The prophet Neolin unfurled the deerskin and, as he completed the circle of kneeling tribesmen by kneeling down himself, he flattened it out on the ground in front of him, placing a small clay pot on each corner to pin it down. He coughed to marshal to attention some whispering members of the assembly, and narrowed his eyes at one particular tribesman, the chief known as Pontiac, whom he was concerned about. Pontiac noticed this, and presumed that he hadn’t shown enough deference to the prophet, so he bowed his head, keeping his hands flat on his thighs. Neolin made a less severe facial expression and breathed through his nose.
Neolin felt concern for Pontiac because of some troubling news he had to bestow him. Troubling, because it related to Pontiac’s death, which he knew could happen within 7 years – no later than that but possibly sooner – depending on the signs. Stowing away this information in his mind like an evil spirit in a bottle, Neolin began his sermon. Pontiac remained very still.
‘This deerskin which you can see here is the Great Book of Writing, which shows the map. The map in the Great Book of Writing shows the path of the soul from this life to the afterlife. The Master of Life wishes you, my followers, to see and to study and to know this path. Hail the Master of Life.’
The assembly all together said, ‘Hail the Master of Life. Make us wise.’
Neolin continued. ‘The Master of Life wishes for us to say this prayer every morning and night. This is the prayer. It is carved on this stick.’
Neolin retrieved a large wooden stick from his side on which was carved the prayer from the Master of Life. ‘And I have more. I have plenty more of these which you can buy afterwards. Come and see me afterwards about these sticks.’
He rammed and twisted it into the ground so that it stood up straight like a small totem pole.
‘We say: My Grandfather is the Water. My Grandmother is the Fire. The Earth is my Mother. The Great Spirit is my Father. The World fell at my birth and laid itself at my feet, and I shall swallow the World whole when I die. Hail the Great Spirit; remain close to him.’
The assembly all together said, ‘Hail the Great Spirit. We shall remain close to him.’
‘The Master of Life also has a message for us, which he told me in a dream. Here is the message which the Master of Life told me in a dream. He told me: The land on which you are, I have made for you, not for others. Why do you suffer the British to dwell upon your lands? Drive them away; wage war against them. I love them not; they know me not. They are my enemies; they are your brothers’ enemies. Send them back to the land I have made for them.
‘He told me: Unite with your brothers from other tribes. Do not remain divided as you are, for it gives strength to the British. Give up the use of their weaponry too. Hunt not with guns, but with the bow and arrow only. What’s more: You should eschew the temptations of the flesh. Eschew as well the European cloths; dress in animal skin only. Eschew alcohol too. Eat dried meat and drink this drink, which will purge you of their poison.’
Here, Neolin paused to pull from behind him a large bowl of frothy grey liquid, and brought forth a wooden vessel from inside his cloak. He indicated that it should be passed round the circle to the right, and that each tribesman should quaff. When the bowl and vessel reached Pontiac, Neolin observed the chief closely for signs.
A sign came. As Pontiac raised the vessel to his lips and drank, a fly flew into his mouth and hit the back of his throat, causing him to sputter and cough and drop the vessel into the bowl of liquid. Some of it splashed onto the mud, and the rest of the tribesmen gasped and looked to Neolin to tell them how to feel about this. Neolin only waited to see what Pontiac would do. One tribesman let out a brief burst of cachinnation, but managed to stifle it like a strangled raccoon before Pontiac noticed who it was. Pontiac bristled as he retrieved the vessel. He passed it to the next tribesman, daring him to laugh by glowering at him. The tribesman managed to remain expressionless for a few seconds, but then his mouth began to quiver with mirth until he capitulated to full laughter, showing his wide eyes and his tongue to Pontiac and falling backwards, clutching his stomach and kicking his legs in the air. One by one the other tribesmen succumbed to laughter too, until everyone except Pontiac and Neolin was rolling on the floor, laughing their asses off. Pontiac was livid and shouted at them to be quiet, but none listened.
Neolin sighed and signalled for Pontiac to withdraw with him to a private space away from these howling coyotes. He pulled the stick out of the ground and when they got to the tent he asked him to smoke a calumet with him. Slightly unorthodox to smoke it now before the final prayer with the group, but given the circumstances Neolin justified it on the grounds that Pontiac was angry and needed to calm down, plus he was about to receive some pretty bad news. He thought that it would probably be okay in the eyes of the Great Spirit, so they sat down and smoked together.
‘Pontiac, can you read what it says here, at the bottom of the stick?’
Pontiac leaned towards it, trying to make out the symbols. He shook his head.
Neolin said, ‘It puzzles me, because it’s separate to the prayer. It’s about you.’
Pontiac sat back and thought about this. He assumed that it was because he was special. He always had been special.
‘Is it about the uprising? I should lead the uprising to drive out the British?’ Pontiac was certain it was this. Of course it was this.
‘Not exactly, although I’m sure you’ll be influential in the uprising. I’m sure you’ll do well. You’re brave and strong, though your temper is quick. But it’s not really about that. Just... be careful, won’t you. Try not to do anything that might... Oh look, forget it. It’s okay.’
Pontiac furrowed his brow and passed the pipe to Neolin.
‘Please. Forget it. Just be careful. I’ll help you. We’ll work together.’
And with that, Neolin repeated the Master of Life’s prayer, and the two men smoked and smoked until they were enveloped by a yellow cloud, and later Neolin sold Pontiac his prayer stick for a good price.