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Pathfinding on Plain and Prairie
Chapter VII
I travel with Maskepetoon's camp—Effects of environment on the Indians—Nature's grandeur and beauty —Degradation through paganism—The noble Chief Maskepetoon—Indian councils—On the fringe of the buffalo herds—Indian boy lost—A false conjurer— The lad recovered.


MASKEPETOON'S camp had now been gone about two weeks, and my instructions were to accompany this camp for part of the summer in its movements, and to do what I could towards the Christianizing of the people. Accordingly, taking Paul with me, and leaving our wives and Oliver with mother, we started for the big camp. We took two oxen and carts and several horses, as father had made arrangements with Muddy Bull to make dried provisions for home use. Our course was down the valley of the Vermilion, and then out through the hilly country that runs by Birch Lake to Battle River.

We killed several moulting geese as we travelled, and enjoyed them as food. On our fourth day out we came up to the camp, and turning the oxen and carts over to Muddy Bull, we domiciled ourselves in his lodge, and at once became part of this moving town. My work was all around me. Here was paganism intensely conservative, the outcome of many centuries of tradition. And here were its high priests, and the novitiate following which thronged after them, seeming to me as "the blind leading the blinder," if this were possible; the whole causing a devolution which was lowering the range of thought and life and ideal, and all the while producing a profundity of ignorance as to things moral and spiritual which in turn, as a logical sequence, affected the physical and material life of this people.

Doubtless environment has a great deal to do with the formation of character and being, but in the environment of these men, outside of buffalo and tribal communism, I failed to find anything that might be thought degenerating in its tendencies. The great herds of buffalo as abused by man were hurtful to himself, and therefore in the fulness of time the Great Father, in the interests of His children, wiped them from the face of the earth. Tribal communism has always been hurtful to individuality, and without this no race of men can progress. But apart from these factors in the life of this people, the rest of their environment was, in my judgment, of the nature and kind to help them, and to give them large, broad and fine views of life and all things. Why, then, this degradation witnessed on every hand? This intense superstition and ignorance, to my mind, is all due to the faith and religion of this people. Their faith is a dead one; no wonder they are dead in trespasses and sins. We believe we are now coming to them with a living faith, but even then we require infinite patience. The change will come, no doubt, but when? O Lord, Thou alone knowest when.

To come back to environment. So far as nature's realm affected the sojourners in this part of the valley of the Saskatchewan, these should be among the best of men. Beauty and wealth and power and a mighty purpose are apparent on every hand. These hundreds of miles of territory, these millions of acres of rich grass and richer soil, these hundreds of days of glorious sunshine in every year, these countless millions of cubic feet of healthful atmosphere, surcharged with ozone so that one ever and anon feels like "taking the wings of the morning "—what a splendid heritage.

Look at this delightful spot where we are encamped for the day. It is now nearing the midsummer, and the hills and valleys are clothed in the richest verdure. Take note of these hills and valleys. Behold the shapeliness of yonder range of hills, and the sweep of this vale at your feet. See the exquisite carvings of this ascent, and the beautiful rounding of that summit. Drink in the wonderful symmetry displayed in planting those islands of timber. Behold as yon fleecy cloud comes between the sun and the scene of sylvan beauty, how the whole is hallowed and mellowed by the shading of light! Think of the corrosions of ice and the cleansings of flood necessary to create such a variety of hill and dale as this. Ponder over the ages of later development, and calculate the layers of vegetable matter needed to make this wealthy soil and produce this infinite variety of flora and herb and forest and grass. Now to my mind all this is exceedingly helpful, and every time I look upon such environment I am made a better and stronger man. Then why not all men be thus helped and made better? All —there it is, our faiths are not alike. Even a wrong faith is mighty to the pulling down of "strongholds," and man under such influences descends.

But even here there are exceptions, and environment has its way in a measure. Amongst these men and women you will come across those who are big and broad and grand and noble. Blessed be the Lord for this! And one of these latter even now is calling to me and speaking in broken English, "John Mak-e-doogal-un, come here now," with big emphasis on the "now," and I readily recognize the voice and walk over to the lodge of the old Chief Maskepetoon.

"So you have come, John? I asked your father to let you come with my camp for a few weeks. There is plenty for you to do, my boy. But I called you just now, as my tent is empty, to tell you that I am sorry and ashamed that my son was with those young rascals who tried to steal horses from the Stonies at Pigeon Lake.

"I told him that under the circumstances I could not have done anything if he and his party had been killed: that he must remember that all men were now my friends, and especially all missionaries, and if I ever fought again it would be on the side of the missionary. That he should have gone from your lodge to steal the horses, of your people made me much ashamed and sorry in my heart. I told your father about it, and he said the young men were foolish to act in that way towards you—that you were the Indians' friend; and I believe that, and I want you to work hard, and will pray the Great Spirit to help you to gain a power over young men."

