“Good Road” is one of the Dahcotah chiefs he is fifty years old and has two wives, but these two have given a deal of trouble; although the chief probably thinks it of no importance whether his two wives fight all the time or not, so that they obey his orders. For what would be a calamity in domestic life to us, is an every day affair among the Dahcotahs.
Good Road’s village is situated on the banks of the St. Peter’s about seven miles from Fort Snelling. And like other Indian villages it abounds in variety more than anything else. In the teepee the farthest from us, right on the edge of the shore, there are three young men carousing. One is inclined to go to sleep, but the other two will not let him; their spirits are raised and excited by what has made him stupid. Who would suppose they were human beings? See their bloodshot
eyes; hear their fiendish laugh and horrid yells; probably before the revel is closed, one of the friends will have buried his knife in the other’s heart.
We will pass on to the next teepee. Here we witness a scene almost as appalling. “Iron Arms,” one of the most valiant warriors of the band, is stretched in the agonies of death. Old Spirit Killer, the medicine man, is gesticulating by his side, and accompanying his motions with the most horrid noises. But all in vain; the spirit of “Iron Arms,” the man of strength, is gone. The doctor says that his medicine was good, but that a prairie dog had entered into the body of the Dahcotah, and he thought it had been a mud-hen. Magnanimous doctor! All honor, that you can allow yourself in error.
While the friends of the dead warrior are rending the air with their cries, we will find out what is going on in the next wigwam. What a contrast!
“The Whirlpool” is seated on the ground smoking; gazing as earnestly at the bright coals as if in them he could read the future or recall the past; and his young wife, whose face, now merry, now sad, bright with smiles at one moment, and lost in thought the next, gained for her the name of “The Changing Countenance,” is hushing her child to sleep; but the expression of her features does not change now as she looks on her child, a mother’s deep and devoted love is pictured on her face.
In another, “The Dancing Woman” is wrapped in her blanket pretending to go to sleep. In vain does “The Flying Cloud” play that monotonous courting tune on the flute. The maiden would not be his wife if he gave her all the trinkets in the world. She loves and is going to marry “Iron Lightning,” who has gone to bring her what? a brooch a new blanket? no, a Chippeway’s scalp, that she may be the most graceful of those who dance around it. Her mother is mending the moccasins of the old man who sleeps before the fire.
And we might go round the village and find every family differently employed. They have no regular hours for eating or sleeping. In front of the teepees, young men are lying on the ground, lazily playing checkers, while their wives and sisters are cutting wood and engaged in laborious household duties.
I said Good Road had two wives, and I would now observe that neither of them is younger than himself. But they are as jealous of each other as if they had just turned seventeen, and their lord and master were twenty instead of fifty. Not a day passes that they do not quarrel, and fight too. They throw at each other whatever is most convenient, and sticks of wood are always at hand. And then, the sons of each wife take a part in the battle; they first fight for their mothers, and then for themselves so that the chief must have been reduced to desperation long ago if it were not for his pipe and his philosophy. Good Road’s second wife has Chippeway blood in her veins. Her mother was taken prisoner by the Dahcotahs; they adopted her, and she became the wife of a Dahcotah warrior. She loved her own people, and those who had adopted her too; and in course of time her daughter attained the honorable station of a chief’s second wife. Good Road hates the Chippeways, but he fell in love with one of their descendants, and married her. She is a good wife, and the white people have given her the name of “Old Bets.”
Last summer “Old Bets” narrowly escaped with her life. The Dahcotahs having nothing else to do, were amusing themselves by recalling all the Chippeways had ever done to injure them; and those who were too lazy to go out on a war party, happily recollected that there was Chippeway blood near them no farther off than their chief’s wigwam; and eight or ten braves vowed they would make an end of “Old Bets.” But she heard of their threats, left the village for a time, and after the Dahcotahs had gotten over their mania for shedding blood, she returned, and right glad was Good Road to see her. For she has an open, good humored countenance; the very reverse of that of the first wife, whose vinegar aspect would frighten away an army of small children.
After “Old Bets” returned, Good Road could not conceal his satisfaction. His wife’s trip had evidently improved her good looks, for the chief thought she was the handsomest squaw in the village. Her children were always taunting the sons of the first wife, and so it went on, until at last Good Road said he would stand it no longer; he told his oldest wife to go that he would support her no longer. And for her children, he told them the prairies were large; there were deer and other game in short, he disinherited them cut them off with their last meal.
For the discarded wife, life had now but one hope. The only star that shone in the blackness of her heaven, was the undefined prospect of seeing her rival’s blood flow. She would greatly have preferred taking her life herself; and as she left the wigwam of the chief, she grasped the handle of her knife how quick her heart beat! it might be now or never.
