In Canada, June 21st is National Aboriginal Day, a time to reflect on the heritage of the First Nations who live across Canada. What can come as surprise to some is the example of Christian witness exhibited among the First Nations in the early days of Canada, even predating Confederation in 1867.
Pre-Confederation Christian Witness
One example of faithful Christian testimony was from a Cree chieftain named Maskepetoon (Broken Arm).* He was baptized as a Christian two years before Confederation, following over two decades of reflection on the bible and the gospel of Jesus Christ. His example of Christian witness came during a time of brutal warfare between the Cree Nation and the Blackfoot Confederacy in Alberta and Saskatchewan during the 1800s.
Maskepetoon emerged as a great warrior among the Cree, seasoned by many campaigns against the Blackfoot as they fought for supremacy during the days of the fur trade. As a leader among his people, Maskepetoon came into contact with pioneer missionaries, Robert Rundle and later, George and John McDougall. After a quarter century of contact with the gospel Maskepetoon was converted to faith in Jesus Christ. He was well versed in the written syllabic language crafted for Cree speakers and he became an avid bible reader for many years leading to his conversion.
It wasn’t always so. Maskepetoon’s ferocity as a warrior was matched by his intensity in drinking the trader’s alcohol and the violence that ensued. Over time however, he developed friendships with the Protestant missionaries and increasingly encouraged their efforts to teach his tribe.
The Bible and the Chief
From the missionaries he learned the power of the written word. He became a keen student of the Cree syllabic language. Then in 1841 after guiding the Sinclair party through the Canadian Rockies into what is now British Columbia and Washington State, Maskepetoon came into possession of a great literary treasure. He was given a Cree New Testament by the missionary Daniel Lee of the American Methodists. Historian Hugh A. Dempsey records that Lee affirmed the Protestant convictions of Maskepetoon, noting in a letter to Rundle that a local Roman Catholic priest was not able to “shake his faith.”
Maskepetoon held the bible in great esteem and it showed when he faced an incoming attack from a Blackfoot war party. The chief stood up and started to read from the New Testament. When the Blackfoot warriors came close, they stopped and instead of attacking him, they asked Maskepetoon if he was the chief they had heard about. They were fascinated that this man would stand with only the bible as his defence.
Following his baptism and a measles epidemic, Maskepetoon was found reading Romans 8 in a New Testament given to him by a later missionary. Surely in his trials he had found strength in that chapter. Christians have been finding strength there since the first century.
Love Your Enemies
Maskepetoon’s convictions lead him to forgive his enemies (Matthew 5.43-44; Luke 6.35). According to John McDougall, Maskepetoon said to the Blackfoot warrior who killed his father, “there was a time when I would have gloried in taking your life and in drinking your blood, but that is past… You need not fear; I will not kill you” and then he proceeded to give gifts and homage to the Blackfoot man as if he was Maskepetoon’s father (Dempsey, 181).
After years of trusting in God’s Word, he entered his enemies’ camp with no weapon except his bible. Tragically, in pursuing reconciliation he was murdered during the peace talks with the Blackfoot. But like Abel, “through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (Hebrews 11.4).
The Scriptures can give us great confidence like they did for the apostles, the Protestant Reformers and others like Maskepetoon. Such confidence helps us to bear regular consistent witness to the sufficiency of Scripture alone as our authority. In this way we don’t need to despair, for we have the witness of Jesus himself who said, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44). We may not become martyrs, but we can all have a witness that is confident and not despairing, grounded in the Word “breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3.16).
Maskepetoon had great confidence in the Word of God nearly 350 years after Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses. As Canada celebrates 150 years of existence, it should also recall the great Cree chief whose trust was in Scripture alone.
*The outline of Maskeptoon’s life is taken from historian Hugh A. Dempsey’s 2010 biography, Maskepetoon: Leader, Warrior, Peacemaker.