Shah-Co-Pee, The Orator of the Sioux

Shah-co-pee (or Six) is one of the chiefs of the Dahcotahs; his village is about twenty-five miles from Fort Snelling. He belongs to the bands that are called Men-da-wa-can-ton, or People of the Spirit Lakes.

No one who has lived at Fort Snelling can ever forget him, for at what house has he not called to shake hands and smoke; to say that he is a great chief, and that he is hungry and must eat before he starts for home? If the hint is not immediately acted upon, he adds that the sun is dying fast, and it is time for him to set out.

Shah-co-pee is not so tall or fine looking as Bad Hail, nor has he the fine Roman features of old Man in the Cloud. His face is decidedly ugly; but there is an expression of intelligence about his quick black eye and fine forehead, that makes him friends, notwithstanding his many troublesome qualities.

At present he is in mourning; his face is painted black. He never combs his hair, but wears a black silk handkerchief tied across his forehead.

When he speaks he uses a great deal of gesture, suiting the action to the word. His hands, which are small and well formed, are black with dirt; he does not descend to the duties of the toilet.

He is the orator of the Dahcotahs. No matter how trifling the occasion, he talks well; and assumes an air of importance that would become him if he were discoursing on matters of life and death.

Some years ago, our government wished the Chippeways and Dahcotahs to conclude a treaty of peace among themselves. Frequently have these two bands made peace, but rarely kept it any length of time. On this occasion many promises were made on both sides; promises which would be broken by some inconsiderate young warrior before long, and then retaliation must follow.

Shah-co-pee has great influence among the Dahcotahs, and he was to come to Fort Snelling to be present at the council of peace. Early in the morning he and about twenty warriors left their village on the banks of the St. Peters, for the Fort.

When they were very near, so that their actions could be distinguished, they assembled in their canoes, drawing them close together, that they might hear the speech which their chief was about to make them.

They raised the stars and stripes, and their own flag, which is a staff adorned with feathers from the war eagle; and the noon-day sun gave brilliancy to their gay dresses, and the feathers and ornaments that they wore.

Shah-co-pee stood straight and firm in his canoe and not the less proudly that the walls of the Fort towered above him.

“My boys,” he said (for thus he always addressed his men), “the Dahcotahs are all braves; never has a coward been known among the People of the Spirit Lakes. Let the women and children fear their enemies, but we will face our foes, and always conquer.

“We are going to talk with the white men; our great Father wishes us to be at peace with our enemies. We have long enough shed the blood of the Chippeways; we have danced round their scalps, and our children have kicked their heads about in the dust. What more do we want? When we are in council, listen to the words of the Interpreter as he tells us what our great Father says, and I will answer him for you; and when we have eaten and smoked the pipe of peace, we will return to our village.”

The chief took his seat with all the importance of a public benefactor. He intended to have all the talking to himself, to arrange matters according to his own ideas; but he did it with the utmost condescension, and his warriors were satisfied.

Besides being an orator, Shah-co-pee is a beggar, and one of a high order too, for he will neither take offence nor a refusal. Tell him one day that you will not give him pork and flour, and on the next he returns, nothing daunted, shaking hands, and asking for pork and flour. He always gains his point, for you are obliged to give in order to get rid of him. He will take up his quarters at the Interpreter’s, and come down upon you every day for a week just at meal time and as he is always blessed with a ferocious appetite, it is much better to capitulate, come to terms by giving him what he wants, and let him go.

And after he has once started, ten to one if he does not come back to say he wants to shoot and bring you some ducks; you must give him powder and shot to enable him to do so. That will probably be the last of it.

It was a beautiful morning in June when we left Fort Snelling to go on a pleasure party up the St. Peters, in a steamboat, the first that had ever ascended that river. There were many drawbacks in the commencement, as there always are on such occasions. The morning was rather cool, thought some, and as they hesitated about going, of course their toilets were delayed to the last moment. And when all were fairly in the boat, wood was yet to be found. Then something was the matter with one of the wheels and the mothers were almost sorry they had consented to come; while the children, frantic with joy, were in danger of being drowned every moment, by the energetic movements they made near the sides of the boat, by way of indicating their satisfaction at the state of things.

In the cabin, extensive preparations were making in case the excursion brought on a good appetite. Everybody contributed loaf upon loaf of bread and cake; pies, coffee and sugar; cold meats of every description; with milk and cream in bottles. Now and then, one of these was broken or upset, by way of adding to the confusion, which was already intolerable.

Champagne and old Cogniac were brought by the young gentlemen, only for fear the ladies should be sea-sick; or, perhaps, in case the gentlemen should think it positively necessary to drink the ladies’ health.

When we thought all was ready, there was still another delay. Shah-co-pee and two of his warriors were seen coming down the hill, the chief making an animated appeal to some one on board the boat; and as he reached the shore he gave us to understand that his business was concluded, and that he would like to go with us. But it was very evident that he considered his company a favor.

The bright sun brought warmth, and we sat on the upper deck admiring the beautiful shores of the St. Peter’s. Not a creature was to be seen for some distance on the banks, and the birds as they flew over our heads seemed to be the fit and only inhabitants of such a region.

