The Life History and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh, 1847
The Ojebwas, as well as many others, acknowledged that there was but one Great Spirit, who made the world; they gave him the name of good or benevolent; kesha is benevolent, monedoo is spirit; Ke-sha mon-edoo. They supposed he lived in the heavens; but the most of the time he was in the Sun. They said it was from him they received all that was good through life, and that he seldom needs the offering of his Red children, for he was seldom angry.
They also said he could hear all his children, and see them. He was the author of all things that they saw, and made the other spirits that were acknowledged by the Ojebwas. It was said that these other spirits took special care of the various departments of nature. The god of the hunter was one who presided over the animals; the god of war was one who controlled the destinies of men; the god of medicine was one who presided over the herbs of the earth. The fishes had theirs, and there was another over the moon and stars!
“Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth
Unseen, both when we sleep and when we wake.”
There was one unappeasable spirit, called Bad Spirit, Mah-je-mah-ne-doo. He, it was thought, lived under the earth; and to bim was attributed all that was not good, bad luck, sickness, even death. To him they offered sacrifices more than to any other spirit, things most dear to them. There were three things that were generally offered to the Bad Spirit, viz. a dog, whiskey and tobacco, a fit offering, with the exception of the poor dog. The poor dog was painted red on its paws, with a large stone and five plugs of tobacco tied about its neck; it was then sunk in the water; while the beating of the drum took place upon the shore, and words were chanted to the Bad Spirit.
The whiskey was thus offered to the Bad Spirit: —When the Indians were seated around the wigwam, or on the grass, and the person who deals out the whiskey had given all the Indians a dram, then the devil was to have his share; it was poured on the ground, and if it went down quickly, it was thought be accepted the offering.
Fire water was sometimes poured out near the head of the graves of the deceased, that their spirits might drink with their former friends. I have often seen them sit around the grave, and, as they drank, make mention of the name of their dead, and pour some whiskey on the ground.
Our religion consisted in observing certain ceremonies every spring. Most of the Ojebwas around us used to come and worship the Great Spirit with us at Rice Lake. At this festival a great many of the youth were initiated into the medical mysteries of the nation. We were taught the virtues of herbs, and the various kinds of minerals used in our medicine. I will here describe the Me-tae-we-gah-mig or Grand Medicine Lodge. It was a wigwam 150 feet long and 15 feet wide. The clan of medicine men and women alone were allowed to be inside, at each sitting, with their medicine badge, on each side of the wigwam. Then there were four old men who took the lead in singing, and beating the drum, as they stood near the centre. Before them were a company who were to take degrees. There were four grades in the institution; and, as I have thought, somewhat similar to the Masonic institution.
After the singing commenced, the whole company arose and danced, as they moved from one end of the wigwam to the other. As they go round, one-half of them cast their heads down upon their bosoms, as if affected by the medicine, which was kept in small skins, and which they pretended to thrust at each other; this was done to deceive the ignorant. These forms were continued several days. The party to be made medicine men and women, looked on in the mean time, to see what they would have to do themselves. Then they are taken to another place with our medicine men, and are taught the science of medicine. After receiving instructions, another day was allotted to give them instruction on morality. They were advised on various subjects. All were to keep silence, and endeavor to retain what they were taught. I will here give some of the sayings of our medicine men:—
“If you are a good hunter, warrior, and a medicine man, when you die, you will have no difficulty in getting to the far west in the spirit land.”
“Listen to the words of your parents, never be impatient, then the Great Spirit will give you a long life.”
“Never pass by any indigent person without giving him something to eat. Owh wah-yah-bak-mek ke-gahshah-wa-ne-mig—the spirit that sees you will bless you.”
“If you see an orphan in want, help him; for you will be rewarded by his friends here, or thanked by his parents in the land of spirits.”
“If you own a good hunting dog, give it to the first poor man who really needs it.”
“When you kill a deer, or bear, never appropriate it to yourself alone, if others are in want; never withhold from them what the Great Spirit has blessed you with.”
“When you eat, share with the poor children who are near you, for when you are old they will administer to your wants.”
“Never use improper medicine to the injury of another, lest you yourself receive the same treatment.”
“When an opportunity offers, call the aged together, and provide for them venison properly cooked, and give them a hearty welcome; then the gods that have favored them will be your friends.”
These are a few specimens of the advice given by our fathers, and by adhering to their counsels the lives, peace, and happiness of the Indian race were secured; for then there was no whiskey among them. O! that accursed thing. O! why did the white man give it to my poor fathers? None but fiends in human shape could have introduced it among us.
I recollect the day when my people in Canada were both numerous and happy; and since then, to my sorrow, they have faded away like frost before the heat of the sun! Where are now that once numerous and happy people? The voice of but few is heard.
The Ojebwa nation, that unconquered nation, has fallen a prey to the withering influence of intemperance. Their buoyant spirits could once mount the air as on the wings of a bird. Now they have no spirits. They are hedged in, bound, and maltreated, by both the American and British governments. They have no other hope, than that at some day they will be relieved from their privations and trials by death. The fire-water has rolled towards them like the waves of the Alas! alas! my poor people! The tribe became dissipated, and consequently improvident, and often suffered intensely. It was in visiting the interior that we always suffered most.
