Kohl, J. G. “Remarks on the Conversion of the Canadian Indians and some Stories of Conversion” Part 1 of 2

June 11, 2018

By Leo

Part 1|Part 2


Four years ago, while searching for buried treasure in the archives of Google Books, I stumbled on an article, Bemerkungen über die Bekehrung canadischer zum Christenthum und einige Bekehrungsgeschichten (1859) (Remarks on the Conversion of the Canadian Indians and some Stories of Conversion), by Johann Georg Kohl published in the Augsburg-based, German-language magazine, Das Ausland.  Since I neither read nor speak German, to understand the content of the article, I used the laborious process of artificial translation.  This was done by pasting the article, paragraph by paragraph, into Google Translate, reinserting the original punctuation, and then clearing up the grammar.  

At the time, I chose to only translate the first 900 words, or so, of the 14,000-word article and published it here on Chequamegon History as the bulk of the April 2014 post Chief Buffalo’s Death and Conversion: A new perspective.   Recently, a friend of the site asked when the rest of the article would appear online.   I resisted, knowing how much work it would be, and used the excuse that the article was not directly about the Chequamegon area. Apparently, I could not resist the lure of Kohl for very long.


J. G. Kohl (1808-1878) was a German travel writer and pioneering ethnographer, best known in the United States for his 1859 work, Kitchi-Gami:  Life Among the Lake Superior Ojibway, a highly-detailed description of travels to La Pointe, L’Anse, and Garden River/Sault Ste. Marie in the summer of 1855.  Regular readers of Chequamegon History will know excerpts of this work from Maangozid’s Family Tree, Blackbird’s Speech at the 1855 PaymentSteamboats, Celebrities, Soo Shipping, and Superior Speculation, and other posts. 

Kohl’s reputation among scholars of American Indian studies is largely positive.  Considering the sheer level of detail he provides in his observations on Ojibwe life, he is perceived as being rare among 19th-century writers for his comparative lack of prejudice of Indian peoples and practices.  Robert E. Bieder, in his introduction to the 1985 reprint published by the Minnesota Historical Society, outlines this perception.

The ethnology of Kohl was a sharp contrast to that of Schoolcraft.  Kohl seemed to have an empathy for Indian cultures that the American lacked.  As Kohl noted in Travels in Canada, “When I was in Europe, and I knew them [Indians] only from books, I must own I considered them rude, cold-blooded, rather uninteresting people, but when I had once shaken hands with them, I felt that they were ‘men and brothers,’ and had a good portion of warm blood and sound understanding, and I could feel as much sympathy for them as for any other human creatures.  (Bieder in Kohl, xxxi)”

Racist is a term that comes with a lot of baggage, complexity, and controversy in 2018.  As a white man whose primary interest is in collecting old documents, I can quickly get in over my head when it comes to questions of philosophy, sociology, and theories of race.  At a bare minimum, however, my definition of non-racist is one who can acknowledge the humanity of other humans when they look or act differently from oneself.    

The contrast between Kohl’s writing and that of his contemporaries:  Schoolcraft, Ely, Boutwell, etc. is what initially attracted me to Kitchi-Gami.  More than once, I have recommended the book to friends as, “The least-racist 19th-century book about the Chequamegon area.”  The German’s unbiased outsider perspective comes as a breath of fresh air, even in comparison to Ojibwe ethnographers like Warren and Copway who were very much caught up in the politics of their times:  

Kohl’s objective was to produce an ethnological account of a rich and unique culture.  In his preface to the German edition of Kitchi-Gami, Kohl explained, “I only take credit for having endeavored to understand them [Ojibway stories and ways of life] correctly and to present them clearly…(xxxii-xxxiii)”

Kohl is especially given credit for his treatment of Ojibwe religion:

The differences between Kohl and Schoolcraft are quickly evident in a comparison of how each described Ojibway religion.  Schoolcraft saw Ojibway religious practices as the “darkest and gloomiest picture of Indian life”… Kohl, in contrast, was willing to see much of value in Ojibway practices that compared favorably with the teachings of Christianity…

Where Schoolcraft found “a body of subtile [sic–noted by Bieder] superstitions, and widely-spread popular error … ” Kohl found merely another way of approaching the unknown…(xxxi-xxxii)

Bieder was clearly struck, as I was the first time reading Kitchi-Gami, by how modern it seemed to be:

In short, people behaved in different ways not only because of racial variations but also because they lived in different environments.  While several of these assumptions today seem rather commonplace, in the mid-nineteenth century, when many believed race determined a people’s culture and capability, such thinking proved controversial (xxxiv).

Bieder does not completely let Kohl off the hook for his racial attitudes–taking particular issue with the romantic and flowery nature of the prose and his speaking of all Indian nations in general terms–but his final assessment of the author is very positive.  This is the same impression I have heard from several others. 

Kohl also sometimes saw cultural traits in racial terms.  This is not surprising, however, when one considers ethnological assumptions at mid-century, when some German ethnologists like Bastian believed in polygenism and others like Ritter could talk about “passive-indolent” races and “active-energetic” ones.  Yet with this said about Kitchi-Gami, one is struck by Kohl’s rather modern notion of the acculturation process.  In general, Kohl portrayed Ojibway culture with great sensitivity and found among the Ojibway people beauty, honor, and integrity (xxxvi).

