Project Canterbury

Lights and Shadows of a Long Episcopate
Being Reminiscences and Recollections
of the Right Reverend
Henry Benjamin Whipple, D.D., LL.D.
Bishop of Minnesota

New York: The Macmillan Company, 1899.

Chapter IV

AFTER my consecration as bishop, while the words, "Hold up the weak, heal the sick, bind up the broken, bring again the outcast, seek the lost," were still ringing in my ears, the venerable Bishop Kemper said with deep feeling, "My young brother, do not forget these wandering Indians, for they, too, can be brought into the fold of Christ." The Rev. Mr. Hoffman, our missionary at Cape Palmas, Africa, came to me a few days after and said, "Before I left Africa, our Christian black men gave me seventy dollars to carry the gospel to heathen in America. I give it to you for Indian Missions." It was the first gift I received for this work and was a prophecy of success.

There were at this time, 1859, nearly twenty thousand Indians in Minnesota, the Ojibways, or Chippewas, the Sioux or Dakotas, and the Winnebagoes. The Ojibways belong to the great Algonquin race which comprised all of the Indians north of the Carolinas, from the Atlantic to the west shore of Lake Superior except the Iroquois, the Six Nations of New York. There is a slight difference in the dialects of the Algonquins. The Rev. Edward Everett Hale of Boston sent me several pages of Eliot's Bible,1 asking me if I knew of any one who could read them. I returned them translated by Archdeacon Gilfillan, the Superintendent of our Missions, who thoroughly understands the Ojibway language. The Ojibway language is most musical. There are more inflections to the verb than in the Greek, so that the finest shades of meaning can be expressed.

The Indians have a sign language which is understood by all of the tribes. It is made up of arbitrary signs, and it is so impressive that it may be understood at once by one quick of observation. When Captain B. A. Pratt was in charge of the Indian prisoners at St. Augustine I held service for them twice a week. Mr. Fox, the interpreter, was an adept in the use of the sign language, and translated the story of Joseph and his brethren so that it was understood by all of the prisoners of four different tribes.

I have never known of an atheist among the North American Indians. They believe unquestioningly in a future life. They believe that everything in nature--the laughing waterfall, the rock, the sky, the forest--contains a divinity, and all mysteries are accounted for by these spirits which they call manidos. When they first saw a telegraph they said, "A spirit carries a message on the wires."

The Ojibways are not idolaters, they never bow down nor worship any created thing. They have preserved a tradition of one Supreme God whom they call "Kitche-manido "--the uncreated, or the kind, cherishing Spirit. They believe that the Grand Medicine was given them by an intermediate deity, the Grand Medicine God. Their religion promises nothing for the next world, having no reference to it, but helps to prolong life here. The Christian religion is considered greatly inferior, as its promises are for the future life.

The ceremony of the Grand Medicine is an elaborate ritual, covering several days, the endless number of gods and spirits being called upon to minister to the sick man and to lengthen his life. The several degrees of the Grand Medicine teach the use of incantations, of medicines and poisons, and the acquirements necessary to constitute a Brave. When a young man seeks admission to the Grand Medicine Lodge, he first fasts until he sees in his dreams some animal--the mink, beaver, otter and fisher being most common--which he hunts and kills. The skin is then ornamented with beads or porcupine quills, and the spirit of the animal becomes the friend and companion of the man. The Medicine-men have but a limited knowledge of herbs, but they are expert in dressing wounds, and the art of extracting barbed arrows from the flesh was learned from them. After going through with certain incantations the Grand Medicine-man tells his patient that his pain is caused by a bear, or some other animal, which is gnawing at the vitals. He makes a most infernal noise in order to drive the spirit away, and if the patient recovers he accredits it to his own skill; if death follows he falls back upon the plea so often used by his white brother, "I was called too late! "They make great gain out of the people and are their counsellors in peace and war. They are bitter opponents of Christianity. The venerable Medicine-man, Shadayence, was the most cunning antagonist that I ever had among the Indians. I called him my "Alexander Coppersmith."

