Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

Peter Jones - Sacred Feathers - and the Mississauga Indians (2)

Written by Rev.Ken Herfst
This second instalment (see May 2004 for 1st article) describes the impact Christianity had on the natives that were converted under the ministry of Peter Jones, an Ojibway Indian, during the first half of the 19th century in the area near the Credit River and the Grand River in southern Ontario.
A ÒGreat AwakeningÓ Among the Mississaugas
As a man who operated within two cultures, Peter Jones proved to be a key person in the history of the Mississauga people. His dream was to have his fellow Mississauga natives recognized as citizens on the same level as their white counterparts. With the demise of their traditional hunting grounds, Jones encouraged the Christians to settle and turn to agriculture as a way to support themselves. This also allowed for more systematic instruction. The land question became an urgent one and Jones was an able spokesman who tried to champion their cause. That cause would eventually bring him to England to present the IndiansÕ concerns to Queen Victoria in person. Indian affairs personnel were not used to working with articulate aboriginals. He consistently pressured the government to keep previously signed agreements.

Among the latter was the annual distribution of gifts in the second week of July. One account of this distribution highlights the kinds of changes that were evident in the lives of the new Christians. The Mississaugas left the Grand River and camped the first night at Stony Creek. Starting early the next day, they covered the last fifty kilometers and arrived at the Credit River flats just before sunset.

Methodist converts pitched their tents away from their non-Christian relatives. Soon the sound of hymns could be heard. Jones translated many Wesleyan hymns such as:

Jesus Ish pe ming ka e sh—dt,
Me sah oœh a pa ne mooh y‡hn;
Ne wah pah than kah ne e sh—dt
Ki ya need ka ne e shah y‡h

Jesus my all to heaven is gone,
He whom I fix my hopes upon:
His track I see, and IÕll pursue
The narrow way till him I see.

Jones used the opportunity to preach to about 300 people, both native and white. He addressed his own people in Ojibway, and then spoke in English. A summary of JonesÕ preaching survives thanks to Egerton Ryerson, the future founder of the Ontario public school system and a Methodist preacher himself. Jones usually began with creation, outlining GodÕs goodness in creating man in an innocent and holy state. From there he turned to the entrance of sin into the world because of AdamÕs disobedience. He traced all the misery and sin that the Mississaugas experienced to this one act of disobedience. At that point, Jones began with a message of hope, noting that the Great Good Spirit so pitied the world that He sent His only beloved Son to teach men how they might become good and happy. Turning to the cross, Jones emphasized the need for ChristÕs death in simple terms, and showed how that only He could save from the sin and misery in their hearts. The resurrection assured hearers that Jesus was alive. Jones would conclude with ChristÕs ascension and future return. Hearers were warned to escape the final judgment by true repentance and giving their hearts fully to Jesus Christ.

Another Mississauga later recounted JonesÕ teaching on salvation by comparing it to a golden chain: Òthe love of God in heaven made the golden chain Ð Jesus Christ brought it down to us in the pit, and the Holy Spirit helps us lay hold of it by faith and the Grace of God & promises in Christ pulls us up towards heaven.Ó

The scene that followed JonesÕ preaching is reminiscent of the Great Awakening in New England. Many hearers fell under deep conviction of sin; some collapsed on the ground, crying for mercy. Others rejoiced wildly as they received assurance of forgiveness. July 10, 1825 would forever be inscribed on the MississaugasÕ memory as a day when the Lord poured out His Holy Spirit upon them. About half of the band became Christians during this time.

The Attitude of the Government and the Church
Two days later, the entire group made their way to the Humber River to meet with the government officials who came to distribute their gifts. The officials included the lieutenant governor, Sir Peregrine Maitland and Rev. John Strachan, leading Anglican cleric in the region. The non-Christians wore traditional clothing and had their faces daubed with paint for the occasion. Opposite them stood the Christians, looking rather plain. While some of the women retained traditional clothing, most men wore European clothing. Observers noted that Peter Jones even wore a watch. Somehow, Western tastes of dress and status quickly became the abiding symbol of conversion. The Christian children sang two hymns for the officials, while blankets, cloth, rifles, powder and lead were handed out to the Mississaugas.

