Indian Boyhood - Charles Eastman

Family Traditions

[Illustration] from Indian Boyhood by Charles Eastman

A Visit to Smoky Day

Smoky day was widely known among us as a preserver of history and legend. He was a living book of the traditions and history of his people. Among his effects were bundles of small sticks, notched and painted. One bundle contained the number of his own years. Another was composed of sticks representing the important events of history, each of which was marked with the number of years since that particular event occurred. For instance, there was the year when so many stars fell from the sky, with the number of years since it happened cut into the wood. Another recorded the appearance of a comet; and from these heavenly wonders the great national catastrophes and victories were reckoned.

But I will try to repeat some of his favorite narratives as I heard them from his own lips. I went to him one day with a piece of tobacco and an eagle-feather; not to buy his MSS., but hoping for the privilege of hearing him tell of some of the brave deeds of our people in remote times.

The tall and large old man greeted me with his usual courtesy and thanked me for my present. As I recall the meeting, I well remember his unusual stature, his slow speech and gracious manner.

"Ah, Ohiyesa!" said he, "my young warrior —for such you will be some day! I know this by your seeking to hear of the great deeds of your ancestors. That is a good sign, and I love to repeat these stories to one who is destined to be a brave man. I do not wish to lull you to sleep with sweet words; but I know the conduct of your paternal ancestors. They have been and are still among the bravest of our tribe. To prove this, I will relate what happened in your paternal grand-father's family, twenty years ago.

"Two of his brothers were murdered by a jealous young man of their own band. The deed was committed without just cause; therefore all the braves were agreed to punish the murderer with death. When your grandfather was approached with this suggestion, he replied that he and the remaining brothers could not condescend to spill the blood of such a wretch, but that the others might do whatever they thought just with the young man. These men were foremost among the warriors of the Sioux, and no one questioned their courage; yet when this calamity was brought upon them by a villain, they refused to touch him! This, my boy, is a test of true bravery. Self-possession and self-control at such a moment is proof of a strong heart.

"You have heard of Jingling Thunder the elder, whose brave deeds are well known to the Villagers of the Lakes. He sought honor "in the gates of the enemy," as we often say. The Great Mystery was especially kind to him, because he was obedient.

"Many winters ago there was a great battle, in which Jingling Thunder won his first honors. It was forty winters before the falling of many stars, which event occurred twenty winters after the coming of the black-robed white priest; and that was fourteen winters before the annihilation by our people of thirty lodges of the Sac and Fox Indians. I well remember the latter event—it was just fifty winters ago. However, I will count my sticks again."

So saying, Smoky Day produced his bundle of variously colored sticks, about five inches long. He counted and gave them to me to verify his calculation.

"But you," he resumed, "do not care to remember the winters that have passed. You are young, and care only for the event and the deed. It was very many years ago that this thing happened that I am about to tell you, and yet our people speak of it with as much enthusiasm as if it were only yesterday. Our heroes are always kept alive in the minds of the nation.

"Our people lived then on the east bank of the Mississippi, a little south of where Imnejah-skah, or White Cliff (St. Paul, Minnesota), now stands. After they left Mille Lacs they founded several villages, but finally settled in this spot, whence the tribes have gradually dispersed. Here a battle occurred which surpassed all others in history. It lasted one whole day—the Sacs and Foxes and the Dakotas against the Ojibways.

"An invitation in the usual form of a filled pipe was brought to the Sioux by a brave of the Sac and Fox tribe, to make a general attack upon their common enemy. The Dakota braves quickly signified their willingness in the same manner, and it having been agreed to meet upon the St. Croix river, preparations were immediately begun to despatch a large war-party.

"Among our people there were many tried warriors whose names were known, and every youth of a suitable age was desirous of emulating them. As these young novices issued from every camp and almost every teepee, their mothers, sisters, grand-fathers and grandmothers were singing for them the "strong-heart" songs. An old woman, living with her only grandchild, the remnant of a once large band who had all been killed at three different times by different parties of the Ojibways, was conspicuous among the singers.

"Everyone who heard, cast toward her a sympathetic glance, for it was well known that she and her grandson constituted the remnant of a band of Sioux, and that her song indicated that her precious child had attained the age of a warrior, and was now about to join the war-party, and to seek a just revenge for the annihilation of his family. This was Jingling Thunder, also familiarly known as "The Little Last." He was seen to carry with him some family relics in the shape of war-clubs and lances.

