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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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Mack-aw-de-be-nessy Picturesque Relic of the Ottawa Tribe

From: The Detroit Free Press - September 8, 1895
credits: submitted by Timm Severud (Ondamitag)

He Talks Eloquently of the Wrongs of His People
His Wife is an English Woman of Education
The Indian School at Harbor Spring and Its Work


On the main street of Harbor Springs, Michigan is a frame house small enough to be called a 'shack,' and boarded up in front, entrance being gained by a side door, lives one of the oldest, quaintest and most picturesque characters in the state, an Ottawa Indian named Mack-aw-de-be-nessy, but who is generally called Blackbird, a son of one of the head chiefs of the Ottawas. It did not seem at all in accordance with Indian tradition to find a chief's son in a state of semi-civilization, but this condition was soon accounted for, as we were met at the open door of the shack by a white woman, who, at 60 years of age, still looked and spoke like a belle, Madam Blackbird being an English woman of a good family and education, and very handsome, in spite of her poverty and surroundings, which were of the most incongruous kind.

But the piece-de-resistance of the occasion, and the object of our visit, was the aged chief, and overlooking a mature Indian who was making a bow and arrow in the front room which, Indian fashion, was the kitchen, we asked if we might have the honor of paying our respects to Mack-aw-de-be-nessy, Chief Blackbird.

"This is he," said the white squaw.

It did not seem possible, a man who talks of events which happened in 1825, when he was a youth, as if it were yesterday, sitting there "as straight as an Indian," no seams, no wrinkles to speak of in his copper-colored visage, and only a few gray hairs, the light in his 'eagle eye' undiminished - this the chief who is said to number nearly one hundred years, who is so old that none of his people live to keep him company.

Serving for many years as a government interpreter, Blackbird speaks excellent English, but quite naturally he is fluent in only one subject, the wrongs of the Indians and their gradual disappearance from the face of the earth and his own disappointment at the non-recognition of valuable services he has done for the whites. In him the truth of the Scripture is verified, that a prophet is not without honor save in his own country.

It is a known truth that the Indian in his untutored state resents all the advances of civilization and looks upon the educated Indian as an ally of the white man. This he doubtless is to a certain extent, and where it is to the advantage of his people.

"How did you come to marry a white woman?" was one of the questions propounded to Chief Blackbird.

"We went school together," he said gravely.

"Wouldn't it be more to the purpose," suggested one of the company, "to ask Mrs. Blackbird how she happened to marry an Indian?"

"I don't know," she answered readily. "He was smart and I felt sorry for him, and was a romantic girl. You see how I live," she continued, "yet I was brought up in an English boarding school and had every advantage. No, I have never visited the Indians, except for his sister, Margaret Boyd. She was a wonderful woman, and lived like a saint in a shrine. Here is her picture."

It was a photograph of an old Indian woman seated before a station of the cross intently regarding the large crucifix before which a lamp was burning.

"She was a Catholic: so were all my husband's people; but I am a member of the Episcopal Church and so is he, although, poor man, he has nothing fit to wear. Bishop Tuttle called here this very day to ask us to attend communion tomorrow. The bishop is an old friend and very kind. He has been staying in this part of the country for some weeks."

"She hasn't much to wear, either," said the old Indian, pointing to the calico gown of his handsome wife. "I have been postmaster here once for nine years and do everything for the government, now I get nothing at all. If my brother, had he lived, it might be different."

"What was your brother?"

"A great scholar. A priest of the Church of Rome, where he was killed in 1833 on the evening of the day he would have been ordained. He told his cousin, who was there with him, that as soon as he was a priest he would return to America and go straight to Washington to intercede for his people, that the Ottawas and Chippewas should stay on their own land. It was a great blow, all our hope was gone."

"Why was he assassinated?"

"That is the mystery to this day," said the old Indian, rocking his body to and fro. "It was to be a great and wonderful thing to see a prince of the forests of Michigan ordained in St. Peter's church, at Rome - such a ceremony had never been seen. It was looked upon as an honor there to sit by the red man at a table, or to listen to his wise and wonderful discourse. It was said that the American students at Rome were jealous of the Indian's honors and that a conspiracy was formed to slay him because he had reached as high a pinnacle as themselves and was so strong in temporal and spiritual matters. I cannot tell how true it is, but the white man is often our worst enemy in the guise of friend. My people never used profane language, nor was there drunkenness known in our tribe, until the white man came bringing both."

