William Duncan in Metlakatla

Posted on May 20, 2013


From In the Wake of the War Canoe by William Collison.  

The story of Metlakatla is a quintessentially British Columbia story, which, in the middle of the 19th century, represented the farthest, deepest reaches of the British Empire.  The founding of the community represented an experiment in Christian Utopianism, an experiment that failed, among other reasons, because its founder William Duncan was unable to surrender the power and authority which his position as founder had placed him in.  Eventually Duncan would quarrel with his sponsors, the Church Missionary Society, break off and take a portion of his flock with him to establish New Metlakatla in Alaska, the only Indian reserve yet existing in that state.  The following is an account of the original Metlakatla written by the missionary William Collison exerpted from his book, In the Wake of the War Canoe, 1915.

william-duncan-smallWilliam Duncan and the Tsimshian in Metlakatla

AFTER labouring amongst the Tsimshian tribes for five years at Fort Simpson, Mr. Duncan determined to form a Christian settlement at Metlakahtla, some eighteen miles south from Fort Simpson, to which to move the converts and their children, away from heathen influences. Metlakahtla had been the old home of the Tsimshians, their winter encampment, from which they had moved to Fort Simpson after the Hudson’s Bay Company had built the fort there. It was well suited for such a settlement, being sheltered from the coldest winds, surrounded by numerous islands, and plentifully provided with fish and game. To this site Mr. Duncan removed with some fifty Christian adherents, in the spring of 1862. …

Shortly after the arrival of this little band in their new quarters, they were surprised one day, whilst engaged in preparing sites for their dwellings, to see a fleet of canoes, all well filled with Indians and their effects, approaching from Fort Simpson. They were alarmed also, as they had heard that the smallpox, that dread disease, which has long been the Indian’s worst enemy had broken out in the camp, after they had left it. As the new arrivals approached the shore, a parley was held, when it was found that they had no stricken cases amongst them, and, as they asserted, no infection.

This tribe, called the Giatlahn, had been encamped by themselves on the farther side of the fort, and had early established a quarantine amongst them. But seeing the disease spreading rapidly amongst the other tribes, and with the invitation of the missionary still ringing in their ears, they resolved to flee, and follow the Christians to the old camping ground. This, then, was the cause of their flight, and, after due consultation, and an agreement to obey the laws of the new settlement, they were permitted to land and take up their quarters on the eastern shore of the site. This new accession added some three hundred to the numbers of the little band. It proved a veritable city of refuge to those who had thus availed themselves of it, as, so rapidly did the affection spread amongst those remaining at Fort Simpson that no fewer than one-fifth of the entire number were swept away by the dread disease.

The Tsimshian brass band in Metlakatla was their first, but the Tsimshian showed an affinity for them afterwards--which greatly assisted the later evangelizing efforts of the Salvation Army among the Tsimshian.

The Tsimshian brass band in Metlakatla was their first, but the Tsimshian showed an affinity for the pomp and uniforms–a taste which greatly assisted the later evangelizing efforts of the Salvation Army among Tsimshian and Nisga’a communities.

By establishing a strict quarantine the new settlement was protected from a foe more deadly than ever Indian warrior had met on the war-path. Rules and regulations and sanitary laws were introduced for the benefit of the community, and a sawmill and trading store established to supply their secular needs. As there was no representative of law on this wild northern coast, the missionary found it necessary to accept a commission of the peace, and in order to preserve the peace and protect the settlement he organised and swore in a body of Indian constables.

That this was necessary was clear, when we remember that all the tribes around were as yet heathen, uncivilised, and unevangelised. And, to make matters worse, whisky schooners were beginning to sail up and down the coast laden with the deadly “fire-water,” which they bartered with the Indians for their furs. Whisky feasts generally followed the visit of one of these vessels to a camp, and such feasts always ended in a fierce and free fight, where firearms and other deadly weapons were turned by the intoxicated Indians upon their friends and fellow-tribesmen.

