Indian Boyhood

by Ohiyesa (Charles A. Eastman)

Earliest Recollections

V: A Midsummer Feast

IT was midsummer. Everything that the Santee Sioux had undertaken during the year had been unusually successful. The spring fur-hunters had been fortunate, and the heavy winter had proved productive of much maple sugar. The women's patches of maize and potatoes were already sufficiently advanced to use. The Wahpetonwan band of Sioux, the "Dwellers among the Leaves," were fully awakened to the fact that it was almost time for the midsummer festivities of the old, wild days.

The invitations were bundles of tobacco, and acceptances were sent back from the various bands – the "Light Lodges", "Dwellers back from the River," and many others, in similar fashion. Blue Earth, chief of the "Dwellers among the Leaves," was the host.

There were to be many different kinds of athletic games; indeed, the festival was something like a State fair, in that there were many side shows and competitive events. For instance, supposing that (Miss) White Rabbit should desire to give a "maidens' feast," she would employ a crier to go among the different bands announcing the fact in a sing-song manner:

"Miss White Rabbit will receive her maiden friends to-day at noon, inside of the circular encampment of the Kaposia band."

Again, should (Mr.) Sleepy Eye wish to have his child's ears pierced publicly, he would have to give away a great deal of savage wealth – namely, otter, bear and beaver skins and ponies – or the child would not be considered as belonging to a family in good standing.

But the one all-important event of the occasion was the lacrosse game, for which it had been customary to select those two bands which could boast the greater number of fast runners.

The Wahpetonwan village on the banks of the Minnesota river was alive with the newly-arrived guests and the preparations for the coming event. Meat of wild game had been put away with much care during the previous fall in anticipation of this feast. There was wild rice and the choicest of dried venison that had been kept all winter, as well as freshly dug turnips, ripe berries and an abundance of fresh meat.

Along the edge of the woods the teepees were pitched in groups or semi-circles, each band distinct from the others. The teepee of Mankato or Blue Earth was pitched in a conspicuous spot. Just over the entrance was painted in red and yellow a picture of a pipe, and directly opposite this the rising sun. The painting was symbolic of welcome and good will to men under the bright sun.

A meeting was held to appoint some "medicine man" to make the balls that were to be used in the lacrosse contest; and presently the herald announced that this honor had been conferred upon old Chankpee-yuhah, or "Keeps the Club," while every other man of his profession was disappointed. He was a powerful man physically, who had apparently won the confidence of the people by his fine personal appearance and by working upon superstitious minds.

Towards evening he appeared in the circle, leading by the hand a boy about four years old. Closely the little fellow observed every motion of the man; nothing escaped his vigilant black eyes, which seemed constantly to grow brighter and larger, while his exuberant glossy black hair was plaited and wound around his head like that of a Celestial. He wore a bit of swan's down in each ear, which formed a striking contrast with the child's complexion. Further than this, the boy was painted according to the fashion of the age. He held in his hands a miniature bow and arrows.

The medicine man drew himself up in an admirable attitude, and proceeded to make his short speech:

"Wahpetonwans, you boast that you run down the elk; you can outrun the Ojibways. Before you all, I dedicate to you this red ball. Kaposias, you claim that no one has a lighter foot than you; you declare that you can endure running a whole day without water. To you I dedicate this black ball. Either you or the Leaf-Dwellers will have to drop your eyes and bow your head when the game is over. I wish to announce that if the Wahpetonwans should win, this little warrior shall bear the name Ohiyesa (winner) through life; but if the Light Lodges should win, let the name be given to any child appointed by them."

The ground selected for the great final game was on a narrow strip of land between a lake and the river. It was about three quarters of a mile long and a quarter of a mile in width. The spectators had already ranged themselves all along the two sides, as well as at the two ends, which were somewhat higher than the middle. The soldiers appointed to keep order furnished much of the entertainment of the day. They painted artistically and tastefully, according to the Indian fashion, not only their bodies but also their ponies and clubs. They were so strict in enforcing the laws that no one could venture with safety within a few feet of the limits of the field.

Now all of the minor events and feasts, occupying several days' time, had been observed. Heralds on ponies' backs announced that all who intended to participate in the final game were requested to repair to the ground; also that if any one bore a grudge against another, he was implored to forget his ill-feeling until the contest should be over.

The most powerful men were stationed at the half-way ground, while the fast runners were assigned to the back. It was an impressive spectacle – a fine collection of agile forms, almost stripped of garments and painted in wild imitation of the rainbow and sunset sky on human canvas. Some had undertaken to depict the Milky Way across their tawny bodies, and one or two made a bold attempt to reproduce the lightning. Others contented themselves with painting the figure of some fleet animal or swift bird on their muscular chests.