The eloquence of Blackbird and his poetic use of language, give a charm to his conversation. At the request of one of his friends he recited with all the fervor of an impassioned warrior, and in really fine declamatory style, 'The Lamentation of the Overflowing Heart of the Red Man of the Forest:"

Hark, What is that I hear,
So mournfully, singing in my ear,
Like a death song of warriors
For those who fell by their brave sires,
Is this the wall now sounding,
For my unhappy future.

The 'Lamentation' is too long for reproduction here, and when the Indian had finished his recital he was in such an exalted state that his wife suggest it would not be well to urge him to give us a war-whoop as we had planned. As we were not anxious to attend a scalping-bee we did not press the matter. Indeed, we were all overcome by the eloquent and pathetic appeal we had heard. As a specimen of simple and forcible composition, attention was called by a clergyman present to Blackbird's description of a thrush, which cannot be surpassed for felicity

"Early in the morning, as the sun peeped from the east, as I would yet be lying close to my mother's bosom, this brown thrush would begin his warbling songs perched upon the uppermost branches of the basswood tree that stood close to our lodge. I would then say as I listened to him, 'here comes my little orator,' and I used to try to understand what he had to say; and something I thought I understood some of the utterances as follows: 'Good morning, good morning! Arise! Arise! Shoot! Shoot! Come Along! Come Along!' Every word repeated twice. Even then young I was, I use to think that that little bird had a language which God or the Great Spirit had given it, and every bird of the forest understood what he had to say, and that he was appointed to preach to other birds, to tell them to be thankful for the blessings they enjoy among the summer green branches of the forest and the plenty of wild fruit to eat."

Blackbird has distinguished himself in the avocation of peace by writing his own history, a grammar of his language and twenty-one moral commandments of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, by which they were governed in their primitive state; also the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer, as they are given in the Ottawa language, with translations. This book is so interesting and valuable that copies have been solicited from France, England, and other foreign countries, where the Indians of America attract much attention.

Dressing himself in his best apology for an Indian costume, Blackbird went with us to the photographer's to sit for a picture for the Free Press, but would not deck himself in war paint as he considers that accessory alien to the civilized red man. He complained of the scarcity of deerskin, and said that the Indians were buying carpet, braid and calico to take the place of the deerskin fringes, in which they have always taken so much pride. Now, instead of eagle and wild turkey feathers, the domestic fowl furnish their war plumage.

Indian School Girls
Indian School Girls

But the Indians or this region all wear 'store' clothes and 'toe in' with handmade leather boots, instead of beaded moccasins. They are well dressed and the young squaws wear the shirtwaist and gored skirt of civilization. But they also wear the heavy woolen shawls, not over their heads lengthwise, as formerly, but pinned about their straight shoulders. Indian women love a shawl as a Scotchman loves a plaid - it is a shawl by day and a quilt by night. On the hottest of hot summer days they wrap themselves in it as complacent, as in midwinter.

An Indian school at Harbor Springs is another feature of interest, and we were repaid for our call there. The institution is large - several hundred children being educated and boarded under the care of the good Sister of Notre Dame. A tour of the house showed the same schoolrooms, dormitories, rectories, and classrooms that are used in all modern convent schools. Some of the Indian girls displayed great aptitude in making maps, writing compositions, and in knitting and fancy work. One sang a little English song in a clear bird-like voice. The boys were busy at their tasks and all took much interest in their lessons. They like the life so well that they are unhappy when taken out of it temporarily. One small Indian maiden, who had been home to visit her people, went to the dormitory on her return, and, knelling down by her own little bed, patted and caresses its patchwork quilt. The large girls are quite attractive, resembling always the some shy wild thing, yet showing great intelligence in their studies. Mary Wasson is one of the clever girls, and her picture, copied for The Free Press, adorns the walls of the parlor of the institution. Many of these children are orphans, wholly dependent on the charity of the convent, others are half orphans, while are few are boarders. They are expected to stay in the school until they are grown to manhood or womanhood. No child is ever given out for adoption. The school is graded in the size of pupils from 3 to 15.

Mary Wasson
Mary Wasson

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