LTRP Note: The following is a story from the book Stories From Indian Wigwams and Northern Campfires. The book was written by Egerton Ryerson Young, a young Canadian missionary in the late 1800s, who, with his wife and small children, spent years with the Native people in Canada, living among them, loving them, and sharing the Gospel and the Word of God with them. This is one of the unforgettable stories from the “Wigwam” book. While some of the terms and writing would be considered “unpolitically” correct today, Young’s great respect, admiration, and acknowledgment of the value and worth of the Native people is above reproach.
By Egerton Ryerson Young
THE VISIT OF THE FLATHEAD INDIANS & THEIR REQUEST FOR THE BOOK DENIEDLong years ago, in the depths of winter, there appeared in the city of St. Louis four Flathead Indians. They carried in their persons the evidences of many hardships and of the severest privations. Bronzed and scarred were they by the summer’s heat and winter’s pitiless blast, for many moons had waxed and waned since they had commenced their long and dangerous journey from their own land, which lay not far from the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Their trail had led them through the domains of hostile Indian tribes. Thrilling indeed had been their adventures, and many had been their risks of losing both their scalps and lives. For weeks when crossing the broad ranges of the Rocky Mountains, where gloomy defiles and dark recesses abound for hundreds of miles, they had ever to be on the alert, lest in an unguarded moment there should spring out upon them the panther or mountain lion or rush upon them the more dreaded grizzly bear.
But although their very appearance bore pathetic evidence of their privations and sufferings, yet very little had they to say about themselves or their personal sorrows. An all absorbing longing had got into their hearts to be the possessor of one thing, and this passion had dwarfed into insignificance every thing else to them. There had been implanted by some chance seed-sowing such a craving for something to satisfy their spiritual natures that in order to get this for which their souls now longed they had unflinchingly faced all the storms and dangers of that fearful journey. Yet to the thoughtless white men to whom they first addressed themselves, very strange and meaningless seemed the importunate request or petition of these gaunt, wearied red men. They came, they said, from the land of the setting sun; across the great snow-clad mountains and the wide prairies for many moons they had traveled; they had heard of the white man’s God and of the white man’s book of heaven; a stranger had visited them and had told them things that had excited the whole tribe. He had told them of the great God who had made all things, and that the white man had a book which told all about him and what they were to do to have his favor. So that they might obtain this book they had come from their home far away across the Rocky Mountains. Thus strangely they pleaded for a copy of the word of God.
Some persons, becoming interested in the appearance of these strange Indians and their remarkable request, took them to the commanding officer of the military post in that city, and to him they told their simple story and besought his aid. Unfortunately for them, although the general was a kind-hearted man, he was a Roman Catholic, and so when he took them to the bishop and priests of his Church, while they were received with the greatest hospitality and shown the pictures of the Virgin Mary and of the saints, they were steadily denied their oft-repeated request for the Bible. Caring for none of these things, importunately did they plead for the book, but all in vain. So exhausting had been the journey that two of the Indians died in St. Louis from their sufferings and hardships. The other two after a time became discouraged and homesick and prepared to return to their far-off home. Ere they left the city a feast was gotten up for them and speeches were made, and the general and others bade them “Godspeed” on their journey. During the addresses at the close of the feast one of the Indians was asked to respond. His address deserves not only to rank among the models of eloquence, but should be pondered over as an expression of the heart-cry of very many of the weary, longing souls who, dissatisfied with their false religions, are eagerly crying out for the true. They want the book. In this English version, like all of these highly figurative poetical Indian orations, it loses much in the translation. He said:”I came to you over the trail of many moons from the land of the setting sun beyond the great mountains. You were the friends of my fathers, who have all gone the long way. I come with an eye partly opened for more light for my people who sit in darkness; I go back with both eyes closed. How can I go back blind to my people? I made my way to you with strong arms through many enemies and strange lands, that I might carry back much to them. I go back with both arms broken and empty. Two fathers came with us. They were the braves of many winters and wars. We leave them asleep here by your great water and wigwams. They were tired in many moons and their moccasins were worn out. My people sent me to get the white man’s book of heaven. You took me where you allow your women to dance as we would not allow ours, and the book was not there. You took me where they worship the Great Spirit with candles, but the book was not there. You showed me images of the good spirits and pictures of the good land beyond, but the book was not among them to tell us the way. I am going back the long, sad trail to my people of the dark land. You make my feet heavy with gifts, and my moccasins will grow old and my arms tire in carrying them, yet the book is not among them. When I tell my poor blind people after one more snow in the big council that I did not bring the book no word will be spoken by our old men or by our young braves. One by one they will rise up and go out in silence. My people will die in darkness, and they will go on the long path to other hunting grounds. No good white man will go with them, and no white man’s book to make the way plain. I have no more words.”
How sad and pathetic are these words, and how unfortunate it was that these Indians should have fallen into the hands of the members of that Church which refuses to give the blessed book to the people! However, a young man who was present was so impressed with the address of this Indian that he wrote to friends in the Eastern States an account of this strange visit and the pathetic appeal of the Indians for a Bible. Some earnest Protestants became much interested in the matter, but it was two years before a missionary started with the Bible for that land which then lay many hundreds of miles beyond the most western shores of Anglo-Saxon civilization.
Meanwhile what had become of the two remaining Indians? After leaving St. Louis for their western home they fell in on the plains with George Catlin, the celebrated Indian artist. But although they traveled with him for many days, whether it was from Indian reserve and stoicism, or that they had become disheartened and discouraged, they did not mention the object of their visit to him. However, he painted their portraits, and in his famous collection they have become historic and are to be seen numbered 207 and 208. After leaving Catlin, one more of the Indians died, and so there was but one survivor of the four to return and announce to the Great Council the death of his companions and that the white man had refused them the book. The tribe was embittered, and gave up all hope of aid and comfort from the white man’s God. From a condition of eager longing to hear and accept the teachings of the good book they swung over to the opposite extreme, and so when the missionaries at length found these Indians they received no welcome from them, and found it almost impossible to overcome the feelings of despair and bitterness which had sprung up in their hearts against the white man. However, other tribes in that same land were more docile, and a church and manual labor schools were established, and many of the Indians become Christianized. Rome refuses the Bible. Our glorious evangelical Protestant Churches love to give to all tribes and nationalities the blessed book. With the open volume in their hands our missionaries go forth, and at many a camp-fire and in many a wigwam they read and expound its blessed truths. Many are their trials and discouragements, but glorious are their triumphs and genuine are the rewards won.
Other inspirational excerpts from this book: