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Professor "Lo," Philosopher
My Interview with an Educated Indian in the Wilds of Oregon:
In the summer of 1902 I was camping, in company with the late Judge Sterry of Los Angeles, on Spring Creek in the Klamath Indian Reservation in Southeast Oregon. Spring Creek rises out, of lava rocks and flows in a southeasterly direction, carrying over 200,000 inches of the clearest, coldest water I ever saw. In fact, its waters are so clear that the best anglers can only catch trout, with which the stream abounds, in riffles, that is where the stream runs over rocks of such size as to keep the surface in constant commotion, thus obscuring the vision of the fish.
Two miles, or thereabouts, from its source, Spring Creek empties into the Williamson River. The Williamson rises miles away in a tule swamp, and its waters are as black as black coffee. Where the two streams come together, the dark waters of the Williamson stay on the left hand side of the stream, going down, and the clear waters of Spring Creek on the right hand side, for half a mile or more. Here some rapids, formed by a swift declivity of the stream, over sunken boulders, cause a mixup of the light and dark waters, and from there on they flow intermingled and indistinguishable.
Nine miles down stream, the Sprague River comes in from the left. It is as large as the Williamson, and its waters are the color of milk, or nearly so. The stream flows for miles over chalk beds and through chalk cliffs, which gives its waters their weird coloring. The union of the waters of the Williamson and the Sprague Rivers results in the dirty, gray coloring of the waters of Klamath Lake, into which they empty, and of the Klamath River, which discharges the lake into the Pacific Ocean.
The place where the Williamson is joined by the Sprague is known as the "Killican." The stream here flows over a lava bottom and is quite wide, in places very deep and in places quite shallow. There seemed to be quite an area of this shallow water. The shallow places suddenly dropped off into pools of great depth, and it was something of a stunt to wander around on the shallow bed rock and cast off into the pools below. I tried it and found the lava as smooth and slippery as polished glass.
After sitting down a couple of times in water two feet deep, I concluded to stay on shore and cast out into the pool. Following this exhilarating exercise with indifferent success, I noticed approaching a little, old Indian. He was bareheaded and barefooted. His shirt was open, exposing his throat and breast. His eyes were deep set, his hair and beard a grizzly gray. He had a willow fishing pole in one hand and a short bush with green leaves on it, with which he was whacking grasshoppers, in the other. He circled around on the bank near me, now and again catching a hopper. I noticed that he ate about two out of every five that he caught. The others he kept for bait.
Finally he approached the stream. He paid no attention whatever to me. He selected a spot almost under me, squatted down upon a flat rock, put two grasshoppers on his hook, threw it into the stream, and in a very short time drew out a good six-pound trout. Filled with admiration for the feat, while he was tying a string through the fish's gills I said to him, "Muy mahe," which another Indian had told me meant "big trout." Without looking up or turning his head, he said to me in perfect English, "What sort of lingo are you giving me, young man? The true pronunciation of those words is," and then he repeated "Muy mahe," with just a little twist to his words that I had not given them. Resuming the conversation he remarked, "Why not speak English? When both parties understand it, it is much more comfortable. I intended to catch but one fish, but as you have admired this one, allow me to present it to you with my compliments." He had turned around now, and held out the struggling trout, a pleasant smile upon his worn features.
Embarrassed beyond measure, I apologized for attempting to talk to him in his own language, and accepted the trout. He baited his hook, cast it into the stream, and in a short time landed a still larger trout. Without removing it from the hook, he came up the bank to where I was seated. He laid his fish and rod on the grass, wiped his forehead with his hand and sat down.
"I never catch more fish, or kill more game than I need for my present wants," he remarked. "That trout will be ample for my wife and myself for supper and breakfast, and in fact for all day tomorrow. When he is gone, I will catch another one."
Then, turning to me, he asked, "From what section of civilization do you hail?" I told him I was from Los Angeles.
