Camping With the Sioux: Fieldwork Diary of Alice Cunningham Fletcher

View of Blackbird Hill, showing Lake Wa-kon-da-gi Pe-ghi. Photograph by William Henry Jackson, 1868-69. Glass Negatives of Indians, 4037-a-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

View from Blackbird Hill. Photograph by William Henry Jackson, 1868-69. Glass Negatives of Indians, 4037-a-3

 

 

 

 

 

Friday, September 23, 1881

A glowing sky greeted me as I came out of the tent into the damp morning air - it was not yet six a.m. After performing some portion of my civilized toilet, the kettle of soup was brought in and placed on the ashes of last nights fire and we sat on one rolled up comforter, each where he slept and ate with a relish. Suddenly the recollection of my usual life came over me and I burst out laughing, startling the tent in the midst of the somewhat serious matter appeasing out door appetites. I was forced to explain but I did not tell all. "Aye keep something to yourself" Mr. T. said, "It’s enough to kill a fellow to live as you do east. Two hours at dinner!". "That’s pleasant", I suggested. "No strong man could stand that thing, all of the men are thin, pale, miserable chaps. I could whip half a dozen of them". After a minute he added, "there’s Mr. F. and Mr. --, look at em! They do a great amount of brain work, there’s more than one sort of strength, you know". "Yes, but they all eat raw meat east". S. translated to Wajapa who looked at me and laughed. I cast an incredulous glance toward Mr. T.

Indians are great meat eaters, but eat it very well done, care little for fruit.

As we crossed the bridge and turned up the main street of Ponca City Wajapa stopped our team and looked at a span of horses pulling a heavy load. He then said, "See that nigh horse, it was stolen from the Omahas, Louis Sansousi owned it". S. said, "Just think of it, as we travel we see our horses which have been stolen from us, and we can’t get them back, for an Indian has no redress by law. The horse which matched my cream color mare (the nigh horse of our team, a fine animal), a man in the Iowa bottom has him and Father can’t get him back". One feels so proud to belong to the dominant race seeing and hearing these things. Such conduct is not creditable to an eastern, well bred person - Alas.

Started at 9.45, waiting on rain and thunder and heavy sky. It looks like clear hot day.

We all take names - Wajapa names me, Ma-she-ha-the. It means, The motion of eagle as he sweeps high in the air. He gives me the name of his family and band. He belongs to the eagle family. Ma-she means high, ha-the means eagle. So ha-the give the eagle sign.

Susette, The western princess - Mr. T. Oo-nuz-zhe-coo-ta, Grey coat - Had one on when he released Standing Bear.

Notice several Spanish words brought to the western vernacular, "Jah hoop" a worthless fellow.

Bridges a feature of this country, generally holes, shake, planks jump up - One was built like a peaked house. Mr. T. said, "Some architect was trying experiments". He fled, I suppose, to the wilderness but "a chit has come taken notes!".

Wajapa belonged to the Indian Police, but, perhaps because he was too intelligent he was removed by the agent. He was a carpenter, built houses for government, paid $10.00 per month. Agent promised to give him more. He worked two months at the time agent had said he would pay more - went on for another month, then he asked the agent if he remembered his promise and if he would not then give him more pay. Agent dismissed him.

Indian trails skirt round in between hills and avoid taxing the horses. There are a series of ruts irregularly distanced - some deep, some not. Indians keep the trails because if they go out into the grass the snakes may bite the horses.

Susette says, it is difficult for her to write poetry as she was driving, Mr. T. on the load behind us, we passed a herd of cows on the low bottom land. Susette said, "Thou sleek and meek cow". There add another line and it will be poetry. "No it won’t" says Mr. T. "Why not". "It isn’t poetry anyway". Just here the horses suddenly stopped. Susette said, meditatively, "Composing poetry stops the horses!" "I should think they would stop at such poetry. I’d lie down!" responded Mr. T. "The line lacks a foot anyway" he added. Susette said at once, "Thou sleek and meek Ka-ow", which we laughingly agreed met the dilemma, and I record the triumph.

