Bird Woman—Sacajawea - James W. Schultz

Bird Woman Meets Lewis and Clark

So this is Tsaka'kawia's own story, as told to Mrs. Kipp and by her repeated to me:—Pity me, gods of my people, gods of my far mountain country! Freshen my memory, that I may tell all I know about the great white chiefs, my good, generous white chiefs, and all that happened on my journey with them to the Great Salt Water, and back to this, my Minnetaree home!

I did not, of course, attend the great council of our chiefs with the Long Knife chiefs; women were not allowed in it. But my man was there, and as soon as it was over he came to me and said: "The Long Knife chiefs will winter here with us, and when they go on westward they want a guide to show them the way, and some one to take them to the Snakes, in order to purchase horses from them. They will need many horses for riding and for carrying their goods when they arrive at the head of the river and leave their boats—"

"They cannot take their boats to the head of the river; they will not be able to get them up over the big falls, a long way this side of the mountains," I told him.

"Oh, well, wherever they abandon the boats, there they must have horses with which to go on. I shall tell them that I will be their guide and interpreter."

"But you do not know the way, you cannot even understand my Snake language!" I told him.

"Fool!" he cried. "You shall show me the way—and I will lead them to your people!"

Can you imagine how my heart beat when he said that? Here, after all the years, was a chance to see my own people again! At the thought of it I was so happy that I cried. And Otter Woman was happy, too. She sprang up and danced around and around, crying, "We are going to the mountains! We are going to the mountains! We shall see our Snake people, our dear relations!"

"Come! Let us go to the Long Knives at once, and tell them that we will guide them, and interpret for them," I said.

"No! We shall let them find out that we are the only ones that can do this for them. Then they will come to us about it, and so we shall get bigger pay than if we ran to them to offer our services," our man answered.

As our man said, so it had to be. Oh, how anxious Otter Woman and I became as the days passed and we had no word from the white men! Our man became anxious, too, and one day went down and visited the white men, where they were building a fort, some distance below the lower Mandan village. They said nothing to him about engaging us at that time. More and more long days passed. We became more and more uneasy, and finally our man took us down to visit the whites and to see their fort. It was not completed, but we were filled with wonder at it, the first white men's building that we had ever seen. It was wonderful how they had put heavy logs one on top of another, up and up to make the walls. As a great rock is in the middle of a river's swift current, so was that fort there in the timbered bottom. Storms could not even shake it. Nor could all the warriors of our three tribes take it by attack, for there were cunningly cut holes in the walls through which the whites could shoot their many guns and kill off the attackers as they came!

The great white chiefs, Long Knife and Red Hair, greeted us very pleasantly, and made us feel that we were really welcome in their camp. They showed their many strange things, things beautiful and useful, and made us presents of some of them. They had us to eat with them, too, and at that evening meal Otter Woman and I first tasted bread; we thought it the best-flavored food that we had ever eaten. Just as soon as I looked at those two white chiefs, and put my hand in theirs, my heart went out to them, for I knew that, although very brave, truly fearless of all things, yet were they of gentle heart. I could not keep my eyes off them. I felt that I wanted to work for them; to do all that I could for them. Think, then, how happy I was when, that very evening, it was arranged that we should all come and live with them as soon as their fort was completed, our man to be their Minnetaree interpreter, and hunter at times. Nothing was then said about our going west with them in the spring, but I felt sure that that would be asked of us later on.

A few days later the fort was completed, and we moved down with our belongings and were given a room in it. Oh, what a pleasant place that room was, with its fireplace, its windows of oiled skin, and its comfortable couches! The white men visited us in it, and we often visited in their rooms, especially the room of the two chiefs. They were always having visitors from the villages above, and were always getting them to describe what they knew of the country and the people who inhabited it, especially those to the west of us. Night after night they got me to tell them about my Snake people and their country, and I told them all, even to, telling them how my people were persecuted by the Blackfeet, the Minnetarees, the Assiniboines, and how I, myself, had been taken into captivity. I told them, too, than my people starved more than half, the time, because, without guns, they were driven from the plains by their powerful enemies every time that they came out after buffalo. And at that Long Knife and Red Hair both told me that one of their objects in coming to the country was to make peace between all the tribes in it, and, anyhow, if they would not agree to that, the traders who would follow the trail that they were to make would furnish my Snake people plenty of guns, and they would then be able to hold their own against all enemies.

