An American Oberammergau, by Harlan I. Smith

Yesterday we dealt with Jesus’s birth, today his death.

The well-known anthropologist Harlan I. Smith contributed quite a good article to the popular Putnam’s Monthly & The Reader, volume 5, number 3 (December 1908), pages 294-303. This was another of those mass-circulation magazines that provided really hefty reading matter, in a style that I often compare with what you see in National Geographic. So there’s no lack of vivid detail.

The title of the piece is “An American Oberammergau: The Passion-Play by American Indians“, and it’s illustrated with what I take to be Smith’s own photographs. He’s known to have used that device in his field research; I even have a copy of one of his photos of a Salish cemetery with Chinook Writing on the grave markers.

This is excellent stuff to give you some solid background on the then vibrant Catholic Indian culture of southern Interior BC, with its massively popular Chinuk Wawa literacy. (Useful side note — Father Le Jeune published the Passion Play in Chinook Writing.) Since Smith was in direct contact with Le Jeune on the scene and had a curious mind, there’s plenty here that I’ve never read in other sources.

Simultaneously, Smith stays true to character as an “ethnologist” of his time, (A) slipping in some details of life before contact with Europeans and (B) using “America” to mean “the Western Hemisphere”.

A ripping good read.

Here you go:

[page 294:]

American Oberammergau page 294




FATHER J.M. LE JEUNE is unquestionably one of the most remarkable missionaries in America. A marvel among Roman Catholic priests as well as a very brilliant son of France, one would hardly guess his clerical character from the indications of his outward personality. His build is slender, which is perhaps accentuated by reason of his many responsibilities and the continuous travel which is made necessary by the great extent of his field of labor. He is rather below the average in height, wears a beard, and his manner is active, energetic and business-like to a degree. He works among nine different Indian tribes, comprising not only people of different dialects, but different languages; the speech of one tribe being as different from that of another as Spanish is from French. He has learned to speak with all of these different peoples. He has superintended the building of a church in each village in a territory of over ten thousand square miles. He goes from one place of worship to another, obtaining his food at the home of his nearest parishioner at meal-time, or having it prepared for him in the church itself, behind the altar, by some of the young Indian women of the congregation. His bed is wherever he is when night overtakes him, in one village or in

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American Oberammergau page 295

[photo caption:] 
The priest has taught these Indians to manufacture acetylene gas, to light this church and other buildings

one [sic] another, in the mountains or in an isolated lodge. Everywhere he is welcome. He seems greatly to enjoy his work. His word is law among his Indian people, wherever he goes; yet he himself is modest, unassuming and quiet, always actively engaged in the business matters in which he takes great interest, or in the religious services of his church.

Some twenty-seven years ago, Father Le Jeune was sent from Brittany to work among the natives living in the interior of southern British Columbia. Two thousand of these Indians are now corresponding in shorthand, the idea having been given them by the ingenious priest. They have their newspaper, of which Father Le Jeune is the editor, and which is published in shorthand characters. Under his direction his congregation has installed acetylene gas in the church on the Shuswap Indian Reservation at Kamloops, where he entertains and instructs them by means of stereopticon lectures. But Father
Le Jeune stays at this church only a small portion of his time, as he has a circuit to travel, along which are many churches which he must open, each in turn, that he may hold the expected services for the Indians of all these remote settlements. Near the Kamloops church is the government industrial school, in which the good priest is also interested. The Indian police of these reservations look to him largely for counsel in the execution of their duties among their own people. In the spring, each year, he supervises the Passion Play, which is enacted entirely by these lowly Indians of
Western Canada. Father Le Jeune’s work among them has not been confined to the American continent, for he accompanied Chief Louis of the Shuswaps, and Chief Tcilaxitca of the Douglas Lake Indians, on a journey which they undertook to pay their respects to their King, Edward VII, at Buckingham Palace, and to receive an audience at the Vatican by the Pope, Pius X.

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The three afterward travelled through Italy, Belgium, France and England, before returning to their Western home. The Pope made the Rev. Father Le Jeune the bearer of his blessing to the Indians, and sent to them two thousand medals as a gift from himself. Upon the return of the missionary, hundreds of Indians or “siwashes” flocked to the territory covered by Father Le Jeune, to receive the pontifical benediction and their medals. The occasion was embraced by the reverend father to exhibit for the first time a collection of 120 stereopticon views of the principal cities visited by the two chiefs and himself, their political and spiritual emissaries.

