Through the Lens of History: John Tanner, a white Indian between a rock and a hard place (I)

Jean Delisle
(Language Update, Volume 8, Number 2, 2011, page 16)

The “Indianization” of a future interpreter

The Tanner boy was nine years old in 1789 when he was captured by a Shawnee warrior on the farm of his father, a former preacher who had settled on the banks of the Ohio River in Kentucky. By custom, the Indian offered the captive to his wife, who was mourning the death of her son. Ritual substitution adoption was practised among Amerindians long before the Europeans arrived. Many a white who was abducted and adopted later worked as an interpreter; this was true of John Tanner, as we shall see. Conversely, a number of interpreters were ceremonially adopted after being abducted during a mission. It was an occupational hazard at the time.

Tanner was renamed Shaw-shaw-wa-be-na-se, meaning “the falcon,” and was subjected to hard labour. For two years, he was mistreated by his adoptive father, who battered him and nearly killed him with a tomahawk blow to the head just because he had given in to fatigue and fallen asleep while doing his work. An old Ottawa woman vested with the authority of a chief rescued him from this hell, buying him in exchange for barrels of whisky, blankets and tobacco. She took him to live with her on the shores of Saginaw Bay (Lake Huron), northwest of Detroit, and two years later, to Red River country in Manitoba, the home of her Saulteaux husband. For three decades, Tanner moved about this region, as well as the regions of Rainy Lake and Lake of the Woods at the current border of Manitoba, Ontario and Minnesota. The tragic circumstances of his life would make him a first-hand observer of Amerindian culture.


Believing he had no hope of escaping from his captors, Tanner decided to become a part of his new environment and gave no more thought to fleeing. He lived rough and was schooled, so to speak, in the art of nomadic life at the side of his second adoptive mother, Netnokwa, who treated him kindly. The newcomer had to become as resourceful as his adoptive clansmen. Over the years, he mastered the techniques of fishing and hunting in the northern forests, as well as the art of tracking bison on the western plains. The more he became like the Indians, the greater was their esteem for him. In time, he came to enjoy all the authority and prestige of a chief.

Immersed in his new environment, John Tanner learned to speak Ottawa and Saulteaux—the language of trade—as if by osmosis. He discovered Amerindian customs, religious beliefs, rituals and superstitions from the perspective of an insider, assimilating their most cherished values of courage, strength, physical endurance, hospitality, generosity, sharing and solidarity. Like his brothers by adoption, he learned to conceal his emotions and developed a spirit of vengeance, which drove him to apply the law of retaliation and mete out his own justice.

During his 30 years of captivity and adventure, Tanner witnessed a transformation in the Aboriginal way of life. Once hunter-gatherers, the Amerindians were becoming suppliers for the fur traders, who gave them firearms, everyday goods and above all the terrible “fire water.” For Tanner, the meeting of cultures and the clash of values and moral codes was a shocking experience. He was disgusted by the dishonesty of the unscrupulous traders who shamefully exploited the Indians. Though he agreed to work for them to make a living, he refused on principle to barter furs for whisky. He knew the devastating effects of drinking binges, which—as he had witnessed many a time—too often ended in violent killings.

In 1828, John Tanner recounted the myriad events of his adventurous life in Indian country to Dr. Edwin James (1797—1861).Remark a This scientist, who was also a geologist and a botanist, had been part of the 1820 expedition of Major Stephen Long, who set out from Pittsburgh and got as far as the Rocky Mountains. Tanner helped him improve his knowledge of Saulteaux.

Over the years, Tanner became a lawless vagabond. Most of the time he lacked the basic necessities of life—the lot of many a nomad. On occasion, he had to slaughter his dogs to feed his family or to keep from starving during a hunting expedition. Tanner narrowly escaped death on more than one occasion. He was beaten, knocked unconscious, stabbed and shot. Several times, he came close to drowning and freezing or starving to death. In a moment of deep despair, he even attempted suicide.

Over time, these harsh conditions awakened in him a desire to escape from this agonizing, precarious existence. But how? Being unable to read or write, he could not hope to become a fur trader, and he had little interest in settling down. He could not see himself taking up farming or forcing himself to work a dull clerk’s job at a trading post. Given his temperament, he was ill-suited to this kind of work. Jealous of his liberty and fundamentally action-oriented, this woodsman wanted more than anything else to preserve his independence.

Interpretation: A path to liberty

One day, he met an Ottawa interpreter who had spent 10 years in the Rockies and had had considerable contact with whites. The interpreter told him about the various ways of making a living. According to Tanner, “[t]here was but one situation exactly adapted to my habits and qualifications, that of an interpreter.”Footnote 1 The idea took root in his mind and seemed to him a good way of returning to “civilization.” But there was still a long way to go.

Tanner had always enjoyed good relations with the interpreters he had chanced to meet in his travels. One of them, in the service of a trader in the North West Company, had refused to help his own crooked boss steal the fur packs Tanner was taking to a trader at the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) who had given him credit. After a knife fight with the trader, Tanner gathered up the fur skins and tied them together with the help of the interpreter as the drunken trader looked on in fury. On another occasion, he had teamed up with interpreter Charles G. Bruce to go bison hunting in order to supply HBC employees with bison pemmican. Bruce had traveled widely and gave Tanner advice that proved very useful in planning his return to the United States. This interpreter always treated him in a “friendly and hospitable manner” and gave him shelter in his wigwam from would-be assassins.

