Indian Boyhood - Charles Eastman

Evening in the Lodge

[Illustration] from Indian Boyhood by Charles Eastman

I had been skating on that part of the lake where there was an overflow, and came home somewhat cold. I cannot say just how cold it was, but it must have been intensely so, for the trees were cracking all about me like pistol shots. I did not mind, because I was wrapped up in my buffalo robe with the hair inside, and a wide leather belt held it about my loins. My skates were nothing more than strips of basswood bark bound upon my feet.

I had taken off my frozen moccasins and put on dry ones in their places.

"Where have you been and what have you been doing?" Uncheedah asked as she placed before me some roast venison in a wooden bowl. "Did you see any tracks of moose or bear ?"

"No, grandmother, I have only been playing at the lower end of the lake. I have something to ask you," I said, eating my dinner and supper together with all the relish of a hungry boy who has been skating in the cold for half a day.

"I found this feather, grandmother, and I could not make out what tribe wear feathers in that shape."

"Ugh, I am not a man; you had better ask your uncle. Besides, you should know it yourself by this time. You are now old enough to think about eagle feathers."

I felt mortified by this reminder of my ignorance. It seemed a reflection on me that I was not ambitious enough to have found all such matters out before.

"Uncle, you will tell me, won't you?" I said, in an appealing tone.

"I am surprised, my boy, that you should fail to recognize this feather. It is a Cree medicine feather, and not a warrior's."

"Then," I said, with much embarrassment, you had better tell me again, uncle, the language of the feathers. I have really forgotten it all."

The day was now gone; the moon had risen; but the cold had not lessened, for the trunks of the trees were still snapping all around our tee-pee, which was lighted and warmed by the immense logs which Uncheedah's industry had pro vided. My uncle, White Foot-print, now undertook to explain to me the significance of the eagle's feather.

"The eagle is the most war-like bird," he began, "and the most kingly of all birds; besides, his feathers are unlike any others, and these are the reasons why they are used by our people to signify deeds of bravery.

"It is not true that when a man wears a feather bonnet, each one of the feathers represents the killing of a foe or even a coup. When a man wears an eagle feather upright upon his head, he is supposed to have counted one of four coups upon his enemy."

"Well, then, a coup does not mean the killing of an enemy?"

"No, it is the after-stroke or touching of the body after he falls. It is so ordered, because oftentimes the touching of an enemy is much more difficult to accomplish than the shooting of one from a distance. It requires a strong heart to face the whole body of the enemy, in order to count the coup on the fallen one, who lies under cover of his kinsmen's fire. Many a brave man has been lost in the attempt.

"When a warrior approaches his foe, dead or alive, he calls upon the other warriors to wit ness by saying: "I, Fearless Bear, your brave, again perform the brave deed of counting the first (or second or third or fourth) coup upon the body of the bravest of your enemies." Naturally, those who are present will see the act and be able to testify to it. When they return, the heralds, as you know, announce publicly all such deeds of valor, which then become a part of the man's war record. Any brave who would wear the eagle's feather must give proof of his right to do so.

"When a brave is wounded in the same battle where he counted his coup, he wears the feather hanging downward. When he is wounded, but makes no count, he trims his feather and in that case, it need not be an eagle feather. All other feathers are merely ornaments. When a warrior wears a feather with a round mark, it means that he slew his enemy. When the mark is cut into the feather and painted red, it means that he took the scalp.

"A brave who has been successful in ten battles is entitled to a war-bonnet; and if he is a recognized leader, he is permitted to wear one with long, trailing plumes. Also those who have counted many coups may tip the ends of the feathers with bits of white or colored down. Sometimes the eagle feather is tipped with a strip of weasel skin; that means the wearer had the honor of killing, scalping and counting the first coup upon the enemy all at the same time.

"This feather you have found was worn by a Cree—it is indiscriminately painted. All other feathers worn by the common Indians mean nothing," he added.