"The aged woman's song was something like this:

"Go, my brave Jingling Thunder! Upon the silvery path Behold that glittering track—

"And yet, my child, remember How pitiful to live Survivor of the young! "Stablish our name and kin!"

"The Sacs and Foxes were very daring and confident upon this occasion. They proposed to the Sioux that they should engage alone with the enemy at first, and let us see how their braves can fight! To this our people assented, and they assembled upon the hills to watch the struggle between their allies and the Ojibways. It seemed to be an equal fight, and for a time no one could tell how the contest would end. Young Jingling Thunder was an impatient spectator, and it was

*The Milky Way—believed by the Dakotas to be the road travelled by the spirits of departed braves.

hard to keep him from rushing forward to meet his foes.

"At last a great shout went up, and the Sacs and Foxes were seen to be retreating with heavy loss. Then the Sioux took the field, and were fast winning the day, when fresh reinforcements came from the north for the Ojibways. Up to this time Jingling Thunder had been among the foremost in the battle, and had engaged in several close encounters. But this fresh attack of the Ojibways was unexpected, and the Sioux were somewhat tired. Besides, they had told the Sacs and Foxes to sit upon the hills and rest their weary limbs and take lessons from their friends the Sioux; therefore no aid was looked for from any quarter. "A great Ojibway chief made a fierce onslaught on the Dakotas. This man Jingling Thunder now rushed forward to meet. The Ojibway boastfully shouted to his warriors that he had met a tender fawn and would reserve to himself the honor of destroying it. Jingling Thunder, on his side, exclaimed that he had met the aged bear of whom he had heard so much, but that he would need no assistance to overcome him.

"The powerful man flashed his tomahawk in the air over the youthful warrior's head, but the brave sprang aside as quick as lightning, and in the same instant speared his enemy to the heart. As the Ojibway chief gave a gasping yell and fell in death, his people lost courage; while the success of the brave Jingling Thunder strengthened the hearts of the Sioux, for they immediately followed up their advantage and drove the enemy out of their territory.

"This was the beginning of Jingling Thunder's career as a warrior. He afterwards performed even greater acts of valor. He became the ancestor of a famous band of the Sioux, of whom your own father, Ohiyesa, was a member. You have doubtless heard his name in connection with many great events. Yet he was a patient man, and was never known to quarrel with one of his own nation."

That night I lay awake a long time committing to memory the tradition I had heard, and the next day I boasted to my playmate, Little Rainbow, about my first lesson from the old story-teller. To this he replied:

"I would rather have Weyuhah for my teacher. I think he remembers more than any of the others. When Weyuhah tells about a battle you can see it yourself; you can even hear the war-whoop," he went on with much enthusiasm.

"That is what his friends say of him; but those who are not his friends say that he brings many warriors into the battle who were not there," I answered indignantly, for I could not admit that old Smoky Day could have a rival.

Before I went to him again Uncheedah had thoughtfully prepared a nice venison roast for the teacher, and I was proud to take him something good to eat before beginning his story.

"How," was his greeting, "so you have begun already, Ohiyesa? Your family were ever feast-makers as well as warriors."

Having done justice to the tender meat, he wiped his knife by sticking it into the ground several times, and put it away in its sheath, after which he cheerfully recommenced:

"It came to pass not many winters ago that Wakinyan-tonka, the great medicine man, had a vision; whereupon a war-party set out for the Ojibway country. There were three brothers of your family among them, all of whom were noted for valor and the chase.

"Seven battles were fought in succession before they turned to come back. They had secured a number of the enemy's birch canoes, and the whole party came floating down the Mississippi, joyous and happy because of their success.

"But one night the war-chief announced that there was misfortune at hand. The next day no one was willing to lead the fleet. The youngest of the three brothers finally declared that he did not fear death, for it comes when least expected and he volunteered to take the lead.

"It happened that this young man had left a pretty maiden behind him, whose choice needle-work adorned his quiver. He was very handsome as well as brave.

"At daybreak the canoes were again launched upon the bosom of the great river. All was quiet —a few birds beginning to sing. Just as the sun peeped through the eastern tree-tops a great war-cry came forth from the near shores, and there was a rain of arrows. The birchen canoes were pierced, and in the excitement many were capsized.

