“The Passion Play in America”

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During the zenith of Chinook Writing in British Columbia, an American Catholic magazine ran a lavish feature on the “Passion Play” that was staged in Chinuk Wawa there.

One important point that the article doesn’t mention is that the actors in the play learned their parts by reading them in “Chinuk Pipa” — the BC “Chinook Writing” alphabet. I can run that script in a mini-series here, at some point.

The expression “ruffians” used in the article is probably quoting Native people saying < kaltash man > or < kaltash tilikom > in Chinook Jargon — ‘no-good people’.

When the author uses the word “jargon” without a specifying description, she usually means the Aboriginal languages. How fascinating, though, that when she admiringly tells of a French priest learning several of those, she calls them “languages”.

The photo labeled as a portrait of Father Le Jeune in the article is new to me; I wonder if it isn’t a youthful photo of Father Le Jacq, another BC Oblate missionary, whose name people often confused with Le Jeune’s.

First I’ll show you page images of the article, then the full text in an easier-to-read format.

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WHILE it may seem strange to us that foreign countries are sending missionaries to America as fast as we are dispatching them to other lands, the intelligence is nevertheless a fact. During the early settlements of America we were indebted to Spain for the good old fathers she sent to California, among the foremost and most devout of whom was the Franciscan priest, Junipero Serra. The work of these noble men has now passed down with the epochs of history, but anyone visiting the southern part of California may have the gratification of seeing the imposing edifices they built all over the country. Some of these grand old missions are still in use, and the chant of the fathers within the gardens and the chimes of the bells, as they ring out in the still eventide calling the devotee to prayer, effect a holy and ever-varying charm.

But we pass from history for the present and follow the Californian coast a few hundred miles north to the wilds of British Columbia. Here we will find something of vast interest in the work of the French Roman Catholic missionaries. France has sent many mission workers to America, and while a few of these take up with the negroes of the south, they settle in large porportions [sic] among the Indian tribes of Northwestern Canada. However in these British Columbia



missions, there is no wealth to erect imposing buildings of stone that will defy time and stand for ages. These earnest workers must content themselves with little wooden churches or tents pitched under the open heavens. Yet they have been able to accomplish their purpose, and have civilized and educated the Indians of this province in a remarkably short period of time.

The principal tribes of British Columbia are the Nicola, Frazer, Okanagan, Douglass Lake, Shuswap, Salishan [sic], Thompson, and Chinook [sic] Indians, each speaking a different language, and among all of whom the missionaries carry on their praiseworthy work. These tribes are similar to those of the western states, with the exception of the skin, which is not so red. As a race they are strong, sinewy, and agile. While some of the Indians still prefer a wild life in the mountains to the reasoning and religious instruction of the missionaries, little by little these splendid teachers are bringing about their evolution with precision and perfection. Object lessons seem to be the most stimulating. What they can see and hear, the Indians will accept more readily than that which they obtain from books.

Of all religious lessons, perhaps nothing is so impressive as the Passion Play. Though the intelligence is remarkable in itself, the Passion Play is actually executed by the In-

[PHOTO CAPTION] Group of Thompson Indians at Coldwater, Preparing to Start for the Passion Play.

dians in the wilds of this northern province. It has frequently been stated that this wonderful drama has never been given with any successful result outside the little village of its historic origin, Ober-Ammergau, in the Tyrolese Alps; but here among the mountains of British Columbia, in an auditorium roofed by the cloudless heavens alone, where birds join in the chant of the Redemption and where the gorgeous valley of the Frazer forms a natural stage setting, this


soul-stirring’ drama of the Crucifixion of Christ is attempted by pure American Indians having but the simplest appointments to serve the audience and assist the players. Tourists do not flock hither for miles around. The performance has been carried on with so little ostentation that its advent is practically unknown.

and the third June 29, 1894, both of the latter performances taking place at St. Mary’s Mission. At the ap pointed time the Indians assemble in hundreds, men and women on horse back and in wagons, all bringing their tents and cooking utensils. A few days are then required to make ready for the performance.

[PHOTO CAPTION] Passion Play by American Indians. As Performed at St. Mary’s Mission, B. C., June 29, 1894.

So far, the Passion Play has been given but three times. Rev. Father Chirouse, a missionary of these parts, may be credited as the first to conceive the idea. The Passion Play was given for the first time at Seashell, on the Pacific coast, about fifty miles north of Vancouver, June 6, 1889; for the second time on June 2, 1892; and the third time June 29, 1894, both of the latter performances taking place at St. Mary’s Mission. At the appointed time the Indians assemble in hundreds, men and women on horseback and in wagons, all bringing their tents and cooking utensils. A few days are then required to make ready for the performance.

