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X: Indian Life and Adventure
THE month of September recalls to every Indian’s mind the season of the fall hunt. I remember one such expedition which is typical of many. Our party appeared on the northwestern side of Turtle mountain; for we had been hunting buffaloes all summer, in the region of the Mouse river, between that mountain and the upper Missouri.
As our cone-shaped teepees rose in clusters along the outskirts of the heavy forest that clothes the sloping side of the mountain, the scene below was gratifying to a savage eye. The rolling yellow plains were checkered with herds of buffaloes. Along the banks of the streams that ran down from the mountains were also many elk, which usually appear at morning and evening, and disappear into the forest during the warmer part of the day. Deer, too, were plenty, and the brooks were alive with trout. Here and there the streams were dammed by the industrious beaver.
In the interior of the forest there were lakes with many islands, where moose, elk, deer and bears were abundant. The water-fowl were wont to gather here in great numbers, among them the crane, the swan, the loon, and many of the smaller kinds. The forest also was filled with a great variety of birds. Here the partridge drummed his loudest, while the whippoorwill sang with spirit, and the hooting owl reigned in the night.
To me, as a boy, this wilderness was a paradise. It was a land of plenty. To be sure, we did not have any of the luxuries of civilization, but we had every convenience and opportunity and luxury of Nature. We had also the gift of enjoying our good fortune, whatever dangers might lurk about us; and the truth is that we lived in blessed ignorance of any life that was better than our own.
As soon as hunting in the woods began, the customs regulating it were established. The council teepee no longer existed. A hunting bonfire was kindled every morning at day-break, at which each brave must appear and report. The man who failed to do this before the party set out on the day’s hunt was harassed by ridicule. As a rule, the hunters started before sunrise, and the brave who was announced throughout the camp as the first one to return with a deer on his back, was a man to be envied.
The legend-teller, old Smoky Day, was chosen herald of the camp, and it was he who made the announcements. After supper was ended, we heard his powerful voice resound among the teepees in the forest. He would then name a man to kindle the bonfire the next morning. His suit of fringed buckskin set off his splendid physique to advantage.
Scarcely had the men disappeared in the woods each morning than all the boys sallied forth, apparently engrossed in their games and sports, but in reality competing actively with one another in quickness of observation. As the day advanced, they all kept the sharpest possible lookout. Suddenly there would come the shrill “Woo-coo-hoo!” at the top of a boy’s voice, announcing the bringing in of a deer. Immediately all the other boys took up the cry, each one bent on getting ahead of the rest. Now we all saw the brave Wacoota fairly bent over by his burden, a large deer which he carried on his shoulders. His fringed buckskin shirt was besprinkled with blood. He threw down the deer at the door of his wife’s mother’s home, according to custom, and then walked proudly to his own. At the door of his father’s teepee he stood for a moment straight as a pine-tree, and then entered.
When a bear was brought in, a hundred or more of these urchins were wont to make the woods resound with their voices: “Wah! wah! wah! Wah! wah! wah! The brave White Rabbit brings a bear! Wah! wah! wah!”
All day these sing-song cheers were kept up, as the game was brought in. At last, toward the close of the afternoon, all the hunters had returned, and happiness and contentment reigned absolute, in a fashion which I have never observed among the white people, even in the best of circumstances. The men were lounging and smoking; the women actively engaged in the preparation of the evening meal, and the care of the meat. The choicest of the game was cooked and offered to the Great Mystery, with all the accompanying ceremonies. This we called the “medicine feast.” Even the women, as they lowered the boiling pot, or the fragrant roast of venison ready to serve, would first whisper: “Great Mystery, do thou partake of this venison, and still be gracious!” This was the commonly said “grace.”
Everything went smoothly with us, on this occasion, when we first entered the woods. Nothing was wanting to our old way of living. The killing of deer and elk and moose had to be stopped for a time, since meat was so abundant that we had no use for them any longer. Only the hunting for pelts, such as those of the bear, beaver, marten, and otter was continued. But whenever we lived in blessed abundance, our braves were wont to turn their thoughts to other occupations — especially the hot-blooded youths whose ambition it was to do something noteworthy.
At just such moments as this there are always a number of priests in readiness, whose vocation it is to see into the future, and each of whom consults his particular interpreter of the Great Mystery. (This ceremony is called by the white people “making medicine.”) To the priests the youthful braves hint their impatience for the war-path. Soon comes the desired dream or prophecy or vision to favor their departure.
Our young men presently received their sign, and for a few days all was hurry and excitement. On the appointed morning we heard the songs of the warriors and the wailing of the women, by which they bade adieu to each other, and the eligible braves, headed by an experienced man — old Hotanka or Loud-Voiced Raven — set out for the Gros Ventre country.
Our older heads, to be sure, had expressed some disapproval of the undertaking, for the country in which we were roaming was not our own, and we were likely at any time to be taken to task by its rightful owners. The plain truth of the matter was that we were intruders. Hence the more thoughtful among us preferred to be at home, and to achieve what renown they could get by defending their homes and families. The young men, however, were so eager for action and excitement that they must needs go off in search of it.
From the early morning when these braves left us, led by the old war-priest, Loud-Voiced Raven, the anxious mothers, sisters and sweethearts counted the days. Old Smoky Day would occasionally get up early in the morning, and sing a “strong-heart” song for his absent grandson. I still seem to hear the hoarse, cracked voice of the ancient singer as it resounded among the woods. For a long time our roving community enjoyed unbroken peace, and we were spared any trouble or disturbance. Our hunters often brought in a deer or elk or bear for fresh meat. The beautiful lakes furnished us with fish and wild-fowl for variety. Their placid waters, as the autumn advanced, reflected the variegated colors of the changing foliage.
It is my recollection that we were at this time encamped in the vicinity of the “Turtle Mountain’s Heart.” It is to the highest cone-shaped peak that the Indians aptly give this appellation. Our camping-ground for two months was within a short distance of the peak, and the men made it a point to often send one of their number to the top. It was understood between them and the war party that we were to remain near this spot; and on their return trip the latter were to give the “smoke sign,” which we would answer from the top of the hill.