"The Sioux were at a disadvantage. There was no shelter. Their bow-strings and the feathers on their arrows were wet. The bold Ojibways saw their advantage and pressed closer and closer; but our men fought desperately, half in and half out of the water, until the enemy was forced at last to retreat. Nevertheless that was a sad day for the Wahpeton Sioux; but saddest of all was Winona's fate!

"Morning Star, her lover, who led the canoe fleet that morning, was among the slain. For two days the Sioux braves searched in the water for their dead, but his body was not recovered.

"At home, meanwhile, the people had been alarmed by ill omens. Winona, eldest daughter of the great chief, one day entered her birch canoe alone and paddled up the Mississippi, gazing now into the,water around her, now into the blue sky above. She thought she heard some young men giving courtship calls in the distance, just as they do at night when approaching the teepee of the beloved; and she knew the voice of Morning Star well! Surely she could distinguish his call among the others! Therefore she listened yet more intently, and looked skyward as her light canoe glided gently up stream.

"Ah, poor Winona! She saw only six sand-hill cranes, looking no larger than mosquitoes, as they flew in circles high up in the sky, going east where all spirits go. Something said to her: "Those are the spirits of some of the Sioux braves, and Morning Star is among them!" Her eye followed the birds as they traveled in a chain of circles.

"Suddenly she glanced downward. "What is this?" she screamed in despair. It was Morning Star's body, floating down the river; his quiver, worked by her own hands and now dyed with his blood, lay upon the surface of the water.

"Ah, Great Mystery! why do you punish a poor girl so? Let me go with the spirit of Morning Star!"

"It was evening. The pale moon arose in the east and the stars were bright. At this very hour the news of the disaster was brought home by a returning scout, and the village was plunged in grief, but Winona's spirit had flown away. No one ever saw her again.

"This is enough for to-day, my boy. You may come again to-morrow."

The Stone Boy

"Ho, mita koda!" (welcome, friend!) was Smoky Day's greeting, as I entered his lodge on the third day. "I hope you did not dream of a watery combat with the Ojibways, after the history I repeated to you yesterday," the old sage continued, with a complaisant smile playing upon his face.

"No," I said, meekly, "but, on the other hand, I have wished that the sun might travel a little faster, so that I could come for another story."

"Well, this time I will tell you one of the kind we call myths or fairy stories. They are about men and women who do wonderful things—things that ordinary people cannot do at all. Sometimes they are not exactly human beings, for they partake of the nature of men and beasts, or of men and gods. I tell you this beforehand, so that you may not ask any questions, or be puzzled by the inconsistency of the actors in these old stories.

"Once there were ten brothers who lived with their only sister, a young maiden of sixteen summers. She was very skilful at her embroidery, and her brothers all had beautifully worked quivers and bows embossed with porcupine quills. They loved and were kind to her, and the maiden in her turn loved her brothers dearly, and was content with her position as their housekeeper. They were great hunters, and scarcely ever remained at home during the day, but when they returned at evening they would relate to her all their adventures.

"One night they came home one by one with their game, as usual, all but the eldest, who did not return. It was supposed by the other brothers that he had pursued a deer too far from the lodge, or perhaps shot more game than he could well carry; but the sister had a presentiment that something dreadful had befallen him. She was partially con soled by the second brother, who offered to find the lost one in the morning.

"Accordingly, he went in search of him, while the rest set out on the hunt as usual. Toward evening all had returned safely, save the brother who went in search of the absent. Again, the next older brother went to look for the others, and he too returned no more. All the young men disappeared one by one in this manner, leaving their sister alone.

"The maiden's sorrow was very great. She wandered everywhere, weeping and looking for her brothers, but found no trace of them. One day she was walking beside a beautiful little stream, whose clear waters went laughing and singing on their way. She could see the gleaming pebbles at the bottom, and one in particular seemed so lovely to her tear-bedimmed eyes, that she stooped and picked it up, dropping it within her skin garment into her bosom. For the first time since her misfortunes she had forgotten herself and her sorrow.

"At last she went home, much happier than she had been, though she could not have told the reason why. On the following day she sought again the place where she had found the pebble, and this time she fell asleep on the banks of the stream, When she awoke, there lay a beautiful babe in her bosom.

