Yesterday and Today

“We then proceeded on for a mile, and anchored off a willow island, which, from the circumstances which had just occurred, we called Badhumored Island.”

This is quoted, not for the chronicles of Swiss Family Robinson, but from a much nearer source, the journal of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804-6; and it sums up the impression left by the first meeting of the party with the Teton Sioux, one of the three great branches of that numerous tribe more properly known as Dakota.

Of all the Indians on the long journey into the wilderness that the United States had just acquired through the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark found the Sioux the most quarrelsome, the most menacing of future trouble. In this first encounter at the mouth of the stream they called Teton River, the chiefs accepted the gifts and hospitality of the white men, then strove to detain them and demanded further tribute. Intimidation had been their rule with the traders who had hitherto given them their only contact with the white race; and they did not realize that behind this new group lay the power of a young and growing nation that was spreading over the land that had once been the red man’s alone. Arrows were fixed in their bow’s for flight, and swords were drawn; but the incident passed over without an actual conflict, and the boat that was making its way up the almost unknown reaches of the Missouri went on a space to the island thus named in commemoration of the incident.

The next morning a better spirit prevailed; and the party, realizing the changed mood of the Indians, “complied with their wish that we should give them an opportunity of treating them well, and also suffer their squaws and children to see us and our boat, which would be perfectly new to them.” A crowd of men, women and children waited to receive Captain Lewis and Clark and their party as they made a landing. They were escorted by ten well-dressed young men to a council room in the shape of three-quarters of a circle, where seventy warriors sat around the chief. The visitors were seated upon a buffalo robe beside this dignitary, before whom were the Spanish flag and the flag of the United States, which had been given to the band the day before.

“This left a vacant circle of about six feet diameter, in which the pipe of peace was raised on two forked sticks about six or eight inches from the ground and under it the down of the swan was scattered; a large fire on which there were cooking provisions stood near, and in the center about four hundred pounds of excellent buffalo meat as a present for us.”

“As soon as we were seated an old man got up, and after approving what we had done begged us to take pity on their unfortunate situation. To this we replied with assurances of protection. After he had ceased, the great chief rose and delivered an harangue to the same effect; then with great solemnity he took some of the most delicate parts of the dog, which was cooked for the festival, and held it to the flag by way of sacrifice; this done, he held up the pipe of peace, and first pointed it toward the heavens, then to the four corners of the globe, and then to the earth, made a short speech, lighted the pipe, and presented it to us.”

When the pipe of peace had been smoked and other speeches made, the feast was served and other speeches made, the feast was served in platters with horn spoons. One of the dished was “pemitigon, a dish made of buffalo meat, dried or jerked, and then pounded and mixed raw with grease.” Another was “a kind of ground potatoes, dressed like the preparation of Indian corn called hominy, to which it is little inferior. But the greatest delicacy, the piece de resistance which was brought forth to do honor to the high standing of their guests, was the sacrificial dog stew. This the visitors tasted, as the ceremonies demanded, but they found the other viands more to their liking, and of the dog “could as yet partake but sparingly.”

After an hour of feasting and smoking, it was time for the dance. It was now dark, and the fire in the center of the tepee was replenished to furnish light as well as warmth for the party.

“The orchestra was composed of about ten men, who played on a sort of tambourine formed of skin stretched across a hoop, and made a jingling noise with a long stick to which the hoofs of deer and goats were hung; the third instrument was a small skin bag with pebbles in it; these, with five or six young men for the vocal part, made of the band. The women then came forward highly decorated, some with poles in their hands on which were hung the scalps of their enemies; others with guns, spears or different trophies, taken in war by their husband, brothers, or connections.”

“Having arranged themselves in two columns, one on each side of the fire, as soon as the music began they danced toward each other until they met in the center, when the rattles were shaken, and they all shouted and returned back to their places. They have no step, but shuffle along the ground; nor does the music appear to be anything more than a confusion of noises, distinguished only by hard or gentle blows upon the buffalo skin; the song is perfectly extemporaneous.”

“In the pauses of the dance any man of the company comes forward and recites, in a sort of low guttural tone, some little story or incident, which is either martial or ludicrous, or, as was the case this evening, voluptuous and indecent; this is taken up by the orchestra and the dancers, who repeat it in a higher strain and dance to it. Sometimes they alternate, the orchestra first performing, and when it ceases the women raise their voices and make a music more agreeable, that is les intolerable than that of the musicians. The dances of the men, which are always separate from those of the women, are conducted very nearly in the same way, except that the men jump up and down instead of shuffling; and in the war dances the recitations are all of a military cast.”

There were two days of feasting and dancing and smoking of the pipe of peace; but the professions of friendship seemed not rooted very deeply, for when the party attempted to go on its way there was again an effort to oppose its departure. After thorough preparation for resistance in case of attack, and after long parleyings with the first, the second and the third chiefs and their families, the boat of the explorers went without further warlike demonstration on its way up the Missouri.

This encounter took place in September, 1804. President Jefferson had just purchased this wide-spreading uncharted land from Napoleon, and had sent Captains Lewis and Clark to explore the country and bring back to the American people some news about their new possessions. Heretofore the vast expanse had known only the visit of an occasional trapper or trader. The land was the possession of the mighty roaming herds of the buffalo and the many warring tribes of Indians.
For a picture of the same land a hundred and twenty years later, and of Indians of the same bands, possibly numbering among them descendants of those who smoked the pipe of peace with the first Americans, read an extract from the report of a recent visit to the Sioux by Chairman George Vaux, Jr., of the Board of Indian Commissioners:

“As bearing on the progress these Indians are making, I want to refer to my visit to the Ponca Creek region, over a hundred miles in a air line east of Rosebud Agency. This country was opened up a number of years ago, and as it is fine agricultural land there is a succession of excellent farms operated by white men. The Ponca Creek section includes some of the best land of the region. Here there are approximately three hundred and eighty Indians. These comprise of forty-two families who are actually farming, having about twenty-five hundred acres under cultivation. One man has two hundred and twenty acres of alfalfa alone.

“We met a considerable number of these people. They said they had not had time to attend the recent celebration which had brought together several thousand Indians to celebrate the enacting by Congress of the legislation respecting the Black Hills claims, because their farms required their attention.

“One leaves such a community with a feeling of optimism. For years these people had seen no one from Washington. Their interest and enthusiasm were inspiring. It seemed as though here were a place where the solution of the Indian problem had been nearly worked out.”

Linking these two scenes, the council fire of the savage and the harvest field of the busy farmer, is the narrative of one of he great epochs of history, not yet fully appreciated by us because we are still too near to the actual event. It is the tidal sweep of population across a vast continent; it is the saga of the westerning pioneer; it is the conquest of nature and the mechanical transformation of the universe at the puff of the locomotive; it is the development of the “great prairie wilderness” into a land of peace and plenty. And of all the many events which make up the wonderful tale of this wonderful age, none are more thrilling, more dramatic, than those concerned with the story of the Sioux.

Sioux, Teton Sioux,

Seymour, Flora Warren. The Story of the Sioux Indians. Haldeman-Julius Company. 1924.

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