Au Pays de L’Ours Noir: Part 5

Excerpt from Au Pays de l’Ours Noir,

Dispatches of a Missionary, 1897 by Father

Adrien Gabriel Morice

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Translated by Neil Wylie and Garry Girvan

Start of the Mission

On Friday July 14th, after a journey of about one hundred and fifty miles, we reached the extreme end of Lake Louzkeuz (Clucultz). Since morning the chief had gone ahead; he was going to announce to his people the arrival of Yakastapayaltthek (him who would tell of Him who is above the earth i.e. the priest). Soon we see appearing from thickets of willow which border the lake two riders galloping at full speed. They are two Natives from the band who hurry to come to bid me welcome. Soon one, then two, then about ten follow one after the other. After a warm handshake and the inevitable “klaraoyam!” (good day in the Chinook jargon) they go to line up in a single file and form, in a narrow track, a procession of fifteen in which I take my place.

Thus escorted I make my entry into the village of Lake Louzkeuz. As I have already remarked, this lake is close to the 53rd degree of latitude north. It is a beautiful stretch of water in the shape of a horseshoe, wider in the middle with branches, four of five miles long  tapering at the ends. The climate in this place is so rigorous that one cannot harvest grain of any sort at any time: nor even potatoes. Every evening of the ten days that I stayed there you had  to get close to a good fire in order not to quake with cold, and that in the month of July!

The Natives who inhabit the shores of the Lake hardly number more that sixty, but I found them of excellent disposition, and their eagerness to learn the verities of the faith and to conform their conduct to the teachings of the priest seemed to me to form a striking contrast with the semi-indifference of a good number of the true Chilcotins. Evidently they feel their isolation in the middle of the forest and know that the priest cannot be in their midst as often as they may need him.

On my arrival I enquired about the Natives who had not yet seen a priest. Unfortunately after having waited for me for two months, and finding themselves at the end of their provisions, they had quit the place only two days before. But Peken, the Chief of Lake Louzkeuz had already sent one of his men to bring back those whom he could find.

The next morning he was back with two families who had stayed in the woods  to pick berries and roots, and in coming back to see me, made such haste that a little girl broke her leg.

These Natives certainly deserved that I should do something for them. It was the fifth time that their band had come to Lake Louzkeuz for the benefit of a visit form the priest, and each time their hopes had been dashed. So at their request I promised that next year I would not fail to go to see them.

I began my mission as soon as these two families were back n camp. I should say at once that all the exercises were followed with scrupulous exactness. Everyone, men women and children at the first sound of the horn (bells were still unknown in the whole extent of my district) left their tent and came to the church which they saluted with a bow accompanied with a sign of the cross before they went in.Their punctuality  was all the more praiseworthy because having used up all their provisions in a “Tatoetzsan Tsoekorollai” or funeral feast which they had done according to their traditional customs to honour the son of the Chief who had died two days before my arrival, they were obliged to exist from day to day on what they could take from the lake or on the edge of the forest.

Their church is a poor one and ought soon to give way to another a little less unworthy of the worthy-to -be- revered host which it is destined to receive. They built it several years before my visit when they were still novices in this kind of construction. The tree trunks which form its walls leave between them a gap through which you can pass your arm.  At night you could easily see the stars through holes in the roof.

Morning and evening as long as the mission lasted I gave them instruction on the subject of dogma or morals and towards midday a catechism which lasted usually between two and three hours.

The rest of the time was employed in my godly exercises and in replying to their numerous questions.

At every moment they besieged my tent and overwhelmed me with questions:if you looked for the answers in the ‘casus conscientiae’ of Gury you would search in vain.

I had to tell them what sin a man committed  who ate before he said his morning prayer, or a man who went to church without moccasins. or who picked wild berries on a Sunday when he had nothing to eat etc.

The Aboriginal people have a terrible fear of the devil, and each time I had occasion to pronounce his name in the course of my instructions, old men and women did not fail to sign themselves with their medallion.

They also had a great desire for baptism and the only serious difficulty they had given me was occasioned by my refusal to baptize them without having known them sufficiently. This decision raised a real storm. They presented to me the fact that my predecessor at Lake Louzkeuz had postponed baptism from year to year in just the same way and finally had not come back. The same thing could happen to me. Besides, they were very unhappy to be far from a priest and had great fear of going into the big fire (hell). Nevertheless, I was obstinate and contented myself with promising that on a visit not too far in the future I would baptize those among them who would be sufficiently instructed and have given satisfactory guarantees of the sincerity of their promises by their good conduct.

Everyday they say their beads without omission and are very assiduous at praying in the Church morning and evening. If it happens that one of them is guilty of a public fault, he is punished by a severe flogging which he must undergo in the sight of everyone.

They also have a custom which I found touching. When you arrive at their camp, you see scattered here and there on the little eminences which dominate their village, structures like small chapels in varied colours, red and blue, and surrounded by several crosses: these are graves. The dead members of one family repose together there.

Tomb of a person who was not baptized

Tomb of a person who was not baptized

Many times a week on coming out of church after morning prayer, the relatives and friends of the dead take themselves to these little chapels, which they call tombs, to pray together for their dead. There is nothing so picturesque and touching as these groups of humble Children of the Woods praying together on these funeral hillocks to a God whom they hardly know, asking Him to take into His mercy, those of their people who are no more. And these Wild Children are for the most part not yet baptized!

Modern tomb

Modern tomb

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