Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on Jun 6, 2010 - 3 comments

Chapter Three
Part Two: Trouble in Utopia

Under the direction of William Duncan, the people of Metlakatla set about building a model Christian community. They succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Within a few years, there was no place in the English-speaking world more famous than Metlakatla. Visitors marvelled at what was accomplished there. Duncan, reported the naval lieutenant Edmund Hope Verney in a typically breathless account, had “brought some hundreds of the natives from a state of the most degraded barbarism and the blackest heathendom to a state of civilization and outward christianity which may be quite placed on a par with that of an ordinary English village.”


Verney was exactly right. What Duncan hoped to accomplish at Metlakatla was the complete transformation of his Tsimshian parishioners into model British working stiffs: frugal, sober, pious and hard working. Newcomers to the village were required to abide by strict rules of conduct. They had to give up all cultural practices related to the potlatch and other ceremonials. They had to stop drinking, gambling and painting their faces. Their children had to attend school. Everyone had to rest on the Sabbath and attend church faithfully. They had to be clean and industrious and live in tidy houses built on the European model. They even had to pay taxes: $2.50 a year, or a blanket, which went to support public works.


An elected council managed the village’s affairs, though in practice Duncan retained control. He had himself appointed justice of the peace and organized his own uniformed police force to maintain order. The Tsimshian worked in one or another of the village’s business enterprises, which included a sawmill, a trading schooner, a salmon cannery and a soapworks. There was a jail, a fire brigade, a courthouse, a brass band, a school and the largest church north of San Francisco and west of Chicago. Thanks to the CMS publicity machine, Metlakatla became a showpiece that seemed to represent the highest achievement in missionary work among the “heathen tribes” of North America.


But there was trouble in paradise. Duncan was a prickly personality -- some said a jumped-up martinet -- and he could not get along with church officials. He refused to become ordained as a priest, as his superiors in the CMS wanted, and in general favoured a non-ritualistic form of worship, arguing that the Aboriginals were liable to misinterpret practices such as baptism and communion. Not surprisingly, the church hierarchy wanted the Tsimshian to be introduced to these core rituals of the faith. But the issues were only partly doctrinal. Basically, it was a power struggle. Duncan wanted free rein to operate his community the way he saw fit; the CMS wanted obedience from its missionary.


In 1879, the Church divided British Columbia into three diocese and dispatched Bishop William Ridley to take charge of the northern Diocese of Caledonia. Ridley installed himself at Metlakatla (which he described as a “righteous autocracy”) and set about bringing Duncan to heel. It was not an easy task. Duncan was convinced that he knew the needs of the Tsimshian better than anyone else; better than the Tsimshian themselves and certainly better than the newly-minted bishop. The feud escalated, dividing the community. Ridley thought Duncan was a tyrant and made all kinds of dubious charges against him. For his part, Duncan firmly refused to take direction from the Church. Finally, in 1882, when Duncan did not respond to a CMS summons to return to England to discuss matters, Ridley fired him.


But Duncan would not leave. Instead he established his own, independent church, “The Christian Church of Metlakahtla”, which had the support of the majority of the Tsimshian in the community. By this time he was supporting the Tsimshians’ claim to ownership of their territory. In 1885, he accompanied a delegation of three chiefs to Ottawa where they presented their case to federal officials. It was the first of many such delegations from British Columbia and had the same impact on government policy as most of the others: none whatsoever. Duncan had become a thorn in the side not just of his own church but of the provincial and federal governments as well. When the Tsimshian claim was denied, he decided it was time to leave Metlakatla.


Duncan’s own ambitions were supported by many Tsimshian who hoped to secure in a new location the land and resource rights denied by the Canadian government. In the summer of 1887 the missionary led an exodus of about 820 men, women and children north across Dixon Entrance to Annette Island in Alaska where they established New Metlakatla. Duncan himself became an American and lived the rest of his life in Alaska, feuding with almost everyone who crossed his path. Not long after the people had left, a visitor stopped by the original community and described “the large number of empty houses, stripped of windows and other movable parts, the ruins of buildings levelled to the ground by former occupants, the deserted streets, the wrecked condition of the church and sawmill, and the desolate appearance of the whole settlement…”

Next time: the spread of Christian villages