The Shagganappi

by Emily Pauline Johnson

The Delaware Idol*

    YOUNG “WAMPUM” sat listening to the two old hunters as they talked and chuckled, boasted and bragged, and smoked their curious stone pipes hour after hour. He was a splendid boy, this Wampum of the Mohawks, as quick and lithe as a lynx. His face was strikingly handsome, for it lacked the usual melancholy of the redman, having in its place a haughty, daring expression that gave it the appearance of extreme bravery, and even a dash of wild majesty. That he was a favorite with the older men of his tribe was generally acknowledged, for he was a magnificent hunter, an unerring shot, and, best of all, he could go without food for untold hours, always a thing to be very proud of among the Indian people. So the two old hunters told their stories and laughed over adventures with the same freedom as if the boy had not been present.
    “Yes,” said old “Fire-Flower,” beginning his story, “that was the strangest bear hunt the Grand River ever saw. These white men think they can come here and kill game, but a bear knows more than a paleface, at least that one did.”
    “Fish-Carrier,” the other hunter, nodded his head understandingly, refilled his stone pipe, and said tauntingly, “I know some Indians that don’t know as much as a bear.”
    Fire-Flower chuckled, passing the insinuation with a [Page 180] knowing smile. “No bear knows more than this Indian,” he boasted. “At least no bear I ever came across could outwit me.”
    “We’ll hear what you have to tell,” answered Fish-Carrier, with great condescension.
    Young Wampum sat erect then. He knew the tale was going to be a good one.
    Teasingly, old Fire-Flower took an unnecessarily long time to “light up,” but his two auditors were Indians, like himself, and had patience with his whims. Then the great hunter settled himself, and began his story by shaking his head, boastingly, and chuckling:
    “It was two white men, and, as usual, they knew nothing, but they had good guns, and a fine canoe, and they paddled many days to get to the ‘Indian Bush’ to hunt. I was up there, across from the island in the river, when I first saw them, and their faces were paler than any paleface I ever saw before or since. It seems they had pulled up on the shore, built a little campfire to make their tea and to eat, when out of the bush arose a big black bear, gruffing and grunting and eating berries. When they saw it they gave a worse war-whoop than the Cherokees ever did. They reached for their guns, then started to shake and tremble as though the bush ague were upon them. ‘He’s chewing!’ yelled one. ‘He’s chewing at us, he’ll eat us alive.’ But the other put on a face like a great brave. ‘We’ll kill him,’ he said with great boasting. ‘That’s what we came for, to kill bears.’ But just then the bear came towards them, still eating his berries. They were too scared to fire. One just struck him over the head with his gun, then they both turned and made for the canoe. The blow made the bear angry as the Thunder god, and before they could push off shore the bear got his claws on the edge of the canoe, and away they all went sailing into midstream, the palefaces paddling for all their lives, and the black bear clinging on to [Page 181] the canoe. In their fright they had left their guns ashore, and while one paddled, the other beat the bear’s head with the paddle blade. It was then that I first saw them. I stood on the shore with a very sickness from laughter in all my bones.” Here he ceased talking, for Fish-Carrier and Wampum had broken into such bursts of merriment that Fire-Flower was compelled to join them.
    “Oh, that I could have seen them, that I could have seen it all!” moaned Fish-Carrier between gasps. “That must have been a thing to make men laugh for many moons.” But Wampum said nothing; it was not the etiquette of his race that he should join in the talk of older men, unasked, but he, too, gulped down his uproarious laughter while Fire-Flower proceeded.
    “The black bear was getting the best of them, for the beating on the head maddened him. He began to climb up the edge of the canoe, and his great weight was beginning to overbalance it. I called to them, but as I do not speak the white man’s language, they did not understand. Fear gripped at their hearts, and, as the bear climbed into the canoe, they leaped into the river and swam for shore, while the canoe drifted slowly down stream, the big black bear seated proudly within it like some great brave who had scalped his enemies.”
    Another outburst of mirth shook his listeners.
