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A Pagan In St. Paul's Cathedral Post by :sbreau Category :Essays Author :E. Pauline Johnson Date :September 2011 Read :3619

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A Pagan In St. Paul's Cathedral

Iroquois Poetess' Impressions in London's Cathedral

It is a far cry from a wigwam to Westminster, from a prairie trail to the Tower Bridge, and London looks a strange place to the Red Indian whose eyes still see the myriad forest trees, even as they gaze across the Strand, and whose feet still feel the clinging moccasin even among the scores of clicking heels that hurry along the thoroughfares of this camping-ground of the paleface.

So this is the place where dwells the Great White Father, ruler of many lands, lodges, and tribes, in the hollow of whose hands is the peace that rests between the once hostile red man and white. They call him the King of England, but to us, the powerful Iroquois nation of the north, he is always the "Great White Father." For once he came to us in our far-off Canadian reserves, and with his own hand fastened decorations and medals on the buckskin coats of our oldest chiefs, just because they and their fathers used their tomahawks in battle in the cause of England.

So I, one of his loyal allies, have come to see his camp, known to the white man as London, his council which the whites call his Parliament, where his sachems and chiefs make the laws of his tribes, and to see his wigwam, known to the palefaces as Buckingham Palace, but to the red man as the "Tepee of the Great White Father." And this is what I see:--

What the Indian Sees.

Lifting toward the sky are vast buildings of stone, not the same kind of stone from which my forefathers fashioned their carven pipes and corn-pounders, but a grayer, grimier rock that would not take the polish we give by fingers dipped in sturgeon oil, and long days of friction with fine sand and deer-hide.

I stand outside the great palace wigwam, the huge council-house by the river. My seeing eyes may mark them, but my heart's eyes are looking beyond all this wonderment, back to the land I have left behind me. I picture the tepees by the far Saskatchewan; there the tent poles, too, are lifting skyward, and the smoke ascending through them from the smouldering fires within curls softly on the summer air. Against the blurred sweep of horizon other camps etch their outlines, other bands of red men with their herds of wild cattle have sought the river lands. I hear the untamed hoofs thundering up the prairie trail.

But the prairie sounds are slipping away, and my ears catch other voices that rise above the ceaseless throb about me--voices that are clear, high, and calling; they float across the city like the music of a thousand birds of passage beating their wings through the night, crying and murmuring plaintively as they journey northward. They are the voices of St. Paul's calling, calling me--St. Paul's where the paleface worships the Great Spirit, and through whose portals he hopes to reach the happy hunting grounds.

The Great Spirit.

As I entered its doorways it seemed to me to be the everlasting abiding-place of the white man's Great Spirit.

The music brooded everywhere. It beat in my ears like the far-off cadences of the Sault Ste. Marie rapids, that rise and leap and throb--like a storm hurling through the fir forest--like the distant rising of an Indian war-song; it swept up those mighty archways until the gray dome above me faded, and in its place the stars came out to look down, not on these paleface kneeling worshippers, but on a band of stalwart, sinewy, copper-coloured devotees, my own people in my own land, who also assembled to do honour to the Manitou of all nations.

The deep-throated organ and the boy's voices were gone; I heard instead the melancholy incantations of our own pagan religionists. The beautiful dignity of our great sacrificial rites seemed to settle about me, to enwrap me in its garment of solemnity and primitive stateliness.

Beat of the Drum.

The atmosphere pulsed with the beat of the Indian drum, the eerie penetrations of the turtle rattle that set the time of the dancers' feet. Dance? It is not a dance, that marvellously slow, serpentine-like figure with the soft swish, swish of moccasined feet, and the faint jingling of elks'-teeth bracelets, keeping rhythm with every footfall. It is not a dance, but an invocation of motion. Why may we not worship with the graceful movement of our feet? The paleface worships by moving his lips and tongue; the difference is but slight.

The altar-lights of St. Paul's glowed for me no more. In their place flared the camp fires of the Onondaga "long-house," and the resinous scent of the burning pine drifted across the fetid London air. I saw the tall, copper-skinned fire-keeper of the Iroquois council enter, the circle of light flung fitfully against the black surrounding woods. I have seen their white bishops, but none so regal, so august as he. His garb of fringed buckskin and ermine was no more grotesque than the vestments worn by the white preachers in high places; he did not carry a book or a shining golden symbol, but from his splendid shoulders was suspended a pure white lifeless dog.

Into the red flame the strong hands gently lowered it, scores of reverent, blanketed figures stood silent, awed, for it is the highest, holiest festival of the year. Then the wild, strange chant arose--the great pagan ritual was being intoned by the fire-keeper, his weird, monotonous tones voicing this formula:

"The Great Spirit desires no human sacrifice, but we, His children, must give to Him that which is nearest our hearts and nearest our lives. Only the spotless and stainless can enter into His presence, only that which is purified by fire. So--this white dog--a member of our household, a co-habitant of our wigwam, and on the smoke that arises from the purging fires will arise also the thanksgivings of all those who desire that the Great Spirit in His happy hunting grounds will forever smoke His pipe of peace, for peace is between Him and His children for all time."

The mournful voice ceases. Again the hollow pulsing of the Indian drum, the purring, flexible step of cushioned feet. I lift my head, which has been bowed on the chair before me. It is St. Paul's after all--and the clear boy-voices rise above the rich echoes of the organ.

(The end)
E. Pauline Johnson's Essay: Pagan In St. Paul's Cathedral

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