So, with most of what we know about Johann Kohl coming from Kitchi-Gami, questions remain.  Do his progressive racial and religious attitudes show up in all his writings from that era?  Was he truly as modern and unbiased in his thinking as we have widely been led to believe?

These were the questions I wrestled with while translating Remarks on the Conversion of the Canadian Indians and some Stories of Conversion.  In many ways, it read like an bonus chapter of Kitchi-Gami (the two texts were published in the same year).  In other ways, the reader will have to decide:   

Das Ausland.

Eine Wochenschrift Fur Kunde des geistigen und sittlichen Lebens der Völker

[The Foreign Lands:  A weekly for scholars of the moral and intellectual lives of foreign nations]

Augsburg.  Nr. 2. 8 January 1859

Remarks on the Conversion of the Canadian Indians and some Stories of Conversion

By J.G. Kohl

A few years ago, when I was at “La Pointe,” one of the so-called “Apostle Islands” in the western corner of the great Lake Superior, an old chief of the local Indians, the Chippeway or Ojibbeway people. His name was “Buffalo,” a man “of nearly a hundred years.” He himself was still a pagan, but many of his children, grandchildren and closest relatives, were already Christians.

Kohl’s thoughts on Chief Buffalo’s conversion were covered by Chequamegon History in this post.

I was told that even the aged old Buffalo himself ébranlé, and that his state of mind was wavering. “He thinks highly of the Christian religion,” they told me, “To him, it’s not right that he and his family be of a different faith. He is afraid that they will be separated in death. He knows he will not be near them, and that not only his body should be brought to another cemetery but also he believes his spirit shall go into another paradise away from his children.”

From page 419 of Kohl’s Reisen im Nordwesten der Vereinigten Staaten (1857):  “The chiefs [at La Pointe] seemed to have assumed a kind of supremacy over the rest of the Lake Chippewas. Here was an old chief, called Buffalo, who made pretensions to master a very wide stretch of land. The small tribe led by him was now called the La Pointe Band by the Americans.”

William W. Warren, in his History of the Ojibway People, argued that the Crane Totem provided the hereditary chiefs, and that the Loons were made chiefs by the French.  See page 51 of the 2009 Second Edition edited by Theresa Schenck.

But Buffalo was the main representative of his people, the living embodiment, so to speak, of the old traditions and stories of his tribe, which once ranged over the whole group of the Apostle Islands and far and wide across the hunting grounds of mainland northern Wisconsin. His ancestors and his family, “the Totem of the Loons” (from the diver)* make claim to be the most distinguished chiefly family of the Ojibwes.  Indeed, they believe that from them and their village, a far-reaching dominion once reached across all the tribes of the Ojibbeway Nation. In a word, a kind of monarchy existed with them at the center.

(*The Loon, or Diver, is a well-known large North American bird).

Old Buffalo, or Le Boeuf, as the French call him, or Pishiki, his Indian name, was like the last reflection of that long-vanished glory.  He was stuck too deep in the old superstition. He was too intertwined with the Medä Order, the Wabanos, and the Jossakids, or priesthood, of his people.  A conversion to Christianity would have destroyed his influence in a still mostly-pagan tribe.  It would have been the equivalent of voluntarily stepping down from the throne. Therefore, in spite of his “doubting” state of mind, he could not decide to accept the act of baptism.

One evening, I visited old Buffalo in his bark lodge and found in him grayed and stooped by the years, but nevertheless still quite a sprightly old man. Who knows what kind of fate he had as an old Indian chief on Lake Superior, passing his whole life near the Sioux, and trading with the North West Company, with the British and later with the Americans. With the Wabanos and Jossakids (priests and sorcerers) he conjured for his people, and communed with the sky, but here, people would call him an “old sinner.”

But still, due to his advanced age I harbored a certain amount of respect for him.  He took me in, so kindly, and never forgot afterwards, promising to remember my visit as if it had been an honor for him. He told me much of the old glory of his tribe, of the origin of his people, and of his religion from the East.  I gave him tobacco, and he, much more generously, gave me a beautiful fife. I later learned from the newspapers that my old host, being ill, departed from this earth soon after my departure from the island. I was seized by a genuine sorrow and grieved for him. Those papers, however, reported a certain cause for consolation, in that Buffalo had said on his deathbed that he desired to be buried in a Christian way.  Therefore, shortly before his death, he received Christianity and the Lord’s Supper from the Catholic missionaries, along with the last rites of the Church, a church funeral, and a burial in the Catholic cemetery, where in addition to those already resting, his family would be buried.

