In the Midst of Savage Darkness
“A Wayakin is your guardian spirit, and from this guardian spirit you get your power. I collected about sixteen of them, and the most interesting that I have is the one of my Father's, because there were different animals that talked to him at the same time and each one of them gave him this certain thing. The chipmunk said, Well I'll give you a lot of good fast movements. You will be a quick person. And the badger said, I will give you steadfastness. You will be strong. And the dog said, I'm going to give him love and friendship. I'm going to be with him all the time. And that was his guardian spirit."
Back in 1831, four Indians -- including three Nez Percé from the tribe who had helped Lewis and Clark survive their time in the Pacific Northwest -- traveled eastward, over the mountains and across the Plains, nearly two thousand miles to St. Louis. They had come, they said, because they had heard of a "black book" that gave whoever possessed it additional power and prestige.
"They were looking for the Bible. And they thought that they would get power from it, just like that they would get from their Wayakin."
A highly embellished account of the Indians' journey made its way into the Protestant missionary press. The Nez Percé, it said, were pleading for salvation. In the spring of 1836, a small party of missionaries responded, and began the long trek from Missouri to the British trading post of Fort Vancouver along a route that would soon be called the Oregon Trail.
Among the Christian pioneers were Dr. Marcus Whitman and his young wife, Narcissa, who from her earliest childhood had dreamed of becoming a missionary. She had married Whitman specifically to go west and spread the word of Christ to those in need of it.
Our desire now is to be useful to these benighted Indians, teaching them the way of salvation... It is a great responsibility to be pioneers in so great a work. It is with cautious steps that we enter on it.
I don't think she really knew what she was going out to do in the west.
She had grown up reading, consuming voraciously the literature of the
missionary movement of her day. And she thought she was going out to live
out a scenario that she had really read about. That is, she would arrive,
hopefully be welcomed, and somehow bring about this monumental conversion
of the people with whom she worked. She had no real ideas at all as to
what the west was like, or what missionary work would be like.
The Whitmans settled at a place called Waiilatpu on the north bank of the Walla Walla River, in the land of the Cayuse. But things did not go well for them. Tiloukaikt, a Cayuse chief, wondered why they failed to offer gifts, as was the Cayuse custom. His people could not understand why the Whitmans insisted they must completely abandon their own faith. And they were insulted when Narcissa barred them from her parlor.
The Indians said they would worship in our new house.... We told them our house was to live in and we could not have them worship there, for fear they would make it so dirty and full of fleas that we could not live in it.
"I think Narcissa really didn't like them at all, that she saw them as everything that was the polar opposite of what she loved and valued. The kinds of words that she uses -- savage, ignorant, lazy, heathenish -- the way she called her mission station a 'dark and savage place,' give you some sense of this emotional response to people whom she couldn't understand, who frightened her, and who wouldn't change in the ways that she really thought they ought to change for their own good."
Narcissa had given birth to a daughter, Alice, but at age 2 the little girl drowned in the river next to the mission. Grieving and lonely, Narcissa sometimes went two years without a letter from home. Each day she and the other missionary wives in the region paused to pray for each other and their families.
always found it to be very poignant -- a sign of their loneliness, and
how difficult it was, and how they tried to communicate with one another
through their spirits."
During their first years, the Whitmans managed to convert one Scottish visitor, one French Canadian Catholic and several Hawaiian laborers who worked for them. But they failed to make a single convert among the Cayuse.
was I more keenly sensible to the self denials of a missionary life. Even
now while I am writing, the drum and the savage yell are sounding in my
ears, every sound of which is as far as the east is from the west from
vibrating in unison with my feelings.... Dear friends will you not sometime
think of me almost alone in the midst of savage darkness.
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