One of the Indians who had become a Christian was very ill, and when he was dying he called his friends about him and told them of his faith in Jesus Christ and begged them to prepare for the home to which he was going. It produced a great effect upon the Indians and the following day the Medicine-men left the village. At the end of two weeks they returned with their faces blackened--the sign of mourning--and their blankets in rags. At first they would say nothing in explanation of their appearance, but finally they gathered the Indians together and consented, with great sadness, to enlighten them.

"We have had a fast," they said. "The Great Spirit showed us the spirit world. Our friend that died is in great trouble. We found him wandering alone in much sorrow. He told us that when he went to the white man's heaven an angel asked him who he was and he said, ' I am a Christian O jib way.' The angel shook his head and replied, ' This is a white man's heaven; we have no Ojibways here. There are Happy Hunting-grounds for Ojibways; go there!' He went to the Happy Hunting-grounds, and an angel at the gate asked him who he was. ' I am a Christian Ojibway,' he answered. The angel shook his head, and said: ' The Ojibways are all Medicine-men. Christians never come here. Go to the white man's heaven.' My friends, our brother has lost the trail. He gave up the religion of his people, and he must forever wander alone."

According to their belief, the soul after leaving the body makes a three days' journey westward through a prairie country, arriving on the fourth day at a deep and rapid stream spanned by a bridge called "the rolling and sinking bridge." It can only be crossed by twisting and writhing like a serpent and often being covered by the black waters. If this life has been marked by brave deeds, the Happy Hunting-grounds are reached, but the swirling rapids may bear the unfortunate soul away and it will be forever lost. This latter idea is theoretical, however, and, as before mentioned, does not affect the moral life.

When a death occurs a fire is made near the place that its warmth may follow the soul on its journey, and as it is believed that the spirit lingers by the grave until decomposition takes place, a little house of bark is erected above it, with an opening at each end that the spirit may pass in and out; for after it has left the body, it must have a covering while in this world. Food--maple-sugar, duck, or fruit, perhaps--is placed in this little shelter, and if the relatives are told that the dead cannot eat, they answer, "We know that; but there is something spiritual in food which nourishes life, and how do you know that they do not eat that? "

An Indian burial is most touching. If of a child, the mother places the playthings of the little one in the birch-bark coffin, and strews flowers in the grave. She then makes an image of the baby, ornamenting the head with feathers, and carries it with her for one year. If of a chief or warrior, the body is arrayed as if for the chase or war-path, with bows and arrows, and medicine-bag by his side. The favorite dog is killed that he may accompany him on his journey. The orator of the band then addresses the silent figure, telling of his deeds of bravery, of how he pursued his enemies and brought back their scalps, of his wise words of counsel and acts of kindness, and how, having left this world for the Happy Hunting-grounds, he will find the trail a narrow one and will be tempted by evil spirits to turn aside, but that he must be deaf, for if he stops to listen he will miss the trail and be lost.

Formerly, when a man lost his wife or child, he would get up a war-party and kill some of his enemies to assuage his grief.

It is part of the Indian's belief that men live in their own personality hereafter. When Little Crow was a young man, a half-brother, who was his rival for the chieftainship, ambushed him; as the man rose to fire, Little Crow clasped his hands over his breast and they were both shattered by the ball. He was taken to the fort, and the surgeon said that the hands must be amputated. "No," exclaimed Little Crow, "better die than that! How could a man hunt in the other world if he had no hands? "

I once saw an old man sitting by a grave on the bank of the Mississippi River. I said to him, "Neche-buckaday? "(Are you hungry, my friend?) "Me-nunga," (yes) was the answer. I then said that I should be in the Indian country another week, and if he would be my companion I would give him all the provisions left at the end of that time. Putting his hands on his heart he answered: "Father, you are kind to the Indians. But my wife is sleeping here. I cannot go far from her; she would be lonely without me. Thank you." And with bowed head he again took his seat by the grave.

The current idea that Indians are sullen and morose is false. In the presence of strangers they are reserved, but they are naturally cheerful and appreciative of fun, even making their misfortunes an occasion for joking. They are generous to improvidence, and there is a singular absence of the greed which gathers treasure that cannot be used. They think white men fools to accumulate wealth. They say: "I kill deer. My friend has no deer. I give him part mine. I feel better nor white man who has plenty, and his neighbor hungry."