Those were happy days for us, there in the fort of the white men. I was happier than I had ever been, until the time came for me to have my child, and then I suffered terribly. There was another Frenchman and his family with us in the fort, and I could see by the way he talked with the white chiefs that he thought I was about to die. I thought so myself, and, oh, I didn't want to die! I wanted to live! I prayed the gods to help me! At last, when I thought that I could bear the pain no longer, the white chiefs and the Frenchman got together and decided to give me a powerful medicine. I took it. It was powerful; soon after I drank it I gave birth to my child, and then, when I found that it was a boy, I was happier than ever. And what do you think was the medicine that they gave me? You could never guess. It was the rattles of a poison snake, crushed fine in water! It may be that I would not have drank it had I known what it was, and when all was over I was glad that they had not told me.

From the very first day of their arrival in the country, the people of the Earth House tribes had been very friendly with the Long Knives. They now suddenly became less friendly, very few of them visiting the fort, and I wondered why it was. I was soon to learn the reason: Traders from the fort of the Nor'westers, on the Assiniboine River, were constantly coming south to the villages with pack-trains of goods and going back with the furs that they bought. The leader of these traders was a Frenchman, named Rock, a man well liked by the chiefs of the three tribes. After a trip north, he had returned with another pack-train of goods, and, calling a council of all the chiefs of the Mandans, Minnetarees, and Black Moccasins, he told them that he had a message for them from the great chief of his company. "These are the words of my chief," he orated. "The Long Knives who are with you are not what they would have you believe they are. They talk big, but they are nothing! Their great chief, away to the east, is a very small chief and they are a very small, poor people! The two chiefs now with you, Long Knife and Red Hair, make you great promises of what they will do for you. Do not believe them, they are liars, they will do nothing for you! If you wish to keep my friendship, if you wish me to continue sending trade goods to your villages, you will do nothing for them. Especially you will not furnish guides nor interpreters to help them on their way to the west. They gave you flags and medals. Throw them away and take these that I give you, for they are great medicine, while those of the Long Knives are the signs of a very poor and weak and no-account people!" And with that Rock handed to the head chiefs the flags and medals, and also some coats of red cloth trimmed with gold braid. These last were very beautiful; the chiefs thought them the finest presents that they had ever received. In answer to what Rock demanded of them they said that they would do all that his trader chief asked. And then they went home to talk it all over among themselves. Their minds were all mixed up; they did not know whom to believe nor what to do in this matter.

It was an old Minnetaree, come to visit me, that brought word of this council with Rock. At the time my man was off down the river with a hunting party, but there was another Frenchman with us, who was married to a Minnetaree and spoke that language, and when he came in from a hunt across the river, I got him to go with me to Long Knife and Red Hair and interpret for me. Through him I told them all that I had just learned, and I could see that they were very much worried about it. They said that I was a good woman to come at once to them with what I had heard, and gave me some sugar and shook hands with me when I turned to go back to my room.

On the very next day Black Cougar, the head chief of the Mandans, and others came to the fort, and Long Knife and Red Hair told them that they had heard all about their council with Rock, and were very sorry that they had believed his lies and accepted his gifts. They then explained that the Nor'westers had no right to trade south of the rivers running to the north, but that, until Long Knife traders could come, which would be soon, they would be allowed to keep on trading in the villages. Finally, they told Black Cougar and his men that there was but one great white chief, the Long Knife chief, who would be their true friend as long as they would do as he asked. In reply, Black Cougar promised for himself and all the other village chiefs that the Nor'wester presents would never be used, and that, in the future, they would regard the great Long Knife chief as their head chief, and all that he asked of them they would do.

Now, when my man came home and heard all about this trouble, he was very angry at me for having told Long Knife and Red Hair about Rock's council with the chiefs. "Men's business is not women's business," he said. "Hereafter, no matter what you learn that concerns the Nor'westers, just you keep your mouth shut about it!"

"But you are working for the Long Knives; I am your woman; it is but right that we should help them in all ways that we can," I told him.

