Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Christian Missions on Haida Gwaii, 1829-1897

The first contact, slight though it was, between a Christian missionary and an inhabitant of Haida Gwaii took place in 1829. In that year the Reverend Johnathan S. Green, acting under the instructions of the Purdential Committee of the American Board of Foreign Missions, sailed to the North-west Coast of America aboard the barque "Volunteer." This journey was made in order to study the needs of the inhabitants and to determine the best location for a mission center. Although Mr. Green did not yet set foot on Haida Gwaii, and his description of the country as "level, fruitful, delightful" was based solely on the view he obtained of Graham Island as his ship coasted southward from Rose Spit to Skidegate Inlet, he did manage, through his contact with a Haida person while on the Mainland (Kassan), to compile a vocabulary of some seven hundred Haida words. In concluding his report, however, Mr. Green suggested the mouth of the Columbia Rivere was the best site for a permanent American mission. Nearly half a century was to pass before a Christian Mission was established among the Haida.

In an indirect way the British Navy was responsible for the introduction of Christianity to the Haida people. In 1853, when the gold furore was beginning to die down, H.M.S. Virago spent some time in Virago Sound and in the entrance to Massett Inlet. Her commander, Captain James C. Prevost, was at that time much impressed by the fine physique and apparent intelligence of the Haida people, but he saw only too clearly how they were  being demoralized and their numbers decimated by drunkeness and perpetual intertribal warfare. When he returned to England in 1856, Captain Prevost made these conditions known to the Church Missionary Society. The result was that on his return to Victoria in H.M.S. Satellite in 1857 he brought out with him, with the consent of the Admirality, a young man, William Duncan, who was to be the first missionary on the North Pacific Coast. It was from the famous mission established some years later at Metlakatla by Father Duncan (for by that name he was known and long remembered in the North) that the missionary movement spread to Haida Gwaii.

In 1873 the Society in England sent out W.H. Collison and his wife to act as assistants to William Duncan at Metlakatla. Mrs. Collison had nursed the wounded on battlefields in the Franco-Prussian War and was therefore well fitted for her task as the first white woman social worker in the North, and her skill in caring for the sick and injured greatly aided the missionary cause. In 1874 Collison saw his first Haida fleet approaching Metlakatla, "40 canoes each with two snowy white tails spread." Here were the reputed Vikings of the North, feared and hated by the Mainland people, but he was soon to go among them as their first white teacher.

Massett, Haida Gwaii, 1874
In his book, "In the Wake of the War Canoe," Rev. Collison tells of his initial journey to Massett in a Haida canoe. He describes vividly the dangers and beauties of that voyage:--

"The following morning, Wednesday, 8th of June, I was aroused from a sound slumber at about three o'clock a.m., before it was quite light. My Indian [Haida] crew was already on the alert, and informed me that the wind was blowing freshly off shore and was favourable and likely to increase.

After a hasty meal I commended myself and crew to the care and guidance of our Heavenly Father, and soon we were standing off with a "full sheet and a flowing sea." As the wind increased the sea arose and threatened to engulf our frail bark in its yawning depths. In six hours we had lost all sight of land, and even the mountain tops had disappeared. 

None of us were able to retain our seats on the thwarts, nor would it have been well to have done so, as they are only sewn to the sides of the canoe with thongs of cedar withes, and might easily have been given way under the increased strain. In addition she rode better with the ballast low down, consequently all save the steersman had to remain huddled up in the bottom of the canoe.

An occasional wave broke over us, which kept us all on the alert, and soon all four of our young sailors were seized with that dread ailment mal de mer. I, together with my steersman and bowman, remained  unaffected for which I felt thankful, as it required all our efforts to keep our frail craft afloat.

. . . continuing our journey we soon found ourselves off Rose Spit, which is a long and dangerous sand bar extending for several miles seaward from the north-eastern point of Graham Island, the largest of Q.C.I [Haida Gwaii] group. This great sand-spit, which has always been regarded by the Haidas as the abode of some powerful "Nok-nok" or spirit of evil, has evidently been formed by the tides and storms from the west and south meeting here, and thus continually adding to the bank of sand . . . We effected a landing on the islands at about 4:30 p.m., and, having been cramped up in the canoe for thirteen hours, we were glad to be able to stretch our limbs on the island shore.

