More on Joe Polis

From the Boston Daily Bee, August 8, 1854

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Joe Polis, Thoreau's Indian guide on the Allegash & East Branch trip, was an educated man, who represented the Penobscot tribe in Augusta, Maine and Washington, D.C. 

The same story: as told by Joe Polis to Thoreau, in The Maine Woods


THE PENOBSCOT INDIANS SOMETHING INTERESTING IN RELATION TO THEM. The following interesting information on the Penobscot Indians, is taken from a recent letter in the Puritan Recorder of this city. It was written at Oldtown, Me. 

[2]    My special object in writing this communication is to give some facts respecting the Penobscot Tribe of Indians, from whom this town derived its name. Their residence is upon the islands in the Penobscot, extending some fifty miles and containing some thousand of acres. Most of the tribe dwell upon the south part of the islands, nearest to this town. The tribe like others all over the land has been gradually wasting away. It numbers less than five hundred, of whom many are constantly absent to secure the means of living. The tribe still clings to its ancient custom of retaining at its head, a Chief, or King, or Governor, whose office is hereditary. Some are anxious to have the office elective. Hence two parties were formed who became mutually hostile, and for a time were in open and bitter conflict. At length the parties agreed upon terms of peace, and pledged to each other to bury the Tomahawk at the foot of the Liberty Pole which they had erected at the place of mutual concord for the future. Here was their common rallying point, until the Catholic Bishop and Priests came with the design to cut down that Pole and erect in its stead the cross, the emblem of Romanism. The day came for this transaction. The Indians assembled. The Bishop and Priests appeared in their gorgeous robes and imposing movements to the spot. There, the preparatory measures having been taken, the Bishop was just giving his orders to apply the axe; when, directly before him, stepped up one of the Indians, a noble, athletic and fearless man, and taking his stand between him and the Liberty Pole he said to the Bishop: "You go too far, Bishop. This Pole my property. He part my property. No white man any right to touch 'em. Suppose Governor of State himself come here; he no right to touch 'em, Indian property. Who are you? Foreigner, you come from Massachusetts, and you go to destroy Indian property. You no touch 'em." The Bishop replied, "You Indians can't understand, I am your Bishop. I know what is best for you. You are ignorant, you don't know." To which the Indian replied: "You say true, Bishop, the Indian be ignorant, but who make him ignorant? You Bishop, and you Priests. You been here on Indian island 125 years. You never teach Indian to read one word. You bury Indian one foot deeper in darkness every year. Now you get him 125 feet deep, and then you tell him, 'He no see.' The Priests tell him, 'Learning is not suitable for Indian, learning was not made for Indian. That which is good for white man is not good for them.' Now, Bishop, you show me one place in Bible where it says learning is good for white man, he no good for Indian, and let me carry 'em to Oldtown and show to my friend (meaning Rev. Mr. Merrill,) and see if you read 'em right." 

[3]    With such reasoning the Indian stood his ground; the Bishop and Priests were compelled to retire; and the Liberty Pole is still standing. After a little time, the same Indian said to the Priest who had been residing there for years and only to depress the people: "I guess the best way you live somewhere else. Suppose you live here; may be you get hurt." The Priest took the hint, left the island, and has not resided there since. 

[4]    This young man, who took such a decided stand for the tribe, is now one of the Counsel of the Nation, and was their representative two years since to the Legislature of Maine. His deep feeling and earnest efforts for the improvement of his brethren, are traceable to a striking event. Some ten years since, among those who visited the Island, was a pious lady from Boston. She sought those who could read, and finding a young Indian near the church, who answered her inquiry in the affirmative, she presented him with a bible. He was a boy in whom the Priest had expressed great interest, had taken him to his house and had learned [sic] him thus to read the English language. That boy was then residing with the Priest. He received the Bible gratefully and read it with deep interest. He soon found its teachings to be unlike those of the priest. This increased his interest in it, and caused him to conceal the Book in his bosom when not reading it. At length, by accident, he was called suddenly from his room, where he left the bible upon his table; the Priest on coming in saw it, and asked him how he obtained it. The boy frankly told him. The priest then said, "It is a bad book," and threw it into the fire. This, however, did not settle the questions with the youth; he secured another copy and read and reflected, and was hopefully led to Christ as the only hope of his soul. Not long after he was called to his dying scene; when he entreated his elder brother to labor for the improvement of the tribe, and for its relief from the degradation to which Romanism had so long reduced it. That elder brother is the same person who has been described above. He and others are now active in efforts to elevate the character of the tribe; and, to furnish means of education for the children and youth, they have had, at times, a school upon the island. The pupils have learned rapidly, and as they improve, have an increasing desire to improve. 

[5]    Two years since the legislature paid an extra grant of $200 to furnish means of improvement. Last year they increased the amount to $300; and, under the direction of their real and valued friend, Rev. Mr. Merrill, the tribe are receiving advantages for continued improvement. They are feeling more and more the need of it. Obstacles exist which they are laboring to remove. They are compelled to leave the Islands and traverse the country to obtain support; thus taking the children away from a settled home and means of instruction. It is hoped relief on this point will be obtained, by establishing a deposit for the articles  manufactured by them, and in return supplying them with the means of living. In respect to religion they are in a transition state. Many of them are totally dissatisfied with Romanism, and disgusted with the priests; and could a judicious course be taken, by those in whom they confide, the light of the Gospel might reach them, and its precious hopes be theirs. They are a very interesting people. No one can visit them and converse with them, without deep sympathy. As a people they are honest and upright in all their dealings, and are treated with respect and kindness by the surrounding communities. They cherish and practice principles of peace. They were never known, in our revolutionary struggles, to act against the Colonies, nor since, against the nation. Nor have they been in conflict with other tribes, except in cases of self-defence and protection. It is hoped that amid the benevolent activities of this age, they will not be overlooked by Christians who know them and can fully appreciate their condition. 

Yours truly, D.S. 


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