By Egerton Ryerson Young
(Missionary to the Cree people in Manitoba in the late 1800s)
The following incident occurred years ago on the great plains of the Canadian Northwest, long before the waves of Anglo-Saxon civilization began to surge over those glorious fertile prairies which for so many generations were hid from the gaze of the outside busy world. Among the Indian tribes that roamed over those vast regions, the Crees in those days were perhaps the most numerous and powerful. The terrible small-pox and other epidemic diseases had not entered in among them, mowing them down by thousands, leaving them, as they are today, but a shadow or a wreck of their former glory. The most powerful chief among this tribe was called Mask-e-pe-toon, or “Crooked Arm,” from the fact that one of his arms had been so hacked and wounded in his hand-to-hand conflicts with his neighbors, the Blackfeet Indians, that, in healing, the muscles had so contracted and stiffened that the arm remained crooked. He was a warlike chief, and his delight was in all the excitements of Indian conflicts, in cunning ambuscades, and, when successful, in the practice of unheard-of barbarities upon the captives of other tribes who fell into his hands. Very picturesque was the dress of many of these warriors of the plains. The quills of the eagle, which with them is considered the royal bird, formed the head-dress. Their shield was generally made of the tough leather of the neck of an old buffalo bull. The clothing, which was most elaborately ornamented and fringed, was made of the skins of the deer or moose, most beautifully tanned and prepared by the Indian women. Some of their horses were really magnificent animals and trained for Indian warfare.
The Rev. Mr. Rundle, of the English Missionary Society, was the first missionary who at great personal risk visited the Cree tribes and faithfully declared the message of salvation to them. It was news indeed and startled those wild prairie warriors; and the question went around among them, “Where did this little man come from with such strange tidings?” The conjurers were called upon to solve the question, and the answer was that he had come direct from heaven wrapped in a large piece of paper.
The Rev. James Evans also visited Mask-e-pe-toon and faithfully preached to him and his people. Some accepted the truth and became Christians, but Mask-e-pe-toon was too fond of war to quickly receive the message of peace.
A number of years later the Rev. George McDougall went out, in prosecution of his missionary work, to those mighty plains, on one of which in after years he so mysteriously died. That he might be more successful in his efforts to bring them to Christ, Mr. McDougall frequently left his own home, and for months together lived with these red men as they wandered over vast stretches of country, hunting the buffalo and other game. His custom was always to have religious service every evening where they camped for the night. . . . At these camp-fire services, hymns were sung, prayers were offered, and God’s Word was read and expounded. One evening, Mr. McDougall read as his lesson the story of the trial and death of the Lord Jesus. He dwelt particularly upon the prayer of the Savior for his murderers, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and, well aware of the Indian spirit of revenge that was so prominent in the hearts of his hearers, he dwelt strongly upon it and plainly told them that if they really expected forgiveness from God they must have the same mind that was in Christ and forgive their enemies. Mask-e-pe-toon was observed to be deeply moved under the sermon, but nothing was said to him that evening. The next day, as the great company, consisting of many hundreds, was riding along over the beautiful prairies, an Indian chief rode quickly to the side of Mr. McDougall, and in quiet but excited tones asked him to fall back in the rear, as they did not wish him, the missionary, to witness the torture and killing of a man who was in that little band of Indians that was approaching them, although still so far away as to be almost indistinguishable to the eyes of a white man.
It seems that months before this Mask-e-pe-toon had sent his son across a mountain range or pass to bring from a sheltered valley a herd of horses which had there wintered. Very sublime and magnificent is some of the Rocky Mountain scenery. Travelers who have visited the Alps and other picturesque mountainous regions declare that some of the views in the Canadian “Rockies” are not excelled in any other part of the world. . . . Among the foothills of these mountains are many beautiful valleys, where the grass and herbage abound, and it was in one of them that Mask-e-pe-toon had kept his reserved horses. He selected one of his warriors as his son’s comrade to aid him in the work. From what afterward was found out it seems that the man, having a chance to sell the horses, his cupidity was excited, and so he murdered the chief’s son, disposed of the horses, and hiding for the time his booty returned to the tribe with the plausible story that when they were coming across one of the dangerous passes in the mountains the young man lost his foothold and fell over one of the awful precipices, and was dashed to pieces, and that he alone was unable to manage the herd of horses, and so they had scattered on the plains.
