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 halfbreeds 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 halfbreeds. 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 halfbreeds. 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."