    “I am an old man,” continued Fire-Flower, “but I have never seen anything which made me laugh so hard, so long, so loud. The palefaces swam back to their camp and their guns, calling out to me over and over to save their canoe for them. So I put out in my own dugout and gave chase. I caught their canoe, overturned it, and into the water rolled the bear. Then as he came at me, catching my canoe in his big claws, I just drowned him the old Indian way.” [Page 182]
    More laughter greeted this. Then young Wampum made bold to speak. “My uncle,” he addressed Fire-Flower, “I am but a boy, only beginning to hunt, though the great braves have been kind in giving me praise for what I have done already, but I am full of ignorance when compared to you and the great hunters; so, to help me in the days to come, will you not tell me how you drowned the bear, for I do not know all these things?”
    “A fine boy, Wampum is. He know whom to ask advice and learning from,” said Fire-Flower pompously, greatly pleased at the boy’s flattery. “It is an easy thing to do, to drown a bear,” he said. “The frailest canoe is safe even in the clutches of the fiercest. Just lay your paddle lightly across the bear’s neck, back of his ears. He will at once catch at it each side with his claws, and he will pull, pull his own head under water. The more he struggles the deeper he sinks.”
    “Yes, that is the Indian fashion of killing a bear in midstream,” echoed Fish-Carrier, “and it is a great thing for a hunter to know.”
    “Thank you for telling me,” said the boy, rising to take his leave. “I value all this wisdom I can learn from my own people.”
    “And where do you go now, Wampum?” asked Fire-Flower. “Will you not stay and learn more wise things? You are brave, and we like you to hear us talk.”
    “And your talk is good,” replied the boy, smiling. “You make me feel like the laughing loon bird, when you tell your tales and smile and laugh yourselves. But I must leave you. I am to drive the missionary to-day. He goes to the Delaware line once more.”
    “Ha! The Delawares!” sneered old Fire-Flower. “I like not those Delawares. They worship idols. It is not good to dance around idols.”
    “Not good,” again echoed Fish-Carrier.
    “Still the Delawares are not really bad people,” said [Page 183] Wampum. “I don’t like their hideous idol, and some day I hope to see it cut down,” he added earnestly.
    “Then it will be a brave man who will do it,” asserted Fire-Flower. “The Delawares are a fierce tribe. Their eyes are too black. They cannot be trusted. We Mohawks are brave, but I know of none who would dare cut down that idol.”
    “I hope the Black Coat won’t try it himself,” said Fish-Carrier. “He is a good man. I don’t want to see the Delawares kill him.”
    “He certainly will try it himself,” said Wampum. “His heart is set on turning the dark Delaware to his Christianity.”
    Fire-Flower sneered. “How little these white men know, even such great white men as the Black-Coat!” he remarked loftily. “He thinks because the Mohawks all turned to his Christianity, that he can get the dark Delawares. He seems to think there is small difference in Indians, that they are all alike. He does not know that we Mohawks despise the Delawares because they worship idols. Before we were Christians we worshipped the Great Spirit, the God of all good, but never idols. What good can come of people who dance round idols?” and the old hunter wrinkled his very nose in contempt.
    Young Wampum knew his place too well to argue with the arrogant old hunter, so he smilingly said good-bye, and leaving them to their pipes and their memories, he set out for the Mission house, from whence he was to drive the Reverend James Nelson over to the “Delaware Line” to have one of his frequent talks with the stubborn old chief, “Single-Pine,” who for ten years had held out against Christianity, clinging with determined loyalty to the religion of this forefathers, worhipping the repulsive wooden idol that, even in their old pagan state, the Mohawks so despised. Wampum was a great friend [Page 184] of Mr. Nelson’s. He was only a boy of sixteen, but he helped in all the church work, translated Mr. Nelson’s speeches from English into Mohawk and the various other Indian dialects spoken on the Reserve, drove him about through the rough forest roads, paddled him down the river, and was the closest companion the good missionary had in all that wild, remote country. Even Wampum’s parents were Christian church workers, but, kindly as their hearts were, they, too, shook their heads sorrowfully over the hopelessness of trying to Christianize the dark, idol-worshipping Delawares.