The Passion Play has been produced a number of times at the Shuswap village, under the direction of Father Le Jeune. The Indians seem to take an intense interest in the drama, and always speak of it with earnestness and reverence. The production was once so effective that a poor white man, after witnessing the play, became insane, and frequently attempted to crucify himself, until at last the authorities had to put him under restraint. This play, of course, is planned after the Passion Play of the Bavarian Highlands, at Oberammergau. The poor Indians of British Columbia enact the Divine Passion in what we might call an elaborate manner, if we take into account their poverty, which prevents them from securing theatrical supplies, the great distance from the places where such articles could be purchased, and the fact that the only dramatic instruction which they have been able to obtain is that which Father Le Jeune, with his multitudinous duties, has made time to impart. In their acting, however, they show great devotion, which can hardly be considered less sincere than that of the Bavarian peasants. The Indian performers are simple and devout, having but little of the conventionality of civilization, but acting their true feelings; with the result that their acting is a revelation of their innermost selves.

The Indians consider that the impersonation of Christ is an act of devotion, and the man who is allowed to take this part in the Passion Play is chosen from among those of them who lead the most upright and respected lives. Before the play, the 

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American Oberammergau page 297

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actor so selected prays for ability and the purity which he feels must accompany the part. All of the Indians who take part bathe, fast, meditate and pray, before the play takes place. The baths are taken in the “sweat lodge,” a small building made by setting saplings in the ground and bending them over to form a dome. This is covered with blankets, or sometimes with fir boughs and earth. Outside of the lodge they build a fire, in which they heat stones. The persons desiring to be purified enter the lodge, and recline upon a couch made of fir boughs. The heated stones are placed inside the structure, a blanket is thrown over the doorway, and water is then sprinkled upon the stones. The lodge is quickly filled with steam, causing those within to perspire freely. The bathers then march from the lodge, and plunge into the cold waters of the river. As the streams in this part of the country are fed by melting ice on the mountaintops, the change from the steam to the cold water sets up a powerful reaction, which is similar to that produced by our own Turkish baths. The performers are thus physically purified; and they are further made ready for the mental and moral purification, by fasting. Meditation and prayer complete these ceremonies. It should be remembered that in pagan times, among these people, the sweat bath was used as a means of purification by the boys and girls before they were admitted into the societies of the tribe. These societies were of a more or less secret nature, and had to do with their own kind of religion and magic.

It is pathetic to note the comparison of the costumes and make-up of this Indian Passion Play, with those of Oberammergau. These are exceedingly simple, being made from calico and other cheap goods purchased by the Indians themselves at the Hudson Bay Company’s store. When the play begins, the “siwashes” parade up and down the single street or space between the houses of the village and in front of the church. One curious 

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thing about this march is that all of the Indians who impersonate the Roman soldiers and those who were opposed to Christ seem to feel degraded in the part which they are playing. The mounted Roman soldier, instead of being represented as a proud official of the great Roman Empire, is ludicrous in appearance, and astride a drooping Indian pony. The martial trappings of the military are indeed suggested by oddly shaped hats, and much tin and tinsel, but dignity and impressiveness are conspicuously absent. It is quite apparent that a lively imagination is necessary to overcome the defects in the production which are unavoidable with such meagre settings. Imagine in this street, flanked on either side by log cabins, with here and there even a tepee, the enactment of the scenes of the Passion! The lack of accessories is emphasized when Christ is represented as appearing in the Garden of Gethsemane. In this part of British Columbia trees are scarce, and hence the grove of the Garden is represented by twigs set up in the ground. But there is nothing ridiculous in this, to the actors or to the audience. Indeed, the settings of the English stage of the Elizabethan period were of as simple a character. White spectators, who may at first be amused by the lack of dignity of the Roman soldiers, and the grotesqueness of the costumes, soon begin to be affected by the sincerity of these devout Indians, and the inclination to ridicule is replaced by respect for the earnestness and devotion of the performers. The Indian representing the Christ is brought before the high priests, who are sitting on a platform made of a bed which has been taken from a near-by cabin. In due course, he is taken before Pilate, who is enthroned in the same way, on a platform improvised from a bed which has been brought to the middle of the street from one of the log houses on one side. Strangely at variance with the historic scene, Pilate shows his intention to disclaim all responsibility, by washing his hands in a white enameled wash basin. The soldiers stand about with long wooden spears, one of them holding the rope which binds the hands of 

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the represented Christ. A boy and a girl attend Pilate on the platform. The soldiers place a crown of thorns on Jesus’ head, and with the rope for a whip they scourge him. One offers him a palm, while others place across his head a great timber on which are stains to simulate blood. As the troupe move down the street, Christ follows, as at Oberammergau, with the cross on his shoulder, followed by soldiers, some of them riding the little Indian cayuses, others walking. The patient Shuswap women, wearing sombre black or pure white robes, trudge by his side as the women of Jerusalem. With outstretched arms, he is finally placed upon the cross, and the soldiers appear to drive great spikes through his hands and feet, using large wooden hammers made for the occasion. In reality, they do not practise any barbarity upon their respected and devoted comrade, but stains cleverly placed on the cross would lead one to believe that much blood had been shed. During the scene the women of Jerusalem stand weeping and glancing up occasionally at the thorn crowned figure on the cross. Thus the crucifixion scene is completed, and all the Indians are filled with awe.

