The Shagganappi

by Emily Pauline Johnson



We-hro’s Sacrifice

A Story of a Boy and a Dog.


    WE-HRO was a small Onondaga Indian boy, a good-looking, black-eyed little chap with as pagan a heart as ever beat under a copper-colored skin. His father and grandfathers were pagans. His ancestors for a thousand years back, and yet a thousand years back of that, had been pagans, and We-hro, with the pride of his religion and his race, would not have turned from the faith of his fathers for all the world. But the world, as he knew it, consisted entirely of the Great Indian Reserve, that lay on the banks of the beautiful Grand River, sixty miles west of the great Canadian city of Toronto.
    Now, the boys that read this tale must not confuse a pagan with a heathen. The heathen nations that worship idols are terribly pitied and despised by the pagan Indians, who are worshippers of “The Great Spirit,” a kind and loving God, who, they say, will reward them by giving them happy hunting grounds to live in after they die; that is, if they live good, honest, upright lives in this world.
    We-hro would have scolded blackly if anyone had dared to name him a heathen. He thoroughly ignored the little Delaware boys, whose fathers worshipped idols fifty years ago, and on all the feast days and dance days he would accompany his parents to the “Longhouse” (which was their church), and take his little part in the religious festivities. He could remember well as a tiny child being carried in his mother’s blanket “pick-a-back,” while she dropped into the soft swinging movement of the dance, for We-hro’s people did not worship their [Page 96] “Great Spirit” with hymns of praise and lowly prayers, the way the Christian Indians did. We-hro’s people worshipped their God by dancing beautiful, soft, dignified steps, with no noisy clicking heels to annoy one, but only the velvety shuffle of the moccasined feet, the weird beat of the Indian drums, the mournful chanting of the old chiefs, keeping time with the throb of their devoted hearts.
    Then, when he grew too big to be carried, he was allowed to clasp his mother’s hand, and himself learn the pretty steps, following his father, who danced ahead, dressed in full costume of scarlet cloth and buckskin, with gay beads and bear claws about his neck, and wonderful carven silver ornaments, massive and solid, decorating his shirt and leggings. We-hro loved the tawny fringes and the hammered silver quite as much as a white lady loves diamonds and pearls; he loved to see his father’s face painted in fierce reds, yellows and blacks, but most of all he loved the unvarying chuck-a, chuck-a, chuck-a of the great mud-turtle rattles that the “musicians” skillfully beat upon the benches before them. Oh, he was a thorough little pagan, was We-hro! His loves and his hates were as decided as his comical but stately step in the dance of his ancestors’ religion. Those were great days for the small Onondaga boy. His father taught him to shape axe-handles, to curve lacrosse sticks, to weave their deer-sinew netting, to tan skins, to plant corn, to model arrows and—most difficult of all—to “feather” them, to “season” bows, to chop trees, to burn, hollow, fashion, and “man” a dugout canoe, to use the paddle, to gauge the wind and current of that treacherous Grand river, to learn wild cries to decoy bird and beast for food. Oh, little pagan We-hro had his life filled to overflowing with much that the civilized white boy would give all his dimes and dollars to know.
    And it was then that the great day came, the marvelous day when We-hro discovered his second self, his [Page 97] playmate, his loyal, unselfish, loving friend—his underbred, unwashed, hungry, vagabond dog, born white and spotless, but begrimed by contact with the world, the mud, and the white man’s hovel.
    It happened this way:
    We-hro was cleaning his father’s dugout canoe, after a night of fish spearing. The soot, the scales, the fire ashes, the mud—all had to be “swabbed” out at the river’s brink by means of much water and an Indian “slat” broom. We-hro was up to his little ears in work, when suddenly, above him, on the river road, he heard the coarse voice and thundering whipfalls of a man urging and beating his horse—a white man, for no Indian used such language, no Indian beat an animal that served him. We-hro looked up. Stuck in the mud of the river road was a huge wagon, grain-filled. The driver, purple of face, was whaling the poor team, and shouting to a cringing little drab-white dog, of fox-terrier lineage, to “Get out of there or I’ll—!”
    The horses were dragging and tugging. The little dog, terrified, was sneaking off with tail between its hind legs. Then the brutal driver’s whip came down, curling its lash about the dog’s thin body, forcing from the little speechless brute a howl of agony. Then We-hro spoke—spoke in all the English he knew.
    “Bad! bad! You die some day—you! You hurt that dog. White man’s God, he no like you. Indian’s Great Spirit, he not let you shoot in happy hunting grounds. You die some day—you bad!”
    “Well, if I am bad I’m no pagan Indian Hottentot like you!” yelled the angry driver. “Take the dog, and begone!”
    “Me no Hottnetot,” said We-hro, slowly. “Me Onondaga, all right. Me take dog;” and from that hour the poor little white cur and the copper-colored little boy were friends for all time. [Page 98]

*         *         *         *         *         *

    The Superintendent of Indian Affairs was taking his periodical drive about the Reserve when he chanced to meet old “Ten-Canoes,” We-hro’s father.
    The superintendent was a very important person. He was a great white gentleman, who lived in the city of Brantford, fifteen miles away. He was a kindly, handsome man, who loved and honored every Indian on the Grand River Reserve. He had a genial smile, a warm hand-shake, so when he stopped his horse and greeted the old pagan, Ten-Canoes smiled too.
    “Ah, Ten-Canoes!” cried the superintendent, “a great man told me he was coming to see your people—a big man, none less than Great Black-Coat, the bishop of the Anglican Church. He thinks you are a bad lot, because you are pagans; he wonders why it is that you have never turned Christian. Some of the missionaries have told him you pagans are no good, so the great man wants to come and see for himself. He wants to see some of your religious dances—the ‘Dance of the White Dog,’ if you will have him; he wants to see if it is really bad.”
    Ten-Canoes laughed. “I welcome him” he said, earnestly, “Welcome the ‘Great Black-Coat.’ I honor him, though I do not think as he does. He is a good man, a just man; I welcome him, bid him come.”