One day, as we were camping on the shore of a large lake with several islands, signs of moose were discovered, and the men went off to them on rafts, carrying their flint-lock guns in anticipation of finding two or three of the animals. We little fellows, as usual, were playing down by the sandy shore, when we spied what seemed like the root of a great tree floating toward us. But on a closer scrutiny we discovered our error. It was the head of a huge moose, swimming for his life! Fortunately for him, none of the men had remained at home.
According to our habit, we little urchins disappeared in an instant, like young prairie chickens, in the long grass. I was not more than eight years old, yet I tested the strength of my bowstring and adjusted my sharpest and best arrow for immediate service. My heart leaped violently as the homely but imposing animal neared the shore. I was undecided for a moment whether I would not leave my hiding-place and give a war-whoop as soon as he touched the sand. Then I thought I would keep still and let him have my boy weapon; and the only regret that I had was that he would, in all probability, take it with him, and I should be minus one good arrow.
“Still,” I thought, “I shall claim to be the smallest boy whose arrow was ever carried away by a moose.” That was enough. I gathered myself into a bunch, all ready to spring. As the long-legged beast pulled himself dripping out of the water, and shook off the drops from his long hair, I sprang to my feet. I felt some of the water in my face! I gave him my sharpest arrow with all the force I could master, right among the floating ribs. Then I uttered my war-whoop.
The moose did not seem to mind the miniature weapon, but he was very much frightened by our shrill yelling. He took to his long legs, and in a minute was out of sight.
The leaves had now begun to fall, and the heavy frosts made the nights very cold. We were forced to realize that the short summer of that region had said adieu ! Still we were gay and lighthearted, for we had plenty of provisions, and no misfortune had yet overtaken us in our wanderings over the country for nearly three months.
One day old Smoky Day returned from the daily hunt with an alarm. He had seen a sign — a “smoke sign.” This had not appeared in the quarter that they were anxiously watching — it came from the east. After a long consultation among the men, it was concluded from the nature and duration of the smoke that it proceeded from an accidental fire. It was further surmised that the fire was not made by Sioux, since it was out of their country, but by a war-party of Ojibways, who were accustomed to use matches when lighting their pipes, and to throw them carelessly away. It was thought that a little time had been spent in an attempt to put it out.
The council decreed that a strict look-out should be established in behalf of our party. Every day a scout was appointed to reconnoitre in the direction of the smoke. It was agreed that no gun should be fired for twelve days. All our signals were freshly rehearsed among the men. The women and old men went so far as to dig little convenient holes around their lodges, for defense in case of a sudden attack. And yet an Ojibway scout would not have suspected, from the ordinary appearance of the camp, that the Sioux had become aware of their neighborhood! Scouts were stationed just outside of the village at night. They had been so trained as to rival an owl or a cat in their ability to see in the dark.
The twelve days passed by, however, without bringing any evidence of the nearness of the supposed Ojibway war-party, and the “lookout” established for purposes of protection was abandoned. Soon after this, one morning at dawn, we were aroused by the sound of the unwelcome war-whoop. Although only a child, I sprang up and was about to rush out, as I had been taught to do; but my good grandmother pulled me down, and gave me a sign to lay flat on the ground. I sharpened my ears and lay still.
All was quiet in camp, but at some little distance from us there was a lively encounter. I could distinctly hear the old herald, shouting and yelling in exasperation. “Whoo! whoo!” was the signal of distress, and I could almost hear the pulse of my own blood-vessels.
Closer and closer the struggle came, and still the women appeared to grow more and more calm. At last a tremendous charge by the Sioux put the enemy to flight; there was a burst of yelling; alas! my friend and teacher, old Smoky Day, was silent. He had been pierced to the heart by an arrow from the Ojibways.
Although successful, we had lost two of our men, Smoky Day and White Crane, and this incident, although hardly unexpected, darkened our peaceful sky. The camp was filled with songs of victory, mingled with the wailing of the relatives of the slain. The mothers of the youths who were absent on the war-path could no longer conceal their anxiety.
One frosty morning — for it was then near the end of October — the weird song of a solitary brave was heard. In an instant the camp was thrown into indescribable confusion. The meaning of this was clear as day to everybody — all of our war-party were killed, save the one whose mournful song announced the fate of his companions. The lonely warrior was Bald Eagle.
The village was convulsed with grief; for in sorrow, as in joy, every Indian shares with all the others. The old women stood still, wherever they might be, and wailed dismally, at intervals chanting the praises of the departed warriors. The wives went a little way from their teepees and there audibly mourned; but the young maidens wandered further away from the camp, where no one could’ witness their grief. The old men joined in the crying and singing. To all appearances the most unmoved of all were the warriors, whose tears must be poured forth in the country of the enemy to embitter their vengeance. These sat silently within their lodges, and strove to conceal their feelings behind a stoical countenance; but they would probably have failed had not the soothing weed come to their relief.
The first sad shock over, then came the change of habiliments. In savage usage, the outward expression of mourning surpasses that of civilization. The Indian mourner gives up all his good clothing, and contents himself with scanty and miserable garments. Blankets are cut in two, and the hair is cropped short. Often a devoted mother would scarify her arms or legs; a sister or a young wife would cut off all her beautiful hair and disfigure herself by undergoing hardships. Fathers and brothers blackened their faces, and wore only the shabbiest garments. Such was the spectacle that our people presented when the bright autumn was gone and the cold shadow of winter and misfortune had fallen upon us. “We must suffer,” said they — “the Great Mystery is offended.”
WHEN I was about twelve years old we wintered upon the Mouse river, west of Turtle mountain. It was one of the coldest winters I ever knew, and was so regarded by the old men of the tribe.
The summer before there had been plenty of buffalo upon that side of the Missouri, and our people had made many packs of dried buffalo meat and cached them in different places, so that they could get them in case of need. There were many black-tailed deer and elk along the river, and grizzlies were to be found in the open country. Apparently there was no danger of starvation, so our people thought to winter there; but it proved to be a hard winter.