On page 383 of Kitchi-GamiKohl expresses very similar sentiments regarding the late-life conversion of the well-known Garden River chief, Zhingwaakoons (Shingwaukonse) to the Anglican faith.  Image Source:  Wikipedia

The story and end of the old Buffalo are not unique. Rather, it was something rather common for the ancient pagan to proceed only on his deathbed to Christianity, and it starts not only with the elderly adults on their deathbeds, but with their Indian families beginning with their young children. The parents are won over by the children. For the children, while they are young and largely without religion, the betrayal of the old gods and laws is not so great. Therefore, the parents allow it more easily. You yourself are probably already convinced that there is something fairly good behind Christianity, and that your children “could do quite well.” They desire for their children to attain the blessing of the great Christian God and therefore often lead them to the missionaries, though, they themselves may not decide to give up their own ingrained heathen beliefs.  The Christians, therefore, also prefer to first contact the youth, and know well that if they have this first, the parents will follow sooner or later because they will not long endure the idea that they are separated from their children in the faith. Because they believe that baptism is “good medicine” for the children, they bring them very often to the missionaries when they are sick.

I was extremely interested in the stories told me about the conversion of children, and then through them, of parents and grandparents. A Protestant clergyman informed me of one instance, which shows it seems to me, that such a conversion often does not take place without fierce resistance in the minds of the Indian converts and other difficulties. It  follows:

A pagan Indian, a man of good mind, had been several times to mission Baptist Church and was attentive and solemn while in attendance at the service. Finally, one day, he presented himself to the head of the Mission, which was also a school for the education of Indian children. He came accompanied by his two sons, boys from 8 to 10 years old.  He expressed the wish that the eldest should be taken to school and educated in Christianity. He thought it would do his son good. At the same time, he requested that the younger brother stay with him for a while. They were so accustomed to each other that he feared the separation might be too difficult for his eldest. For the time being, however, the younger man did not attend school. He wanted to see how the other would get along. After a little while under this arrangement, the younger was supposed to return to his family in the forest, for the father could not spare both boys for long.

So it happened as desired. The father came to the institution from time to time to see how his son was doing and was pleased with his progress in the arts and sciences. After two years, the education in reading, writing, and arithmetic, etc. was considered complete. The father then brought his second son, and at the same time the third, but again only for the time being “for company” but also to give him a small taste.

Thus, in the end, all three of his sons were brought up in Christianity and in all kinds of useful skills. I was assured that the education had lasted. The three Indian boys had not yet forgotten what they learned in the two years and were until the present still quite literate from their reading, which was eagerly made use of by happy fur traders in a trading post by the lake

But before they became that, and while the youngest of them was still at school, once every autumn, the pagan father came to see the teacher and preacher and told them to say goodbye to him for a while, thinking that his approaching hunts would take him far into the woods on a grand expedition and that he would hardly be able to see them before the spring.

He left, but against all expectations, he was back in the middle of winter, a few weeks after Christmas. He brought with him a great wealth of furs and animal skins, all negotiated and sold at good prices. He came to the preacher and told him that he was right all along.  He walked day by day, week after week, in the woods of the interior chasing and checking his traps, alone. He had the fortunate misfortune to have not have killed anything at all. Perhaps, thoughts of his children were disturbing him. He may have continued to think of them and how much good they learned from the Christians. His sleep would be very restless, and he would not have had a good hunting dream. He would have drummed his medicine bag once again, and sang his Wabano songs alone, but no deer, no beaver, no bear, appeared. One evening, having set up his night fire and tent on the bank of a wild stream, and having been taken again by very gloomy and pessimistic ideas, he suddenly jumped up, dug a deep hole for his otter bag and buried it with all its content and magic. Then, he prayed to the Great Spirit, and promised he would become a Christian. That night, he had nothing but bright dreams in which his sons played the leading role, and the next morning, when he was refreshed, he scarcely went a hundred paces and was met by a big moose that he was soon to kill. Driven by longing, he then started on the way back to the mission. On this way back, he shot one animal after the other, day by day, and arrived there with a rich harvest. He now thought that as soon as he could get his wife to baptize herself, he would also be married to his wife in the Christian way. He arranged a time with the preacher, and with this assurance, he took leave of his Christian friend.

It seemed to this good preacher, though, that it took a while before the man reappeared to fulfill his promise. He inquired  after him here and there, and heard his Indian was still undecided in relation to conversion to Christianity.

“What do I hear?” said the preacher to him when he once met him, “Have you changed your mind, you are not coming to baptism, do not see your sons anymore, what is that?” “Give me some time,” replied the Indian seriously. “My mind is not yet completely calm, and after some time, I want to tell you everything. “The thing was that the Indians had decided for themselves in favor of Christianity, for the Christianity of the Baptists. But upon the discovery of this resolution, external obstacles, trials, and conflicts appeared, as they, more or less, occur in every transition from one religion to another, and they do not fail to appear in the conversions of these forest children.

Many of his pagan relatives had sought his resolve, and this made him fickle.

Rev Abel BinghamThe presence of the Baptists suggests this took place at Garden River, Ontario, (one of Kohl’s stops) where the Anglican church was the dominant Protestant sect, but Baptist Rev. Abel Bingham had a nearby mission.  See Chute, Janet E.  The Legacy of Shinguakonse:  A Century of Native Leadership. U of Toronto Press, 1998.  Image Source:  findagrave.com

Another, more-powerful Christian Protestant influence, but a non-Baptist one, also appeared. Enemies of the Baptists had told the Indian that he should become a Christian, and a Protestant, but not a Baptist. They even threatened him with confiscation, exclusion from taking part in tribute, and such things, if he would join that sect. The poor man, whose soul was devoted to the Baptists because of his children, had not been able to find his way through everything.

