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Historic Diaries: Marsh, 1834

Indians Refuse to Pray

Editor's Note:

Rev. Marsh and his party are cutting overland from the Des Moines River near Ottumwa to the Iowa River, in order to descend it to Keokuk's village a few miles upriver from the Mississippi. (map of southwestern Iowa)


One can hardly imagine a simpler description of worldviews in conflict. In his halting Fox or Ojibwe, Rev. Marsh attempts a religious dialogue. When the young men give the answer which they know to be correct, perhaps hoping to enighten him, he insists upon the validity of his own view of the universe. Presumably the Indians were as puzzled as he was that their interlocutor didn't comprehend such an obvious fact.


That they remained quiet while he prayed, and listened politely to his explanation of it afterwards, epitomizes the courtesy with which Marsh was greeted by nearly all the Indians he met.


Wed [Aug.] 13th


Rose by daylight this morning. ... By sunrise or before we were again on our way. Our course more easterly ... The prairie continued with little variation except we crossed one creek or ravine and saw rather more timber.


After cooking and eating both breakfast and dinner, we again set out and soon entered another prairie. After traveling 8 or 10 miles we camped upon a ridge where there had been an encampment some time previous, and the poles of their wigwams were still standing.
Of these we constructed a wigwam with cloth which the Indns had and blankets and bark which afforded a fine shelter against the rain which fell in the evening.


As the cloud lay off in the west where we could see the lighting flash and hear the thunder, soon I inquired of the young men who made it rain? One immediately replied "Nah-nah-make-on" (Thunder). I then inquired who made the earth etc.? One made answer (and he was by no means deficient in capacity) "We-sak-kah." I told him no but the Great Spirit.


They repeated the inquiry two or three times as though they had never heard of it before. And then after some conversation one said that "it was a lie to say that the Great Spirit made all things, he made nothing, but "we-suk-kee" etc.


Again one of them asked me "if I was the Great Spirit man," meaning doubtless a prophet. I told him no, but the Great Spirit spoke to us in his book. Before we lay down to rest I proposed having prayer but they did not know what I meant. I then told them it was speaking to the Great Spirit and they concluded to be still. During prayer they were generally so and afterwards I told them something of what I prayed for etc.


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