Camping With the Sioux: Fieldwork Diary of Alice Cunningham Fletcher

Drawing of Ponca-Sioux battle by To-tay-go-nai (Standing Buffalo). Photograph by A. Zeno Shindler, 1858. BAE GN 4243, Inv. 06681600.

 

October 4, 1881

Rose not very early – cloudy, but think it wont rain, and will push on. This A.M. at breakfast , a royal one of eggs, potatoes, fried in butter, coffee and white bread. We were told by Wajapa that the Sioux were a very different people from the Poncas and Omahas. They lived only one family in a tent by themselves. S. put in, "Isn't that funny?". There is a strange ancient feud. The Poncas and Omahas have broken away - The meaning of Dakotah [sic] is, "The Man", and there is much to indicate that the Sioux are the mother tribe.

The scene at breakfast was very queer - and it takes philosophy. The tin cups are strung on a bit of rag and so kept together. Tufts of grass are used for cleansing fingers, dishes and what not. Buffalo-chip helped his wife some. Wajapa is quite attentive at times.

The road is fearful at times, mud, steep pitches and hills - get out to walk.

Posted a letter at Red Bud City? - A town consisting of a store or two. This is the last store for some thirty miles or more.

Paddock, named for Senator P. - one had a store that is moved and I saw but three houses scattered over a mile. None within sight. Wajapa riding along discovered watermelons. Mr. T. jumped on Wajapa's horse and found they had grown up from dropped seed. The land all sand hills and mud.

The woman where we camped on Tuesday night came to see us in the evening. When asked about Fort Randall, where her husband had gone she said they had "Nigger soldiers there. When they got on their uniforms, they look so clean and nice just as a picket fence". A new comparison and quite apt.

We passed sod house, the asters growing over the sides, peeping into the windows and nodding in beauty on every side.

Steep hills, passed belief honor. S. and I got out. At last we met two herders and they told us two miles and there was a good camping place down a steep hill. We knew the hill when we got to it and S. and I jumped from the wagon, leaving Mr. T. to drive the horses down. The mare came near balking. At the bottom we decided not to camp but go on further where the land was dryer. Then after a mile or two we pulled up on a pretty valley, the bluffs of the Niobrara showing in the distance and the wooded banks of the stream making a pretty outlined background for our blue and white tent.

Our tent is blue at the upper part a strip of white at the lower and back part.

Tomorrow we will get to Spotted Tail’s without further storm. There has been rain enough, he is tired of it. This from his divining.

A prairie fire last night off to the west, lighting up the whole heaven. One dreads them after our camp experience.

Wajapa under my direction makes a checker board on the top of my box, using his figures for first time, I reading in Mr. Riggs' book. I stop to help and Mr. and Mrs. T. take my book from my lap and read it, while I am idle. All queer and odd to me. Play checkers and [?] with Wajapa and Mr. and Mrs. T., Buffalo-chip looking on.

The women, in entering the tent give a sort of dive down and then up, like the swoop of a bird. to the water. With some this is very graceful. I have to stoop and hitch in and out while those to the manor born dip and slip in and out as though the air has some limpid element and favored the passage through the low pointed arch way.

In the evening, more stories - Wajapa by my side all gesture and animation.

Folktale

A long time ago there lived an orphan boy with his old grandmother and he had four dogs. Not far from them in a great forest beside a river was a large village. Every morning this lad could hear the people wailing, and he asked his grandmother why the people cried and she said because the God with the seven heads had claimed the chief’s daughter and they felt so badly to give her up. The youth said, "Why don’t some one kill the god with the seven heads?". "Hush! he will hear you and some terrible thing will happen". The youth said no more, but next morning, very early he went off with his dogs to where the god with the seven heads, by a great big lake, and his bows and arrows were very poor, but he fought and fought, and the dogs fought, and the youth killed one of the heads, he cut off the tongue and came home with it. The next day he went again and fought and killed another head, and so on until he killed four of the heads. These were the most powerful, only the weak ones were left, so that the god with the seven heads could only impotently wag them and his tail was powerless - could only wiggle. Now there was a black man who greatly desired to marry the chief’s daughter and he knew what the youth was doing, so he followed after him every morning and cut off the beard that grew over the chin of the god with the seven heads and told the people as he showed them the hairs, that he was saving the chief’s daughter. The people were very grateful and made a feast. Now the morning of the first day of the feast, Wa-hon-ne-ge told one of his dogs to go and bring away the portion set apart for the black man. The dog did so, and on his way home made himself invisible, so no one could tell whither he went, and they wondered greatly. The second, third and fourth day, he did the same, but on the fourth day he told the dog to let himself be seen. So the people ran after the dog and came to the house where Wa-hon-ne-ge lived. When he heard them coming, he knew they were very angry but he threw out the tongues one after another at them. When the people saw the tongues they knew that the black man was not the real hero and Wa-hon-ne-ge married the daughter, ruled over the people.

Picture the scene, the flaring fire, the leaping sparks, up into the dark night - Buffalo-chip leaning back, smoking, his long pipe resting on the ground - His wife lying down, her moccasined feet nestling under his, her brown arms thrown up over her head, the brass bracelets glittering in the flashing firelight. The gleam of her eyes, her red painted hair seam and dingy dress - Buffalo-chip’s long hair and brilliant eyes.

Wajapa’s gleaming face and violent gestures, his earnest manner - Susette with hand around her knees, looking very handsome as she interprets the story. Mr. T. by her side, his arm about her. I was in the center, back part on my bundle of bedding.


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