There was a great snow-fall, and the cold was intense. The snow was too deep for hunting, and the main body of the buffalo had crossed the Missouri, where it was too far to go after them. But there were some smaller herds of the animals scattered about in our vicinity, therefore there was still fresh meat to be had, but it was not secured without a great deal of difficulty.
No ponies could be used. The men hunted on snow-shoes until after the Moon of Sore Eyes (March), when after a heavy thaw a crust was formed on the snow which would scarcely hold a man. It was then that our people hunted buffalo with dogs — an unusual expedient.
Sleds were made of buffalo ribs and hickory saplings, the runners bound with rawhide with the hair side down. These slipped smoothly over the icy crust. Only small men rode on the sleds. When buffalo were reported by the hunting-scouts, everybody had his dog team ready. All went under orders from the police, and approached the herd under cover until they came within charging distance.
The men had their bows and arrows, and a few had guns. The huge animals could not run fast in the deep snow. They all followed a leader, trampling out a narrow path. The dogs with their drivers soon caught up with them on each side, and the hunters brought many of them down.
I remember when the party returned, late in the night. The men came in single file, well loaded, and each dog following his master with an equally heavy load. Both men and animals were white with frost.
We boys had waited impatiently for their arrival. As soon as we spied them coming a buffalo hunting whistle was started, and every urchin in the village added his voice to the weird sound, while the dogs who had been left at home joined with us in the chorus. The men, wearing their buffalo moccasins with the hair inside and robes of the same, came home hungry and exhausted.
It is often supposed that the dog in the Indian camp is a useless member of society, but it is not so in the wild life. We found him one of the most useful of domestic animals, especially in an emergency.
While at this camp a ludicrous incident occurred that is still told about the camp-fires of the Sioux. One day the men were hunting on snow-shoes, and contrived to get within a short distance of the buffalo before they made the attack. It was impossible to run fast, but the huge animals were equally unable to get away. Many were killed. Just as the herd reached an open plain one of the buffaloes stopped and finally lay down. Three of the men who were pursuing him shortly came up. The animal was severely wounded, but not dead.
“I shall crawl up to him from behind and stab him,” said Wamedee; “we cannot wait here for him to die.” The others agreed. Wamedee was not considered especially brave; but he took out his knife and held it between his teeth. He then approached the buffalo from behind and suddenly jumped astride his back.
The animal was dreadfully frightened and struggled to his feet. Wamedee’s knife fell to the ground, but he held on by the long shaggy hair. He had a bad seat, for he was upon the buffalo’s hump. There was no chance to jump off; he had to stay on as well as he could.
“Hurry! hurry! shoot! shoot!” he screamed, as the creature plunged and kicked madly in the deep snow. Wamedee’s face looked deathly, they said; but his two friends could not help laughing. He was still calling upon them to shoot, but when the others took aim he would cry: “Don’t shoot! don’t shoot! you will kill me!” At last the animal fell down with him; but Wamedee’s two friends also fell down exhausted with laughter. He was ridiculed as a coward thereafter.
It was on this very hunt that the chief Mato was killed by a buffalo. It happened in this way. He had wounded the animal, but not fatally; so he shot two more arrows at him from a distance. Then the buffalo became desperate and charged upon him. In his flight Mato was tripped by sticking one of his snow-shoes into a snowdrift, from which he could not extricate himself in time. The bull gored him to death. The creek upon which this happened is now called Mato creek.
A little way from our camp there was a log village of French Canadian half-breeds, but the two villages did not intermingle. About the Moon of Difficulty (January) we were initiated into some of the peculiar customs of our neighbors. In the middle of the night there was a firing of guns throughout their village. Some of the people thought they had been attacked, and went over to assist them, but to their surprise they were told that this was the celebration of the birth of the new year!
Our men were treated to minnewakan or “spirit water,” and they came home crazy and foolish. They talked loud and sang all the rest of the night. Finally our head chief ordered his young men to tie these men up and put them in a lodge by themselves. He gave orders to untie them “when the evil spirit had gone away.”
During the next day all our people were invited to attend the half-breeds’ dance. I never knew before that a new year begins in mid-winter. We had always counted that the year ends when the winter ends, and a new year begins with the new life in the springtime.
I was now taken for the first time to a white man’s dance in a log house. I thought it was the dizziest thing I ever saw. One man sat in a corner, sawing away at a stringed board, and all the while he was stamping the floor with his foot and giving an occasional shout. When he called out, the dancers seemed to move faster.
The men danced with women — something that we Indians never do — and when the man in the corner shouted they would swing the women around. It looked very rude to me, as I stood outside with the other boys and peeped through the chinks in the logs. At one time a young man and woman facing each other danced in the middle of the floor. I thought they would surely wear their moccasins out against the rough boards; but after a few minutes they were relieved by another couple.
Then an old man with long curly hair and a fox-skin cap danced alone in the middle of the room, slapping the floor with his moccasined foot in a lightning fashion that I have never seen equalled. He seemed to be a leader among them. When he had finished, the old man invited our principal chief into the middle of the floor, and after the Indian had given a great whoop, the two drank in company. After this, there was so much drinking and loud talking among the men, that it was thought best to send us children back to the camp.
It was at this place that we found many sand boulders like a big “white man’s house.” There were holes in them like rooms, and we played in these cave-like holes. One day, in the midst of our game, we found the skeleton of a great bear. Evidently he had been wounded and came there to die, for there were several arrows on the floor of the cave.
The most exciting event of this year was the attack that the Gros Ventres made upon us just as we moved our camp upon the table land back of the river in the spring. We had plenty of meat then and everybody was happy. The grass was beginning to appear and the ponies to grow fat.
One night there was a war dance. A few of our young men had planned to invade the Gros Ventres country, but it seemed that they too had been thinking of us. Everybody was interested in the proposed war party.
“Uncle, are you going too?” I eagerly asked him.
“No,” he replied, with a long sigh. “It is the worst time of year to go on the war-path. We shall have plenty of fighting this summer, as we are going to trench upon their territory in our hunts,” he added.