After four weeks, however, he reappeared to his son’s teacher and said that he was now ready. He said that after arranging all his business, he went again to the forest, “to avoid the voices of men,” and to think and pray there alone to the Great Spirit. He went deeper and deeper into the forest, always praying more and more zealously, and became very firm in his convictions. He came directly from the interior, saw and spoke to no one, brought his wife to the preacher, and now wanted to baptize and marry her.

And so it happened, and nobody had cause to regret it afterwards.  In the end, the “enemies” stopped threatening, and the sons, as I have already mentioned, prospered.

The Ven. Bishop Frederic Baraga is Kohl’s likely informant for this and other stories of Catholic mission work in this article.  (St. Peter Cathedral, Marquette)

Another story of conversion was shared with me by an excellent friend* from the rich treasury of his experiences.  It belongs here as well, and is also characteristic, in many respects, of the local conditions.

(*It was a Catholic missionary.)

An Indian family, consisting of a father, mother and five children, lived far north of Lake Superior on the banks of “Long Lake,” which leads to Hudson’s Bay. They were pagans, like most of the Indian of these lands where a missionary is rarely found.

The oldest of the five children, a boy, fell ill, to the great distress and despair of his parents. The illness reached a dangerous crisis. The terrified parents stayed up all night, with the little boy in feverish dreams, in their lap. Finally, he fell asleep. Gently, he opened his eyes the next morning and said that he felt better and was recovering.

“A splendid dream,” said the boy, “healed him.” “A wind,” he said, “came from the north, going down south to Lake Superior,” and from the wind, a soft voice spoke to him: “The drumming* was not good, and the spells  were not good. They do not help. The Indians should refrain from them. The prayer is far better, and only prayer, alone, can help them and comfort them in misfortune, illness, and suffering.”  He had a deep longing for hearing the kind voice of the Christ, whom the whites worshiped, and he fervently vowed to obey him, and immediately thereafter he slept gently, and now he was healed.

(*As the Indians accompany all their magic songs and religious performances with drums, the drumming here represents the pagan faith.)

The parents attentively listened to the miracle of their son as he went hunting with them. After a short time, they decided they wanted to immediately obey the voice in his dream and all be baptized.  For that purpose, the next spring, they went to Lake Superior, descending southwards in the direction of the dream wind. Over the winter, they collected some provisions, and when spring came, they made their journey of several weeks.

For the further explanation of the matter, I will say as an aside, that Indian parents pay much attention to the dreams of their children, who they love so much, and that in many ways they follow them.  For example, it is not uncommon for a good son to assist his father in a bear hunt “with his dreams.” “Father,” the son speaks one morning to the hunter, who may have been unhappy for a long time on the hunt and brought home nothing, “Father I dreamed of a bear for you this night.” “Tell my child.” “Yes, I have only seen him vaguely in the distance, but there by that lake on the banks of that river he must roam about.”  The father goes to the designated area, searches the whole day at the river or lake mentioned by the son, but finds nothing and comes back tired in the evening, without prey. “Dream again my son,” speaks the father, “Dream better my child.” The good son lies down on his ear and speaks the next morning, “Father I have again dreamed of the bear. Now I have seen him quite clearly. Oh, it is a big and beautiful animal. It is a female, and she has a cub.  Now I know the place where they are. You must search on the southern shore of the lake.” The father gets up again and ransacks the whole south shore of the lake, but in the evening, he comes home again and speaks as before, ”I bring nothing yet my child, although I have seen the footprints of a bear. My son’s dreams are getting better!” In the meantime, the little boy has been fasting, his face is painted a jet-black, and he beats the drum all day and sings all the magic songs he knows. He goes back to sleep. Before the sun comes up, he wakes up and cries out, “Father! Father! The bear! The bear! This time, he came very close to me. I collided with him, head to head, and mouth to muzzle.  Run! If you go around here and there and come to that rock, then you will find the bear and her cub on the corner. They dig their roots.” The little one immediately turns his face black again, beats the drum, refuses his breakfast–as hungry as he may be, and again fasts all day to assist his father from afar

In the meantime, the father goes to the corner of the rock. He finds the bears at the ditch, hunts them, brings both home, and now lets his brave and obedient little dreamer have a wonderful meal, and all the rest of the family too:  neighbors and relatives, and so on–in general, the whole village.

longlacLonglac (Long Lake) appears in the upper-right corner of this 1836 Map of British North America, about 100 miles northeast of Nipigon.

Curious as these things may seem to a European, they are not uncommon in Indian life. At least, I heard of such things all along the way. It will therefore be said, quite understandably and naturally, that our Indians of Long Lake, immediately after the dream of their boy, decided to be baptized and undertook the arduous journey to Lake Superior. They had heard that on the north shore of this lake, at a certain time in spring, a Christian priest was passing to see the sheep of his little flock.

