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Mahlon Norris Gilbert: Bishop Coadjutor of Minnesota 1886-1900.

By Francis Leseure Palmer
with an Introduction by Daniel Sylvester Tuttle, Presiding Bishop of the American Church.

Milwaukee: The Young Churchman, 1912.
London: Mowbray, 1912.

Chapter XI. The Indian Missions

WHEN entering upon his episcopate, Bishop Gilbert said to a friend, "I hope I shan't have anything to do with the Indian work." His feeling was that this was peculiarly Bishop Whipple's field, and that no one else could hope to win the hearts of these primitive Americans, for whom the great Bishop had done so much. However, the visitation of the Indian churches in northern Minnesota was the most arduous task in the Diocese, and naturally came to the younger man. Whatever misgivings Bishop Gilbert had were soon forgotten. The sturdy intelligence of the Red men, their strong religious spirit, the simplicity of their life in the primeval forest, all appealed to his heart. His yearly visitation among them became one of the supreme joys of his ministry.

The story of the beginning of the Indian missions is told in Bishop Whipple's Lights and Shadows of a Long Episcopate. At his coming there were twenty thousand Indians in the State, belonging to three tribes, Chippewas (or Ojibways), Sioux (or Dakotas), and Winnebagoes. As early as 1852 Dr. Breck had begun a mission for the Chippewas at Gull Lake, and the famous and noble Enmegahbowh was ordained in 1859 by Bishop Kemper, before the arrival of Bishop Whipple. An excellent work has been done among the Sioux, but the largest mission is that which developed at the White Earth Eeservation. From the first, Bishop Whipple's heart was touched by the needs and wrongs of the Red Men, and in spite of much opposition and much indifference, he brought the Church to commit itself to the work. In 1873, the Rev. Joseph Alexander Gilfillan, a man of remarkable ability and unceasing devotion, was placed in charge of the Chippewa Missions. For twenty-six years he gave his strength and his means unreservedly to this Christlike labor. At first his title was Missionary, then Superintendent, then Archdeacon. Of the Indian clergy who were his faithful helpers, several at the time of this writing (1912) are still active in the work.

Bishop Gilbert's first visit to these Indian missions was in September, 1887. He was accompanied by the Rev. Mr. Gilfillan, the Rev. Charles A. Poole, rector of St. Paul's Church, Duluth, and Mr. Reuben Warner, Jr., of St. Paul. A report of the visitation was made in Bishop Gilbert's usual letter to the Minnesota Missionary, and a description by another member of the party was printed in the New York Churchman, and copied in part in the Spirit of Missions for December, 1887. From these two accounts extracts are here given. What is not from Bishop Gilbert's pen is enclosed in parentheses.

We left Brainerd Friday morning, September 2nd, in a lumber wagon, and after a ride of eighty miles, for two days, over the roughest roads I ever saw, we reached Leech Lake. On Sunday I held services in the Church of the Good Shepherd, and confirmed one person. This station is under the charge of the native deacon, Bev. Mark Hart. I also held interesting conferences with the men and women's guilds of the church. There are a large number of the Pillager band of the Chippewas living at Leech Lake, and many of them are Christians.

Monday morning we launched our birch-bark canoes, and were paddled across the waters of the most beautiful lake in Minnesota. At dusk we reached the shore of Lake Winnebigoshish, and, in the midst of a furious rain storm, our course guided by the incessant lightning flashes, we started across for Haven's Point, reaching there at midnight, having made a journey of thirty-five miles in canoes and on foot since morning.

At Raven's point we have the little Church of St. Philip the Deacon, under the charge of Rev. Joseph Wakazoo, whom I ordained deacon last winter. Here I held services and confirmed three persons. We left Mr. Wakazoo's place in the afternoon, and in our canoes went up the lake and into the Mississippi Eiver, upon whose banks we camped that night, with no canopy over us except the stars. Wednesday afternoon, we reached Rev. John Coleman's station at the head of Cass Lake, where in the evening, in the chapel of the Prince of Peace, I preached and confirmed one person.

Thursday, September 8th, we traveled all day in a canoe and on foot, camping for the night on the shore of a beautiful little lake, where the Duluth parson caught some very nice fish, which were heartily enjoyed by the whole party, at that time reduced to rations of bread and wild rice.

At Cass Lake we were joined by a number of other Indians, men, women, and children, who had come across from Leech Lake by a shorter route, and were on their way to Convocation at Eed Lake. Ours was then quite a little fleet of canoes and the scene was very stirring and interesting.

(Many of the canoes were manned entirely by women. It was quite a sight to see the flotilla emerge suddenly on some lake and swarm over it, the olive-complexioned, dark-eyed women bending to the paddle, their long black hair bound in two braids falling from their bonnetless heads, the look of eagerness in their eyes, and the sides of the canoes all in motion from the paddles. . . . When they came to a portage they were as quick as the men to pick the canoe out of the water, and, inverting it over the head, to carry it across the portage, though it weighed perhaps eighty pounds. Others came along, packing a great load on their backs, and perhaps on top of the highest part of the load a baby clinging, both mother and baby equally at home. When night came, camp was made; the men and women lighted their fires a little apart, but when the time came for family prayers before lying down, the men went over to the women's fire, and held a joint service. The Ojibway hymn rang out among the listening woods, and the prayers for pardon, peace, and protection ascended toward the clear sky. The Christian Indians never omit this service when traveling.)

