When Buffalo Ran - G. B. Grinnell

In the Medicine Circle

Soon after I had killed my big buffalo, my uncle had sent for me and when I had gone to his lodge, he said, "Come with me"; and we walked out on the prairie where his horses were feeding. He carried a rope in his hand, and, throwing it over the fast buffalo horse, that he had told me to ride when I first hunted buffalo, he put the rope in my hand, and said: "Son, I give you this horse; he is fast, and he is long-winded. You have seen that he can overtake buffalo. I tell you now that he is a good horse for war. If you ride him when you go on the warpath, you can get up close to your enemy, and strike him; he will not be able to run away from you."

This was the first horse I had, and I was proud to own it. Also, later, my uncle said to me, "My son, if you need horses for riding, catch some of those out of my band, and use them." This I did, sometimes. My uncle had plenty of horses, and was always going to war and getting more.

I was now a big boy, and began to think more and more about going to war. Ever since I had been little I had talked with my companions, and they with me, about the time when we should be big enough to do the things that our fathers and uncles did; and the thing that we most wished to do was to go to war against the enemy, and to do something brave, so that we should be looked up to by the people. As we grew older the wish to do this increased. That summer, when the old men used to come out of their lodges, and sit in the sun, smoking, or to gather in little groups, and gossip with one another, I used to listen to their talk of the things that had happened in past years, when they were young. They told of many strange things that had happened; of war; journeys that they had made against their enemies, of fights that they had had, and horses that they had taken. They spoke, too, of treaties that they had made with other tribes; and told how they had visited the camps of people who lived far off, whose names I had heard, but of whom I knew nothing.

Sometimes, too, I was present in my uncle's lodge when he gave a feast to friends; and often among them were chiefs and older men, who in their day had done great things, and brought credit to the tribe. At such feasts, after all had eaten, and my uncle had filled the pipe, and pushed the tobacco board back under the bed, he gave the pipe to some young man, who lighted it and handed it back to him; and then he smoked, holding the pipe to the sky, and to the earth, and to the four directions, and made a prayer to the spirits, and then passed the pipe along to the end of the circle on his left; and, beginning there, each man smoked and made a prayer, and the pipe passed from hand to hand. After this the guests talked and joked, and laughed, and stories were told, perhaps of war or adventure, perhaps of hard times when food was scarce and the cold bitter, perhaps of those mysterious persons who rule the world, and of the kindly or the terrible things that they have done.

I remember well one such feast, when for the first time my uncle told me to sit on his right hand, and behind him; and when he had filled it, told me to light the pipe. I reached over to the fire, and with a tongs made of willow took up a small coal and lighted the pipe, and after it was going well, passed it to my uncle. And so I lighted all the pipes that were smoked that night. It was during the second of these pipes that an old man, Calf Robe, told a story of a thing that had happened in the tribe long ago, when he was a young man. He was a little man, thin and dried up, but in his time he had been a great warrior. Now he was old and poor, his left arm thin, withered and helpless, and on his side a great scar, much larger than my two hands, where people said his ribs on that side had all been torn away. I had heard of his adventures, how once the animals had taken pity on him, and brought him, after he was sorely wounded on a war journey, safe back to his people and his village. It was on this night that I first heard the story of the Medicine Circle. This was what he said:

"It was winter. The people were camped on Lodgepole Creek near the Big Horn Mountains. Buffalo were close and small game plenty. The snow was deep, and the people did not watch their horses closely, for they thought no war parties would be out in such cold and in such deep snow.

"The chief of this camp had strong mysterious power. On the ground at the right of his bed in his lodge was always a space, where red painted wooden pegs were set in the ground in a circle. Above this hung the medicine bundles. No one was allowed to step or sit in this circle. No one might throw anything on the ground near it. No one might pass between it and the fire. It was sacred.

"It was a very cold night. The wind blew the snow about so that one could hardly see. The chief had gone to a feast in a lodge near his own, and his wives were in bed, but one of them was still awake. The fire had burned down, and the lodge was almost dark. Suddenly the curtain of the doorway was thrown back. A person entered, passed around to the back of the lodge, and sat down in the medicine circle.