This priest–who was the friend who told me this whole story–sometimes travels in his own canoe and sometimes with a small schooner from the Hudson’s Bay Company. He sails to the north shore of the lake, to those from the northern Indians who descend at appointed dates to the various stations to trade their fur supplies. The merchant ship now carries the missionary, because this is the most certain way to meet with the nomadic Indians, who are otherwise hard to locate.

It annoys me that I did not catch the names of those good Long Lake Indians. “The Long Lake family”–unfortunately, I cannot call them anything else–with their five children had been sitting in their hut of birch bark for five or six weeks, on a promontory overlooking the lake from which they could see far. They did not know the date of arrival of the “Black Robe” of whom they regarded like a savior. Their eagerness to miss nothing had brought them down too early. Their small supplies of dried meat and flour were soon consumed and the fishing at the chosen station was not very productive either.

So when my friend, the good black robe*, finally arrived in his own canoe, he found them all very thin and starving. They had only a handful of flour. The missionary, himself, did not have much and could not help them as abundantly as he might have wished.  Yet the people had endured and held fast to their purpose and were glad the expected messenger of God had arrived. In the midst of mutual their poverty, both parties began to work as far as circumstances permitted. The clergyman prepared his catechumens with instruction and prayer, and then at last performed the holy act of baptism on the recovering boy who had the vision, and then on the whole family, leading seven souls at once into the bosom of the church.

(*”Black Robes” is the name the Indians often give to Catholic missionaries.)

Because his labors soon ordered him to hurry along the shore, where still others longed for his soul’s appetite, he had to leave his new candidates after a short time. But when he said goodbye, he did not forget to give them a piece of paper on which a Christian calendar was printed, and a pin.

This gift is common in Catholic conversions and its meaning and purpose can be said as follows.  The baptized go right back into the woods, in groups of a few families, to hunt and fish all year round for food and to win some furs for the next trading period with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Since it is naturally impossible for them to meet their pastor before the next year, when they return to the Lake, a calendar serves them as a magnet and guidepost through the passage of a year in the Christian version, and a way to set up an ecclesiastical way of life. I own such a curious calendar page or “Book of Days*,” as the Indians call it, and want to describe it.

makadewikonaye: priest “black robe/habit noir” giizisoo-mazina’igan:  a calendar “paper of months”  anishinaabemo:  speak Ojibwe wemitigoozhiimo: speak French zhaaganaashiimo:  speak English (Ojibwe People’s Dictionary)

(*Gijiyado masinai yan, literally, “paper of the days”)

It is, on one hand, a scheme or a brief survey of all the days of the year, with the outline of the months, and with the description of the ordinary and extraordinary festive or high-festive significance of each day. Every Sunday, or as they say here every “day of prayer” (jour de prière) has a cross (a crooked cross). Every typical day of everyday life has a dash. Every high-feast day of the church has two crooked crosses. Every fasting Friday has a zero, every other ordinary fasting day an asterisk, every other strict fasting day two asterisks, etc. On the other side of the paper, these signs and the names of the months are explained in Anishinabemong (Indian), Wemitikoschimong (French), and Jaganaschimong (English).

Of course, for the full use of such a calendar, an Indian should also be able to at least read what is given.  However, during the course of the year, the calendar owner comes in contact with Frenchmen, Englishmen and half-Indians who help him interpret the signs, if he forgot them, from the instructions of the printed reminder.

Partly, however, it helps the Indian to have the same pin that was given to him along with the calendar. With this, the clergyman dabs the day when he had to leave his converts to themselves, and then instructs them in a similar way, to punctuate or stroke each succeeding day, and thus mark through the whole year, from Sunday to Sunday, from feast day to feast day.

Usually, the Indians conscientiously carry out this laborious way of determining the date while in their forests, and find their way to fast at the right time, and pray at the right hour.

But sometimes, it happens that their calendars get out of order. An example was told to me that two days had been lost to an Indian family, and that when they returned to the lake in the spring, it turned out that for the previous six months, they had taken Friday for Sunday and Sunday for Tuesday. Something like this happens to sailors when they arrive at the antipodes after circling the world.

Image result for bruegel look through fingers
As shown here in Bruegel the Elder’s Netherlandish Proverbs (1559) “looking through your fingers” is a proverb in several European languages that is equivalent to the English, “turn a blind eye.”  According to this article from the Catholic News Agency, the Vatican has historically “looked through its fingers” by labeling several semi-aquatic American tetrapods: beaver, muskrat, capybara, iguana, alligator, and puffin as fish for Lenten purposes (Wikipedia).

The Catholic clergy should not be overly strict about observing fasts here. You have to “look through your fingers.” For example, they can not make a crime of it if Indians, during Lent, enjoy various animals instead of only fish, because sometimes they have nothing else, and cannot catch any fish. Our fasting rules are made in cities where the markets offer a wealth of things. Also, our fasting rules are made only in reference to our European animals and food. For some American animals, an appeal had to be made to Rome for an interpretation. And if I am not mistaken, this happened in particular with regard to the frequently-consumed water animal, the beaver, which was then equated by the pope with the fish. The Loon and the Canadian duck were allowed during fast, but not the Canards de France (the common French duck which also occurs in America). Also, one must allow the Indians to check their beaver traps on Sunday because such an omission could bring substantial harm.

