Chonmonicase or Shaumonekusse, Otto Half Chief

Chonmonicase, or Shaumonekusse
Otto Half Chief

In the progress of our work we have found no small difficulty in settling the orthography of proper names. Not only are the Indian languages unwritten, but the interpreters, through whom most of our information is necessarily communicated, are illiterate persons, who arbitrarily affix to words the pronunciation which suits their own fancy, or which accords best with their own national or local idiom. Thus the Indians, who call themselves Saukies, are denominated Sacs by the French, and Sauk by the Americans; and the names of many of the chiefs are given with such variations by different travelers that it is sometimes difficult to recognize them. The names which are attached to the portraits in this work are, with a few exceptions, those which we found written upon them in the gallery at the War Office, and which were dictated by the per sons who attended the chiefs as interpreters, in their visit to Washington. Whether they have been changed in copying we cannot say; but some of them are evidently incorrect. We have, however, in most cases, left them unaltered, preferring to make our corrections in the biographical notices, rather than alter that which may have been written on authority better than our own. Whether the individual now before us should be called Chonmonicase, or Shaumonekusse is a question which we suppose will never excite as much curiosity as has been awakened by the rival claims for the birth-place of Homer; we have, nevertheless, taken some pains “to arrive at the proper reading, and have adopted the latter, on the authority of the writers of Long’s First Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, in which we place implicit confidence.

Shaumonekusse was distinguished early in life as a daring, active, and successful warrior. We are not aware of his having any hereditary claims to the chieftainship of his tribe, to which he has risen gradually by his own merits. He is a person of deep penetration, and is capable of acting with much duplicity on any occasion when he may consider it politic to conceal his real views. Having had intercourse with the traders, from his infancy, he has acquired an intimate knowledge of the character of the white men, and has studied to turn this acquisition to advantage. The Otto have always maintained friendly relations with the American people, and it was, therefore, not difficult for this chief to cultivate the good opinion of such of our countrymen as visited the distant shores of the upper Missouri.

The Otto and the Missouri are remnants of numerous and warlike nations which once roamed over these boundless plains, the monarchs of all they surveyed, but which are now so greatly reduced, that the whole number of the warriors in both tribes together is not more than two hundred. Being united by the closest friend ship, they have cast their lots in union, and act together as one people; and small as is their aggregated force, they have sustained themselves with such uniform bravery and good conduct as to command the respect of the tribes around them. They are more indebted to Shaumonekusse than to any other individual for the high reputation they have maintained, as he is not only one of the boldest of their warriors, but is very expert and politic in the management of their affairs.

He is more commonly known to the whites by the name of Ietan, or, as the French traders denominate him, L’letan, a title which was given him in consequence of some exploit against the tribe of that name; probably on account of his having slain an Ietan warrior of distinction.

The countenance of this Indian expresses the qualities which he is known to have possessed in an eminent degree, but which are not common among his race; he was, when a young man, social, witty, animated, and mercurial in his temperament. Although he never obtained any reputation as an orator, he conversed well, and was an agreeable companion.

When Colonel Long’s party were encamped on the upper Missouri, in 1819, they were visited by a party of Otto, among whom was Ietan, then a young but a distinguished warrior. A grand dance was performed in honor of the American officers; in the course of which, the leaders of the greatest repute among the Indians narrated their exploits. Among others, Ietan stepped for ward and struck the flagstaff which had been erected, and around which the dancers moved. This ceremony is called striking the post; and such is the respect paid to it, that whatever is spoken by the person who strikes, may be relied upon as strictly true; and, indeed, it could not well be otherwise, for the speaker is surrounded by rival warriors, who would not fail to detect, and instantly ex pose, any exaggeration by which he should endeavor to swell his own comparative merits. In recounting his martial deeds, Ietan said, he had stolen horses seven or eight times from the Konsas; he had first struck the bodies of three of that nation, slain in battle. He had stolen horses from the Ietan nation, and had struck one of their dead. He had stolen horses from the Pawnees, and had struck the body of one Pawnee Loup. He had stolen horses several times from the Omaha, and once from the Ponca. He had struck the bodies of two Sioux. On a war party, in company with the Pawnee, he had attacked the Spaniards, and penetrated into one of their camps; the Spaniards, excepting a man and a boy, fled, him self being at a distance before his party, he was shot at and missed, by the man whom he immediately shot down and struck. “This,” said he, “is the only martial act of my life that I am ashamed of.”

