By Egerton Ryerson Young
Written in the late 1800s
(author of Stories from Indian Wigwams and Northern Campfires)
I was interrupted one day while sitting in my study by the quiet entrance of a stalwart Indian whom I had not seen for a year. I had met him the previous summer in his own wigwam on the banks of a beautiful lake a couple of hundred miles north. After a few words of kindly greeting I asked about his family, when, to my surprise, he exclaimed, almost passionately, “Missionary, my heart is sad, and I have come to ask you to get me a wife from one of the Christian families of your village.”
Somewhat annoyed, I said: “Do you not know that I do not believe in a man having two wives at the same time? When I visited your wigwam and had religious services among your people last summer I thought you had a very good wife and a pretty babe, and that you were very fond of them.”
“Yes,” he said, passionately; “all true, missionary!” and then his spirit broke, and he wailed out, “Non pimatissit!” which means, “Not among the living.”
This is the pagan Cree Indian way of referring to the death of friends. Having none of the consolation which Christianity gives in reference to death, the very word itself is to them one of such terror that they seldom utter it. When obliged to speak of those that are gone they use the Cree phrase non pimatissit— not among the living. Shocked at this sad news, and pitying the poor fellow, we made him sit down with us to tea, and then after a while we got him to tell us his sad story. He said:
“Missionary, a short time after you left us I started from the place where you had met our people on the Burntwood River to go far away to my own hunting-grounds to catch beaver. I pitched my wigwam on the bank of a fine large lake in which there were plenty of fish, and there I left my wife and babe and my wife’s mother. They had every thing they needed to make them comfortable. There were fish in the lake and rabbits in the woods. With plenty of food in the wigwam I left them light of heart, for I was glad to see them so well. The last thing I saw of them was the baby laughing in the hammock and my wife sitting beside him and busy making the new white fish net for the fall fishing. I went up the lake for some miles until I reached a large stream that flowed down into the lake. As I had seen before this time plenty of signs of beaver up this creek I went up it a few miles and there set my traps. I hunted around for a few days and did very well. Then I packed up my furs and beavermeat, and started on my trip home. My load, which I carried on my back, supported by the carrying-strap from my forehead, was heavy, but my heart was light, for I had been successful as a hunter, and then I was also on my way to see my wife and baby boy. I hurried along on the side of the stream until it entered into the lake, and then I turned to walk along the shore. I had not gone very far before I was surprised to find lying in the water at the edge of the lake the body of a large dead reindeer. I examined him to see if he had been shot, but instead of any bullet marks I found that he had been badly cut about his head with an ax. As he was not fit for food I left him there for the wild beasts to eat and hurried on toward my wigwam. I had not gone very far before I found on the shore one of my canoes badly broken. This very much surprised me, and so I hurried on faster than before, for my heart began to feel strange and heavy; and there was reason for it, missionary, for I had not gone on much farther before I found at the shore in the water the bodies of my wife, babe, and wife’s mother. They were cold and dead, although there were no wounds on their bodies. They had been drowned all drowned.”
The poor fellow had been able to control himself fairly well up to this point while in his simple yet eloquent manner he had told his pathetic story. But here even the Indian’s stoical nature was overcome, and his heart was stirred to its depths by the memory of his great loss. So for a time in a hushed silence my sympathetic wife and I sat with him until he had mastered his emotions and could proceed with his narrative. He said:
“I carried the bodies home to my empty wigwam, and as they lay there so still I could but think of how different when I left them a few days before. I hurried away to the wigwams of some of my people miles away, and they came to see me in my sorrow and helped me to bury my dead.”
In answer to our questions as to his impressions or ideas as to the manner in which his loved ones had met their death he said nobody had seen how it happened, as all the people were in other places, hunting or fishing, but he and his relatives had talked it over, and they had all come to one mind about it. And this was how they thought it happened: The women in the tent must have seen that large reindeer swimming in the lake, and, being anxious to kill him, they had launched the canoe to go after him. As there were sometimes gray wolves or other wild animals prowling about they were afraid to leave the baby behind, and so they took him with them in the canoe. They only took with them their paddles and a couple of axes.
The reindeer has good lungs, and so he can swim high in the water, and sometimes he will make a desperate fight, even in the water, for his life. So it seemed in this case that, while the women succeeded in so striking him in the head with their axes as to mortally wound him, he succeeded in breaking the canoe, perhaps with his hind feet, for they are able to kick very savagely, even when swimming. The result was, the boat sank, and the women becoming entangled with their clothing, and perhaps trying to save the baby, all were drowned together.
We listened to the recital of this sad story, and would not have been human if we had not been moved by it and also by the simple, pathetic way in which he tried to tell us how he felt when he reached his wigwam and found the fire out, the hammock empty, and the wooden needle still dangling in the last mesh of the net which his wife had been weaving ere she had doubtless hurried out to try and show how bravely she and her mother could kill the deer. We kept the poor fellow all night, and in the morning were better prepared to sympathize with him in his desire to obtain a wife than when he had in such a strange way referred to the matter the previous evening at the beginning of our interview.
“Why,” I said to him, “have you come hundreds of miles for a wife? Why did you not go to Nelson River, or to some other place nearer to your home?”
His prompt answer was: “Because I want a Christian wife. I am convinced that what you told me is true. I am trying to believe in your religion and know more about the true God and his Son, and as you can only come once or twice a year to teach us and preach to us I thought a good Christian wife might help me along in the good Christian way.”
Still anxious to draw him out, for I saw that I had here a man of more than usual character and thoughtfulness, I said: “But I cannot forget that although I manage to get down once or twice a year by canoe or dog-train to visit your people, and they have always received me kindly and listened very attentively to what I say, yet it is only a very short time since they began to hear about the true way, and many of them are still pagans; so you see there might be a good deal of fear that if a Christian young woman went to live there they would persuade her to return to the old Indian way.”
“No, no!” he said very earnestly. “We have all lost faith in the old way, and she would be able to help us to be good Christians all the sooner.”
So, after my good, judicious wife and I had listened to the story and talked the matter over, we thought of a family where there were several marriageable daughters dependent on a sickly father, one of whom we thought would make this fine-looking fellow a good wife and help him to be a Christian. Soon after, I escorted the suitor over and introduced him to the family, and had him tell his story and plead his loneliness and make his promise of how good and true he would be. As it did not take Rebekah long to make up her mind, in the ancient primitive times, to consent to be the wife of Isaac, and to start off on a long journey, so it was here. A few days after there was quiet marriage in our little church and a happy wedding-feast. Then the bride and the bridegroom embarked in their birch canoe for their far-distant home. With machine-like precision their paddles rose and fell together as they rapidly propelled their beautiful craft along. We could not help but breathe the prayer that their lives might move along in equal unison. If so, they were assured of many days of sunshine.
I visited them years after. They are consistent Christians, as well as the majority of the Indians in that section of that vast country.
(From Stories from Indian Wigwams and Northern Campfires, pp. 302-306, Lighthouse Trails)