"Tell me, uncle, whether it would be proper for me to wear any feathers at all if I have never gone upon the war-path."

"You could wear any other kind of feathers, but not an eagle's," replied my uncle, "although sometimes one is worn on great occasions by the child of a noted man, to indicate the father's dignity and position."

The fire had gone down somewhat, so I pushed the embers together and wrapped my robe more closely about me. Now and then the ice on the lake would burst with a loud report like thunder. Uncheedah was busy restringing one of uncle's old snow-shoes. There were two different kinds that he wore; one with a straight toe and long; the other shorter and with an upturned toe. She had one of the shoes fastened toe down, between sticks driven into the ground, while she put in some new strings and tightened the others. Aunt Four Stars was beading a new pair of moccasins.

Wabeda, the dog, the companion of my boyhood days, was in trouble because he insisted upon bringing his extra bone into the teepee, while Uncheedah was determined that he should not. I sympathized with him, because I saw the matter as he did. If he should bury it in the snow outside, I knew Shunktokecha (the coyote) would surely steal it. I knew just how anxious Wabeda was about his bone. It was a fat bone—I mean a bone of a fat deer; and all Indians know how much better they are than the other kind.

Wabeda always hated to see a good thing go to waste. His eyes spoke words to me, for he and I had been friends for a long time. When I was afraid of anything in the woods, he would get in front of me at once and gently wag his tail. He always made it a point to look directly in my face. His kind, large eyes gave me a thousand assurances. When I was perplexed, he would hang about me until he understood the situation. Many times I believed he saved my life by uttering the dog word in time.

Most animals, even the dangerous grizzly, do not care to be seen when the two-legged kind and his dog are about. When I feared a surprise by a bear or a grey wolf, I would say to Wabeda: "Now, my dog, give your war-whoop:" and immediately he would sit up on his haunches and bark "to beat the band" as you white boys say. When a bear or wolf heard the noise, he would be apt to retreat.

Sometimes I helped Wabeda and gave a war-whoop of my own. This drove the deer away as well, but it relieved my mind.

When he appealed to me on this occasion, therefore, I said: "Come, my dog, let us bury your bone so that no Shunktokecha will take it."

He appeared satisfied with my suggestion, so we went out together.

We dug in the snow and buried our bone wrapped up in a piece of old blanket, partly burned; then we covered it up again with snow. We knew that the coyote would not touch anything burnt. I did not put it up a tree because Wabeda always objected to that, and I made it a point to consult his wishes whenever I could.

I came in and Wabeda followed me with two short rib bones in his mouth. Apparently he did not care to risk those delicacies.

"There," exclaimed Uncheedah, "you still insist upon bringing in some sort of bone!" but I begged her to let him gnaw them inside because it was so cold. Having been granted this privilege, he settled himself at my back and I became absorbed in some specially nice arrows that uncle was making.

"O, uncle, you must put on three feathers to all of them so that they can fly straight," I suggested.

"Yes, but if there are only two feathers, they will fly faster," he answered.

"Woow!" Wabeda uttered his suspicions.

"Woow!" he said again, and rushed for the entrance of the teepee. He kicked me over as he went and scattered the burning embers.

"En na he na!" Uncheedah exclaimed, but he was already outside.

"Wow, wow, wow! Wow, Wow, wow!"

A deep guttural voice answered him.

Out I rushed with my bow and arrows in my hand.

"Come, uncle, come! A big cinnamon bear!" I shouted as I emerged from the teepee.

Uncle sprang out and in a moment he had sent a swift arrow through the bear's heart. The animal fell dead. He had just begun to dig up Wabeda's bone, when the dog's quick ear had heard the sound.

"Ah, uncle, Wabeda and I ought to have at least a little eaglet's feather for this. I too sent my small arrow into the bear before he fell," I exclaimed. "But I thought all bears ought to be in their lodges in the winter time. What was this one doing at this time of the year and night?"