When tired of admiring the scenery, there was enough to employ us. The table was to be set for dinner; the children had already found out which basket contained the cake, and they were casting admiring looks

towards it.

When we were all assembled to partake of some refreshments, it was delightful to find that there were not enough chairs for half the party. We borrowed each other’s knives and forks too, and etiquette, that petty tyrant of society, retired from the scene. Shah-co-pee found his way to the cabin, where he manifested strong symptoms of shaking hands over again; in order to keep him quiet, we gave him plenty to eat. How he seemed to enjoy a piece of cake that had accidentally dropped into the oyster-soup! and with equal gravity would he eat apple-pie and ham together. And then his cry of “wakun” 1 when the cork flew from the champagne bottle across the table! How happily the day passed how few such days occur in the longest life!

As Shah-co-pee’s village appeared in sight, the chief addressed Col. D, who was at that time in command of Fort Snelling, asking him why we had come on such an excursion.

“To escort you home” was the ready reply; “you are a great chief, and worthy of being honored, and we have chosen this as the best way of showing our respect and admiration of you.”

The Dahcotah chief believed all; he never for a moment thought there was anything like jesting on the subject of his own high merits; his face beamed with delight on receiving such a compliment. The men and women of the village crowded on the shore as the boat landed, as well they might, for a steamboat was a new sight to them. The chief sprang from the boat, and swelling with pride and self admiration he took the most conspicuous station on a rock near the

shore, among his people, and made them a speech. We could but admire his native eloquence. Here, with all that is wild in nature surrounding him, did the untaught orator address his people. His lips gave rapid utterance to thoughts which did honor to his feelings, when we consider who and what he was.

He told them that the white people were their friends; that they wished them to give up murder and intemperance, and to live quietly and happily. They taught them to plant corn, and they were anxious to instruct their children. “When we are suffering,” said he, “during the cold weather, from sickness or want of food, they give us medicine and bread.” And finally he told them of the honor that had been paid him. “I went, as you know, to talk with the big Captain of the Fort, and he, knowing the bravery of the Dahcotahs, and that I was a great chief, has brought me home, as you see. Never has a Dahcotah warrior been thus honored!”

Never indeed! But we took care not to undeceive him. It was a harmless error, and as no efforts on our part could have diminished his self importance, we listened with apparent, indeed with real admiration of his eloquent speech. The women brought ducks on board, and in exchange we gave them bread; and it was evening as we watched the last teepee of Shah-co-pee’s village fade away in the distance.

But sorrow mingles with the remembrance of that bright day. One of those who contributed most to its pleasures is gone from us one whom all esteemed and many loved, and justly, for never beat a kinder or a nobler heart.

Shah-co-pee has looked rather grave lately. There is trouble in the wigwam.

The old chief is the husband of three wives, and they and their children are always fighting. The first wife is old as the hills, wrinkled and haggard; the chief cares no more for her than he does for the stick of wood she is chopping. She quarrels with everybody but him, and this prevents her from being quite forgotten.

The day of the second wife is past too, it is of no use for I her to plait her hair and put on her ornaments; for the old chief’s heart is wrapped up in his third wife.

The girl did not love him, how could she? and he did not succeed in talking her into the match; but he induced the parents to sell her to him, and the young wife went weeping to the teepee of the chief.

Hers was a sad fate. She hated her husband as much as he loved her. No presents could reconcile her to her situation. The two forsaken wives never ceased annoying her, and their children assisted them. The young wife had not the courage to resent their ill treatment, for the loss of her lover had broken her heart. But that lover did not seem to be in such despair as she was he did not quit the village, or drown himself, or commit any act of desperation. He lounged and smoked as much as ever. On one occasion when Shah-co-pee was absent from the village the lovers met.

They had to look well around them, for the two old wives were always on the look out for something to tell of the young one; but there was no one near. The wind whistled keenly round the bend of the river as the Dahcotah told the weeping girl to listen to him.

When had she refused? How had she longed to hear the sound of his voice when wearied to death with the long boastings of the old chief.

But how did her heart beat when Red Stone told her that he loved her still that he had only been waiting an opportunity to induce her to leave her old husband, and go with him far away. She hesitated a little, but not long; and when Shah-co-pee returned to his teepee his young wife was gone no one had seen her depart no one knew where to seek for her. When the old man heard that Red Stone was gone too, his rage knew no bounds. He beat his two wives almost to death, and would have given his handsomest pipe-stem to have seen the faithless one again.

His passion did not last long; it would have killed him if it had. His wives moaned all through the night, bruised and bleeding, for the fault of their rival; while the chief had recourse to the pipe, the never-failing refuge of the Dahcotah.

“I thought,” said the chief, “that some calamity was going to happen to me” (for, being more composed, he began to talk to the other Indians who sat with him in his teepee, somewhat after the manner and in the spirit of Job’s friends). “I saw Unk-a-tahe, the great fish of the water, and it showed its horns; and we know that that is always a sign of trouble.”

