Many Blackfoot men now but a half-century old took part in raids and fights, or went on the warpath, so that now, as of old, deeds of war are important social assets. In former times, only men of great deeds were called upon to perform certain public and ceremonial functions, a custom still in force but naturally less binding. While there are other social ideals, such as owning important medicines, becoming a headman and possessing wealth, that of being a successful warrior can scarcely be overestimated.
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The tale of adventure as told by the chief actor is the delight of the fireside and entrances old and young alike when delivered by a skilful narrator. Other tales, those of tradition and hearsay, are seldom offered as it is the custom for one to narrate his own experiences, a rather high ideal of truthfulness being entertained. Of course, there are historical traditions, but they are usually given in brief without much life. Adventures with animals and of the hunt have a place, but are of far less social significance. The following is offered as a type of war narrative and also because it gives a very clear picture of just how an expedition for plunder was conducted. It was narrated by Strangle Wolf, a very old man, and recorded by Mr. Duvall.
It was in the fall of the year. I was living with Lazy Boy, for he was an uncle of mine. Lazy Boy was one of the chiefs of the Blackfoot Indians. In the evening, Lazy Boy said to me, “Strangle Wolf, we will go out for some Assiniboine horses.” This meant, of course, to steal them. “I have plenty of extra pairs of moccasins. We shall need them, for we are going to travel on foot.”
Somehow, Lazy Boy’s father-in-law, Heavy Shield, heard of this, came over that night, and said to him, “Lazy Boy, you must not go this time. You can come over in the morning and take my best horses; I don’t want you to go. I have had bad dreams.”
Then the old man returned to his lodge. Lazy Boy only laughed and said to his wife: “Go tell your father that I won’t listen to him this time. I must go and get some horses to give him, for the Indians never give him any even when they have many. Another thing is that I have my party ready and will start in the morning.”
In the morning, we all started. There were thirty of us in the party. Lazy Boy was the leader. He was noted as a fast walker, and asked me to take the lead with him. Lazy Boy fell to telling me about things he said I ought to learn. He said, “Whenever you are out with a war party, as we are now, and all are on foot, you should keep close to the leader, for if you hang back at the tail end you will always he in a trot to keep up with the others; but if you are in the lead you can keep the gait and not become tired so soon.” Another thing he said to me was, “When we get to the Assiniboine camps, you must try to get the horses tied close to the lodges for they are the best horses. The Assiniboine always keep up their best horses at night while they drive the others out to the hills.”
We went down the Missouri River. The game was plentiful. Buffalo and elk we saw on our way, so we did not go hungry. Everyone had a little pack of meat on his back and his extra pairs of moccasins. When the sun went down we camped for the night. We made three lodges with sticks and bark. After we had cooked and eaten some meat, the chief said we must sing the wolf songs. These songs are supposed to give us good luck, on a trip, i. e., if we truthfully tell what our sweethearts said when we left them. Each man is supposed to sing a song in which are a few words his sweetheart said to him.
After we got through singing, all went to sleep. In the morning, we all started out again. When the sun was high, we saw something a long way off resembling a person. The Chief said, “It must be an Assiniboine. We must go after him and kill him.” So we all ran toward him, and as we approached he seemed to be making signs to us. When we got up to it, we found out that it was a black stump with its black branches sticking out like arms. As we all went on, I heard some of the men say that it was a bad sign.
We traveled many days and nights, until we came to a lot of timber along the river. It was snowing and very cold. The Chief always kept two men ahead to look over the tops of the high hills, so that we would not run into some of the Assiniboine that might be waiting for us. At this place we all stopped and the chief called out to two men, “You go across the river to see if you can find out just where the Assiniboine camps are. We must be close to them now. We will wait for you here.” The two men took off their clothes, tied their leggings and shirts around their heads so as to be able to put them on dry when they got across. The river was wide and deep and the two men swam across. We all waited. When the sun was getting down close to the mountains, Chief Lazy Boy said to one of the men, “Why can we not cross and wait for them there? It is too cold for the two men to swim back again.”
So we all got a few poles, tied them together and put a rawhide on top of them. Then we put our clothes and guns on top of that. Then four men tied ropes to the raft and taking the ends of the ropes in their mouths swam across. When we all got across the chief said, “Although we are very cold we must not make a fire, for we are close to the camps. They would see the smoke.”
