Indian Boyhood

by Ohiyesa (Charles A. Eastman)

Family Traditions

I: A Visit to Smoky Day

SMOKY DAY was widely known among us as a preserver of history and legend. He was a living book of the traditions and history of his people. Among his effects were bundles of small sticks, notched and painted. One bundle contained the number of his own years. Another was composed of sticks representing the important events of history, each of which was marked with the number of years since that particular event occurred. For instance, there was the year when so many stars fell from the sky, with the number of years since it happened cut into the wood. Another recorded the appearance of a comet; and from these heavenly wonders the great national catastrophes and victories were reckoned.

But I will try to repeat some of his favorite narratives as I heard them from his own lips. I went to him one day with a piece of tobacco and an eagle-feather; not to buy his MSS., but hoping for the privilege of hearing him tell of some of the brave deeds of our people in remote times.

The tall and large old man greeted me with his usual courtesy and thanked me for my present. As I recall the meeting, I well remember his unusual stature, his slow speech and gracious manner.

"Ah, Ohiyesa!" said he, "my young warrior – for such you will be some day! I know this by your seeking to hear of the great deeds of your ancestors. That is a good sign, and I love to repeat these stories to one who is destined to be a brave man. I do not wish to lull you to sleep with sweet words; but I know the conduct of your paternal ancestors. They have been and are still among the bravest of our tribe. To prove this, I will relate what happened in your paternal grandfather's family, twenty years ago.

"Two of his brothers were murdered by a jealous young man of their own band. The deed was committed without just cause; therefore all the braves were agreed to punish the murderer with death. When your grandfather was approached with this suggestion, he replied that he and the remaining brothers could not condescend to spill the blood of such a wretch, but that the others might do whatever they thought just with the young man. These men were foremost among the warriors of the Sioux, and no one questioned their courage; yet when this calamity was brought upon them by a villain, they refused to touch him! This, my boy, is a test of true bravery. Self-possession and self-control at such a moment is proof of a strong heart.

"You have heard of Jingling Thunder the elder, whose brave deeds are well known to the Villagers of the Lakes. He sought honor 'in the gates of the enemy,' as we often say. The Great Mystery was especially kind to him, because he was obedient.

"Many winters ago there was a great battle, in which Jingling Thunder won his first honors. It was forty winters before the falling of many stars, which event occurred twenty winters after the coming of the black-robed white priest; and that was fourteen winters before the annihilation by our people of thirty lodges of the Sac and Fox Indians. I well remember the latter event – it was just fifty winters ago. However, I will count my sticks again."

So saying, Smoky Day produced his bundle of variously colored sticks, about five inches long. He counted and gave them to me to verify his calculation.

"But you," he resumed, "do not care to remember the winters that have passed. You are young, and care only for the event and the deed. It was very many years ago that this thing happened that I am about to tell you, and yet our people speak of it with as much enthusiasm as if it were only yesterday. Our heroes are always kept alive in the minds of the nation.

"Our people lived then on the east bank of the Mississippi, a little south of where Imnejah-skah, or White Cliff (St. Paul, Minnesota), now stands. After they left Mille Lacs they founded several villages, but finally settled in this spot, whence the tribes have gradually dispersed. Here a battle occurred which surpassed all others in history. It lasted one whole day – the Sacs and Foxes and the Dakotas against the Ojibways.

"An invitation in the usual form of a filled pipe was brought to the Sioux by a brave of the Sac and Fox tribe, to make a general attack upon their common enemy. The Dakota braves quickly signified their willingness in the same manner, and it having been agreed to meet upon the St. Croix river, preparations were immediately begun to despatch a large war-party.

"Among our people there were many tried warriors whose names were known, and every youth of a suitable age was desirous of emulating them. As these young novices issued from every camp and almost every teepee, their mothers, sisters, grandfathers and grandmothers were singing for them the 'strong-heart' songs. An old woman, living with her only grandchild, the remnant of a once large band who had all been killed at three different times by different parties of the Ojibways, was conspicuous among the singers.

"Everyone who heard, cast toward her a sympathetic glance, for it was well known that she and her grandson constituted the remnant of a band of Sioux, and that her song indicated that her precious child had attained the age of a warrior, and was now about to join the war-party, and to seek a just revenge for the annihilation of his family. This was Jingling Thunder, also familiarly known as 'The Little Last.' He was seen to carry with him some family relics in the shape of war-clubs and lances.

"The aged woman's song was something like this:

"Go, my brave Jingling Thunder!
Upon the silvery path
Behold that glittering track –

"And yet, my child, remember
How pitiful to live
Survivor of the young!
'Stablish our name and kin!"

"The Sacs and Foxes were very daring and confident upon this occasion. They proposed to the Sioux that they should engage alone with the enemy at first, and let us see how their braves can fight! To this our people assented, and they assembled upon the hills to watch the struggle between their allies and the Ojibways. It seemed to be an equal fight, and for a time no one could tell how the contest would end. Young Jingling Thunder was an impatient spectator, and it was

*The Milky Way – believed by the Dakotas to be the road travelled by the spirits of departed braves. hard to keep him from rushing forward to meet his foes.

