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Twenty Years on the Saskatchewan, N.W. Canada

By the Rev. William Newton
Hon. Canon of Saskatchewan

London: Elliot Stock, 1897.

Chapter XV.
Characteristics of the Indians--Mr. Evans: His Work, Mistake, and Persecution

IN addition to the foregoing observations respecting the Indian character and the Indian ways a few facts may be acceptable. Here, as everywhere, we shall find a great variety of characters. Some Indians are very degraded--equal in degradation to any human beings that can be found anywhere; if, indeed, such Indians can be called human beings at all. Soon after my settlement in the North-West, a man was brought in from the Peace River district, and tried at Fort Saskatchewan, who was a most horrible cannibal. It was proved that he had killed and eaten his wife, her mother, and three of his children. He was hung at Fort Saskatchewan, but seemed altogether indifferent to his fate. Another man, in the midst of the settlement, deliberately stabbed his wife, and, having paid blood-money to her relatives, considered that he had committed no crime. This Eastern idea is very common among the Indians of North America. In certain ways they were very honest. Years ago you might travel anywhere on the plains, and your property would be respected. Hudson Bay stores might be safely left unlocked, and no one would steal from them. If powder and shot were taken from a store in the absence of a keeper, the full value of skins would be left behind for payment, and at proper times full explanations would be made. A written communication was very sacred, and would be faithfully delivered at any distance. In some other matters their ideas of right and wrong were very peculiar, as I found in my business transactions with them. When I built my first shanty, as it was a very small place, and the winter was close at hand, I bought twelve cowhides from a butcher, and sent them to an Indian woman to be dressed. They had cost me twelve dollars. I thought that, if they were nailed to the log walls, they would help to keep the frost out, and make the shanty comfortable. When I supposed the hides were dressed, I went to the tent door, and asked for them in my best Cree, expecting to receive them, when the woman coolly told me I could not have them. On pressing for an explanation, I was informed that the skins had been dressed, but as she had no tea or tobacco, they had been cut up into strips, and sold at the Hudson Bay stores for shagganappi--no doubt to the amusement of the gentleman behind the counter, whose idea of honesty could not have been very exalted.

Although the Indian is not cleanly in his personal habits, the traveller may see everywhere that he has had his Turkish bath. Willow sticks are bent into the ground, and covered closely, and, by heated stones, hot vapour is produced sufficient to cause free perspiration. Then the bather takes a plunge into the snow, or into very cold water, just as his betters do in Europe, only in a more simple and natural way. In some parts a dog-feast is a great event, as it is also in China and among the Mongolians.

It is well known that the Indian is a great 'swell,' or 'dandy,' with his beadwork and paint. There are learned men in Europe, and scientific ethnologists, who make the native American to be indigenous to the soil, and class him as a distinct type of the human race, calling him the 'red man.' But, in twenty years' travel, I have never seen such a man. When the 'Red Indian' has his paint washed off, and lives in a house, his colour is tawny, and identical with the colour of the Mongolian. Here, as in other matters, superficial observation has led even educated men to form theories that can be corrected only with difficulty, though they are not based on well-attested facts.

I have often been surprised at the native intelligence and refinement which are found on these plains, among persons who are classed as Indians. It was my custom, during many years, to spend weeks at a time at Saddle Lake, which was more than a hundred miles from Edmonton Fort. In the evening the chief called the people together into his tent for prayers. When these were over, the chief men would retire, at my invitation, to the public lodge, and there, being seated in a circle, with their pipes lighted, at the expense of the missionary, who himself neither smoked nor used tobacco, the work of the evening would begin, and it would last far into the night, and even till the early morning. The conversation would be somewhat as follows:

'Friends, I am glad to meet you again. You remember what I have said before; now ask me frankly whatever is in your minds.'

Then there would be silence for a minute or two, for it is part of the dignity of the Indian never to be in a hurry. Then the reply would be made, amid signs of general assent:

'We also are glad to meet you here; it is very good of you to come so far to teach us the things of religion; we are poor people, and very few care about us.'

Then silence.

'As you are so kind, we would like to ask you some questions. Please tell us what is the Christian religion?'

'It is the religion which Jesus Christ lived and taught, in the Holy Land, eighteen hundred years ago, of which the New Testament gives us an account. You can most of you read the New Testament in Cree.'

'Yes, but we want a wise teacher to explain things to us. We are ignorant, and know nothing.'

