When Buffalo Ran - G. B. Grinnell

Lessons of the Prairie

Once when I was a little older, I was out on the hills one day, watching the horses. They were feeding quietly, and I lay on a hill and went to sleep. Suddenly I was awakened by a terrible crash close to my head, and I knew that a gun had been fired close to me, and I thought that the enemy had attacked me and were killing me, and would drive off the horses. I was badly frightened. I sprang to my feet, and started to run to my horse, and in doing this I ran away from the camp, but before I reached the horse I heard someone laughing, and when I looked around my uncle sat there on the ground, with the smoke still coming from his gun. He signed to me to come to him and sit down, and when I had done so, he said:

"My son, you keep a careless watch. You do not act as a man ought to do. Instead of sitting here looking over the prairie in all directions to see if enemies are approaching, or if there are any signs of strange people being near, you lie here and sleep. I crept up to you and fired my gun, to see what you would do. You did not stop to see where the noise came from, nor did you look about to see if enemies were here. You thought only of saving your body, and started to run away. This is not good. A warrior does not act like this; he is always watching all about him, to see what is going to happen, and if he is attacked suddenly, he tries to fight, or, if he cannot fight, he thinks more of giving warning to the people than he does of saving himself."

When my uncle spoke to me like this he made me feel bad, for of all people he was the one whom I most wished to please, and with him I wished to stand well. I considered a little before I said to him: "I was trying to run to my horse, and if I had got him I think I should have tried to reach the camp, and perhaps I should have tried to drive in some of the horses; but I was badly frightened, for I had been asleep and did not know what had happened."

"I think you speak truly," said my uncle, "but you should not have gone to sleep when you were sent out here to watch the horses. Boys who go to sleep when they ought to be looking over the country, and watching their horses, or men who get tired and go to sleep when they are on the warpath, never do much. I should like to have you always alert and watchful."

I made up my mind that I would hold fast to the words which my uncle spoke to me, and after this would not sleep when I was on herd.

It was not long after this that my uncle again told me to get my arrows, and come and hunt with him. He told me also to take my robe with me, and that we would go far up the river and be gone one night. I was glad to go, and we started.

All through the day we traveled up stream, going in low places, and traveling cautiously; for, although we were close to the camp, still my uncle told me no one could be sure that enemies might not be about, and that we might not be attacked at any time; so we went carefully. If we had to cross a hill, we crept up to the top of it, and lifted our heads up little by little, and looked over all the country, to see whether people were in sight; or game; or to see what the animals might be doing.

Once, when we stopped to rest, my uncle said to me: "Little son, this is one of the things you must learn; as you travel over the country, always go carefully, for you do not know that behind the next hill there may not be some enemy watching, looking over the country to see if someone may not be about. Therefore, it is well for you always to keep out of sight as much as you can. If you have to go to the top of the hill, because you wish to see the country, creep carefully up some ravine, and show yourself as little as possible. If you have to cross a wide flat, cover yourself with your robe, and stoop over, walking slowly, so that anyone far off may perhaps think it is a buffalo that he sees. In this respect the Indians are different from the white people; they are foolish, and when they travel they go on the ridges between the streams, because the road is level, and the going easy. But when they travel in this way everyone can see them from a long way off, and can hide in the path, and when they approach can shoot at them and kill them. The white people think that because they cannot see Indians, there are none about; and this belief has caused many white people to be killed."

As I walked behind my uncle, following him over the prairie, I tried to watch him, and to imitate everything that he did. If he stopped, I stopped; if he bent down his head, and went stooping for a little way, I also stooped, and followed him; when he got down to creep, I, too, crept, so as to be out of sight.

That day, as the sun fell toward the west, my uncle went down to the river, and looked along the bank and the mud-bars, trying to learn whether any animals had been to the water; and when he saw tracks he pointed them out to me. "This," he said, "is the track of a deer. You see that it has been going slowly. It is feeding, because it does not go straight ahead, but goes now in one direction, and then in another, and back a little, not seeming to have any purpose in its wandering about, and here," showing me a place where a plant had been bitten off, "is where it was eating. If we follow along, soon we will see its tracks in the mud by the river." It was as he had said, and soon, in a little sand-bar, we saw the place where the animal had stopped. "You see," he said, "this was a big deer; here are his tracks; here he stopped at the edge of the water to drink; and then he went on across the river, for there are no tracks leading back to the bank. You will notice that he was walking; he was not frightened; he did not see nor smell any enemies."

Further up the river, on a sand-bar, he showed me the tracks of antelope, where the old ones had walked along quietly, and other smaller tracks, where the sand had been thrown up; and these marks, he said, were made by the little kids, which were playing and running.

