listening. This storm, would be abruptly succeeded by a general hush, when I was again pleasantly but rigidly scrutinized. Of course the attempt of everybody to count was a failure, and so the business at last was taken up by one of the leading persons, who generally succeeded to the satisfaction of all. While this was going on, I managed to count and class the inmates of the house, and look at the sick. In some houses they would not be content until I took the chief place near the fire, and they always placed a mat upon a box for me to sit upon. My enquiries after the sick were always followed by anxious looks and deep sighs. A kind of solemn awe would spread itself at once."

At length, after eight months' patient preparation, Mr. Duncan was able to make his first attempt to convey to the Indians, in their own tongue, the message of salvation through a crucified Saviour, by means of a written address, which he had composed with infinite pains, and which he proceeded to deliver at the houses of the different chiefs:--

"June 13, 1858: Lord's day.--Bless the Lord, O my soul, and let all creation join in chorus to bless His holy name. True to His word, 'He giveth power to the faint, and to them that have no might. He increaseth strength.' Bless for ever His holy name!

"Last week I finished translating my first address for the Indians. Although it was not entirely to my satisfaction, I felt it would be wrong to withhold the message any longer. Accordingly I sent word last night (not being ready before) to the chiefs, desiring to use their houses to-day to address their people in. This morning I set off, accompanied by the young Indian (Clah), whom I have had occasionally to assist me in the language. In a few minutes we arrived at the first chief's house, which I found all prepared, and we mustered about one hundred souls. This was the first assembly of Indians I had met. My heart quailed greatly before the work--a people for the first time come to hear the Gospel tidings, and I the poor instrument to address them in a tongue so new and difficult to me. Oh, those moments! I began to think that, after all, I should be obliged to get Clah to speak to them, while I read to them from a paper in my hand. Blessed be God, this lame resolution was not carried. My Indian was so unnerved at my proposal, that I quickly saw I must do the best I could by myself, or worse would come of it. I then told them to shut the door. The Lord strengthened me. I knelt down to crave God's blessing, and afterwards I gave them the address. They were all remarkably attentive. At the conclusion I desired them to kneel down. They immediately complied, and I offered up prayer for them in English. They preserved great stillness. All being done, I bade them good-bye. They all responded with seeming thankfulness. On leaving, I asked my Indian if they understood me, and one of the chief women very seriously replied, 'Nee, nee' ('yes'); and he assured me that from their looks he knew that they understood and felt it to be good.

"We then went to the next chief's house, where we found all, ready, a canoe-sail spread for me to stand on, and a mat placed on a box for me to sit upon. About 150 souls assembled, and as there were a few of the Fort people present, I first gave them a short address in English, and then the one in Tsimshean. All knelt at prayer, and were very attentive, as at the other place. This is the head chief's house. He is a very wicked man, but he was present, and admonished the people to behave themselves during my stay.

"After this I went in succession to the other seven tribes, and addressed them in the chiefs' houses. In each case I found the chief very kind and attentive in preparing his house and assembling his people. The smallest company I addressed was about fifty souls, and the largest about 200. Their obedience to my request about kneeling was universal, but in the house where there were over 200 some confusion took place, as they were sitting so close. However, when they heard me begin to pray, they were instantly silent. Thus the Lord helped me through. About 800 or 900 souls in all have heard me speak; and a great number of them, I feel certain, have understood the message. May the Lord make it the beginning of great good for this pitiable and long-lost people."

Mr. Duncan was now beginning to feel his way among the Indians, and the head chief, Legaic, having offered him the use of his house for a schoolroom, he opened school on June 28th. Twenty-six children attended in the morning, and fourteen or fifteen adults in the afternoon. The head chief and his wife took great interest, and assisted in every way they could. Their house was made clean, and a seat was placed upon a mat for Mr. Duncan. The children also came neat and clean; one boy only had nothing but a blanket to cover him, and in his case it was not poverty, but superstition, that prevented him from having a shirt on like the rest. This poor lad had been initiated into the mysteries of medicine in the previous winter, and so was forbidden by law to wear any thing over him except a blanket or a skin for one year. If he had put on a shirt, death would have been expected to ensue.

On Sunday, July 11th, God enabled him a second time to proclaim the Gospel in another carefully-written address. He went, as on the first occasion, to each of the nine tribes separately, and began and concluded with prayer. At the concluding prayer almost all knelt, or the exceptions were rare. One man, however, sullenly refused. It was Quthray, the chief of the cannibal gang, of whom we shall hear again.