"Ah, Los Angeles," he murmured. "The Queen City of the West and Angel City of the South. I have read much of your beautiful city, and I have often thought I would like to visit it and confirm with my own eyes all I read about it. What a paradise that country must have been for the Indian before you white men came! I can hardly imagine a land of perpetual sunshine, a land where the flowers bloom constantly, where snows never fall. Yes, I would like to go there, but I imagine I never shall." Then, with an inquiring glance, "What may be your calling?" he asked.
I told him I was an attorney-at-law.
"A noble profession," he remarked. "Next to medicine I regard it as the noblest profession known to our limited capabilities. Do you ever think," he asked me, "that the medical profession is devoted to relieving physical ills? To warding off death? The law, on the other hand, takes care of your property rights. It is supposed to be the guardian of the weak. How often, however, do we see its mission perverted, and how often it becomes an oppressor of the unfortunate. How many times do we see it aiding in the accumulation of those large fortunes with which our modern civilization is fast becoming burdened and brutalized."
While I had never contracted the filthy habit of smoking, I had in my pocket several good cigars. I extended the case to my newfound friend. He took one, thanked me, bit off the end, lit it and puffed away with evident enjoyment. I took the liberty of asking him his business. "I am a professor of belles lettres and philosophy in the Indian College on the Klamath reservation. I am here on my vacation. I was born and reared to early manhood in these mountains. They still have a charm for me. While I love my books and my labors, there is a freedom in my life here which appeals to me. Here I go back to natural life, and study again the book of nature. Each day I take a lesson from the wild animals of the forest, from the surging streams and twittering birds. Here I can better realize how small is man in the general plan of creation."
He hesitated, and I took advantage of his silence and asked him about the religion of his race. Whether the modern red man adhered to the teachings of his tribe, or leaned toward the white man's God. Replying, he delivered to me a discourse of considerable length, which, as near as I can recollect it now, ran as follows:
A Red Agnostic.
"My people have been too busy these many years filling their stomachs to pay much attention to saving their souls. We teach a religion that inculcates good behavior, and promises as a reward for a well-spent life an eternity of bliss in the happy hunting ground. Our future is depicted by our priests as a materialistic future, where we follow the chase, defeat our enemies and enjoy to our full those things which render us happy in this world. Personally, I have long since discarded the teachings of my people, and I am in a state of doubt which seriously perplexes me. I have read much and widely on this subject. I find that you white men have not one religion, but many. You are divided into sects, torn by factions. From the teachings of history I would think that the multitude of denominations you support was your greatest safeguard. You know from times past, when a religion becomes too powerful it becomes also intolerant, and persecutions follow. I am loath to accept the Christian theory of the origin of man or his probable destiny. Science teaches us that the human being has existed for millions of years longer than the churches admit we have existed. The idolatry practiced by the Catholic church repulses me, and yet its stability has strongly appealed to me. You will remember what Macaulay, in reviewing Ranke's History of the Popes, said of this church. After reviewing its history, its defeats and its triumphs, he added: 'And she may still exist in undiminished vigor when some traveler from New Zealand shall in the midst of a vast solitude take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul.' And yet, neither the age of the church nor its stability is conclusive to my mind of its divine origin. I am rather convinced from these facts that it has been governed by a skillful set of men, who were able politicians and financiers, as well as religious enthusiasts. Certainly no protestant church can lay claim to divine origin. We know too well that the Episcopal church was founded by an English King, because the Pope of Rome refused him a divorce. Luther quarreled with his church and broke away from its restraints. Wesley founded the Methodist church, Calvin the Presbyterian church. The more I study the religious history of the world, the more I am convinced that religion is founded on fear. The immortal bard, from whom nothing seems to have been hidden, lays down the foundation of all religion in those words from 'Hamlet,' where he makes the melancholy Dane exclaim:
"To die: - to sleep, - To sleep! perchance to dream: - ay, there's the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have, shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause."
