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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


April 3, 2004 - Issue 110


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The Indian Priest
Father Philip B. Gordon
Chapter 1 - The Indian Priest Reminisces

by Paula Delfeld
credits: submitted by Timm Severud (Ondamitag)

Father GordonThe aging Indian priest sat, as his ancestors had, beside the war drum. A stiff breeze whistled through the tops of the tall pines, but beneath their sheltering branches, the eagle feathers in his war bonnet were barely ruffled. Although the priest was a Chippewa, the headdress he often wore was Sioux; he received it while he was doing mission work in the western states.

Along the sandy river bank a campfire, adding its glow and warmth to the cool June evening in the north woods, accentuated the priest's Indian features and his ample figure. Around him sat twenty St. Paul, Minnesota, Boy Scouts, eagerly waiting for the proceedings to begin.

Friends of the scouts and the priest had gathered at the camp the scouts called Neibel to witness the presentation of the Chippewa war drum and peace pipe to the troop by Reverend Philip Gordon (Ti-bish-ko-gi-jik). The Calumet or peace pipe had always been sacred to the Indians, and like the drum, its presentation was attended by strict ceremony.

Among the spectators was Luther Youngdahl, Minnesota's governor and a friend of Father Gordon. He had invited the priest to drum out a song.

For forty years the drum had been used for tribal ceremonies and it was said that on a calm night it could be heard for ten miles. But now the sound reverberated through the dense woods, one of the few stands of virgin timber remaining in the once heavily forested area.

Father Gordon began a slow beat. Scout Leader, Arthur Kingsbury, felt a tremor of apprehension for his friend, the priest from Centuria, a little village in Polk County, Wisconsin close to the Minnesota border.

Faster and faster Father Gordon beat the drum, unmindful of his priestly garments. It was as though he could beat out the demon that was beginning to torment his body as his mind and spirit had been tortured through much of his life.

Philip Gordon's youth had been spent in the transition period between the fur trading years in the wilderness and the slaughter of the giant forests by the lumber industry. His life was torn between the free spirit of the Indian and the rigid rules of the Catholic Church of that time. But even after years of education and travel, his heart remained with the Indians. He often said, "I want to live and die among my people."

The priest began to chant an ancient tribal song to the accompaniment of the drum. For a few moments he was transported in memory to his childhood days and his somber garments became the colorful ceremonial robes of the Chippewa Indians. Tears came to his eyes as he lay down the beaters for the last time.

When Father Gordon became the first American Indian in the United States to be ordained a priest in the Catholic Church, he ordered the war drum and peace pipe made so he could present them to Me-sa-bi, his childhood playmate.

Me-sa-bi had become, the hereditary Medicine Chief at the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation, the shaman of the Ottawa band of the Chippewa Confederation. The Indians believed the shaman had supernatural powers. He ranked above the chiefs and had more influence and greater prestige.

After the death of Me-sa-bi in the early 1940's, the Indian articles were returned to the priest. Father Gordon had always been a champion of scouting and want the Boy Scouts, who were interested in Indian lore, to have them.

Sixteen years after the presentation, the gifts were destined to be carried to one more chief, the Great White Father in Washington. On Jun 18, 1962, the centennial of the Indian Uprising in Minnesota, the Boy Scout Calumet Dancers, presented the drum and the peace pipe to President John F. Kennedy and repeated the legend.

As the echoes of the drum died away, Father Gordon returned to the parish house but he could not dismiss the nostalgic mood of the evening. His thoughts were back in the little village of Gordon where he was born on March 31, 1885. He was one of fourteen children of William Gordon and his Chippewa Indian wife, A-te-ge-kwe (Woman Who Loves Gambling).

When Philip was born, Gordon, or Waiskamig in the Chippewa tongue, was still not much more that a trading post, and a mission of the Catholic Church, with a few Indians and white families. The village was named for Anton Gordon, Father Gordon's grandfather. He had Americanized his name from the French, Antoine Gaudin, when he built the log trading post at the place the Indians called Amick.

The mission was visited only a few times a year by Franciscan missionaries from Bayfield, Wisconsin, about eighty miles away.

These dedicated missionaries journeyed through the wilderness to visit Indian villages and white settlements throughout northern Wisconsin. They suffered unbelievable hardships in establishing friaries and mission stations to serve the scattered settlements. In order to reach as many as possible, they divided the extensive area into four districts. The mission at Gordon was included in the St. Croix district, along with Yellow River, Yellow Lake, Mud Hen Lake, Orange, Trade River and others.

In the beginning, the missionaries made the journey on foot with one or two Indian guides, as only an Indian could find the trails in the dense forests. Since the trip required six or eight weeks, provisions, blankets, and tents as well as the necessary articles for divine services, had to be carried. They struggled through mud and swamps in the rainy seasons and were often drenched to the skin without a change of clothing.

Northern Wisconsin's severe winters were another hardship they had to endure. The Indians taught them how to make and use snowshoes, which made winter travel somewhat easier. Even warm weather brought discomforts with swarms of mosquitoes emanating from the swamps and lush growth of vegetation. Later the missionaries made the trip on horseback or with a horse-drawn wagon or buggy.

During their visits the missionaries celebrated the Mass, heard confessions, administered baptism and performed marriage ceremonies for those who were joined by Indian rites.

The first two Franciscan missionaries who had their headquarters at Bayfield were Fathers Casimir Vogt and Jon Gafron. Others joined them for short periods but these two carried on the work, taking turns visiting the outlying mission while one remained at home to take care of Bayfield and vicinity. In 1881 they received the help of Fathers Eustace Vollmer and Odoric Derenthal, and, in 1883, Fathers Paulinus Tolksdorf and Chrysostom Verwyst arrived. On one of his visits to the Gordon mission, Father Odoric baptized Philip Bergin Gordon.

About the time of Philip's birth, the area also saw the completion of several railroads and the missionaries were able to travel more at ease and visit additional mission along the route. By the time Philip was born, the country stood poised at the beginning of another era, which would completely change the life of the Indians. Already the stagecoach route had come and gone. It had followed the Old St. Croix Trail that Father Gordon's ancestors knew so well. A series of narrow footpaths, blazed by the Indians many years ago through virgin forests, the Trail formed a land route over two hundred miles from Lake Superior to Stillwater, Minnesota, a journey that required about ten days traveling.

Fallen trees and growth of jack pine and shrubs have filled the rutted, sandy wheel tracks, but faint traces of the old Trail could still be seen in 1975.

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