Camping With the Sioux: Fieldwork Diary of Alice Cunningham Fletcher

 

Monday, October 24, 1881

I started off alone and walked up the hill. Boundless prairie met my view. Prairie chickens rose at the sound of my steps - saw footprints. One can easily see how these people notice them so well, there is a sort of companionship in them and in the midst of the wonderful solitude.

Burnt prairie - Can see the many Indian trails, a sort of flat smeared streak over the tufted buffalo grass. Debris of white men over the trail, old clothes, tin cans &c.

Wajapa said that as we rose to start early the first one who wakened was to wake the others. As usual, I wakened first, but I couldn’t start the fire and it was very cold -everything frozen and my robe wet with my breath. Soon Mr. T. roused and stirred up the embers, pushed up the logs and we had a blaze, after much blowing. I rose at once and when nearly dressed, suggested that I waken the Indians. He agreed.

Wajapa had said that a white horse should be given him at Fort Randall. A white horse is a lucky gift. This he said the night of the Cinderella story, so I sang out, "De-ga-ba, shong-ga skar". He laughed and bye and bye after many shouts arose.

Buffalo-chip and his wife were really troubled yesterday because S. threw salt on the fire. "It would surely bring bad weather".

Many little birds are homeless on the burnt prairie. As we rode hundreds, if not thousands of buffalo birds flew over the prairie, flying not more than three or four feet from the ground, their wings flashing in the sunlight and looking like a flurry of driving snow. It was wonderful to watch them against the horizon.

This A.M., I started ahead to block out the sketch of the camp and "The Mother’s Ford", as I want the place called. I waited long and then saw that the buggy and team had started on, so I pushed on to the next hill. Here I waited long. At last the team rounded the top of the hill and S. was driving and Ga-ha in my usual place. Mr. T. had Buffalo-chip’s wagon. We all changed and then I heard the usual wonderful stories. Wajapa’s horse’s back had been lanced, to the marvel of every body, &c. &c.

As we passed on we presented an odd appearance for everything and body straggled. It was 2.30 when we reached the camping place. Wajapa coming in late, leading the horse he had been riding and was used up.

Our fire was made in a hole, the wind blowing, and I ate bread and apricots, sour and horrid - and drank wretched coffee. The management of food is being poor in many ways. Things are getting so disagreeable that I hardly know how to get on at all.

Soldiers have camped here. We see the stakes where they lariated their horses and the square where their tents were placed and banked.

A boundless prairie where the buttes just peering over the southern horizon, on the north, a deep irregular folding ravine where there is wood and water - a queer place in the opening. I see the opposite bluffs of the Missouri. Nobody knows when we shall reach Fort Randall.

The summer camping place fraught with unpleasant association. It was rather hard with the Buttes in sight, which had been guiding the toiling captive mother back to her home, to learn that on this site, which soldiers frequent a party of them once surprised a number of women digging the wild turnip. The Indian women were surrounded as men surround game and the soldiers shot at them, aiming at their foreheads as game are aimed at. Many of these women were killed. The Poncas rose to avenge their death but were with difficulty prevailed upon to let the insult pass.

Another time some soldiers decoyed and betrayed some Indians they had induced to travel with them. At this point the soldiers turned on the Indians and killed them all.

Our dinner was cooked in the fire made in a hole that the wind might not scatter it over the prairie. Ga-ha put up the tent cover to shield us from the wind, sinking the pole and tying the center of the tent cover to it and spreading out the ends as wings. Just there were the marks of soldier’s tents, some five of them square, the earth thrown up a little so as to bank the tents. The stakes where the horses were tied were seen.

So with the records written in the earth, treasured in the memory, I sat there a stranger, yet at home.

At a little after 3 P.M., we went on. Buffalo-chip said that beyond where we saw two rounded hills, the road forked, left road led to Fort Randall, the right to Ponca Reservation. It was long past dark when we reached the forks. The sunset clear and the silver crescent of the moon, jeweled the golden rims - stars came out.

At dinner we noticed a prairie fire that seemed to have started just after we had left the long prairie. Buffalo-chip and Wajapa thought the Yanktons had let their camp "fire get out". The smoke formed a circle about the heavens and burnt grass cinders fell all about us, brought forward by the wind. At night the clouds were lowering and the line of fire at their base made a strange contrast to the quiet of the sky. About 9 P.M. we camped. Buffalo chip thinking Wajapa, who was behind with his horse and one of Buffalo-chip’s colts, might be lost, so Mr. T. and Buffalo-chip went off to hunt wood and water. Some water was found in a rut in the road, but no wood.

I had a can of corned beef opened in spite of sulky remarks and ate my first meat with a bit of dry bread, but drank no water and then to bed as quickly as possible. I slept tolerably after I got warm. My cold is very bad and I suffer for lack of opportunity to wash.

In the morning Buffalo-chip and Wajapa went to hunt wood and found it was near by but in the night we could not find it.

As I near the hope of letters I more and more wonder what of the future.

Am pleased with Ga-ha, but I notice that teasing and practical joking is the general rule. Our rudenesses are the holdovers of barbarous life.

I told S. to tell Buffalo-chip that I was going to try and have the ford at the Ponca river, the only real ford after Turtle Creek, named, The Mother’s Ford. Susette thought a moment and then said, "I can’t put that into Indian, for I can’t say Mother without saying your mother or his mother or her mother &c." I tell them if it were called, "His Mother’s Ford, it means nothing to them". So the touch of poetry can’t be conveyed.


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