Early Life Among the Indians
Copyright 1891 B.G. Armstrong & T.P. Wentworth, Ashland, WI.
1892 Press of A.W. Bowron, Ashland, Wis.


Chapter XIV.

Father Baraga and the Chippewa Language and Religion - Source of the Religion - Head of the Chippewa Church


Father Baraga was probably the best-posted man in the Chippewa Language who ever attempted to explain it and write up their customs and religious beliefs, but he fell into error. I had frequent talks with him about his works and he explained them to me as he understood them and gave the source of the greater part of his information. I did not tell him the source of my information and never attempted to disabuse his mind of the error. The facts are that the sources from which my information was derived was the head of the Chippewa Church, while his was obtain at the foot of it. For me to say that the true Indian religion was a secret from the majority would be equivalent in the minds of most people saying that the majority of Indians did not profess religion. While this statement would be true in part, taken as a whole it would be untrue. All Indians practiced the true Indian religion, but the greater portion of them were ignorant of true understanding of the belief they practiced. The more wise Indian tribes, as well as the greatest thinkers of any people, knew that the majority are more easily governed and ruled through a belief of the hereafter than in any other way, and anything that was told to this majority by the chiefs and headmen as coming from traditions affecting their hereafter was eagerly sought after and reverently cherished. It may as well be said that these headmen had too much wisdom to venture the whole truth to the majority, lest they should depart from their teachings, for it is as true as anything can be that had the more ignorant, which is the majority of any people, been made aware of the fact as to what the true belief was, that the gun and all the belongings of the deceased where not needed by him on the trail to the happy hunting grounds, they would no longer have put such things in the grave and would have ceased there devotion in taking from a scanty supply of provisions a part to the grave of such deceased. Their desire for the possessions of the articles they buried and the real want they suffered in doing without them would have been too strong a temptation for them to resist after they once knew that keeping and using them and eating the food they carried their would not imperil the hereafter of their dead. Although it is not well known nor a subject of much reflection upon by white people, yet it is a fact that Indian tribes were never well fed and their contrivances wherewith to capture game along were always inadequate to their needs. There food was game, no great quantities of which could be preserved. They had a way of drying meat and could thus keep it for quite a time, but it was unwholesome and they practiced it but little. They would rather take their chances of procuring it daily than to eat what might prove unhealthy. The best fed Indians were never as well provided for in any respect as the poorest family of white workmen. This knowledge is the result of the great many years spent among them. The Indians lived a hard life with but little sunshine in it. To return to their religion; when an Indian has shown himself capable of a through understanding of that part of the religion that he has been entrusted with, and shows a sense sufficient to overcome his natural earthly greed to enable him to keep the faith, he is allowed to go a notch higher in the secret councils and as headmen become satisfied that he is possessed of the true belief to a degree that he would discountenance any deviation from it by others he is taken along to the top of the ladder of secrets. This is true Indian religion and the manner in which it is practiced, and Father Baraga's version of it is in so far as it disagrees with this is erroneous. Nothing is put in the grave of the dead to assist them but is put there as a sacrifice on the part of the living and for no other purpose. I will now trespass on the good nature and patience of the reader for the purpose of giving a brief history of one of the islands belonging to the Apostle group, called "Hermit's" Island, and sometimes called Wilson's Island, which received its name from the following circumstances: In the year 1845 there came and settled upon this island a man by the name of Wilson - his first name I have forgotten. He lived there alone, neither family nor neighbor and would not allow anyone to land, using his gun to enforce his orders when necessary. He wounded several people, but he never killed anyone that I ever heard of. He had a few friends he had made through dealings with them, whom he would allow on his island, but they were few and such as he had learned to like and considered his friends. He told me stories of his adventures and claimed that he embarked with the Hudson Bay Company when a boy and was transferred from place to place, even to the Rocky Mountains, but the route he took he could not or would not explain, but thought for many years he was a life prisoner with them as he could see no way to escape out of the company. Finally he found his way to Lake Superior but by what route he was unable to say but said his sufferings and hardships before reaching the lake were terrible. When I first met him I should judge he was about sixty years old and I have often wished I had jotted