In the manner I described, my good Indian family was taught and equipped. They took leave of their stalwart teacher, the Black Robe, and returned to their northern deserts. They roamed the woods, hunting. Through the following year and a second year, they roamed to Hudson’s Bay and on. They were unhappy in the hunt, and had not been able to gain enough furs to make a journey south to Lake Superior rewarding or even possible. They were only able to happily make a return journey after two years, and by the second spring, they were sitting on their promontory again. After waiting for several weeks, their Habit Noir returned to examine them.

Now the missionary wanted them to confess their sins. First they did not understand what that meant, and the father had to explain to them that he wanted to know if they had done any harm in the meantime.They had not seen a priest in all that time. Nonetheless, the calendar, was dotted twice a day for two years of days was completely in line with that of the priest. They had precisely marked every half and every whole fast day and every day of prayer. Even the Ten Commandments, which they had to learn before their baptism, were memorized word for word, and they had taught them to all their children and often repeated them for themselves.

“Did you,” said he, “speak nothing wrong of your neighbor?” “No!” they said, “We have no neighbors. Only a couple of times, in the two years, did hunters come to us who were even poorer and more hungry than we were, and we gave them plenty to eat.”

“Did not you rob or steal something from someone else?” “What?” they said quite indignantly, “that would be most disgusting! Father, how is it possible that you can ask such things to us? Are there any people who could do such things after you gave them teachings and laws, and after they had known Christ? How can you do this to us?”

In short, the Father had to give up his attempt to hold confession, so that he would not discredit himself with his children. He left them quite content, conversing with them on other Christian matters during the following evenings, telling them some new beautiful, unforgettable stories of Christ, the apostles and the prophets, Moses, and Adam, sending them back to the forest with them so that the seeds of divinity might make their way through their simple minds.

   Both Kohl (Kitch-Gami, pg. 420-21) and William Warren (History of the Ojibways 2nd ed. pg. 50) claimed that the Southern Ojibwe also stereotyped the Ojibwe and Cree-speaking peoples north of Lake Superior as mild-mannered and naive.

This remarkable story is by no means isolated. The missionaries, could otherwise still tell some similar ones. Of course, one has to keep in mind, as I do, that these stories play out in the north of the big freshwater sea. There, the Indians are more frank than ever, as frank, true, open, and– “as impartial as children.”

Taken as a whole, it can be said that the farther away they are from the whites, the more indigenous and better all Indians are. Yes, they are more receptive to Christianity and more pious. I have heard it from many Catholic and Protestant missionaries here, as well as from the Mississippi, that they greatly prefer the conversion of a wild and untouched tribe to the further cultivation of a field which is already riddled or “infected” with so-called civilization.  Examples, especially from earlier times, were told of entire Indian tribes that adopted Christianity with eagerness and jubilation, and even more so than the Christian doctrine itself, the Christian legends and stories, especially those of the Old Testament. They were at times so engrossed in these stories that greedy Canadian voyageurs or fur traders charged considerable prices for narrating such a story. For “the story of Adam” they charged a few beaver pelts. If the Indians were charmed by it and demanded more, they took advantage of this excited passion, and “the story of Noah” cost some more beaver-skins or a few gracefully-designed decorated pipes. If the Indians wanted more stories, they would have to give a horse. The story of Joseph’s imprisonment in Egypt cost a horse. It went just the same in the trade with fire water. The inebriated would have to pay for each subsequent glass twice the price of the previous cup.

Indeed, those vile traders even went as far, as I have been told by distinguished men, that at times they made a shameful usury, selling single sayings and words from the Bible. They wrote the name “Noah” or “Adam” or “Mani” (Mary) on a piece of paper and took the furs, while the Indians carried around the paper with the name in an amulet.

But these are probably events of comparatively old age. I have already given an example of how these names and stories then remain as traditions–of course as altered and highly-distorted traditions among the Indians.

From the history of the ancient missions of Canada, it is well-known, that heartfelt and touching desires have sometimes been expressed by Indian tribes to have a missionary among them, and that Indians have undertaken laborious journeys to Montreal and Quebec to invite a Habit noir to lead them into triumph.

Pierre-Jean De Smet - Brady-Handy.jpg A quick glance through online published works of Fr. Pierre De Smet mention the request by the Bitterroot Salish (Flathead) for a Jesuit missionary, but I was unable to locate any mention of the dream of the white stag (Wikipedia).

But even in recent times, there have been isolated instances of this kind, and it is not uncommon for the desire for a clergyman to be instilled into a whole tribe through a dream, as was the case with my just-described Long Lake family. I was told, as a completely new example, the case of the well-known missions donated by the Jesuit father De Smett in the Rocky Mountains and Oregon among the Flatheads. Even when these dreams occur, though, the missions have much to do.