The sun had just gone down when the two scouts came back, saying to the chief, “We saw two men leading their horses down to the river. Their horses were loaded with meat, so the camps cannot be far off.” We waited here a long time until it stopped snowing. The moon was shining brightly. A little later on we heard dogs barking. It was nearly morning when the Chief said, “Come, let us go, it is nearly daylight.” All went on until the Chief stopped, when we all stopped beside him. He took a stick and, beating time with it on the barrel of his gun, sang his war song, looking up at the moon. Once he used the following words: “Elk woman, try your best.” When the Chief had finished, the others in turn sang their war songs. Then we all started again. After we got close to the camps the Chief told me to go back and tell two of the men to come with him, but for me to stay back with the others. He said, “We shall go through the camp to find out where the best horses are. Then we shall come back to inform you, and then we can all go together.” I told the two men and they went off with him, while the rest of us stayed in the brush. About daybreak, we heard a sound as if someone were riding along. Some of the men said it was a loose horse. One of the men went out to look for signs of our party. At the time the chief left us, four men from our party followed him. Thus there were seven. It is believed to be unlucky when there are only seven in a war party. Any way, it proved to be at this time. It was just daylight when we heard three shots, and at the same time the men who went out came back to us saying, “You said that was a loose horse we heard, here is what its rider lost.” He carried a gun sack, ramrod, and a saddle blanket. We all got up and ran up the river as fast as we could. We had not gone far when we heard more shooting, war whoops, and galloping horses. We kept on until we got to a place where there was thick timber. We stayed there all day. We heard no more noise for we were now too far away. When night came we all crossed the river and traveled part of the night until we came to one of our old camping places. Our brush lodges were still there. We had planned to meet there after we got our horses. We saw a light in one of them and when we went in we saw one of the men who was with our Chief. He got up, shook hands with us all, and then began to tell about it. He said, “When we all got near the camps, we met an Assiniboine who ran back into the camp. Then we started back to where we had left you. We had not gone far before we heard three shots. We did not go fast, but when we got to where we had left you we saw that you were gone. Then the chief said that you must have crossed the river. So we began to cross too. We were just about in the middle, when the Assiniboine came upon us, and began to fire. When we got across a number of the enemy were there for their horses could swim faster than we and of course they headed us off. Then we had a fight. There were only three guns for us to fight with for while we were crossing four of the men lost their guns in the water. Two of our men were killed at the beginning of the fight. Our Chief kept encouraging us saying that we must fight and die bravely for some day our people would hear of our sad end. All this time dirt was flying around us where the bullets struck. The smoke of the guns was like a fog a little above our heads. The Chief was shooting and talking to the Assiniboine, telling them that many of them would fall before the last of us. We kept them away as much as we could, but sometimes they would try to run us down with their horses. After we wounded several of them, they kept at a distance. When the sun was getting close to the mountains, our Chief was killed. Our ammunition was nearly all gone. There was a loose horse near by. I jumped on him and rode away. Then the Assiniboine took after me. When I got to some thick brush, I jumped off the horse and ran into the brush. They took the horse and went back. Then I came on afoot. That is how I come to be here with you now.
We all lay down to rest for the night and about daybreak started home. Just then the other three men came along. They got away from the Assiniboine after dark. We travelled on for many nights and days until we reached home.
When we got home we stopped on a hill near the camp, but did not sing the song of victory. We gave the sad sign that three warriors had been killed. One of our men stood out alone, took three robes and, while the people in the camp were watching, threw them away one by one. Then the Indians all knew that three of our party had been lost and came running out to meet us.
Of a somewhat different character were the adventures of Many White Horses as narrated a short time before his death:
The Piegan were in camp at Ft. Benton. Rations gave out, so they broke camp about sundown and pitched again after dark near some brush. I planned to go on a raid against the Flathead for horses. Next morning, a large party joined me and we went on to High Wood where we met and camped with a white man and his Indian wife. I traded my black and red blankets for his white ones. We followed the south bank of the Missouri, the berries were ripe, game was plenty and fat and the journey was pleasant. We followed up the Bear Tooth, or South Fork, where the railroad runs now. When one day’s march from the Flathead country, a storm came up, and beat the tall grass down flat. In jest, I said to Calf Necklace, “Let us go on alone. I believe that when we get out the wind will go down.” Soon we came to an open country and to a cliff. Looking over we saw a river and a Flathead camp. We returned to tell our party but lost them. We could not trail them as the grass was down. Then we gave the call for having seen an enemy. The party answered and soon joined us. Then we made a medicine smoke and gave prayers for success.
I have a war-bonnet with four songs. When transferred to me, my face was painted and the songs taught. When near the enemy I go through this in the same way. I painted my powder horn and bullet pouch. I carried two awls, mending materials and extra moccasins.
There was no moonlight that night. We walked down to the Flathead camp and found some of them still awake. Nearly all were drunk and had not tied up their horses. One horse, however, was tied to a tipi pole, a striped pinto. My party scattered every one for himself. Some had guns, some bows. The horses were wild so they were run up a hill into brush. The men now worked by twos and threes driving five to ten horses each. After we got into the brush some were caught. I mounted at last. I decided to follow the ridge of the mountain. The way was rough and many of our horses got -away. I went in the lead to pick the way. It snowed and made going slow. At last we lost the way and stopped to rest and repair moccasins. Soon the weather cleared and we found the top of the ridge but the snow was very deep. It took us all the next day to reach the gap at Sun River Pass. The next night we started down to the plains. Two of my men got very tired and sleepy so we stopped to rest them. All lay down, but overslept and awoke at dawn. When I awoke I called out and all jumped up scared. I was angry with myself. Our horses were gone.
Now, it seems that when the Flathead discovered their loss, a party set out on our trail. While we slept they passed near and camped far in advance in a little valley. Our escape was certainly due to my songs and medicines.
We found most of the horses and started on. As I learned afterwards, the Flathead saw us going over a ridge. We watered our horses at Sun River and went on. I went on ahead to look over a ridge. As I came back the party signaled something wrong. They had found the tracks of the Flathead party. As we went on we saw two antelope and stopped for one to pursue them. Then Calf called out, “Flatheads are after us.”
They dashed out of a valley and killed one of us before we could mount and soon after, another. Our party began a dash for home. It was funny to see one fellow’s leggings slip down to his ankles and get tangled under his horse. My horse was strong so I rode behind whipping the others. As the Flathead were good shots we scattered some. I could hear our pursuers talk but not understand them. After a while, I saw that their horses were very tired: so I directed our course over the tops of the hills. As their horses soon gave out, they dismounted to rest. When out of sight we turned back toward Sun River and hid in the brush. It seemed a very long day. One of our party was wounded and some had lost their clothes. When night came we started again. Some rode double so there would be blankets to cover all. The next day we spent on the Teton; the next near Dupuyer, where we found the old campfires of our people. Finally we got home.