The night was clear and pleasant. The war drum was answered by the howls of coyotes on the opposite side of the Mouse river. I was in the throng, watching the braves who were about to go out in search of glory. “I wish I were old enough; I would surely go with this party,” I thought. My friend Tatanka was to go. He was several years older than I, and a hero in my eyes. I watched him as he danced with the rest until nearly midnight. Then I came back to our teepee and rolled myself in my buffalo robe and was soon lost in sleep.
Suddenly I was aroused by loud war cries. “Woo! woo! hay-ay! hay-ay! U, we do! U we do!’ I jumped upon my feet, snatched my bow and arrows and rushed out of the teepee, frantically yelling as I went.
“Stop! stop!” screamed Uncheedah, and caught me by my long hair.
By this time the Gros Ventres had encircled our camp, sending volleys of arrows and bullets into our midst. The women were digging ditches in which to put their children.
My uncle was foremost in the battle. The Sioux bravely withstood the assault, although several of our men had already fallen. Many of the enemy were killed in the field around our teepees. The Sioux at last got their ponies and made a counter charge, led by Oyemakasan (my uncle). They cut the Gros Ventre party in two, and drove them off.
My friend Tatanka was killed. I took one of his eagle feathers, thinking I would wear it the first time that I ever went upon the war-path. I thought I would give anything for the opportunity to go against the Gros Ventres, because they killed my friend. The war songs, the wailing for the dead, the howling of the dogs was intolerable to me. Soon after this we broke up our camp and departed for new scenes.
WHEN our people lived in Minnesota, a good part of their natural subsistence was furnished by the wild rice, which grew abundantly in all of that region. Around the shores and all over some of the innumerable lakes of the “Land of Sky-blue Water” was this wild cereal found. Indeed, some of the watery fields in those days might be compared in extent and fruitfulness with the fields of wheat on Minnesota’s magnificent farms to-day.
The wild rice harvesters came in groups of fifteen to twenty families to a lake, depending upon the size of the harvest. Some of the Indians hunted buffalo upon the prairie at this season, but there were more who preferred to go to the lakes to gather wild rice, fish, gather berries and hunt the deer. There was an abundance of water-fowls among the grain; and really no season of the year was happier than this.
The camping-ground was usually an attractive spot, with shade and cool breezes off the water. The people, while they pitched their teepees upon the heights, if possible, for the sake of a good outlook, actually lived in their canoes upon the placid waters. The happiest of all, perhaps, were the young maidens, who were all day long in their canoes, in twos or threes, and when tired of gathering the wild cereal, would sit in the boats doing their needle-work.
These maidens learned to imitate the calls of the different water-fowls as a sort of signal to the members of a group. Even the old women and the boys adopted signals, so that while the population of the village was lost to sight in a thick field of. wild rice, a meeting could be arranged without calling any one by his or her own name. It was a great convenience for those young men who sought opportunity to meet certain maidens, for there were many canoe paths through the rice.
August is the harvest month. There were many preliminary feasts of fish, ducks and venison, and offerings in honor of the “Water Chief,” so that there might not be any drowning accident during the harvest. The preparation consisted of a series of feasts and offerings for many days, while women and men were making birch canoes, for nearly every member of the family must be provided with one for this occasion. The blueberry and huckleberry-picking also preceded the rice-gathering.
There were social events which enlivened the camp of the harvesters; such as maidens’ feasts, dances and a canoe regatta or two, in which not only the men were participants, but women and young girls as well.
On the appointed day all the canoes were carried to the shore and placed upon the water with prayer and propitiatory offerings. Each family took possession of the allotted field, and tied all the grain in bundles of convenient size, allowing it to stand for a few days. Then they again entered the lake, assigning two persons to each canoe. One manipulated the paddle, while the foremost one gently drew the heads of each bundle toward him and gave it a few strokes with a light rod. This caused the rice to fall into the bottom of the craft. The field was traversed in this manner back and forth until finished.
This was the pleasantest and easiest part of the harvest toil. The real work was when they prepared the rice for use. First of all, it must be made perfectly dry. They would spread it upon buffalo robes and mats, and sometimes upon layers of coarse swamp grass, and dry it in the sun. If the time was short, they would make a scaffold and spread upon it a certain thickness of the green grass and afterward the rice. Under this a fire was made, taking care that the grass did not catch fire.
When all the rice is gathered and dried, the hulling begins. A round hole is dug about two feet deep and the same in diameter. Then the rice is heated over a fire-place, and emptied into the hole while it is hot. A young man, having washed his feet and put on a new pair of moccasins, treads upon it until all is hulled. The women then pour it upon a robe and begin to shake it so that the chaff will be separated by the wind. Some of the rice is browned before being hulled.
During the hulling time there were prizes offered to the young men who can hull quickest and best. There were sometimes from twenty to fifty youths dancing with their feet in these holes.
Pretty moccasins were brought by shy maidens to the youths of their choice, asking them to hulk rice. There were daily entertainments which deserved some such name as “hulling bee” — at any rate, we all enjoyed them hugely. The girls brought with them plenty of good things to eat.
When all the rice was prepared for the table, the matter of storing it must be determined. Caches were dug by each family in a concealed spot, and carefully lined with dry grass and bark. Here they left their surplus stores for a time of need. Our people were very ingenious in covering up all traces of the hidden food. A common trick was to build a fire on top of the mound. As much of the rice as could be carried conveniently was packed in par-fleches, or cases made of rawhide, and brought back with us to our village.
After all, the wild Indians could not be justly termed improvident, when their manner of life is taken into consideration. They let nothing go to waste, and labored incessantly during the summer and fall to lay up provision for the inclement season. Berries of all kinds were industriously gathered, and dried in the sun. Even the wild cherries were pounded up, stones and all, made into small cakes and dried for use in soups and for mixing with the pounded jerked meat and fat to form a much-prized Indian delicacy.
Out on the prairie in July and August the women were wont to dig teepsinna with sharpened sticks, and many a bag full was dried and put away. This teepsinna is the root of a certain plant growing mostly upon high sandy soil. It is starchy but solid, with a sweetish taste, and is very fattening. The fully grown teepsinna is two or three inches long, and has a dark-brown bark not unlike the bark of a young tree. It can be eaten raw or stewed, and is always kept in a dried state, except when it is first dug.
