Indian Boyhood

by Ohiyesa (Charles A. Eastman)

My Plays and Playmates

II: My Playmates

CHATANNA was the brother with whom I passed much of my early childhood. From the time that I was old enough to play with boys, this brother was my close companion. He was a handsome boy, and an affectionate comrade. We played together, slept together and ate together; and as Chatanna was three years the older, I naturally looked up to him as to a superior.

Oesedah was a beautiful little character. She was my cousin, and four years younger than myself. Perhaps none of my early playmates are more vividly remembered than is this little maiden.

The name given her by a noted medicine-man was Makah-oesetopah-win. It means The-fourcorners-of-the-earth. As she was rather small, the abbreviation with a diminutive termination was considered more appropriate, hence Oesedah became her common name.

Although she had a very good mother, Uncheedah was her efficient teacher and chaperon Such knowledge as my grandmother deemed suitable to a maiden was duly impressed upon her susceptible mind. When I was not in the woods with Chatanna, Oesedah was my companion at home; and when I returned from my play at evening, she would have a hundred questions ready for me to answer. Some of these were questions concerning our every-day life, and others were more difficult problems which had suddenly dawned upon her active little mind. Whatever had occurred to interest her during the day was immediately repeated for my benefit.

There were certain questions upon which Oesedah held me to be authority, and asked with the hope of increasing her little store of knowledge. I have often heard her declare to her girl companions: "I know it is true; Ohiyesa said so!" Uncheedah was partly responsible for this, for when any questions came up which lay within the sphere of man's observation, she would say:

"Ohiyesa ought to know that: he is a man – I am not! You had better ask him."

The truth was that she had herself explained to me many of the subjects under discussion.

I was occasionally referred to little Oesedah in the same manner, and I always accepted her childish elucidations of any matter upon which I had been advised to consult her, because I knew the source of her wisdom. In this simple way we were made to be teachers of one another.

Very often we discussed some topic before our common instructor, or answered her questions together, in order to show which had the readier mind.

"To what tribe does the lizard belong?" inquired Uncheedah, upon one of these occasions.

"To the four-legged tribe," I shouted.

Oesedah, with her usual quickness, flashed out the answer:

"It belongs to the creeping tribe."

The Indians divided all animals into four general classes: 1st, those that walk upon four legs; 2nd, those that fly; 3rd, those that swim with fins; 4th, those that creep.

Of course I endeavored to support my assertion that the lizard belongs where I had placed it, be-. cause he has four distinct legs which propel him everywhere, on the ground or in the water. But my opponent claimed that the creature under dispute does not walk, but creeps. My strongest argument was that it had legs; but Oesedah insisted that its body touches the ground as it moves. As a last resort, I volunteered to go find one, and demonstrate the point in question.

The lizard having been brought, we smoothed off the ground and strewed ashes on it so that we could see the track. Then I raised the question: "What constitutes creeping, and what constitutes walking?"

Uncheedah was the judge, and she stated, without any hesitation, that an animal must stand clear of the ground on the support of its legs, and walk with the body above the legs, and not in contact with the ground, in order to be termed a walker; while a creeper is one that, regardless of its legs, if it has them, drags its body upon the ground. Upon hearing the judge's decision, I yielded at once to my opponent.

At another time, when I was engaged in a similar discussion with my brother Chatanna, Oesedah came to my rescue. Our grandmother had asked us:

"What bird shows most judgment in caring for its young?"

Chatanna at once exclaimed:

"The eagle!" but I held my peace for a moment, because I was confused – so many birds came into my mind at once. I finally declared:

"It is the oriole!"

Chatanna was asked to state all the evidence that he had in support of the eagle's good sense in rearing its young. He proceeded with an air of confidence:

"The eagle is the wisest of all birds. Its nest is made in the safest possible place, upon a high and inaccessible cliff. It provides its young with an abundance of fresh meat. They have the freshest of air. They are brought up under the spell of the grandest scenes, and inspired with lofty feelings and bravery. They see that all other beings live beneath them, and that they are the children of the King of Birds. A young eagle shows the spirit of a warrior while still in the nest.

"Being exposed to the inclemency of the weather the young eaglets are hardy. They are accustomed to hear the mutterings of the Thunder Bird and the sighings of the Great Mystery. Why, the little eagles cannot help being as noble as they are, because their parents selected for them so lofty and inspiring a home! How happy they must be when they find themselves above the clouds, and behold the zigzag flashes of lightning all about them! It must be nice to taste a piece of fresh meat up in their cool home, in the burning summer-time! Then when they drop down the bones of the game they feed upon, wolves and vultures gather beneath them, feeding upon their refuse. That alone would show them their chieftainship over all the other birds. Isn't that so, grandmother?" Thus triumphantly he concluded his argument.

I was staggered at first by the noble speech of Chatannna, but I soon recovered from its effects. The little Oesedah came to my aid by saying: "Wait until Ohiyesa tells of the loveliness of the beautiful Oriole's home!" This timely remark gave me courage and I began:

"My grandmother, who was it said that a mother who has a gentle and sweet voice will have children of a good disposition? I think the oriole is that kind of a parent. It provides both sunshine and shadow for its young. Its nest is suspended from the prettiest bough of the most graceful tree, where it is rocked by the gentle winds; and the one we found yesterday was beautifully lined with soft things, both deep and warm, so that the little featherless birdies cannot suffer from the cold and wet."

