The Priest and the Cree

Author: Jonathan Ryan

Sunlight flared on the Canadian snow as I drove through the streets of Maskwacis, Alberta, home to four First Nations Plain Cree tribes — the Samson, Ermineskin, Louis Bull and Montana Cree. Squinting against the blinding light, I looked for the object of my pilgrimage: a stone monument to a building that no longer existed.


I found it, standing in a field near Ermineskin Junior Senior High School. After parking on the side of the road, I trudged through the snow to a jagged piece of granite that resembled the state of Georgia. The seal of the Ermineskin nation dominated the top of the monument, encircled by a large eagle, the symbol of the Great Spirit. It glared at the image of a nondescript building engraved into the stone below it.


Below the etchings were the dates “1894-1976” and a simple phrase carved in both English and Cree, “Honoring our survivors.” I traced the Cree letters with my fingers, trying to imagine the near cultural genocide of a race of people that had taken place on this continent. The Ermeskin Residential School was one of the notorious First Nation residential schools instituted by the Canadian government in conjunction with Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church during the 19th and 20th centuries.


Essentially, the idea had been to “Kill the Indian to save the Indian.” Part of that strategy was to send First Nations children to a boarding school away from their reservation, teach them to speak English or French and to accept the Christian religion, and send them back to lead their tribes into a new, financially productive existence. In a perfect illustration of the adage, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” the poorly funded institutions were rampant with neglect, abuse and subpar education. The schools created generations of “lost children” stripped of their cultural heritage and identity, which led to unemployment, poverty, alcoholism and suicide, and opened the reservations to other sinister outside influences.


I bowed my head in shame. Although I am an Irish/German Catholic kid from southern Indiana, I shared the culpability of the Church’s sin against the original inhabitants of Canada.


I’d spent 10 days seeing the destructive legacy of the residential schools firsthand. It was part of my research. Three years earlier, Marvin Yellowbird, then chief of the Samson Cree, had hired me to write his memoir. He wanted to provide a different picture of his people than what was then being presented in the Canadian press and embraced by the Canadian public.


The supposedly progressive Canadian press had described the conditions of his tribe as “violent and terrifying.” These journalists wanted to “help” the troubled reserve, they claimed. Instead, their reporting fed the stereotype of the drunk, helpless Indian who needed the white man to save him.


When I arrived on the reserve, I realized the gross exaggeration. I had spent time in some of the most dangerous cities of America, and Maskwacis was almost idyllic in comparison. Still, there is no denying the Samson Cree struggle with serious issues. Unemployment, poverty and alcoholism persist here. The encroachment of outside gangs who were fighting over the drug trade had resulted in the shooting of innocent people, including Chief Yellowbird’s spiritual grandson, Ethan. By the time of my visit, Yellowbird and the Samson Cree had fought back hard against the gangs, curbing the violence through significant community programs.


After visiting the monument, I rode with Yellowbird to Edmonton and asked about the schools. “There is no doubt they created many of the problems we face,” he said. “It took away generations of my people, and it could take generations to fix.”


When I said, “I’m so sorry, Marvin,” he looked at me sideways and said, “For what? You’re not the Canadian government.” I would later learn he wasn’t a fan of white liberal apologies and other expressions of guilt that accomplish nothing except to make the apologist feel good. The graveyard of relations between whites and Native Americans is littered with the corpses of such useless apologies.


“No, but I’m a Catholic, and we helped do this.”


“Maybe you should check out Father Constantine Scollen,” he said with a half-smile, introducing me to the name of a priest who served here during the white incursion.


When I pressed him for more information, he said, “You’ll see. Maybe it will help you,” then changed the subject to the Edmonton Oilers hockey game we’d seen the night before.


The rebel priest

When I got back to the States, I started writing Chief Yellowbird’s story. The name Father Scollen kept cropping up in my research and, in a strange coincidence, I learned Scollen was buried in Dayton, Ohio, about 70 miles from where I lived. Even more intriguing, he’d written a book: Thirty Years Experience Among the Indians of the Northwest. By the accounts of his own letters and those who’d seen the book, it was a treasure trove of cultural information of Western Canadian and American native tribes, especially the Plains Cree, Marvin Yellowbird’s people.


The contradiction seemed strange to me. Why would a Catholic priest write such an extensive documentation of the Native American culture when the Canadian government and the Church supposedly strove to eliminate it from the earth?


Digging deeper, I discovered part of my answer could be found in the beginning of Scollen’s life. He was born April 4, 1841, in County Fermanagh, Ireland, right before the potato famine struck. The British government imposed crushing farming laws and refused help during the crisis. Young Constantine would have been surrounded by hunger, poverty and desperate pleas for intervention — experiences that would play a part in his life’s work.


