Camping With the Sioux: Fieldwork Diary of Alice Cunningham Fletcher

Brule Dakota burial above ground. Rosebud Agency, South Dakota. Photograph by Jesse Hastings Bratley, 1895. Photo Lot 24, BAE 73-123 00516800

 

 

 

Three scaffold burials. Yankton Reservation, South Dakota. Photograph by William R. Cross. Photo Lot 24, BAE 4464 00530000.

 

 

 

Mounted warriors, Omaha Reservation, Nebraska. Photo Lot 24, BAE 4558, Neg. 4027.

October 23, 1881

Every one was late this Saturday morning. Wajapa mended his shoes, patching them and sewing them with sinew. He was rather dignified but industrious. He rose very early and I watched him in the dim dawn, making the fire. When the blaze from the twigs leaped up, his seamed brown face made quite a picture in the yellow light.

We breakfasted late. Philosophy, my best of friends, helped me in the midst of camp experiences. We packed up and moved off at about ten or after, my watch having run down, and after a few miles we came to the place where we were to get dinner. Wood and water available here for the last time for many miles, a high divide where we saw the camp of the Winnebagoes, when on their visit last summer - the skeletons of their tents marking the site.

Down a steep hill, on to a pretty bottom, then forded the creek and camped. It was very, very cold and when Buffalo-chip and Wajapa came up with the ponies, we were urged to camp, the weather being threatening and the next camp so far, and the horses so tired - so we camped.

The Indians made themselves scarce and Mr. T. again did the work, Buffalo-chip’s wife going on jolly and valiant, singing as she drove alone behind us.

We were hardly in the tent, were stretching the cotton cloth, when the rain came down. We bundled in and the others began to help. I ran to get the robe, which was barely dry and now threatened with a second soaking. We were soon packed in. I had, before the rain gathered some rose and columbine leaves in memory of what?

When Wajapa and Buffalo-chip came in they were studded with ice drops, for it was hailing violently.

Buffalo-chip brought in some artichokes and I ate one with relish, wiping it first on tall grass. Sometimes when I make my bed, i.e. spread my rubber and put down my bundle of bedding which I used as a seat in the day time to the ease of my much bent up knees, I fancy that I am lying in some garden, the tall grass and flowers rise at my head and feet and up between my bags and bundles. It is quite pretty. In spite of all the hardships there is much interest in the wild trip.

As I was eating, Buffalo-chip, with his shy, gentle smile, said: Once the rose and the artichoke met, and the artichoke asked the rose his name, "Oh, I’ve a very good name, a very good name, you ought to know it. Tell me your name". "My name is a great one, a very great one, you ought to know it, everybody knows it. Tell me yours". "My name is Rose, a very fine one". "And mine, Artichoke, a grand one and a chief".

"Mine is the chief, I am known everywhere, every one admires me".

"Mine is the chief, people eat of me and are pleased". So the two contended which was chief.

The rain is dripping and when it runs on the tent pole to prevent it dropping the Indians trace the line of the water to the ground. Each tent pole has a little water course.

Within the meat is frying, the men smoking, stories are telling and I am writing.

It is amazing how little rain comes through the opening at the top, over the heat of the fire converts it to steam before it descends to the blazing wood.

Buffalo-chip says he has made an oblation to the rabbit with his tobacco and when he gets to Sitting-Bull, he wants a buffalo robe. He will give one, too, to Mr. T. and to me, it is to be hoped.

When guests are on their way to visit, they tie up little bundles of Kin-a-kin-nic and send them on by a runner who takes it to the one who is to be visited. If the Indian receives the gift of kinekinic, that is a sign that he is inclined to receive visitors. If he did not want to entertain, he returns the ne-ne-ga-he, and the persons who were about to visit do not go. A convenient arrangement.

On the prairie I saw several graves. They were those of Indians who died during the winter removed from Fort Robinson to the Ponca Reservation. Hundreds died. Some of them had a cross, some were buried on platforms. The new and old religion, death claimed alike. Saw many elk horns, one several feet high, was stuck up in the ground by the roadside. S. says her father has found heads of deer or elk locked together where they died fighting.

