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Indians of the Great Western Prairies
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Upon the Yellowstone, and about the headwaters of the Missouri, the most noted tribes are the Crows and Blackfeet. Bordering upon them at the north and northeast are their enemies, the Ojibbeways, Knisteneaux, and Assinaboins, of some of whom brief mention has been made in former chapters. In 1834 the Blackfeet were computed to number over thirty thousand, but when the small-pox swept over the western country, in 1838, they were frightfully reduced. By the returns of 1850, they were represented as amounting to about thirteen thousand.
As these Indians are among the farthest removed from the contaminating influence of the whites, and as the prairie abounds in all that is requisite for their subsistence, viz., horses and buffalo, they present fine specimens of the aboriginal race. They are of manly proportions, active, and capable of great endurance: their dress is particularly comfortable and ornamental, bedecked with all the embroidery and fringes characteristic of savage finery.
The style of dress, dwellings, means of subsistence, &c., among the Indians of the western prairies, is in many respects so similar, that we shall only avoid wearisome repetition by omitting minute descriptions in speaking of the different tribes.
The summer lodge, necessarily made movable to suit their migratory habits, is a tent of buffalo-skins, supported by pine poles brought from the distant mountains. These skins are neatly and substantially stitched together, and often highly painted and ornamented. The tent is trans ported by tying the poles in two bundles, the small ends of which, bound together, are hung over the shoulders of a horse, while the butts trail upon the ground, loaded with the weight of the skins and other paraphernalia of the lodge. The dogs are also pressed into the same service, and loaded, in much the same manner, with as large a load as they can carry.
The cold winter is passed in some spot protected by high bluffs or heavy timber, either in these skin lodges, or in rude wigwams of logs.
It is among these remote races that we may still see many of the ancient superstitious observances (formerly, with slight variation, common to nearly the whole population of the west,) retained with all their original solemnity. One of the most singular and universal is the preparation of a “medicine-bag,” which every man carries with him upon all occasions, as being intricately involved with his own safety and success in war, hunting, or any of the occupations of life. At about the age of puberty the Indian boy bethinks himself of taking the necessary steps for the preparation of this mysterious amulet or charm. He retires to some solitary spot, where he spends several days, lying upon the ground, taking no nourishment, and employed in continual fervent invocations to the Great Spirit. Falling asleep in this condition, he notes particularly what bird or animal first occurred to his mind in dreams. He then returns home, and, after recruiting his strength, busies himself in the pursuit of the creature until he has secured a specimen. This accomplished, he dresses the skin, stuffs it with moss or some other light substance, and devotes his attention to bedecking it with the most elaborate ornament.
This medicine-bag can be procured at no price, and the loss of it, even in the heat of battle, is a signal disgrace, only to be wiped out by the seizure of a similar charm from a slaughtered enemy. “These curious appendages,” says Catlin, “to the persons or wardrobe of an Indian, are sometimes made of the skin of an otter, a beaver, a musk-rat, a weasel, a raccoon, a pole cat, a snake, a frog, a toad, a bat, a mouse, a mole, a hawk, an eagle, a magpie, or a sparrow; sometimes of the skin of an animal so large as a wolf; and at others, of the skins of the lesser animals, so small that they are hidden under the dress, and very difficult to be found, even if searched for.”
The strange and hideous conjurations of the medicine men or necromancers, who perform their ceremonies about the sick or dying with a view to their relief, may be here seen in their utmost extravagance.
The Crows are far inferior in numbers to the Blackfeet, with whom they are engaged in perpetual warfare. They inhabit the country adjacent to the Yellowstone, as far westward as the foot of the Rocky Mountains. They are a fine race, physically speaking; their average height is greatly beyond that of any of the neighboring tribes, and they are models of activity and strength. They have been characterized as a lawless, thieving horde of savages; but those best acquainted with their character and disposition, speak of them as honest and trustworthy, and excuse the depredations of which they have from time to time been guilty, as having generally resulted from gross provocation. From whatever cause, and whichever race may have been the most in fault, it is certain that the two wild tribes of which we are now speaking have been, from the earliest periods in which Europeans have penetrated their territory, objects of terror to traders and trappers.
One distinguishing peculiarity of these Indians is the extraordinary length of their hair, which is cherished and cultivated as an ornament, until it sweeps the ground after them. This profusion is to be seen in no tribe except the Crows, although some of their neighbors endeavor to imitate it, by gluing an additional length to their natural hair.
The Crows speak a different language from the Blackfeet, and, as we have mentioned, are continually at war with that tribe. They only number about four thousand, and are consequently at great disadvantage in these hostilities.
The smaller Minitari tribes, between the mouth of the Yellowstone and the site of the Mandan villages, and the extensive nation of the Gros Ventres, inhabiting the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, speak the same language with the Crows, or one very nearly allied to it. The Arapahoes, numbering some three thousand, and dwelling about the sources of the Platte and Arkansas Rivers, belong to the race of the Blackfeet.
