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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 17, 2003 - Issue 87


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History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan
Chapter Five

by ANDREW J. BLACKBIRD, Late U.S. Interpreter, Harbor Springs, Emmet Co., Mich.
credits: submitted by Timm Severud (Ondamitag)

The Author's Father Appointed Speaker for the Ottawas and Chippewas--The Only Ottawa Who was Friendly to Education--Making Alphabet--Acting as School Teacher--Moving Disposition of the Ottawas--Mode of Traveling--Tradition of William Blackbird Being Fed by Angelic Beings in the Wilderness--His being Put into Mission School by His Father--Studying to be a Priest--His Assassination in the City of Rome, Italy, Almost the Day When He was to be Ordained--Memorial Poem--The Author's Remarks on the Death of His Brother.

After my father's return to Arbor Croche, he became quite an orator, and consequently he was appointed as the head speaker in the council of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indiana. He continued to hold this office until his frame was beginning to totter with age, his memory became disconnected and inactive, and he therefore gave up his office to his own messenger, whose name was Joseph As-saw-gon, who died during the late rebellion in the United States while Hon. D. C. Leach, of Traverse City, was the Michigan Indian Agent. As-saw-gon was indeed quite an orator, considering his scanty opportunities. He had no education at all, but was naturally gifted as an orator. He was quite logical and allegorical in his manner of speaking. I have heard several white people remark, who had listened to his speeches through the imperfect interpreters, that he was as good a speaker as any orator who had been thoroughly educated.

My father was the only man who was friendly to education. When I was a little boy, I remember distinctly his making his own alphabet, which he called "Paw-pa-pe-po." With this he learned how to read and write; and afterwards he taught other Indians to read and write according to his alphabet. He taught no children, but only the grown persons. Our wigwam, which was about sixty or seventy feet long, where we lived in the summer time, was like a regular school-house, with my father as teacher of the school, and they had merry times in it. Many Indians came there to learn his Paw-pa-pe-po, and some of them were very easy to learn, while others found learning extremely difficult.

We were ten of us children in the family, six boys and four girls. I was the youngest of all who were living at that time. The eldest boy was one of the greatest hunters among the Ottawas. His name was Pung-o-wish, named after our great-grandfather, but he was afterwards called Peter by the Catholic missionaries when he was baptized into the Catholic religion. One of my brothers who was five or six years younger than my eldest brother was a remarkably interesting boy. His name was Pe-taw-wan-e-quot, though he was afterwards called William. He was quick to learn Paw-pa-pe-po, and very curious and interesting questions he would often ask of his father, which would greatly puzzle the old man to answer.

All the Indians of Arbor Croche used only to stay there during the summer time, to plant their corn, potatoes, and other vegetables. As soon as their crops were put away in the ground,* they would start all together towards the south, going to different points, some going as far as Chicago expressly to trap the muskrats, beavers, and many other kinds of furs, and others to the St. Joe River, Black River, Grand River, or Muskegon River, there to trap and hunt all winter, and make sugar in the spring. After sugar making they would come back again to Waw-gaw-naw-kezee, or Arbor Croche, to spend the summer and to raise their crops again as before.* The mode of securing their corn was first to dry the ears by fire. When perfectly dry, they would then beat them with a flail and pick all the cobs out. The grain was then winnowed and put into sacks. These were put in the ground in a large cylinder made out of elm bark, set in deep in the ground and made very dry, filling this cylinder full and then covering it to stay there for winter and summer use.

In navigating Lake Michigan they used long bark canoes in which they carried their whole families and enough provisions to last them all winter. These canoes were made very light, out of white birch, and with a fair wind they could skip very lightly on the waters, going very fast, and could stand a very heavy sea. In one day they could sail quite a long distance along the coast of Lake Michigan. When night overtook them they would land and make wigwams with light poles of cedar, which they always carried in their canoes. These wigwams were covered with mats made for that purpose out of prepared march reeds or flags sewed together, which made very good shelter from rain and wind, and were very warm after making fires inside of them. They had another kind of mat to spread on the ground to sit and sleep on. These mats are quite beautifully made out of different colors, and closely woven, of well-prepared bull-rushes.* After breakfast in the morning they are off again in the big canoes.* To prepare these bull-rushes for mats, they are cut when very green, and then they go through the process of steaming, after bleaching by the sun; they are colored before they are woven. They are generally made about six or eight feet long and about four feet wide.