'God, the Great Spirit, knows that, and it is to such as you He sends His Word, or Gospel, and His Church, in order to lead you in the heavenly way.'

Sounds of assent.

'Pray tell us where the Christian religion came from.'

Now the missionary must be very careful, so he replies:

'This form of it which I bring to you comes from England (not from Rome), and the wise men of the Church teach, that the English Church is a branch of the true Christian religion, which in very early times was planted in England from Jerusalem, where the religion first arose as the Mother Church.'

'Not from Rome, then?'

'No, not from Rome at first, although the Roman is a very ancient form of the Christian religion; but it got changed very much, and both became closely connected in the Middle Ages, until the period of the Great Reformation.'

Silence for several minutes, while more tobacco is prepared for the pipes.

'Kindly tell us what a Christian man ought to believe.'

'He must believe the Creeds, which we rehearse every Sunday and whenever we worship, and this is all explained more fully in the Bible, and in the sermons preached by the clergymen.'

'What shall a Christian man do?'

'A Christian man must keep the Commandments; he must love God and man, and learn to walk all his days in the heavenly way. The Saviour established in His Church certain rites and ordinances; through the observance of these we may receive help and grace, so as to be enabled to do His will.'

'Some of us are not Christian Indians, and we do not like to leave the way of our fathers. They were often good men, and taught us to fear and serve the good Spirit, and we do not like to leave the way they taught us. The Christian religion, you say, teaches us to honour our parents.'

'You do well to reverence your ancestors, and to follow their ways in all that is good and true. But you say that they were often wise, and lived according to their light; then, if a brighter light had come to them, they would have received it, and tried to live it; so now, if they could speak, and their voices could be heard in this tent, they would say, "This word you hear is better light than we had, and if we had heard it we would have believed. Children! follow the highest wisdom, arid this the Christian religion teaches. We would embrace that religion were we living in the world now." '

In no part of the world could a teacher of religion be more wisely questioned, or in so nice a way; but the fact must not be forgotten, that we were on the prairies of North America, and in an Indian tent, surrounded by uncivilized people who are conscious of their ignorance. Many of these people read and write the Cree character, as it is called, with much ease. When the language is known, a few weeks' practice suffices to make it familiar to the learner. The Cree language is regular in its formations, and the form of writing it is stenographic. For some time I wondered from whom it was derived, but no one whom I knew could tell me. At last I discovered that a Mr. Evans, a Wesleyan missionary in these territories, was its originator. He had in former days been a printer and reporter in England, so he made blocks, and set up types, and with great difficulty printed his little books for the Indians, and taught them to read his method of writing Cree. It was, in fact, the ordinary shorthand, a little changed, which was in common use fifty years ago, and it is admirably adapted for its purpose, with its affixes, and suffixes, and stem-writing. Many men have become notable for a less useful work than this, and I cannot but hold Mr. Evans' name in much honour. This good missionary is a type of the devoted men who for many years have sacrificed themselves on these plains, but who are scarcely remembered by those who reap the harvest of their toils. Mr. John McLean, in his 'Notes of a Twenty-five Years' Service in the Hudson Bay Territory,' says: 'The Rev. Mr. Evans, a man no less remarkable for genuine piety than for energy and decision of character, had been present at several of the annual meetings of the Indians at Manitonlin Island, and he felt his sympathy deeply awakened by the sight of their degradation and spiritual destitution. While thus affected he received an invitation from the American Episcopal Methodists to go as a missionary to the Indians resident in the Union. Feeling, however, that his services were rather due to his fellow-subjects, he resolved to devote his labours and life to the tribes residing in the Hudson Bay Territory. Having made known his intentions to the Canada Conference, he, together with Messrs. Thomas Hurlburt and Peter Jacobs, was by them appointed a missionary, and at their charges sent to that territory. No application was made to the company, and neither encouragement nor support was expected from them. Mr. Evans and his brother missionaries began their operations by raising with their own hands a house at the Pic, themselves cutting and hauling the timber on the ice. They obtained, indeed, a temporary lodging at Fort Michipicoton; and they not only found their own provisions, but also materially increased the comforts of the establishment by their success in fishing and hunting. Late in the fall, accompanied by two Indian boys in a small canoe, Mr. Evans made a voyage to Sault St. Marie for provisions. On this expedition, which was rendered doubly hazardous by the lateness of the season and the inexperience of his companions, he more than once narrowly escaped being lost.