The latter nation, besides their enemies at the East, have had, from an indefinite period, to contend with the Flathead and other tribes still farther westward. The descent of these remote bands upon the plains in pursuit of buffalo, has ever been deemed by the Blackfeet a signal infringement of their rights, and fierce battles often result from the conflicting claims of the rival nations. Although other game abounds in the mountain districts inhabited by some of these tribes, nothing possesses such attractions for them as the buffalo hunt, and they are ready to incur any peril rather than relinquish this favorite pursuit.
The Nez Percé or Pierced-Nose Indians, the Flatheads, and the Pends Oreilles or Hanging Ears, of the Rocky Mountains and their western slopes, and of the plains drained by the sources of the Columbia, are at continual and deadly feud with the Blackfeet. These latter seem, indeed, to have their hands against every man, with the exception of their kindred Arapahoes, to whom they make periodical visits of friendship.
Of the skirmishes between war-parties of these hostile tribes, their forays into each other s territory, and the exploits of their most redoubted warriors, many striking tales are told by the traders and trappers who visit these remote regions. In Mr. Irving s admirable publication, “The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U. S. A., in the Rocky Mountains and the Far West,” arranged in the form of interesting and pleasing narrative, from the captain’s manuscripts and other sources, are details of various incidents illustrative of the character and habits of these tribes, so told as to attract the attention of the reader, and to leave a vivid impression upon the mind.
In Cox’s “Adventures on the Columbia River,” frightful descriptions are given of the cruelties practiced by the Flatheads upon some Blackfoot prisoners who had fallen into their hands. Such proceedings appeared utterly variant from the natural disposition of those Indians, and only serve to show to what lengths usage, a spirit of retaliation, and natural antipathy, may carry a people whose general character is gentle and kindly.
The author particularly describes the endurance of one of the Blackfoot braves, upon whom every species of torture was tried in vain attempts to overcome his fortitude. He exulted over his tormentors, vaunting his own deeds in the following language: ” My heart is strong. You do not hurt me. You can t hurt me. You are fools. You do not know how to torture. Try it again. I don t feel any pain yet. We torture your relations a great deal better, because we make them cry out loud, like little children. You are not brave; you have small hearts, and you are always afraid to fight. Then, addressing one in particular, he said, “It was by my arrow you lost your eye; upon which the Flathead darted at him, and with a knife, in a moment, scooped out one of his eyes; at the same time cutting the bridge of his nose nearly in two. This did not stop him: with the remaining eye he looked sternly at another, and said, I killed your brother, and I scalped your old fool of a father. The warrior to whom this was addressed instantly sprung at him, and severed the scalp from his head.”
The chief restrained this enraged warrior from terminating the sufferings of the victim by a blow; but was, himself, immediately afterwards so exasperated by his taunts and insults, that he could not withhold his own hand, and shot the mangled wretch through the heart.
Of the Crow character, a very singular trait is exhibited in an adventure of a noted trapper, Mr. Robert Campbell, as given in Mr. Irving’s work, above mentioned. This traveler was upon one occasion hospitably entertained by the celebrated Crow chief, Arapooish, in whose tent he had deposited a large bundle of valuable furs. The greater part of his stores was buried in the ground for safety.
The old chief ascertained, during Campbell’s stay, that his guest had made a “cache,” (the French term applied to such places of concealment,) and that some of his own tribe had discovered and plundered it. The number of beaver-skins stolen was one hundred and fifty.
Arapooish immediately assembled all the men of the village, and after making a speech, in which he vehemently declaimed against their bad faith towards the stranger, vowed that he would neither touch food nor drink until complete restoration should be made. He then took his seat with the trapper in his wigwam, and awaited the result, desiring his companion to make no remarks if the skins were brought, but simply to keep account of them. More than a hundred of the stolen articles were brought in before night, but notwithstanding Campbell s expressions of satisfaction, the old Indian would neither eat nor drink throughout that night and the next day. The skins slowly made their appearance, “one and two at a time through out the day; until but a few were wanting to make the number complete. Campbell was now anxious to put an end to this fasting of the old chief, and again declared that he was perfectly satisfied. Arapooish demanded what number of skins were yet wanting. On being told, he whispered to some of his people, who disappeared. After a time the number were brought in, though it was evident they were not any of the skins that had been stolen, but others gleaned in the village.”
Arapooish then broke his fast, and gave his guest much wholesome advice, charging him always, when he visited a Crow village to put himself and his goods under protection of the chief. Of Campbell s conclusions upon the character of the race, Mr. Irving says: “He has ever since maintained that the Crows are not so black as they have been painted. “Trust to their honor, says he, ‘and you are safe; trust to their honesty, and they will steal the hair off your head.”