There was another root that our people gathered in small quantities. It is a wild sweet potato, found in bottom lands or river beds.
The primitive housekeeper exerted herself much to secure a variety of appetizing dishes; she even robbed the field mouse and the muskrat to accomplish her end. The tiny mouse gathers for her winter use several excellent kinds of food. Among these is a wild bean which equals in flavor any domestic bean that I have ever tasted. Her storehouse is usually under a peculiar mound, which the untrained eye would be unable to distinguish from an ant-hill. There are many pockets underneath, into which she industriously gathers the harvest of the summer.
She is fortunate ii the quick eye of a native woman does not detect her hiding-place. About the month of September, while traveling over the prairie, a woman is occasionally observed to halt suddenly and waltz around a suspected mound. Finally the pressure of her heel causes a place to give way, and she settles contentedly down to rob the poor mouse of the fruits of her labor.
The different kinds of beans are put away in different pockets, but it is the oomenechah she wants. The field mouse loves this savory vegetable, for she always gathers it more than any other. There is also some of the white star-like manakcahkcah, the root of the wild lily. This is a good medicine and good to eat.
When our people were gathering the wild rice, they always watched for another plant that grows in the muddy bottom of lakes and ponds. It is a white bulb about the size of an ordinary onion. This is stored away by the muskrats in their houses by the waterside, and there is often a bushel or more of the psinchinchah to be found within. It seemed as if everybody was good to the wild Indian; at least we thought so then.
I have referred to the opportunities for courting upon the wild rice fields. Indian courtship is very peculiar in many respects; but when you study their daily life you will see the philosophy of their etiquette of love-making. There was no parlor courtship; the life was largely out-of-doors, which was very favorable to the young men.
In a nomadic life where the female members of the family have entire control of domestic affairs, the work is divided among them all. Very often the bringing of the wood and water devolves upon the young maids, and the spring or the woods become the battle-ground of love’s warfare. The nearest water may be some distance from the camp, which is all the better. Sometimes, too, there is no wood to be had; and in that case, one would see the young women scattered all over the prairie, gathering buffalo chips for fuel.
This is the way the red men go about to induce the aboriginal maids to listen to their suit. As soon as the youth has returned from the war-path or the chase, he puts on his porcupine-quill embroidered moccasins and leggings, and folds his best robe about him. He brushes his long, glossy hair with a brush made from the tail of the porcupine, perfumes it with scented grass or leaves, then arranges it in two plaits with an otter skin or some other ornament. If he is a warrior, he adds an eagle feather or two.
If he chooses to ride, he takes his best pony. He jumps upon its bare back, simply throwing a part of his robe under him to serve as a saddle, and holding the end of a lariat tied about the animal’s neck. He guides him altogether by the motions of his body. These wily ponies seem to enter into the spirit of the occasion, and very often capture the eyes of the maid by their graceful movements, in perfect obedience to their master.
The general custom is for the young men to pull their robes over their heads, leaving only a slit to look through. Sometimes the same is done by the maiden especially in public courtship.
He approaches the girl while she is coming from the spring. He takes up his position directly in her path. If she is in a hurry or does not care to stop, she goes around him; but if she is willing to stop and listen she puts down on the ground the vessel of water she is carrying.
Very often at the first meeting the maiden does not know who her lover is. He does not introduce himself immediately, but waits until a second meeting. Sometimes she does not see his face at all; and then she will try to find out who he is and what he looks like before they meet again. If he is not a desirable suitor, she will go with her chaperon and end the affair there.
There are times when maidens go in twos, and then there must be two young men to meet them.
There is some courtship in the night time; either in the early part of the evening, on the outskirts of dances and other public affairs, or after everybody is supposed to be asleep. This is the secret courtship. The youth may pull up the tent-pins just back of his sweetheart and speak with her during the night. He must be a smart young man to do that undetected, for the grandmother, her chaperon, is usually “all ears.”
Elopements are common. There are many reasons for a girl or a youth to defer their wedding. It may be from personal pride of one or both. The well-born are married publicly, and many things are given away in their honor. The maiden may desire to attend a certain number of maidens’ feasts before marrying. The youth may be poor, or he may wish to achieve another honor before surrendering to a woman.
Sometimes a youth is so infatuated with a maiden that he will follow her to any part of the country, even after their respective bands have separated for the season. I knew of one such case. Patah Tankah had courted a distant relative of my uncle for a long time. There seemed to be some objection to him on the part of the girl’s parents, although the girl herself was willing.
The large camp had been broken up for the fall hunt, and my uncle’s band went one way, while the young man’s family went in the other direction. After three days’ travelling, we came to a good hunting-ground, and made camp. One evening somebody saw the young man. He had been following his sweetheart and sleeping out-of-doors all that time, although the nights were already frosty and cold. He met her every day in secret and she brought him food, but he would not come near the teepee. Finally her people yielded, and she went back with him to his band.
When we lived our natural life, there was much singing of war songs, medicine, hunting and love songs. Sometimes there were few words or none, but everything was understood by the inflection. From this I have often thought that there must be a language of dumb beasts.
musical instrument of the Sioux, the flute, was made to appeal to the
susceptible ears of the maidens late into the night. There comes to me
now the picture of two young men with their robes over their heads, and
only a portion of the hand-made and carved chotanka, the flute,
protruding from its folds. I can see all the maidens slyly turn their
heads to listen. Now I hear one of the youths begin to sing a plaintive
serenade as in days gone by:
Wasula feels that she must come out, but she has no good excuse, so she stirs up the embers of the fire and causes an unnecessary smoke in the teepee. Then she has an excuse to come out and fix up the tent flaps. She takes a long time to adjust these pointed ears of the teepee, with their long poles, for the wind seems to be unsettled.
Finally Chotanka ceases to be heard. In a moment a young man appears ghost-like at the maiden’s side.
“So it is you, is it?” she asks.
“Is your grandmother in?” he inquires. “What a brave man you are, to fear an old woman! We are free; the country is wide. We can go away, and come back when the storm is over.”