"It may be that I shall not continue to work for them," he answered. "I do not like them. They make me work too hard. They give me too many rules to follow and not enough pay for what I do. It may be that I can fix it so that the Nor'westers will pay me a great deal just to quit these Long Knives!"

And with that he went out of the room grumbling bad words, and I cried. Every day I had been expecting that the Long Knives chiefs would ask us to go west with them; and now, if they did ask us, my man would refuse to go! I had been counting upon seeing my own people again. The chances were that I should never see them! Do you wonder that I had no heart left in me that night?

More days passed. Whenever he could leave the fort and his work, my man would go to the lower Mandan village, there to talk with the Nor'wester traders, and finally, some of them, going north after more goods, took a message from him to their chief. It was that, if the chief would give him a certain sum,— I never knew how much,—he would quit the service of the Long Knives. In about a moon he got his answer. The trader chief sent him word that, having left the company when he was most needed, he could stay quit; that the Nor'westers wanted nothing more to do with him. Oh, but he was mad when he got that message. But Otter Woman and I were glad. We believed that he would continue in the service of the Long Knives and that we should go west with them to our people.

More time went by, and more and more the Long Knives chiefs talked with us about our country, got us to make pictures of it, and show them where we thought they would be likely to meet our Snake people. And then, one day,—oh, what a happy day that was for me,—they asked my man if he would go west with them in the spring and take me along with him?

"And my other woman, Otter Woman, too?" my man asked.

Long Knife pointed to her. "She begins to grow big with child," he said. "She would have it somewhere along the trail; she would be sick. No, we cannot take her; if we did we should lose much time, and we shall have no time, not a day to spare."

"But you mistake; you do not understand," my man told him. "These Indian women, they are different; they are not like white women. True, my Otter Woman will have her child, but that will not delay you. She will just stop back and have it, say, in the morning, and before night she will catch up with you!"

"Even were she to do that, quickly, as you say, we could not take her," said the other chief, Red Hair. "She would take up boat room that we need for our goods, and she would be one more to feed. No, Toussaint, we cannot take her."

I wanted to say something for her, but I knew that it would be useless; had we not already learned that when these chiefs said no, they meant it? Otter Woman, crying bitterly, turned and went out of the room. My man, standing by my side, was silent a long time; and then he said to the chiefs: "I can, of course, leave her with the Minnetarees, with the family of the man who captured her from the Snakes, but if I do I shall have to pay them for caring for her. Perhaps you will pay them—a blanket, maybe, or tobacco, some beads, a knife, or whatever?"

"Yes. We will give them something for their trouble," Red Hair agreed.

"Then it is settled. My woman, here, and I go with you," said my man. And we went to our room, where we found Otter Woman crying harder than ever.

"Cease crying!" my man shouted to her. But she could not stop. I did all that I could to comfort her, but in disappointment like that words are of little use. She cried all night, and at times for days afterward.

At that time nothing was said as to what pay my man should get for going west with the Long Knives. Later on they had some talk with him about it, but I never did know how much they promised him. At first he said that it was enough, and then he became discontented and said that it was not enough; that is, he complained to me about it, but said nothing to the white men one day he told the chiefs that he had learned that some Minnetarees, camping and hunting out at the Turtle Buttes, had plenty of meat to spare, and that if they would send him to them with a few trade goods, he would bring in some loads of it. They agreed to do that, and he started off with several horses, some goods, and a man to help him, and I watched him go with heavy heart. Men of the Hudson's Bay Company were trading in that Minnetaree camp, and I feared that he was just making an excuse to go to them and try to get pay from their chief to quit these kind Long Knives chiefs. I never learned what he said to them, but whatever it was, their answer displeased him, for upon his return he told Long Knife and Red Hair just what was going on in the camp. The Hudson's Bay men were telling the Minnetarees that the Long Knives were a poor people and liars and thieves, and that they should kill them off, for if they didnít, then the Long Knives would soon steal all their land and kill off all their food and fur animals. Following that, my white chiefs told all the Indians who came to visit in the fort that they were sorry to learn that the North traders were telling such terrible lies about them. Time, they said, would prove that the Long Knives were their true friends. Well, they looked so honest when they said that, and were so kind, that the Indians believed them, and became more friendly with them than they had been.