Knowing nothing at the time to the contrary, Mask-e-pe-toon and his people were obliged to accept this story, improbable as it seemed. However, the truth came out after a while, for there had been, unknown to the murderer, witnesses of the tragedy. And now, for the first time since the truth had been revealed, the father was approaching the band in which was the murderer of his son. That the missionary might not see the dire vengeance that would be wreaked upon the culprit was the reason why this subordinate chief had requested Mr. McDougall to slacken his pace and fall into the rear of the crowd. Instead of doing so he quickened the speed of his horse and rode up to a position a little in the rear of the mighty chief, who, splendidly mounted, was leading the van of his warriors. On they galloped over the beautiful green sward, the missionary’s heart uplifted in prayer that the wrath of man might be turned to the praise of God.
When the two bands approached within a few hundred yards of each other, the eagle eye of the old warrior chief detected the murderer, and, drawing his tomahawk from his belt, he rode up until he was face to face with the man who had done him the greatest injury that was possible to inflict upon him. Mr. McDougall, who still kept near enough to hear and see all that transpired, says that Mask-e-pe-toon, with a voice tremulous with suppressed feeling, and yet with an admirable command over himself, looking the man in the face who had nearly broken his heart, thus sternly addressed him: “You have murdered my boy, and you deserve to die. I picked you out as his trusted companion and gave you the post of honor as his comrade, and you have betrayed my trust and cruelly killed my only son. You have done me and the tribe the greatest injury possible for a man to do, for you have broken my heart and you have destroyed him who was to have succeeded me when I am not among the living. You deserve to die, and but for what I heard from the missionary last night at the campfire before this I would have buried this tomahawk in your brains. The missionary told us that if we expected the Great Spirit to forgive us we must forgive our enemies, even those who had done us the greatest wrong. You have been my worst enemy, and you deserve to die.” Then, in a voice tremulous with deepest emotion, he added, “As I hope the Great Spirit will forgive me I forgive you.” Then, speaking up sternly, he added, “But go immediately from among my people, and let me never see your face again.” Then hastily pulling up his war-bonnet over his head his forced calmness gave way, and, quivering with the suppressed feelings that tore his heart, he bowed down over his horse’s neck and gave way to an agony of tears.
Talk not of grief till thou hast seen
The tears of warlike men.
Mask-e-pe-toon lived for years afterward the life of a devoted, consistent Christian. All his old warlike habits were given up, and, mastering the syllabic characters in which the Cree Bible is printed, the Word of God became his solace and his joy. He spent the remainder of his days in doing good. Very earnest and thrilling were the addresses which he gave to his own people as he urged them to give up all their old sinful ways and become followers of that Savior who had so grandly saved him. Many listened to his words and, like him, gave up their old warlike habits and settled down to quiet, peaceful lives. Anxious to benefit his old enemies, the Blackfeet, and to tell to them the story of the Savior’s love, he fearlessly and unarmed went among them with his Bible in his hand. A blood-thirsty chief of that tribe saw him coming, and, remembering some of their fierce conflicts of other days, and perhaps having lost by Mask-e-pe-toon’s prowess some of his own relations in those conflicts, he seized his gun, and in defiance of all rules of humanity he coolly shot the converted Christian chieftain down.
Thus sadly fell Mask-e-pe-toon, a wondrous trophy of the cross, and one whose conversion did a vast amount of good, showing the power of the Gospel to change the hardest heart even under the most extreme provocation, where very few indeed could have found fault if the price of blood had been exacted and the murderer summarily executed.