"Do you realize that Ingersoll, by his teachings and his denunciations of what he termed the 'absurdities of orthodox religious beliefs,' has done more toward shaking faith in many church doctrines than any man of this age'? And, after all, is not his doctrine a sane one? He says, in effect: 'I can not believe these things. My reason revolts at them. They are repugnant to my intellect. I can not believe that a just God will punish one of His creatures for an honest opinion.' He denies that there is such a God as the churches hold out to us. He denies that the world was created in six days; that man was created in the manner described in the Bible, and that woman was created from man's rib. He denies that miracles were ever performed, or that there was any evidence, reliable or authoritative, that they were ever performed. And yet he does not deny the existence of a future life. His doctrine on this point is, 'I know only the history of the past and the happenings of the present. I do not know, nor does any man know, anything of the future. Let us hope there is a life beyond the grave.'
"The old poet, Omar, argues against a future life. You will recall these lines:
"'Strange, is it not, that of the multitudes who
Before us pass'd the door of Darkness through,
Not one returns to tell us of the Road,
Which to discover we must travel, too.'"
"The churches tell us we must have faith to be saved, but the great minds of the present age are not satisfied, any more than many of the great minds of the past were satisfied, to admit as a matter of faith the whole foundation of the Christian religion."
"People want to be shown. They are not willing to rely upon poorly authenticated stories of what occurred several thousand years ago. The question presents itself to us: Is the world better, for its present beliefs than it formerly was, when religion was a matter of statute People may not be as religious as they once were, but they are certainly more humane. Women are no longer slaves, chattels, with unfeeling husbands. Slavery itself no longer exists in any civilized nation. Polygamy is not practiced to the extent that it was in Biblical days. The world progressed as fear ceased to rule the human mind."
"But, pardon me," he added with infinite grace and a charming wave of. his hand, "you see your question has aroused in me the failing of the pedagogue. I have said more than I had intended."
"How do your people," I asked, "look upon the material progress of the age?" "They are astounded," he answered. "Since the Modoc War many of my people have prospered. You have seen their farms, their houses, and noted their occupations. They are rich in lands and stock, and even in money. They have many comforts and even many luxuries in their homes. Some of them have traveled extensively, and they come back filled with awe and admiration with what the white man has done and is doing. I read the modern press, and many scientific works, and I am satisfied that man will fly in a few years more. Already the automobile is displacing the domestic animals. The telephone was a great triumph of science, next in importance to steam locomotion. But, are your people as happy with your modern methods, your crowded cities, your strenuous existence, as your forefathers were, who led the simple life? And where is this mad scramble, not for wealth alone, not for power but for mere existence, nothing more, that the human race is engaged in, going to end? Can you tell me? Take America, one of the newest civilized lands of the earth, how long will it be before her coal measures are exhausted? Her iron ores exhausted? Her forests will soon be a thing of the past. Already you hear complaints that her fertile lands are not yielding as they once did, and your population is constantly increasing. With coal gone, with iron gone, with the land poverty stricken to a point where profitable production of cereals can no longer be had, what is to become of your teeming millions?"
I assured him I could not answer these questions. That I had asked myself the same things a thousand times, and no answer came to me. I handed the professor another cigar. He lit it. Just then an old Indian woman clad in a calico wrapper, but bareheaded and barefooted, came down the road towards us. She stopped some fifty feet away, and in a shy, low voice, but in good English, she called him. "Papa, did you catch me a fish for dinner?" The professor turned his head, and seeing her, said to me, "Ah, here is my guardian angel, my wife," and then to her, holding up his trout, he said, "Yes, I have it. I am coming now."
He arose, held out a dirty hand for me to shake, and in parting, said, "My dear sir, you can not imagine how much I have enjoyed our chance meeting, resulting from your poor pronunciation of two Indian words. When you return to your civilized surroundings, ask yourself, 'Are any of this mad throng as happy as the Indian I met at the Killican'."
He joined his wife, and the aged pair passed into a brush hut beneath some stately pines. I, too, turned toward the wagon which was to carry me back to camp, meditating long and deeply on the remarks of this strolling compound of savagery and education. Environment is largely responsible for man's condition. Here was a man who had acquired considerable knowledge of the world and books, he was still a savage in his manner of life and in his habits.
His manner of talking was forceful and natural, and his command of language remarkable. The ease and abandon with which he wielded the arguments of those who rail against the existence of a Divine Being would lead one, listening to him, to imagine himself in the lecture-room of some modern university.