After a few weeks the school was suspended, in consequence of the absence of the chief in whose house it was held. It had been used sufficiently long, however, to show that it was appreciated by both parents and children, and thus encouraged, Mr. Duncan determined to commence to build a school-house. The wood had arrived in a raft, and a number of Indians were engaged to assist in the building; but scarcely had they begun to carry the wood up the hill, when one of the Indians dropped dead. The news ran through the camp, and great alarm spread on all sides. Mr. Duncan at first feared that owing to the superstition of the Indians with regard to such events, the confidence which he had secured among the people would be greatly shaken, and his work amongst them retarded. But, through God's mercy, his fears were not realized. He deemed it prudent to suspend the work for a time, but, after repeated invitations from the Indians, he resumed it on Sept. 17th:--

"Yesterday I spoke to a few on the subject, and all seemed heartily glad. One old chief said to me, 'Cease being angry now,' thinking, I suppose, my delay was occasioned by anger. He assured me he would send his men to help. It was quite encouraging to see how earnestly they expressed their desire for me to proceed with the work, and I may safely say the feeling was universal. This morning I went to the raft at six a.m., but only one old man was there. In a little time came other two or three, then a few more, then two chiefs. By about half past six we mustered seven or eight workers on the raft, though several more came out and sat at their doors, Indian like, as though they wished only to look on. This seemed greatly in contrast with their expressions to me yesterday; but such is the Indian. I knew it was of no use to push, so I patiently waited. About half-past six one of the Indians on the raft sprang to his feet, gave the word of starting, which is a peculiar kind of whoop, and he, with the few so inadequate to the work, determined to begin. At this I proceeded up the beach to the place for building upon, but what was my surprise when, on returning, I met upwards of forty Indians carrying wood. They all seemed to have moved in an instant, and sprung to the work with one heart. The enthusiasm they manifested was truly gladdening, and almost alarming. Amongst the number were several old men, who were doing more with their spirited looks and words than with their muscles. The whole camp seemed now excited. Encouraging words and pleasant looks greeted me on every side. Every one seemed in earnest, and the heavy blocks and beams began to move up the hill with amazing rapidity. When the Fort bell rang for breakfast they proposed to keep on. One old man said he would not eat till the work was done. However, I did not think it good to sanction this enthusiasm thus far, but sent them off to their houses. By three o'clock p.m. all was over, for which I was very glad, for the constant whooping, groaning, and bawling of the Indians, together with the difficulties of the work, from the great weight of the pieces and the bad road, kept me in constant fear."

But no sooner had Mr. Duncan set up his school, and commenced work in it, than the opposition of the medicine men began. They saw that if the work progressed, "their craft was in danger of being set at nought." The chiefs of three tribes had already declared that they had made up their minds to abandon their sorceries.

On November 19th the new school was opened, and it was soon attended by one hundred and forty children and fifty adults; but on December 1st Mr. Duncan was told by the manager of the Fort that the head chief, Legaic, was going to ask him to give up the school for about a month during the medicine season. Shortly afterwards he was told that they would be content if he would stay school for a fortnight, and after that they would all come to be taught; but if he did not comply, they intended stopping him by force, and had determined to shoot at the pupils as they came to the school. Mr. Duncan had a long talk to two of the officers about the matter, giving them plainly to understand that he did not intend in the least degree to heed the threats of the Indians. "Go on with my work I would, in spite of all. I told them Satan had reigned long enough here; it was high time his rule should be disturbed (as it is)." On December 20th he wrote:--

"This day has been a great day here. I have heartily to thank that all-seeing Father who has covered me and supported me to-day. The devil and wicked men leagued to overthrow me this day, but the Lord would not have it so. I am still alive. This morning the medicine party, who are carrying on their work near to the school, broke out with renewed fury. On going to school, I observed a crowd of these wretched men in a house that I was approaching. As soon as I got into the school, the wife of the head chief came to beg me to give up school for a little time. She was certainly very modest in her manner and request, but altogether unsuccessful. I spoke to her a little, and then she said (what I knew to be false) that neither she nor her husband desired to go on with the medicine-work, for, they often cried to see the state of things, but it was the tribe that urged them to do what they were doing. When she saw she could prevail nothing, not even so much as to prevent striking the steel (used as a bell), which they have a peculiar hatred for, she left me. I then went up the ladder and struck the steel myself, as I did not like to send a boy up. Very soon about eighty pupils were in the school, and we went on as usual.