My father's favorite winter quarters were somewhere above Big Rapids on Muskegon River. He hunted and trapped there all winter and made sugar. A very mysterious event happened to my brother William while my folks were making sugar there. One beautiful morning after the snow had entirely disappeared in the woods, my brother William, then at the age of about eight or nine years, was shooting around with his little bow and arrows among the sugar trees, but that day he never came home. A sundown, our parents were beginning to feel very uneasy about their little boy, and yet they thought he must have gone to some neighboring sugar bush, as there were quite a number of families also making sugar in the vicinity. Early in the morning, my father went to all the neighboring sugar camps, but William was nowhere to be found. So at once a search was instituted. Men and boys were out in search for the boy, calling and shooting their guns far and near, but not a trace of him anywhere could be found. Our parents were almost distracted with anxiety and fear about their boy, and they continued the search three days in vain. On the fourth day, one of our cousins, whose name was Oge-maw-we-ne-ne, came to a very deep gully between two hills. He went up to the top of the highest hill in order to be heard a long distance. When he reached the top, he began to halloo as loud as he could, calling the child by name, Pe-taw-on-e-quot. At the end of his shouting he thought he heard some one responding to his call, "Wau?" This word is one of the interrogatives in the Indian language, and is equivalent to "what" in the English language. He listened a few minutes, and again he called as before, and again heard distinctly the same response, "Wau?" It came from above, right over his head, and as he looked upwards he saw the body, almost at the top of a tree, standing on a small limb in a very dangerous situation. He said, "Hello, what are you doing up there? Can't you come down?" "Yes, I can," was the answer; "I came up here to find out where I am, and which way is our sugar camp." "Come down, then; I will show you which way is your home." After he came down from the tree, our cousin offered him food, but the child would not touch a morsel, saying that he was not hungry as he had eaten only a little while ago. "Ah, you have been fed then. Who fed you? We have been looking for you now over three days." The boys replied, "I had every thing that I wanted to eat in the great festival of the "Wa-me-te-go-zhe-wog," which is "the white people." "Where are they now?" asked our cousin. "That is just what I would like to know, too," said the boy; "I had just come out of their nice house between the two hills, and as I looked back after I came out of their door I saw no more of their house, and heard no more of them nor their music." Our cousin again questioned the boy, "How did you come to find these Wa-me-te-go-zhe-wog here?" And little William replied, "Those Wa-me-te-go-zhe-wog came to our sugar camp and invited me to go with them, but I thought it was very close by. I thought we walked only just a few steps to come to their door." Our cousin believed it was some supernatural event and hastened to take the boy to his anxious parents. Again and again little William told the same story when interrogated by any person, and it is firmly believed by all our family and friends that he was cherished and fed three days in succession by angelic beings.

When he was about twelve or thirteen years of age the Protestant Mission School started at Mackinac Island, and my father thought best to put him to that school. After being there less than a year, he was going around with his teachers, acting as interpreter among the Indian camps at the Island of Mackinac. I was perfectly astonished to see how quick he had acquired the English language. After the mission broke up at the island, about the time the Catholic mission was established at Little Traverse, William came home and stayed with us for about two years, when he was again taken by Bishop Reese with his little sister, a very lovely girl, whom the white people call Auntie Margaret, or Queen of the Ottawas. They were taken down to Cincinnati, Ohio, where they were put into higher schools, and there my brother attained the highest degree of education, or graduation as it is called.

From thence he was taken across the ocean to the city of Rome, Italy, to study for the priesthood, leaving his little sister in Cincinnati. It is related that he was a very eloquent and powerful orator, and was considered a very promising man by the people of the city of Rome, and received great attention from the noble families, on account of his wisdom and talent and his being a native American; and yet he had a much lighter complexion than his cousin Aug Hamlin, who was also taken over there and represented as half French.

