Project Canterbury

Missions to the Oneidas

By Susan Fenimore Cooper

Serialized in The Living Church

Number X. April 10, 1886, page 28.

When the young missionaries entered on their duties in 1853-4, the aspect of things was wild, and not a little discouraging. But at the end of a few months matters improved very perceptibly, and many of the people learned once more, as in earlier times, to look upon their minister as their best friend. They resumed former habits. Larger numbers came to church and gathered at the mission house. The parsonage was made more comfortable. The church was improved by painting, and the repairs most needed were attended to. But there was neither chancel, nor vestry-room, the roof was leaky, and the floor was paved. There was a good bell, the gift of a chief, and the people at a distance attended to the call, and came more regularly. The sun poured in upon the dusky flock through unshaded windows, the men sitting together on one side, the women on the other. The men were roughly clothed, generally in coarse blue cloth, very carelessly put together. The women came in with their invariably noiseless, gliding step, in very wild garb; they were shrouded in blankets, their heads closely covered with various wrappings, occasionally bead-work, or porcupine work, appearing as trimmings on their cloth leggings and moccasins. Mothers brought their babies in bark cradles, hanging at their backs suspended by the regular burden strap passing around the forehead. When an infant Baptism took place the child was brought up for the service strapped to the cradle board, godfather and godmother in due attendance. The congregation was always respectful, and some of the elder ones were very devout, making all the responses with much feeling and reverence. There was an organ of good tone, well played by the regular organist, one of the chiefs. The singing was always very sweet. Never indeed were the services carried out without the sweet, plaintive voices of the women being heard in the chants and hymns, in their own wild speech. Not a few of the men had also good voices. The people seemed to have a natural taste for music. The prayers were read in Oneida. The sermon though prepared expressly for the mission was translated by the regular interpreter.

The good Bishop at his annual Confirmation in that parish had the question to the candidates plainly translated once and addressed to all. Each of course answered singly. The prayer at the laying on of the Bishop's hands was also clearly translated once, so that all could understand it, he then proceeded with the words in English. He never attempted to speak to the people in their own dialect which he did not understand. His sermons and addresses were translated by the interpreter; they are said to have been always very simple, very earnest and impressive. He delivered them with fatherly dignity, and much feeling. The people always listened with fixed and reverent attention, and were evidently much edified by them. He generally alluded especially to the sentence of Confirmation and explained it very clearly and impressively to the people.

When a Baptism took place all the addresses to the congregation, to the candidates or the sponsors, were given in Oneida; the prayers were in English, the people being familiar with them from their own Prayer Book. At marriages portions of the service were given in Oneida, the prayers in English, and they were instructed that solemnly joining the hands as in the presence of God and before witnesses was a binding pledge. At funerals the services were held partly in English, partly in Oneida; the opening sentences and the lessons were given in Oneida, the psalm was generally read responsively in English, the younger people soon learning enough to follow the American Prayer Book in this way. They have however the whole service in their own language.

The library of Oneida books, if not large, was of very great value to the people. There was a translation of the New Testament, complete with the exception of Second Corinthians; portions of the Old Testament; the prophesy of Isaiah; a hymn book compiled chiefly from our own; and three different editions of the Prayer Book. The Rev. John Henry Hobart, son of the revered Bishop Hobart, and one of the founders of Nashotah, who had been ordained priest in the little church at Oneida, had inherited the Bishop's interest in the people, and gave them an improved translation of the Prayer Book, published at his own expense. The translation was prepared by the skilful interpreter, Baptist Doctater. The people valued this last translation greatly, and often read it in their homes with pleasure.

The school was taught by the missionary, who considered this task one of his most important duties. After his marriage the young wife assisted with much zeal in the good work, and during those first months laid the foundation of her deep and affectionate interest in the children. The little dark-eyed, red-skinned, creatures were as wild and shy as the chipmunks and fawns of the forest. The girls were gentle, low-voiced, and timid; they generally came with their heads closely covered in a wrap of some kind. Boys and girls kept carefully apart, it was impossible to coax them to recite in the same classes. But they soon became attached to their bright-faced, kindly, pleasant-mannered teacher, and ere long she acquired very great influence over them, and over their mothers also. The school opened with a short religious service; the general confession, the Lord's Prayer, and the Creed. They were taught to read, and write, and cipher, from the American school-books in general use. Many of the children were bright, and learned rapidly, others were very dull. After some years of experience the missionary became convinced that the children of parents who could read learned more rapidly than those whose parents had never received any instruction. The work among them was slow, however, as many of them knew little more English than if they had belonged to the Steppes of Tartary. The reluctance with which the children at first learned the language of the whites was amazing. They clung with tenacity of affection to their own wild speech. It required great patience to teach the little black-eyed pupils even the A B C; but the beginning once made they often made good progress. After the older ones had learned to read English, they were taught the use of the few books in their own language. The religious instruction was of course that of our own Church. They learned passages from the Holy Scriptures, the Catechism, and the use of their own Oneida Prayer Book. The punishments in the schools were black marks, and expulsion.

After a time the old shanty of a school-house was burned, and a good building put up in its place. The school-house had always filled an important public position among the people. It was Council Hall and Court House. The Oneidas, like others of their race, were much given to holding talks and councils, and took much satisfaction in speech-making on all public matters. They had written laws of their own, but these were practically obsolete, and all legal causes were tried as much as possible according to the laws of Wisconsin. The chiefs sat as jurors; some man of character and intelligence was chosen as judge, the interpreter often acting in that capacity. The defendant chose whoever he pleased as his attorney; and in criminal cases an attorney of their own appeared for the tribe. They could sue white men, and white men could sue them, in the State courts. All crimes committed on the Reservation were brought before their own Oneida court. If an Oneida committed a crime off the Reservation, he was, of course, tried by the State court. Their trials have generally been carried on with good order and solemnity.

The first year of the missionary service brought with it an event to which the people attached no little importance. The time had come when an Oneida name should be conferred upon their minister. This act was by no means considered an empty compliment, but rather as a public duty which must not be neglected. After the usual preliminary "talks," the name was chosen, and the time fixed for the event. Every Oneida has a name in his own language; the children are generally named soon after their birth. Some of their names are beautiful, others are ridiculous. It is said that some of the more ignorant of the people, and many of the children, have no knowledge of their American names, or family surnames. They never fail to give Indian names to their white acquaintances, names chosen from some personal traits or some quality characteristic of the individual. They are very close and shrewd observers. When the time came for giving the name to the missionary, a feast was first prepared; this is a compliment conferred only on an individual whom they wish to honor especially. A regular feast having been duly prepared and the people assembled, the chief So-no-sio arose and made a speech. In the course of the speech the Oneida name of the missionary, which had been already settled among the men, was publicly announced. It was "Ka-you-retta, Bright blue sky. This was received with applause, followed by a very warm hand-shaking. Speech-making, feasting, and hand-shaking, never fail to give satisfaction to the Oneidas. They shake hands very heartily, pressing the hands almost painfully at times. The minister having been named, the same compliment was paid rather later to his wife. At the 4th of July feast her Oneida name was announced as "Ky-you-to-sa," She is planting. The missionary, however, was generally spoken of as "my father," "our father." Their word for minister is "Ka-tsi-heu-sta-lis."

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