"'Now what is this?' the woman thought; 'why does this person sit in the medicine circle?'

"She said to him: 'You know that is the medicine circle. Quick! get up, and sit down somewhere else. My husband will be angry if he sees you there.'

"The person did not speak nor move, so the woman got up and put grass on the fire, and when it made a light, she saw that the man was a stranger, for his clothing was different from ours; but she could not see his face; he kept it covered, all but his eyes. The woman went out and ran to the lodge where her husband was, and said to him: 'Come quickly! A stranger has entered our lodge. He is sitting in the medicine circle.'

indian sitting


"The chief went to his lodge, and many with him—for chiefs and warriors had been feasting together—and they carried in more wood and built a big fire. Then the stranger moved toward the fire, nearer and nearer, and they saw he was shaking with cold. His moccasins and leggings were torn and covered with ice, and his robe was thin and worn.

"The chief was greatly troubled to see this person sitting in his medicine circle, and he asked him in signs, 'Where did you come from?'

"He made no answer.

"Again he asked, 'Who are you?'

"The stranger did not speak. He sat as close to the fire as he could get, still shivering with cold.

"The chief told a woman to feed him; and she warmed some soup and meat over the fire, and set it before the stranger. Then he threw off his robe, and began to eat like a dog that is starved; and all the people sat and looked at him. He was a young man; his face was good, and his hair very long; but he looked thin, and his clothes were poor.

"The stranger ate all the soup and meat, and then he spoke, in signs: 'I came from the north. I was with a large party. We traveled south many days, and at last saw a big camp by a river. At night we went down to it, to take horses, but I got none, and my party rode off and left me. They told me to go with them and they would give me some of the horses that they had taken, but I was ashamed. I had taken no horses, and I could not go back to my people without counting a coup. So I came on alone, and it is now many days since I left my party. I had used up all my arrows, and could kill no food. I began to starve. To-day I saw your camp. I thought to take some horses from you, but my arrows are gone; I should have starved on the road. My clothes are thin and torn; I should have frozen. So I made up my mind to come to your camp and be killed.

"'Come, I am ready. Kill me! I am a Blackfoot.'

"A pipe was filled, lighted, and passed around. But the chief sat thinking. Everyone was waiting to hear what he would say.

"At last he spoke: 'An enemy has come into our camp. The Blackfeet are our enemies. They kill us when they can. We kill them. This man came here to steal our horses, and he ought to be killed. But, you see, he has come into my lodge and sat down in the medicine circle. Perhaps his medicine led him to the place. He must have a powerful helper.

"'There are many lodges in this camp, and in each of these lodges many seats, but he has come to my lodge, and has sat down in my medicine circle. I believe my medicine helped him too. So now I am afraid to kill this man, for if I do, it may break my medicine. I have finished.'

"Everyone said the chief's talk was good. The chief turned to the Blackfoot and said: 'Do not be afraid; we will not kill you. You are tired. Take off your leggings and moccasins, and lie down in that bed.'

"The Blackfoot did as he was told, and as soon as he lay down he slept; for he was very tired.

"Next morning, when he awoke, there by his bed were new leggings for him, and warm hair moccasins, and a new soft cow's robe; and he put these on, and his heart was glad. Then they ate, and the chief told him about the medicine circle, and why they had not killed him.

"In the spring a party of our people went to war against the Crows and the Blackfoot went with them, and he took many horses. He went to war often, and soon had a big band of horses. He married two women of our tribe, and stayed with us. Sometimes they used to ask him if he would ever go back to his people, and he would say: 'Wait, I want to get more horses, and when I have a big band—a great many—I will take my lodge, and my women and children, and we will go north, and I will make peace between your tribe and the Blackfeet.'

"One summer the people were running buffalo. They were making new lodges. One day the men went out to hunt. At sundown they came back, but the Blackfoot did not return. Next day the men went out to look for him, and they searched all over the country. Many days they hunted for the Blackfoot, but he was never seen again. Some said he had gone back to his people. Some said that a bear might have killed him, or he might have fallen from his horse and been killed, and some said that a war party must have killed him and taken the horse with them. Neither man nor horse was seen again."