But there were too many around to protect Old Bets. The time would come she would watch for her she would tear her heart from her yet.
The sons of the old hag did not leave the village; they would keep a watch on their father and his Chippeway wife. They would not easily yield their right to the chieftainship. While they hunted, and smoked, and played at cards, they were ever on the look-out for revenge.
“Red Earth” sits by the door of her father’s teepee; while the village is alive with cheerfulness, she does not join in any of the amusements going on, but seems to be occupied with what is passing in her own mind.
Occasionally she throws a pebble from the shore far into the river, and the copper-colored children spring after it, as if the water were their own element, striving to get it before it sinks from their view.
Had she been attentive to what is passing around her, she would not have kept her seat, for “Shining Iron,” the son of Good Road’s second wife, approaches her; and she loves him too little to talk with him when it can be avoided.
“Why are you not helping the women to make the teepee, Red Earth?” said the warrior. “They are laughing while they sew the buffalo-skin together, and you are sitting silent and alone. Why is it so? Are you thinking of ‘Fiery Wind?'”
“There are enough women to make the teepee,” replied Red Earth, “and I sit alone because I choose to do so. But if I am thinking of ‘Fiery Wind’ I do right he is a great warrior!”
“Tell me if you love Fiery Wind?” said the young man, while his eyes flashed fire, and the veins in his temple swelled almost to bursting.
“I do not love you,” said the girl, “and that is enough. And you need never think I will become your wife; your spells cannot make me love you. 1 Where are Fiery Wind and his relations? driven from the wigwam of the Chief by you and your Chippeway mother. But they do not fear you neither do I!”
And Red Earth looked calmly at the angry face of her lover. For Shining Iron did love her, and he had loved her long. He had loaded her with presents, which she always refused; he had related his honors, his brave acts to her, but she turned a deaf ear to his words. He promised her he would always have venison in her teepee, and that he never would take another wife; she was the only woman he could ever love. But he might as well have talked to the winds. And he thought so himself, for, finding he could not gain the heart of the proud girl, he determined she should never be the wife of any other man, and he told her so.
“You may marry Fiery Wind,” said the angry lover, “but if you do, I will kill him.” Red Earth heard, but did not reply to his threats; she feared not for herself, but she trembled at the prospect of danger to the man she loved. And while she turned the bracelets on her small wrists, the warrior left her to her own thoughts. They were far from being pleasant; she must warn her lover of the threats of his rival. For a while she almost determined she would not marry Fiery Wind, for then his life would be safe; but she would not break her promise. Besides, it was hard for her to destroy all the air-built castles which she had built for her happy future.
She knew Shining Iron’s bravery, and she doubted not he would fulfill his promise; for a moment prudence suggested that she had better marry him to avoid his revenge. But she grasped the handle of her knife, as if she would plunge it into her own bosom for harboring the dark thought. Never should she be unfaithful; when Fiery Wind returned she would tell him all, and then she would become his wife, and she felt that her own heart was true enough to guard him, her own arm strong enough to slay his enemy.
All women are willful enough, but Dahcotah women are particularly so. Slaves as they are to their husbands, they lord it over each other, and it is only when they become grandmothers that they seem to feel their dependence, and in many instances yield implicit obedience to the wills of their grandchildren.
They take great delight in watching over and instructing their children’s children; giving them lessons in morality, 2 and worldly wisdom. Thus while Red Earth was making her determination, her old grandmother belonging to the village was acting upon hers.
This old woman was a perfect virago an “embodied storm.” In her time she had cut off the hands and feet of some little Chippeway children, and strung them, and worn them for a necklace. And she feasted yet at the pleasant recollections this honorable exploit induced.
But so tender was she of the feelings of her own flesh and blood, that the thought of their suffering the slightest pain was death to her.
Her son ruled his household very well for a Dahcotah. He had a number of young warriors and hunters growing up around him, and he sometimes got tired of their disturbances, and would use, not the rod but a stick of wood to some purpose. Although it had the good effect of quelling the refractory spirits of the young, it invariably fired the soul of his aged mother. The old woman would cry and howl, and refuse to eat, for days; till, finding this had no effect upon her hard-hearted son, she told him she would do something that would make him sorry, the next time he struck one of his children.
But the dutiful son paid no attention to her. He had always considered women as being inferior to dogs, and he would as soon have thought of giving up smoking, as of minding his mother’s threats.
