By Egerton Ryerson Young
(A Canadian missionary from the 1800s and the author of Stories From Indian Wigwams and Northern Campfires)
Far away in the forest wilds, several hundreds of miles north-east of the city of Winnipeg, there dwelt in an Indian village a notorious old conjurer. His reputation was very bad among the people. To the deadly effects of his poisons the sudden deaths of numbers of the Indians were ascribed, and many a maimed and disfigured Indian in secret muttered his denunciations against this wicked old man and blamed his “bad medicine” as the cause of all his troubles.
When reports reached him that the missionary with the great book was going around through the land among the Indians, traveling in summer in a birch canoe and in winter with his dog-trains, and that scores, and in some places hundreds, of the people were gladly listening to his words and giving up the old habits as well as the old religion of their fathers and accepting Christianity, the heart of this old conjurer was filled with wrath, and he declared that if ever that missionary came to their village neither he nor the Indians who brought him should leave the place alive.
So remote and apparently inaccessible was the Indian band that years passed away before it seemed possible for the missionary to make the long journey to that place. It so happened, however, that the same year the missionary heard of the old conjurer’s threat, that summer the way opened by which two Christian canoe-men could be secured to go with him on the perilous journey—perilous in more ways than one. The dangers of the way and the old conjurer’s threats were all talked over, and then with their eyes open as to the character of the undertaking, and earnestly seeking the divine blessing, they began the trip. They were twelve days on the way. Of course, it was impossible to carry in a birch-bark canoe sufficient food to last for such an extended trip.
However, as they were armed with a good rifle and shotgun, and had plenty of ammunition, and much game abounded in that part of the country, they had abundance of food. So full of rapids and falls were the rivers that they had to make over fifty portages during the trip. At these obstructions, one Indian would carry the canoe on his head around the rapids until he reached the smooth water beyond. The other Indian and the missionary would carry the blankets, kettles, guns, and other things which made up the load. Then all would be re-arranged and on they would go. It was not an unpleasant trip during the fine weather, although the mosquitoes and flies were very numerous. When it rained, however, it was somewhat trying. They had no tent, and there was not to be met with on the whole trip a single house. Several times were they drenched to the skin and had to remain so, which was on one occasion for several days, until the warm sun came out and dried them with its welcome rays. Their bed was made where night happened to overtake them. A smooth granite rock was preferred, although there were times when even this could not be found. At length, after a variety of adventures they drew near the end of the journey. When about six miles from the Indian village, the hearts of the two Indian canoe-men seemed to fail them, and, to the missionary’s surprise, they wanted to turn around and go back.
“What!” said the missionary, “come at least two hundred and ninety-four miles and not travel the other six! Never! Let us go on.”
Vainly they pleaded their fears of the old medicine-man and his terrible deeds and threats. However, the missionary was firm, and so the men yielded, while he appealed to their manhood and promise to him ere they left home. He also cheered them with quoting some of the promises of God, whose servants they all were, and for whose glory and the good of these poor people this journey was undertaken. Encouraged by these things, the paddles were resumed until the wigwams of the Indians were visible in the distance. Then resting on their paddles the faithful Indians said:
“Missionary, there is one thing we want to ask of you. You know we, like you, have left our wives and children behind and came on this dangerous journey. How could we think of going back if any thing should happen to you? We think we can take care of ourselves, but our great fear is about you. This old conjurer with his ‘bad medicine’ is very wicked and cunning. What we want you to promise us is that you will not eat any food except as we prepare it for you.”
While admiring their devotion, the missionary only laughed at their fears and said: “You make my heart very warm toward you for your love and anxiety about me, but I have another plan in my mind. I think I will eat with that wicked old conjurer before the sun goes down.” They were amazed at this, and protested most earnestly. Very blood-curdling were some of the things they had heard about this bad man and his medicines, so powerful that a little dropped into the food would cause death in a few minutes. However, the missionary was firm, as he had decided on another method for dealing with this old Indian, whose reputation was so bad, than that very timid one suggested by his faithful canoe-men.
Another half -hour’s paddling brought them into the Indian village. It was small and poor and looked like a place blighted and cursed. Quite a number of careworn and sad looking women and children were around; but very few men were visible. However, the majority of them seemed pleased to see the missionary, although some quickly began to speak out their fears that his life was in danger on account of the threats of the old medicine-man. “Where is the wigwam of this old medicine-man about whom I hear so much?” said the missionary. His tent was pointed out. It stood off by itself in a gloomy-looking place, and toward it the missionary, taking with him a few things, immediately started alone.