This would be considered, by an Indian audience, a highly meritorious catalogue of martial deeds; nor would the stealing of horses be thought the least honorable of these daring exploits. Although the word stealing is used, and the proceeding itself is attended with the secrecy of actual theft, yet the act does not involve any idea of meanness or criminality, but is considered as a lawful capture of the property of an enemy. They deem it dishonest to steal from their friends or allies, but their code of morality justifies any deception or injury towards an enemy, and affords but slight protection to the person or property of any who are not bound to them by some strong bond of interest or friendship. Many of the wars of the Indians grow out of these predatory habits, and the capture of a few horses is repaid by the blood of warriors, and the sacrifice of life.

On the same occasion alluded to above, we are told, “in this dance, Ietan represented one who was in the act of stealing horses. He carried a whip in his hand, as did a considerable number of the Indians, and around his neck were thrown several leather thongs, for bridles and halters, the ends of which trailed on the ground be hind him; after many preparatory maneuvers, he stooped down, and with his knife represented the act of cutting the hoppks of horses; he then rode his tomahawk as children ride their broomsticks, making such use of his whip as to indicate the necessity of rapid movement, lest his foes should overtake him.”

The authority already quoted, after remarking that the Indians sometimes indulge in pleasantry in their conversation, adds, that “Shaumonekusse seemed to be eminently witty, a quality strongly indicated by his well marked features.”

The union between the Missouri and Otto took place about twenty years ago, when the former were conquered and dispersed by the Sauk and Foxes, and their allies, when a few families joined the Osages; a few took refuge among the Konsas, while the chief part of the tribe became amalgamated with the Otto. Having been previously very nearly assimilated in habits, manners, and language, the union has been cordial, and they may now De considered as one people.

These tribes boast of having faithfully adhered to their professions of friendship towards the American people; not one of whom, they assert, was ever killed by their warriors. Only two white men have been slain by them within the recollection of any living witnesses; one of these was a Frenchman, and the other a Spaniard, who was killed by Shaumonekusse, in the manner already alluded to; and although this act was attended by a remarkable display of bravery, which no doubt gained him great credit, he declared publicly that it was the only martial act of his life that he was ashamed of.

This individual is distinguished not only as a warrior, but as a great hunter; and it is evident that he takes no small degree of pride in his exploits in the, chase, from the manner in which his head was decorated with the spoils of the field, when he sat for his portrait. The horns of the buffalo are worn with a triumph which renders it probable that a legend of more than ordinary daring is connected with the identical pair thus ostentatiously displayed, while the claws of the grizzly bear, the fiercest and most powerful quadruped of our continent, are suspended round his neck.

When this portrait was taken, Shaumonekusse was a young and gallant warrior; he has since become the head man of his tribe, and risen to great influence among his neighbors. The immediate cause of his rise from a half to a full chieftain, was the result of a quarrel that happened between one of his brothers and himself. In the fight produced by the quarrel, it was the lot of Shaumonekusse to have his nose bit off, whereupon he shot his brother. He immediately repaired to the council, and made known what had happened, when it was decreed that any man who would bite off his brother’s nose deserves to be shot; and in testimony of the respect entertained by the chiefs for the promptness of Shaumonekusse in punishing such an outrage, they elected him chief.

Biography, Otto,

McKenny, Thomas & Hall, James & Todd, Hatherly & Todd, Joseph. History of the Indian tribes of North America: with biographical sketches and anecdotes of the principal chiefs. Embellished with one hundred portraits from the Indian Gallery in the War Department at Washington. Philadelphia: D. Rice & Co. 1872.

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