The coiffure of the Sioux lacrosse player has often been unconsciously imitated by the fashionable hair-dressers of modern times. Some banged and singed their hair; others did a little more by adding powder. The Grecian knot was located on the wrong side of the head, being tied tightly over the forehead. A great many simply brushed back their long locks and tied them with a strip of otter skin.

At the middle of the ground were stationed four immense men, magnificently formed. A fifth approached this group, paused a moment, and then threw his head back, gazed up into the sky in the manner of a cock and gave a smooth, clear operatic tone. Instantly the little black ball went up between the two middle rushers, in the midst of yells, cheers and war-whoops. Both men endeavored to catch it in the air; but alas! each interfered with the other; then the guards on each side rushed upon them. For a time, a hundred lacrosse sticks vied with each other, and the wriggling human flesh and paint were all one could see through the cloud of dust. Suddenly there shot swiftly through the air toward the south, toward the Kaposias' goal, the ball. There was a general cheer from their adherents, which echoed back from the white cliff on the opposite side of the Minnesota.

As the ball flew through the air, two adversaries were ready to receive it. The Kaposia quickly met the ball, but failed to catch it in his netted bag, for the other had swung his up like a flash. Thus it struck the ground, but had no opportunity to bound up when a Wahpeton pounced upon it like a cat and slipped out of the grasp of his opponents. A mighty cheer thundered through the air.

The warrior who had undertaken to pilot the little sphere was risking much, for he must dodge a host of Kaposias before he could gain any ground. He was alert and agile; now springing like a panther, now leaping like a deer over a stooping opponent who tried to seize him around the waist. Every opposing player was upon his heels, while those of his own side did all in their power to clear the way for him. But it was all in vain. He only gained fifty paces.

Thus the game went. First one side, then the other would gain an advantage, and then it was lost, until the herald proclaimed that it was time to change the ball. No victory was in sight for either side.

After a few minutes' rest, the game was resumed. The red ball was now tossed in the air in the usual way. No sooner had it descended than one of the rushers caught it and away it went northward;

again it was fortunate, for it was advanced by one of the same side. The scene was now one of the wildest excitement and confusion. At last, the northward flight of the ball was checked for a moment and a desperate struggle ensued. Cheers and war-whoops became general, such as were never equaled in any concourse of savages, and possibly nowhere except at a college game of football.

The ball had not been allowed to come to the surface since it reached this point, for there were more than a hundred men who scrambled for it. Suddenly a warrior shot out of the throng like the ball itself! Then some of the players shouted: "Look out for Antelope! Look out for Antelope!" But it was too late. The little sphere had already nestled into Antelope's palm and that fleetest of Wahpetons had thrown down his lacrosse stick and set a determined eye upon the northern goal.

Such a speed! He had cleared almost all the opponents' guards – there were but two more. These were exceptional runners of the Kaposias. As he approached them in his almost irresistible speed, every savage heart thumped louder in the Indian's dusky bosom. In another moment there would be a defeat for the Kaposias or a prolongation of the game. The two men, with a determined look approached their foe like two panthers prepared to spring; yet he neither slackened his speed nor deviated from his course. A crash – a mighty shout! – the two Kaposias collided, and the swift Antelope had won the laurels!

The turmoil and commotion at the victors' camp were indescribable. A few beats of a drum were heard, after which the criers hurried along the lines, announcing the last act to be performed at the camp of the "Leaf Dwellers."

The day had been a perfect one. Every event had been a success; and, as a matter of course, the old people were happy, for they largely profited by these occasions. Within the circle formed by the general assembly sat in a group the members of the common council. Blue Earth arose, and in a few appropriate and courteous remarks assured his guests that it was not selfishness that led his braves to carry off the honors of the last event, but that this was a friendly contest in which each band must assert its prowess. In memory of this victory, the boy would now receive his name. A loud "Ho-o-o" of approbation reverberated from the edge of the forest upon the Minnesota's bank.

Half frightened, the little fellow was now brought into the circle, looking very much as if he were about to be executed. Cheer after cheer went up for the awe-stricken boy. Chankpee-yuhah, the medicine man, proceeded to confer the name.

"Ohiyesa (or Winner) shall be thy name henceforth. Be brave, be patient and thou shalt always win! Thy name is Ohivesa."

Next Chapter: An Indian Boy's Training

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