LTRP Note: Egerton Ryerson Young was a young Canadian missionary in the late 1800s, who, with his wife and two 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 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
(author of Stories From Indian Wigwams and Northern Campfires)
I was sitting in my study one day when noiselessly and quietly there came filing into the room a dozen or more stalwart Indians. I greeted them kindly and bade them welcome. On scanning their faces I observed that they were all entire strangers. Seating them as well as the limited accommodations of my little study would admit, I began a conversation with them. They were a fine-looking lot of men, with characteristic Indian faces. After a few commonplace remarks had passed between us I became anxious to know who they were and what was the special object of their present visit. So, addressing the one who seemed to be the principal man among them, I asked:
“Where do you live?”
“Very far away,” he replied.
“How far?” I asked.
“Thirteen nights away,” he said.
The Indians compute long distances by the number of nights they spend on their journey. So, to see me, these Indians had, in their birch-bark canoes, traveled fourteen days down great rivers and across stormy lakes.
“What is your object in coming so far?” I asked.
Very decidedly one of them spoke up and said, “We have come for you!”
“For what purpose do you want me?” I asked, beginning to get interested by the earnestness of these stalwart men.
“Why,” they answered, “we have the great book and can read it, but we do not know what it means.”
“O, I am delighted to hear that you have the great book and can read it,” I said; “and of course you have had a missionary who has taught you to read.”
Their answer amazed me: “You are the first missionary we ever saw.”
“Then you have had a teacher who has instructed you?”
“What is a teacher?” was the questioning reply. So I explained to them what a teacher was, and to this they said, “We have never seen one as yet.”
Becoming intensely interested now in these children of the forest, I replied with a certain amount of inquiry and perhaps incredulity in my voice, “Do you, who have never had a missionary or teacher, pretend to tell me that you can read the great book?”
Quietly they answered, “We can read the great book.”
To put them to a test was an easy matter, and so, picking up my Indian Bible—printed in Rev. James Evans’s beautiful syllabic characters—I opened it and said to one of them, “Read.”
Without any hesitancy he began, and read without making a single mistake. Then I tried another and another, and found, to my great delight, that these Indians from that distant and lonely forest retreat were all able to read in their own tongue the holy word.
“Tell me,” I said, “how did you thus learn to read the good book?”
This was their story of how they had come into this great privilege. Would that I could describe the picturesque and dramatic way in which the spokesman of the party told it to me that day in my study! The substance is as follows:
“Missionary, you know hunters roam over a great extent of country looking for game. So, although our village is many nights away, yet in our winter huntings some of us come up a good many miles this way; and a few of your Indian fur-hunters go many days down toward our country, and so some of them hunt near our hunting-grounds. Well, as we all talk the same language and are at peace with each other, when we have made our little hunting wigwams and set our traps and got every thing ready for catching the wild animals, and then while waiting for them to come into the traps, we often have days when there is nothing to do. These days we would employ visiting other Indians, and among those we visited were some of your Christian Indians from this mission. They always received us very kindly, and we had some pleasant talks. We found that they had with them their Bibles, and, when not busy at their work, they spent a great deal of time in reading them. As we were very ignorant we thought they were very foolish in spending so much time in that way; and so we urged them to shut up their books and gamble with us, as we used to do. But they said: ‘Since we have become Christians we have flung all our dice and gambling stones into the fire. We find that we cannot be Christians and gamble; and since we have learned to read this book we find more pleasure in it than we ever did in our old foolish games.’ They would read to us out of the great book and we became very much interested, for they read about the creation, and Noah, and Joseph, and David, and Daniel, and Jesus, and many others, until we found ourselves going there every day we could spare from our huntings, even if some of us had many miles to walk on our snow-shoes through the great cold.
