Monday, November 14, 2011

The Weight of Our History

Ten years ago, while I was serving the First Universalist Church of Yarmouth, Maine, I wrote a sermon on "craving"  which ended with the following story:
A few days into his journey to the mouth of the Coppermine River, Thomas Hearne and his party were set upon by Indians who stole most of their supplies. You might imagine that this would engender feelings of fear or, at least, uncertainty about the rest of their journey, about their very survival.  But Hearne's journal entry is telling.  He wrote, simply, "The weight of our baggage being so lightened, our next day's journey was more swift and pleasant."

I'd found this story, with slight variations, on literally dozens of sites -- both in collections of sermon illustrations and within sermons themselves -- and I've used this story several times since, virtually unchanged from its original telling.  I used it again yesterday, as well.  This time, though, while the basic thrust of the story stayed the same the tone was a little different.

In the ten years since I first encountered it I've become considerably more sensitive to the need to look with a inquiring eye at such a seemingly simple story.  Who was Thomas Hearne?  When did this journey take place?  What was the behavior of Hearne and his party with the native peoples they encountered?  What is, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story?

So I did some research.  Wikipedia wasn't the only source I consulted, but I'll the first to admit that it wasn't exhaustive.  Still, I discovered enough to learn that, for instance, contrary to what was written on all the websites I'd previously looked at Thomas Hearne was really Samuel Hearne.  This story unfolds in the early 1770s.  And there is undoubtedly a lot more to the story.

Hearne joined the Brittish Navy at age 11, and at 21 went to work for the Hudson's Bay Company.  He made three trips north to find the copper mine the Inuit (and others) were using for their copper.  The first two attempts were complete failures.  It is most likely during the third trip that the story above occured.

On this third trip Hearne was the only Englishman.  His traveling companions and guides were a group of people from the Chipewyan nation.  Along the way this group was joined by a number of T'atsaot'ine, also known as "Yellowknife Dene" because of their use of Copper.  It is now thought that many of these Dene joined Hearne's party because their nation was in conflict with the northern Inuit and this journey provided them an opportunity to strike at their enemies.

And strike they did.  On July 14, 1771, Hearne's party reached the Coppermine River.  At 1:00 am on JUly 17th, Hearne's guides attacked an Inuit encampment downstream, killing approximately twenty men, women, and children.  This event became known as the Massacre at Bloody Falls.

It seems that Hearne was in no way involved, that this wasn't another case of European's slaughtering Native Americans, and that he was, in fact, horrified by the incident.  It was he who afterward designated the site "Bloody Falls" and in his memoirs he noted, "I am confident that my features must have feelingly expressed how sincerely I was affected at the barbarous scene I then witnessed; even at this hour I cannot reflect on the transactions of that horrid day without shedding tears."  He claims to have pleaded for the life of a young girl who feel literally at his feet, but that he was ignored.

Still, while I could find no reference to the attack on his own party, from whence the story comes, I can't help now wondering -- was that attack in retaliation for the attack at Bloody Falls?  Or was it another example of the conflict which led to that massacre on July 17th?  All I know for sure is that there is more to the story than there'd been when Samuel what Thomas.

The story's still a useful one -- lots of lessons can be drawn from that seventeen word journal entry -- but I can never tell it as simply anymore.  To do so is to dishonor the complexities of real life, real women, children, and men.  And so, yesterday, I told the story in a slightly different way:
I want to leave you with a story.  The story of Samuel Hearne, who in the early 1770s was leading an expedition to explore to the mouth of the Coppermine River in the Northwest Territories of Canada. At one point in the journey his party was attacked by a party of Native Americans who made off with most of their supplies. I don’t know whether this incident occurred before or after a group of his party attacked and massacred a group of Cooper Inuit at Bloody Falls.  But you can imagine the feelings after they were attacked and their provisions taken –in a foreign and unknown land, a dangerous journey still ahead, most of your provisions gone, the possibility of further incidents, the guilt, the fear . . .
Now I don’t know much about Samuel Hearne.  I haven’t been able to learn whether he had sisters or brothers; whether he’d had a family of his own.  He seems to have been a good man who was truly horrified by the massacre carried out by his own people.  Still, I don’t know much about Samuel Hearne, but I do know one thing.  I do know is that he was well practiced in the art of gratitude.  I know this not because of any commentary that survives about the man but because of the comment he made in his own journal the day after the raid.  With all of the uncertainty, the tension, the anxiety that must have surrounded him at that time, Samuel Hearne wrote these words:  "The weight of our baggage being so much lightened, our next day’s journey was more swift and pleasant."
That’s someone who knew how to find the Gratitude Channel.  "The weight of our baggage being so much lightened, our next day’s journey was more swift and pleasant."

There may be more "baggage" now in the telling, but some is worth holding on to . . . and holding up.

In Gassho,

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