The middle line between the wagon ruts is often very beautiful, roseberries, grains of various colors, yellow, red, white - tasseled and tufted, asters, white and yellow, the black seeds of the sunflowers. The rose berries are wonderful.

Saw dogs carrying wood, two poles tied to each side and then the wood laid across and tied on. These are Spotted-Tail’s camp.

- Omaha -

Jan. Blizzard month - No one can say any good of it.

Feb. First goose who comes to see.

Mar. The geese follow.

Apr. Good for nothing – Nothing happens.

May When grass comes.

June When the second hoeing of corn.

July Fruit month.

Aug. Buffalo month - when males hunt females.

Sept. Yellow month Elk cry. (Indian Summer).

Oct. When deer paw.

Nov. When deer shed the antlers.

Dec. When little bears are born.

The moon goes in circles and the thirteen points are named. Then the months, sometimes have two names, the named places is where she is hidden or stops.

Folktale

Pa-hun-ga, Long ago -

Once upon a time, there was a hill that swallowed all people, hunters and travelers, all who came near it. It swallowed a town, sick and the well, dead and the living. Those buried in the graves, those on platforms.

The rabbit was going along and he was in a very gay mood. His tracks were zig-zag. He was very active and merry and he came to the hill and he ate the plums for plum trees grew on the hill, and he said to the hill, "Oh, you are the hill that swallows people, I’d like to see you swallow me, try it, hill, try it". So the hill began to open its mouth and the rabbit thought it was a crack, and he hopped on and went right into the mouth of the hill and it closed its mouth and the rabbit was swallowed by the hill.

When the rabbit found itself in the hill he hopped about and looked round in the dark. Soon he began to see all the people the hill had swallowed, the sick and the well, the living and the dead, and he looked at them and they were hungry and he said, "Why don’t you eat?" and he cut off the liver and gave it to the people to eat, and he cut out the lungs and last the heart, and the hill groaned, "Agh! agh!" When its heart was cut out it couldn’t keep its mouth shut and so it opened and all the people walked out and went back to their homes.

And the Rabbit went home and told his grandmother. "Oh, I have killed the hill that swallowed all the people and rescued them all". "No, you couldn’t do that, don’t tell me such a story". "Yes, I have, and I am going out again". "No, you must not". But the Rabbit slipped out and he saw a number of people circling about and they looked so finely that the Rabbit thought it would be nice to join them in the sport. So he told his grandmother and said he was going, but she said, "No, no, they are trying to kill you". "Oh, no, they are jolly men". But the grandmother went out to get wood and the Rabbit slipped off to where the men were and he jumped into a tuft of grass and hid there. The hunters circled about and one saw him and said, "Oh, here are his tracks", and then he made believe he did not see him. "Oh, I’ve lost him, he ran way off here", and then the man went away until he got off far enough to take aim and he shot an arrow at the animal and struck him, and when the Rabbit felt the arrow, he ran and ran as fast as ever he could and came to his grandmother. "Oh," said he, "I’m wounded, ah! ah!" The grandmother mocked him and said, "Why didn’t you follow my advice". and treated him and drew out the arrow. Bye and bye he got well.