“Ho,” he replies. “It is not that I fear her, or the consequences of an elopement. I fear nothing except that we may be separated!”
The girl goes into the lodge for a moment, then slips out once more. “Now,” she exclaims, “to the wood or the prairie! I am yours!” They disappear in the darkness.
We were encamped at one time on the Souris or Mouse river, a tributary of the Assiniboine. The buffaloes were still plenty; hence we were living on the “fat of the land.” One afternoon a scout came in with the announcement that a body of United States troops was approaching! This report, of course, caused much uneasiness among our people.
A council was held immediately, in the course of which the scout was put through a rigid examination. Before a decision had been reached, another scout came in from the field. He declared that the moving train reported as a body of troops was in reality a train of Canadian carts.
The two reports differed so widely that it was deemed wise to send out more runners to observe this moving body closely, and ascertain definitely its character. These soon returned with the positive information that the Canadians were at hand, “for,” said they, “there are no bright metals in the moving train to send forth flashes of light. The separate bodies are short, like carts with ponies, and not like the long, four-wheeled wagon drawn by four or six mules, that the soldiers use. They are not buffaloes, and they cannot be mounted troops, with pack-mules, because the individual bodies are too long for that. Besides, the soldiers usually have their chief, with his guards, leading the train; and the little chiefs are also separated from the main body and ride at one side!”
From these observations it was concluded that we were soon to meet with the bois brules, as the French call their mixed-bloods, presumably from the color of their complexions. Some say that they are named from the “burned forests” which, as wood-cutters, they are accustomed to leave behind them. Two or three hours later, at about sunset, our ears began to distinguish the peculiar music that always accompanied a moving train of their carts. It is like the grunting and squealing of many animals, and is due to the fact that the wheels and all other parts of these vehicles are made of wood. Our dogs gleefully augmented the volume of inharmonious sound.
They stopped a little way from our camp, upon a grassy plain, and the ponies were made to wheel their clumsy burdens into a perfect circle, the shafts being turned inward. Thus was formed a sort of barricade — quite a usual and necessary precaution in their nomadic and adventurous life. Within this circle the tents were pitched, and many cheerful fires were soon kindled. The garcons were hurriedly driving the ponies to water, with much cracking of whips and outbursting of impatient oaths.
Our chief and his principal warriors briefly conferred with the strangers, and it was understood by both parties that no thought of hostilities lurked in the minds of either.
After having observed the exchange of presents that always follows a “peace council,” there were friendly and hospitable feasts in both camps. The bois brules had been long away from any fort or trading-post, and it so happened that their inevitable whiskey keg was almost empty. They had diluted the few gills remaining with several large kettles full of water. In order to have any sort of offensive taste, it was necessary to add cayenne pepper and a little gentian.
Our men were treated to this concoction; and seeing that two or three of the half-breeds pretended to become intoxicated, our braves followed their example. They made night intolerable with their shouts and singing until past midnight, when gradually all disturbance ceased, and both camps appeared to be wrapped in deep slumber.
Suddenly the loud report of a gun stirred the sleepers. Many more reports were heard in quick succession, all coming from the camp of the bois brules. Every man among the Sioux sprang to his feet, weapon in hand, and many ran towards their ponies. But there was one significant point about the untimely firing of the guns — they were all directed heavenward! One of our old men, who understood better than any one else the manners of the half-breeds, thus proclaimed at the top of his voice:
“Let the people sleep! This that we have heard is the announcement of a boy’s advent into the world! It is their custom to introduce with gunpowder a new-born boy!”
Again quiet was restored in the neighboring camps, and for a time the night reigned undisturbed. But scarcely had we fallen into a sound sleep when we were for the second time rudely aroused by the firing of guns and the yelling of warriors. This time it was discovered that almost all the ponies, including those of our neighbors, had been stealthily driven off by horse-thieves of another tribe.
These miscreants were adepts in their profession, for they had accomplished their purpose with much skill, almost under the very eyes of the foe, and had it not been for the invincible superstition of Slow Dog, they would have met with complete success. As it was, they caused us no little trouble and anxiety, but after a hot pursuit of a whole day, with the assistance of the half-breeds our horses were recaptured.
Slow Dog was one of those Indians who are filled with conceit, and boasting loudly their pretensions as medicine men, without any success, only bring upon themselves an unnecessary amount of embarrassment and ridicule. Yet there is one quality always possessed by such persons, among a savage people as elsewhere — namely, great perseverance and tenacity in their self-assertion. So the blessing of ignorance kept Slow Dog always cheerful; and he seemed, if anything, to derive some pleasure from the endless insinuations and ridicule of the people!
Now Slow Dog had loudly proclaimed, on the night before this event, that he had received the warning of a bad dream, in which he had seen all the ponies belonging to the tribe stampeded and driven westward.
“But who cares for Slow Dog’s dream?” said everybody; “none of the really great medicine men have had any such visions!”
Therefore our little community, given as they were to superstition, anticipated no special danger. It is true that when the first scout reported the approach of troops some of the people had weakened, and said to one another:
“After all, perhaps poor Slow Dog may be right, but we are always too ready to laugh at him!”
However, this feeling quickly passed away when the jovial Canadians arrived, and the old man was left alone to brood upon his warning.
He was faithful to his dream. During all the hilarity of the feast and the drinking of the mock whiskey, he acted as self-constituted sentinel. Finally, when everybody else had succumbed to sleep, he gathered together several broken and discarded lariats of various materials — leather, buffalo’s hair and horse’s hair. Having lengthened this variegated rope with innumerable knots, he fastened one end of it around the neck of his old war-horse, and tied the other to his wrist. Instead of sleeping inside the tent as usual, he rolled himself in a buffalo robe and lay down in its shadow. From this place he watched until the moon had disappeared behind the western horizon; and just as the grey dawn began to appear in the east his eyes were attracted to what seemed to be a dog moving among the picketed ponies. Upon a closer scrutiny, he saw that its actions were unnatural.
