Camping With the Sioux: Fieldwork Diary of Alice Cunningham Fletcher

Ma-choo-e-sa-sa, our prettiest camp

 

 

 

Fort Niobrara

October 9, 1881

Up at daybreak - Sketched our pretty camp. Wajapa threw away his old moccasins. He has mended and mended them, linen thread amounts to nothing, only sinew holds. My work basket furnished none. He called us to witness that those moccasins were to be our fore runners. They would tell all the news. Then Buffalo-chip came and stood at the door of the tent and sang a song, improvising as he went on, of which the moccasins would tell. First they would reach the Poncas and tell how the bad water made us sick and couldn’t eat or sleep - then how the horses got sore, and so on, and so on. Each refrain ending with Heigh ho! in a queer little shout and turn.

My sketch of the place gave great pleasure. Wah-ta-oo-da were said by all. Ga-ha gave me a friendly tap.

To name the camp which has no name was next in order and so Buffalo-chip said it should be called the place where Wajapa threw away his moccasins.

Near here an Indian girl committed suicide, hanging herself with a rawhide around her neck and to a tree and throwing herself over a gulch. Orphan, lived with aunt and uncle. Buffalo-chip was in her tent when the aunt scolded the girl (15 years old). She was to fix the cord by which they hang kettles, she did all she was told and then ended her life.

Men and women among the Indians commit suicide, one man, who loved his wife, because she scolded him. The woman who became blind after her husband’s death. They are resourceless. S. is always afraid in the dark and I think the Indians are timid from our standpoint.

Soapweed they use for matches, carry whole bunches of the sticks and then rubbing them to make fire, has long pods.

Yesterday a wolf crossed the path we had gone round to head Mud Creek. Wajapa went through, the horse sank to his belly. Wajapa said, that only that, only that. I laughed so at his story of the Fox but the wolf I met yesterday would have done the same thing doubtless. He told me this story:

Folktale

Once the Fox said to the Coon, "Friend, how is it that you are so fat and glossy?" "Why, it is this way, when a band are going along to war I get in their way, then when they are passing I lie down as if I were dead, and, the warriors seeing me say, "See what a fat coon, let us take him along, he will make a good supper". So they take me up and put me on the teepee where all their corn is carried, and then while I lie there, I eat all I want. Then I have my fill, then I drop out on the trail and away I go till the next time".

"That is a clever thing to do, I will try it". "Do", said the coon. One day a band went by and the fox bethought him of the Coon’s plan of getting a hearty meal, so he lay down on the path and the warriors said, "How! See this fox, let us take him along". So they lifted him, after first binding his legs and put him on the teepee, and the men pushed on. The fox was very uncomfortable, he could neither eat or move and he lay there on his side lamenting, "Oh! when will they untie me, when will they untie me". He did not dare to move, but bye and bye he ached so hard that thinking no one was near he wiggled his little feet to rest himself but a warrior saw him and cried, "How, he’s alive" and he killed the fox. The coon watched all this from afar and he wagged his head and said, "Forever and forever he can never pay me back for this trick."

Folktale

Wajapa told another story:

One day he was passing along thinking very hard. He went on by a pool of clear placid water that lay at the foot of some plum trees. Without lifting his head he said, as the beautiful red plums caught his eye, "Ugh! plums, I’ll stop thinking and eat." So he put down his head to nip off the plums, but water filled his mouth and nose. He retreated and sneezed and sneezed, then he advanced again, yes, there were the plums, so he made another dive still he sneezed and sneezed but he went back again and again, till he was so tired and lay down and fell asleep. As he slept some ants came along and thinking he was dead, ate out his eye. When he awakened he could not see the plums for the ants had eat out the eye on the side next to the plum trees. "That is queer" said the fox, "I'll go and find those plums". So he traveled on and on, and then he saw some plums. This time he was looking up. "Ough!" said he, " but I'll have those", and he pulled out his one eye and threw it up to knock down the plums. As he lay there helpless and [?] the ants came up and got into the sockets of his eyes and killed him, and the fox died.

In these tales Wajapa, Buffalo-chip and his wife are as interested as possible, putting in little touches and reminding the speaker. The bracelets of Ga-ha gleamed in the firelight as she rests her face on her hand. She looks very odd mixing bread in her bracelets and rings. She laughs a great deal. All their teeth are regular and short like those in skulls taken from graves.

All the A.M. for 3 1/2 hours over boundless prairie, suddenly at the top of a little rise, saw a peculiar stretch of land, sharp outlines, deep gullies with pine timber scattered over it. On over rises and deserts till we sighted the Niobrara, green and rapid below bluffs of pale, cream colored clay banks with pine, cotton wood and elm trees fringing the border, contrast of dark green and yellow against the bluff and blue sky, very fine.