He said, "Oh, I want to have a bow and arrow, all the men had them and even the little boys". "Go to your uncles and ask for them, perhaps he will give them to you". He went and cried and they said, "Why do you cry?" "Oh, I want something". "What?" "I want a bow and arrow and sinew". So they pleased him and gave him the bow and arrows. On his way home he shot at a stump, and shot at a stone and at last came home well pleased with his skill. "Oh, grandmother, call all the animals to a feast of acorns". So she called the deer and the elk and all came. As they came he shot the three elk and the two deer and then his arrows were gone and he cried, "Oh, grand mother send them away", - so she sent them away and some acorns were left. Then he went out hunting and found two elk sleeping and he ran home and said; "Oh, grandmother, I’ve killed two elks, burn the old tent, we’ll have a new one from the skins", and when the grandmother burned the tent she started off to skin the elk, but they waked up as she came near and ran off, and the Rabbit cried, "Oh, grandmother, save the tent", but it was too late, so they went off and the Rabbit lived near a camp, and one day he got a turkey and he was very hungry and wanted it all, so he said to his grandmother, "I am going to have a council and you will not, of course, be present, and you must make a small tent and go into it, and I advise you to shut your eyes too, for you must not be seen or see any one". So the grandmother made herself a tent and went in and covered up her head. The Rabbit had cooked the turkey and was alone in the tent with the food but he pretended that many came to see him. He would talk in varied voices, say, "How" in reply and flap the tent cloth and knock the stick, and the grandmother would say, "How many people come to see my grandson, how much he is honored, what fine things are said to him".

All this while the Rabbit was quite alone, gobbling up the turkey as fast as he could, lest his grandmother should find out his trick. Bye and bye, when all was eaten up but the bones, he made believe that his visitors were gone and went and called his grandmother and told her what a fine time he had had, and that now she could come and get what there was to eat, and the grandmother believed all his words and tricks.

One day some of the women came and asked the grandmother to go with them to dig turnips and when the Rabbit heard them he lay down and rolled on the tent floor and groaned, "Oh, ugh, ugh!" and said he was so very sick, and the grandmother as she looked at him said, "I can’t go, the tent can’t be left alone and he is too sick to leave here". The old women said, eyeing him, "He isn’t sick, it is only one of his tricks", so he rolled the faster and kicked and groaned and cried as if in great pain, and the grandmother refused to leave him and the women went off.

After they had been gone a little while, he began to get better and as the time lengthened he got decidedly better and said, "I think I'll go and hunt", so in spite of his grandmother's wonderment, he started and stealthily followed the old women. When he got near them he jumped suddenly and they were frightened and ran, leaving their turnips, then he at once hid away and then carried them off to his tent. When the women came back their turnips were gone and one of them said, I think it was the Rabbit, so they went back to his tent. When the Rabbit heard them coming he lay down and pretended to be sick, having first hid away the turnips, but he had not quite hid all, so when the old women came they saw some and immediately accused the Rabbit of the theft. The grandmother, however, protected him and said, "Really I don’t think he has been out since you left, Oh, no, he has not". But these were the turnips and one old woman declared, she recognized them as the ones she had dug herself. The grandmother persisted, and so you see she told lies as well as her mischievous grandchild.

The Indians point with their lips, tossing up their chin in the direction they would indicate, and loosing their lips.

The Indian ponies cluster about one, coming around as dogs. If anything unusual occurs, they paw and whinney.

This A.M, October 24, 1881, Sunday [sic], the horses came tramping over the ice and snow, making a fearful noise, but no one wakened. They even tried to enter the tent. Buffalo-chip stirred and I spoke, and he called out to the horses. Last night they fixed them in the tall grass, like a stable almost, and there they stayed at night breasting the storm.

The tent is stiff with frost and snow. It is cold and desolate.

Mr. T. put a stop to my questions about painting of faces. S. was asking Buffalo-chip about the painting of faces and Mr. T. broke in and said, "They paint according to their fancy, it means nothing at all. That’s the truth". "If you keep on asking Buffalo-chip questions he’ll tell you all manner of stuff. Of course if you want to fix a theory, why that is one thing - the truth is another. I’ve lived twenty years among the Indians and I know, and I’ve asked and that is all".

I said, I wanted to ask certain things, he shouted in, "I tell you there’s nothing, I know, I tell you. Some tribes will use more black, some more red". "According to your own account, then, painting is not simple fancy, but as you say some tribes use more of one color than another". - and more arrogant talk. Of course further interpretation on the part of his wife, was impossible, so I could not go on.

This A.M., I asked for the continuation of the story of last eve. He broke in, "There is no end. There are 40,000 stories about the rabbit" and so it goes. Well, "Experience is a dear schoolmaster, and fools will learn in no other". I am a fool.

