A glance at the map will show that both Metlakahtla and Fort Simpson are situated on a peninsula which juts forth from the coast between the estuaries of two rivers, the Skeena to the south, and the Nass to the North. The mouth of the Nass River is one of the great fishing resorts of the Indians. From long distances the tribes of both the mainland and the adjacent islands flock thither every year in March and April, the season when the oolikan, a small fish about the size of a smelt, is caught.
As many as five thousand Indians gather together on these occasions, and encamp for miles along both banks of the river. Having put up their temporary bark huts, they dig pits to store the fish in, and then quietly await their arrival. Meanwhile, hardly a sign of life is to be seen on land or water. The towering mountains, that rise almost from the banks, are covered deep with snow, and the river is fast bound in ice to the depth of six or eight feet. Slowly the ice begins to break higher up, and the tides, rising and falling, bear away immense quantities. At length a few seagulls appear in the western sky, and the cry echoes from camp to camp that the fish are at hand.
Immense shoals of oolikan come in from the Pacific, followed by larger fish such as the halibut, the cod, the porpoise, and the finned-back-whale. Over the fish hover the sea-birds--"an immense cloud of innumerable gulls," wrote Bishop Hills after a visit to the place, "so many and so thick that as they moved to and fro, up and down, the sight resembled a heavy fall of snow." Over the gulls, again, soar the eagles watching for their prey. The Indians go forth to meet the fish with the cry, "You fish, you fish! you are all chiefs; you are, you are all chiefs." The nets haul in bushels at a time, and hundreds of tons are collected. "The Indians dry some in the sun, and press a much larger quantity for the sake of the oil or grease, which has a considerable market value as being superior to cod-liver oil, and which they use as butter with their dried salmon. The season is most important to the Indians; the supply lasts them till the season for salmon, which is later, and which supplies their staple food, their bread." "What a beautiful provision for this people," writes one of the Missionaries, "just at that season of the year when their winter stock has run out! God can indeed furnish a table in the wilderness."
It was in the spring of 1860, that Mr. Duncan first visited the Nass River. He received a most encouraging welcome from the Nishkah Indians--one of the Tsimshean tribes--dwelling on its banks. The account is a particularly interesting one:--
"April 19th, 1860.--About 4 p.m. we arrived in sight of the three lower villages of the Nishkah Indians, and these, with two upper villages, constitute the proper inhabitants of the river. On approaching the principal village we were met by a man who had been sent to invite us to the chief's house. Numbers of Indians stood on the bank. When we stopped, several rushed into the water: some seized my luggage, and one took me on his back. In a few minutes we were safely housed. Smiling faces and kind words greeted me on every side. My friend Kahdoonahah, the chief who had invited me to his house, was dancing for joy at my arrival. He had put his house in order, made up a large fire in the centre, placed two big iron kettles on it, and had invited a number of his friends to come and feast with me. About thirty of us, all males, sat round the fire. Boiled fresh salmon was first served out. All the guests were furnished with large horn or wooden spoons: I preferred to use my own. My plate was first filled with choice bits, and afterwards large wooden dishesful were carried round, and one placed before every two persons. This done, boiled rice, mixed with molasses, was served us. Fresh spoons and dishes were used. While the dishes were being filled, each person had a large spoonful handed him to be going on with. After the feast I had considerable conversation, and concluded by requesting that all the chiefs and chief men of the three tribes should meet me on the morrow, when I would endeavour to give them the good news from God's book. Kahdoonahah, suggested that there might be some difficulty to get all the chiefs to assemble, unless something was provided for them to eat He therefore promised to send out and invite them all to his house, and give them a feast for the occasion.
"It was now evening, and the guests went home. Kahdoonahah then brought in an old man to sing to me. The old man very solemnly sat down before me, fixed his eyes upon the ground, and began beating time by striking his foot with his hand. He was assisted by Kahdoonahah, who not only sang, but kept up a thumping noise with a large stick. A few boys also clapped their hands in proper time. After they had sung two or three songs I told them we would have a change. I drew my few boys around me. One of them immediately warned the chief and his company that we were going to sing songs to God, which were the same as prayers, and therefore they must be very reverent. We sang several little hymns, some of which I translated. The party soon increased, and sat very attentively.
"April 20.--After breakfast two men entered the house, and stood just within the door. Looking at me, one of them shouted out, 'Woah shimauket, woah shimauket, woah shimauket, woah.' After repeating this twice, they went away. This was an invitation from a chief who wanted me and my crew to breakfast with him. I took two of my party, and set off. When I was entering the chief's house, he stood up, and, beckoning me to a seat, cried out loudly, 'Yeah shimauket, yeah shimauket, yeah shimauket, yeah.' As soon as I was seated, he stopped, and sat down. These words, rendered into English, are, 'Welcome chief, welcome chief, welcome chief, welcome!' We feasted on boiled salmon, and rice, and sugar, and molasses, after which the chief presented me with five marten skins and a large salmon. When I returned to Kahdoonahah's house, he had got three large iron kettles on the fire for the feast; and I was informed that an old chief had given me a large black bear's skin. The drum began to beat, and a general bustle prevailed around me. I sat down to collect my thoughts, and to lift up my heart to God to prepare me for the important meeting about to take place, at which the blessed Gospel was to be proclaimed to these poor tribes of Indians for the first time.
