Indians and their Stories

The most shameful chapter of American history is that in which is recorded the account of our dealings with the Indians. The story of our government’s intercourse with this race is an unbroken narrative of injustice, fraud, and robbery. Our people have disregarded honesty and truth whenever they have come in contact with the Indian, and he has had no rights because he has never had the power to enforce any.

Protests against governmental swindling of these savages have been made again and again, but such remonstrance’s attract no general attention. Almost every one is ready to acknowledge that in the past the Indians have been shamefully robbed, but it appears to be believed that this no longer takes place. This is a great mistake. We treat them now much as we have always treated them. Within two years, I have been present on a reservation where government commissioners, by means of threats, by bribes given to chiefs, and by casting fraudulently the votes of absentees, succeeded after months of effort in securing votes enough to warrant them in asserting that a tribe of Indians, entirely wild and totally ignorant of farming, had consented to sell their lands, and to settle down each upon 160 acres of the most utterly arid and barren land to be found on the North American continent. The fraud perpetrated on this tribe was as gross as could be practiced by one set of men upon another. In a similar way the Southern Ute were recently induced to consent to give up their reservation for another.

Americans are a conscientious people, yet they take no interest in these frauds. They have the Anglo-Saxon spirit of fair play, which sympathizes with weakness, yet no protest is made against the oppression which the Indian suffers. They are generous; a famine in Ireland, Japan, or Russia arouses the sympathy and calls forth the bounty of the nation, yet they give no heed to the distress of the Indians, who are in the very midst of them. They do not realize that Indians are human beings like themselves.

For this state of things there must be a reason, and this reason is to be found, I believe, in the fact that practically no one has any personal knowledge of the Indian race. The few who are acquainted with them are neither writers nor public speakers, and for the most part would find it easier to break a horse than to write a letter. If the general public knows little of this race, those who legislate about them are equally ignorant. From the congressional page who distributes the copies of a pending bill, up through the representatives and senators who vote for it, to the president whose signature makes the measure a law, all are entirely unacquainted with this people or their needs.

Many stories about Indians have been written, some of which are interesting and some, perhaps, true. All, however, have been written by civilized people, and have thus of necessity been misleading. The reason for this is plain. The white person who gives his idea of a story of Indian life inevitably looks at things from the civilized point of view, and assigns to the Indian such motives and feelings as govern the civilized man. But often the feelings which lead an Indian to perform a particular action are not those which would induce a white man to do the same thing, or if they are, the train of reasoning which led up to the Indian’s motive is not the reasoning of the white man.

In a volume about the Pawnees,1 I endeavored to show how Indians think and feel by letting some of them tell their own stories in their own fashion, and thus explain in their own way how they look at the every-day occurrences of their life, what motives govern them, and how they reason.

In the present volume, I treat of another race of Indians in precisely the same way. I give the Blackfoot stories as they have been told to me by the Indians themselves, not elaborating nor adding to them. In all cases except one they were written down as they fell from the lips of the storyteller. Sometimes I have transposed a sentence or two, or have added a few words of explanation; but the stories as here given are told in the words of the original narrators as nearly as it is possible to render those words into the simplest every-day English. These are Indians’ stories, pictures of Indian life drawn by Indian artists, and showing this life from the Indian’s point of view. Those who read these stories will have the narratives just as they came to me from the lips of the Indians themselves; and from the tales they can get a true notion of the real man who is speaking. He is not the Indian of the newspapers, nor of the novel, nor of the Eastern sentimentalist, nor of the Western boomer, but the real Indian as he is in his daily life among his own people, his friends, where he is not embarrassed by the presence of strangers, nor trying to produce effects, but is himself–the true, natural man.

And when you are talking with your Indian friend, as you sit beside him and smoke with him on the bare prairie during a halt in the day’s march, or at night lie at length about your lonely camp fire in the mountains, or form one of a circle of feasters in his home lodge, you get very near to nature. Some of the sentiments which he expresses may horrify your civilized mind, but they are not unlike those which your own small boy might utter. The Indian talks of blood and wounds and death in a commonplace, matter-of-fact way that may startle you. But these things used to be a part of his daily life; and even to-day you may sometimes hear a dried-up, palsied survivor of the ancient wars cackle out his shrill laugh when he tells as a merry jest, a bloodcurdling story of the torture he inflicted on some enemy in the long ago.

I have elsewhere expressed my views on Indian character, the conclusions founded on an acquaintance with this race extending over more than twenty years, during which time I have met many tribes, with some of whom I have lived on terms of the closest intimacy.

The Indian is a man, not very different from his white brother, except that he is undeveloped. In his natural state he is kind and affectionate in his family, is hospitable, honest and straightforward with his fellows,–a true friend. If you are his guest, the best he has is at your disposal; if the camp is starving, you will still have set before you your share of what food there may be in the lodge. For his friend he will die, if need be. He is glad to perform acts of kindness for those he likes. While traveling in the heats of summer over long, waterless stretches of prairie, I have had an Indian, who saw me suffering from thirst, leave me, without mentioning his errand, and ride thirty miles to fetch me a canteen of cool water.

