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 huntingscouts, 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.