down his stories for reference for some of them were wonderful, but as it is I can only give a few points that I best remember. At any rate he was monarch of the island and all he surveyed. He had no pets except chickens and a rat and would allow no other animal about him. He kept liquor by the barrel though I never saw him under its influence and never knew him to offer a drink to anybody. He ordered on barrel of whiskey through me. During some of these years I lived at Oak Island, probably about two and a half miles from the hermit's house by the route we took with our boats. He sometimes came to my place for a visit but would never stay more than an hour at a time. For two or three years I bought what hay grew in a little meadow back of his house - a spot of ground he had cleared up in previous years and used for crops but allowed to grow up to grass and this patch afforded about two tons of hay a year. Through this dealing with him and his visits to my house there grew up an acquaintance, which in him amounted to a friendship and he appeared to look upon me as the best friend he had. At the time the barrel of liquor came that ordered for him he came to the landing at my place with his boat for it and after it was loaded into the boat he insisted on my going with him to help get it out of the boat, saying: "The men you have ordered to send along I don't want, and continued: "I will pay you for he liquor at my house and bring you back as soon as we have finished our business." I went along with him and assisted in the unloading of the barrel and getting ashore when he requested me to come into his house and he would pay me for the whiskey. He brought out either three or four bags of coin in buckskin and one stocking leg filled with coin, and laid them out on the table. From one he counted out the money for me and when he had finished asked: "Is that enough?" I told him it was a little too much and gave him back some change, when he remarked: "You must count those sovereigns at five dollars apiece;" to which I replied: "Yes, they pass for that in this part of the country, but not be banked for that." He then requested me to count his money and tell him how much there was of it, that he might know how he was getting along at his business, which was barrel maker for a fish companies. As he said this he barred the door and came back to the table where the money laid and told me to go ahead. I put the money he had paid me in my pocket and preceded to count his. I put each $100 in piles, there being about $1,300. The money consisted of gold, silver, English sovereigns and a few Mexican dollars. After the count had been finished and the money returned to the bags, he unbarred the door and said: "We will no go back to the boat" and as I passed out continued, "you bail out the boat and I will be out shortly." He then rebarred the door inside. I went down to the boat and got the water out and waited a full ten minutes before he came. He rowed me to my home but did not remain for any visit this time, but returned immediately. During 1861 my folks told me they had seen no smoke from the old man's chimney for a few days, which had been a common sight for years, and it was missed in that country where neighbors were not plenty. A few days after this it was again reported that there was no smoke from the old hermit's chimney. The circumstances led me to believe something had befallen the old man, for he was not in the habit of going away from home, and I took a boat and a couple of men and rowed over to La Pointe to get someone to go with me and find out what the trouble was. I found Judge Bell and asked him if he had seen Wilson lately. He answered that he had not seen him in a couple of months. Then I told him of the circumstance of no smoke from his house for the past week or more and feared the old man was sick or in some way disabled. The judge got a boat and some men and we went to the old man's island and found him dead upon the floor of his cabin and appearances indicated that he had been murdered. I then revealed to the judge what I had seen and done some years before at his request and thought the money must be hidden somewhere in the house. The judge and his men instituted a search for the treasure but only found about sixty dollars, which was in a box behind the clock and was entirely hidden from sight when the clock was in place. This money, together with some trinkets and effects that he had, the judge took charge of, saying he would give him a decent burial and pay for it with the money and the remainder he would keep until called for by his relatives. Mr. Wilson once told me that he had been married and the loss of his wife was what had driven him to the life he was leading, but he did not tell me any particulars. No one ever appeared to claim a relationship and nothing more is known by the people of Lake Superior of this strange man or from whence he came except what he told himself.

 

Contributed and used with permission on this site by Timm Severud. The Lac Courte Oreilles Historical Preservation Office created this reproduction.Timm Severud manually typed it in and some minor changes to text have been made from the original, to correct spelling mistakes, and slight grammar mistakes. There is no copyright on this book or this reproduction. Feel free to use and share with others. Enjoy what I consider the best historical biography I have ever read. T.L.S.

 

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