Shahaka, Mandan Chief

Shahaka A Mandan Chief
A Mandan Chief

This portrait is not included in the Indian gallery at Washington City, but is of an older date, and equally authentic with those contained in the national collection. It was kindly pointed out to us in the hall of the American Philosophical Society, in Philadelphia, by the venerable and accomplished librarian of that institution, John Vaughan, Esq., who permitted us to take this copy. Our information concerning the original is chiefly gleaned from the travels of Lewis and Clark, a work compiled with singular fidelity, and replete with valuable information.

In the ascent of the Missouri, in the year 1804, the enterprising travelers above mentioned, halted at the Mandan villages, situated far beyond the frontier settlements, at a point to which but few white men had penetrated. They were kindly received by the Mandan, who, having ‘had no direct intercourse with the white people, had not experienced the oppression which has ever fallen upon the weaker party, in the contact of the two races. The leaders of the exploring expedition were so well pleased with their reception, that, finding they could not proceed much further before their progress would be arrested by the excessive cold of this high latitude, they determined to spend the winter among the hospitable Mandan. Huts were accordingly erected, and they remained here, during the inclement season, enjoying an uninterrupted inter change of friendly offices with the natives.

On their arrival, a council was held, at which, after smoking the pipe of peace, a speech was delivered, explaining the objects of the exploring party, and giving assurances of friendship and trade. “This being over,” says the narrative, “we proceeded to distribute the presents with great ceremony: one chief of each town was acknowledged by a gift of a flag, a medal with the likeness of the President of the United States, a uniform coat, hat, and feather; to the second chiefs we gave a medal representing some domestic animals, and a loom for weaving: to the third chiefs, medals with the impression of a farmer sowing grain.” The account proceeds: “The chiefs who were made today are, Shahaka, or Big White, a first chief, and Kagohami, or Little Raven, a second chief of the lower village of the Mandan, called Matootonha,” &c. The making a chief, alluded to in this sentence, consisted simply in recognizing that rank in those who previously held it, by treating with them in that capacity, and giving them presents appropriate to their station. On a subsequent occasion, we find this individual noticed in the following manner: “The Big White came down to us, having packed on the back of his squaw about one hundred pounds of very fine meat, for which we gave him, as well as the squaw, some presents, particularly an axe to the woman, with which she was very much pleased.” If the measure of this lady’s affection for her lord be estimated by the burden which she carried on her back, we should say it was very strong.

On the return of Lewis and Clark to the Mandan villages, after an interval of nearly eighteen months, during which they had crossed the Rocky Mountains, and penetrated to the shores of the Pacific ocean, these enterprising travelers were cordially received by the friendly Indians with whom they had formerly spent a winter so harmoniously. Anxious to cement the friendly disposition which existed into a lasting peace, they proposed to take some of the chiefs with them to Washington city, to visit the President, This invitation would have been readily accepted, had it not been for the danger to which the Indians imagined such a journey to be exposed.

Between them and the United States frontier were the Arickara, their enemies, whose towns must of necessity be passed by the descending boats; the roving bands of the Sioux also frequently committed depredations along the left shore of the Missouri, while the right bank was accessible to the Osages; and although the American officers promised to protect those who should accompany them, and to bring them back to their homes, they could not overcome the jealous and timid reluctance of any of the chiefs, except Le Grand Blanche, or the Big White, who agreed to become their companion. Our gallant explorers have unfortunately given a very brief account of their journey after leaving the Mandan villages, on their return voyage, and we find no record of the conduct of the Big White, under such novel circumstances. It would have been very interesting to have heard from those gentlemen, who had just visited the Indians in their own abodes, an account of the remarks and behavior of an Indian chief, under similar circumstances. We, however, only know that he visited our seat of government, and returned in safety to his friends.

Biography, Mandan,

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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