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

Jean Delisle
(Language Update, Volume 8, Number 3, 2011, page 14)

A valued interpreter

A hot-tempered go-getter with a concern for his image, Henry R. Schoolcraft was one of the first ethnologists to take an interest in the history, language and customs of the Amerindians. He was also an explorer: it was he who in 1832 discovered the source of the Mississippi. Since 1822, he had held the quasi-diplomatic position of United States Indian Agent in Sault Ste. Marie. In October 1828, he took Tanner into his service as an interpreter on the recommendation of Governor Lewis Cass. Tanner was about 50 years old at the time. Presumably, the former captive had learned enough English to be a satisfactory interpreter.

It was agreed that in the spring, Tanner would be stationed as an interpreter at the La Pointe post. The Agency paid him two days’ rations, a dollar for each day worked and $9.50 per month to cover the rent on his house. “He entered on the duties faithfully, but with the dignity and reserve of an Indian chief. He had so long looked on the dark side of human nature that he seldom or never smiled. He considered everybody an enemy.”Footnote 1

But it was not long at all before the strong personalities of Schoolcraft and Tanner clashed, and relations between the two men deteriorated. In reality, Tanner was the victim of a power struggle between Schoolcraft, a Presbyterian, and Abel Bingham, a Baptist preacher. “The controversy had its most damaging effect upon the least powerful and the least protected: Tanner.”Footnote 2

Shortly after hiring Tanner, Schoolcraft saw his budget cut by government authorities. To save money, he eliminated the interpreter position at La Pointe held by his brother-in-law, George Johnston, the very position Tanner was to take up in the spring. To keep his employment in the Sault, Tanner made Schoolcraft an offer whereby he would work an hour a day in exchange for his rations. Schoolcraft accepted the arrangement, and throughout 1829, Tanner proved invaluable to him. Schoolcraft was working on a grammar of Saulteaux and developing his knowledge of this language, and he was also interested in Indian mythology and natural sciences, all very familiar to Tanner. The experience Tanner had acquired “in the field,” his intelligence and his perseverance made him an unrivalled informant.

His fine reputation did not escape the attention of Baptist missionary Abel Bingham, who hoped to enlist his services: “I expect to be able to obtain Mr. John Tanner for an Interpreter,” he wrote, “…on all occasions when he can be spared by the Agent.”Footnote 3 Tanner agreed to assist him for a salary of $2.50 a week. Bingham at first decided it better to have Schoolcraft’s sister-in-law, Charlotte Johnston, interpret at religious meetings, as Tanner lacked even the most basic religious instruction and Johnston had volunteered her services without charge. On all other occasions, however, Tanner acted as Bingham’s interpreter. In his free time, he helped Dr. Edwin James with his project to translate the Gospels into Saulteaux. For Tanner, these translation sessions were akin to a catechumenate.

At the centre of a power struggle

As the parties vied for his interpretation services, Tanner found himself in the middle of a conflict. On the one hand, Schoolcraft wanted Tanner’s help with his scholarly research in ethnology and botany; on the other, Bingham wanted to put Tanner’s linguistic abilities and knowledge of Aboriginal peoples to work in spreading the Christian message and translating the Gospels. In a sense, Tanner was forced to choose between science and religion.

In January 1830, Schoolcraft dismissed Saulteaux interpreter Henry Sewakee for allegedly having an affair with Sophia, the daughter of Metis interpreter Jean-Baptiste Cadotte, and replaced him with Tanner. In spite of her indiscretion, Sophia was nevertheless authorized by Bingham to attend the Baptist mission school, much to Schoolcraft’s chagrin. The settlement was divided over the matter. In fact, what bothered Schoolcraft was not so much the specific case of Sophia as the growing influence of the Baptists in the settlement. But there was more: Schoolcraft, a Presbyterian, resented the increasing amount of time Tanner was spending with the Baptists, to the point of doubting his loyalty. He even came to feel betrayed by Tanner, who in his eyes could not serve two masters. Tanner had unintentionally become the prize in an undeclared war between two Protestant sects.