The manner in which old Arapooish enlarged upon the natural advantages of the Crow country in conversation with Mr. Campbell is too quaint to be passed over. He averred that it was located in precisely the right spot for the security of all that was desirable in life, and .the avoidance of its usual trials and wants. He enlarged upon the cold of the north, where dogs must take the place of horses; and upon the barren and arid plains of the south, replete with pestilential vapors. At the west, he said: “On the Columbia, they are poor and dirty, paddle about in canoes, and eat fish. Their teeth are worn out; they are always taking fish-bones out of their mouths. Fish is poor food.
“To the east, they dwell in villages; they live well; but they drink the muddy water of the Missouri that is bad. A Crow’s dog would not drink such water.
“About the forks of the Missouri is a fine country; good water; good grass; plenty of buffalo. In summer it is almost as good as the Crow country; but in winter it is cold; the grass is gone; and there is no salt-weed for the horses.” (Bonneville’s Adventures.)
Then followed an enthusiastic enumeration of the blessings enjoyed by the Crows; the variety of climate; the abundance of game; the winter resources for man and beast; and the relief from the heat of summer afforded by the cool breezes and fresh springs of the mountains.
In a former chapter, we have devoted some little space to illustrations, from Mr. Catlin s letters, of the strength of parental affection among the Western Indians, particularly the Sioux: in the work last cited are numerous anecdotes exemplifying, in a manner equally forcible, the enduring and powerful attachment often noticeable between the sexes; and this not only among the Indians alone, but where they have intermarried with whites.
One of these instances was as follows: “Among the free trappers in the Rocky Mountain band was a spirited young Mexican, named Loretto; who, in the course of his wanderings, had ransomed a beautiful Blackfoot girl from a band of Crows, by whom she had been captured. He made her his wife, after the Indian style, and she had followed his fortunes ever since with the most devoted affection.”
The company, one day, fell in with a numerous party of Blackfoot warriors, and the preliminary steps were taken for a parley, and for smoking the calumet, in token of peace. At this moment, Loretto s Indian wife perceived her own brother among the band. ” Leaving her infant with Loretto, she rushed forward and threw herself upon her brother s neck; who clasped his long-lost sister to his heart, with a warmth of affection but little compatible with the reputed stoicism of the savage.”
Meanwhile, Bridger, one of the trapper leaders, approaching the Blackfeet, from an imprudent excess of caution, cocked his rifle just as he come up with them. The Indian chief, who was in the act of proffering a friendly salutation, heard the click of the lock, and all his native fury and suspicion were instantly aroused. He sprang upon Bridger, forced the muzzle of the rifle into the ground, where it was discharged, knocked him down, seized his horse, and rode off. A general, but disorderly fight en sued, during which Loretto s wife was hurried away by her relations.
The noble young Mexican saw her in their power, vainly entreating permission to return, and, regardless of the danger incurred, at once hastened to her side, and restored the child to its mother. The Blackfoot braves admired his boldness, and respected the confidence which he had re posed in them by thus venturing in their midst, but they were deaf to all the prayers of himself and his wife that they might remain together. He was dismissed unharmed, but the woman and child were detained.
Not many months afterwards the faithful Loretto procured his discharge from the company in whose service he was enlisted, and followed his wife to her own country. A happy reunion took place, and the loving pair took up their residence at a trading-house among the Blackfeet, where the husband served as interpreter between the Indians and white traders.
Another tale of Indian love and rivalry is that of a Blackfoot warrior, named Kosato, residing among the Nez Percé when that tribe was visited by Bonneville.
He had fallen in love with the wife of a chief of his own tribe, and his affection was returned. According to his own positive asseverations, although they “talked together laughed together and were always seeking each others society,” they were “as innocent as children.”
The jealousy of the husband was at last completely aroused, and he visited his vengeance upon both the offending parties. The wife was cruelly beaten, and sternly bid not even to bestow a look upon Kosato, while the youth himself suffered the loss of all his horses, upon which the chief had seized. Maddened with love and revenge, Kosato waited his opportunity; slew the object of his hate; and hastened to entreat his mistress to fly with him. At first she only wept bitterly, but finally, overcome by his persuasions, and the promptings of her own affection, she forsook her people, and sought, with her lover, an asylum among the peaceful and kindly Nez Percé.
Kosato was foremost in rousing up a warlike and manly spirit among the tribe of his adoption, but he found the disposition of his new allies far different from that of the hot-blooded Blackfeet and Crows. “They are good and kind,” said he to Bonneville; “they are honest; but their hearts are the hearts of women.”
From these and numberless similar tales, it is sufficiently evident that the cloak of reserve in which the Indian wraps himself from the scrutiny of strangers, covers passions and affections as fiery and impetuous as are to be witnessed in more demonstrative races.
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