Indian Boyhood - Charles Eastman

The Laughing Philosopher

[Illustration] from Indian Boyhood by Charles Eastman

There is scarcely anything so exasperating to me as the idea that the natives of this country have no sense of humor and no faculty for mirth. This phase of their character is well understood by those whose fortune or misfortune it has been to live among them day in and day out at their homes. I don't believe I ever heard a real hearty laugh away from the Indians' fireside. I have often spent an entire evening in laughing with them until I could laugh no more. There are evenings when the recognized wit or story-teller of the village gives a free entertainment which keeps the rest of the community in a convulsive state until he leaves them. However, Indian humor consists as much in the gestures and inflections of the voice as in words, and is really untranslatable.

Matogee (Yellow Bear) was a natural humorous speaker, and a very diffident man at other times. He usually said little, but when he was in the mood he could keep a large company in a roar. This was especially the case whenever he met his brother-in-law, Tamedokah.

It was a custom with us Indians to joke more particularly with our brothers-and sisters-in-law. But no one ever complained, or resented any of these jokes, however personal they might be. That would be an unpardonable breach of etiquette.

"Tamedokah, I heard that you tried to capture a buck by holding on to his tail," said Matogee, laughing. "I believe that feat cannot be performed any more; at least, it never has been since the pale-face brought us the knife, the "mysterious iron," and the pulverized coal that makes bullets fly. Since our ancestors hunted with stone knives and hatchets, I say, that has never been done."

The fact was that Tamedokah had stunned a buck that day while hunting, and as he was about to dress him the animal got up and attempted to run, whereupon the Indian launched forth to secure his game. He only succeeded in grasping the tail of the deer, and was pulled about all over the meadows and the adjacent woods until the tail came off in his hands. Matogee thought this too good a joke to be lost.

I sat near the door of the tent, and thoroughly enjoyed the story of the comical accident.

"Yes," Tamedokah quietly replied, "I thought I would do something to beat the story of the man who rode a young elk, and yelled frantically for help, crying like a woman."

"Ugh! that was only a legend," retorted Matogee, for it was he who was the hero of this tale in his younger days. "But this is a fresh feat of to-day. Chankpayuhah said he could not tell which was the most scared, the buck or you," he continued. "He said the deer's eyes were bulging out of their sockets, while Tamedokah's mouth was constantly enlarging toward his ears, and his hair floated on the wind, shaking among the branches of the trees. That will go down with the traditions of our fathers," he concluded with an air of satisfaction.

"It was a singular mishap," admitted Tamedokah.

The pipe had been filled by Matogee and passed to Tamedokah good-naturedly, still with a broad smile on his face. "It must be acknowledged," he resumed, "that you have the strongest kind of a grip, for no one else could hold on as long as you did, and secure such a trophy besides. That tail will do for an eagle feather holder."

By this time the teepee was packed to over-flowing. Loud laughter had been heard issuing from the lodge of Matogee, and everybody suspected that he had something good, so many had come to listen.

"I think we should hear the whole matter," said one of the late comers.

The teepee was brightly lit by the burning embers, and all the men were sitting with their knees up against their chests, held in that position by wrapping their robes tightly around loins and knees. This fixed them something in the fashion of a rocking-chair.

"Well, no one saw him except Chankpayuhah," Matogee remarked.

"Yes, yes, he must tell us about it," exclaimed a chorus of voices.

"This is what I saw," the witness began. "I was tracking a buck and a doe. As I approached a small opening at the creek side "boom !" came a report of the mysterious iron. I remained in a stooping position, hoping to see a deer cross the opening. In this I was not disappointed, for immediately after the report a fine buck dashed forth with Tamedokah close behind him. The latter was holding on to the deer's tail with both hands and his knife was in his mouth, but it soon dropped out. "Tamedokah," I shouted, "haven't you got hold of the wrong animal?" but as I spoke they disappeared into the woods.

"In a minute they both appeared again, and then it was that I began to laugh. I could not stop. It almost killed me. The deer jumped the longest jumps I ever saw. Tamedokah walked the longest paces and was very swift. His hair was whipping the trees as they went by. Water poured down his face. I stood bent forward because I could not straighten my back-bone, and was ready to fall when they again disappeared.