"About twelve o'clock they began to assemble. Each took a place corresponding to his rank. We soon mustered about sixty chiefs and headmen. Between one and two p.m. we began to feast, which consisted, as usual, of salmon and rice, and molasses. I had heard Kahdoonahah say that they intended to perform before me their 'Ahlied;' but I requested him to have no playing, as I wanted to speak very solemnly to them. He promised me they would do nothing bad; but now that the feasting was over, much to my sorrow, he put on his dancing mask and robes. The leading singers stepped out, and soon all were engaged in a spirited chant. They kept excellent time by clapping their hands and beating a drum. (I found out afterwards that they had been singing my praises and asking me to pity them and to do them good.) The chief Kahdoonahah danced with all his might during the singing. He wore a cap, which had a mask in front, set with mother-of-pearl, and trimmed with porcupine's quills. The quills enabled him to hold a quantity of white bird's down on the top of his head, which he ejected while dancing, by jerking his head forward: thus he soon appeared as if in a shower of snow. In the middle of the dance a man approached me with a handful of down, and blew it over my head, thus symbolically uniting me in friendship with all the chiefs present, and the tribes they severally represented.
"After the dance and singing were over, I felt exceedingly anxious about addressing them; but circumstances seemed so unfavourable on account of the excitement, that my heart began to sink. What made the matter worse, too, was a chief, who had lately been shot in the arm for overstepping his rank, began talking very passionately. This aroused me. I saw at once that I must speak, or probably the meeting might conclude in confusion. I stood up, and requested them to cease talking, as I wished them to rest their hearts, and listen to the great message I had come to deliver. Instantly the chief ceased talking, and every countenance became fixed attentively towards me. I began, and the Lord helped me much. I was enabled to speak with more freedom and animation than I had ever done before in the Indian tongue. Much to my encouragement the Indians unanimously responded at the finish of every clause. The most solemn occasion of this kind was when I introduced the name of the Saviour. At once every tongue uttered Jesus, and, for some time, kept repeating that blessed name, which I hope they will not forget.'
"After I had finished my address I asked them to declare to me their thoughts upon what they had heard, and also if they desired to be further instructed in God's word. Immediately a universal cry arose of, 'Good is your speech. Good, good, good news! We greatly desire to learn the book. We wish our children to learn.'"
In the autumn of the same year, Mr. Duncan again visited the Nass River, and ascended to the upper villages. Everywhere he found a readiness, sometimes most touchingly expressed, to receive Christian instruction. At one interesting gathering, a Nishkah chief named Agwilakkah. after hearing the Gospel message for the first time, stood up before all, stretched forth his hands towards heaven, and lifting up his eyes, solemnly said:--
"Pity us, Great Father in heaven, pity us! Give us Thy good! book to do us good and clear away our sins. This chief [pointing to Mr. Duncan] has come to tell us about Thee. It is good, Great Father. We want to hear. Who ever came to tell our fathers Thy will? No, no. But this chief has pitied us and come. He has Thy book. We will hear. We will receive Thy word. We will obey."
Four years, however, passed away before regular Missionary operations could be extended to the Nass River. In 1864, a Christian Tsimshean, travelling up the river as a fur-trader, told the Indians he met with of the Saviour he had himself found, and on his return to the coast seven young men of the Nishkah tribe accompanied him, that they might visit Metlakahtla and hear the Missionary for themselves. They stayed there for a few days, listening eagerly to Mr. Duncan's instructions. When they left, they begged for some fragment of God's Word to take back to their tribe; and Mr. Duncan wrote out for each, on a piece of paper, the words in Tsimshean, "This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners."
In this case the living voice was not long in following the written message. On July 2nd, 1864, the Rev. R. R. A. Doolan arrived at Metlakahtla from England, and, at Mr. Duncan's suggestion, he at once went on to the Nass River to establish a permanent Mission.
With prayerful energy the young Missionary, inexperienced and ignorant of the language, flung himself into the conflict with heathenism. A sore conflict it was. Ardent spirits had come up the river; drunkenness was fast spreading among the Indians; and quarrelling and murders were of frequent occurrence. On one occasion, after a whisky feast, the Indians on opposite sides of the river set to work firing across the stream at one another, in pure wantonness. Several were wounded, women as well as men; and next day Mr. Doolan was called upon to attend to their injuries. Again and again was his own life in imminent danger. One day an Indian rushed out of a hut he was passing, gun in hand, and fired at him twice. Both times the gun missed fire! "I was so close to him," wrote Mr. Doolan, "that I saw the fire from the flint."