"Well," said my uncle, "I will tell you. Among the tribes, some are naturally lazy. The cinnamon bear is the lazy one of his tribe. He alone sleeps out of doors in the winter and because he has not a warm bed, he is soon hungry. Sometimes he lives in the hollow trunk of a tree, where he has made a bed of dry grass; but when the night is very cold, like to-night, he has to move about to keep himself from freezing and as he prowls around, he gets hungry."

indian hearing a story


We dragged the huge carcass within our lodge. "O, what nice claws he has, uncle!" I exclaimed eagerly. "Can I have them for my necklace?"

"It is only the old medicine men who wear them regularly. The son of a great warrior who has killed a grizzly may wear them upon a public occasion," he explained.

"And you are just like my father and are considered the best hunter among the Santees and Sissetons. You have killed many grizzlies so that no one can object to my bear's-claws necklace," I said appealingly.

White Foot-print smiled. "My boy, you shall have them," he said, "but it is always better to earn them yourself." He cut the claws off carefully for my use.

"Tell me, uncle, whether you could wear these claws all the time?" I asked.

"Yes,I am entitled to wear them, but they are so heavy and uncomfortable," he replied, with a superior air.

At last the bear had been skinned and dressed and we all resumed our usual places. Uncheedah was particularly pleased to have some more fat for her cooking.

"Now, grandmother, tell me the story of the bear's fat. I shall be so happy if you will," I begged.

"It is a good story and it is true. You should know it by heart and gain a lesson from it," she replied. "It was in the forests of Minnesota, in the country that now belongs to the Ojibways. From the Bedawakanton Sioux village a young married couple went into the woods to get fresh venison. The snow was deep; the ice was thick. Far away in the woods they pitched their lonely teepee. The young man was a well-known hunter and his wife a good maiden of the village.

"He hunted entirely on snow-shoes, because the snow was very deep. His wife had to wear snow-shoes too, to get to the spot where they pitched their tent. It was thawing the day they went out, so their path was distinct after the freeze came again.

"The young man killed many deer and bears. His wife was very busy curing the meat and trying out the fat while he was away hunting each day. In the evenings she kept on trying the fat. He sat on one side of the teepee and she on the other.

"One evening, she had just lowered a kettle of fat to cool, and as she looked into the hot fat she saw the face of an Ojibway scout looking down at them through the smoke-hole. She said nothing, nor did she betray herself in any way.

"After a little she said to her husband in a natural voice: "Marpeetopah, some one is looking at us through the smoke hole, and I think it is an enemy's scout."

"Then Marpeetopah (Four-skies) took up his bow and arrows and began to straighten and dry them for the next day's hunt, talking and laughing meanwhile. Suddenly he turned and sent an arrow upward, killing the Ojibway, who fell dead at their door.

"Quick, Wadutah!" he exclaimed; "you must hurry home upon our trail. I will stay here. When this scout does not return, the war-party may come in a body or send another scout. If only one comes, I can soon dispatch him and then I will follow you. If I do not do that, they will overtake us in our flight."

"Wadutah (Scarlet) protested and begged to be allowed to stay with her husband, but at last she came away to get reinforcements.

"Then Marpeetopah (Four-skies) put more sticks on the fire so that the teepee might be brightly lit and show him the way. He then took the scalp of the enemy and proceeded on his track, until he came to the upturned root of a great tree. There he spread out his arrows and laid out his tomahawk.

"Soon two more scouts were sent by the Ojibway war-party to see what was the trouble and why the first one failed to come back. He heard them as they approached. They were on snow-shoes. When they came close to him, he shot an arrow into the foremost. As for the other, in his effort to turn quickly his snow-shoes stuck in the deep snow and detained him, so Marpeetopah killed them both.

"Quickly he took the scalps and followed Wadutah. He ran hard. But the Ojibways suspected something wrong and came to the lonely teepee, to find all their scouts had been killed. They followed the path of Marpeetopah and Wadutah to the main village, and there a great battle was fought on the ice. Many were killed on both sides. It was after this that the Sioux moved to the Mississippi river."