    “Ah, Wampum, boy,” greeted the missionary as the young Indian presented himself at the mission house, “we have good work before us to-day. I hear the Delawares are having a feast day. They have been dancing about that deplorable idol for two days and two nights. They tell me that old Chief Single-Pine danced eight hours without ceasing; that they have decorated the idol with silver brooches, wampum beads, every precious thing they possess. It is terrible, and my heart aches, boy, when I think how hopeless it seems. I fear they will be worshipping that wooden thing long after you and I have ceased working for Christ’s kingdom.”
    “Mr. Nelson,” said the boy, half-shyly. “I don’t agree with you. I heard, not long ago, that old Chief Single-Pine said he only kept to the idol because his people did—that he dared not cross them, but that after these ten years of your talking with him, he himself believed in the white man’s Christ.”
    “Oh, Wampum, if I could only believe that! If I could, I would die happy. Who told you this glorious thing?” cried the encouraged missionary.
    “A Delaware boy,” replied Wampum, “but when he told me he spat, like a snake does venom. He said he and all the tribe hated Single-Pine, for listening to you.”
    For a moment the missionary was silent, then he arose, the dawn of a majestic hope in his face. “They may [Page 185] hate him,” he said, “but they will follow him. He is most powerful. They dare not rebel where he leads. If we have won Single-Pine to Christianity, we have won the whole tribe, Wampum. You have never failed me yet; will you stand by me now? Will you help me in this great work?”
    “I will help you, sir,” replied the boy, his young face glowing with zeal.
    “But,” hesitated the missionary, “remember, it is dangerous. They are a fierce, savage tribe, these Delawares. Suppose—” and the good man’s voice ceased. He thought of his wife and two baby girls. Then he shuddered.
    Wampum seemed to catch that thought, and instantly a strange inspiration lighted up his wonderful dark face. He set his strong white teeth together, but kept his determination to himself.
    As they prepared to leave the Mission house, Wampum hung back a little, and when Mr. Nelson was not looking, he slipped into the woodshed, got the axe, and adroitly hid it under the wagon-seat. He told himself that in case of trouble he would at least have some weapon with which to defend the missionary’s life, and fight for his own. Had the man of peace known this, he would have remonstrated, but Wampum, although a Christian, had good fighting Indian blood in his veins, and had no such horror of battle. He was like one of the old Crusaders, ready to fight for his faith, even if the fighting had to be done with an axe.
    Long before they reached the Delaware Line, they could hear the sounds of feasting and dancing. It was growing dark, and the great heathen ceremonies were at their height. Many a time had the good old missionary attended these dances, always putting in a word for Christianity whenever he saw a fitting opening, always hoping that the day would come when the hideous idol would be laid low, and these darkened souls brought to the Light [Page 186] of the World. But to-night he felt strangely fearful, almost cowardly, for the whole tribe had gathered to pay tribute to their god, and it is a dangerous thing to belittle the god or the faith of any nation that is in earnest in its belief.
    Old Chief Single-Pine welcomed the missionary and Wampum graciously, but his people scowled and looked menacingly at the sight of “The Black Coat,” then continued their dancing. The great Delaware idol was there in all its hideousness, life size, in the form of a woman, and carved from one solid block of wood, then painted and stained the Indian copper color. It stood on a slight elevation in the center of the big log “church,” grotesque and repulsive as an image could well be made. Wampum hated the thing, and found it difficult not to hate these people who worshipped it. His own ancestors had been pagans, but never heathen. They had worshipped a living God, not a wooden one, and the boy turned in sadness, and some horror, from the spectacle of these idolatrous Delawares. Then his eyes lighted with pleasure, for there, near the door, stood Fire-Flower and Fish-Carrier. True, they were not now telling their boastful but harmless tales of mighty hunting and prowess, but their friendly faces still looked laughter-loving and genial, and Wampum moved quickly towards them. “I did not know you ever came here,” he said.
    “Not often,” said Fire-Flower. “But you said you were to bring the missionary, so we came.”
