Camping With the Sioux: Fieldwork Diary of Alice Cunningham Fletcher

 

October 8, 1881

Bed harder than ever. Clear weather. Wajapa sprang up at daybreak and shouted, and waked those who slept. A train of wagons had come on in the night and camped not far from us. Buffalo-chip went out and sang to the Rabbit. He sings a queer little soto voce song when he rises. I can't be sure whether he faces east or west, or is not particular in any way. He has tied up his hair in a queu. He is quite sentimental.

I am source of great interest. My toilet, meager as it is, seems very elaborate to her. The words I say afford great pleasure. When my bundle of bedding is brought in she hastens to untie it and put away the cord. When I make my bed she sticks in straw between ground and tent. Last evening the talk was still of Doc Middleton and his men. The Indians seem very fearful of white men and now they fear the Sioux. Our unarmed condition seems to annoy Wajapa. In the evening the camp fire was outside. The picture was beautiful. The prairie all about us had been burned lately and was a deep green from the new grass. Off to one side was the tall grass, contrasting in red, yellow and brown, the brilliant colors still lingering in the west. The full moon mantled in fleecy, pearl clouds, the blue tent, the dark colored wagon, the fire leaping up and the circle. S’s profile as she sat peeling potatoes, Buffalo-chip’s wife flat on the ground frying breadcakes, Wajapa kneeling, his face toward the fire talking and gesticulating, Buffalo-chip standing erect wrapped in his dark blue blanket, his long hair falling about his face, his eyes brilliant. It was a memorable scene.

The date made it more so to me. Years ago we were planning crossing the plains, for me the reality is here - a strange contrast between hope and reality. Our road lay over boundless prairies - the grass when tall looked like clumps of trees. I thought I saw a stake, as I looked I discerned that the stake had a slender bottom that came down and soon I concluded that it was not on the horizon but near by, looking longer and coming nearer - the stake proved to be a spear of tall coarse grass.

Miles on miles and as S. says, "Not a thing to be seen". S. kept singing the colored jubilee songs, "No man can hinder me". We assured her that there was "No man". I kept telling S. to look well for there was not a thing to be seen. She asked "How far is it?" "Is what?" "Why there’s nothing to be seen, as far as you can see."

We concluded the monotony of the prairie was turning all our heads. We laughed at nothing. Wajapa had gone on ahead, he grew less and less till he looked like a grass blade. After miles we neared him, he said he saw people and wanted the glass. After awhile we saw them. Great excitement, like meeting a ship at sea. The Indians were afraid, came near us. It proved a freight train from the fort - quiet folk, enough.

A hateful place, full of dead horses and cattle skeletons, torn apart by wolves, hides remaining. Big grasshoppers, bugs of all sorts, mosquitoes, vileness generally.

Here, last winter some runaway soldiers killed the officers sent after them. Murder haunts the place. Here the Indians used to war, lurking in the gulches, peeping over the top of the banks. "Should have been fighting yet" Wajapa says, "If the white man had not come".

Mrs. T. found a bundle of soldier’s clothing in the gulch back of our last camp –Rotten - belongs to some of the murdered men. Here women have been killed. We all vote the place "Pe-a-zha". Men call it Rock Spring. Lots of cans from meat and potatoes.

Wajapa rode off because he heard voices, could find no one. The Indians full of dire stories. The horses even dislike the place.

We reached our camp at 5.30 P.M. Pines in the deep gulch, behind our camp. Table shaped foldings formed the gulch. Pines and bare bluffs of white clay contrasted with the deep green of pines and yellows and browns and deep green grass. The road to the camp diverged from main road - none but a pioneer traveler would understand it. The road was plain (for this country), when we reached the camping ground in a few feet it was literally gone. At this point the common consent of travel cleared and each one struck out to camp where his individual fancy led him.

I was in raptures over the pines, so were the Indians to whom it was new wood and scenery. In the evening by the camp fire Buffalo-chip sang me a little song, queer, recitative, rapid, with humorous gestures and expression, but all as if to a child, quite simple and cunning. S. translated, she laughed heartily at the song.

Folktale

"Two little coons went out to walk, they were fat little coons and bye and bye they came to the water where the crayfish live, They said, Let us lie down and play we are dead. Something very good may happen. So the two fat little coons lay down, side by side, soon a little crawfish came along softly, very softly and looked at the two little coons so fat and fair, and the crawfish went and told his companions and said, "There lie the two little coons so fat and fair and yet all dead. Let us sing their death song and dance their death dance", So the little crawfish made a circle and danced and sang about the little fat coons who had died so young. In the midst, up jumped the coons and ate up all the crawfish before they could recover from their wonder and fright, all but one little one who ran away and told this tale."

Wajapa and the Avenger were the last in camp and we jested him. We called him a bad New-don-o-ga &c. &c.

Wood was gathered from a distance, the three Indians carrying, the woman only taking it on her back. Water brought from far off too. The supper was inside the tent. I was tired and my philosophy a little weary so I could eat almost nothing. Rough and horrid - To bed and to sleep though the earth was hard indeed.


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