But while Red Earth was thinking of her absent lover, Two Stars was beating his sons again and when the maiden was left alone by Shining Iron after the warning he had given her, she was attracted by the cries of one of the old women of the village, who was struggling ‘mid earth and heaven, while old and young were running to the spot, some to render assistance, others to see the fun.
And glorious fun it was! the grandmother had almost hung herself that is, she seriously intended to do it. But she evidently did not expect the operation to be so painful. When her son, in defiance of her tears and threats, commenced settling his household difficulties in his own way she took her head-strap, 3 went to a hill just above the village, and deliberately made her preparations for hanging, as coolly too as if she had been used to being hung for a long time. But when, after having doubled the strap four times to prevent its breaking, she found herself choking, her courage gave way she yelled frightfully; and it was well that her son and others ran so fast, for they had well nigh been too late. As it was, they carried her into the teepee, where the medicine man took charge of her case; and she was quite well again in an hour or two. Report says (but there is a sad amount of scandal in an Indian village) that the son has never offended the mother since; so, like many a willful woman, she has gained her point.
Red Earth witnessed the cutting down of the old woman, and as she returned to her teepee, her quick ear warned her of coming footsteps. She lingered apart from the others, and soon she saw the eagle feathers of her warrior as he descended the hill towards the village. Gladly would she have gone to meet him to welcome him home, but she knew that
Shining Iron was watching her motions, and she bent her steps homeward. She was quite sure that it would not be long before he would seek her, and then she would tell him what had passed, and make arrangements for
their course of conduct for the future.
Fiery Wind was the nephew of Good Road, but he, like the sons, was in disgrace with the chief, and, like them, he had vowed vengeance against “Old Bets.”
The gun is now generally used among the Dahcotahs as a weapon of warfare. But those bands in the neighborhood of Fort Snelling considered it as a necessary part of their war implements, before the distant bands were at all acquainted with its use.
Some time ago, one of the Mun-da-wa-kan-tons gave a gun to a Sisse-ton, who, proud of the gift, went out immediately to use it. On his return to his village he came up with a drove of buffaloes. His first impulse was to use his bow and arrow, but a moment’s thought reminded him of the gift of his friend. He loaded the gun, saying at the same time to it, “Now, the Dahcotahs call you ‘wah-kun’ (supernatural), kill me the fattest cow in the drove.” He waited a few moments to see his orders executed, but the gun was not “wah-kun” enough to fire by order alone. Seeing that it did not go off, the Sisse-ton flew into a rage and broke the gun into pieces. “I suppose,” said he “that if a Mun-da-wah-can-ton had told you to kill a buffalo, you would have done it, but you do not regard what a Sisse-ton says.” So he threw the pieces of the gun away, and found his bow and arrows of far more service.
However naturally the usages of warfare may come to the Indians, they are also made a part of their education.
The children are taught that it is wicked to murder without a cause; but when offence has been given, they are in duty bound to retaliate.
The day after the return of Fiery Wind, the boys of the village were to attack a hornet’s nest. This is one of the ways of training their sons to warfare. One of the old warriors had seen a hornet’s nest in the woods, and he returned to the village, and with the chief assembled all the boys in the village. The chief ordered the boys to take off all their clothes, and gave them each a gun. He then told them how brave their forefathers were that they never feared pain or danger and that they must prove themselves worthy sons of such ancestors. “One of these days you will be men, and then you will go on war parties and kill your enemies, and then you will be fit to join in the dog feast. Be brave, and do not fear the sting of the hornet, for if you do, you will be cowards instead of warriors, and the braves will call you women and laugh at you.”
This was enough to animate the courage of the boys some of them not more than five years old pushed ahead of their elder brothers, eager to show to their fathers, who accompanied them, how little they feared their enemies, as they termed the hornets. And formidable enemies they were too for many of the little fellows returned sadly stung, with swollen limbs, and closed eyes; but they bore their wounds as well as brave men would have endured their pain on a battle-field.
After leaving their village, they entered the woods farther from the banks of the river. The guide who had seen the nest led the way, and the miniature warriors trod as lightly as if there was danger of rousing a sleeping foe. At last the old man pointed to the nest, and without a moment’s hesitation, the young Dahcotahs attacked it. Out flew the hornets in every direction. Some of the little boys cried out with the pain from the stings of the hornets on their unprotected limbs but the cries of Shame! shame! from one of the old men soon recalled them to their duty, and they marched up again not a whit discomfited. Good Road cheered them on. “Fight well, my warriors,” said he; “you will carry many scalps home, you are brave men.”
