Camping With the Sioux: Fieldwork Diary of Alice Cunningham Fletcher

Woman and child beside Gi-He-Ga's (Ga-Hi-Ge) tipi. Photograph by William Henry Jackson, 1868. Photo Lot 24, BAE 4044, Inv. 0683600

 

 

 

Susette looking toward the West. Ponca City, Nebraska

September 22, 1881

The sound of the browsing horses, the stir of birds and insects made the night queer. Dawn came with a dappled sky and broad bend of clear sky.

Wajapa was stirring with the earliest light, gave corn to the horses which answered to his approaching footsteps. He whistled a strange wild cadence like a wood bird, something like this:

Privacy is impossible, he watched me furtively clean my teeth. I fancy he must think white women spend much time in adornment that hardly pays. He was really moved to speech by the sight of my hair. When Susette asked him to look at it as she sat by the fire cooking breakfast and he was by the wagon. I was off at a distance. He said it was the longest he had ever seen and that nothing was so beautiful on a woman. Susette said he paid me a great compliment but I could not understand it.

Breakfast of flapjack and bacon. I ate coffee and crackers and an apple. Sat on the hammock as the wagon was being repacked, horses harnessed, wheels greased, and wrote up this journal. Over the stretch of plain flocks of birds pass on their way south. The bluffs look hazy in the distance. The bottom lands are varied in hue - patches of sunflowers, acres of cornfields, the rows of corn giving lines to the picture - acres of cut grass turning to hay - making yellow squares dimpled with hay cooks - Deep green, light green, varied shades of brown - here and there clumps of trees. A strange scene. Philosophy, science, endurance, esthetic, appreciation, patience all go to this camping outfit and excursion. Mr. & Mrs. T. good natured and kind.

Ready to start about 8 a.m. on to Ponca City.

Left Mosquito camp. When Indian cuts a whip he leaves a little tuft of twigs on the end. These answer for a lash and he can take off flies.

As we rode on we left a little town of Jackson to the right and behind us. Here in the meadow we heard a bird sing. S. said that the Indians say that when this bird comes in spring it sings: "Winter is gone and will not come again soon".

Indians make signals with their blankets and with puffs of smoke. They build a fire of green wood, then either four men take hold of the corners of the blanket and lay it on the fire, then lift it suddenly and the smoke goes up in puffs or rings. If but one man signals he ties the two corners and then with the other two corners in his hands he manages to signal. These signals varied, they can tell of buffalo, enemies or other items of news.

Indian ponies trained to guide by the feet. Mr. Tibbles rode to Jackson while we turned off and got apples.

A long ride to Ponca city over hilly moors. Rain came on, Mr. T. rode on to secure food and feed. Wajapa drove. Road became slippery, bad holes, one washout. S. and I got out, [?]. Found my waterproof no proof, wet to my skin. Reach Ponca city at 1.30. Turn into ash grove. Wajapa pitches tent, lights fire. Horses ranged about the trees Mr. T. gets potatoes. S. puts them on to boil. Horses to be shod - can’t stand on their bare hoofs. Harness to be altered, collars too large, saddle to be adjusted - all the harness worse for wear, but nothing serious. Dry myself by the fire, determine to camp out and take the luck of camp life.

Conclude to think of going direct to Spotted Tail Agency from Santee. To camp here all night and push on. early in the a.m.

Men as they pass seeing Indian tent and Wajapa hoot and yell - Mr. T. or I appear, quiet follows. Storm passes about and sun comes out - hope for fair weather. Must lay in more supplies. Have been unable to buy bread, but found some here, brought here from Sioux City. Saw dug-outs, can’t think them healthy or cleanly. Little is so. Black mud everywhere. Roads good when dry, a little rain converts the top soil into a sticky paste.

Wajapa tells me the name of this place is in Indian, "The place where the Iowas farmed". Ma-hu-ta Wa-a-e-ta.

Here Mr. Tibbles comes back from the town and we hear the fearful tidings, "Garfield is dead". So falls a good man, killed by the power that loves office and spoils. The same cruel, barberous interest makes the Indian an exile and outcast in the land of his birth, all good finds its birth through life sacrifice, so may a juster estimate of citizenship and Republican government come to the land and greeds and spoils be abased, and probity and high mindedness find place with power.

Garfield died on Monday night, September 20 - a sore bereavement and punishment.

Indian good manners just the reverse of ours, never speak to the person by name when present, no word of courtesy, silence, never good morning or good night, come silently, go silently.

In the tent the wife’s place is by the door at the left hand as you enter, husband next, guest at the rear opposite the door. Other members of the family on the right.

We built our fire in the tent, cooked and sat by it. Smoke made the eyes smart, the lower one sits the less smoke. Indians lie down in tent - sensible. I did so. Straw and hay in the bottom of the tent. The floor was all muddy, clay. No grass under the trees.

We all ate a hearty supper of soup and coffee, went to bed a little after eight. After the meat was cooked Wajapa took out the sticks that smoked so we had only the glowing embers as we ate and talked. Bed first then the comforter. I putting down my rubber blanket and the comforter and blankets over not much undressing, women to bed first. Wajapa staid out till all in bed, then came in, took off moccasins and lay in the buffalo robe. He put out the candle, a circle of darkness through the opening in the top, irregular in shape. I saw the boughs of the trees and stars. Silence broken by the rush of the water over the dam near by, and the tossing of the hay by the horses which were tied to trees near the tent. The wagon had been hauled to the front.

The beauty of our camp at night beggars description. I was out and turning toward the tent, two trees formed a high arch of the tent, the bags &c. taken out for safety, we being now among the white people. The door of the tent formed by the ends of the circle were laced up by Wajapa.

The real campers slept without waking. I being a novice slept uneasily and with difficulty feeling like a bag of stones dropped heavily on the ground. Owls began to hoot and the [?] in the town near by keyed out lustily.

I wakened before day - bye-and-bye the trees grew more distinct against a dim light, then Mr. T. and Wajapa stirred and rose, I ventured to sing out "ough!" the usual Indian salutation between men.

The soup pot was put on for an extra boil on the fire outside while S. and I got up on our knees and dressed.

The night before when we finished our supper it was clear that our one kettle could not be spared to heat dish water for it had still a goodly portion of soup which we needed for breakfast so we each placed our tin cups and plates beside our beds to know them apart and have them ready for the breakfast.


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