"When they came out for the third time it seemed as if the woods and the meadow were moving too. Tamedokah skipped across the opening as if he were a grasshopper learning to hop. I fell down.

"When I came to he was putting water on my face and head, but when I looked at him I fell again, and did not know anything until the sun had passed the mid-sky.

The company was kept roaring all the way through this account, while Tamedokah himself heartily joined in the mirth.

"Ho, ho, ho!" they said; "he has made his name famous in our annals. This will be told of him henceforth."

"It reminds me of Chadozee's bear story," said one.

"His was more thrilling, because it was really dangerous," interposed another.

"You can tell it to us, Bobdoo," remarked a third.

The man thus addressed made no immediate reply. He was smoking contentedly. At last he silently returned the pipe to Matogee, with whom it had begun its rounds. Deliberately he tightened his robe around him, saying as he did so:

"Ho (Yes). I was with him. It was by a very little that he saved his life. I will tell you how it happened.

"I was hunting with these two men, Nageedah and Chadozee. We came to some wild cherry bushes. I began to eat of the fruit when I saw a large silver-tip crawling toward us. "Look out! there is a grizzly here," I shouted, and I ran my pony out on to the prairie; but the others had already dismounted.

"Nageedah had just time to jump upon his pony and get out of the way, but the bear seized hold of his robe and pulled it off. Chadozee stood upon the verge of a steep bank, below which there ran a deep and swift-flowing stream. The bear rushed upon him so suddenly that when he took a step backward, they both fell into the creek together. It was a fall of about twice the height of a man."

"Did they go out of sight?" some one inquired.

"Yes, both fell headlong. In his excitement Chadozee laid hold of the bear in the water, and I never saw a bear try so hard to get away from a man as this one did."

"Ha, ha, ha! ha, ha, ha!" they all laughed.

"When they came to the surface again they were both so eager to get to the shore that each let go, and they swam as quickly as they could to opposite sides. Chadozee could not get any further, so he clung to a stray root, still keeping a close watch of the bear, who was forced to do the same. There they both hung, regarding each other with looks of contempt and defiance."

"Ha, ha, ha! ha, ha, ha!" they all laughed again.

"At last the bear swam along the edge to a lower place, and we pulled Chadozee up by means of our lariats. All this time he had been groaning so loud that we supposed he was badly torn; but when I looked for his wounds I found a mere scratch."

Again the chorus of appreciation from his hearers.

"The strangest thing about this affair of mine," spoke up Tamedokah, "is that I dreamed the whole thing the night before."

"There are some dreams come true, and I am a believer in dreams," one remarked.

"Yes, certainly, so are we all. You know Hachah almost lost his life by believing in dreams," commented Matogee.

"Let us hear that story," was the general request.

"You have all heard of Hachah, the great medicine man, who did many wonderful things. He once dreamed four nights in succession of flying from a high cliff over the Minnesota river. He recollected every particular of the scene, and it made a great impression upon his mind.

"The next day after he had dreamed it for the fourth time, he proposed to his wife that they go down to the river to swim, but his real purpose was to see the place of his dream.

"He did find the place, and it seemed to Hachah exactly like. A crooked tree grew out of the top of the cliff, and the water below was very deep."

"Did he really fly?" I called impatiently from the doorway, where I had been listening and laughing with the rest.

"Ugh, that is what I shall tell you. He was swimming about with his wife, who was a fine swimmer; but all at once Hachah disappeared. Presently he stood upon the very tree that he had seen in his dream, and gazed out over the water. The tree was very springy, and Hachah felt sure that he could fly; so before long he launched bravely forth from the cliff. He kicked out vigorously and swung both arms as he did so, but nevertheless he came down to the bottom of the water like a crow that had been shot on the wing."

"Ho, ho, ho! Ho, ho, ho!" and the whole company laughed unreservedly.

"His wife screamed loudly as Hachah whirled downward and went out of sight like a blue heron after a fish. Then she feared he might be stunned, so she swam to him and dragged him to the shore. He could not speak, but the woman overwhelmed him with reproaches.

"What are you trying to do, you old idiot? Do you want to kill yourself?" she screamed again and again.

"Woman, be silent," he replied, and he said nothing more. He did not tell his dream for many years afterward. Not until he was a very old man and about to die, did Hachah tell any one how he thought he could fly."

And at this they all laughed louder than ever.