I was sleepy by this time and I rolled myself up in my buffalo robe and fell asleep.

Adventures of My Uncle

It was a beautiful fall day—"a gopher's last look back," as we used to say of the last warm days of the late autumn. We were encamped beside a wild rice lake, where two months before we had harvested our watery fields of grain, and where we had now returned for the duck-hunting. All was well with us. Ducks were killed in countless numbers, and in the evenings the men hunted deer in canoes by torchlight along the shores of the lake. But alas! life is made up of good times and bad times, and it is when we are perfectly happy that we should expect some overwhelming misfortune.

"So it was that upon this peaceful and still morning, all of a sudden a harsh and terrible war-cry was heard! Your father was then quite a young man, and a very ambitious warrior, so that I was always frightened on his account whenever there was a chance of fighting. But I did not think of your uncle, Mysterious Medicine, for he was not over fifteen at the time; besides, he had never shown any taste for the field.

"Our camp was thrown into great excitement; and as the warriors advanced to meet the enemy, I was almost overcome by the sight of your uncle among them! It was of no use for me to call him back—I think I prayed in that moment to the Great Mystery to bring my boy safely home.

"I shall never forget, as long as I live, the events of that day. Many brave men were killed; among them two of your uncle's intimate friends. But when the battle was over, my boy came back; only his face was blackened in mourning for his friends, and he bore several wounds in his body. I knew that he had proved himself a true warrior.

"This was the beginning of your uncle's career, He has surpassed your father and your grand-father; yes, all his ancestors except Jingling Thunder, in daring and skill."

Such was my grandmother's account of the maiden battle of her third son, Mysterious Medicine. He achieved many other names; among them Big Hunter, Long Rifle and White Foot-print. He had a favorite Kentucky rifle which he carried for many years. The stock was several times broken, but he always made another. With this gun he excelled most of his contemporaries in accuracy of aim. He used to call the weapon Ishtahbopopa—a literal translation would be "Pops-the-eye."

My uncle, who was a father to me for ten years of my life, was almost a giant in his proportions, very symmetrical and "straight as an arrow." His face was not at all handsome. He had very quiet and reserved manners and was a man of action rather than of unnecessary words. Behind the veil of Indian reticence he had an inexhaustible fund of wit and humor; but this part of his character only appeared before his family and very intimate friends. Few men know nature more thoroughly than he. Nothing irritated him more than to hear some natural fact misrepresented. I have often thought that with education he might have made a Darwin or an Agassiz.

He was always modest and unconscious of self in relating his adventures. "I have often been forced to realize my danger," he used to say, "but not in such a way as to overwhelm me. Only twice in my life have I been really frightened, and for an instant lost my presence of mind.

"Once I was in full pursuit of a large buck deer that I had wounded. It was winter, and there was a very heavy fall of fresh snow upon the ground. All at once I came upon the body of the deer lying dead on the snow. I began to make a hasty examination, but before I had made any discoveries, I spied the tips of two ears peeping just above the surface of the snow about twenty feet from me. I made a feint of not seeing anything at all, but moved quickly in the direction of my gun, which was leaning against a tree. Feeling, somehow, that I was about to be taken advantage of, I snatched at the same moment my knife from my belt.

"The panther (for such it was) made a sudden and desperate spring. I tried to dodge, but he was too quick for me. He caught me by the shoulder with his great paw, and threw me down. Somehow, he did not retain his hold, but made another leap and again concealed himself in the snow. Evidently he was preparing to make a fresh attack.

"I was partially stunned and greatly confused by the blow; therefore I should have been an easy prey for him at the moment. But when he left me, I came to my senses; and I had been thrown near my gun! I arose and aimed between the tips of his ears—all that was visible of him—and fired. I saw the fresh snow fly from the spot. The panther leaped about six feet straight up into the air, and fell motionless. I gave two good war-whoops, because I had conquered a very formidable enemy. I sat down on the dead body to rest, and my heart beat as if it would knock out all my ribs. I had not been expecting any danger, and that was why I was so taken by surprise.