When game is killed all share it until it is gone. It is a point of honor to preserve a calm exterior and perfect self-control under all circumstances. Indians are rarely rude or brusque, and owing to their keen observation, when dining for the first time at a white man's table they will conduct themselves as if to the manor born. Enmegahbowh, who has a keen sense of humor and has always taken pleasure in relating stories to show this characteristic of his people, told me the following incident which occurred when he was on a visit to Washington with some Indian chiefs. They were dining at a hotel and one of the number, seeing a white man use pepper-sauce, took the bottle when passed to him and shook it over his plate. After taking a mouthful of the fiery condiment he kept an immovable countenance, although he could not prevent the tears from coming. His neighbor asked him why he was crying, and the answer came, "I was thinking of my dead grandmother." A moment after the second Indian took the bottle and used it with the same lachrymose result. The first man leaned toward him and asked, "What are you crying for?" "I am crying," was the answer, "because you didn't die when your grandmother did."

Enmegahbowh tells the following amusing anecdote of his first visit to Boston, in the early days when he went East to raise money for a Mission Church:--

"I was told that Boston was a very fine place. People very wise, very good. I think I must have new hat for Boston. I bought a very fine hat. When I went into the hall where I made speech, I left hat with others. When finished I went out, looked for fine hat. It was gone; in its place there was a bad hat full of holes. 'A reporter came to me and asked what I thought of people in Boston. I said, ' I did not get much money, and my new hat was stolen.' I said no more."

On this trip Enmegahbowh visited New York, where some Christian women who were interested in his work told him that they wanted to give him a present to take home, and that they had thought that he might like a package of tracts or some religious books. Enmegahbowh was silent for a minute, and then he answered, "If you want to give me what I most want, it will be a breech-loading shot-gun." To the credit of the ladies be it said, they made no comment, and Enmegahbowh went home with a very beautiful gun which he still treasures. His benefactors little knew what a blessing to the bishop this gun was to be, for many a time on his missionary journeys there would have been a scant larder had it not been for the ducks provided by Enmegahbowh.

Hardships and discomforts are borne by the Indian with composure and are never made the ground for making his companions uncomfortable. His heroism in meeting torture and death is proverbial. Gregarious in habit, the thought of solitary imprisonment carries insupportable terror. Often in winter, families will remain by themselves in their separate hunting-ground, for they usually hunt in the same place year after year, and by tacit consent are not intruded upon. But a mental register of the position and occupation of the band is always kept. At certain times they all come together from their solitary haunts, as, for instance, at the sugar-making, the planting, and at the ripening of the corn when the feast of the first fruits takes place.

The corn-dance, the sugar and berry feasts are interesting, and suggest the thought that they might have come down from a remote age, being somewhat similar to the feasts incorporated into the Jewish ritual, and that the painted and feather-ornamented stones which they set up and call sacred, might be traced back to the time when stone altars were erected. The deed has been kept, but the truth forgotten.

The Ojibway wigwam is made of strips of birch-bark drawn round standing poles, with a hole in the top for a smoke-escape. A blanket is hung before the door and the mats, which the women make from the rushes and color with their own dye, cover the ground. In the winter a bright fire is the centre round which the members of the family recline, laughing and talking in their sociable way. When the fire goes out they roll themselves in their blankets, often with the thermometer thirty degrees below zero, with the wind coming through the cracks of the wigwam, and go to sleep. From the law of heredity they seem to stand the cold well, whereas white people would perish sleeping a whole night in such a temperature. After civilization, however, they are quite as sensitive to cold as the white race. Before setting out on a winter journey, the Pembina Indians put out their fires and sit in the. cold in order to accustom themselves to it. One day, when the thermometer was below zero, an Indian came to see me, wearing only leggings', and, under his blanket, a thin cotton shirt. Looking at his bare chest, I said, "I should think you would freeze." He smiled and pointing to my face, exclaimed, "Face not freeze,--Indian all face"

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