“Toka ahe do! toka ahe do!” (the enemy! the enemy!) exclaimed Slow Dog. With a war-whoop he sprang toward the intruder, who rose up and leaped upon the back of Slow Dog’s war-steed. He had cut the hobble, as well as the device of the old medicine man.
The Sioux now bent his bow to shoot, but it was too late. The other quickly dodged behind the animal, and from under its chest he sent a deadly arrow to Slow Dog’s bosom. Then he remounted the pony and set off at full speed after his comrades, who had already started.
As the Sioux braves responded to the alarm, and passed by the daring old warrior in pursuit of their enemies, who had stampeded most of the loose ponies, the old man cried out:
“I, brave Slow Dog, who have so often made a path for you on the field of battle, am now about to make one to the land of spirits!”
So speaking, the old man died. The Sioux were joined in the chase by the friendly mixed-bloods, and in the end the Blackfeet were compelled to pay dearly for the blood of the poor old man.
On that beautiful morning all Nature seemed brilliant and smiling, but the Sioux were mourning and wailing for the death of one who had been an object of ridicule during most of his life. They appreciated the part that Slow Dog had played in this last event, and his memory was honored by all the tribe.
IT must now be about thirty years since our long journey in search of new hunting-grounds, from the Assiniboine river to the Upper Missouri. The buffalo, formerly so abundant between the two rivers, had begun to shun their usual haunts, on account of the great numbers of Canadian half-breeds in that part of the country. There was also the first influx of English sportsmen, whose wholesale methods of destruction wrought such havoc with the herds. These seemingly intelligent animals correctly prophesied to the natives the approach of the pale-face.
As we had anticipated, we found game very scarce as we travelled slowly across the vast plains. There were only herds of antelope and sometimes flocks of waterfowl, with here and there a lonely bull straggling aimlessly along. At first our party was small, but as we proceeded on our way we fell in with some of the western bands of Sioux and Assiniboines, who are close connections.
Each day the camp was raised and marched from ten to twenty miles. One might wonder how such a cavalcade would look in motion. The only vehicles were the primitive travaux drawn by ponies and large Esquimaux dogs. These are merely a pair of shafts fastened on either side of the animal, and trailing on the ground behind. A large basket suspended between the poles, just above the ground, supplied a place for goods and a safe nest for the babies, or an occasional helpless old woman. Most of our effects were carried by pack ponies; and an Indian packer excels all others in quickness and dexterity.
The train was nearly a mile long, headed by a number of old warriors on foot, who carried the filled pipe, and decided when and where to stop. A very warm day made much trouble for the women who had charge of the moving household. The pack dogs were especially unmanageable. They would become very thirsty and run into the water with their loads. The scolding of the women, the singing of the old men and the yelps of the Indian dudes made our progress a noisy one, and like that of a town in motion rather than an ordinary company of travelers.
This journey of ours was not without its exciting episodes. My uncle had left the main body and gone off to the south with a small party, as he was accustomed to do every summer, to seek revenge of some sort on the whites for all the” injuries that they had inflicted upon our family. This time he met with a company of soldiers between Fort Totten and Fort Berthold, in North Dakota. Somehow, these seven Indians surprised the troopers in broad daylight, while eating their dinner, and captured the whole outfit, including nearly all their mules and one white horse, with such of their provisions as they cared to carry back with them. No doubt these soldiers reported at the fort that they had been attacked by a large party of Indians, and I dare say some promotions rewarded their tale of a brave defense! However, the facts are just as I have stated them. My uncle brought home the white horse, and the fine Spanish mules were taken by the others. Among the things they brought back with them were several loaves of raised bread, the first I had ever seen, and a great curiosity. We called it aguyape tachangu, or lung bread, from its spongy consistency.
Although when a successful war-party returns with so many trophies, there is usually much dancing and hilarity, there was almost nothing of the kind on this occasion. The reason was that the enemy made little resistance; and then there was our old tradition with regard to the whites that there is no honor in conquering them, as they fight only under compulsion. Had there really been a battle, and some of our men been killed, there would have been some enthusiasm.
It was upon this journey that a hunter performed the feat of shooting an arrow through three antelopes. This statement may perhaps be doubted, yet I can vouch for its authenticity. He was not alone at the time, and those who were with him are reliable witnesses. The animals were driven upon a marshy peninsula, where they were crowded together and almost helpless. Many were despatched with knives and arrows; and a man by the name of Grey-foot, who was large and tall and an extraordinarily fine hunter, actually sent his arrow through three of them. This feat was not accomplished by mere strength, for it requires a great deal of skill as well.
A misfortune occurred near the river which deprived us of one of our best young men. There was no other man, except my own uncle, for whom I had at that time so great an admiration. Very strangely, as it appeared to me, he bore a Christian name. He was commonly called Jacob. I did not discover how he came by such a curious and apparently meaningless name until after I had returned to the United States. His father had been converted by one of the early missionaries, before the Minnesota massacre in 1862, and the boy had been baptized Jacob. He was an ideal woodsman and hunter and really a hero in my eyes. He was one of the party of seven who had attacked and put to rout the white soldiers.
The trouble arose thus. Jacob had taken from the soldiers two good mules, and soon afterward we fell in with some Canadian half-breeds who were desirous of trading for them. However, the young man would not trade; he was not at all disposed to part with his fine mules. A certain one of the mixed-bloods was intent upon getting possession of these animals by fair or unfair means. He invited Jacob to dinner, and treated him to whiskey; but the Indian youth declined the liquor. The half-breed pretended to take this refusal to drink as an insult. He seized his gun and shot his guest dead.
In a few minutes the scene was one of almost unprecedented excitement. Every adult Indian, female as well as male, was bent upon invading the camp of the bois brules, to destroy the murderer. The confusion was made yet more intolerable by the wailing of the women and the singing of death-songs.
Our number was now ten to one of the half-breeds. Within the circle formed by their carts they prepared for a desperate resistance. The hills about their little encampment were covered with warriors, ready to pounce upon them at the signal of their chief.