"She took it up and kissed it many times. And the child was a boy, but it was heavy like a stone, so she called him a "Little Stone Boy." The maiden cried no more, for she was very happy with her baby. The child was unusually knowing, and walked almost from its birth.

"One day Stone Boy discovered the bow and arrows of one of his uncles, and desired to have them; but his mother cried, and said:

"Wait, my son, until you are a young man." "She made him some little ones, and with these he soon learned to hunt, and killed small game enough to support them both. When he had grown to be a big boy, he insisted upon knowing whose were the ten bows that still hung upon the walls of his mother's lodge.

"At last she was obliged to tell him the sad story of her loss.

"Mother, I shall go in search of my uncles," exclaimed the Stone Boy.

"But you will be lost like them," she replied, "and then I shall die of grief."

"No, I shall not be lost. I shall bring your ten brothers back to you. Look, I will give you a sign. I will take a pillow, and place it upon end. Watch this, for as long as I am living the pillow will stay as I put it. Mother, give me some food and some moccasins with which to travel!"

"Taking the bow of one of his uncles, with its quiver full of arrows, the Stone Boy departed. As he journeyed through the forest he spoke to every animal he met, asking for news of his lost uncles. Sometimes he called to them at the top of his voice. Once he thought he heard an answer, so he walked in the direction of the sound. But it was only a great grizzly bear who had wantonly mimicked the boy's call. Then Stone Boy was greatly provoked.

"Was it you who answered my call, you long-face?" he exclaimed.

"Upon this the latter growled and said:

"You had better be careful how you address me, or you may be sorry for what you say!"

"Who cares for you, you red-eyes, you ugly thing!" the boy replied; whereupon the grizzly immediately set upon him.

"But the boy's flesh became as hard as stone, and the bear's great teeth and claws made no impression upon it. Then he was so dreadfully heavy; and he kept laughing all the time as if he were being tickled, which greatly aggravated the bear. Finally Stone Boy pushed him aside and sent an arrow to his heart.

"He walked on for some distance until he came to a huge fallen pine tree, which had evidently been killed by lightning. The ground near by bore marks of a struggle, and Stone Boy picked up several arrows exactly like those of his uncles, which he himself carried.

"While he was examining these things, he heard a sound like that of a whirlwind, far up in the heavens. He looked up and saw a black speck which grew rapidly larger until it became a dense cloud. Out of it came a flash and then a thunderbolt. The boy was obliged to wink; and when he opened his eyes, behold! a stately man stood before him and challenged him to single combat.

"Stone Boy accepted the challenge and they grappled with one another. The man from the clouds was gigantic in stature and very powerful. But Stone Boy was both strong and unnaturally heavy and hard to hold. The great warrior from the sky sweated from his exertions, and there came a heavy shower. Again and again the lightnings flashed about them as the two struggled there. At last Stone Boy threw his opponent, who lay motionless. There was a murmuring sound throughout the heavens and the clouds rolled swiftly away.

"Now," thought the hero, "this man must have slain all my uncles. I shall go to his home and find out what has become of them." With this he unfastened from the dead man's scalp-lock a beautiful bit of scarlet down. He breathed gently upon it, and as it floated upward he followed into the blue heavens.

"Away went Stone Boy to the country of the Thunder Birds. It was a beautiful land, with lakes, rivers, plains and mountains. The young adventurer found himself looking down from the top of a high mountain, and the country appeared to be very populous, for he saw lodges all about him as far as the eye could reach. He particularly noticed a majestic tree which towered above all the others, and in its bushy top bore an enormous nest. Stone Boy descended from the mountain and soon arrived at the foot of the tree; but there were no limbs except those at the top and it was so tall that he did not attempt to climb it. He simply took out his bit of down, breathed upon it and floated gently upward.

"When he was able to look into the nest he saw there innumerable eggs of various sizes, and all of a remarkable red color. He was nothing but a boy after all, and had all a boy's curiosity and recklessness. As he was handling the eggs carelessly, his notice was attracted to a sudden confusion in the little village below. All of the people seemed to be running toward the tree. He mischievously threw an egg at them, and in the instant that it broke he saw one of the men drop dead. Then all began to cry out pitifully, "Give me my heart!"