While he was at Rome, the proposition arose, in this country to buy out the Michigan Indians by the Government of the United States, and he wrote to his people at Arbor Croche and to Little Traverse on this very subject, advising them not to sell out nor make any contract with the United States Government, but to hold on until he could return to America, when he would endeavor to aid them in making out the contract or treaty with the United States. Never to give up, not even if they should be threatened with annihilation or to be driven away at the point of the bayonet from their native soil. I wish I could produce some of this correspondence, but only one letter from him can now be found, which is here given:

Rome, April 17, 18833.
My Dear Sister:

It is a long time since I wrote you a few lines. I would write oftener if the time would permit, but I have very few leisure moments. However, as we have a holiday today, I determine to write a line or two. I have to attend to my studies from morning till sunset. I thank you very much for your kind letter, which I received some time ago by politeness of Rev. Mr. Seajean. My dearest sister, you may have felt lost after I left you; you must consider who loves you with all the affection of parents. What can we return to those who have done as much good, but humble prayers for them that the Almighty may reward them for the benefit they have done in this poor mortal world. I was very happy when informed by Father Mullen that you had received six premiums at the examination; nothing else would more impress my heart than to hear of the success of your scholastic studies. I entreat you, dearest sister, to learn what is good and to despise the evil, and offer your prayers to the Almighty God and rely on Him alone, and by His blessing you may continue to improve your time well. You can have no idea how the people here are devoted to the Virgin Mary. At every corner of the streets there is the image of her, and some of these have lights burning day and night. I think of you very often: perhaps I shall never have the pleasure of seeing you again. I have been unwell ever since I came to this country. However, I am yet able to attend my school and studies. I hope I will not be worse, so that I may be unable to follow my intention.

There are really fine things to be seen in Rome. On the feast of SS. Sebastian and Fabian we visited the Catacombs, two or three miles out of the city, where is a church dedicated to those saints, which I have already mentioned in previous letters. Perhaps our countrymen would not believe that there was such a place as that place which I saw myself with my own naked eyes. We entered in with lights and saw the scene before us. As soon as we entered we saw coffins on the top of each other, in one of which we saw some of the remains. The cave runs in every direction, sometimes is ascended by steps, and sometimes runs deeper, and one would be very easily lost in it. There are some large places and a chapel; the students tell me that the chapel is where Pope Gregory was accustomed to say mass. I assure you it would excite any human heart to behold the place where the ancient Christians were concealed under the earth from the persecution of the anti-Christians. Indeed they were concealed by the power of God. They sought Jesus and Him alone they loved.

It is the custom of the College of the Propaganda, on the feast of Epiphany each year that the students should deliver a discourse in their own respective languages. This year there were thirty-one different languages delivered by the students, so you may judge what kind of a college this is. At present it is quite full; there are ninety-three, of which thirteen are from the United States.

On Easter Sunday the Holy Father celebrated mass in the church of St. Peter. It is very seldom that his holiness is seen personally celebrating mass in public except on great festivals. The church was crowded with spectators, both citizens of Rome and foreigners. On the front part of the church there was an elevated place beautifully ornamented. After the solemn ceremonies the Holy Father went up and gave his paternal benediction to the people. There is a large square before St. Peter's, and it was crowded so that it was impossible to kneel down to receive the benediction.

This week we are quite merry; we seem to employ our minds on the merriment, which is always displayed amongst us on such occasions. Our secretary is now Cardinal, and to-morrow he will be crowned with the dignity of the Cardinal. Our college has been illuminated these two evenings. The congregational halls of the Propaganda were opened on this occasion. The new Cardinal then received all the compliments of the Cardinals, Bishops, Prelates, Ambassadors, Princes, and other distinguished dignities. There are two large beautiful rooms, in one of which the new Cardinal was seated and received all those who came to pay him compliments. The visitors all came through the same passage, and there was a man posted in each room who received them and cried out to others that such man was coming, and so on through all those that were placed for the purpose, and one called the Cardinal gentleman introduced them to the new Cardinal. If there were such a thing in America it would be quite a novelty.

It is time for me to close, and I hope you will write me sometimes. My respects to the Sisters and Father Mullen. Farewell, dear sister; pray for your Superior and for me.

I remain your most affectionate brother,
William Maccatebinessi.