I realized the importance of my visit, being the first messenger of the Gospel to the Haidas, and whilst my crew were engaged in lighting a fire and preparing some food, I seized the opportunity to enter the forest, and there in faith I bowed and entrusted the work on which we were about to enter to the Divine guidance and blessing.

This was my first visit to Q.C.I. [Haida Gwaii] by canoe. I made the passage seventeen times by canoe, and on three of these voyages we were well-nigh lost."

In October, 1876, with his small family, Rev. Collison embarked in the Hudson's Bay Company's steamer "Otter" for Massett on the distant islands. Under the most primitive conditions he and Mrs. Collison began their struggle with the medicine-men, who sinister influence in the villages was so hard to control. In 1877 Skidegate and Gold Harbor were visited and the first church services held there. Among the first converts at Massett was Chief Edenshaw's son, Cowhoe, as was called in the Haida tongue. Collison tells the story of how the young man one day approached him. This story was also told by a Reverend C. Harrison who wrote about the mission's history. Cowhoe had apparently kept a book given to him by Captain James C. Prevost, and showed it to Reverend Collison.  Collison then tells of how the young man learned to read, how he was baptized and given the name of George, and how finally he became the first native teacher in the Massett Day School. A daughter of Collison's was the first white child born on the islands, and twenty years later she, with her brother, returned to work among the people to whom her father had been the first to bring the message of Christianity.

When Collison was recalled to Metlakatla, his place on Haida Gwaii was taken by George Sneath, who was in turn followed by the Reverend Charles Harrison. Harrison wrote a report, "The Hydah Mission," describing his stay in Massett. Harrison remained at this post until 1890, and during that time the church, St. John the Evangelist, was built at Massett. After spending two years in England and on the Continent, Harrison came back to Haida Gwaii, this time as a landholder. For many years he was a kind of unofficial ambassador for Haida Gwaii and wrote many articles,  dealing with their unlimited possibilities for the development of farming and other industries.

The first Methodist mission was begun in Skidegate as an offshoot of the one established at Fort Simpson some years before by the Reverend Thomas Crosby. The people of Skidegate, seeing how the Tsimshians were prospering under the Christian influence, sent a young Haida man (Gedanst, later renamed Amos Russ) to Fort Simpson to ask for a teacher. It was a serious wish of Gedanst to learn English so that he might improve the lot of his people. In the case of many of the young men the chief desire was to acquire the ability to read and write in order to add to their own prestige or power.

Gold Harbor, Haida Gwaii, 1884

This the missionaries realized, just as they knew that their first converts came from the despised and outcast members of the north-west coast peoples who saw in the new faith a hope and release from their life of bondage. Hence the fierce opposition the earliest missionaries met with from the chiefs and nearly all the medicine-men. These tribal leaders knew that under the democratic spirit of Christianity their powers would be greatly diminished. The missionary at Fort Simpson found the request of Gedanst hard to refuse, and yet the methodist Mission had no funds with which to send a teacher or minister to Skidegate. But George Robinson, a teacher in the Port Simpson School, volunteered to go as a lay preacher on no regular salary until such time as an ordained man could be found. As soon as Gedant (Amos Russ) had received sufficient instruction in English and in the Bible, he went to Gold Harbor and commenced a school; from there he went to the little village of Clue, while his place at Gold Harbor was taken by a native Tsimshian teacher, George Edgar, who was afterwards ordained. Robinson was succeeded at Skidegate by the Reverend G. F. Hopkins, and he in turn by the Reverend A. N. Miller. In 1893 the Reverend B.C. Freeman took over the charge at Skidegate, and that same year the little church at Gold Harbor, which had been built by gifts of blankets, was taken down and removed to the larger village. Here in 1897, the villagers of Clue also joined them, the church as enlarged, and all became part of the village of Skidegate.

Mission schools, where secular instruction in English was given, were a part of the mission plan from its inception. These, at first attended by adults and children at different times, did much to counteract the influence of superstition. Progress was at all times retarded by the nomadic habits of these people. As a result, residential institutes and homes were finally established where the care and teaching of the young could be continued during the time their parents were necessarily absent from the villages for the hunting or fishing seasons. []