After settling in at our new home on the Sarnia Reserve, a great part of my time was taken up in exploring through the Bush and visiting the Indians in their houses.
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We found one very piteous case of a poor woman in the last stage of consumption. The poor creature was worn to a skeleton lying on a most miserable looking bed with nothing to cover her but a ragged strip of black funereal-looking cloth. Although so very ill, she was able to answer the questions that Wagimah put to her, and when I offered to read the Bible to her she seemed very glad. She listened most attentively while I read in Ojebway the eighteenth chapter of St. Luke, and told her of the love of Christ in coming to save sinners. Then we knelt, and I offered two prayers for the sick copied into my pocket-companion from the Indian prayer-book. We visited the poor creature several times again, and once Mrs. Wilson accompanied me and brought with her some blanc-mange or jelly which she had made. She was much touched at the sight of the poor creature’s utter destitution. We were amused as we went along to see a pair of babies’ boots hanging on the branch of a tree, evidently placed there by some honest Indian who had chanced to find them on the road. This is what the Indians generally do if they find anything that has been lost,–they hang it up in a conspicuous place, so that the owner may find it again if he comes by the same way.
I had been told of a poor widow who was very ill and living with her three children in a destitute condition. Jane went with me to find her out, and we took, a supply of medicine and food with us. After wending our way along a narrow foot-track in the snow, which twisted about among the tall black trees, we came in sight of what looked like a heap of dirty boards and branches of trees piled together, but the blue smoke curling from the top told that it was a human habitation. It was the first time Jane had seen an Indian wigwam, and she was horrified to think that people could live in such a hovel. We drew aside the dirty cloth which covered the entrance and crept in. Two dogs saluted us with snarls, but were soon quieted, and crouching along by the smoky sides of the cabin we shook hands with the poor woman and her daughter (a girl of about fifteen), and then gazed round for something to sit upon;–however, there was nothing but the earthen floor, so down we sat. The little wigwam was just wide enough for a person of ordinary height to lie down in, and in the centre was the fire, so that it may well be imagined that there was not much room to turn round. On one side of the fire lay the poor woman, doubled up in a dirty blanket, for she had not been able to straighten herself for nearly two years, and was quite unable to sit up; another blanket was fastened up against the side of the place to shelter her from the wind. On the other side of the fire crouched the daughter, listening to what I said about administering the medicines. A little boy with bright eyes and a stock of uncombed black hair was also crouching over the fire. This was Willie, the youngest of the family, now about five years old, and little did I think then how much I should have to do with that boy in his after life. Sitting down by the poor woman, I uncovered my basket and displayed my medicines, and explained to the daughter how the mixture was to be taken twice a day, and the liniment to be rubbed on the affected parts. Jane then changed places with me and applied some of the liniment, and the poor creature immediately felt some relief and began talking about it to her daughter. These poor people seemed to be entirely dependent on the kindness of their neighbours; it was old Shesheet who first told me about them, and I understood that he used often to send them food or firewood. When I visited her on another cold day in October, accompanied by my wife, we found her coiled up in her rags moaning with pain, and only a few dying embers to keep her warm. Little Willie was coiled up asleep in a sheepskin. While we stood, Willie roused up out of his nest, and came to see what was going on; his sister, however, motioned him to go back, and, like a discontented little puppy, he made a low sort of whine, and buried himself again, head and all, in his sheepskin. We went back to the Mission-house and brought some tea for the poor woman, which she drank eagerly, and we provided her also with a candle stuck in a bottle and some firewood, but she never smiled, or said thank you. Her feelings as well as her features seemed to have become hardened with constant pain and suffering. However, we were agreeably surprised one day when she presented my wife with four tiny baskets, tastefully made, and a smile for once actually played on her lips. Some time after she was taken into a house by some friendly Indians, and kindly cared for, the result of which was that she became gradually better.
Very soon after our arrival at Sarnia we had proposed to the Indian women that they should meet together once a week for needlework and reading, but the scheme was not carried into effect until we had settled in our new house on the Reserve. The first meeting was held in our hall in the summer of 1869. On the hall-table were spread out all the articles of clothing sent to us from England, and we had on view patterns of prints, flannels, &c., from one of the dry goods stores in the town, the prices being affixed, and discount allowed at ten per cent.
As soon as all were assembled I explained to them that the object in meeting together was that they might provide clothing for themselves and their children at as cheap a rate as possible, and at the same time might have an opportunity for friendly talk and instruction. The plan would be for them to engage in needlework for an hour and a half, during part of which time I would read to them a story, which, my interpreter had translated into Indian, and after that we would have scripture reading, singing, and prayer to close the meeting. After all who wished to become members of the meeting had given me their names, they were invited to inspect the patterns and select the material with which they wished to make a beginning. We found the plan answer very well, and soon our “Mothers’ Meeting” was thoroughly established.
But it was not always that everything went on so harmoniously and peacefully. Unhappily there was a considerable amount of whiskey-drinking among the men, and sometimes drunken fights would occur in close proximity to the house. A son of Antoine Rodd’s was particularly vicious when under the influence of liquor; once he frightened us all by making a murderous attack on his father with his tomahawk and gun, and the old man had to escape back into the Bush for his life. Another time the wife of this same man came rushing into our house with her infant on her breast and another daughter following,–her drunken husband running after and threatening to kill them. We dragged them in and shut and locked all the doors, and soon the man was pounding away and trying to get in. The two women in great alarm locked themselves up in the pantry and remained all night under our protection. The saddest occurrence of all was when a man named Winter was actually killed by his own son while in a state of intoxication. We did what we could to try and stem the tide of drunkenness by forming a Temperance Society, which a large number of the Indians joined; but a more effectual check has of late years been put upon the terrible practice by the action of the Dominion Government; it is now against law for a white man either to give or sell liquor to an Indian on any pretence, and the penalty is very heavy.
I must finish this chapter with an account of an Indian funeral. The daughter of one of our Indians, named Kwakejewun, had fallen sick and died–died, as we hoped, trusting in her Saviour. As is usual among the Indians, a large number of people gathered together to show their sympathy with the bereaved parents, and to follow the body to the grave. The coffin was first brought into the church. I read the usual service, and a hymn was sung very sweetly and plaintively. Then we proceeded to the cemetery, nearly a mile distant. The snow was deep on the ground and sparkling in the sunlight. I drove in my cutter and headed the long funeral procession. A sad and picturesque sight it was; from eighty to a hundred people in all, some in sleighs, some ploding through the snow on foot,–aged women in their white blankets, mothers with their children, some of them in bright scarlet shawls, boys and girls, all in their Sunday attire. Through the silent forest we wended our way till we came at length to the wild little cemetery with its rude snake fence encircling it. The coffin was taken from the sleigh and carefully lowered into the grave; then the men took off their hats and we sang another hymn. It sounded very sweet in that wild desolate spot, and the poor mother stood enveloped in a blanket at the head of the open grave, and, with her eyes fixed on her daughter’s coffin, joined in the singing. Then I read the remainder of the service, and, having shaken hands with the poor father and mother, returned home. The mother grasped my hand warmly, and met me with a happy smile. She believed, I think, that her child was safe with the Saviour.