After his death, some one at Cincinnati wrote the following, to be repeated before a large audience in that city by his little sister Margaret, who was there at school. The poetry was impressively recited and listened to by many people with wet eyes. This gifted child of nature died June 25, 1833.

"The morning breaks; see how the glorious sun,
Slow wheeling from the east, new luster sheds
O'er the soft clime of Italy.
The flower That kept its perfume in the dewy night,
Now breathes it forth again.
Hill, vale and grove,
Clad in rich verdure, bloom, and from the rocks
The joyous waters leap.
O! Meet it is
That thou, imperial Rome, should lift thy head,
Decked with the triple crown, where cloudless skies
And lands rejoicing in the summer sun,
Rich blessings yield.
But there is grief today.
A voice is heard within thy marble walls,
A voice lamenting for the youthful dead;
For o'er the relics of her forest boy
The mother of dead Empires weeps.
And lo! Clad in white robes the long procession moves;
Youths throng around the bier,
and high in front,
Star of our hope,
the glorious cross is reared,
Triumphant sign.
The low, sweet voice of prayer,
Flowing spontaneous from the spirit's depths,
Pour its rich tones;
and now the requiem swells,
Now dies upon the ear.
But there is one*
* His cousin Hamlin
Who stands beside my brother's grave,
and tho' no tear Dims his dark eye,
yet does his spirit weep.
With beating heart he gazes on the spot
Where his young comrade shall forever rest.
For they together left their forest home,
Led by Father Reese,
who to their fathers preached
Glad tiding of great joy;
the holy man my brother,
Who sleeps beneath the soil the Father Reese's labors blessed.
How must the spirit mourn, the bosom heave,
Of that lone Indian boy!
No tongue can speak
The accents of his tribe, and as he bends
In melancholy mood above the dead,
Imagination clothes his tearful thoughts
In rude but plaintive cadences.
Soft be my brother's sleep!
At nature's call the cypress here shall wave,
The wailing winds lament above the grave,
The dewy night shall weep.
And he thou leavest forlorn,
Oh, he shall come to shade my brother's grave with moss,
To plant what thou didst love--the mystic cross,
To hope, to pray, to mourn.
No marble here shall rise;
But o'er thy grave he'll teach the forest tree
To lift its glorious head and point to thee,
Rejoicing in the skies.
And when it feels the breeze,
I'll think thy spirit wakes that gentle sound
Such as our fathers thought when all around
Shook the old forest leaves.
Dost thou forget the hour, my brother,
When first we heard the Christian's hope revealed,
When fearless warrior's felt their bosoms yield
Beneath Almighty power?
Then truths came o'er us fast,
Whilst on the mound the missionary stood
And thro' the list'ning silence of the wood
His words like spirits passed.
And oh, hadst thou been spared,
We two had gone to bless our fathers' land,
To spread rich stores around, and hand in hand
Each holy labor shared. But here the relics of my brother lie,
Where nature's flowers shall bloom o'er nature's child,
Where ruins stretch, and classic art has piled Her monuments on high.
Sleep on, my brother, sleep peaceful here
The traveler from thy land will claim this spot,
And give to thee what kingly tombs have not-
The tribute of a tear with me, my brother.

He died almost the very day when he was to be ordained a priest. He received a long visit from his cousin Hamlin that evening, and they sat late in the night, talking on various subjects, and particularly on American matters and his ordination. My brother was perfectly well and robust at that time, and full of lively spirits. He told his cousin that night, that if he ever set his foot again on American soil, his people, the Ottawas and Chippewas of Michigan, should always remain where they were. The United States would never be able to compel them to go west of the Mississippi, for he knew the way to prevent them from being driven off from their native land. He also told his cousin that as soon as he was ordained and relieved from Rome, he would at once start for America, and go right straight to Washington to see the President of the United States, in order to hold conference with him on the subject of his people and their lands. There was a great preparation for the occasion of his ordination. A great ceremony was to be in St. Peter's Church, because a native American Indian, son of the chief of the Ottawa tribe of Indians, a prince of the forests of Michigan, was to be ordained a priest, which had never before happened since the discovery of the Aborigines in America. In the morning, at the breakfast table, my brother William did not appear, and every one was surprised not to see him at the table. After breakfast, a messenger was sent to his room. He soon returned with the shocking news that he was dead. Then the authorities of the college arose and rushed to the scene, and there they found him on the floor, lying in his own blood. When Hamlin, his cousin heard of it, he too rushed to the room; and after his cousin's body was taken out, wrapped up in a cloth, he went in, and sat at once enough to tell him that it was the work of the assassin.