    Thus was his lordship, the Bishop, invited to see the great pagan Onondaga “Festival of the White Dog.”
    But what was this that happened?
    Never yet had a February moon waned but that the powerful Onondaga tribe had offered the burnt “Sacrifice of the White Dog,” that most devout of all native rites. But now, search as they might, not a single spotlessly white dog could be found. No other animal would do. It was the law of this great Indian tribe that no other burnt sacrifice could possibly be offered than the strangled body of a white dog.
    We-hro heard all the great chiefs talking of it all. He listened to plans for searching the entire Reserve for [Page 99] a dog, and the following morning he arose at dawn, took his own pet dog down to the river and washed him as he had seen white men wash their sheep. Then out of the water dashed the gay little animal, yelping and barking in play, rolling in the snow, tearing madly about, and finally rushing off towards the log house which was We-hro’s home, and scratching at the door to get in by the warm fire to dry his shaggy coat. Oh! what an ache that coat caused in We-hro’s heart. From a dull drab grey, the dog’s hair had washed pure white, not a spot or a blemish on it, and in an agony of grief the little pagan boy realized that through his own action he had endangered the life of his dog friend; that should his father and his father’s friends see that small white terrier, they would take it away for the nation’s sacrifice.
    Stumbling and panting and breathless, We-hro hurried after his pet, and, seizing the dog in his arms, he wrapped his own shabby coat about the trembling, half-dry creature, and carried him to where the cedars grew thick at the back of the house. Crouched in their shadows he hugged his treasured companion, thinking with horror of the hour when the blow would surely fall.
    For days the boy kept his dog in the shelter of the cedars, tied up tightly with an old rope, and sleeping in a warm raccoon skin, which We-hro smuggled away from his own simple bed. The dog contented himself with what little food We-hro managed to carry to him, but the hiding could not keep up forever, and one dark, dreaded day We-hro’s father came into the house and sat smoking in silence for many minutes. When at last he spoke, he said:
    “We-hro, your dog is known to me. I have seen him, white as the snow that fell last night. It is the law that someone must always suffer for the good of the people. We-hro, would you have the great ‘Black-Coat,’ the great white preacher, come to see our beautiful ceremony, and would you have the great Onondaga tribe fail to show [Page 100] the white man how we worship our ancient Great Spirit? Would you have us fail to burn the sacrifice? Or will you give your white dog for the honor of our people?”
    The world is full of heroes, but at that moment it held none greater than the little pagan boy, who crushed down his grief and battled back his tears as he answered:

    “Father, you are old and honored and wise. For you and for my people alone would I give the dog.”
    At last the wonderful Dance Day arrived. His lordship, the Bishop of the Anglican Church, drove down from the city of Brantford; with him the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, and a man who understood both the English and the Onondaga languages. Long before they reached the “Longhouse” they could hear the wild beat of the drum, could count the beats of the dance rattles, could distinguish the half-sad chant of the worshippers. The kind face of the great bishop was very grave. It pained his gentle heart to know that this great tribe of Indians were pagans—savages, as he thought—but when he entered that plain log building that the Onondagas held as their church, he took off his hat with the beautiful reverence all great men pay to other great men’s religion, and he stood bareheaded while old Ten-Canoes chanted forth this speech:
    “Oh, brothers of mine! We welcome the white man’s friend, the great ‘Black-Coat,’ to this, our solemn worship. We offer to the red man’s God—the Great Spirit—a burnt offering. We do not think that anything save what is pure and faithful and without blemish can go into the sight of the Great Spirit. Therefore do we offer this dog, pure as we hope our spirits are, that the God of the red man may accept it with our devotion, knowing that we, too, would gladly be as spotless as this sacrifice.”
    Then was a dog carried in dead, and beautifully decorated with wampum, beads and porcupine embroidery. Oh! so mercifully dead and out of pain, gently strangled [Page 101] by reverent fingers, for an Indian is never unkind to an animal. And far over in a corner of the room was a little brown figure, twisted with agony, choking back the sobs and tears—for was he not taught that tears were for babies alone, and not for boys that grew up into warriors?
    “Oh, my dog! my dog!” he muttered. “They have taken you away from me, but it was for the honor of my father and my own people.”
    The great Anglican bishop turned at that moment, and, catching the sight of suffering on little We-hro’s face, said aloud to the man who spoke both languages:
    “That little boy over there seems in torture. Can I do anything for him, do you think?”
    “That little boy,” replied the man who spoke both languages, “is the son of the great Onondaga chief. No white dog could be found for this ceremony but his. This dog was his pet, but for the honor of his father and of his tribe he has given up his pet as a sacrifice.”

    For a moment the great Anglican bishop was blinded by his own tears. Then he walked slowly across the wide log building and laid his white hand tenderly on the head of the little Onondaga boy. His kindly old eyes closed, and his lips moved—noiselessly, for a space, then he said aloud:
    “Oh, that the white boys of my great city church knew and practised half as much of self-denial as has this little pagan Indian lad, who has given up his heart’s dearest because his father and the honor of his people required it.” [Page 102]