Fearful hills - S. and I got out, struck the road that leads to the ford and bridge, but Mr. T. thought we were wrong. He and Buffalo-chip had gone on another road. Wajapa came back for us as we must cross – lot over grass and gullies and around draws. Mr. T. mounted the horse and went to the bridge to inquire and we concluded to go that way as the fords were deep and we fear Buffalo-chip’s wagon will stick. So we cross to the tune of $1.75. I told the man he must make a great deal of money. Had very little travel he said, very little travel. I thought he would at such rates. Asked what the bridges cost. $150.00 - Good per cent on his investment.

Mr. T. said it was a low gambling place. It is six miles from the Fort on the Sioux Reservation. No state of military rule can touch them, they are under the Interior Department.

A soldier and a woman on horseback came down there. She has green habit, wears braids down her back.

Buffalo-chip’s wife gathered gum. Sandy roads nearly all the way. Passed many wolf holes near which lay withered bones. Mr. T. says that wolves throw out the dirt on one side. Prairie dogs all round. Passed a village of these dogs. When they bark they accentuate with their tails like toys children have - Prairie chickens fly. Larks sing and rise or hop along over path. Geese ribbon their way high in the air, and flocks of crane, "craik, craik", call from the blue sky where they career.

About 5.15 P.M., I noticed Wajapa standing silhouetted against the sky, this time not on a high hill, which he usually gallops up to view the country round, but on the brink of a descent. I felt sure we were near the fort. When we arrived at his standpoint, there lay on the broad plateau the rectangular buildings of the Fort. We descended the sand hill, down, down till we reached the level plain. Far to the left stretched the prairie, the horizon bounded by the rolling elevation. Toward the front lay the bluff of the Niobrara, capped with pines, below the yellow clay bare of vegetation; Then bushes and trees. These were crowned by the line of plateau which is some 15 or 20 feet or more about the river.

At the foot of the hill saw a creek as they are called. This supplies the Fort with water - a windmill carrying the water to the houses. We stopped our wagons just before we reached the Parade and Mr. T. and I, with my letters, made our way to the officers’ quarters, and enquired for Capt Montgomery, the Commandant of the Post. His was the last house on the officer’s row. All the houses and buildings are built of sun burnt brick, interspersed with burnt brick. Piazzas in front of all the houses. Opposite the officers’ quarters, on the other side of the Parade, was the soldiers’ quarters. There are several buildings I have not placed at the upper end of the square - two if I remember correctly. The new headquarters contain the officers and a hall with a platform where the post will have all sorts of good times in the future.

Capt. Montgomery received me kindly. I presented my letters. He asked what he could do for me. I requested to be allowed to camp within the Fort. He requested me to stay while he went out with Mr. T. Some tea and bread were sent in to me on a pretty chinese salver, blue china. I ate the food with relish, it was so good to touch daintily served food once more. Bye and bye Capt. Montgomery returned. As we sat talking his dinner was announced. I rose to go, he begged me to stay, and soon Mrs. Montgomery came in, an ample, genial Washington lady. She bade me take off my things, apologized for not coming in sooner - she had been asleep. Mr. and Mrs. T. came in from the tent, a dinner was served us - very pleasant indeed to sit at table.

The evening passed pleasantly. Wajapa came and brought my bags. Mrs. Montgomery sang, looked at photos, heard camp and Indian stories. I stayed all night.

The house is ample - wide hall, the parlor opening off to the left; then the bedroom from that. A back passage way through a bath room, led into another large room, where I slept. Two Army Hospital beds put together, making a wide bed. Back of the hall a large room, from that pass into the dining room. The parlor comfortably furnished, not elaborately. Steinway upright piano, lounge, easy chairs &c. Many photos, on the door hung an Indian head-dress belonging to two-horns, a Bannock chief, Wyoming. Two horns ornamented with some sort of fancy carving. The horns, I was told, had been soaked in hot water and pressed flat. A cap depended, made of picked wool, it looked like. A sort of chin ornament, first of wool, then loops of gold cord from the epaulettes of the old fashion of officers. From this looped fringe hung some 50 ermine tails, from the horn behind fell a long strip of red flannel, some two feet wide and five feet or more long. A brilliant savage thing. On a table in the hall was a buckskin coat made with beads, fringes of ermine tails, and the fore and back collars decorated with scalps, so it looked; the scalp skin twisted and the hair hanging. In the front, the scalps were braided into two braids. I did not count the dire things. The coat had never been used. I did not like it very well, or think it really valuable, save in a fancy way.

Mrs. Montgomery said she could not have many things as they never knew when they would be forced to move, at a day’s notice. Had never been more than two years at a Post. She has no children. Smoking by the Captain and Mr. T

When alone with Mrs. Montgomery, I said that, "When Mrs. T. had asked me what I wanted most from the Government, I answered, that I dared tell her the exact truth, it would be a place to take a bath". She said, "You shall have one". So after dinner, before I retired, I took a warm bath. It was so good to be clean once more, and to put on a night dress, and to be alone!

I did not sleep very well being tired out in mind and body. The strain of being day and night with a different race, always alert, ever trying to keep the peace and not offend is very wearing, particularly added to the very hard and trying mode of life - The respite most grateful.



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