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John Tanner

Tanner decided to leave Indian society in response to the growing animosity towards him on the part of the clan, including his mother-in-law and his wife. His life was in danger. It bears mentioning here that he made no bones about criticizing the so-called prophecies and divinations of a false messiah named Aiskawbawis who was exerting great influence within the group. The self-proclaimed prophet made Tanner out to be responsible for the death of children, among other things. What is more, this crank had convinced all the members of the group that the Great Spirit had made him agent of its will. Tanner was the only one who dared confront Aiskawbawis openly and expose his deceptions. His repeated attacks against the impostor earned him the enmity of those around him.

Concerning this particularly difficult episode of his life, he confided to Dr. James that “[a]t present, I had no inclination, either to remain with the Indians, or to take another wife.”Footnote 2 He had married two Aboriginal women à la façon du pays (according to the custom of the country), that is to say, without contractual formalities or binding ties and had had three children with each of them. Alone in the woods with the three young children from his second marriage, his duties became too much for him to bear. He complained, saying:

I dressed moose skins, made my own moccasins and leggins, and those for my children; cut wood and cooked for myself and my family, made my snow shoes, etc. etc. All the attention and labour I had to bestow about home, sometimes kept me from hunting, and I was occasionally distressed for want of provisions. I busied myself about my lodge in the night time. When it was sufficiently light, I would bring wood, and attend to other things without; …. For nearly all the winter, I slept but a very small part of each night.Footnote 3

Being a single parent in need living a nomadic life style in the woods is no small feat.

Moreover, the Metis in the service of the Nor’Westers were also furious with him for having participated in the capture of Fort Douglas at the confluence of the Red River and the Assiniboine River (Winnipeg) with the help of interpreter Louis Nolin of the HBC. In their eyes, he was nothing less than a renegade and a traitor. Driven by the desire for revenge, they sought to lure him into an ambush but were unsuccessful.

A judge from Quebec City by the name of William B. Coltman spoke of John Tanner in glowing terms to Lord Selkirk. This Scottish aristocrat, who controlled the HBC, was trying to establish a colony of Scottish farmers in the Red River Valley to develop the region under the protection of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The initiative was intended to counter the activities of the North West Company. Selkirk took an interest in the singular and fascinating person of Tanner and was moved by his sad fate.

“This man,” said [Judge Coltman], “conducted your party from the Lake of the Woods hither in the winter season, and performed a very important part in the taking of this fort, at the expense of great labour, and at the hazard of his life, and all for the sum of forty dollars. The least you ought to do is to make his forty dollars eighty, and give him an annuity of twenty dollars per year for life.”Footnote 4

Selkirk agreed to this arrangement and also promised to help Tanner find his family. On leaving Canada, Selkirk travelled by way of the United States—at great risk and peril to himself, as he was a British subject and the War of 1812 was still fresh in people’s memories—and true to his word, he located the Tanner family in Kentucky.

A difficult homecoming

Eager to see his family after an absence of 30 years, Tanner left Canada in 1819. Along the way, he stopped in Detroit at the home of Michigan Governor Lewis Cass. Having lost his English over the years, he was unable to converse with the Governor directly; he needed the help of an interpreter. After hearing the story of his captivity, the governor gave Tanner clothing and had him stay with his interpreter.

When he reached his native land, Tanner still needed the help of an interpreter to communicate with his family. But he had trouble adjusting to his new surroundings. For example, he discovered that sleeping in a house made him ill. Also, when he was invited to sit down for supper, he preferred to take leave of his hosts and seek refuge in the woods, where he would cook his meat and spend the night under a makeshift shelter.Footnote 5 When he was among whites, however, he would put away his Indian attire and dress like them. Presumably, it was during these years that he relearned English.

But Tanner needed to move on. In 1823, he returned to the Northwest to claim custody of his children from his first marriage. His wife refused to let them go and even conspired to have him killed. Paddling up the rapids of the Maligne River, east of Rainy Lake, Tanner came under fire from an Indian under the evil influence of the “prophet” Aiskawbawis. The first shot missed its target and whistled over Tanner’s head as he sat in his canoe. The second shot hit him, shattering his elbow bones and becoming lodged near his lungs. Only with great effort did he manage to reach the river’s edge. The pain caused him to lose consciousness several times.

Some whites travelling upstream spotted him from their canoe and came to the rescue. Two days later, Tanner managed to pull out of his arm the approximately 10-centimetre piece of deer sinew that the shooter had inserted into the bullet. Thanks to the care of a physician and the antiseptic properties of chokecherry bark, a remedy well known to the Indians, Tanner survived and recovered once more. It is said that cats have nine lives; Tanner seems to have had many more. This serious injury would prove to be a handicap to him for the rest of his life and put an end to his career as a hunter. He would never again see his wife or the children from his first marriage. Forsaken by all and reduced to the lowest ebb of misery, he left the Canadian territory, where his life was now in danger. More than ever before, he saw interpretation as his only chance of salvation.

In 1824, he went to Michilimackinac in hopes of being hired as an interpreter by the Indian agent, Colonel George Boyd, who had “very often expressed a wish that I should do so, whenever I had acquired such a knowledge of the English language, as would qualify me to discharge the duties of that situation.”Footnote 6 Unfortunately, he arrived too late: the position had already been filled. It was suggested he work as a striker in a forge, but such repetitive work did not interest him. Now that his dream of becoming an interpreter had been shattered, he reached an agreement with the agent of the American Fur Company to guide the traders through Indian country. He remained in the service of this company for about 15 months, then went to settle in Sault Ste. Marie.

To be continued…

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