“Our hunting season, you know, lasts many months, and so we had time to make many visits. When your Christian people saw that we were so interested in what they read to us they said, ‘Would you not like to learn to read for yourselves and of course we said, ‘Yes.’ So they began teaching us. It seemed strange to us that we, who had thought it was all such foolishness a short time before, should be now seated in their wigwams and hard at work learning a, e, oo, ah; pa, pe, poo, pah; ta, te, too, tah, and all the rest of the characters which your Indians had marked out for us on pieces of birch-bark with a burnt stick. But we had got hungry to know for ourselves, and when we found that ‘ma’ and ‘ni’ and ‘to’ put together meant ‘Manito,’ ‘the Great Spirit,’ then indeed we were excited and studied hard to know more. So we worked away, and your good Christian people were kind and so patient with us, and so pleased that our stubbornness was gone, and we were willing to sit at their feet and learn. And very often did they pray with us and tell us of some of the wonderful things that were in the great book besides its stories of warriors and other great men that had at first excited our curiosity. Well, before the snow began to get soft and the time came for us to return to our village with our furs some of us had made such progress in our study that we could slowly read the great book. That spring, as soon as the snow and ice left the great rivers and lakes, a number of us decided to take our furs, as we had been very successful in our huntings, all the way down to York Factory, on the Hudson Bay, as the prices were better there. It took us many days to go, but there was plenty of game and fish, so we had a good trip down. We reached York Factory with our furs, and exchanged them for what we needed for ourselves and families. One day before we returned, the gentleman in charge of the Hudson Bay Company’s post said to us: ‘There have come out for Mr. Young, the missionary at Norway House, a lot of Indian Bibles from the British and Foreign Bible Society in London. Now, if you Indians could only read, and would try and get some good out of them, I am sure Mr. Young would be glad to have me give you some of these good books.’ When we heard this our hearts were glad, and we told him some of us had learned to read the great book and we would be so thankful to get them and would do the best we could with them. When he heard this he said he was pleased we had learned to read, and then he gave us a lot of the books, at which our hearts were made very glad. We carried them safely in our canoes up the great rivers and around the portages until we reached our homes and people. There was great excitement about them. Even some of our oldest people had never seen a Bible before. Some of the old conjurers and medicine-men were angry with us for bringing them, but most of the people were glad, for they had heard from some of our hunters who had not gone with us to York Factory of some of the wonderful stories which had been told them by the Christian Indians. At first we hardly knew what to do with the books. Then we decided that those who, during the winter, had learned to read should each have one, and that they should teach others; and as fast as any one could read, even if only a little, he should get his own book.
“So anxious were our people to learn, and so well did they get on, that the books are all distributed. We are very thankful for them, but we want somebody to teach us what we are reading. We love the book, but we want somebody to make it plain to us. We are like one who has found an instrument which makes music. We get a sweet sound here and another there, but we have never had any teaching, and so we cannot play it aright. So with this great book which we have learned to read and which we have in our midst, we are very ignorant about it, and so we have come all this way to ask you to come to our land and tell us what these things mean about which we are reading.”
With mingled feelings of surprise and delight I listened to this marvelous narrative. It was the story of the Ethiopian eunuch over again, but multiplied many fold. Like him they had the word and were interested in it; but how could they understand, never having had any one to guide them? And so they had sent this deputation hundreds of miles through the pathless forest to find out one who could begin at the same Scripture and “preach unto them Jesus.” My heart went out to them at once, and I felt that He who had sent the angel unto Philip with the message, “Arise and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert,” there to find one man longing after light upon the sacred volume, had surely sent these messengers for me to go on a similar blessed mission.
If these Indians, longing for instruction, had lived in a land of railroads or even ordinary highways, the matter of visiting them could have been easily arranged, but, unfortunately, it was just the reverse. No surveyor had as yet passed through that land. There is not a mile of road laid out in a region of many thousand square miles; and so only by a birch-bark canoe, manned by two Indians, could I visit them in the summer-time, and even then perhaps not be able to travel as rapidly as these experienced men whose lives had been spent in those wild regions.
I explained to them how my mission field was already over five hundred miles long and proportionately wide. In visiting the different Indian bands on it I had to travel either by canoe or dog-train several thousands of miles each year. I tried to visit each band twice a year, and if possible when present at the different places arranged the date of the next visit, which was generally six months ahead. Through the good providence of God I had been able to keep all of my many engagements, and the Indians, knowing this, often came hundreds of miles by canoe in summer or on their snow-shoes in winter from their distant hunting-grounds to meet me at the place appointed, that they might hear the word of God. Very many were the difficulties and hardships endured in faithfully filling these remote appointments, but many pleasing incidents occurred to compensate for a fixed resolve to be faithful, with divine help, to every promise made, even if we were in “perils oft “from raging floods in summer or the bitter cold in winter.