It was not long before the nest was quite destroyed, and then the old men said they must take a list of the killed and wounded. The boys forced a loud laugh when they replied that there were no scalps taken by the enemy, but they could not deny that the list of the wounded was quite a long one. Some of them limped, in spite of their efforts to walk upright, and one little fellow had to be assisted along by his father, for both eyes were closed; and, although stung in every direction and evidently suffering agony, the brave boy would not utter a complaint.
When they approached the village, the young warriors formed into Indian file, and entered as triumphantly as their fathers would have done, had they borne twenty Chippeway scalps with them.
The mothers first applauded the bravery of their sons; and then applied herbs to their swollen limbs, and the mimic war furnished a subject of amusement for the villages for the remainder of the day.
It would be well for the Dahcotahs if they only sought the lives of their enemies. But they are wasting in numbers far more by their internal dissensions than from other causes. Murder is so common among them, that it is even less than a nine days’ wonder; all that is thought necessary is to bury the dead, and then some relative must avenge his quarrel.
Red Earth told her lover of the threat of Shining Iron, and the young man was thus put on his guard. The sons of Good Road’s first wife were also told of the state of things, and they told Fiery Wind that they would take up his quarrel, glad of an opportunity to avenge their own and their mother’s wrongs. It was in the month of April, or as the Dahcotahs say in “the moon that geese lay,” that Red Earth took her place by the side of her husband, thus asserting her right to be
mistress of his wigwam. While she occupied herself with her many duties, she never for a moment forgot the threat of Shining Iron. But her cares and anxieties for her husband’s safety were soon over. She had not long been a wife before her enemy lay a corpse; his life was a forfeit to his love for her, and Red Earth had a woman’s heart. Although she could but rejoice that the fears which had tormented her were now unnecessary, yet when she remembered how devotedly the dead warrior had loved her, how anxiously he had tried to please her, she could not but shed a few tears of sorrow for his death. But they were soon wiped away not for the world would she have had her husband see them.
The oldest sons of Good Road were true to their word and the son of Old Bets was not the only subject for their vengeance. His sister was with him at the moment that they chose to accomplish their purpose; and when an Indian commences to shed blood, there is no knowing how soon he will be satisfied. Shining Iron died instantly, but the sister’s wounds were not fatal she is slowly recovering.
It was but yesterday that we visited the grave of the dead warrior. On a hill near the St. Peters his body is buried. The Indians have enclosed the grave, and there is a “Wah-kun stone,” to which they sacrifice, at his head. No one reposes near him. Alone he lies, undisturbed by aught except the winds that sigh over him. The first flowers of Spring are blooming on the spot where he played in childhood, and here, where he reposes, he often sat to mourn the unkindness of Red Earth, and vow vengeance on his successful rival.
But he is not unwatched. His spirit is ever near, and perhaps he will again live on earth. 4 His friends believe that he may hold communion with Unk-ta-he, that from that God he will learn the mysteries of the Earth and Water; and when he lives again in another form, he will instruct the Dahcotahs in their religion, and be a great medicine man.
Good Road is quite reconciled to his sons, for he says it was a brave deed to get rid of an enemy. In vain does Old Bets ask for vengeance on the murderers. Good Road reminds her that Shining Iron had made a threat, and it was not proper he should live; and the chief insisted more upon this, when he added that these children of her’s were by a former husband, and it was natural his sons should resent their father’s preference for them.
So after all Old Bets doubts whether she, or the Chief’s first wife, has got the best of it; and as she dresses the wounds of her daughter, she wishes that the Dahcotahs had killed her mother instead of adopting her lamenting, too, that she should ever have attained to the honor of being Good Road’s wife.
- The Sioux have great faith in spells. A lover will take gum, and after putting some medicine in it, will induce the girl of his choice to chew it, or put it in her way so that she will take it up of her own accord. It is a long time before an Indian lover will take a refusal from the woman he has chosen for a wife.[↩]
- The idea is ridiculed by some, that an Indian mother troubles herself about the morals of her children; but it is nevertheless true, that she talks to them, and, according to her own ideas of right and wrong, tries to instill good principles into their minds. The grandmothers take a great deal of care of their grandchildren.[↩]
- The head-strap is made of buffalo skin. It is from eight to ten, or sometimes twenty-four feet long. The women fasten their heavy burdens to this strap, which goes around the forehead; the weight of the burden falls upon the head and back. This occasions the figures of the Indian women to stoop, since they necessarily lean forward in order to preserve their balance.[↩]
- The Sioux believe in the transmigration of souls. Many of the Indians near Fort Snelling say they have lived before on earth. The jugglers remember many incidents that occurred during some former residence on earth, and they will tell them to you with all the gravity imaginable.[↩]