Early on he felt the call to be a priest and traveled to England to begin his studies with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. When he heard about the congregation’s work among the tribes of Western Canada, he begged his superiors to allow him to go. Sent as a novice oblate to Fort Edmonton, Scollen soon proved himself to be an able polyglot. After taking the vows of a lay brother, he traveled throughout Alberta, talking to the Métis, Blackfoot and Cree people to learn their languages. As the native people had no system of writing at the time, Scollen worked on making dictionaries for each language, sometimes developing whole alphabets.


He was ordained on April 12, 1873, and during the three years that followed, Father Scollen worked among the Blackfoot and Cree people. He showed a deep respect for their language and culture, and they, in turn, reportedly loved him. He displayed no interest in converting them into “good subjects of the Crown,” as he would say sarcastically in many of his letters. Scollen saw exactly what that meant in his native Ireland.


WeyerPhotogravures by Edward S. Curtis 1868-1952, Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Libraries

During those years in the mid-1870s, he saw the plight of the First Nations people of Alberta. He watched the bison disappear, hunted to near-extinction by those pouring into the West. Knowing how much the Plains tribes depended on the animal for their food, Scollen believed starvation was a real possibility for his friends.


This realization helped him agree to aid the Canadian government as it sought to make treaties with the First Nations tribes. Unlike the United States, which imposed a succession of individual treaties over time, the Canadian government instituted 11 treaties, each dealing with groups of different tribes, negotiated according to their different circumstances. All, supposedly, were agreements to “rent” the land from First Nations people. In effect, they represented a blatant campaign of land-stealing.


Scollen served as a kind of intermediary, helping the Canadian government negotiate what are now known as Treaties Six and Seven. Treaty Six, for example, promised food, farming materials and “medicine chests” in exchange for the “rent” of what was mainly Cree tribal land. While the priest was convinced that only farming and learning European practices would save the Indians from extinction, his letters and subsequent writings suggest that he and many Oblate missionaries felt it entirely unnecessary for them to give up their native cultures.


After the treaties were signed, however, the tribes were sent to reservations. When Scollen visited each reserve, he saw the Canadian government wasn’t keeping its promises. The Indian agents often refused to let the tribes farm or take other steps to improve their situations. So Scollen raged against the Canadian Mounted Police, chastised local Protestant congregations and criticized his brother oblates, whom he saw as slow to condemn the conditions.


Rumors were circulated that he was drinking and acting erratically. His enemies among the Canadian officials wrote to Bishop Vital J. Grandin of St. Albert and to Oblate leaders to accuse him of “gross immorality with Indian women.” The outcry prompted Grandin to recall Scollen for an investigation into his activities. But Scollen was difficult to locate; he was eventually discovered among the Blackfoot tribe in Montana, ministering to them while they hunted bison. Learning of the charges against him and the bishop’s inclination to believe them, Scollen delayed going until a fellow priest convinced him to meet with the bishop to clear his name.


After a lengthy investigation, the bishop absolved Scollen of all charges but assigned him to continue his priestly duties not among the native people on their reservations but at Fort Edmonton, ministering to the nearby Plains Cree in the Bear Hills near the town of Hobbema, which would later be named Maskwacis — the town where I’d sought the stone monument and met Chief Yellowbird.


Conditions among the Cree were getting progressively worse. The government-appointed Indian agent of the Bear Hill Cree ruled them with an iron fist. Eight chiefs approached Scollen to write a letter for them to the Edmonton Bulletin to beg for help — a letter that was published February 3, 1883, reading in part:


We are reduced to the lowest stage of poverty. We were once a proud and independent people and now we are mendicants at the door of every white man in the country; and were it not for the charity of the white settlers who are not bound by treaty to help us, we should all die on government fare. Our widows and old people are getting the barest pittance, just enough to keep body and soul together, and there have been cases in which body and soul have refused to stay together on such allowances. Our young women are reduced by starvation to become prostitutes to the white man for a living, a thing unheard of before, amongst ourselves and always punishable by Indian law. What then are we to do? Shall we not be listened to?


Scollen felt responsible for the conditions of his friends. He had convinced them to sign the treaties and to embrace the European way of life, thinking it the best way for them to survive.


The Canadian government responded to Scollen’s defiance with abuse and threats. William Anderson, the Crown’s Indian Agent, wrote to Bishop Grandin, asking him to “compel the Reverend Mr. Scollen to cease making trouble among the Indians or leave this District or that I should be compelled to have him arrested.”


The bishop, for his part, refused to have Scollen removed. Instead, the pair continued to appeal to the Canadian government to fix the problem. They warned of a possible rebellion if the concerns of the chiefs weren’t taken seriously.