Reverend Strachan hid his true feelings that day. He had only recently made a vicious attack on the Òuneducated itinerant preachersÓ for their lack of preparation. Nevertheless, he recognized Peter JonesÕ abilities and hoped that soon the Anglicans could send missionaries to the Mississaugas who would convince Jones to join their ranks. This was but a foreshadow of the religious competition that would soon discredit the gospel so badly. To woo them, Strachan suggested that they return to the Credit River, where the government would build them a village. The Mississaugas agreed unanimously and by the spring of the following year, the Mississaugas who had moved to the Grand River area returned to the Credit River.

ChristianityÕs Impact on Native Life and Culture
Peter Jones continued to work among his people. Many joined the Methodist Church. There are some practical factors that contributed to the conversions. With the depletion of their traditional hunting grounds, the natives desperately needed aid. If they became Christians, the government, the white Methodists and Peter Jones would help them become farmers, thus ensuring their survival. Secondly, Christianity was linked to becoming more ÒcivilizedÓ and was seen to go hand in hand with progress. Third, the strong moral demands made by Methodism were seen to be a solution to the drinking problem that had plagued the Mississaugas for so long. They needed these social controls.

Yet, historians note that above all else, the key to their conversion was Peter Jones. His intercultural skills made Christianity accessible and understandable to his native hearers. He was able to link much of the Old Testament to their world with the similarities between dreams as a way of revelation, worship of an unseen God--the Great Spirit, the customs of sacrificing and fasting, etc. Like many native people, the Mississaugas had a long-standing oral tradition that included an account of the flood, wars between different tribes, etc. Jones now told them stories of heroes like David who triumphed over Goliath in a way that resonated in a culture that admired spiritual strength. Even the forty days that Moses spent on mount Sinai or ChristÕs forty days in the desert had all the hallmarks of an Ojibway spiritual quest. Values like honesty, kindness and general uprightness were part of the old Mississauga way of life and they easily accepted the second table of the Ten Commandments.

Consequently, a social revolution took place. Christian natives no longer hunted or fished on the LordÕs Day. One convert was known to cut his pipe tobacco on Saturday for use on the Sabbath! Many wanted to read ÒGodÕs BookÓ for themselves and in the years that followed, natives learned to read while many white settlers did not. Missionaries continued the practice of finding European names for the native converts. Sometimes it was done for practical reasons. Pronouncing or writing Ojibway names was difficult and so Phoombwawindung (the approaching roaring thunder) became Thomas Smith!

Additionally, the Christian natives soon abandoned their practice of living in wigwams for log homes set close together in a straight line. Agriculture was the new economic base for their society. That meant that traditional roles for men and women changed considerably as well. Before the men would hunt and the women would attend to the concerns around the wigwam and plant corn. No warrior worth his salt would be caught with a hoe in his hand. Now that was all changed: men cultivated the fields and women remained at home to sew clothing, wash clothing, etc. Husbands with more than one wife sent all but the first one away. They would support other wives and their children, but could only live with one wife. Women now had the right to choose their own husbands, as arranged marriages were no longer practiced.

The Gospel and Social Change
Peter Jones constantly encouraged the Mississauga natives to become a new race of people who would be equal to the whites in every way. He worked at protecting their economic interests and sought to establish a firm financial base for them. Salmon provided a source of income and Jones lobbied to have their rights to fishing in the Credit River recognized by the government. Eventually, dams upstream destroyed the spawning grounds and the salmon no longer traveled up the Credit River. Jones prevented the government from taking advantage of the Mississaugas on more than one occasion.

The year 1826 was important for the Credit River band for another reason. Egerton Ryerson joined Peter Jones as a fellow missionary and worked side by side with his native counterpart. He learned their language and as a man of many practical skills helped them with farming, basic carpentry, etc. All of this was infused with biblical teaching. A year later, an English traveler commented with some amazement that this group that seemed destined to extinction had undergone such an impressive reformation. Years later, Jones summarized his thinking in one sentence:

I cannot suppose for a moment that the Supreme Disposer has
decreed that the doom of the red man is to fall and gradually
disappear, like the mighty wilderness, before the axe of the
European settler.

He believed that the Christian gospel could save them and he felt an obligation to go and preach the gospel to his fellow natives everywhere. WeÕll turn to that story next time. In closing, I would simply comment that missionaries today would be hesitant to link the gospel so closely to outward things like clothing or houses. Still, missionaries are often agents of social change and sensitive ones seek to work alongside leaders to facilitate changes that strengthen a people created in the image of God in a way that allows for an authentic expression of Christianity within their own context. European culture was (and is) not always synonymous with Christianity, as the Mississaugas would sadly come to understand.

To be continued.

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