"Ah," exclaimed Stone Boy, exulting," so these are the hearts of the people who destroyed my uncles! I shall break them all!"

"And he really did break all of the eggs but four small ones which he took in his hand. Then he descended the tree, and wandered among the silent and deserted lodges in search of some trace of his lost uncles. He found four little boys, the sole survivors of their race, and these he commanded to tell him where their bones were laid.

"They showed him the spot where a heap of bones was bleaching on the ground. Then he bade one of the boys bring wood, a second water, a third stones, and the fourth he sent to cut willow wands for the sweat lodge. They obeyed, and Stone Boy built the lodge, made a fire, heated the stones and collected within the lodge all the bones of his ten uncles.

"As he poured the water upon the hot stones faint sounds could be heard from within the magic bath. These changed to the murmuring of voices, and finally to the singing of medicine songs. Stone Boy opened the door and his ten uncles came forth in the flesh, thanking him and blessing him for restoring them to life. Only the little finger of the youngest uncle was missing. Stone Boy now heartlessly broke the four remaining eggs, and took the little finger of the largest boy to supply the missing bone.

"They all returned to earth again and Stone Boy conducted his uncles to his mother's lodge. She had never slept during his entire absence, but watched incessantly the pillow upon which her boy was wont to rest his head, and by which she was to know of his safety. Going a little in advance of the others, he suddenly rushed forward into her teepee, exclaiming: "Mother, your ten brothers are coming—prepare a feast!"

"For some time after this they all lived happily together. Stone Boy occupied himself with solitary hunting. He was particularly fond of hunting the fiercer wild animals. He killed them wantonly and brought home only the ears, teeth and claws as his spoil, and with these he played as he laughingly recounted his exploits. His mother and uncles protested, and begged him at least to spare the lives of those animals held sacred by the Dakotas, but Stone Boy relied upon his supernatural powers to protect him from harm.

"One evening, however, he was noticeably silent and upon being pressed to give the reason, replied as follows:

"For some days past I have heard the animals talking of a conspiracy against us. I was going west the other morning when I heard a crier announcing a general war upon Stone Boy and his people. The crier was a Buffalo, going at full speed from west to east. Again, I heard the Beaver conversing with the Muskrat, and both said that their services were already promised to overflow the lakes and rivers and cause a destructive flood. I heard, also, the little Swallow holding a secret council with all the birds of the air. He said that he had been appointed a messenger to the Thunder Birds, and that at a certain signal the doors of the sky would be opened and rains descend to drown Stone Boy. Old Badger and the Grizzly Bear are appointed to burrow underneath our fortifications.

"However, I am not at all afraid for myself, but I am anxious for you, Mother, and for my uncles."

"Ugh!" grunted all the uncles, "we told you that you would get into trouble by killing so many of our sacred animals for your own amusement.

"But," continued Stone Boy, "I shall make a good resistance, and I expect you all to help me."

"Accordingly they all worked under his direction in preparing for the defence. First of all, he threw a pebble into the air, and behold a great rocky wall around their teepee. A second, third, fourth and fifth pebble became other walls without the first. From the sixth and seventh were formed two stone lodges, one upon the other. The uncles. meantime, made numbers of bows and quivers full of arrows, which were ranged at convenient distances along the tops of the walls. His mother prepared great quantities of food and made many moccasins for her boy, who declared that he would defend the fortress alone.

"At last they saw the army of beasts advancing, each tribe by itself and commanded by a leader of extraordinary size. The onset was terrific. They flung themselves against the high walls with savage cries, while the badgers and other burrowing animals ceaselessly worked to undermine them. Stone Boy aimed his sharp arrows with such deadly effect that his enemies fell by thousands. So great was their loss that the dead bodies of the animals formed a barrier higher than the first, and the armies retired in confusion.

"But reinforcements were at hand. The rain fell in torrents; the beavers had dammed all the rivers and there was a great flood. The besieged all retreated into the innermost lodge, but the water poured in through the burrows made by the badgers and gophers, and rose until Stone Boy's mother and his ten uncles were all drowned. Stone Boy himself could not be entirely destroyed, but he was overcome by his enemies and left half buried in the earth, condemned never to walk again, and there we find him to this day.

"This was because he abused his strength, and destroyed for mere amusement the lives of the creatures given him for use only."