For a stage, imagine a small wooden platform elevated about twelve feet above the ground; for the background, as far as the eye can reach, the mellow, verdant-tinted valley and the winding ribbon of the River Frazer; for the foreground, a thick clump of pine forest, with numerous white tents pitched on all sides,


with a sunlit sky overhanging. This forms the setting of the Indian Passion Play. This drama is now conceded as the sublimest spectacle of civilization, and when the desire of the modern age to see and hear the drama at Ober-Ammergau is taken into consideration, what must be the impressions of this once savage race when it has accepted a Christian religion and looks for the first time upon the living pictures of Christ’s crucifixion?

The very first trial had the desired effect. And now the Week of Passion is anticipated by the Indians with the greatest interest.

One remarkable thing is that the impersonators, all of whom are Indians, seem to take up the grave theme with heartfelt inspiration as if each were living the real part. Both men and women are employed in the drama, which has been given each time before about two thousand spectators, all Indians, except some fifty white settlers who join in camp. The assembled Indians represent not only one tribe but several, each speaking its native jargon [tribal language]. The play is presented with as much formality and imposing ceremony as the accommodations will allow. Meanwhile, the acts are not given from beginning to end. Rather, there are a series of striking tableaux, nine in number. For each tableau an appropriate stage-setting is made, and the follow ing subjects are presented: —

In the first the subject is “Christ before Pilate.” Pilate sits on a small platform, while Christ, bound with cords, with a ruffian on either side, poses as the central figure. A Roman lictor with a pack of rods and an ax by his side, stands near. Five or six other figures finish the picture.

The second tableau, “The Scourging,” requires but three figures. Christ stands in the middle, his flowing white garment spotted with blood. One ruffian stands on each side, scourge in hand, as if to deal a stinging blow. The costumes of the performers are well chosen and the picture is remarkably impressive.

In the third scene, “The Crowning with Thorns,” four actors are employed. Christ sits with a crown of thorns on his head, and a ruffian on either side presses it down on his

[PHOTO CAPTION:] Pere Jean Marie Raphael Le Jeune.

bleeding brow. Another in front, on bended knee, lifts a rod as if to strike. The name applied to any of Christ’s tormentors is “ruffian,” and it is always used by the Indians in their descriptions of the play afterward.

About this time, a procession is formed by the spectators; first the men of a tribe, chanting the old French hymn, “Au Sang Qu’un Dieu a Repandu,” in Indian, their rich male voices reverberating afar in the clear air; next the women of the same


tribe, singing also, without any regard to the different tribe following behind. The next tribe sings the chant in its own language, and so on with the five or six following. The procession keeps in constant motion while the tableaux proceed. Over two thousand voices ring out the ancient Passion Hymn, each eye devoutly fixed meanwhile on the changing scenes before the singers. It is one of the most interesting sights imaginable.

Tableau number four represents “Christ Carrying the Cross.” Three impersonators are required. Jesus is bowed to the ground with a large cross, his followers beating him with scourges. This scene often excites a great deal of anger among the Indian spectators, whose souls seem to imbibe fully the spirit and portent of the representation.

A very impressive picture is made in the fifth tableau, where “Christ Meets His Mother.” Five persons make up this setting, which introduces two women into the cast. Heretofore men only have acted. Each tableau is represented by a different set of people, each grouping already dressed, waiting to go on the stage at the appointed time.

In tableau sixth is depicted “Christ’s Falling under the Cross.” Jesus is prostrate in the foreground, the mob at his heels. At one side stand two women, one his mother, in distressed attitudes. Some bright

[PHOTO CAPTION] Band of the Skwamish Indian Mission, Established 1883.

coloring in costume makes this an imposing spectacle.

The seventh tableau is similar in setting to the sixth, and pictures “Veronica Presenting Jesus with a Towel.” With this he wipes his brow and face. Four figures enact this scene.

“Christ’s Crucifixion” takes place in the eighth tableau, in which five or six actors are required. Christ appears in a short, white, tight-fitting garment reaching only to the knees,


as he lies extended on the cross. The ruffians who hold the nails to the hands and feet are in rigid attitude, ready to strike with uplifted hammers. This is one of the supreme tableaux of the little play, and these dusky Indians, their faces drawn in suppressed emotion, their eyes and hearts centred on the awe-inspiring work in which they are engaged, is a spectacle which is weird and indescribable. Nature and her vivid hues lend a strange en chantment to the sublimity of the subject, and the Indian hymn, as it rings out in harmonious richness, cannot be forgotten.