'Returning next season to Canada for his family, he met Sir G. Simpson on Lake Superior. Having learned that the mission was already established, and likely to succeed, Sir George received him with the utmost urbanity, treating him not only with kindness, but even with distinction. He expressed the highest satisfaction at the establishment of the mission, promised him his utmost support, and at length proposed an arrangement which, however auspicious for the infant mission, was ultimately found to be very prejudicial to it.

'The caution of Mr. Evans was completely lulled asleep by the apparent kindness of the Governor, and the hearty warmth with which he seemed to enter into his views. Sir George proposed that missionaries should hold the same rank, and receive the same allowance, as the wintering partners or commissioned officers, and that canoes and other means of conveyance should be furnished to the missionaries for their expeditions. It did not seem unreasonable to stipulate that, in return for these substantial benefits, they should do or say nothing prejudicial to the company's interests, either among the natives or in their reports to the Conference in England, to whose jurisdiction the mission was transferred. The great evil of this arrangement was, that the missionaries, instead of being the servants of God, and accountable to Him alone, became the servants of the Hudson Bay Company, and dependent on and amenable to them. The committee were, of course, to be the sole judges of what was or was not prejudicial to their interests. Still, it is impossible to blame very severely either Mr. Evans or the Conference for accepting offers which were apparently so advantageous, or even for consenting to certain restrictions in publishing their reports. With the assistance and co-operation of the company, great good might be effected; with the hostility of a corporation which was all but omnipotent within its own domain and among the Indians, the post might not be tenable.

'For some time matters went on smoothly. By the indefatigable exertions of Mr. Evans and his fellow-workers, aided also by Mrs. Evans, who devoted much of her time and labour to the instruction of the females, a great reformation was effected in the habits and morals of the Indians. But Mr. Evans soon perceived that without books printed in the Indian language little permanent good would be realized; he therefore wrote to the London Conference to send him a printing-press and types, with characters of a simple phonetic kind, which he had himself invented, and of which he gave them a copy. The press was procured without delay, but was detained in London by the Governor and committee; and though they were again and again petitioned to forward it, they flatly refused. Mr. Evans, however, was not a man to be turned aside from his purpose. With his characteristic energy, he set to work, and, having invented an alphabet of a more simple kind, he with his penknife cut the types, and formed the letters from musket bullets; then he constructed a rude sort of press, and, aided by Mrs. Evans as a compositor, he at length succeeded in printing prayers, and hymns, and passages of Scripture for the use of the Indians. Finding their object in detaining the press thus baffled, the Governor and committee deemed it expedient to forward it, but with the express stipulation that everything printed should be sent to the commander of the post as censor, before it was published among the Indians. This was among the first causes of distrust and dissatisfaction.

'Not long after, finding that the missions he had hitherto superintended were in such a state of progress that he might safely leave them to the care of his fellow-labourers, Mr. Evans resolved to proceed to Athabasca, and establish a mission there. Having gone, as usual, to the commander of the post to obtain the necessary provision, and a canoe and boatmen, he was received with unusual coldness. He asked for provisions, none could be given; he offered to purchase them, the commander refused to sell him any; he begged a canoe, it was denied him; and finally, when he entreated that, if he should be able to procure these necessaries elsewhere, he might at least be allowed to take a couple of men to assist him on the voyage, he was answered that none would be allowed to go on that service. Deeply grieved, but nothing daunted, Mr. Evans procured these necessaries from private resources, and proceeded on the voyage. But a sad calamity put a stop to it. In handing his gun to the interpreter, it accidentally went off, and the charge lodging in the interpreter's breast, it killed him instantaneously. Mr. Evans was thus compelled to return, in a state of mind bordering on distraction. His zeal and piety promised the best results to the spiritual and eternal interests of his Indian brethren. His talents, energy, and fertility of resource, which seemed to rise with every obstacle, had the happiest effects on their temporal well-being; and his mild and winning manners endeared him to all the Indians. But his useful and honourable career was now drawing to a close. The mournful accident already alluded to had affected his health, and he had received his death-blow.

'Yet, obnoxious as he had become to the company, and formidable to their interests as they might deem one of his talents and indomitable resolution to be, the final blow was not struck by them. It was dealt by a false brother--by one who had eaten of his bread, by a familiar friend with whom he had taken sweet counsel. Charges affecting his character, both as a man and as a minister, of the foulest and blackest kind, were transmitted to the Conference by a brother missionary. To answer these charges, which were as false as they were foul, he was compelled to leave the churches which he had planted and watered, to bid adieu to the people whose salvation had been for years the sole object of his life, and to undertake a voyage of five thousand miles, in order to appear before his brethren as a criminal.