Driven by a thirst for vengeance, Schoolcraft used his powers as government representative to remove Tanner’s daughter Martha from the custody of her father on the grounds that he was mistreating her. A few days later, he dismissed Tanner, citing disrespectful conduct and language and an absence of three days at the height of the Agency’s business season. While the charges were true, Tanner’s actions can be explained by his characteristically impetuous decision to go off in search of his daughter, who had just been taken from him. Once again, he felt he was the victim of an injustice. Governor Cass, apparently more understanding than Schoolcraft, was moved by Tanner’s suffering: “I really pity him very much,” he wrote to Schoolcraft. “He seems to me a forlorn heart broken man.”Footnote 4 Cass asked Schoolcraft to clear Tanner’s debts and pay the interpreter his salary, but Schoolcraft turned a deaf ear.

On returning to the Sault, Tanner spent the bulk of his time translating the Gospels with Dr. James. By now he had become indispensable to Bingham, helping him with religious services, giving classes to the children, teaching Saulteaux to missionaries sent to the Sault temporarily for training and accompanying Bingham to Indian encampments along the shore of Lake Superior. So valuable was Tanner to Bingham that the latter saw him as nothing less than a gift from the Lord: “We trust the Lord has given us our Interpreter. Mr. Tanner has recently obtained a hope, has offered himself to the Church, and is now a candidate for Baptism.”Footnote 5

On August 21, 1831, Tanner was baptized in the St. Mary’s River in the presence of a large assembly, shortly after marrying a widow from Detroit—a white woman. That same month, there arrived in Sault Ste. Marie a Canadian Saulteaux chief turned Methodist named John Sunday, who made no secret of his intention to found a mission there. Schoolcraft saw another opportunity to damage the Baptists and went so far as to apply to Congress for financial assistance for the construction of a Methodist school. For good measure, he also had a Presbyterian missionary come to the Sault.

In the face of this religious squabble, Bingham responded swiftly: he had Tanner and his family put up in the Baptist mission house, even though he had reservations about the man’s wild mood swings, and he appealed to his superiors to find full employment for Tanner, arguing that the interpreter had become so necessary to his apostolic work that without him “it would be like setting a man to mowing without a scythe.”Footnote 6

Schoolcraft’s manifest animosity towards Tanner annoyed many in the Sault, especially Dr. James, who had always stood by the former captive. James’s indignation reached a boil when he discovered that Henry Schoolcraft had fraudulently paid Tanner’s salary to his own brother-in-law, George Johnston, and that Tanner had fallen heavily in debt to Henry’s brother, James Schoolcraft. Clearly the victim of embezzlement, Tanner was right to suspect that something was amiss. What is more, he had been required to exchange his ration certificates at his creditor’s store. This double swindle took a heavy toll on Tanner’s already fragile morale. With James’s help, he took action through the War Department to recover what he was owed and be restored to his permanent position as interpreter.

In 1832, the American Bible Society expressed an interest in publishing James and Tanner’s translation of the New Testament. The Baptist Church also agreed to hire Tanner for an annual salary of $300. But this news was slow to arrive, and by then the debt-ridden Tanner was seriously distressed for want of any income. An intense feeling of anxiety came over him. He grew irritable and became violent with his son, who ran away from home, and with his wife, whom he accused of infidelity. The situation deteriorated to such an extent that the authorities were obligated to take steps to protect his wife: under police escort, she was taken to another town. They had taken his daughter from him; now they were taking his wife as well.