The ninth tableau finishes the drama. Here “Christ Dies on the Cross.” The presentation is most realistic, being the one in our illustration. The central figure of this picture, however, is of somewhat different nature. It is a statue of Christ arranged so that red drops ooze from the brow, side, hands, and feet, the semblance of trickling blood. All the actors who have taken part in the other groupings, now congregate

[PHOTO CAPTION] Group of Missionaries in British Columria.

about the cross, with eyes bent upon the Crucified One.

At the same time there is a change in the procession of spectators. The dolorous chant has ceased, and the singers have drawn to a halt, all gathering on their knees before the stage. Many remain here in prayer long after the Passion Play is over. The statue of the Crucifixion remains on


the platform as long as the camp lasts, serving as a natural shrine for prayer. Thus, here in the peaceful valley, miles distant from habitation, the history of Christ’s redemption of mankind is rehearsed by a race, which but a few years before, bowed their heads to the “Great Spirit,” knowing no other God but that of their pagan belief. The mission fathers have done a wonderful work, which undoubtedly will find its recorders in American history. While there are a hundred or more zealous workers  scattered through the country, per-

[PHOTO CAPTION] Specimen of Chinook Writing.

haps no one has accomplished so much as Rev. Father Jean Marie Raphael Le Jeune. Father Le Jeune left his native country, where he was brilliantly educated, in Pleybert Christ,


Finistere, France, to take up his abode among an ignorant people who, in 1879, knew little but their provincial jargon and the barbarous customs of savagery. In a short time he had learned several Indian languages, and began to travel from tribe to tribe. Some of these journeys had to be made on foot through unfrequented paths over the mountains, and with encounters with the deadly northern blizzards.

It was Father Le Jeune who first promoted reading and writing among these Indians. After he had tried in every possible way to instruct the natives in character writing, he adopted a system of phonetic shorthand. The result was marvellous. Hundreds of natives took it up and learned the system rapidly and perfectly. Charlie Mayoos, a young boy of the Thompson tribe, was the first Indian who mastered the “Chinook Writing,” as it is called by the natives, learning the whole in less than a month. He was then Father Le Jeune’s first assistant and helped many others to learn it. In time, Father Le Jeune began a little newspaper for the Indians, printed in the “Chinook Writing,” and now there are no less than 2,000 subscribers who read and understand it. It contains general news of the different tribes, Bible stories, and religious instruction. The paper is called “Kamloops Wawa.” Kamloops is the name of the town in which it is edited, Father Le Jeune’s home, signifying the “forking together of waters,” in this instance the two branches of the Thompson River, while “Wawa” means talk, echo, or speak. The “Kamloops Wawa” has now an honored place among educational departments in both the British Museum and the Smithsonian Institute. At the same time, students in French and Belgian mission schools are perfecting themselves in the “Chinook Writing.”

Civilization in these parts has been very rapid. Scarcely ever can one see a native in the old savage garb, nearly everyone adopting the civilian’s suit, while the women are making their own dresses from modern fashion-plates. The sight of a papoose strapped to the mother’s back is not so common, and generally, the men do not subject their squaws to the hardships of a quarter century ago. Even brass bands and music are not uncommon. Two tribes, the Skwamisk [sic] and Chilliwack, have each a uniformed band which gives promise of perfection, as the members are all young men. These bands have an important part in the dedication of a new church or other religious celebration, and the once hideous war-dance is succeeded by modern harmony.

Around Kamloops and in the country at large, the natives are industrious. A large number have become actively interested in agriculture, and make their living by farming. From November first to December fifteenth they are hunting and trapping in the mountains, after which they take to their winter quarters. During April and May they put in their crops of wheat, corn, and potatoes; then set off to the lakes for trout fishing. Returning in late summer, they attend to their crops, and occasionally do a little work for the white settlers in order to increase their meagre income for coming winter necessities.

As a country, British Columbia deserves mention. Here lies a field open for any enterprise, no matter what the nature. There are room and occupation for hundreds of thousands of immigrants. Gold, silver, copper,


iron, and coal have been extensively located and the province is looked upon with especial favor for future development of rich mines. In summer and fall the climate is ideal. Then the lakes are a rendezvous for pleasure-loving tourists and invalids, while for the sportsman, the country is a paradise. Trout are inexhaustible in every mountain lake, and the thick underbrush of the forest affords a habitat for wild animals. Artists and novelists find food here alike.

Apart, there have been historical incidents in connection with British Columbia of worldwide significance. Of early Spanish and British explorations there are volumes of reminiscences. Captain Cook visited these lands in 1778, followed by Vancouver. Soon after the skins of wild animals from these parts became articles of commerce the world over. The mission workers certainly have a romantic country in which to expend their toil. True the winters are bleak and severe, but summer brings fresh zest and inspiration.

— by Maibelle Justice, in Donahoe’s Magazine 34(3):978-986, September 1895.

What do you think?