    Something in his voice gave Wampum a hint that perhaps the loyal old hunters expected trouble, and so had come in case they were needed.
    “Thank you,” was all the boy replied, but they knew he understood.
    Meanwhile, Mr. Nelson was talking with Single-Pine, who, exhausted with dancing, was allowing himself a brief rest and smoke. “My friend,” began the missionary, [Page 187] “do you really believe in the power of that god of wood?”
    The old chief glanced about cautiously, then, lowering his voice, said:
    “I am tired, oh, Black Coat, of this thing! I would come to the Christian’s God if I could, but my people will not let me.”
    Mr. Nelson grasped the dark fingers resting near his own. “Chief Single-Pine,” he said excitedly, “will you yourself give me leave to do away with this idol? Will you promise me that if I cut it down you will make no outcry—that you will not defend it; that you will not urge your people to rise against me; that you will sit silently, wordlessly; that you will take my part?”
    For a moment the old Indian wavered, hesitated, then said desperately, “I promise.”
    The missionary arose, removed his hat, and lifting his white face to heaven, prayed aloud, “God help me, make me strong and fearless to do this thing.” But at his side was Wampum, his clinging brown fingers clutching the black-coated arm. He had overheard all the conversation, and his young face took on grayish shadows and lines of anxiety as he said, “No, no, Mr. Nelson, not you! They may kill you. Your wife, your girl babies—remember them. Think of them. This is my work, not yours.” Instantly he dashed outside, returning with the axe he had hidden in the wagon. Without a glance in any direction, he strode into the centre of the log lodge, the dark worshippers fell aside, surprised into silence, and the slender Mohawk boy braced his shoulders, lifted his head and—
    “Don’t, don’t, Wampum, boy!” choked the missionary, “It is wild, it is useless. Stop, oh, stop!”
    But he might as well have ordered a hurricane to stop. With a splendid sweep of strong young arms, the boy whirled the axe in a circle above his shoulders and [Page 188] brought it down crashing with full force on the idol. The figure split from top to base, the neck was severed, and the painted wooden head rolled ingloriously to the floor. Then, amid a stony silence, more menacing than any words, the boy stood with squared shoulders and uplifted chin, his fierce beauty more imperial, more majestic, than ever before.
    For an instant the black eyes of a hundred Delaware warriors glared at him with hate and bloodshed in their depths. Then with a furious yell they turned to their chief for his commands, but old Single-Pine sat with bowed head, his face hidden in his hands, his lips silent. A sullen murmur ran through the throng, but they knew their chief had at last taken the great step into Christianity; and while Wampum yet stood alone and unafraid, his axe in his hand, and the head of the ruined idol at his feet, the entire tribe filed past, and one by one shook hands with the white-haired old missionary, for, as faithful followers of their chief, they, too, must embrace the white man’s faith.
    It was Fire-Flower who spoke first, touching the boy’s hand. Wampum started, as if from a dream.
    “Boy,” said the old hunter, “I have seen no man so brave.”
    Wampum shuddered. “My uncle,” he said proudly, “I have lived among brave people, but—” here he shuddered again, for he was only a boy, after all. “Oh, how black their eyes were, and how they hated me!”
    “They never hated you as much as we love you,” returned the old hunter. The word “love” had never passed his lips before, and Wampum knew then that not only had his courageous act brought the blessing of the white man’s God, but it had won for him the priceless friendship of this stalwart old Indian, whose wisdom and whose laughter would be shared with him through all his coming life. [Page 189]
    The good missionary said never a word as they drove home through the dark, but as they parted for the night he laid his hand silently, gently, on the proud, dark young head. No word was spoken, but the boy knew that a blessing was not always expressed in language, and that there are some kinds of courage that do not need scalps at one’s belt to show that one has fought a good fight. [Page 190]

* This tale is absolutely true. The writer’s father was the boy who destroyed the Delaware idol, the head of which is at this time one of the treasures in the family collection of Indian relics and curios. [back]

The above incident really occurred on the Grand River, about the year 1850, the writer’s father having witnessed it. [back]

The Indians call missionaries “The Black Coats.” [back]