Friday, at noon, we reached the end of our canoe voyaging and then took to lumber wagons sent to meet us, and at seven o'clock, after a drive of fifteen miles, reached Red Lake, quite ready to rest. . . .

Saturday the Convocation was held, with a large attendance of Indians from different points. Questions of interest pertaining to their spiritual life and the ongoing of the Church were discussed with earnestness and intelligence. These convocations are held twice a year and do much good.

Sunday morning I preached, celebrated the Holy Communion, and confirmed four persons in the Church of St. John's in the Wilderness, the Rev. Fred Smith, deacon, and in the afternoon preached, celebrated Holy Communion, and confirmed four persons in St. Antipas' church at the Old Chief's Village farther up the lake. In the evening I preached at the lower church to a congregation which densely packed the edifice. I was deeply impressed with the heartiness and devotion displayed in the services, and joyfully bear testimony to the most excellent work that is being done in the Indian country, among a people who ten years ago were plunged in the grossest wickedness and savage depravity. . . .

On Monday, September 12th, we left Red Lake in the rain by lumber wagon, and after a wearisome ride over horrible roads and through dense forests, at the end of the second day, we reached Wild Rice River. Wednesday morning I preached, celebrated Holy Communion, and confirmed one person in the Church of the Epiphany. This church is under the charge of the Rev. Charles Wright, deacon. In the afternoon I held services in the church at the Pembina settlement, and then drove to White Earth. Thursday morning services were held in St. Columba's Church. . . . The Rev. Mr. Johnson (Enmegahbowh), owing to his advanced years now retires from the charge of St. Columba's Church. . . .

This completed my first visitation of the Indian missions. The work is most interesting, and is going steadily forward. The wisdom and devotion of Mr. Gilfillan are evident in every way. No one can estimate the untold good he is doing among these people. [Minnesota Missionary and Church Record, October, 1887.]

One comment from the correspondent of the Churchman should be added. He is describing the sermons at Convocation, which, of course, had to be interpreted:

The Bishop has the happy faculty of touching the right chord of Indian nature, and there was deep interest. One Indian man was weeping, an unusual thing in an Indian congregation. . . . (After the evening service) they adjourned from the church to their guild room, and there kept up a religious meeting till two o'clock in the morning, in which they gave vent to their feelings which had been extraordinarily stirred by events of the day. There was a succession of religious addresses by both men and women, with the singing of hymns and with prayers. As one of the speakers said, although there had been at other times an honest feeling to serve God, yet now for the first time did it seize them all as by common united impulse.

An article by the Rev. Joseph Gilfillan, entitled "An Indian Convocation," contains some noteworthy observations on Indian character. It was an Indian clergyman, the Rev. Frederick W. Smith, who suggested the plan of such a convocation. The first was held, with the Bishop's approval, in the winter of 1887, and the second was that just described. Mr. Gilfillan writes:

The subjects discussed in both were such as the following: What are the defects in our methods and practice on account of which the heathen do not come into the Church in larger numbers, and what can we do to cause them to come in? How can we protect the Indians, especially the Christians, from strong drink? What can be done to mitigate the evils we suffer from men putting away their wives and taking others, and other offenses against the Seventh Commandment? What can we do about planting missions in Indian villages where there are none at present? What can be done towards making the Indian churches self-supporting? All these questions were discussed with a good sense, breadth of view, and exhaustiveness, that were indeed surprising, coming from men, who, except the clergy, did not know a letter, but had to depend on their own unaided native intellects. It will seem the language of hyperbole, but yet it is true, that in no white convocation in which the writer has had the privilege to be, did he ever hear the subjects as well, as sensibly, and as exhaustively discussed, as in the first convocation at Leech Lake, by men who a few short years ago were wild savages. This arises from the remarkable intellectual capacity of the Indian. [Minnesota Missionary and Church Record, May, 1888.]

Another interesting comment on Indian character was made by the Right Reverend Doctor Thorold, Bishop of Rochester, after his visit to Minnesota. Speaking at a London dinner, he said, "The North American Indians have all the dignity of the House of Lords, with the difference that the House of Lords never listen, and the Indians always do." [Lights and Shadows of a Long Episcopate, p. 269.]

In 1890 Bishop Gilbert went only to St. Columba's Church at White Earth, and from there Bishop Graves made the visitation. Also, in 1893, having been forced by ill health to go abroad, Bishop Gilbert was unable to make his usual visit to the Indian country. With these two exceptions, for nine years, this long missionary journey was a fixed part of the year's routine. He used to take with him different friends from the city, that they might share in this experience which he so thoroughly enjoyed. Once Mrs. Gilbert made the journey, being the first white woman ever seen in the more distant Indian villages.