The so-called Flatheads are one of the most well-educated Indian tribes. They are faithful to the whites, and even other Indians praise them as one of the best tribes. Twenty-five years ago, among these Flatheads, there was an old Jossakid*, who in a dream visited a ghost in the form of a white stag who revealed that the Flatheads were to become Christians and to invite a missionary to join them. As the white stag often repeated this admonition, they finally held a council and sent a deputation to travel across the Rocky Mountains, and all the way down the Missouri to St. Louis to request that the authorities inform the Jesuit Collegium. But the deputies did not come down. On the way they endured so much distress, hunger, misery, and bad winter weather, that as a group, they succumbed to their tribulations.

(*Prophet, sorcerer)

After some time, as the white deer continued to admonish, they sent a second deputation over the 2,000-mile road. But even this did not reach the destination. The enemies of the Flatheads, the Blackfeet, took them by surprise and killed them all.

The whole nation of the Flatheads, however, was inspired by such a longing for a Christian missionary that they still had a counsel, and once again, six young people came forward under the guidance of an elder, and again– of such true martyrs one can hardly speak of in Christianity–offered to go down the thorny path to St. Louis out of the desire for these untasted blessings.

This third deputation finally arrived in that city, bringing their yearning, and that famous father, De Smett, decided to go up to them and become their apostle. That they had really arrived, and that “the missionary” in his suit was coming, was hard-baked into this tribe of the mountains, for one night the white stag reappeared to that old Jossakid and told him he was coming for the last time. He would not return because he clearly saw the Habits Noirs on the Missouri and that salvation was close to them.

It is scarcely necessary, however, to remark that such a desire among an Indian people is not merely a pure thirst for the salvation of their souls, and that no other account is added to it. Sometimes, there are a lot of politics and selfish considerations in the game. The Catholic missionaries, especially the French, know how to conform to the customs and habits of the Indians to a high degree. They live entirely among and with them. They walk with them around the prairies. They go with them on the buffalo hunts. They pray with them for rain or sunshine if either is missing. They perform their masses and devotions with them on the prairies, and ask Heaven for auspicious success and a rich harvest before attacking the buffaloes. They mingle in their tribal and family disputes and seek to balance and reconcile them with much care and effort. They have all the women, children, and elders on their side because with the appearance of a missionary in the village, the lot of these classes always improves significantly. By virtue of the institution of the confessional in their church, they conveniently know everything in advance and are in a position to head off impending threats.

missionaries   De Smet seems like most likely suspect as the author of this diary.  His Bitterroot St. Mary’s Mission was initially successful, but the Salish (Flathead) became disillusioned with the Jesuit, in part due to his attempts to convert the Blackfeet.  It’s possible, that De Smet’s contemporary, Baraga, allowed Kohl to view the manuscript diary but did not give permission for Kohl to share it with the public.  Image Source:  National Park Service

Once, I read an excellent unpublished diary of a Catholic missionary of his 10 years of missionary work and deeds among the Indians. It was full of the most admirable traits and was evidence of the dedication and sacrifice of the author to his profession, and full of the strangest and most interesting contributions to the knowledge of the traits of the Indian character. The good father also illustrated the whole thing with cute pictures and depictions of the Mariancapelle he built, the tents the Flatheads built and adorned, with “flower altars” he erected on the prairies, of the masses and blessings which he gave to the tribe when they went out with him to attack the buffaloes, and of his consultations with hostile tribes with whom he smoked the peace-pipe. I have never seen such nice printed matter, and would still share more if I did not consider it inappropriate for a variety of reasons.

How well the Catholic missionaries, through the means of their confessional, had an effect upon the Indians, I was told of many colorful examples by a Protestant gentleman. Once an Indian woman had lost a richly-embroidered and variegated shawl. No one could discover where it had been. Finally, after many years, one day she found to her great joy her precious cloth again in her tent on her bed. Soon afterwards, her neighbor asked her for a silent and secret conversation in which she confessed to being the thief. The beautiful cloth had her eyes so blinded, she wished very much to possess it.  She had stolen it from her at that time, but had never been able to use it for fear of being discovered. She kept it locked in her box and only looked at it at times. Recently, however, she had become ill and had to make such a cumbersome confession to the Catholic priest of all her previous actions that she could no longer conceal the theft. He must have reproached her severely, punished her with a severe penance, and at the same time ordered the cloth to be returned to her neighbor to try to win her forgiveness and otherwise offer her compensation. The Protestant clergyman could hardly have resolved this whole affair so quietly and easily.

Now, if an Indian sees that a neighboring tribe has a beneficial-seeming missionary, under whose mediation things flourish, wandering with his people for weeks in the prairies and praying until the buffalos finally appear, he would like also have something like that. Often, they are even inclined to take away the missionaries from each other, and cases of war for the possession of missionaries have actually occurred.