The snow lies in ridges on the stricken grass, which falls right and left in a woeful manner. Life is so full of dread contrasts. Today it seems as though my heart would ache itself out of my body. Why can’t I die?

Women make packs of hides and paint them, putting the various colors in separate dishes and painting with sticks, some 8 or 10 inches long, pointed at one end. The Sioux use yellow, red and black colors.

Wajapa says he prefers the beaver to all other animals, they build dams and work like men!

Buffalo-chip was given, by Mr. T. one of S’s. photos. He sang the song of thanks which is sung when horses are given and received.

The sinew thread is twisted between the palms of the hands, wet with saliva and pointed with the teeth and fingers. Holes are made with an awl and then the thread put through.

Buffalo-chip has gone off to hunt his horses and taken his gun. He said when he had been gone some time, I must sing. "Ah, that he may find many animals". He asked the Rabbit for game and which is best he will be sent on the way of.

Ga-ha has a little trunk about a foot or so square. This is her work box and treasure chest. She carries its key together with two others on a red string which she loops onto her girdle - says she values this trunk more than anything else.

Read in "The Word" and in "Heaven and Hell" How wonderful it seems in these surroundings and yet not apart from them, the Grace of the Lord is in the modesty, kindliness, faithfulness of Ga-ha, and in the struggling manhood of Wajapa, and in the courteous, kindness, and tenacity of Buffalo-chip, and in S. and Mr. T., all different and yet bearing the Lord’s signet.

For me - only - "Alas! Ichebod".

Yesterday the artichoke which they brought in was unearthed near a ground squirrel’s nest. Buffalo-chip brought in a few of which I had one. Today, as I had expressed the wish for more, Wajapa went to look for them. The little mound, some six inches in diameter where the roots were stored, was empty. The little squirrels fearing their winter supply was about to disappear, had worked all night in the storm and carried all the artichokes into their nest. This little one is all that remained. It looks like a little bird head piping out the tale of industry, cleverness and pitilessness of the human race. S. said, "I am glad they didn’t take more and couldn’t get them today. Are you not, Miss F?" They all speak of animals as though of kindred.

The Rabbit and the Hagar had an argument about the weather. The Hagar wanted it to freeze and snow, but the Rabbit wanted good weather. The Rabbit won, so we will have good weather until the moon gets little next month, then there will be plenty of snow.

It is beautifully clear tonight. I went up on the hill and looked over the wide silent prairie and rolling lands. The clear sun of yellow and red and the little blue tent was as good as any home, since all life holds dear, is gone. So the wide earth is alike home and homeless. The silence is wonderful - no railroad for a hundred or more of miles, no tremble of travel - a silence unknown, unattainable in the east or where white men congregate. Amen!

The Rabbit rules the weather. Every time Buffalo-chip smokes he smokes the Rabbit for good things at Sitting Bull’s. Wajapa says the Rabbit has issued the word - Good-Weather - and he told all the little groundlings to lay in store and the beavers also, to go to work.

When Buffalo-chip was a boy and living with the Sioux in the Black Hills, they were hunting buffalo, where there are two hills which are called the Deer-ears. There were some Indians come on the war path. One of the Indians who came in from the chase climbed onto one of the hills and took a spy glass. Some one had scared the buffalo but as he looked he saw people coming toward the fleeing buffalo and the leader wore a headdress of a fox and the nose of the fox pointed right out. They were working to come right between the forked hills but they did not know the country, the trees circling around the creek and every one of the Sioux were busy gathering their horses and as the Indians came on, the Sioux were circling round and surrounded them. One of the hills was very stony.

But when night came, the Sioux set fire all round for the Indian’s war party were fully surrounded and their fires showed it to the war party, but they thought they could throw down stones from one of the rocky hills so they mounted the hill and found it.

A young brave thought he would win great honor so he aimed to get to the top of the hill before light and strike the war party with his bow, a great disgrace to the war party, but he did not reach the camp until daylight, when he was discovered and shot and killed, so his bravery came to an end.