Some of the chiefs and medicine men early began to oppose the efforts of the missionary. They were jealous of the influence he was gaining with their people, and realised that their craft was in danger. But the head chief, Legaic, a man of much influence, who had been the leader of the opposition and had threatened the life of the missionary, at length surrendered to the call of the Gospel, and abandoning his position of head chief, came and joined the Christian settlement at Metlakahtla. He was shortly afterwards baptized by the name of Paul. …

I was the only missionary whose instructions were to proceed to the western shores of “the great lone land,” as Captain Butler had termed it in the volume of his travels just then published.…My wife, to whom reference had been made in the dismissal instructions, had, as a deaconess, nursed the wounded on the battlefields during the Franco-German war, and was present at the surrender of Metz.… She was thus well prepared to take her part in mission work amongst the Indian women, with whom she soon gained a remarkable influence, and was enabled to correct many abuses, which even those who were Christians still retained amongst them. She was the first white woman to take up her residence amongst the Tsimshians at Metlakahtla, and afterwards the first amongst the then fierce Haidas of Queen Charlotte Islands, where her skill in ministering to the sick, and in dressing the wounds of those injured, tended in no small degree to bring them under the influence of the teaching of the Gospel of Salvation. ….

We embarked on the Prince Alfred on October 5th en route for Victoria, Vancouver Island. …In six days we reached Victoria, and found on inquiry that there was only one small trading vessel plying north from Victoria, and she was due to sail on the 1st day of November. ….The trip up the coast occupied nearly nine days…

At some of the encampments we saw the medicine men, in their paint and cedar-bark crowns, performing their incantations over the sick. At Bella Coola a medicine dance was in progress, and a weird scene it presented as they danced around in a large lodge, chanting a wild dirge, in which time was kept by beating as a drum a large cedar chest, over which a dried skin was stretched, whilst the woodwork was decorated by fantastic figures, painted with their colours.

Metlakatla by Lady Dufferin, 1876We reached Metlakahtla, our destination, on Sunday at midday, and anchored in the harbour off the village. This was the first Mission station north of Nanaimo along a coast line of over five hundred miles, with the exception above mentioned, and there was but another station some fifty-five miles further north, and near to the boundary of Alaska.

At each of these two stations there was but one missionary, so that we at once saw there was a wide field of labour awaiting us. Our good captain had informed us that, as it was Sunday, we would probably have to remain on board till the following day, as the rule of the Mission was that no goods or passengers should be landed on Sunday.

After casting anchor, we could see a large congregation of Indians emerging from a rough building standing on the shore, which I afterwards learned was meant to serve the purposes of a guest and market-house, but which was now being used as a temporary church. Shortly afterwards a boat put off from the shore, which on approaching the steamer we saw was manned by two white men. They were on a visit to the Mission, and learning that we were expected by this, which was the last trip of the steamer for the year, they volunteered to come off for us. On reaching the shore we received a hearty welcome from Mr. Duncan, whilst hundreds of the Indians pressed forward to greet us.

As they were clean, and dressed in holiday attire, they presented a pleasing contrast to the tribes we had seen in their paint and blankets along the route. There were about four hundred and fifty Indians then at Metlakahtla, many of whom had been baptized ; the rest were catechumens.

We were present at the evening service, which was well attended.

Metlakatla, B.C., looking south towards the churchThe language sounded strangely in our ears, and the responses were repeated by all as with one voice. There were no books in the native language, but the hymns and responses were sung and repeated from memory in their own tongue. Many of the Indians possessed English Bibles, and were able to find the text when given out. This was read by the preacher in English, and then translated into the Tsimshian.

Though ignorant of the language, the day following our arrival found me hard at work. In a long, low blockhouse, constructed of logs, and but poorly lighted, I took up school work first, in the morning, with over one hundred children of both sexes; and again in the afternoon, with some one hundred and twenty women, including the senior girls, who had been present in the morning; whilst in the evening we had the building well filled with men from seven till nine P.M.