The older men, however, were discussing in council what should be demanded of the half-breeds. It was determined that the murderer must be given up to us, to be punished according to the laws of the plains. If, however, they should refuse to give him up, the mode of attack decided upon was to build a fire around the offenders and thus stampede their horses, or at the least divide their attention. Meanwhile, the braves were to make a sudden onset.
Just then a piece of white, newly-tanned deerskin was hoisted up in the center of the bois brule encampment. It was a flag of truce. One of their number approached the council lodge, unarmed and making the sign for a peaceful communication. He was admitted to the council, which was still in session, and offered to give up the murderer. It was also proposed, as an alternative, that he be compelled to give everything he had to the parents of the murdered man.
The parents were allowed no voice whatever in the discussion which followed, for they were regarded as incompetent judges, under the circumstances. It was finally decreed by the council that the man’s life should be spared, but that he must be exposed to the indignity of a public whipping, and resign all his earthly possessions to the parents of his victim. This sentence was carried into effect.
In our nomadic life there were a few unwritten laws by which our people were governed. There was a council, a police force, and an executive officer, who was not always the chief, but a member of the tribe appointed to this position for a given number of days. There were also the wise old men who were constantly in attendance at the council lodge, and acted as judges in the rare event of the commission of a crime.
This simple government of ours was supported by the issue of little sticks about five inches long. There were a hundred or so of these, and they were distributed every few days by the police or soldiers, who kept account of them. Whoever received one of these sticks must return it within five or ten days, with a load of provisions. If one was held beyond the stipulated time the police would call the delinquent warrior to account. In case he did not respond, they could come and destroy his tent or take away his weapons. When all the sticks had been returned, they were reissued to other men; and so the council lodge was supported.
It was the custom that no man who had not distinguished himself upon the war-path could destroy the home of another. This was a necessary qualification for the office of an Indian policeman. These policemen must also oversee the hunt, lest some individuals should be well provided with food while others were in want. No man might hunt independently. The game must be carefully watched by the game scouts, and the discovery of a herd reported at once to the council, after which the time and manner of the hunt were publicly announced.
I well recall how the herald announced the near approach of buffaloes. It was supposed that if the little boys could trip up the old man while going his rounds, the success of the hunt was assured. The oftener he was tripped, the more successful it would be! The signal or call for buffaloes was a peculiar whistle. As soon as the herald appeared, all the boys would give the whistle and follow in crowds after the poor old man. Of course he tried to avoid them, but they were generally too quick for him.
There were two kinds of scouts, for hunting and for war. In one sense every Indian was a scout; but there were some especially appointed to serve for a certain length of time. An Indian might hunt every day, besides the regularly organized hunt; but he was liable to punishment at any time. If he could kill a solitary buffalo or deer without disturbing the herd, it was allowed. He might also hunt small game.
In the movable town under such a government as this, there was apt to be inconvenience and actual suffering, since a great body of people were supported only by the daily hunt. Hence there was a constant disposition to break up into smaller parties, in order to obtain food more easily and freely. Yet the wise men of the Dakotas would occasionally form large bands of from two to five thousand people, who camped and moved about together for a period of some months. It is apparent that so large a body could not be easily supplied with the necessaries of life; but, on the other hand, our enemies respected such a gathering! Of course the nomadic government would do its utmost to hold together as long as possible. The police did all they could to keep in check those parties who were intent upon stealing away.
There were many times, however, when individual bands and even families were justified in seeking to separate themselves from the rest, in order to gain a better support. It was chiefly by reason of this food question that the Indians never established permanent towns or organized themselves into a more formidable nation.
There was a sad misfortune which, although it happened many generations ago, was familiarly quoted among us. A certain band became very independent and unruly; they went so far as to wilfully disobey the orders of the general government. The police were directed to punish the leader severely; whereupon the rest defended him and resisted the police. But the latter were competent to enforce their authority, and as a result the entire band was annihilated.
One day, as we were following along the bank of the Upper Missouri, there appeared to be a great disturbance at the head of the cavalcade — so much so that we thought our people had been attacked by a war-party of the Crows or some of the hostile tribes of that region. In spite of the danger, even the women and children hurried forward to join the men — that is to say, as many as were not upon the hunt. Most of the warriors were out, as usual, and only the large boys and the old men were travelling with the women and their domestic effects and little ones.
As we approached the scene of action, we heard loud shouts and the report of fire-arms; but our party was scattered along for a considerable distance, and all was over before we could reach the spot. It was a great grizzly bear who had been bold enough to oppose, single-handed, the progress of several hundred Indians. The council-men, who usually walked a little in advance of the train, were the first to meet the bear, and he was probably deceived by the sight of this advance body, and thus audaciously defied them.
Among these council-men — all retired chiefs and warriors whose ardent zeal for the display of courage had long been cooled, and whose present duties were those of calm deliberation for their people’s welfare — there were two old, distinguished war-chiefs. Each of these men still carried his war-lance, wrapped up in decorated buckskin. As the bear advanced boldly toward them, the two old men promptly threw off their robes — an evidence that there still lurked within their breasts the spirit of chivalry and ready courage. Spear in hand, they both sprang forward to combat with the ferocious animal, taking up their positions about ten feet apart.
As they had expected, the fearful beast, after getting up on his haunches and growling savagely, came forward with widely opened jaws. He fixed his eyes upon the left-hand man, who was ready to meet him with uplifted spear, but with one stroke of his powerful paw the weapon was sent to the ground. At the same moment the right-hand man dealt him a stab that penetrated the grizzly’s side.
The bear uttered a groan not unlike that of a man, and seized the spear so violently that its owner was thrown to the ground. As the animal drew the lance from its body, the first man, having recovered his own, stabbed him with it on the other side. Upon this, he turned and knocked the old man down, and again endeavored to extract the spear.
By this time all the dogs and men were at hand. Many arrows and balls were sent into the tough hide of the bear. Yet he would probably have killed both his assailants, had it not been for the active small dogs who were constantly upon his heels and annoying him. A deadly rifle shot at last brought him down.
The old men were badly bruised and torn, but both of them recovered, to bear from that day the high-sounding titles of “Fought-the-Bear” and “Conquered-the-Grizzly.”