Many, many years ago, when the Nez Percé Indians, who lived in that section of the great Northwest which is the source of the Columbia River, heard about the white man’s Book of Heaven, they said it was the source of the white man’s power. Traders had told them that some day missionaries would come from the country toward the rising sun with the white man’s Bible and tell them all about this wonderful God; and so for years they waited and watched in vain.
Finally a tribal council was called and after much deliberation it was decided to send five of their braves, three old men and two young ones, on a long journey into the great unknown land beyond the Rocky Mountains in search of the white man’s Book of Heaven.
One spring morning the five braves who had been chosen turned their faces eastward, but after two days of hard travel, one of the old men turned back, saying that he was too old to endure the hardships on the way. The others traveled for months, two thousand miles across mountains, hills, and plains, until they reached Saint Louis, Missouri, then but a small frontier post where a few hundred settlers made their home.
Early one October morning in 1882, these travel-worn Indians saw in the distance the houses of this little settlement. It was the first town they had ever seen; but if they were surprised, they gave no sign. Stolidly they pushed their silent way through the street, looking to neither the right nor the left.
When General Clark, who was then in command of the barracks, heard that four strange Indians were without, he sent two officers to bring them in, thinking they had come to make a treaty of some sort. The Indians entered the barracks with calm dignity, and after greeting General Clark, took their seats in silence. Days passed and still these strange messengers said nothing as to the purpose of their journey; but at last they told the meaning of it all: “They wanted the white man’s Book of Heaven. Would General Clark give it to them? They wanted to know God as the white man knew him. Would General Clark tell them? They wanted a teacher who would go with them to the land of the setting sun, there to break to their people the “bread of life” – would General Clark send one?
General Clark hardly knew what to say. He told them all he thought they could understand about the white man’s God, but he had no Bible printed in the language those Indians used, and he was not in command of missionaries; and so he could not fully satisfy their strange request.
All winter long the Indians waited and watched, hoping to learn more than had yet been told them of the white man’s God. During that time General Clark planned amusements for them, and did everything he could to make their stay a pleasure. That winter the two old men, weakened by their long journey, sickened and died, and in the spring the two who remained indicated their desire to start again on the long journey back to their people.
General Clark heaped many rich gifts upon them in parting and on the night before their departure he gave them a great banquet in his own home. When the meal was over he asked Ta-wis-sis-sim-nim (No Horns on His Head) to address the company. And these are the words which that silent Indian spoke, as translated by a Wyandotte Indian who was present at the banquet and who acted as interpreter:
I came to you over the trail of many moons from the land of the setting sun. You were the friends of my fathers who have gone the long way. I came to you with my eyes partly open for my people who sit in darkness. I go back with both eyes closed. How can I go back blind to my blind people? I made my way to you with strong arms through many enemies and strange lands that I might carry back to them the white man’s Book of Heaven. I go back with both arms broken and empty. The two fathers who came with us were braves of many snows and wars. We leave them asleep here by your great river and tepees. They were tired in many moons, and their moccasins wore out.
My people sent me to get the white man’s Book of Heaven. You took me to where your women dance, as ours do not, but the Book was not there! You took me to where they worship the Great Spirit with candles, but the Book was not there! You showed me images of the Great Spirit and pictures of the Good Land beyond, but the Book was not among them to show me the way! I am going back the long trail to my people who sit in darkness. You make my feet heavy with gifts and my moccasins will grow old in carrying them, and yet the Book is not among them to show me the Way! When I tell my people in the big council that I did not bring the Book, no word will be spoken. One by one they will rise up and go out in silence! My people will die in darkness, and they will go on that long journey to other hunting-grounds. No white man will go with them, no white man’s Book will make plain the way! I have no more words!
The homeward journey was made as easy as possible for those two disappointed Indians. They were put on board a Missouri River steamer whose captain took the first fire-canoe that ever made that long journey of twenty-two hundred miles to the mouth of the Yellowstone River. Ta-wis-sis-sim-nim, who made that sorrowful speech at the banquet, died near the mouth of the Yellowstone, so that only one of the four was left to tell the story. He made his way back, to his people with a message to cheer on his lips, even if there was a bitter, burning disappointment in his heart! He said: A white man will be sent with the Book!
And today, all over the United States, in Canada, aye, even in far-away Alaska, messengers of the cross are taking the white man’s Book of Heaven to the Indians.
(From Heralds of the Cross among Early Americans)