There then was the war party on this hill, isolated from food and water. For two days they fought, the Sioux using bow and arrows and the war party returning the shooting and rolling heavy stones. At the end of two days, all were dead of the ten or twelve men - dead from wounds or thirst. Upon the man they charged and he drove his assailants for a long time. At last he was killed.

Small parties stealing horses. Some ten years since. The Santees stole half the Omahas’ horses. About ten or twelve years the Otoes had been visiting the Omahas, and just after they left, the Kaws made a raid and stole horses. The Omahas thought it was the Otoes and a negro led a retaliating party against the Otoes and captured their horses. The Otoes turned and captured the Omahas and forced them to return the horses, but as the two tribes were at peace and it was a mistake, they laughed at them and let them off. These Omahas have never heard the last of the capture.

Indians are fond of bantering and playing practical jokes. Our camp witnesses this.

Standing Elk killed Logan. Logan married Wajapa’s sister. Seven years since, the Omahas, Poncas, Pawnees were all out on the hunt. The Omahas were chasing buffalo, south of the camp. The Poncas and Pawnees were chasing buffalo, north of the camp. The camp on the move, 1000 buffalo. The Sioux came on the Poncas and Pawnees and each one was shot down singly. The Sioux killed this way. The Poncas and Pawnees did not know the Sioux were fighting for the Sioux were circling about as though chasing.

The Sioux did not come on the camp or they would have been killed, being weary. Wajapa was with the Poncas. S.’s. father, mounted on his horse, Jack, had just shot a buffalo and was butchering it when a man came up and said, "Stop, the Sioux are on us, leave your meat". Wajapa did not load his meat on the horse, but went back to protect the camp.

White Thunder had horse killed under him. He was stunned by the fall. Pawnees lost several. Sioux retreated. Some hurt. Republican, Sioux surprised the Winnebago, Sioux caught two men and flogged them. S. remembered a hunt when Sioux surprised them - the dead brought in, women wailed and rang little bells. S. asked her mother "What do they ring for?" and her mother said, "Some of their relatives are killed by the Sioux". S. remembers seeing two Winnebago women with a naked boy in their laps, the boy dying and the camp moving on.

Buffalo-chip said, he was never brave but once, then in a fight with the Sioux all retreated and he was left to face the 60. He was on a bank when the men advanced on him. He stood and faced them. He had his gun and pointed it at the first man that moved. Three men tried to advance. They could not flank him but they tried. One was on a yellow horse, one on a gray, one on a bay. At last he shot the man on the yellow horse through the foot and killed the gray horse and the 60 horsemen turned and left him. He was probably the war leader who must give his life if needful.

He and his wife in a canoe on the Missouri river. He had heavy clothes and he sank. Some one came to his help and saved him but his wife struck out for shore. His clothes weighed him down.

Buffalo-chip tells a story well. Changes his voice and his gestures and all are wonderful. Once he was with a camp and he lagged behind and then was taken sick - would go a little way and lie down to rest. He fainted and when he came to, no one was to be seen.

He knew nothing of God, but he prayed to God all the time, then he fed himself with water and at the end of the three days, he was found on the hill nearly dead. He had been missed and some returned to look for him.

- A touching story -

S.’s mother tells of one Omaha woman, who on a hunt was supposed to die. They left her sitting under a tree, burying her thus. A month after she appeared in the camp. Her nose was disfigured and her cheek also. She told how she knew nothing till she felt her toes hurting her and she stood and there were the birds knawing at her toes. They had bitten her nose, &c. For a month she lived on nuts and water and found her way back.

Wajapa was on the hunt when the two men were flogged, and when the Omahas gave chase to punish the Sioux for the insult, he found that he got on a horse that would not go and his valorous spirit had a check on the obstinacy of the animal.

Folktale

Buffalo-chip’s grandmother, nearly 100 years old, told this story which her husband knew.