When the Passion Play takes place many Indians, not only from the Shuswap villages near Kamloops, but also from the villages and camps of other tribes throughout the entire region, assemble to view the tragedy. Such success has attended the representations of this drama under Father Le Jeune’s direction, that the Indians of several other regions in British Columbia are considering the giving of similar productions of the Divine Passion. It is believed that this is the only representation thereof given by the Indians of North America, since the Passion Play performed for centuries by Mexican Indians near the City of Mexico was enacted for the last time on Good Friday in 1901. The disorders attending this latter presentation led to its suppression. Nothing of a disorderly nature has taken place among the producers of the Passion Play under Father Le Jeune’s direction.

Fifteen years ago, the “siwashes” of the canyons of the Thompson and the Fraser River had no written literature; they were unable to write. 

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Each of these tribes had a complicated language, the fundamental grammatical laws of which they obeyed. They had an extensive mythology, which they preserved by frequent recitation, the old men telling stories to the young. Many of these stories possess considerable literary and dramatic merit, and if mistakes were made in repeating them, the narrator was severely censured by the elders of the tribe. To-day several thousand individuals of these different tribes are writing letters to one another in their several languages, and are reading a newspaper, Bibles and other books in their own tongues, all being in shorthand characters. The shorthand newspaper, entitled Kamloops Wawa, is one of the most remarkable periodicals of the present day.

Among these several tribes, each of which has its own language, as different from that of the neighboring tribe as French is from Spanish, are many “siwashes” who may well be considered able linguists. I know of one man, for instance, who, while he can not speak English, is very proud of the fact that he can speak not only Shuswap, Nlakapamux, Okanagan and Chilcotin, but also French. When I was among these people he made great sport of me. I could not talk his language, the Nlakapamux, but communicated with him partly through an interpreter, and partly by means of the Chinook jargon, which I spoke rather poorly. I tried to make fun of him for not being able to understand the Chinook jargon better, for he really knew but little of it; but he always had the best of me when he held up his fingers and counted off the different Indian languages that he knew, invariably ending with great emphasis on the French.

Now it can be readily understood that a man who can speak five different languages, but who knows nothing of reading or writing, if he were supplied with phonetic symbols such as are used in shorthand, and once mastered them, could at once write every language that he knew. But it remained for the Rev. Father Le Jeune to conceive the idea of teaching shorthand to these Indians, not of one tribe, but of many. He showed them a sign to represent each sound which 

[page 301:]

American Oberammergau page 301they uttered in pronouncing their words. These symbols were merely the shorthand signs of the Duployan system of phonography.

Father Le Jeune began this task in July, 1890; but he not only conceived the idea and began the work, he stuck to it until at the close of September in that same year, a poor, crippled Indian, Chalie Alexis Mayons [Mayoos], of the lower Nicola band, took his first lesson. The mind of this cripple was such that he took to the shorthand intuitively, and set to work to decipher certain Indian prayers which the Father gave him. Before Christmas Chalie had mastered the art of writing his language, and begun to communicate it to his friends, who, when they noted his success, were anxious to learn. From that time, the art spread throughout the tribes among whom Father Le Jeune conducted his labors. As soon as a few Indians of a camp learned, it they were anxious to teach the whole settlement. Le Jeune saw in this a means of spreading education widely, by simply suggesting it at various points. His plan was to teach a few individuals in each place. When they were picking berries, irrigating, etc., in the summer time, the progress in the study was slow; but whole evenings, far into the small hours of the nights, were devoted to it in winter.

Some of the “siwashes” have become so proficient that several medals have been awarded them. The shorthand exposition at Nancy, France, awarded a diploma to the Indian students at the Shuswap reservation.

After some six hundred of the Indians had mastered the system, it became important to sustain their interest by providing them with suitable reading matter. After all, it was to get these Indians to read the Bible, the Catechism and other religious matter which the priest believed would be of benefit to them that he had undertaken all of this arduous teaching. Thus originated the Kamloops Wawa, undoubtedly the first newspaper of its kind in the world. Wawa means talk, in the Chinook jargon, and for that reason it was chosen as the name for this strange paper. The reason for the Kamloops of the title was that the first paper was written, edited and manufactured in the church on the Shuswap Reservation, near the railroad division point known as Kamloops. The articles were in the several Indian languages, as well as in the Chinook jargon, which is the trade language used between different tribes, Chinese and whites throughout much of British Columbia, and even as far north as Alaska, and south to the mouth of the Columbia. Some of the advertisements were in English. The paper was founded in May, 1891, and until March of the next year it was printed on a mimeograph, much of the work being done by the Indian women, under Father Le Jeune’s direction. A change was then made, due to the success of the enterprise, and the paper was printed on a press in New Westminster. The old Indians take much pride in seeing their children able to write and to read, not only their own tongue, but also those of all of the neighboring tribes whose languages they know.