"This afternoon a boy ran to strike the steel, and not many seconds elapsed before I saw the head chief (Legaic) approaching, and a whole gang of medicine men after him, dressed up in their usual charms. The chief looked very angry, and bade the boy cease. I waited at the door until he came up. His first effort was to rid the school of the few pupils that had just come in. He shouted at the top of his voice, and bade them he off. I immediately accosted him, and demanded to know what he intended or expected to do. His gang stood about the door, and I think seven came in. I saw their point: it was to intimidate me by their strength and frightful appearance; and I perceived the chief, too, was somewhat under the influence of rum. But the Lord enabled me to stand calm, and, without the slightest fear, to address them with far more fluency, in their tongue, than I could have imagined possible--to tell them of their sin faithfully--to vindicate my conduct--to exhort them to leave their bad ways, and also to tell them they must not think to make me afraid. I told them that God was my Master, and I must obey Him rather than them, and that the devil had taught their fathers what they were practising, and it was bad, but what I was teaching now was God's way, and it was good. Our meeting lasted for more than an hour. I saw a great many people at a distance looking anxiously at our proceedings, the school door being open. The chief expressed himself very passionately, now and then breaking out into furious language, and showing off his savage nature by his gestures. Towards the close of the scene, two of the confederates, vile-looking fellows, went and whispered something to him, upon which he got up from a seat he had just sat down upon, stamped his feet on the floor, raised his voice as high as he could, and exhibited all the rage and defiance and boldness that he could. This was all done, I knew, to intimidate me, but, blessed be God, he did not succeed. Finding his efforts unavailing, he went off.

"The leading topics of the chiefs angry conversation were as follows-- He requested four days' suspension of the school, he promised that, if I complied, he and his people would then come to school, but threatened if my pupils continued to come on the following days, he would shoot at them, lastly, he pleaded, that if the school went on during the time he specified, then some medicine men, whom he expected on a visit shortly from a distant tribe, would shame, and, perhaps, kill him. Some of his sayings during his fits of rage were, that he understood how to kill people, occasionally drawing his hand across his throat to show me what he meant, that when he died he knew he should go down, he could not change, he could not be good, or, if I made him good, why, then, he supposed he should go to a different place from his forefathers, this he did not desire to do. On one occasion, whilst he was talking, he looked at two men, one of them a regular pupil of mine, and the other a medicine-man, and said, 'I am a murderer, and so are you, and you' (pointing to each of these men), 'and what good is it for us to come to school?' Here I broke in, and blessed be God, it gave me an opportunity of telling the three murderers that pardon was now offered to them if they would repent, and amend, and go to Jesus our Saviour."

It was afterwards found out that Legaic, at the moment of his most violent fury, had caught sight of Clah (who, unknown to Mr. Duncan, was watching over him with a revolver), and knew that, if he touched the missionary, it would be at the risk of his life. So it ever is: "in some way or other, the Lord will provide!"

This conduct on the part of Legaic was the more discouraging, inasmuch as he had, in the first instance, as we have seen, given up his own house for the school. So persistent, however, was his hostility at this time, and so great were the difficulties in the way of attending school, that Mr. Duncan was at length obliged to close the new building, and another chief having offered him the use of his house for a school, where the children and others would not be afraid to come, he readily availed himself of his kindness, and was soon able to report the steady progress of the work. On Christmas Day he wrote:--

"Yesterday I told my scholars to bring their friends and relatives to school to-day, as I wanted to tell them something new. We numbered over 200 souls. I tried to make them understand why we distinguished this day from others. After this I questioned the children a little, and then we sang two hymns, which we also translated. While the hymns were being sung, I felt I must try to do something more, although the language seemed to defy me. I never experienced such an inward burning to speak before, and therefore I determined to try an extemporaneous address in Tsimshean. The Lord helped me: a great stillness prevailed, and, I think, a great deal was understood of what I said. I told them of our condition, the pity and love of God, the death of the Son of God on our account, and the benefits arising to us therefrom; and exhorted them to leave their sins and pray to Jesus. On my enumerating the sins of which they are guilty, I saw some look at each other with those significant looks which betokened their assent to what I said. I tried to impress upon them the certain ruin which awaits them if they proceed in their present vices. Very remarkably, an illustration corroborating what I said was before their eyes. A poor woman was taken sick, not four yards from where I stood, and right before the eyes of my audience. She was groaning under a frightful affliction, the effect of her vices."

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