"The other time was on the plains, in summer. I was accustomed to hunting in the woods, and never before had hunted buffalo on horseback. Being a young man, of course I was eager to do whatever other men did. Therefore I saddled my pony for the hunt. I had a swift pony and a good gun, but on this occasion I preferred a bow and arrows.

"It was the time of year when the buffalo go in large herds and the bulls are vicious. But this did not trouble me at all; indeed, I thought of nothing but the excitement and honor of the chase.

"A vast plain near the Souris river was literally covered with an immense herd. The day was fair, and we came up with them very easily. I had a quiver full of arrows, with a sinew-backed bow.

"My pony carried me in far ahead of all the others. I found myself in the midst of the bulls first, for they are slow. They threw toward me vicious glances, so I hastened my pony on to the cows. Soon I was enveloped in a thick cloud of dust, and completely surrounded by the herd, who were by this time in the act of fleeing, their hoofs making a noise like thunder.

"I could not think of anything but my own situation, which confused me for the moment. It seemed to me to be a desperate one. If my pony, which was going at full speed, should step into a badger hole, I should be thrown to the ground and trampled under foot in an instant. If I were to stop, they would knock me over, pony and all. Again, it seemed as if my horse must fall from sheer exhaustion; and then what would become of me?

"At last I awoke to a calm realization of my own power. I uttered a yell and began to shoot right and left. Very soon there were only a few old bulls who remained near me. The herd had scattered, and I was miles away from my companions.

"It is when we think of our personal danger that we are apt to be at a loss to do the best thing under the circumstances. One should be unconscious of self in order to do his duty. We are very apt to think ourselves brave, when we are most timid. I have discovered that half our young men give the war-whoop when they are frightened, because they fear lest their silence may betray their state of mind. I think we are really bravest when most calm and slow to action."

I urged my uncle to tell me more of his adventures.

"Once," said he, "I had a somewhat peculiar experience, which I think I never related to you before. It was at the time of the fall hunt. One afternoon when I was alone I discovered that I was too far away to reach the camp before dark, so I looked about for a good place to spend the night. This was on the Upper Missouri, before there were any white people there, and when we were in constant danger from wild beasts as well as from hostile Indians. It was necessary to use every precaution and the utmost vigilance.

"I selected a spot which appeared to be well adapted to defense. I had killed two deer, and I hung up pieces of the meat at certain distances in various directions. I knew that any wolf would stop for the meat, A grizzly bear would sometimes stop, but not a mountain lion or a panther. Therefore I made a fire. Such an animal would be apt to attack a solitary fire. There was a full moon that night, which was much in my favor.

"Having cooked and eaten some of the venison, I rolled myself in my blanket and lay down by the fire, taking my Ishtahbopopa for a bed fellow. I hugged it very closely, for I felt that I should need it during the night. I had scarcely settled myself when I heard what seemed to be ten or twelve coyotes set up such a howling that I was quite sure of a visit from them. Immediately afterward I heard another sound, which was like the screaming of a small child. This was a porcupine, which had doubtless smelled the meat.

"I watched until a coyote appeared upon a flat rock fifty yards away. He sniffed the air in every direction; then, sitting partly upon his haunches, swung round in a circle with his hind legs sawing the air, and howled and barked in many different keys. It was a great feat! I could not help wondering whether I should be able to imitate him. What had seemed to be the voices of many coyotes was in reality only one animal. His mate soon appeared and then they both seemed satisfied, and showed no signs of a wish to invite another to join them. Presently they both suddenly and quietly disappeared.

"At this moment a slight noise attracted my attention, and I saw that the porcupine had arrived. He had climbed up to the piece of meat nearest me, and was helping himself without any ceremony. I thought it was fortunate that he came, for he would make a good watch dog for me. Very soon, in fact, he interrupted his meal, and caused all his quills to stand out in defiance. I glanced about me and saw the two coyotes slyly approaching my open camp from two different directions.