Once a tribe living far to the north made war on the Poncas and took a woman captive. In a few months she gave birth to a boy. The woman who had her in charge was of high position. After she had been there four years and her boy 3 1/2, one day the tribe were dancing and singing, and the woman said to the captive, "I am sorry for you, do you know what that is? It is your dirge. They are going to kill you, but I mean to save you. You must do just as I say". So she gave her a good outfit of clothes, a young buffalo skin, some sinew, some pounded buffalo meat and some pieces of skin to make moccasins, when those she fitted them out with should be gone. These things she gave her and said: "The hunt for you will last four days. Every night you must travel and in the day time hide in the grass or wherever you can. After the fourth day you will be safe". She took the woman cautiously, while all the tribe were dancing, out into the woods, and then she dug a hole and put the woman and her child in it and covered it up with boughs and bade her stay there and be very still. Then she went back and when the dance was over, she ran among the people and said, "Oh, help me, the captive woman has slipped from me. Help me hunt her". So they all ran and hunted all that day and the woman could hear them shouting as she cowered in her hole. Night came on and she did as her benefactor had bidden her. She crept out and traveled all that night. At day break, she dug a hole in the tall grass and covered it so that no one would know it was there, and all day she held her boy close, while the hunters circled about her, looking for her everywhere. Again at night she traveled, keeping steadily south, and the next day she hid, being at times in imminent peril. That night under the stars, she went on. The little boy walked as fast and as long as he could, and then the mother would put him on her back and push on, on, on. The fourth day she heard little noise, and after a day more of hiding, she traveled on by day.

All she knew was that her home was in the south and she said to her son, "Keep a sharp lookout for two pointed hills, when we see those I shall know my country". And the boy looked, but all that summer, they traveled and saw not the two sharp pointed hills. She gathered herbs and fruits and they slept and ate with the birds and the little groundlings. Winter came on. Their clothes were in tatters - their skin used up in making moccasins, and still the longed for hills were as yet invisible. One day they came near to a river and there she saw buffalo, and as she came nearer she saw that a pack of wolves had driven a buffalo out from the herd and were trying to kill it. She hid herself and watched. When the wolves had slain the animal, she rushed out, drove off the wolves and captured the prize. She cut up the meat and dried it. She dried the skin and prepared the sinew and saved every bit of the animal. Then she built her self a house of boughs and earth and she and her boy lived all the winter by this river. Then the spring came, she once more started for the south. She had made fresh clothing and as their meat gave out, the fruits and herbs afforded them sustenance. She passed on. Every day she talked to her boy about the hills, and every day they looked in vain. The grass was turning from green to gold and the days and nights were colder, the clothing too, was wearing away and the feet bare once more still the mother pushed on with her boy, now a year and a half older than when they started away from death. One day, the boy who had run up a little hill came flying back and said, "Oh, Mother, I think I have seen the hills, let us hurry", and she climbed with all speed the short and steep hill before them, and there, on the hazy blue of the horizon were the two little points and she said, "Yes, I think those are the hills", so she plucked up fresh courage and pushed on. Day after day the points grew taller and taller until at last they stood out stark against the clear blue sky. On she pushed and she said, "This is my country", and they walked and walked but no sign of human habitat met their view. When she captured the buffalo, she made the little boy a bow and arrows of sinew and stick and pointed bone. He learned to shoot birds and ground squirrels for their food.

(The hills were the buttes of Fort Randall. I sketched them at Keyapaha, we sighted them this morning. They are now on the other side of us.)

At last she came to a stream, and she said, "Yes, this is my country". "Let us wash in the creek", and she and the little boy bathed in the clear running water. They were quite hid by the bushes and did not know they were at the ford. Now it chanced, two Indians were passing and one said, "I hear splashing in the water and he peeped through the bushes and started back. It is a woman and child and I think the woman is your sister". "That is impossible, she died long ago after she was taken captive". But the less incredulous friend looked again. "It is her or her ghost". At this the other peeped, stopped in wonderment. "It is my sister, I thought dead". He made himself known to her and took her home. The boy grew, became a great hunter and in time a chief in the tribe.


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