A few more incidents of these visitations are worthy of record. The journey of 1888 abounded in game, with good fishing, both for the sportsmen and for the "fishers of men." A narrative of this visitation from Bishop Gilbert's own pen is found in the Minnesota Missionary of October, 1888. A few extracts follow:

After many miles of paddling and portaging, we reached at eight in the evening, Little Nat's wigwam on the bank of a small lake bearing his name. Here, tired and cold, we were given a right cordial welcome by the Indian family. The fine bush wigwam was clean and capacious, and although there was but one apartment, the ten persons in our party, and the four members of Little Nat's family succeeded in passing a comfortable night. We tarried here over Sunday. It was a day to be remembered. The utter loneliness of the spot, the strange aboriginal life, the services morning and evening in the wigwam, the baptizing and confirming of Little Nat and his wife, all were striking features of a most unique experience. Had I the space I would like to tell the story of Little Nat's conversion to Christianity. It was a wonderful testimony to the workings of the Holy Spirit.

A part of the upper Mississippi is thus described:

Down this lovely stream, here very narrow, between high banks covered with pine and birch, starting up deer in the bushes and shooting wild ducks as they rose from the reeds, we glided rapidly along until we passed out of the river into the broad waters of Lake Winnebigoshish. Following along, its northern shore, we reached Raven's Point, the seat of our mission to the band of Chippewas occupying the shores of this lake. In the evening we held services in the chapel of St. Philip the Deacon. Many of the people were away, and the whole village is suffering from the whiskey which is easily procured from the white lumber camps not far away.

The next day we went on down the lake to the government dam at the outlet. Here we stopped for dinner and for an hour's fishing in the river below the dam. It was the best pike fishing I ever saw, hooking a fine fish at every cast. That night we made our camp on a high wooded point among the pines, which we named Point Strobeck, in honor of our worthy companion [Judge Strobeck] from Litchfield. This was a delightful camp and was made specially so by the exciting stories of hunting with which our Indian guides entertained us, as we sat around the bright fire. . . . Sunday, at Leech Lake, in the Church of the Good Shepherd, we held services and celebrated the Holy Communion. I also confirmed a class of nine persons presented by the deacon in charge, the Rev. George Smith. . . . This completed my second visitation to the Indian field. . . . Had I the time I could multiply incidents to show the firm hold the Church is taking upon these simple red men, and the real work that is being done. [Minnesota Missionary and Church Record, October, 188S.]

The work was soon strengthened by the establishment of boarding schools for Indian boys and girls under the care of the Rev. Mr. Gilfillan, and by the well-known lace schools of Deaconess Sibyl Carter. The Indian women, finding little market for their beadwork and baskets, had asked for some better means of livelihood. The lace work proved to be an industry well-suited to their skill and has had much success.

On the last journey but one which Bishop Gilbert made among the Chippewas, one of the party was Mr. Earle S. Goodrich of St. Paul. He was much impressed by an incident of this visitation and gave a vivid description of it in a letter which he wrote in March, 1900, to Bishop Potter, to thank him for his tribute to Bishop Gilbert.

We were making the return trip from Red Lake by canoes, and had reached Cass Lake behind time. The morning service had been held at the mission there, and we were in haste to recover the time lost by a rapid paddle along the length of Cass Lake. As we were about to leave the mission, a Christian Chief told the Bishop of an aged Indian woman, decrepit and for two years blind, who feared she might not live to another visitation, and who desired to be confirmed. She was at a point several miles off our route, with her family, who were gathering the yearly supply of wild rice. The Bishop decided to make the detour, and, if justified, to perform the rite.

Furnished with a guide, we came to the spot, a little clearing of some seventy feet square, with a fire in the open, and crouching by it the postulant, with a long rope about her waist, and one end fastened to a stake, that she might not stray away during the absence of the family, then at the rice fields. She was a pitiable sight, in her blindness and other infirmity, but showed on examination that she well understood the teaching received from the venerable missionary Gilfillan, and from the local Indian deacon. Whereupon the Bishop and clergy, in full canonicals, administered the order of confirmation, as specifically as the circumstances allowed.

I have seen and been impressed by stately cathedral ceremonials, but this simple service in the forest gave a new solemnity to the rites of the Church, and an added dignity to the episcopal office. It was all characteristic of the dear Bishop. The poor creature could not see nor know of the contrast between her squalor and the vested clergy; but to the Bishop hers was a human soul to be received into Christian fellowship, and no form or ceremony possible of observance, could be omitted or abridged.

We left her kneeling in prayer, her hands raised, and her wrinkled, sightless face radiant with the peace of God.

In October, 1895, the General Convention set apart the northern part of Minnesota as the Missionary District of Duluth, thus removing most of the Indian missions from the Diocese of Minnesota. It was a lightening of the work, but the breaking of many ties of affection. Because of his perfect truthfulness the Indians called Bishop Whipple "The Man of the Straight Tongue." They had also learned in these ten years of close association to trust Bishop Gilbert implicitly. Fortunately for some years Archdeacon Gilfillan continued his close oversight of the field.

There has been no decline. Under the active and successful administration of the Rt. Rev. Dr. Morrison, Bishop of Duluth, the Indian work has grown and prospered, and is still one of the notable achievements of the American Church.

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