Massasoit: A Story of the Indians of New England - Alma H. Burton

The Sachem

The father of Bright Eyes was a sachem, and warriors from all along Cape Cod Bay, Buzzard's Bay and the east side of Narragansett Bay paid him tribute. Their offerings were the first fruit of the field and the first game of the forest, which they laid at the door of his wigwam. The sachem himself was a great hunter.

He was often gone weeks at a time on the chase, and, when he returned, brought back a deer with spreading antlers, or a shaggy bear, or strings of shining fish. On these occasions Bright Eyes did not run to meet his father and ply him with eager questions. That was not the custom of the country. He waited, without speaking a word, while the great chief sat on his mat, eating supper. The meat broiled over the coals, and the succotash of corn, beans and fish, thickened with the meal of acorns, was very good, and the hunter was very hungry. He had tasted only parched corn for many days, and so he ate a long time. But Bright Eyes had learned to be patient, and sat without a word of interruption, till the meal was finished. Then the hunter took down his pipe and smoked in silence. Not a word did Bright Eyes utter, but he looked no end of questions as he sat leaning forward on his little mat, his bright eyes fixed on his father's face.

At last the chief was quite ready to talk. He had lain in ambush for the deer at the silver lake in the forest. He had shot a noble roebuck straight through the heart, as it stooped for the morning drink. He had followed the bear to its cave, and pierced it where the eyes were shining two torches in the darkness, and it fell without a groan. He had floated down the river in the wake of a mighty sturgeon, and caught it with his fishing line of cedar, while his light canoe spun round and round in a circle. How eagerly Bright Eyes listened! How he longed to be a hunter!

Now across the bay from the Wampanoags lived the Narragansett Indians. They were a brave and warlike people, who had always wanted the east side of where the father of Bright Eyes dwelt, and so the two tribes were often at tomahawk edges with each other.

Once, when to break out Narragansetts, the father of Bright Eyes painted himself black all over, and went naked and alone into the forest to pray. After many days he came back, pale and thin with fasting. He said he had dreamed that a war eagle perched on his hand. Now to dream of a war eagle was a sure sign of victory. And so, from his village on the Taunton, the sachem sent fleet messengers to all the tribute chiefs within the borders of his country. The runners started at early dawn, bearing sticks, dipped in blood, to every village.

Soon the chiefs, with their warriors, began to come through the forest. They kept on coming, gathering like the clouds from north and east and south. They filled the village and crowded along the banks of the beautiful river. At evening, when all had assembled, the sachem invited his guests to a great feast.

They sat down close together in a circle. It was a wonderful sight! The forest stretched out high and dark behind them. The setting sun lit up the bay until the waters seemed a sheet of silver, and its last rays fell on the host of warriors as they sat in a wide circle about a fire. Some wore mantles of feathers of brightest hues; some leggings of deerskin fringed at the side and a jacket of doeskin; some wore skins tied round the waist like blacksmiths' aprons. Some had their hair long and tied behind in a knot; some had the head bare, except a long scalp lock; some were shaved, except a strip of hair, two or three inches wide, running from the forehead over to the nape of the neck, cut short and made stiff with paint and bear's grease so as to stand upright like the crest of a warrior's helmet. The faces of all were painted in every imaginable fashion. One had white eyebrows with vermilion lips and cheeks; another a blue forehead with blue lips and chin; others had straight streaks of black and white paints, and others were marked in red. All glistened with bear's grease and whale's oil. All wore ornaments of copper and bone and strings of wampum, and scalp locks hung at their girdles. All carried weapons which lay at their sides—bows and stout arrows tipped with flint, war clubs spiked with the points of deers' horns and gay with turkey feathers. There they sat in the sunset. Not a word did any speak as the little red Indian boys passed meats around in baskets. Bright Eyes thought there could not be in all the world such noble braves as these, and he wished he might have a seat among them instead of serving at the supper.

The great sachem ate nothing. He sat apart smoking his pipe in silence. When the feast was ended, the pipes were lighted and all the warriors smoked in silence. Then the sachem rose to his feet. His face was painted in blue and crimson, on his head was a high crest of feathers. He wore a shirt of doeskin embroidered with beads of wampum, and leggings of deerskin fringed with moose hair. From his shoulders hung a brilliant feather mantle. At his wampum belt were all the scalp locks he had taken.

He stood still a moment and looked around the breathing circle. There was Lightfoot with his band of forty warriors from the Island of Nantucket. There beyond was Grey Wolf, his girdle black with scalp locks. There was Silver Fox, cunning to take his foes in ambush. There were Big Turtle and Long Arm, Fighting Tiger and Loon Heart, Red Arm and all his other tribute chiefs with their bands of painted warriors.

Then he told them of the insults heaped upon them by the hated Narragansetts, and plead for vengeance. He told his dream while fasting in the forest, and promised victory if his people would take up arms and follow him.

When the great sachem had finished speaking, there was loud applause. Others spoke, and soon in a tumult of voices all agreed to go on the warpath. Then they hurried for pine knots to feed the fire until the hissing flames turned night into day.

Then they set up a pole in the ground. They made it fast with dirt and stones and formed a great circle about it. They whirled around in a giddy dance, while the boys and squaws beat time on the drums. The sachem leaped within the circle. He struck the post with his tomahawk. The shouting ceased. The dancers stood still. He recounted, in a loud voice, his own brave deeds and those of his ancestors; the number of prisoners he had taken in battle; the scalps he had torn from the heads of his victims. He flourished his trophies in wampum and arms. He pointed with his bow and arrow. He lifted his tomahawk. He struggled and leaped like an actor on the stage to show how awful the struggle with his enemies had been.

When he had finished the wonderful story, loud shouts arose, and the whirling dance went on.

Then another leaped into the circle. He struck the post. Again there was silence while he related his own deeds of valor. Again the dance went on until another struck the post. This unlucky fellow tried to make himself out greater than he was, but he had hardly begun to vaunt his prowess, when a warrior approached him and threw dirt in his face. "I do this to cover your shame," he said, "for the first time such a boaster as you sees an enemy he trembles." So the braggart retired with the gibes of all the others ringing in his ears. None dared, after that, to boast of what had never happened.

But there was enough that was true to arouse great enthusiasm, and so the dance went on until all the chiefs had struck the post. Then they pounded the post and kicked it as they intended to do to their enemies on the morrow. They acted out the coming battle.

There it was in pantomime, the muster, the march, the ambush, the slaughter, the scalping, the reception at home by the squaws and the old men, the torture and massacre of the prisoners.

It was a tremendous uproar! At last the gray dawn broke over the scene. All was silence now. The powwow priest, with the head of a deer on his shoulders, marched out alone to the footpath leading to the Narragansett country. He bore aloft the sacred bundle of dried skin, and stepped with catlike tread over the autumn leaves. He listened to all the sounds of the early morning. The birds were beginning their songs. But there was no cawing of a crow to be heard, and that was a good sign. The cawing of a crow meant that the enemy was near. He stooped to watch the ground. A slimy frog leaped from the marsh, a squirrel scampered through the thicket, but no rattlesnake crawled across the pathway. That was a good sign. A rattlesnake meant danger. "The signs were right," said the powwow. The warriors stripped off their ornaments, and crept single file through the forest to seek their bitter foes. They looked neither to the right nor to the left for any living thing. No danger now for the game! Every arrow seeks only the breast of the foe.