"Notice carefully," he said, "the tracks that you see, so that you will remember them, and will know them again. The tracks made by the different animals are not all alike. The antelope's hoof is sharp-pointed in front. Notice, too, that when his foot sinks in the mud there is no mark behind his footprint; while behind the footprint of a deer there are two marks, in soft ground, made by the little hoofs that the deer has on his foot."

We kept on further up the river, and when night came we stopped, and sat down in some bushes. All day long we had seen nothing that we could kill; but from a fold in his robe my uncle drew some dried meat, and we built a little fire of dried willow brush, that would make no smoke, and over this we roasted our meat, and ate; and my uncle talked to me again, saying: "My son, I like to have you come out with me, and travel about over the country. You have no father to teach you, and I am glad to take you with me, and to tell you the things that I know. It is a good thing to be a member of our tribe, and it is a good thing to belong to a good family in that tribe. You must always remember that you come of good people. Your father was a brave man, killed fighting bravely against the enemy. I want you to grow up to be a brave man and a good man. You must love your relations, and must do everything that you can for them. If the enemy should attack the village, do not run away; think always first of defending your own people. You have a mother, and sisters, who will depend on you for their living, and for their credit. They love you, and you must always try to do everything that you can for them. Try to learn about hunting, and to become a good hunter, so that you may support them. But, above all things, try to live bravely and well, so that people will speak well of you and your relations will be proud.

"You are only a boy now, but the time will come when you will be a man, and must act a man's part. Now your relations all respect you. They do not ask you to do woman's work; they treat you well. You have a good bed, and whenever you are hungry, food is given you. Do you know why it is that you are treated in this way? I will tell you. Your relations know that you are a man, and that you will grow up to go to war, and fight; perhaps often to be in great danger. They know that perhaps they may not have you long with them; that soon you may be killed. Perhaps even to-night or to-morrow, before we get back to the camp, we may be attacked, and may have to fight, and perhaps to die. It is for this cause that you are treated better than your sisters; because at any moment you may be taken away. This you should understand."

After we had eaten it began to grow dark, and pretty soon my uncle stood up and tied up his waist again, and we set out once more, going up the river. I wanted to ask my uncle where we were going, but I knew that he had some reason for moving away from the camp, and before I had spoken to him about it we had gone a mile or two, and it was quite dark, and we stopped again in another clump of bushes. Here we sat down, and my uncle said to me: "My son, here we will sleep. Where we stopped and ate, just before the sun set, was a good place to camp, but it may be that an enemy was watching from the top of some hill, and may have seen us go into those bushes. If he did, perhaps he will creep down there to-night, hoping to kill us; and if there were several persons they may go down there and surround those bushes. I did not want to stop there where we might have been seen, and so when it grew dark we came on here. We will sleep here, but will build no fire."

The next morning, before day broke, my uncle roused me, and we went to the top of a high hill not far off. We reached it before the sun rose, and lay on top of it, looking off over the prairie. From here we could see a long way. Many animals were in view, buffalo and antelope, and down in the river bottom a herd of elk. For a long time we lay there watching, but everywhere it was quiet. The animals were not moving; no smokes were seen in the air; birds were not flying to and fro, as if waiting for the hunter to kill a buffalo, or for people to fight and kill each other, when they might feed on the flesh.

After we had watched a long time, my uncle said: "I see no signs of people. Let us creep down this ravine, and get among the bushes, and perhaps we can kill one of these elk." We did as he had said; and before very long had come near to the elk. Then he told me to wait there. I stopped and for a few moments I could see him creeping up nearer and nearer to the elk. Presently they started and ran; and one cow turned off to cross the river, and as she was crossing it she fell in the water.

My uncle stood up and motioned to me to go down to where the elk lay. We met there and cut up the elk, and my uncle took a big load of meat on his back, and I a smaller load, and we started back toward the village.

As we were returning, he spoke to me again, saying: "I want you to remember that of all the advice I give you the chief thing is to be brave. If you start out with a war party, to attack enemies, do not be afraid. If your friends are about to make a charge on the enemy, still do not be afraid. Watch your friends, and see how they act, and try to do as the others do. Try always to have a good horse, and to be in the front of the fighting. To be brave is what makes a man. If you are lucky, and count a coup, or kill an enemy, people will look on you as a man. Do not fear anything. To be killed in battle is no disgrace. When you fight, try to kill. Ride up close to your enemy. Do not think that he is going to kill you; think that you are going to kill him. As you charge, you must be saying to yourself all the time, 'I will be brave; I will not fear anything.'

"In your life in the camp remember this too; you must always be truthful and honest with all your people. Never say anything that is not true; never tell a lie, even for a joke—to make people laugh. When you are in the company of older people, listen to what they say, and try to remember; thus you will learn. Do not say very much; it is just as well to let other people talk while you listen. If you have a friend, cling close to him; and if need be, give your life for him. Think always of your friend before you think of yourself."

That night we reached the camp again. My uncle left the meat that he had killed at my mother's lodge.