While I was anxious to go to this new and inviting field which seemed so ripe for the harvest, I dare not break faith with any bands whom I had arranged to visit. The result was I had to inform these Indians, who had come so far for me to go and help them understand what they were reading, that six months must pass away ere I could go and see them. They said they were very much pleased that I would come sometime, but pleaded for an earlier visit, for “who could tell what might happen in all that time?” However, when I explained my work to them they saw how it was and were satisfied. One of them, however, looking out of the study window and seeing the sun which was sinking toward the western horizon and casting toward us a line of golden light on the rippling waves, with the quick poetic Indian temperament said, “Come quickly, missionary, and see us, for your coming will be like that sunlit path upon the waters.” We had a long and earnest talk about the truths of the blessed book and God’s design in giving it to us that we might know the truth concerning him, and also about ourselves and what we had to do in order to obtain his forgiveness and become his children. Reverently they bowed with me in prayer as upon them we asked the divine blessing in the name of Jesus.
After exchanging some of their furs at the fort for necessary supplies they set off on their return journey to their distant wigwams, thankful that they had got the promise of a visit from a missionary to explain to them the meaning of the great book. In the month of February I began my trip to the land of those Indians who had sent the deputation so far for me to come and visit them. I made every preparation for a long and dangerous journey, and was not disappointed in any way. I took with me two of the best of men, both as regards their genuine piety and their endurance and cleverness as Indian travelers. So many were the peculiar difficulties of the route that all the patience and energy of us all were at times taxed to the utmost. Our trip led us first a hundred and fifty miles down the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg, and then many days’ journey into the wilderness directly east of that great lake. The traveling on Winnipeg was mere child’s play to what followed after we had plunged into the forest country. Our way led us over a number of little frozen lakes and streams and through several long, gloomy forest portages. The work of getting through the dense forests was very laborious and often very slow. A little clearing out of the fallen trees and the cutting down of some ere they stand too densely together would have saved both men and dogs a great deal of hardship and our sleds from a great deal of damage, but unfortunately no road-making has as yet been ever attempted in this wild country. Often we had to get down on our hands and knees and crawl under the partly fallen trees, and then all hands were engaged in getting our dogs and sleds over the accumulated fallen ones, that seemed determined to block up our way. Often our sleds would so violently strike against a tree that there was great danger of serious injury being inflicted on our dogs.
Thus on and on we went day after day. Some days we made fairly good progress. This was when we had some frozen lakes or river stretches along which we could travel rapidly. But on the whole, the trip was one of the most difficult I ever undertook. However, as we were in a forest country all the time, we could find good camping-places, and so we were able to rest fairly well after the fatigues and sufferings of the day, although our beds were made in the forest on some evergreen boughs in a hole dug in the snow, with no roof above us but the stars. At length we reached the Indians for whom we were looking. To say that they were delighted to see us seems very cold in comparison with the reality. They had abundance of venison, and so we and our dogs fared well. All that they had said to us about their people being able to read the blessed book, we found to be as they had told us. And so our work was to explain the truths they had for months been reading.
It being the hunting season, and this being their only means of livelihood, many whom we had hoped to meet were far away in their distant hunting-grounds. However, those whom we did meet gave the most earnest heed to our words and drank in the truth with great delight. We felt repaid a thousand-fold for coming to visit them and remained several days among them, during which time we tried to teach and preach unto them Jesus, and many of them were baptized.
Often since, have we thought of and rejoiced at the coming of this deputation to visit us and of the marvelous manner in which they had learned to read the word of God in their own language, without missionary or teacher, and then had imparted that knowledge to others; and then, best of all, there had come into their hearts the earnest desire to understand what they were reading. To satisfy in a measure that longing, it had been given to me to have the great honor of going as the first missionary to visit this interesting people and explain more fully some of the truths of the blessed book.
This was my rejoicing, that:
[T]he Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the Gospel: whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power. Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ. (Ephesians 3:6-8)
(This is an excerpt from Stories From Indian Wigwams and Northern Campfires)