Camping With the Sioux: Fieldwork Diary of Alice Cunningham Fletcher

View of Village Showing Tipis, Log Cabins, and Wagons. Cherry Creek, South Dakota, 1880 Photo Lot 24, BAE 23, Inv. 00510700.

 

October 20, 1881

We were up and off about 7.30, the sky gray, wind blowing through from the southwest. It was as though off a snow field. I bundled in all I had and gave thanks for the robe, my chest paining me and my cough hard and tight. I was cold to my skin.

We lost our way and came over the prairie, down hummocks and through creeks where the springs came together. Our party strings along, Buffalo-chip in the wagon, cover off, Wajapa on his new horse, Ga-ha on the sore shouldered horse, astride, her black blanket tied in the middle about her waist, one half serving as a sort of skirt over her green calico dress, which is in turn over her blue one, the upper part a sort of cloak, an old towel over her head. She rides and drives the ponies, three of them, flourishing a twig stick, her bracelets and rings flashing on her dark arms. She is always good natured, singing, laughing and talking her broken Omaha, which neither Susette or Wajapa can well understand.

On over hills and plains, the sun at last coming out, but still it is cold and I feel so ill. Wajapa rides ahead at times to find our way. He turns his horse or waves his arms, but there are always misunderstandings, and at last he returns shouting to us and we amble on together.

Meet two men 1/2 breed Indians, enquire our way - they on horseback armed, revolvers sticking in their belts.

We reach Turtle Creek about 1 P.M., a swift creek, clear and uninteresting. One feels the world wide and vacant.

Hea-gar, turkey buzzard - this is his month, that comes about with the cold, and that is why he wears owls on his feet because the feathers are warm. Buffalo-chip says the rabbit sometimes catches these bad birds and breaks their legs.

Buffalo-chip has been singing to the rabbit, Mush-shing-ga. Last evening Standing Bear’s horse left his own corn to go and eat from Buffalo-chip’s horse. Wajapa said it was like Standing Bear to leave his own crib to feed at others expense.

Buffalo-chip gave away many things, among others, a beaver skin, hoping to get a horse. He did get a poor one, very poor, young and mettled. This trade has been the subject of much sport – Buffalo-chip saying, I could take your this or that and give you my horse, but you would lose, so today I asked Wajapa, as he galloped up to our carriage, "How much do you think Buffalo-chip’s horse is worth?" Wajapa made no answer but deliberately drew off his mitten and held up high in air 1 finger!

"Horses do your level best

"Upon the level road"

"Is that poetry, Henry?" asked Susette.

The military road less straight, laid out only about 4 or 5 years ago, and now it is all ruts and on one or the other side lies the present road, or spreading about.

We made pretty good time - 50 miles claimed, say 35. One of our pleasantest camps, good wood, shelter, good water and long grass, like hay to lie on.

The roads are so lonely, nothing in sight but sky and undulating ground and varied tints of grass, that a tree is quite an excitement. Have not seen any game, even a prairie chicken, not here, hardly any birds. Mr. T. said nothing could live here unless supported by the Government.

Rode on over endless prairie and then drew off the road to the creek and camped. Every body ill more or less.

Folktale

We had plenty of dry wood the beavers had cut down and this made fire possible. Had a good supper of soup and then told stories. Mr. T., Fox and some grapes - Buffalo-chip told how the monkey wanted to get across and just then the Hea-gar came along and was so pestered by the monkey that he said, "Yes, yes, jump on my wings and I'll take you". So the monkey jumped on and the Hea-gar carried him high up. As the Hea-gar dipped and swooped the monkey thought he would fall. It made him dizzy and afraid and he begged the Hea-gar to let him down - but on went the bird. At last he tossed the monkey into a hollow tree and down he fell. He made such noise that some women near by, cried out, "Oh! there’s a coon in that tree, let us cut it down and get him". So they cut and cut and the monkey kept up a noise and the women said, "Oh, he is a big one, let us chop faster". By and by, the tree fell and out dumped the monkey and the women were so frightened that they ran as fast one way as the monkey did the other.

Wajapa tells a story very well - full of spirit and gesture. He lingers long on a word, indeed, all do, as, on---da, the last syllable given with a sort of snap as if broken short off. Buffalo-chip tells a story with a sort of gentle effect, dramatic, however. His voice is rather musical. He is rather romantic, his gestures are more reserved and graceful; Wajapa, energetic and full of elam [?]. Wajapa gets very cross and scolds. Buffalo-chip gets melancholy.

They wanted another story, so I told them the story of Cinderella, the German version. Susette interpreted with great spirit, and they were greatly pleased. I asked if they had no similar story, and they said "yes", for I noticed in the telling they exchanged words as if saying, and Susette said they did, "How like one we know", I am promised the Indian version.

It is odd how Indians manage. Buffalo-chip told how White Thunder bade him tell us when we were well on our way, that white men were cutting wood on the Sioux Reserve. It was said that Spotted Tail had given permission. The first day we called on White Thunder, a runner started to Sitting Bull to tell him we were coming. He gave out that Spotted Tail sent him, but, a runner receives gifts for bringing news, so it was a private speculation. The runner expects to receive moccasins and all sorts of gifts - (Human nature).

Wajapa tucked me up finely and I slept better than usual. The ground was softer on account of the long grass which made it like hay under our beds.

The hot soup and the blazing fire give me a little warmth at last and I got on better. It was strange to lie and look out of the top of the tent into a spangled roof. The tent poles like pillars - the blue tent lit up by the yellow light of the wood fire, sparks going up now and then, through the oblong opening out into the blue. These yellow sparks make the white stars look so far away, so grand and dignified and a part of something far greater than our little sparks and yet this is but apparent.

Wajapa was up at daylight and out gathering wood, moving a dim robed shadow against the eastern sky. Soon he comes in, arms filled with sticks and long boughs with twigs and threw them in the tent door, then kneeling, he turns over last night’s logs and stirs the ashes and blows the little embers. He then breaks off all the little twigs, gets his hands full and breaks them short like little slips, and these are dropped on the fire and soon a leaping blaze, some two or three feet high - then come the logs laid on like the spokes of a wheel. I lay and watch the flames and Wajapa’s profile, and listen to the snoring of the others and wonder at it all - life included.

Soon I get up and before long, all are astir. We eat breakfast. I can’t eat the dish which the others share and open a can of fruit, golden drop plums, large as peaches, and soon we are off but not till after 8 A.M.


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