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Houses of the Teton Tribe

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The Teton, moving westward from their early habitat to the east and north of the Minnesota, were encountered on the banks of the Missouri by Captains Lewis and Clark when they ascended the river, during the early autumn of 1804. On September 26 of that year the expedition reached the mouth of Teton River (the present Bad River), which enters the Missouri from the west at Pierre, Stanley County, South Dakota. Here stood the great village of the Teton, concerning which Sergeant Gass gave a very interesting account in his journal: “We remained here all day. Capt. Lewis, myself and some of the men, went over to the Indian camp. Their lodges are about eighty in number, and contain about ten persons each; the greater part women and children. The women were employed in dressing buffalo skins, for clothing for themselves and for covering their lodges. They are the most friendly people I ever saw; but will pilfer if they have an opportunity. They are also very dirty: the water they make use of, is carried in the paunches of the animals they kill, just as they are emptied, without being cleaned. About 3 o’clock we went aboard the boat accompanied with the old chief and his little son. In the evening captain Clarke and some of the men went over, and the Indians made preparations for a dance. At dark it commenced. Captain Lewis, myself and some of our party went up to see them perform. Their band of music, or orchestra, was composed of about twelve persons beating on a buffalo hide, and shaking small bags that made a rattling noise: They had a large fire in the centre of their camp; on one side the women, about 80 in number, formed a solid column round the fire, with sticks in their hands, and the scalps of the Mahas they had killed, tied on them. They kept moving, or jumping round the fire, rising and falling on both feet at once; keeping a continual noise, singing and yelling. In this manner they continued till 1 o’clock at night, when we returned to the boat with two of the chiefs.” 1

In the journal of the expedition is a very full account of the events which transpired during the two days spent at the Teton camp, but only part will now be quoted, sufficient to describe the place of meeting: “Captain Lewis went on shore and remained several hours, and observing that their disposition was friendly we resolved to remain during the night to a dance, which they were preparing for us. Captains Lewis and Clark, who went on shore one after the other, were met on landing by ten well dressed young men, who took them up in a robe highly decorated and carried them to a large council house, where they were placed on a dressed buffalo skin by the side of the grand chief. The hall or council-room was in the shape of three quarters of a circle, covered at the top and sides with skins well dressed and sewed together. Under this shelter sat about seventy men, forming a circle round the chief, before whom were placed a Spanish flag and the one we had given them yesterday. This left a vacant circle of about six feet diameter, in which the pipe of peace was raised on two forked sticks, about six or eight inches from the ground, and under it the down of the swan was scattered: a large fire, in which they were cooking provisions, stood near, and in the centre about four hundred pounds of excellent buffalo meat as a present for us.” Then followed several addresses by the chiefs; offerings of dog meat to the flag “by way of sacrifice,” and the smoking of the pipe of peace.2 The entire ceremony proved of the greatest interest. Then followed an account of the habitations standing in the village: “Their lodges are very neatly constructed, in the same form as those of the Yanktons; they consist of about one hundred cabins, made of white buffalo hide dressed, with a larger one in the centre for holding councils and dances. They are built round with poles about fifteen or twenty feet high, covered with white skins, these lodges may be taken to pieces, packed up, and carried with the ration wherever they go, by dogs which bear great burdens. The women are chiefly employed in dressing buffalo skins: they seem perfectly well disposed, but are addicted to stealing any thing which they can take without being observed.”3

During the year 1832 George Catlin remained for some time at and near the mouth of the Teton, where a few years before had been erected a station of the American Fur Company, which was soon given the name Fort Pierre. “The country about this Fort is almost entirely prairie, producing along the banks of the river and streams only, slight skirtings of timber. On my way up the river I made a painting of this lovely spot, taken from the summit of the bluffs, a mile or two distant, showing an encampment of Sioux, of six hundred tents of skin lodges, around the Fort, where they had concentrated to make their spring trade; exchanging their furs and peltries for articles and luxuries of civilized manufactures.”4 And he continued5: “I mentioned that this is the nucleus or place of concentration of the numerous tribe of the Sioux, who often congregate here in great masses to make their trades with the American Fur Company; and that on my way up the river, some months since, I found here encamped, six hundred families of Sioux, living in tents covered with buffalo hides. Amongst these there were twenty or more of the different bands, each one with their chief at their head over whom was a superior chief and leader, a middle-aged man, of middling stature, with a noble countenance. The name of this chief is Ha-won-je-tah (the one horn) of the Mee-ne-cow-e-gee band, who has risen rapidly to the highest honours in the tribe.”