"I took the part of the porcupine! I rose in a sitting posture, and sent a swift arrow to each of my unwelcome visitors. They both ran away with howls of surprise and pain.

"The porcupine saw the whole from his perch, but his meal was not at all disturbed, for he began eating again with apparent relish. Indeed, I was soon furnished with another of these unconscious protectors. This one came from the opposite direction to a point where I had hung a splendid ham of venison. He cared to go no further, but seated himself at once on a convenient branch and began his supper.

"The canon above me was full of rocks and trees. From this direction came a startling noise, which caused me more concern than anything I had thus far heard. It sounded much like a huge animal stretching himself, and giving a great yawn which ended in a scream. I knew this for the voice of a mountain lion, and it decided me to perch upon a limb for the rest of the night.

"I got up and climbed into the nearest large tree, taking my weapons with me; but first I rolled a short log of wood in my blanket and laid it in my place by the fire.

"As I got up, the two porcupines began to descend, but I paid no attention to them, and they soon returned to their former positions. Very soon I heard a hissing sound from one of them, and knew that an intruder was near. Two grey wolves appeared.

"I had hung the hams by the ham strings, and they were fully eight feet from the ground. At first the wolves came boldly forward, but the warning of the porcupines caused them to stop, and hesitate to jump for the meat. However, they were hungry, and began to leap savagely for the hams, although evidently they proved good targets for the quills of the prickly ones, for occasionally one of them would squeal and rub his nose desperately against the tree.

"At last one of the wolves buried his teeth too deeply in a tough portion of the flesh, and having jumped to reach it, his own weight made it impossible for him to loosen his upper jaw. There the grey wolf dangled, kicking and yelping, until the tendon of the ham gave way, and both fell heavily to the ground. From my hiding-place I sent two arrows into his body, which ended his life. The other one ran away to a little distance and remained there a long time, as if waiting for her mate.

"I was now very weary, but I had seen many grizzly bears' tracks in the vicinity, and besides, I had not forgotten the dreadful scream of the mountain lion. I determined to continue my watch.

"As I had half expected, there came presently a sudden heavy fall, and at the same time the burning embers were scattered about and the fire almost extinguished. My blanket with the log in it was rolled over several times, amid snarls and growls. Then the assailant of my camp—a panther—leaped back into the thick underbrush, but not before my arrow had penetrated his side. He snarled and tried to bite off the shaft, but after a time became exhausted and lay still.

"I could now distinguish the grey dawn in the east. I was exceedingly drowsy, so I fastened myself by a rope of raw-hide to the trunk of the tree against which I leaned. I was seated on a large limb, and soon fell asleep.

"I was rudely awakened by the report of a gun directly under me. At the same time, I thought some one was trying to shake me off the tree. Instantly I reached for my gun. Alas! it was gone ! At the first shake of the tree by my visitor, a grizzly bear, the gun had fallen, and as it was cocked, it went off.

"The bear picked up the weapon and threw it violently away; then he again shook the tree with all his strength. I shouted:

"I have still a bow and a quiver full of arrows; you had better let me alone."

"He replied to this with a rough growl. I sent an arrow into his side, and he groaned like a man as he tried hard to pull it out. I had to give him several more before he went a short distance away, and died. It was now daylight, so I came down from my perch. I was stiff, and scarcely able to walk. I found that the bear had killed both of my little friends, the porcupines, and eaten most of the meat.

"Perhaps you wonder, Ohiyesa, why I did not use my gun in the beginning; but I had learned that if I once missed my aim with it, I had no second chance. I have told of this particular adventure, because it was an unusual experience to see so many different animals in one night. I have often been in similar places, and killed one or two. Once a common black bear stole a whole deer from me without waking me. But all this life is fast disappearing, and the world is becoming different."