I will here narrate a single circumstance which will convey a correct idea of the sufferings to which the Indians were often exposed. To collect furs of different kinds for the traders, we had to travel far into the woods and remain there the whole winter. Once we left Rice Lake in the fall, and ascended the river in canoes, above Bellmont Lake. There were five families about to hunt with my father, on his grounds. The winter begar to set in, and the river having frozen over, we left the canoes, the dried venison, the beaver, and some flour and pork; and when we had gone farther north, say about sixty miles from the whites, for the purpose of hunting, the snow fell for five days in succession to such a depth that it was impossible to shoot or trap anything. Our provisions were exhausted, and we had no means to procure any more. Here we were. The snow about five feet deep; our wigwam buried; the branches of the trees falling around us, and cracking from the weight of the snow.
Our mother boiled birch bark for my sister and myself, that we might not starve. On the seventh day some of them were so weak that they could not raise themselves, and others could not stand alone. They could only crawl in and out of the wigwam. We parched beaver skins and old moccasons for food. On the ninth day none of the men were able to go abroad, except my father and uncle. On the tenth day, still being without food, those only who were able to walk about the wigwam were my father, my grand-mother, my sister, and myself. O how distressing to see the starving Indians lying about the wigwam with hungry and eager looks; the children would cry for something to eat. My poor mother would heave bitter sighs of despair, the tears falling from her cheeks profusely as she kissed us. Wood, though plenty, could not be obtained, on account of the feebleness of our limbs.
My father, at times, would draw near the fire, and rehearse some prayer to the gods. It appeared to him that there was no way of escape; the men, women and children dying; some of them were speechless. The wigwam was cold and dark, and covered with snow. On the eleventh day, just before daylight, my father fell into a sleep; he soon awoke and said to me, “ My son, the Great Spirit is about to bless us; this night in my dream I saw a person coming from the east, walking on the tops of the trees. He told me that we should obtain two beavers this morning about nine o’clock. Put on your moccasons and go along with me to the river, and we will hunt the beaver, perhaps for the last time.” I saw that his countenance beamed with delight; he was full of confidence. I put on my moccasons and carried my snow shoes, staggering along behind him, about half a mile. Having made a fire near the river, where there was an air hole, through which the beaver had come up during the night, my father tied a gun to a stump, with the muzzle towards the air hole; he also tied a string to the trigger, and said “should you see the beaver rise, pull the string and you will kill it.” I stood by the fire with the string in my hand. I soon heard a noise occasioned by the blow of his tomakawk; he had killed a beaver, and he brought it to me. As he laid it down, he said “then the Great Spirit will not let us die here;” adding, as before, ” if you see the beaver rise, pull the string.” He left me, I soon saw the nose of one; but I did not shoot Presently another came up; I pulled the trigger, and off the gun went. I could not see for some time for the smoke. My father ran towards me, took the two beavers and laid them side by side; then pointing to the sun, said, “Do you see the sun? The Great Spirit informed me that we should kill these two about this time this morning. We will yet see our relatives at Rice Lake; now let us go home and see if they are still alive.” We hastened home, and arrived just in time to save them from death. Since which, we visited the same spot, the year after the missionaries came among us. My father, with feelings of gratitude, knelt down on the spot where we had nearly perished Glory to God! But what have I done for him since. Comparatively nothing. We were just at death’s door, when Christianity rescued us. I have heard of many, who have perished in this way, far in the woods. In my travels to the west, I have met many whose families had perished, and who had themselves merely escaped starvation. May God forgive me, for my ingratitude and indolence in his blessed cause!
I will here introduce a favorite war song of the Ojebwa nation. It was accompanied by dancing, and an occasional war-whoop. At the end of each stanza, a warrior rehearsed some former victories, which inspired them with ardor for war. Unchristianized Indians are often like greedy lions after their prey; yes, at times, they are indeed cruel and blood thirsty. I have met with warriors, who, when they had killed their enemies, cut open their breasts, took out their hearts, and drank their blood; and all this was out of mere revenge. But to the War Song, which was first translated for Col. McKinney, “the Indian’s friend,” on the shore of Lake Superior.
“On that day when our heroes lay low—lay low—
On that day when our heroes lay low,
I fought by their side, and thought ere I died,
Just vengeance to take on the foethe foe—
Just vengeance to take on the foe.
“On that day when our chieftains lay dead—lay dead—
On that day when our chieftains lay dead,
I fought hand to hand, at the head of my band,
And here, on my breast, have I bled—have I bled—
And here, on my breast, have I bled.
“Our chiefs shall return no more—no more—
Our chiefs shall return no more—
And their brothers in war who can’t show scar for scar,
Like women their fates shall deplore—shall deplore—
Like women, their fates shall deplore.
“Five winters in hunting we’ll spend—we’ll spend—
Five winters in hunting we’ll spend—
Then our youths grown to men, to the war lead again,
And our days like our fathers’, we’ll end—we’ll end—
And our days like our fathers’, we’ll end.”