   As early as the mid 17th century, the term “Praying Indian” was used to describe the Christian Algonquian and Iroquoian inhabitants of the mission towns of New England and New France.
anami’aa– to pray or be a Christian.    nindanami’aa– I pray/am a Christian.     anami’aad-  they pray.   anami’aasiig-  they do not pray.  (Ojibwe People’s Dictionary)

A baptized Indian is usually called by the Canadians un Indian de la prière (a praying Indian). Originally the expression was probably invented by the Indians themselves. The silent reading of the breviary and solitary prayer on the knees, were the first religious acts they observed among their missionaries. The first acts that were required of them when they were converted were the bending of the knee, the folding of the hands, and the worship of God before the cross and before the images of the saints. Therefore they called the Christians “the praying men” (in the Ojibwe, anamiad*) and their religion “the praying” (anamiawin). In contrast to this, the pagans afterward called themselves the “non-praying” (anamiassig).

(*The word comes from nind anamia, “I pray.”)

The French Canadians have faithfully translated and used this saying of the Indians. Of a convert, they say, il s’est mis prière, (he has joined the prayer) and of a pagan, il n’est pas de la prière (he is not yet of the prayers). I have also heard the phrase the praying Indians from the English.

For a long time (probably 150 years), the Indians of these areas saw only one Christian religion. But when the British conquered Canada (in the middle of the last century), they became acquainted with a different kind of Christian with completely different religious customs and ceremonies. They therefore made a distinction between the “French” and the “English” religion. With the first name, they call the Catholics, and with the second, the Protestants.*

(*In Ojibwe, the first is Wemitigodschi-anamiewin, and the second is Jaganashi-anamiewin.)

If an Indian “joins the prayer,” that is to say, is baptized, he is first of all required to renounce all his old pagan superstition. His “medicine bag” and its whole content of magic remedies, amulets, and birchbark scriptures, if not already burned or buried, is destroyed when his decision to become a worshiper is fulfilled.

At times, the clergy have the opportunity to gather up many of these pagan curiosities, but they burn up or eliminate them quickly, often too quickly for the avid ethnographer. I have rarely been able to find any of these things in the places where I visited, not even of the interesting pictures Indians put on birch bark. These should be kept, collected, and donated to science.

  At Garden River, Kohl asked the sons of Zhingwaakoons (above) for their late father’s bark scrolls, only to be told they had been destroyed (Kitchi-Gami, pg 384).

But of course, this is easier said than done. In the first place, the Indians, when they become Christians, quite often give their old bark-books to their pagan friends, as they are eager to trade them or give them away. And then, when a clergyman gets his hands on them, it’s not up to him to collect objects that he considers unholy and evil, and are the very thing he takes away from the Indians. A conscientious clergyman must not subordinate the serious demands of religion to the desires of science, and he is almost forced to burn such things. This is how, at the mercy of those bishops in Mexico, the whole heap of splendid old Aztec writings was burned.

Usually the conversion of an Indian “to prayer” is associated with some changes in his personal appearance. In particular, he must renounce the coloring and painting of his face. This coloring cannot be considered as meaningless a pleasure as the makeup of our ladies. Their wild warriors prefer to paint for their religious ceremonies and magic dances. The colors, therefore, are too reminiscent of paganism, and it is de rigueur that a praying Indian should wash himself, and deliver his “vermillion tin,”  his green, blue, and yellow paint-powder, and his brush and pallet to the priest.

Finally, he has to wear and comb his hair like a Christian. The pagan Indians have their hair arranged differently. Some cut all around except for a tuft or knotted tuft (a scalp lock) in the middle. The local Ojibwes mostly wear two long thick braids like our Croats. The Canadians call these braids cornettes. Our Croats and Slavonians, when they became Christians, were not asked to renounce this ornament. That one requires it of the Indians may have its reason in that those hairstyles are not of so innocent a nature. They were most likely grown to hold the bloody eagle feathers, the scalps of their enemies, and other military badges reminiscent of their unchristian deeds. Therefore, they must be cut off at baptism, as a sign of the renunciation of the pagan warrior craft.*

   Lacelles Wraxall, Kohl’s translator, leaves the French text in Kitchi-Gami untranslated.  I’ll put it here in the sidebar rather than in the main body of the text:  1) They cut the “cornettes,” the two tails they wear to the head, which they call in their language “Otokoschaman.” 2) They are made to give up their Vermilion and all other earth and color. 3) Also savage dances and gambling. 4) Everything that goes into their bags and any other harmful medicine. 5) Finally, they a give up following their leaders in war and for medicine: but not for annuities or for the police.

(*A Canadian, with whom I discussed these things, told in the following unique way of the changes that a pagan must make to his person upon baptism:

1) On leur coupe les “cornettes” les deux queues qu’ils portent à la tête, et qu’ils appellent dans leur language “Otokoschaman.”

2) On les fait renoncer au Vermillon et à toute autre terre et couleur.

3) Aussi a la danse sauvage et aux jeux payens.

4) De méme à tout ce quientre dans leurs sacs et à toute autre médicine, qui fait du tort à leurs semblables.

5) Finalement ils renoncent aussi au commandement de leurs chefs, c’est à dire quant à la guerre et pour la médicine: mais pas pour les annuités et pas pour la police.)

(To be continued)

Remarks on the Conversion of the Canadian Indians and some Stories of Conversion was published in two consecutive issues of Das Ausland.  Each section is about 7000 words.  Read Part 2 for the rest of the article and some final thoughts.

Part 1|Part 2


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