Canadian Indians at the Front

By Verne De Witt Rowell

[The New York Times/Current History, August 1917]

In striking contrast to the bitter racial discussions provoked in Canada by the charges of the Toronto journalistic school that French Canada has not done her duty in the matter of recruiting men for overseas service is the fervent patriotism of the old-time Indian allies of the French and English in America. In all, approximately 5,000 Canadian Indians have been trained in Indian companies of overseas units and been sent to France to fight for the allied cause. The only tribe that has not sent its full quota of recruits to the firing line in Europe is that of the Eskimo Indians; and while they might prove excellent warriors during the Winter months, they obviously would not survive a Summer campaign.

The once ferocious and formidable Blackfeet Indians, who lived on buffalo meat and were the terror of explorers and outlying settlements, have sent several companies. The Crees of the Slave Lake and Hudson Bay regions have sent their representatives in khaki, and the Indians of Eastern Canada have in many instances sent practically the full number of eligible males in their tribes.

In the early days of American colonization, when the French and English contended in warfare, each was aided by an Indian nation, the French by the Algonquin federation, and the English by the Iroquois, or Six Nation Indians. The Algonquins, largely domesticated, tilled the soil and lived in more or less permanent settlements in the territory now forming the Provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Time and again did the French establish colonies along the St. Lawrence and the northern shores of the Great Lakes to engage in the fur trade with their Algonquin friends, but nearly always did these colonies disappear before the fierce raids of the Iroquois warriors, who made their home in Western New York, and, as the unfailing allies of the New England British colonists, swooped over the Niagara and St. Lawrence frontiers, burning and ravaging the French settlements and scalping all the French palefaces they could lay their hands on. Today, under the Canadian flag, Iroquois and Algonquins are fighting side by side in the same Indian companies for the new, united cause of the French, the English, and the great nation that has sprung from the little New England and Pennsylvania settlements of those early days.

Since New Year's, 1917, companies of American Indians have been holding front-line trenches on the western front, and they would have been there nearly three years ago had not an order of the Canadian Militia Department, for some reason never quite explained, forbidden recruiting among the Indians when the war first commenced. But no sooner had the war clouds broken in Europe, in August, 1914, than the Indian tribes one and all met in their tribal councils, pledged firm allegiance, and offered their service to the British Crown, subscribed from their tribal funds money to the Red Cross and to buy machine guns, and petitioned to be allowed to go overseas as fighting men.

The Canadian Indian, not being a citizen, knows no politics as yet. He knows nothing of nationalism, neither that of the French-Canadian variety, which has something of a racial basis, nor the now unheard-of nationalism of the English-speaking Canadian, which was just budding before the war, and which, as one of its manifestations, opposed strenuously any contribution by Canada to an imperial navy. The Indian is loyal to the Crown; he is a monarchist. Whether his views will change when he becomes a citizen, as it is expected he will as a reward for his services in the war, remains to be seen. The agitation for citizenship is now led by the better educated of the old chiefs of the tribes, too old to go on the war trail themselves, but who have given their sons freely, and when these young warriors return, their education broadened by contact with the death grapple between European civilization and barbarism, it goes without saying that they, too, will expect some voice in the direction of their country's affairs.

Chief Scobie Logan of the "Munseys of the Thames," one of the smallest but most progressive and highly educated Indian tribes in America, is an ardent advocate of his people in their claim to citizenship. His only son was the first Indian killed in the war, having enlisted in a Western Ontario unit and gone overseas before any Indian companies were authorized. In several other instances recruiting officers winked at the regulations and enlisted individual Indians in white units. Tales of wonderful Indian snipers who were a law unto themselves and amply earned their exemption from disciplinary rule prescribed for their paleskin comrades by bringing scores of Germans to the earth found their way into print early in the war. But at the most there were only two or three full-blooded Indians in the first contingent.

The first Indian company to arrive in France was the 135th Middlesex, which crossed the English Channel in December, 1916, after training several months in England. Other Indian units from Western Ontario which soon followed the Middlesex Indians to the trenches were the 149th Lambton Battalion Indians, Chippewas of Walpole Island and Sarnia Reserve; the 160th Bruce Battalion, Saugeen Indians from the remote Georgian Bay district, near the former scene of a bloody massacre of early Christianized Hurons by the Iroquois; the 114th Haldimand County Battalion Indians, and the Mohawks of the Brant County battalions.

The Mohawks have the distinction of giving to Canada one of her finest woman writers, E. Pauline Johnson, or "Tekahionwake," who died several years ago at Vancouver. United Empire Loyalists, the Mohawks came to Canada after the American Revolution and settled near where the City of Brantford is, known widely as the "Telephone City," where Alexander Graham Bell first perfected his epoch-making invention.

The Middlesex County Indians included representatives of three tribes, the Algonquin Chippewas, the Iroquois Oneidas, and the Munseys, who a century ago came from the Susquehanna River district in the southland, and, welcomed in their homeless wanderings by the Chippewa chief, were allotted one square mile of territory on the Chippewa Reserve, near the picturesque little paleface village of Middlemiss, Ont. Throwing his blanket on the ground and drawing with chalk a map of his territory, the Chippewa chief marked off the little corner which henceforth should be the home of the Munseys. Before the war many of the Oneidas clung to their pagan faith, and in so doing were the last of their race to resist Christianity. Letters from the trenches, however, tell of many of them accepting the Christian faith at Gospel meetings held in Y. M. C. A. huts on the firing line.

Still one of the most interesting religious temples in North America is the "Long House," near Southwold, Ont., a short distance from the Michigan Central Railway connecting Buffalo and Detroit, where annually the sacrifice and feast of the "White Dog," a ceremony of purification for the sins of the year past, is held by the Oneida pagans. The plain-looking wooden building is also the Mecca and temple of the pagan Oneidas of Western New York State, but the only other remnant of the Oneida race, found at Green Bay, Wis., does not count among its members any braves who still adhere to the faith of their fathers. After all, this pagan faith is largely colored by Christian influences very similar to the Judaism of the Old Testament, and, incorporating the story of the Christ among its legends, might be aptly styled an American Islam.

Among the Chippewas of the Middlesex Indian unit are Moraviantown Indians, whose reserve on the River Thames near Chatham is believed to contain the burial place of Tecumseh, whose name is a romantic and bright one in Canadian history, on account of his brilliant assistance given to the Canadians in repelling the American invasion of 1812.

The loyalty of the Indian race in Canada may be illustrated by reference to an Indian mother now living in London, Ont. She has four sons in the war, and her baby son of 14 years also attempted to enlist. His brother, one year older, was held in England on account of his age, when it was discovered, and is now an instructor at Wittley Camp. This Indian mother, whose husband is a descendant of Moses Schuyler, who led the Oneidas from New York to Ontario and founded the settlement on the Thames nearly a century ago, said recently: "Yes, I have given four of my boys, and I am sorry that my other children died when they were babies, for I would gladly have given them, too, to fight for England."

In every way the Canadian Indians have proved themselves the equals of their white comrades on the battle line.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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