“Ho!” replied an old medicine man, “I remember when Unk-a-tahe got in under the falls” (of St. Anthony) “and broke up the ice. The large pieces of ice went swiftly down, and the water forced its way until it was frightful to see it. The trees near the shore were thrown down, and the small islands were left bare. Near Fort Snelling there was a house where a white man and his wife lived. The woman heard the noise, and, waking her husband, ran out; but as he did not follow her quick enough, the house was soon afloat and he was drowned.”

There was an Indian camp near this house, for the body of Wenona, the sick girl who was carried over the Falls, was found here. It was placed on a scaffold on the shore, near where the Indians found her, and Checkered Cloud moved her teepee, to be near her daughter. Several other Dahcotah families were also near her.

But what was their fright when they heard the ice breaking, and the waters roaring as they carried everything before them? The father of Wenona clung to his daughter’s scaffold, and no entreaties of his wife or others could induce him to leave.

“Unk-a-tahe has done this,” cried the old man, “and I care not. He carried my sick daughter under the waters, and he may bury me there too.” And while the others fled from the power of Unk-a-tahe, the father and mother clung to the scaffold of their daughter.

They were saved, and they lived by the body of Wenona until they buried her. “The power of Unk-a-tahe is great!” so spoke the medicine man, and Shah-co-pee almost forgot his loss in the fear and admiration of this monster of the deep, this terror of the Dahcotahs.

He will do well to forget the young wife altogether; for she is far away, making moccasins for the man she loves. She rejoices at her escape from the old man, and his two wives; while he is always making speeches to his men, commencing by saying he is a great chief, and ending with the assertion that Red Stone should have respected his old age, and not have stolen from him the only wife he loved.

Shah-co-pee came, a few days ago, with twenty other warriors, some of them chiefs, on a visit to the commanding officer of Fort Snelling.

The Dahcotahs had heard that the Winnebago were about to be removed, and that they were to pass through their hunting grounds on their way to their future homes. They did not approve of this arrangement. Last summer the Dahcotahs took some scalps of the Winnebago, and it was decided at Washington that the Dahcotahs should pay four thousand dollars of their annuities as an atonement for the act. This caused much suffering among the Dahcotahs; fever was making great havoc among them, and to deprive them of their flour and other articles of food was only enfeebling their constitutions, and rendering them an easy prey for disease. The Dahcotahs thought this very hard at the time; they have not forgotten the circumstance, and they think that they ought to be consulted before their lands are made a thoroughfare by their enemies.

They accordingly assembled, and, accompanied by the Indian agent and the interpreter, came to Fort Snelling to make their complaint. When they were all seated, (all on the floor but one, who looked most uncomfortable, mounted on a high chair), the agent introduced the subject, and it was discussed for a while; the Dahcotahs paying the most profound attention, although they could not understand a word of what was passing; and when there was a few moments’ silence, the chiefs rose each in his turn to protest against the Winnebago passing through their country. They all spoke sensibly and well; and when one finished, the others all intimated their approval by crying “Ho!” as a kind of chorus. After a while Shah-co-pee rose; his manner said “I am Sir Oracle.” He shook hands with the commanding officer, with the agent and interpreter, and then with some strangers who were visiting the fort.

His attitude was perfectly erect as he addressed the officer.

“We are the children of our great Father, the President of the United States; look upon us, for we are your children too. You are placed here to see that the Dahcotahs are protected, that their rights are not infringed upon.”

While the Indians cried Ho! ho! with great emphasis, Shah-co-pee shook hands all round again, and then resumed his place and speech.

“Once this country all belonged to the Dahcotahs. Where had the white man a place to call his own on our prairies? He could not even pass through our country without our permission!

“Our great Father has signified to us that he wants our lands. We have sold some of them to him, and we are content to do so, but he has promised to protect us, to be a friend to us, to take care of us as a father does of his children.

“When the white man wishes to visit us, we open the door of our country to him; we treat him with hospitality. He looks at our rocks, our river, our trees, and we do not disturb him. The Dahcotah and the white man are friends.

“But the Winnebago are not our friends, we suffered for them not long ago; our children wanted food; our wives were sick; they could not plant corn or gather the Indian potato. Many of our nation died; their bodies are now resting on their scaffolds. The night birds clap their wings as the winds howl over them!

“And we are told that our great Father will let the Winnebago make a path through our hunting grounds: they will subsist upon our game; every bird or animal they kill will be a loss to us.

“The Dahcotah’s lands are not free to others. If our great Father wishes to make any use of our lands, he should pay us. We object to the Winnebago passing through our country; but if it is too late to prevent this, then we demand a thousand dollars for every village they shall pass.”

Ho! cried the Indians again; and Shah-co-pee, after shaking hands once more, took his seat.

I doubt if you will ever get the thousand dollars a village, Shah-co-pee; but I like the spirit that induces you to demand it. May you live long to make speeches and beg bread the unrivalled orator and most notorious beggar of the Dahcotahs!Citations:

  1. Mysterious.[]

Dakota, Legends, Sioux,

Fort Snelling,

Eastman, Mary H. Dahcotah, Or Life and Legends of the Sioux around Ft. Snelling. New York: John Wiley. 1849.

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