"At last a great shout went up, and the Sacs and Foxes were seen to be retreating with heavy loss. Then the Sioux took the field, and were fast winning the day, when fresh reinforcements came from the north for the Ojibways. Up to this time Jingling Thunder had been among the foremost in the battle, and had engaged in several close encounters. But this fresh attack of the Ojibways was unexpected, and the Sioux were somewhat tired. Besides, they had told the Sacs and Foxes to sit upon the hills and rest their weary limbs and take lessons from their friends the Sioux; therefore no aid was looked for from any quarter.

"A great Ojibway chief made a fierce onslaught on the Dakotas. This man Jingling Thunder now rushed forward to meet. The Ojibway boastfully shouted to his warriors that he had met a tender fawn and would reserve to himself the honor of destroying it. Jingling Thunder, on his side, exclaimed that he had met the aged bear of whom he had heard so much, but that he would need no assistance to overcome him.

"The powerful man flashed his tomahawk in the air over the youthful warrior's head, but the brave sprang aside as quick as lightning, and in the same instant speared his enemy to the heart. As the Ojibway chief gave a gasping yell and fell in death, his people lost courage; while the success of the brave Jingling Thunder strengthened the hearts of the Sioux, for they immediately followed up their advantage and drove the enemy out of their territory.

"This was the beginning of Jingling Thunder's career as a warrior. He afterwards performed even greater acts of valor. He became the ancestor of a famous band of the Sioux, of whom your own father, Ohiyesa, was a member. You have doubtless heard his name in connection with many great events. Yet he was a patient man, and was never known to quarrel with one of his own nation."

That night I lay awake a long time committing to memory the tradition I had heard, and the next day I boasted to my playmate, Little Rainbow, about my first lesson from the old storyteller. To this he replied:

"I would rather have Weyuhah for my teacher. I think he remembers more than any of the others. When Weyuhah tells about a battle you can see it yourself; you can even hear the war-whoop," he went on with much enthusiasm.

"That is what his friends say of him; but those who are not his friends say that he brings many warriors into the battle who were not there," I answered indignantly, for I could not admit that old Smoky Day could have a rival.

Before I went to him again Uncheedah had thoughtfully prepared a nice venison roast for the teacher, and I was proud to take him something good to eat before beginning his story.

"How," was his greeting, "so you have begun already, Ohiyesa? Your family were ever feastmakers as well as warriors."

Having done justice to the tender meat, he wiped his knife by sticking it into the ground several times, and put it away in its sheath, after which he cheerfully recommenced:

"It came to pass not many winters ago that Wakinyan-tonka, the great medicine man, had a vision; whereupon a war-party set out for the Ojibway country. There were three brothers of your family among them, all of whom were noted for valor and the chase.

"Seven battles were fought in succession before they turned to come back. They had secured a number of the enemy's birch canoes, and the whole party came floating down the Mississippi, joyous and happy because of their success.

"But one night the war-chief announced that there was misfortune at hand. The next day no one was willing to lead the fleet. The youngest of the three brothers finally declared that he did not fear death, for it comes when least expected and he volunteered to take the lead.

"It happened that this young man had left a pretty maiden behind him, whose choice needlework adorned his quiver. He was very handsome as well as brave.

"At daybreak the canoes were again launched upon the bosom of the great river. All was quiet – a few birds beginning to sing. Just as the sun peeped through the eastern tree-tops a great warcry came forth from the near shores, and there was a rain of arrows. The birchen canoes were pierced, and in the excitement many were capsized.

"The Sioux were at a disadvantage. There was no shelter. Their bow-strings and the feathers on their arrows were wet. The bold Ojibways saw their advantage and pressed closer and closer; but our men fought desperately, half in and half out of the water, until the enemy was forced at last to retreat. Nevertheless that was a sad day for the Wahpeton Sioux; but saddest of all was Winona's fate!

"Morning Star, her lover, who led the canoe fleet that morning, was among the slain. For two days the Sioux braves searched in the water for their dead, but his body was not recovered.

"At home, meanwhile, the people had been alarmed by ill omens. Winona, eldest daughter of the great chief, one day entered her birch canoe alone and paddled up the Mississippi, gazing now into the,water around her, now into the blue sky above. She thought she heard some young men giving courtship calls in the distance, just as they do at night when approaching the teepee of the beloved; and she knew the voice of Morning Star well! Surely she could distinguish his call among the others! Therefore she listened yet more intently, and looked skyward as her light canoe glided gently up stream.

"Ah, poor Winona! She saw only six sandhill cranes, looking no larger than mosquitoes, as they flew in circles high up in the sky, going east where all spirits go. Something said to her: 'Those are the spirits of some of the Sioux braves, and Morning Star is among them!' Her eye followed the birds as they traveled in a chain of circles.

"Suddenly she glanced downward. 'What is this?' she screamed in despair. It was Morning Star's body, floating down the river; his quiver, worked by her own hands and now dyed with his blood, lay upon the surface of the water.

"'Ah, Great Mystery! why do you punish a poor girl so? Let me go with the spirit of Morning Star!'

"It was evening. The pale moon arose in the east and the stars were bright. At this very hour the news of the disaster was brought home by a returning scout, and the village was plunged in grief, but Winona's spirit had flown away. No one ever saw her again.

"This is enough for to-day, my boy. You may come again to-morrow."

Next Chapter: The Stone Boy

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