Project Canterbury

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 XVII. Birch Island

There was a large gathering of Indians on Birch Island on the occasion of the Bishop's annual visit to the Sheguiandah Mission. The Bishop had promised the Indians a picnic when he was visiting them the year before, and he now arrived from Little Current to find about two hundred of them, all members of the Church of England. They had come with their families and fishing boats from Sheguiandah, Spanish River and Sucker Creek to take part in the proceedings.

The scene on the island was a very picturesque one, the flag beside the chief's dwelling was flying mast high in honour of the Bishop's visit, the canvas tents were pitched along the shore; birch bark wigwams were erected by those who were not fortunate enough to possess tents, and a fleet of fishing boats were moored close by. The arrival of the "Big Black Coat" was announced by the firing of guns, while several boats came out to meet him, and to exchange the usual "Bou Jou."

The little church was far too small to accommodate all the Indians, so it was necessary to find a roomy place in which to hold a service. An adjacent island [115/116] was selected for this purpose, and benches were arranged in a shady spot admirably adapted for an outdoor service. Soon the "Evangeline" bell rang out its summons, and in a little while the bay was a scene of the liveliest bustle as the boats skimmed over it, each bringing its living cargo to the appointed place of meeting. The Groves have been called "God's Great Temples," and here was a return to the primitive usage.

There, in the softened light of the setting sun, Bishop and missionary stood face to face with two hundred swarthy denizens of the forest, once ignorant worshippers of the great "Manitou," now baptised believers in Christ, and as devout and reverent in their demeanour as the members of any congregation in any of our cities. Every head was uncovered, every eye turned to the ground. Some hymns were sung in Ojibway with great heartiness, and included such familiar ones as "Jesu, Lover of my Soul," and "There is a Happy Land."

The service consisted of a portion of evening prayer, while the Bishop's sermon, interpreted by Mr. Frost, told them of God's love and goodness, first and most of all in the gift of His Son, and then in all their family blessings; the fish in the waters, the deer in the forest, the fruits in the earth, waiting to reward the tiller's toil. Then the Bishop emphasised the blessings of education for their children, provided for them in the Indian homes, of [116/117] which as yet they have been slow to avail themselves, owing largely to their great affection for their children, and their unwillingness to see them go away, and secondly to the fact that a few years ago two or three girls and boys died at the home, and these poor simple Indians have not yet recovered from the superstitious dread that the "Mujji-Mukuedoo,'' the evil spirit, hovered about them.

The confirmation of Chief Shoobekishik and his wife, from Spanish River, formed a very interesting feature in this service. The service closed with another Indian hymn and the Benediction. By this time the hour for their evening meal had come, and very soon the little fleet of fishing boats was seen scudding over the water again, bearing them back to their tents and wigwams.

At eight o'clock next morning there was a celebration of the Holy Communion in the little church, when upwards of fifty Indians communicated. There is a quiet subdued solemnity of deportment which invariably characterises the Indian in all his acts of worship, and this was especially observable that morning.

Breakfast followed shortly after, and then several hours were devoted to a variety of games, into which competitors of all ages and of both sexes entered with the greatest zest--running, jumping, putting the weight, canoe races, sail boat races, and many other amusements. The prizes were simple, [117/118] consisting of useful articles of dress for the girls, and for the others of candies, knives, fishing lines and hooks, and cakes of scented soap.

When the races were over the usual "Pow-wow" meeting was held, at which the question of the school and the appointment of a new teacher occupied much time. When the "Pow-wow" was over the hour for departure had arrived, but in view of the stormy weather outside, the Bishop postponed his return to Little Current till the morning.

On the morrow everyone was astir by five o'clock, on board the "Evangeline," fires were lighted and steam up. Anchor was soon weighed and Birch Island left. The passengers on the "Evangeline" included Chief Manitowahsing, John Esquimaux, his wife, and mother-in-law.

In a little over two hours they arrived and safely anchored at Little Current Lumber Yard, where the Bishop was glad to find his son ready to relieve him for a while of his responsible duties at the wheel.

The excitement occasioned by the Bishop's visit and the large Indian picnic on Birch Island in time wore away; the Indians returned to their fishing and other occupations, and the missionary to his more arduous labours. As usual during the late autumn and early winter he was obliged to confine his visits chiefly to those of his stations situated on the island. Then when the ice at length became firm and the snow "packed" Mr. Frost got ready his horse and [118/121] sleigh and visited many of the lumber camps and the more distant of his stations.

So the time passed, and soon the ever welcome festival of Christmas again came round. At St. Andrew's Church in the Indian village of Sheguiandah the Christmas decorations were more than usually elaborate, and greater care had been taken to do the work neatly. The wreaths and festoons were well made, and better taste was shown in the selection of colours, for although the Indians are very fond of a mixture of brilliant hues, they were very ready to be guided by the suggestions of the missionary. When the decorations were completed the women scrubbed the floors and made the church tidy for the Christmas services.

There was a celebration of the Holy Communion at daybreak on Christmas morning, and a large number of Indians, both men and women, were present and communicated. Their demeanour was most reverent, and the few words of counsel, exhortation and encouragement that were spoken by the missionary at the close of the celebration were listened to with earnest attention.

Morning Prayer was said in this church at nine o'clock, when the building was full to overflowing, for all the Indians who had been from home, employed at various places, came back to Sheguiandah for the purpose of being present at the Christmas services. The singing was tuneful and hearty, and [121/122] the congregation most devout. It would have given the missionary much pleasure to have stayed all day with these earnest Indian Christians, but he was expected to hold four other services in different villages, as well as to conduct Sunday School.

It is customary for the Indians at Sheguiandah to have a great feast on Christmas Day, but Mr. Frost told them that as Christmas Day fell on a Sunday this year, it would be better to postpone their feast to the following day. This suggestion was carried out, and the missionary was invited to be present on the happy occasion. First came the supper, which was such a large affair that all the women in the village had been busily preparing it for some little time beforehand. The dishes included fish and partridges, meats of all kinds, a varied assortment of vegetables, and cakes without number. While supper was in progress some white people arrived and were kindly invited to share the good things provided. Then followed speeches and songs, and Manitowahsing, chief, lay reader and catechist, made a speech that was long after remembered.

On Tuesday evening they had their usual Christmas tree entertainment, when the gifts of clothing sent by the Women's Auxiliary were distributed; two poor widows and their children being especially well provided with useful clothing. It was suggested that some gifts of Indian manufacture should be sent as souvenirs to the ladies of the Women's Auxiliary, a [122/123] suggestion which was soon afterwards carried out. At Aundagwahmenekauning, a similar entertainment was held on the following Friday; here also, a number of garments were distributed among the Indians.

Project Canterbury