When the news reached to Little Traverse, now Harbor Springs, all the country of Arbor Croche was enveloped in deep mourning, and a great lamentation took place among the Ottawas and Chippewas in this country with the expression, "All our hope is gone." Many people came to our dwelling to learn full particulars of my brother's death, and to console and mourn with his father in his great bereavement.

No motive for the assassination has ever been developed, and it remains to this day a mystery. It was related that there was no known enemy in the institution previous to his death, but he was much thought of and beloved by every one in the college. It was an honor to be with him and to converse with him, as it is related that his conversation was always most noble and instructive. It was even considered a great honor to sit by him at the tables; as it is related that the students of the college used to have a strife amongst themselves who should be the first to sit by him. There were several American students at Rome at that time, and it was claimed by the Italians that my brother's death came through some of the American students from a secret plot originating in this country to remove this Indian youth who had attained the highest pinnacle of science and who had become their equal in wisdom, and in all the important questions of the day, both in temporal and spiritual matters. He was slain, it has been said, because it was found out that he was counseling his people on the subject of their lands and their treaties with the Government of the United States. His death deprived the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of a wise counselor and adviser, one of their own native countrymen; but it seems that it would be impossible for the American people in this Christian land to make such a wicked conspiracy against this poor son of the forest who had become as wise as any of them and a great statesman for his country. Yet it might be possible, for we have learned that we cannot always trust the American people as to their integrity and stability in well doing with us.

It is said the stains of my brother's blood can be seen to this day in Rome, as the room has been kept as a memorial, and is shown to travelers from this country. His statue in full size can also be seen there, which is said to be a perfect image of him. His trunk containing his books and clothing was sent from Rome to this country, and it came all right until it reached Detroit. There it was lost, or exchanged for another, which was sent to Little Traverse. It was sent back with a request to forward the right one, but that was the end of it, and no explanation was ever received.

Soon after the death of my brother William, my sister Margaret left Cincinnati, Ohio, and came to Detroit, Mich., where she was employed as teacher of the orphan children at a Catholic institution. She left Detroit about 1835, and came to Little Traverse, where she at once began to teach the Indian children for the Catholic mission. She has ever since been very useful to her people, but is now a decrepit old lady and sometimes goes by the name of Aunty Margaret, or Queen of the Ottawas. She is constantly employed in making Indian curiosities--wearing out her fingers and eyes to make her living and keep her home. Like many others of her race, she has been made the victim of fraud and extortion. Some years ago a white man came to the Indian country and committed many crimes, for some of which he is now in prison. Soon after he came here, this wicked man pretended he was gored by an ox--although there were no marks of of violence--which he claimed belonged to Mr. Boyd, Aunty Margaret's husband, and he therefore sued Mr. Boyd for damages for several hundred dollars; and although the ox which he claimed had injured him did not belong to Mr. Boyd, and there was no eye witness in the case, yet he obtained judgment for damages against him, and a mortgage had to be given on the land which the Government had given her. The Indian's oath and evidence are not regarded in this country, and he stands a very poor chance before the law. Although they are citizens of the State, they are continually being taken advantage of by the attorneys of the land; they are continually being robbed and cheated out of their property, and they can obtain no protection nor redress whatever.

Before Mr. Hamlin, my cousin, left Italy, he was asked by the authorities if William had any younger brother in America of a fit age to attend school. He told the authorities that the deceased had one brother just the right age to begin school--that was myself. Then there was an order for me to be sent to Rome to take the place of my brother; but when my father heard of it, he said, "No; they have killed one of my sons after they have educated him and they will kill another." Hamlin came home soon after my brother's death, and some time after the Treaty of 1836 he was appointed U. S. Interpreter and continued to hold this office until 1861, at which time I succeeded him.

Chapter 4

Chapter 6

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