Passed Newcastle at 1l.45 - 11 miles from Ponca, a Roman Catholic settlement, a little white church with its cross, a well painted porch, house with its piazza, a little further up the hill below on the level land a few houses, a store containing P.O., blacksmith and every sort of thing. Not a thrifty place. Hear this populace German.

The pitches of the road are peculiar, like going over a peaked roof. Often the roads have to be abandoned and then the new would be by its side, the old one with its high middle lies like a grave.

Barbed wire fences - cattle.

Rode to a house buried in cottonwood trees. Mr. T. went there, deserted. No water, no wood, over desolate hills, moors, S. admires them, thinks the landscape beautiful. Mr. T. thinks that out here there is room to turn round. To me it is desolation, no trees, only yellow billowy land, miles on miles and miles again. Seems to have no beginning or end, to come from nowhere and to go no whither. Weary, weary, weary.

Up another billow and there was the wreck of another house, its gaping windows knowing no home light, like the scene. Up another and round a curve, then we came to a creek running through a break in one of the level places. Here we stopped and the horses were led or made their way to the water, running through the black mud. One horse sank belly deep and pulled up on the opposite side. Wajapa was equal to the occasion and ran down the break and leaped to the other side, headed off the horse and soon he was with his mates eating corn and rolling on the ground. We sat in the shade of the wagon, while Wajapa made a fire out of bits of wood and dried weeds, off on the side of the creek. We had our meat warmed up, drank our coffee and ate our bread. While the rest were harnessing and packing up I went on and made a call at the log house. It was clean inside, through the spaces between the boards of the floor I could see the dirt floor. Daylight decorated the walls or rather ribbed sides of the house. Three beds were at one end of the room - made of two posts nailed to the floor, cross pieces fitted to the walls, and then the slats laid across. Two high beds and between these one lower one. There were four children, and mother ancient. The stove was blacked, the shelves had a clean curtain hung before them. Beds had white spreads, thrift was on every turn.

Yellow asters by the way, blue gentians, watermelon! Stealing?

Her name was Hugho. Her parents were from New York state. Emigrated to Michigan, then Iowa, then here. Had been here one year. Pasturing herds was impossible The country was so thickly settled! We rode miles without seeing house, a smart, lively young woman was there waiting. I note that everybody is blue-eyed, have hardly seen a pair of dark eyes. She talked well, both used correct English.

Young woman told me how to cleanse water. Make lye out of wood ashes by boiling it in an ample kettle of water. This lye is put into the hard water and it is then ready for use. As she was talking of cleansing water I asked, "What is cleansing water?" "Ha, ha!" She keyed out, "Don’t you know what that is? I thought everybody knew that" "Well I suppose they don’t do such things where you came from. Ma has often told me how awfully green she was when she first came west". Then, after looking at me, "I dare say you’d find lots of inconvenience living out here". "I should probably find things different", I replied. "How do you like this place?" asked the elder, "How do you like it, better than where you came from?" I hesitated and then replied, "It is very unlike where I came from. It seems desolate to be void of trees" - "and houses" put in the elder. "Well, no, I don’t care for houses but I do miss trees and streams", "Well, so do I" chimed in both. "I was awful lonesome at first", said the elder. "I’ve been here seven years" said the younger, "and I told Jen yesterday we must have trees, I couldn’t stand it any longer." "Do you have prairie fires here?" "Ha, ha! don’t we, every spring and summer, burn us out if we didn’t fight them". "Fight them?" I interrogated. "Of course, don’t you know how to make fire breaks, I suppose not". She then explained. "What wood do you burn?" "Oh, we get it from the river" "How far?" "Nigh twenty miles" "Should think you’d plant cotton trees" "We will soon, I hope. It takes a long time to get wood" "Long" put in the younger, "Why, one can go in the morning and get back in the afternoon, I don’t think that long - Land! think of what people have to do further north - fifty miles for wood and burn corn cobs and all sorts of things besides, land! it isn’t hard here".