I thanked the old Chief for his confidence, and told him I should always expect his advice and help in my work. Then I gave him my news,. and he told me what the camp's movements were to be and that there was to be an immense gathering of several camps for the holding of the annual festival and "Thirst Dance" of the pagan Indians. He also told me that the buffalo were coming northward and westward, and we should move slowly to give them a chance to come in; that the plain Crees who were coming up country to join us were behind the herd of buffalo; and further informed me that the peace was effectually broken on both sides, and we might expect more or less trouble all summer.

I sat and chatted with the Chief and had supper in his lodge, and then arranged for an evening service in the open camp. These services elicited much interest. Paul, who was a good singer and a fine young fellow, would take his stand by my side. Then as we sang the people gathered, and our service would begin. 1 would take advantage of our surroundings or the occurrences of the day in the selection of my subject, and then call upon our old Chief or some one of our native Christians to lead in prayer.

In the meantime warriors and hunters on horseback and on foot and curious women and children with "tattooed" and painted faces would come around and watch and listen, but with native courtesy keep silence and act orderly and seem interested.

Thus day after day we publicly proclaimed the Gospel and teaching of the Master according to our ability, for I was but a child in these things myself; and yet the Lord did not despise the day of small beginnings, but blessed us and our work. While during the week conjuring and gambling and heathenish riots went on in many portions of the camp, such was the respect in which Maskepetoon was held by all these people that they desisted from these things on the Sabbath. They even gave up hunting on that day because he wished it. Not that he thus commanded. Oh, no; he was too much of a real gentleman and too wise in his ideas of chieftainship to do this.

Slowly we moved out on the plains. Every day brought fresh scones, and steadily I was becoming acquainted with these people. Maskepetoon always invited me to their councils, and seated beside him I listened to argument and oratory, and beheld genuine gesticulation, natural and true. Sometimes the Chief would ask me to tell about white men and how they conducted matters. I would respond with a short address on government and municipal organization, or at another time speak of civilization and some of its wonders, or give a talk on education, and Maskepetoon would say, "Listen to John. Although he is only a child in years he is a man in experience; he has seen far and wide, he has gone to school, he has listened for years to that wise man his father." Then at the closing up of these council gatherings Maskepetoon would give judgment on what had been said, either approving or condemning, and settle the matter in discussion in his own way, when the Council would break up for the time.

Day after day we moved slowly out on the plains, the prairie openings growing larger. All this time strict guard was kept, and the camp travelled, when the country would permit of it, in several parallel lines of march. At night scouts were sent out in every direction, and all of the horses either tethered or hobbled up close within, the circle of tents.

On every hand were scenes which acted as stimulators in the exercise of care to most of the inhabitants of our moving village. Here had been a fight. Yonder some one would point out where many bad been killed. "This is where the camp was when we brought in so many scalps and horses;" and as I listened to these people I could in a measure begin to realize how exceedingly romantic their lives had been, and how constantly the excitement of tribal war had followed them.

One evening we were startled by the wail of a mother. Her eight-year-old son was missing. The camp was searched and the boy not found. For two nights and a day we remained in the one place and made diligent search; but as we were now in the fringings of the large herds of buffalo, and the whole country was tracked up, it was impossible to find any trace of the lad.

One old conjurer drummed all night, and said that the boy was killed, locating the place of his death in a little valley near the line of our march the day the boy was missed. He was so particular in his description of the place and as to the manner in which the Blackfeet had waylaid the boy, that many thought the old conjurer was telling the truth, and quite a number went with the "Medicine Man" to the spot he had so vividly described. But while they found the spot just as he had indicated, there were no traces of the lost boy, nor yet any signs of the enemy. Needless to say, the party came back very much disgusted with their "false prophet."

Another "sight-seer" went into his mysterious lodge, and when he came out he said the boy was alive, that he had passed to the east of our course, and gone on until he was bewildered, and continuing his wanderings he was found by Indians from another camp which was now coining up country from the east to intercept us. This was more comforting, but who could vouch for its truth? Nevertheless this did prove true, for some three or four days later, after we had encamped for the day, some strangers were seen approaching, and when they were formally seated, and each had taken a few whiffs of the big pipe, one of them deigned to open his lips and tell us that a strange boy had been found and was now in their camp; that at first he was quite out of his head, but after a day or two came to himself, and told them where he came from, and the place to which our camp was heading, and thus they had intercepted us. These couriers also told us of several other camps which were coming up to join ours for the Thirst Dance Festival. The poor mother was overjoyed to hear of her boy's safety, and our whole camp rejoiced with her.


 


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