Tanner saw this as yet another act of persecution against him on the part of “civilized society.” Once again, he felt alienated, if not cast out altogether. Henry Schoolcraft, his sworn enemy, whose impartiality we have reason to doubt, wrote the following about him on July 31, 1838: “He is now a gray-headed, hard-featured old man, whose feelings are at war with every one on earth, white and red. Every attempt to meliorate his manners and Indian notions, has failed. He has invariably misapprehended them, and is more suspicious, revengeful, and bad tempered than any Indian I ever knew.”Footnote 7 In his eyes, Tanner was the incarnation of Caliban from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Description of this image follows

Henry Schoolcraft

His ill temper, fits of rage, violent behaviour and frequent imprisonments led the Baptists to exclude him from their community and make no further use of his services. They did so reluctantly, however, being well aware of how difficult it would be to find an interpreter as skilled and able as Tanner to explain the Scriptures to the Aboriginal peoples.

In a letter dated November 10, 1837, dictated to his daughter and addressed to the President of the United States, Martin Van Buren, John Tanner claimed to have been wrongfully dismissed and deprived of the only profession he was fit to perform: “I cant do any kind heavy work becaus I am cripple by Ojibyuay Indians when I was a prisonor among them only interpreting thats all only one thing I could do.”Footnote 8 This downtrodden soul who had known freedom and life in the great outdoors ultimately lost hope and retreated into himself. His mental stability began to falter.

A persecution complex?

From that point on, Tanner’s behaviour became erratic. In what looks suspiciously like a persecution complex, he killed livestock on mission farms, was involved in a spate of altercations and uttered death threats against Bingham, Henry and James Schoolcraft, Methodist missionaries and a number of others. In 1840, he contracted a fourth marriage, this time to a Saulteaux woman. A final appeal to have himself reinstated as Bingham’s interpreter was flatly denied. A doctor visiting the Sault referred to Tanner as “demonic.”

On July 6, 1846, an event took place that would seal his fate: James Schoolcraft was shot and killed at point-blank range near his farm. Suspicion immediately fell on Tanner, whose house had burnt to the ground a few days before the murder. To be sure, Tanner had plenty of motive for revenge, and his sudden disappearance seemed to confirm the suspicions. He was never seen or heard from again. Did he commit suicide? It is conceivable, given his previous suicide attempt in a moment of severe depression. One thing is certain, however: he was not the killer. Plagued by remorse, a lieutenant named Bryant Tilden confessed to the crime on his deathbed.

A solitary victim of ostracism

In spite of his best efforts, John Tanner could never achieve full reintegration into the “civilized” white society into which he was born. [Translation] “In returning to his own people, he would experience intolerance, hypocrisy, ostracism and, above all, an infernal solitude that neither his body nor his mind could withstand.”Footnote 9 In the space of 30 years, he had experienced not one but two cultural shocks. His readaptation to American society was every bit as trying as the process of “Indianization” that began at age nine in a society that was utterly foreign to him. The transformation was so complete that, although he was born white, he acquired all the stereotypes associated with Aboriginal peoples, so that he had no hope of ever leading a normal life in his native land. Like a prisoner released after a lengthy period of incarceration, he found himself disoriented in a world he no longer recognized, for the familiar landmarks were gone. Imbued with a sense of racial and cultural superiority, the inhabitants of Sault Ste. Marie refused to accept this white Indian as their equal but instead ostracized him and, in so doing, aggravated his identity and self-esteem issues.

After relearning the language of his childhood, Tanner had to choose whether to put his interpretation talents at the service of science or spreading the Gospels. Circumstances, as well as Agent Schoolcraft’s embezzlement scheme, led him to choose missionary work, where he managed to excel, in large part because of the consideration he was shown by Dr. James and Bingham and his intimate knowledge of the Amerindians, with whom he had lived. But as luck would have it, he had to practise his dream profession of interpreter against the backdrop of a struggle for religious influence. This was not the first time he had been stuck between a rock and a hard place. One could argue that this was a constant throughout his life. Is it any wonder, then, that this man living on the frontiers of language, culture and ethnicity had such a troubled personality and, in all likelihood, descended into madness in the twilight of his life? The profession of interpreter, on which he had pinned such hopes, could not deliver him from his suffering.

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