We pushed on over moors and rolling prairie. As we passed mile on miles and no house, we wondered how the place was so thickly settled. As we rode on this a.m., Wajapa spied a patch of watermelons, and as we rode up he pointed to it and shouted in well toned English "Watermelon". We shouted, Hurra to him for his proficiency. After riding for some hours we plunged through a gully, a twisted descent and steep ascent and came upon a patch of watermelon and garden produce. We hailed the sight and Mr. T. sprang over the fence and secured one, soon we reached the house and paid the woman and enquired the way. Up and down "breaks" for a way further, having struck Bow creek or Ta-wa-ne Village creek, S. and I got out and walked while Mr. T. drove the wagon over a sidling road round one of the hills, the vehicle leaned at an angle that boded no good to axles &c. We passed a big bull snake resting after a hearty meal in the grass. He lifted his head as soon as I gave him a wide berth. After a half mile or more, we got in. Soon Wajapa came galloping up bareheaded, his hat in his hand, he had gathered plums and presented them in a courtly way to S. and to me. It is Indian breeding to take and never share with the giver, so we did the correct thing. On we went and then struck a beautiful bottom land. The creek was broad and clear, the bushes and trees by its banks green. A wide plain on which the Omahas used to come, lay near this creek, such a lovely site.

We went over the bridge, met a stupid man who was not sure he could sell us corn but might sell enough to feed the horses. Thought to stop on a level just beyond the bridge but the mosquitoes were dense, pushed on past a log house where "a widder woman lived", to another space when Mr. T. said he would camp anyhow. The sun had set in a glory. A heavy curtain of dove colored clouds was drawn up from the horizon became a clear stretch of sky which was like limpid gold. Turbulent clouds were all about the horizon, their great bubbling forms glorious in white and gold and dun. All was a soft greenish gray when we drew up near to a dwelling fenced in with a cottonwood grove just beyond the paling. The fire was started, the horses lariated just over the bridge on the other side of the stream where the pasture was fine.

A supper of fried potatoes, hard boiled eggs and black coffee and biscuit partaken of with a relish made us feel fine.

The wagon had been drawn up near the fence and the tent spread over it, and the intervening space made available by putting poles from the wagon to the top board, we had a comfortable, low, studded bedroom. The harness, dishes &c. were packed under the wagon and while supper was preparing I made my bed and combed and braided my hair. Wajapa said we would have rain.

All about the horizon the lightning played, forked in some places. We sat by our camp fire. Wajapa told of when the Omahas had smallpox, lost many people when they were very sick, went to the Poncas for help, were refused, angry - and the well ones fought the Poncas. Then the Omahas became restless and roam, couldn’t bear to go in tents, the empty places made them heartsick. Wajapa traveled five years since to Indian Territory. It was the time of the last hunt of the Omahas. He dropped off from the tribe when near the Territory. He spent two months among the different tribes. Fearing the time would come when the Omahas would be moved he wanted to see what sort of country. On this trip he had in his mind to look at the land of the northern tribes for, as he dislikes the Indian Territory he will try and flee to the north if the Omahas are removed.

Talked of a white farmer who thought all Indians thieves, told him some white men were not good, said he had but one white man for a friend - Mr. Dorsey - and he thought as much of me as of Mr. D.

As we sat by the camp fire the lightning played around us. Off to the right a line of fire, like a line of battle was advancing over the distant prairie, above the stars shone clear.

At 9 P.M. we turned in. In less than a half hour the thunder began to roll, lightning to flash and the rain to fall. It poured. Soon Mr. T. had to rise and do his best to close up bolts for a hole let a stream in on him. That was fixed but Mr. T. crept in under the wagon. The showers came and went all night. Occasionally Mr. T. or Wajapa would tip up the baggy places in the tent cover and the water ran off in streams. The candle was a great blessing and gave a friendly light from the step of the buggy.


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