As the cold weather had set in, we had two wood fires some distance apart, on hearths elevated about a foot higher than the floor around. Over the fires, and about five feet above them, were constructed funnel-shaped chimneys of sheet-iron on a wooden framework, but before the draught in these could draw the smoke, the wind blew it through the room, which proved most trying to the eyes.

It was this educational work which enabled me to acquire the language quickly, with the correct pronunciation. At first, the calling of the school roll was always accompanied with considerable merriment at the teacher’s expense. The majority of the pupils were as yet unbaptized, and were consequently enrolled by their own old heathen names.

Metlakatla,_BC Some_of_William_Duncan's_first_convertsAs I endeavoured to call these out, “Wenaloluk,” “Adda-ashkaksh,” “Tka-ashkakash,” “Weyumiyetsk,” and scores of other names even longer and more difficult, peal after peal of laughter arose from my pupils. But I did not mind. It served to show me my deficiency, which I made haste to correct. Gradually, this hilarity subsided, and I knew I was overcoming the difficulties of the pronunciation of the language. I also was enabled to undertake a part in the charge and care of the sick, and in this my wife was enabled to render valuable assistance, especially in cases requiring surgical aid, and in female complaints. ….

Mr. Duncan was just then engaged in the erection of the new church, a building designed to accommodate some twelve hundred worshippers. The Indians at Fort Simpson were not wholly neglected, as native evangelists from Metlakahtla sustained weekly services there. In this good work I was also glad to engage, and it was at Fort Simpson that I delivered my first address in Tsimshian, just eight months after my arrival in the Mission. Heathenism was then in possession at Fort Simpson, and sometimes the weird and fanatic cries and howling of the medicine men could be heard miles from the camp, as we approached. …

THE new church building at Metlakahtla was completed and ready for opening by Christmas 1874. Invitations were accordingly sent out to the tribes around to be present at the dedicatory services. A large number of the Fort Simpson Indians responded, as also a number from our Kincolith Mission of the Nishkas, where the Rev. R. Tomlinson was in charge. Shakes also, the chief of the Giat-kahtla tribe, came in a monster canoe, the largest I have seen, accompanied by nearly one hundred of his tribe.

On the occasion of the opening, a large Bible was presented to him, one of a number which had been given by the Society to be presented to such as might be considered worthy of the gift. It lay long in his treasure-chest before he learnt to appreciate its value…

Tsimshian weaversThis encampment on Ogden Channel was one of those which I visited when itinerating by canoe in the early years of my work. On my first visit I remained over a Sunday, and was permitted by this chief, Shakes, to conduct services in his large lodge. Some of the leading men of the tribe feared my influence with him, as they appeared to have arranged that several of them should always be present with him during my stay.

Shakes was a bigamist, and after the morning service, his wives roasted some dried salmon before the large fire which burned on the hearth in the centre of the great lodge. Having seated themselves one on either side of the chief, they proceeded to divide up and masticate the salmon for him. Then, withdrawing it from their mouths, they placed it in his mouth, each acting in turn, the one using the right hand, and the other the left. He held a horn spoon himself, from which he occasionally took a sip of olachan grease, renewing his supply from a dish placed before him. At length he intimated that he was satisfied, when they supplied him with a draught of water, after which they proceeded to partake of the dried salmon and grease themselves. …

It was in the autumn of 1875 that the first inquiry as to the practicability of starting a salmon-canning establishment on the Skeena River was made. I landed at Woodcock’s landing, now known as Inverness, from a canoe, accompanied by twelve Indians, where I was introduced by Mr. Woodcock to a gentleman named Colonel Lane, who had just arrived on the H.B. Company s steamer. He informed me that he had come up the coast to ascertain if the salmon abounded in sufficient numbers to warrant the establishment of a cannery. It was a calm evening and sultry as betokening rain, and I had remarked that the salmon were jumping pretty freely, especially up the eastern outlet of the river. So, calling upon the newcomer to follow me, I led him down to the edge of the water where we could see clearly up the channel, and then directed him to look up.