Le Jeune was not satisfied with all this, but began publishing parts of the Bible in nine of the different languages, using the same method, and he is still laboring along these lines. Shorthand, he says, is so much more simple than English orthography that he takes no credit to himself for originating this wonderful and novel work. As they are not obliged to learn English, its spelling and grammar, nor the spelling and grammar of any other language, his pupils merely have to commit to memory the shorthand alphabet. At a first glance it might seem that it would be better if they were obliged to learn English; but it is certainly better that they should be able to write and read all the languages that they know, than that they should be entirely ignorant of these accomplishments; and once having had a taste of the writing and reading it is a most natural step for them to look into the English, which 

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they must speak if they are to do business with the white people of the surrounding country. The languages which are now being written by this shorthand method are Chinook, Shuswap, Okanagan, Nlakapamux, Lillooet, Stalo, Skwamish, Sheshel and Slayamen. In all of these languages the prayers, hymns, parts of the Bible and the Catechism have been published in this manner.

On the night of Queen Victoria’s jubilee day, the Indians near Kamloops built a great fire on the peak of the mountain which stands guard over their reservation. It was a great surprise to us when we looked up and saw fire and smoke rising from the peak in the night, the mountain appearing like a great volcano; but it was only the result of days of labor on the part of these dusky but loyal subjects of the Queen. At that time they wrote several letters to Her Majesty on sheets of birchbark, using the Shuswap language, which they recorded in phonetic symbols. These letters were sent to the Queen by Father Le Jeune, and must have proved of interest to the sovereign of the lowly authors.

When I visited Father Le Jeune, he began to ask me about the improvements in the manufacture and burning of acetylene gas, and showed me with much pride the plant which had been put into one of his mission churches. The entire work had been done by his Indian followers. An old barrel had been made to serve for a generator, pipes had been put through the building, and I am sure that it was illuminated more brilliantly than any English church in that vicinity. Before the method of visual instruction by means of stereopticon views and lectures had been in use a dozen years by the school-board of the most progressive city in America, this modest priest, at the little Indian village among the mountains of western Canada, was regularly lecturing to his followers, and using a stereopticon to illustrate his talks, on the lonely Indian reservation where his only auditors were “siwashes.”

At the government industrial school 

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which is maintained on the reservation, but at some distance from the Indian village, the children receive instruction in very practical things. Many of the buildings are erected by the boys under the direction of the instructor in carpentry. Nearly all the food is raised upon the industrial farm, by these lads, under the supervision of the teacher of agriculture. They also learn to make harness, shoes and similar products which are needed by the people of the frontier. The girls learn to cook, sew, wash and take care of the school rooms and dormitories.

The Indian agent who has this reservation in charge does not live among the Indians, but resides at the Canadian village of Kamloops. The Indians give him very little trouble, as they are well looked after by their own Chief, Louis by name, who is an exceedingly honorable and just man. He is assisted by Indian police, who take pride in their office. Both the chief and the police depend largely upon the missionary, Father Le Jeune, for counsel in worldly matters as well as in those of a spiritual nature.

The wonderful work of this practical and progressive man among so many different peoples can be better understood when one considers that there are still comparatively young people of these tribes who remember the days when they dressed in skins and wore moccasins. There are still standing some underground houses, made by the erection of a roof above an excavation in the form of a polygon, this roof being covered with fir boughs and earth. In the centre of the roof is a hole, which answers the purposes of entrance, window and chimney. There is also a stairway in the form of a log into which are cut large notches which serve as treads. As late as 1898, women of the Shuswap tribe, who were at that time reading the Kamloops Wawa, and writing in shorthand, still used stone implements in preparing dried skins.

Thus one man has introduced among these people the art of writing and a system of lighting their public buildings which surpasses that of many of the neighboring towns of the white men. He has put into practice among them a system of visual instruction with lantern slides, which, although smaller in extent, is nevertheless on the same plan as that now being introduced in the largest of the Eastern cities of America. Whereas most missionaries concentrate their attention upon spiritual matters, Father Le Jeune has looked also after the physical well-being of all of his people, in such a thorough and impartial manner that their economic future is much more bright than that of the Indians in many other parts of North America. In this way it may well be believed that Father Le Jeune’s efforts have added in a large degree to the independence and manhood which may be developed only in the presence of economic independence, and which make possible a better ethical life.