In 1885, a Métis leader, Louis Riel, incited an armed rebellion, and most of the tribes joined him. The Canadian lieutenant governor asked Scollen to help keep the peace. Knowing that armed rebellion could only lead to the destruction of the First Nations tribes, he traveled to the Maskwacis Cree and found them preparing for war. He described the event in one of his letters:


Armed with the Government's letter and accompanied by the Halfbreeds I went to the camp. . . . The young rascals who had caused all this annoyance saw my object and kept up the war dance as a protest that they would not listen. The whole of the people, men, women and children were gathered around the dancing lodge — I tried several times to get a hearing, but all to no purpose. The drums rolled, the young scoundrels fired shots over my head and shouts went forth of No Surrender and Riel! Riel! I whispered a few words to Bob Tail. . . . He jumped and made a raid on the drums and in two minutes scattered the crowd who were making such a noise. I took the floor at once. This was all I wanted. I knew I could hold them once I got a hearing. I kept them for two hours until I had left nothing unsaid. . . . The dispatch was that they seemed penitent for all that they had done. They returned the goods they had taken from the Company, the camp broke up, and now they are hard at work like good and faithful subjects.


Again, the sarcasm of that last line is hard to ignore.


After the rebellion subsided, Scollen pushed even harder for the Canadian government to keep its promises. But his anger and frustration led him to leave the Immaculate Mary missionaries. After submitting to the discipline of Bishop Grandin, Scollen was given permission to serve as a secular priest in America, working first in parishes throughout North Dakota and Wyoming and, finally, in Dayton, Ohio, where the parishioners called him Father Con. He died on November 8, 1902, and was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Dayton.


The lost manuscript

Although other projects intervened, Yellowbird’s instructions to research the missionary priest nagged at me. I finally decided to dig deeper into Scollen’s Thirty Years Experience Among the Indians of the Northwest to see if I could understand why the chief sent me on this quest.


I learned, however, that Scollen’s book had been lost not long after his death. While some of his papers had been given to the Athenaeum in Cincinnati, the chief research librarian there told me, “Well, I don’t want to disappoint you, but we just don’t have it. I did some checking because you’re not the only one looking for it.”


Also seeking the missing book, I was told, was an Englishman named Ian Fletcher, a researcher and friend of the Scollen family in Ireland. When I contacted him, Fletcher told me he had spent years searching for the book but could never find it.


“So there’s no way to read the book?” I asked.


“That’s an interesting question,” Fletcher said. “Father Scollen wrote 40 letters to the Buffalo Bulletin. From what I can tell, this might be a good portion of his book.” Following Fletcher’s lead, I began to read Scollen’s letters from archived, digitized issues of the Bulletin. Scollen’s position on his First Nation friends showed the prophetic nature of his insights.


First and foremost, I wish the reader to bear in mind that the Indian is the only real American on this continent. We hear a great deal every day about foreigners, &c., coming to America. The first is, all white men and all black men throughout this whole American commonwealth, are comparatively nothing but foreigners. The pure Indian, the unmixed red man, and he alone, is the native, the aboriginal American. All others are either Europeans, Asiatics or Africans, and have been transplanted to this American soil. . . . The red man, and he alone, is the native child and primitive possessor thereof the land.


Scollen wrote these lines in 1893 to newspaper readers who would have scorned his views. Not only was he recognizing Indians as fellow human beings, he also affirmed their claim to the land.


Although he did want the First Nations people to be Catholics, he didn’t want them to eradicate their culture. He wrote:


I said I had to learn the Indian languages in order to instruct the Indians. The missionary who attempts to convert Indians through an interpreter or by tring to teach them his language, or by spreading bibles and pamphlets broad-cast among them, as I have known some evangelical societies to do, is simply losing his time, and is guilty of an imposition.


Scollen’s respect for those he ministered to shows through clearly in the essential element he chose that would preserve Native American culture in the coming generations: their languages.


After reading his letters, I made a short pilgrimage to visit Constantine Scollen’s grave in Dayton. His parishioners there may not have known his full story; they didn’t even get his name right. “Cornelius” is the name mistakenly etched on his headstone. Somehow, this seemed fitting, that this forgotten priest of Catholic history be buried under the wrong name.


I had no idea if Chief Yellowbird ever read Scollen’s letters. I wondered if he suspected the priest would reveal his lessons to me as I searched for him. But I remembered a lesson I’d forgotten. History is the complicated story of the human race, and often we try to make it fit the narrative we force on the world. Usually it’s because we want to make ourselves look better than our ancestors. And we mumble half-thought-out apologies for the past without really reflecting on the needs of the present, thinking that will somehow fix everything.


In truth, history is complex because humans are complex. The Catholic Church in Canada instituted the residential schools but also fought hard against the Canadian government for First Nations rights. We want our stories neat and tidy, with the good and bad guys clearly defined. But, often, they can be the very same person, and it might be us.


Jonathan Ryan is co-founder of the online community Sick Pilgrim and co-author of Strange Journey, due from Loyola Press in October.