When he reached it, he pulled aside the blanket which served as the door, and, stooping down to avoid striking his head against the poles, he entered. So gloomy and dark was the interior that it was a few seconds before the missionary, coming in out of the bright, dazzling sunlight, could clearly make out, or rather take in, the situation. However, he soon observed the object of his search sitting on the ground directly opposite. With some tea and tobacco, the missionary went over in front of him, and, reaching out his right hand, he cheerily addressed him in the Indian way, saying, “What cheer, mismis?” which in English is, “How do you do, grandfather?” But the old man, who by some fleet runner had already been informed of the missionary’s arrival, with a growl of disapprobation refused to shake hands with the white man who had thus dared to brave his wrath and crowd himself into his wigwam. But the missionary was not to be thus easily rebuffed, and so, stooping down quickly, he caught hold of the Indian’s hand and shook it heartily in a pump-handle sort of a style. While vigorously doing so he began talking to the old man, saying, among other things, “What cheer, mismis, what cheer? I am not your enemy, but your friend. I have come all this long way to do you good. Our feet have been sore and our hands blistered. Our bones have ached with the hardships of the journey. We have been drenched by the rains and have tried to sleep in our wet clothes as we lay down on the rocks, while in the distance we have heard the howlings of the gray wolves. We came not to buy your furs or to trade with you, but to do you good. The Great Spirit has given us white people his book, and as its wonderful story is for his red children too we have come to tell it to you. You had better listen and let us be friends. It is true you will have to change your life, and you will have to stop your drumming and conjuring and burn your bad medicines and make your own living by hunting and fishing as do the other Indians.” Still he refused, and so the missionary adopted another plan. He took a large plug of tobacco and placed it in his hands. Tobacco among Indians is like salt among the Arabs. If he accepted his tobacco, he must be his friend, and would not dare to injure him while in his wigwam. For a time, he refused to accept it, but the white man continued talking kindly to him, but all he could get in response were his growls of annoyance. “Take it, grandfather,” he said; “I never use the stuff myself, but those who do say this is a very good kind.”
Perhaps fortunately for the missionary, the old man’s supply had run out a few days before, and so his appetite was proportionally keen for the narcotic, and after a little more persuasion his hand closed upon it, and the missionary knew he had him. Then taking up a pound package of tea, the missionary said, looking up to some dirty dried meat that hung in shreds like straps across a pole, “You have meat, and I have tea. You furnish the meat, and I will the tea, and we will eat together.”
A gleam of malignant triumph passed over his face as he seemed to say to himself, “Is this missionary such a fool as to thus put it into my power to so easily poison him?” The missionary had observed that look and had read its meaning, and so he said, “Never mind your poisons. I come as a stranger and challenge you to a dinner, if you furnish part. Never mind your fire-bag with its bad medicines about which you are thinking, and let us as friends eat and drink together.”
The old fellow fairly quailed under those words, especially at the reference to his bad medicines, and began to think that the man who could thus read his innermost thoughts must be a bigger conjurer than he was himself. So turning quickly to his old wife, who was crouched down on the ground a little way from him, he ordered her to take the tea and get down some meat and prepare the dinner. She quickly set to work. The meat was dirty, but she did not stop to wash it. Dirty and dusty as it was it was soon in a pot over a fire quickly kindled. In a half sulky manner the old man invited the missionary to sit down beside him, and they talked about various things until the dinner was ready, and then together did the missionary and that old conjurer eat and drink. The old fellow said the meat was venison; the missionary thought, and still thinks, it was dog-flesh; but what it was is of very little consequence. The old conjurer was conquered, and not long after burned his fire-bag and bad medicines and became a sincere, earnest Christian. Only twice a year could the missionary visit that distant region; but whether he came by canoe in summer or dog-train in winter no one could give him a more cordial welcome than did the once notoriously wicked conjurer, but now the earnest, consistent Christian. He followed the missionary around like a shadow. He heard every sermon and address. He acted as guide to the different wigwams where personal visitation and talks could influence unconverted ones to decide for Christ. He also took the missionary to the homes of the sick and sorrowing ones, and drank in with avidity the sweet promises of the word of God which were there quoted and the prayers there offered. Sometimes so hungry did he seem for every thing spiritual that he would follow the missionary to the spot where he was about to unroll his camp-bed and rest after the day of this blessed toil. And when he bowed in prayer ere he wrapped himself for sleep the old man would kneel beside him and softly whisper, “Missionary, please pray out loud, and pray in my language, so that I can understand you.” And then again at the morning devotions, no matter how early they were, the now dear old saint was there, and again his earnest words were, “Please, missionary, pray out loud, and pray in my language, so that I can understand you.” Such genuine conversions repay a thousandfold for all the risks run and privations endured. Very blessed indeed is it to be able to quote Paul’s words and say:
Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place. (2 Corinthians 2:14)