“There,” I said, “you require no further evidence than that. And just here is about as good a site as you could find for such an establishment.”

Chilkat blankets are believed to have been originally developed by the Tsimshian.

Chilkat blankets are believed to have been originally developed by the Tsimshian.

He was fully satisfied with the outlook, and so impressed with the advantage of the position that he at once entered into negotiations with the squatter for the purchase of the place. In this he succeeded, and returning to Victoria by the same trip of the steamer, he formed the company which took over Woodcock’s landing, and erected the first cannery on the Skeena there, which was renamed by the company “Inverness.” And the introduction of this industry on the north-west coast afterwards proved most advantageous to the Metlakahtla Mission.

Mr. Duncan had long laboured to introduce some industrial occupation which would prove profitable to the Indians and the Mission. The manufacture of soap had been tried but proved a failure, owing to the unsuitability of fish oil for the purpose. And even if it had succeeded, it would scarcely have proved profitable, seeing that the fish grease is sold by the Indians who extract it at two dollars to two dollars and a half per tin, containing five gallons, or fifty cents a gallon. Consequently this was abandoned.

The next industry sought to be introduced was that of spinning and weaving shawls and blankets. To this end an instructor was engaged, and machines and wool purchased and procured at considerable cost. But after due trial they only succeeded in turning out an article that none of them would purchase. Had the Indians been taught to manufacture the magnificent robes which are woven by the Chilcat tribe of Alaska from the wool of the mountain goat, and dyed by them with their own peculiar designs, the venture would not have been a failure. And why? it may be asked. Because it is an Indian design, and as such commands a high price. They are valued at from fifty to seventy dollars at the present time, and are in great demand by tourists and others.

On one occasion when Mr. Duncan was expressing his regret at the failure of his effort to perfect this industry, and at the loss sustained over it, I ventured to introduce a subject which had for some time been on my mind. It was the advisability of introducing salmon canning as an industry.

“You have,” I said, “been contending against adverse circumstances. Even supposing your weaving had turned out successful in the manufacture, you could not hope to have competed with the imported article, having to pay freight on the raw material up the coast, whereas the manufacturers in Eastern Canada and elsewhere have the material at hand. No,” I added, “why not introduce the salmon canning industry? You have the fishermen ready made and to order. They require no training, as every coast Indian is a fisherman from his youth up, and you have got another important advantage in your sawmill by which you can turn out not only the lumber for the erection of your buildings, but also the material for the salmon cases afterwards. And you are conveniently near to the salmon fishing waters of the Skeena to which the cannery men are now turning their attention.”

In reply, Mr. Duncan stated that it was impossible to start such an industry without a large capital. I suggested that it could be introduced on a small scale and gradually increased, and urged him on his next journey to Victoria to visit the Fraser River canneries and ascertain just what machinery would be necessary. In the spring Mr. Duncan left on a business trip to the south, and on his return announced his intention to erect a cannery. Not only had he realised his ability to introduce this industry, but he had found friends ready to invest in such an enterprise.

Shortly after the establishment of the first salmon cannery on the Skeena I visited it to conduct evangelistic services for the Indians there, when the manager of the cannery complained to me that the Christian Indians had refused to put out their nets for fish on Sundays. I informed him that I was glad to know that they were faithful to the teaching they had received and to the vows which they had made. At this he was rather indignant, and replied that they should have been taught to obey as their first duty.

“That is just what we have endeavoured to do,” I replied, “to obey God rather than man. Would you have us teach them some of the commandments and to set aside the rest? If we teach them, as we have, Thou shalt do no murder, and Thou shalt not steal, we must also teach them to Remember to keep holy the Sabbath Day.” And it is this teaching which has civilised and evangelised these men, and prepared them to become docile and industrious, whereas before they were fierce and indolent.”