The Indian is intensely religious. No people pray more earnestly nor more frequently. This is especially true of all Indians of the Plains.

The Indian has the mind and feelings of a child with the stature of a man; and if this is clearly understood and considered, it will readily account for much of the bad that we hear about him, and for many of the evil traits which are commonly attributed to him. Civilized and educated, the Indian of the better class is not less intelligent than the average white man, and he has every capacity for becoming a good citizen.

This is the view held not only by myself, but by all of the many old frontiersmen that I have known, who have had occasion to live much among Indians, and by most experienced army officers. It was the view held by my friend and schoolmate, the lamented Lieutenant Casey, whose good work in transforming the fierce Northern Cheyenne into United States soldiers is well known among all officers of the army, and whose sad death by an Indian bullet has not yet, I believe, been forgotten by the public.

It is proper that something should be said as to how this book came to be written.

About ten years ago, Mr. J. W. Schultz of Montana, who was then living in the Blackfoot camp, contributed to the columns of the “Forest and Stream”, under the title “Life among the Blackfeet,” a series of sketches of that people. These papers seemed to me of unusual interest, and worthy a record in a form more permanent than the columns of a newspaper; but no opportunity was then presented for filling in the outlines given in them.

Shortly after this, I visited the Pi-k[)u]n-i tribe of the Black-feet, and I have spent more or less time in their camps every year since. I have learned to know well all their principal men, besides many of the Bloods and the Blackfeet, and have devoted much time and effort to the work of accumulating from their old men and best warriors the facts bearing on the history, customs, and oral literature of the tribe, which are presented in this volume.

In 1889 my book on the Pawnees was published, and seemed to arouse so much interest in Indian life, from the Indian’s standpoint, that I wrote to Mr. Schultz, urging him, as I had often done before, to put his observations in shape for publication, and offered to edit his work, and to see it through the press. Mr. Schultz was unwilling to undertake this task, and begged me to use all the material which I had gathered, and whatever he could supply, in the preparation of a book about the Blackfeet.

A portion of the material contained in these pages was originally made public by Mr. Schultz, and he was thus the discoverer of the literature of the Blackfeet. My own investigations have made me familiar with all the stories here recorded, from original sources, but some of them he first published in the columns of the Forest and Stream. For this work he is entitled to great credit, for it is most unusual to find any one living the rough life beyond the frontier, and mingling in daily intercourse with Indians, who has the intelligence to study their traditions, history, and customs, and the industry to reduce his observations to writing.

Besides the invaluable assistance given me by Mr. Schultz, I acknowledge with gratitude the kindly aid of Miss Cora M. Ross, one of the school teachers at the Blackfoot agency, who has furnished me with a version of the story of the origin of the Medicine Lodge; and of Mrs. Thomas Dawson, who gave me help on the story of the Lost Children. William Jackson, an educated half-breed, who did good service from 1874 to 1879, scouting under Generals Custer and Miles, and William Russell, half-breed, at one time government interpreter at the agency, have both given me valuable assistance. The latter has always placed himself at my service, when I needed an interpreter, while Mr. Jackson has been at great pains to assist me in securing several tales which I might not otherwise have obtained, and has helped me in many ways. The veteran prairie man, Mr. Hugh Monroe, and his son, John Monroe, have also given me much information. Most of the stories I owe to Blackfeet, Blood, and Piegan of pure race. Some of these men have died within the past few years, among them the kindly and venerable Red Eagle; Almost-a-Dog, a noble old man who was regarded with respect and affection by Indians and whites; and that matchless orator, Four Bears. Others, still living, to whom I owe thanks, are Wolf Calf, Big Nose, Heavy Runner, Young Bear Chief, Wolf Tail, Rabid Wolf, Running Rabbit, White Calf, All-are-his-Children, Double Runner, Lone Medicine Person, and many others.

The stories here given cover a wide range of subjects, but are fair examples of the oral literature of the Blackfeet. They deal with religion, the origin of things, the performances of medicine men, the bravery and single-heartedness of warriors.

It will be observed that in more than one case two stories begin in the same way, and for a few paragraphs are told in language which is almost identical. In like manner it is often to be noted that in different stories the same incidents occur. This is all natural enough, when it is remembered that the range of the Indians’ experiences is very narrow. The incidents of camp life, of hunting and war excursions, do not offer a very wide variety of conditions; and of course the stories of the people deal chiefly with matters with which they are familiar. They are based on the every-day life of the narrators.

The reader of these Blackfoot stories will not fail to notice many curious resemblances to tales told among other distant and different peoples. Their similarity to those current among the Ojibwas, and other Eastern Algonquin tribes, is sufficiently obvious and altogether to be expected, nor is it at all remarkable that we should find, among the Blackfeet, tales identical with those told by tribes of different stock far to the south; but it is a little startling to see in the story of the Worm Pipe a close parallel to the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. In another of the stories is an incident which might have been taken bodily from the Odyssey.

Well-equipped students of general folk-lore will find in these tales much to interest them, and to such may be left the task of commenting on this collection.


Grinnell, George Bird. Blackfoot Lodge Tales: The Story of a Prairie People. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1892.

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