Council at the Mouth of the Teton. Geroge Catlin
Plate 23a - Council at the Mouth of the Teton. Geroge Catlin

About this time a “grand feast” was prepared by the Indians in honor of the Indian agent and the several Americans who were then at Fort Pierre, including Catlin, A sketch of the gathering is shown in plate 23a, after the illustration in Catlin’s narrative, but it may be of interest to know that the original painting is now in the National Museum, Washington. Describing this scene, Catlin wrote: “The two chiefs, Ha-wan-je-tah and Tchan-dee brought their two tents together, forming the two into a semi-circle, enclosing a space sufficiently large to accommodate 150 men; and sat down with that number of the principal chiefs and warriors of the Sioux nation.” The several Americans were “placed on elevated seats in the centre of the crescent; while the rest of the company all sat upon the ground, and mostly cross-legged, preparatory to the feast being dealt out. In the centre of the semi-circle was erected a flagstaff, on which was waving a white flag and to which also was tied the calumet, both expressive of their friendly feelings towards us. Near the foot of the flag-staff were placed in a row on the ground, six or eight kettles, with iron covers on them, shutting them tight, in which were prepared the viands for our voluptuous feast. Near the kettles, and on the ground also, bottomside upwards, were a number of wooden bowls, in which the meat was to be served out. And in front, two or three men, who were there placed as waiters, to light the pipes for smoking and also to deal out the food.”6 The account of the ceremony which soon followed proves the gathering to have been one of much interest, and to the Indians one of great moment. The arrangement of the two large tipis so as to form a single shelter recalls the site of the gathering near the shore of Lake Traverse only a few years before. It is to be regretted that Catlin did not leave a more detailed description of the appearance of the great encampment as it was at the time of his visit, but he devoted much of his time to painting portraits of the Indians, of which he prepared a large number.

Although Catlin found representatives of many bands of Sioux gathered about on the plain surrounding Fort Pierre, nevertheless the comparatively permanent village of the Teton was near the mouth of the stream of that name. Maximilian, who ascended the Missouri during the spring of 1833, arrived at Fort Pierre late in May, and in his journal said: “The Sioux, who live on Teton River, near Fort Pierre, are mostly of the branch of the Tetons: though there are some Yanktons here.”7 He elsewhere mentioned that “the tents are generally composed of fourteen skins,” therefore consider the great number of buffalo required to furnish coverings for the lodges mentioned by Catlin. Maximilian wrote on May 30, 1833, near Fort Pierre: “Round an isolated tree in the prairie I observed a circle of holes in the ground, in which thick poles had stood. A number of buffalo skulls were piled up there; and we were told that this was a medicine, or charm, contrived by the Indians in order to entice the herds of buffaloes. Everywhere in the plain we saw circles of clods-of earth, with a small circular ditch, where the tents of many Indians had stood.”8 These were evidently the remains of the encampment seen by Catlin the preceding year.

Page of Kurz's Sketchbook, showing Fort Pierre and Indian encampment, July 4, 1851.
Plate 23b - Page of Kurz's Sketchbook, showing Fort Pierre and Indian encampment, July 4, 1851.

A sketch of Fort Pierre as it appeared July 4, 1851, is given in plate 23b. This was the work of the young Swiss artist, Friedrich Kurz, and is now reproduced for the first time. The small groups of Indians, the tipis standing near the fort, and the rolling prairie in the distance are all graphically shown.

The several divisions of the Teton performed the sun dance, at which time a large ceremonial lodge would be erected, which stood alone in the camp circle, formed of the numerous skin tipis. The lodge at reared at different times and by the various tribes varied in form and method of construction, but it seems to have been the custom of all the tribes to abandon the structure at the termination of the ceremonies. It was regarded as a sacred place and one not to be destroyed by man. Large structures of this sort were often encountered by parties traversing the plains and adjacent regions, and one, probably erected by a tribe of the Teton, was discovered by the Raynolds party, July 16, 1859, in the extreme eastern part of the present Crook County, Wyoming. In the journal of the expedition it was written on that day, “We have not yet met any Indians, nor any indications of their recent presence. The site of our camp is, however, marked by the remains of an immense Indian lodge, the frame of which consists of large poles, over thirty feet in length. Close by is also a high post, around which a perfect circle of buffalo skulls has been arranged.”9 This may have been used during the preceding year, at which time the skin tipis of the people enacting the sacred ceremonies were pitched in the form of a circle with the great lodge standing in the center. But with the completion of the annual dance the participants removed, with their skin tipis, to other localities, allowing the sacred structure to be destroyed by the elements.

Footnotes

  1. Gass, Patrick, Journal of the Voyage and Travels of a Corps of Discovery. Philadelphia, 1811, pp. 45-46. 

  2. Lewis and Clark, History of the Expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark. . . Prepared for the press by Paul Allen. Philadelphia, 1814. 2 vols, I, pp. 84-86. 

  3. Lewis and Clark, History of the Expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark. . . Prepared for the press by Paul Allen. Philadelphia, 1814. 2 vols, I, pp. 88-89. 

  4. Catlin, George, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians. London, 1844. 2 vols, I, p. 209. 

  5. Catlin, George, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians. London, 1844. 2 vols, I, p. 211. 

  6. Catlin, George, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians. London, 1844. 2 vols, I, p. 228. 

  7. Maximilian, Prince Of Wied, Travels in the Interior of North America. London, 1843, p. 150. 

  8. Maximilian, Prince Of Wied, Travels in the Interior of North America. London, 1843, p. 157. 

  9. Reynolds, W. F., Report on the Exploration of the Yellowstone River. Washington, 1868, p. 31. 


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