If Divine providence was thus exhibited in the preservation of the missionary's life, Divine grace was soon to be not less signally manifested in a blessing on his labours. A boy named Tacomash was the first fruits gathered in. He and another boy came from a village twenty-five miles off to live at the Mission-house, and attend school. After a few weeks he went home to see his father, and was attacked with bronchitis. Mr. Doolan, hearing of this, hastened off to see him. "The journey," he says, "was a most painful one. I wore two pairs of mocassins, but the ice soon cut through both. I was ten hours walking the twenty-five miles. I found the poor lad very weak, and suffering much. He had steadfastly resisted the medicine-men from rattling over him, saying God would be angry with him if he allowed them." Tacomash got better, and returned to the station; and shortly after Mr. Doolan writes, "To-day I was rejoiced to hear Tacomash praying to God. He was among the trees, and did not know anyone heard him. He asked Jesus to pity him, and make his heart strong." Soon, however, the lad became ill again, and died trusting in the Saviour. On his death-bed he was baptized at his own earnest desire, and named Samuel Walker.
On Mr. Doolan's retirement from the Mission in 1867, the work on the Nass River was taken up by the Rev. R. Tomlinson, who had just arrived. By Mr. Doolan's efforts some fifty Indians had been influenced to abandon their heathen customs and to desire to live together as a Christian community; and a settlement similar to Metlakahtla was now planned. This settlement received the name of Kincolith; and here Mr. Tomlinson earnestly laboured from 1867 to 1878, when he left to go forward into the regions beyond.
The work proved to be one requiring much patience and courage. For two or three years it was much retarded by hostilities between two tribes. But Mr. Tomlinson was encouraged by the zeal and intrepidity of his wife, who accompanied him on his visits to the combatants, and everywhere disarmed opposition by her presence. Subsequently the trading store, which had been established on the Metlakahtla plan, turned out a failure, and the Indian settlers, about sixty in number, depressed by the losses they incurred, showed signs of wavering, and of returning to their heathen friends, who were manifesting the most bitter antagonism to the Mission. But towards the close of 1870, by the mercy of God, the tide seemed to turn, and when Archdeacon Woods visited the station at the Bishop of Columbia's request, in October, 1871, he found a peaceful Community, an attentive congregation, and several candidates for baptism, of whom he admitted twenty adults (with seven children) to the Church, making, with nine previously baptized, thirty-six altogether.
From that time the Kincolith Mission, though not exhibiting rapid success, has been steadily growing, and not a few of the Nishkah Indians who were accustomed to attend Mr. Doolan's services, but had fallen back, have joined the community, and some have been baptized. The store was re-opened in 1874 with improved prospects. A dispensary was established by Mr. Tomlinson, and has been highly appreciated by the Indians. A saw mill has been erected, which not only supplies material for building new houses, but also gives employment to those of the settlers who are neither fur-hunters nor skilled workmen. The annual fishing seasons have been a time of distinct blessing, the Christian Indians holding services for their heathen fellow-countrymen in the various camps, and many of the heathen joining them in resting from the fishing operations on the Lord's Day. Year by year the number of settlers has increased, and now exceeds two hundred, of whom three-fourths are baptized.
One chief, who joined on New Year's-day, 1877, was well known as the fiercest savage on the river. He was baptized by Bishop Bompas in March, 1878, taking, like Legaic at Metlakahtla, the name of Paul. He was very penitent for his past life, and was earnestly trying to follow good ways, when illness and death overtook him. Just before he died, he gave very clear testimony that he had found pardon and peace in Jesus. At the funeral service the people sang Sankey's hymn, "There will be no more parting there." His son, a young man of twenty, has since been baptized, also by the name of Paul, and has been married to the Christian daughter of another leading chief--a girl named Rhoda.
As already mentioned, Mr. Tomlinson has now moved forward into the interior to carry the Gospel to the Kitiksheans and other tribes up the Nass and Skeena Rivers and among the Cascade Mountains, and has established a station near a place known as the Skeena Forks, where three branches of that river unite. At Kittackdamix also, at the end of the navigation on the Nass, a native Christian teacher has been stationed, towards whose expenses the Kincolith Christians contributed £12 in money and kind. A site has been selected there for another Christian village, and several Indian families propose settling on the spot. The Kincolith station is now under the charge of Mr. H. Schutt, a schoolmaster sent out in 1876.
Mr. Tomlinson, like Mr. Duncan, has lately been appointed a magistrate. He writes:--"The proposal was made to me quite unexpectedly by the head of the Government, and I did not feel justified in declining the offer. Already good begins to result from it. The hearts of the well-disposed are strengthened, while the ill-disposed whites are restrained from molesting the native settlers."