'As a criminal, indeed, he was received; yet, after an investigation which was begun and carried on in no very friendly spirit to him, the truth prevailed. He was declared innocent, and the right hand of fellowship was again extended to him. He made a short tour through England, and was everywhere received with respect, and affection, and sympathy. But anxiety, and grief, and shame had done their work. Scarcely three weeks had passed by, when one evening he was visiting, with Mrs. Evans, in the family of a friend. He seemed to have recovered much of his wonted cheerfulness, but late in the evening Mrs. Evans, who had retired for a few minutes, was suddenly summoned back to the room, only to see her husband pass away into that land where " the wicked cease from troubling." The cause of his death was an affection of the heart. And that man--the slanderer, the murderer of this martyred missionary--what punishment was inflicted on him? He is to this day unpunished. He yet lives in the Hudson Bay Territory, the disgrace and the opprobrium of his profession and his Church.'

This story is given as related by another person, because Mr. McLean was acquainted with the circumstances, and I was anxious to keep in the public memory so remarkable a benefactor of the Indians and half-races of the Hudson Bay Territory. His experience may very possibly be repeated even in these later times. It is a standing danger in the way of even the noblest and bravest missionary. The more conscientious and self-sacrificing he may be, the greater is the danger of his being misunderstood, misrepresented, maligned, and persecuted. A few years ago there was no baseness that would fail to find its agents close at hand, and an apostle of ancient days would easily have found his cross, and a shameful martyrdom. I was especially interested in reading this account of Mr. Evans, inasmuch as, twenty-five years ago, before there was much travel on the beautiful Muskoka Lakes, I fell in with two fellow-travellers, in crossing a portage between Rosseau Lake and Muskoka Lake, and one of them was a well-dressed Indian, speaking correct English; but he was intoxicated, and was carrying liquor with him. He could not have been more vile in his behaviour, and he volunteered to tell us his name and his former profession, and declared that, on his visit to England, he had been introduced to the Queen as an Indian missionary from the Hudson Bay Territories. I shall never forget the disgust which I felt and expressed, although we were in a lonely region, and an accident of shooting or stabbing might easily have occurred. This creature was the vile Judas who had been the agent of Mr. Evans' martyrdom--but what an agent to be used in such a business!

A great deal has been said about the trading of missionaries in these territories, and their traffic in furs in the days when fur was abundant; much of what was said arose from jealousy, lest the trade should be diverted from the hands that held it. The reports were rather preventive than real, and any apparent liberality of a fur company might thus be accounted for. Long ago a missionary had no means of sending any fur out of the country, and every skin he possessed would be well known at the forts. The missionary simply could not trade until most of the fur was exhausted and the country was opened up to the 'free traders,' whose advent was of quite a late date--say about 1870. If a missionary visited an encampment at a distance from his residence, and took any provisions with him for personal use, such as flour, tea, or sugar, the Indians would think him very mean if he refused to part with a portion to women or sick people who required their use, and were far from the forts, where they could be obtained and exchanged for furs; and yet if the missionary, with his limited means, had done what the traders did, and given kind for kind, he would have been branded as a trader who, while professing to be seeking the spiritual good of the Indians, was making himself rich at the expense of his position. Missionary societies would have heard the garbled story, and most likely would have recalled him as unworthy of his profession. Flour worth five pounds a bag, and tea five shillings a pound, must be given away, and the skins must be left behind for the fur trader, who made it his business to collect furs, and who had no religious profession to hinder his making a large profit. During a course of twenty years I have not even received a rabbit-skin from an Indian, to say nothing of more valuable furs. Two buffalo robes were presented to me, one by a gentleman of the Mounted Police Force, and another as the Christmas-gift of my people at All Saints', Edmonton. When I wanted fur robes for my journeys, I went to the fort, and paid Montreal prices for buffalo robes of second and third-rate quality, which were the only ones procurable. Every valuable robe was precious, and sent away to Montreal to enhance the reputation of the local agent for industry in forwarding the best skins to the front markets.

Criticism on missionaries has often been unfair, and utterly unworthy of generous minds, who might look with kindly eye upon even the most crack-brained enthusiasts, in consideration of good intention, and the life of self-sacrifice which their work requires.

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