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Or, Five Years of Church Work among Ojibway Indians and Lumbermen, resident upon that Island or in its Vicinity.

By Harold Nelson Burden

London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., 1895.

Chapter VI. Indian Superstitons

Early in the year the missionary set out on a long journey to visit a young Indian who was dying. His destination lay on the banks of a river, and when he had travelled for nearly the whole day he was met by an Indian boy. This boy told him he was still ten miles distant from the village, and that his journey was useless, as the Indian had died on the previous day, and had been buried that morning. Great was the disappointment felt by Mr. Frost that his long and fatiguing journey was taken to no purpose, and that death had been before him.

However, on learning that a large number of friends and relations were still at the house so lately visited by the Great Destroyer, he determined to press on. It was already getting late, but he had a guide to lead him over that long, dreary river, with its monotonous banks covered with rocks and woods. Night came on before half the distance had been traversed. The river widened into a sort of lagoon; the rocky shores were left, and there was nothing to-be seen but an expanse of snow, with here and there a tree stretching out its bare limbs. These trees had been washed down by the current during the floods of spring, and were now fast held by the ice.

[47] Just before midnight, Mr. Frost and his guide reached the cabin, which was found to be full of Indians; men and women sitting about on the floor. The parents greatly regretted that the boy had been buried before the missionary's arrival, for no "black coat" had been present to pray when the body was lowered into the grave. They welcomed him joyfully and were glad he had come to speak to them about religion. First they attended to his earthly wants, giving him supper, which consisted of trout and potatoes. A service followed at which they all sang in their own tongue the hymn "Jesu, lover of my soul," and the missionary explained the mysteries and glories of the resurrection from the dead.

In a small room, partitioned off from the main cabin, the missionary sought the repose and sleep which he so sadly needed after his trying day's work. Sleep did not come very readily, for the Indians continued in the cabin, and the sound of their voices in conversation reached him. When at length he did sleep, it was only for a short time. Suddenly he was awakened by shouting and stamping of feet; a noise as of tables and chairs overturning, a rushing from the cabin, a yelling and whooping. Then all was still; the whole party he could hear had left the cabin and were rushing about in the open air. He thought that perhaps some moose or cariboo were coming down the river, or that a herd of deer was passing, or perhaps even a pack of wolves; and that [47/48] the Indians had gone forth in a body to attack the invaders.

To be suddenly awakened from sleep by a loud and unintelligible noise is by no means agreeable; and being thus left alone in a strange place, it is not to be wondered at that Mr. Frost felt very alarmed. He crept out of bed; then he ventured into the cabin and looked out from the door. Standing near he observed an old woman, and enquired of her the cause of all the commotion. She replied that a large owl had come after the chickens, and the Indians were frightening it off. With some misgivings and not at all inclined to believe that the woman had told him the true cause of the disturbance, the missionary returned to his bed. In the morning the Indians would give no explanation of their extraordinary conduct of the previous evening, so Mr. Frost, having read the morning prayers, began his homeward journey still ignorant of the cause and nature of the nocturnal disturbance.

Not long after he was spending the night at another Indian village. His host, a young and intelligent Indian, in the course of conversation, mentioned that there had been a funeral in the neighbourhood a day or so before. The missionary then gave an account of the noises he had heard at the other village, and the old woman's story of an owl. The young man cleared up the mystery by [48/49] the following explanation: "The Indians believe that within three days of the death and burial of anyone, the Evil Spirit comes to the grave in the form of an owl. He shoots out fire from his beak, he stands on the grave and the coffin comes up. Then he takes out the heart of the dead man, and carries it away. What the Indian has to do is to frighten away the owl before he can do any mischief to the dead."

Here then was the clue to the Indians' strange conduct that night in the cabin on the banks of the river. But did they really see an owl, or was their imagination heightened by superstitious belief? These Indians were not altogether ignorant, and the fact of their silence, and the story of the owl and the chickens told by the old woman, seem to show that they knew their superstitious customs could not meet with approval from the missionary. Moreover, the parents of the boy who had died used to read their Bible and Prayer Book every day, and were firm believers in the Christian religion. Evidently some belief in the old heathen fable still clung to them and made them disinclined to abandon their superstitious practices entirely.

Amongst the Indians there is also a very strong belief in witchcraft. Mr. Frost was once asked to reprove a man who was accused of practising "vile and devilish arts." He found it a hard matter trying to make the Indians believe that no one by arts of magic [49/50] had power to do them any harm. Still they persisted that the sorcerers made hieroglyphics on the barks of trees near their houses which were the cause of illness to the inmates. Only by time and patient instruction can superstition be overcome. Sometimes the missionaries find intelligent and well-instructed Indians holding belief in such absurd and silly superstitions that it is a trying matter to be patient with them.

One afternoon Mr. Frost had been preaching upon belief in fables. After the service a young Indian stood up in the congregation and said: "I have to say that I don't believe in these old Indian fables; yet I think to myself, I wonder if they are not true. Were all our forefathers deceived? But I know that this nonsense is not God's truth. If we are Christians we must believe only in Christ. Some people think that whiskey is the ruin of the Indian; but it is not whiskey, it is witchcraft."

The Indians used to make offerings of corn and sugar and tobacco to the dead. In the case of a child these offerings consisted of candies, berries and toys. The missionary endeavours to teach them that the life of the soul in the next world is not as the life of the body in this. Though they read in holy scripture of eating and drinking in heaven, they must understand it to refer to spiritual enjoyment. Neither dead bodies or living souls have any need of their offerings.

[51] When shall the untutored heathen tribes,
A dark bewildered race,
Sit down at our Immanuel's feet,
And learn and feel his grace?

Smile, Lord, on each divine attempt
To spread the gospel's rays:
And rear on sin's demolished throne
The temples of thy praise. Kemble.

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