Here Chatanna interrupted me to exclaim: "That is just like the white people – who cares for them? The eagle teaches its young to be accustomed to hardships, like young warriors!"

Ohiyesa was provoked; he reproached his brother and appealed to the judge, saying that he had not finished yet.

"But you would not have lived, Chatanna, if you had been exposed like that when you were a baby! The oriole shows wisdom in providing for its children a good, comfortable home! A home upon a high rock would not be pleasant – it would be cold! We climbed a mountain once, and it was cold there; and who would care to stay in such a place when it storms? What wisdom is there in having a pile of rough sticks upon a bare rock, surrounded with ill-smelling bones of animals, for a home? Also, my uncle says that the eaglets seem always to be on the point of starvation. You have heard that whoever lives on game killed by some one else is compared to an eagle. Isn't that so, grandmother?

"The oriole suspends its nest from the lower side of a horizontal bough so that no enemy can approach it. It enjoys peace and beauty and safety."

Oesedah was at Ohiyesa's side during the discussion, and occasionally whispered into his ear. Uncheedah decided this time in favor of Ohiyesa.

We were once very short of provisions in the winter time. My uncle, our only means of support, was sick; and besides, we were separated from the rest of the tribe and in a region where there was little game of any kind. Oesedah had a pet squirrel, and as soon as we began to economize our food had given portions of her allowance to her pet.

At last we were reduced very much, and the prospect of obtaining anything soon being gloomy, my grandmother reluctantly suggested that the squirrel should be killed for food. Thereupon my little cousin cried, and said:

"Why cannot we all die alike wanting? The squirrel's life is as dear to him as ours to us," and clung to it. Fortunately, relief came in time to save her pet.

Oesedah lived with us for a portion of the year, and as there were no other girls in the family she played much alone, and had many imaginary companions. At one time there was a small willow tree which she visited regularly, holding long conversations, a part of which she would afterward repeat to me. She said the willow tree was her husband, whom some magic had compelled to take that form; but no grown person was ever allowed to share her secret.

When I was about eight years old I had for a playmate the adopted son of a Sioux, who was a white captive. This boy was quite a noted personage, although he was then only about ten or eleven years of age. When I first became acquainted with him we were on the upper Missouri river. I learned from him that he had been taken on the plains, and that both of his parents were killed.

He was at first sad and lonely, but soon found plenty of consolation in his new home. The name of his adopted father was "Keeps-theSpotted-Ponies." He was known to have an unusual number of the pretty calico ponies; indeed, he had a passion for accumulating property in the shape of ponies, painted tents, decorated saddles and all sorts of finery. He had lost his only son; but the little pale-face became the adopted brother of two handsome young women, his daughters. This made him quite popular among the young warriors. He was not slow to adopt the Indian customs, and he acquired the Sioux language in a short time.

I well remember hearing of his first experience of war. He was not more than sixteen when he joined a war-party against the Gros-Ventres and Mandans. My uncle reported that he was very brave until he was wounded in the ankle; then he begged with tears to be taken back to a safe place. Fortunately for him, his adopted father came to the rescue, and saved him at the risk of his own life. He was called the "pale-face Indian." His hair grew very long and he lavished paint on his face and hair so that no one might suspect that he was a white man.

One day this boy was playing a gambling game with one of the Sioux warriors. He was an expert gambler, and won everything from the Indian. At a certain point a dispute arose. The Indian was very angry, for he discovered that his fellowplayer had deliberately cheated him. The Indians were strictly honest in those days, even in their gambling.

The boy declared that he had merely performed a trick for the benefit of his friend, but it nearly cost him his life. The indignant warrior had already drawn his bow-string with the intention of shooting the captive, but a third person intervened and saved the boy's life. He at once explained his trick; and in order to show himself an honorable gambler, gave back all the articles that he had won from his opponent. In the midst of the confusion, old "Keeps-the-Spotted-Ponies" came rushing through the crowd in a state of great excitement. He thought his pale-face son had been killed. When he saw how matters stood, he gave the aggrieved warrior a pony, "in order," as he said, "that there may be no shadow between him and my son."

One spring my uncle took Chatanna to the Canadian trading-post on the Assiniboine river, where he went to trade off his furs for ammunition and other commodities. When he came back, my brother was not with him!

At first my fears were even worse than the reality. The facts were these: A Canadian with whom my uncle had traded much had six daughters and no son; and when he saw this handsome and intelligent little fellow, he at once offered to adopt him.

"I have no boy in my family," said he, "and I will deal with him as with a son. I am always in these regions trading; so you can see him two or three times in a year."

He further assured my uncle that the possession of the boy would greatly strengthen their friendship. The matter was finally agreed upon. At first Chatanna was unwilling, but as we were taught to follow the advice of our parents and guardians, he was obliged to yield.

This was a severe blow to me, and for a long time I could not be consoled. Uncheedah was fully in sympathy with my distress. She argued that the white man's education was not desirable for her boys; in fact, she urged her son so strongly to go back after Chatanna that he promised on his next visit to the post to bring him home again.

But the trader was a shrewd man. He immediately moved to another part of the country; and I never saw my Chatanna, the companion of my childhood, again! We learned afterward that he grew up and was married; but one day he lost his way in a blizzard and was frozen to death.

My little cousin and I went to school together in later years; but she could not endure the confinement of the school-room. Although apparently very happy, she suffered greatly from the change to an indoor life, as have many of our people, and died six months after our return to the United States.

Next Chapter: The Boy Hunter

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