THOSE savage hordes which may be considered as the Prairie Indians proper, have made little or no perceptible progress in civilization. They mostly live by plunder and the chase: a few eke out a subsistence by agriculture. They consist of various distinct tribes, but among whom there is a greater diversity of language than of habitudes. I would not have it understood, however, that all the customs of every band are entirely similar: it is this assumption, together with the practice of setting down as standing customs what they have observed on some particular occasions, that has frequently created such discrepancy between the accounts of transient travellers.
There is scarcely a prairie tribe, however limited in numbers, but is subdivided into petty bands, each under the immediate control of its own chief. Their systems of government are frequently compounded of the patriarchal and military. The most influential heads of families exercise a petty rule, which often extends beyond their own household to a circle of adherents. Several of these clans, bound by the ties of consanguinity or friendship, are apt to come under the control, by common consent, of some more influential chief, who may have gained celebrity in their wars; but a regular hereditary descent seems rarely established. These petty bands seldom unite under one general leader, except for the common defence, when threatened with danger. Occasionally there springs up a master spirit — a great brave and a great sage, who is able to unite his whole tribe, in which he is generally aided by a sufficient knack at sorcerous tricks to give him the character of a great ‘medicine-man.’
War seems to be the element of the prairie Indians, notwithstanding but few possess much intrinsic bravery. They are, in fact, the most cowardly savages east of the Rocky Mountains, bearing but little similitude in this respect to the aborigines of the interior of the United States. They rarely attack an enemy except with a decided advantage; for the prospect of losing even a single warrior will often deter them from undertaking the most flattering adventure. It is true that, in addi-
tion to their timidity, they are restrained by the fact that the loss of a man often casts a gloom upon the most brilliant victory, and throws a whole clan into mourning. On this account they generally attack by surprise, and in the night, when all are presumed to be asleep; having care, if against a formidable enemy, that it be long enough before the morning dawn to allow them to retire beyond reach of pursuit before daylight. When the moon rises at a late hour, just before she appears, is a favorite time; for then they will have a gleam of light by which to collect and drive off the prize of stock which they may be able to frighten away. These prowling parties around a camp sometimes employ a species of signals in imitation of wolves, owls and other nocturnal animals, by which they communicate with each other — mimicking so to the life as not to give alarm to unsuspecting travellers.
War is seldom concluded upon, or even a campaign undertaken, without a general council, in which all the chiefs and most distinguished braves and sages assemble. After all are seated in a circle, the pipe is passed around until their brains are sufficiently soothed to enable them to consult the Great Spirit, and take freely into advisement the important matters under consideration. Therefore the tobacco smoke is usually blown upwards, as a propitiatory incense to the invoked spirits or genii who dwell ‘upon the sky.’ In this operation the smoke is generally inhaled into
the lungs, and discharged in murky streams from the olfactories. If a council be preparatory to a campaign, the warriors sometimes catch the tobacco smoke in the hand, anointing their bodies with it; which they fancy renders them, if not invulnerable, at least far more secure from the darts of their enemies.
Although in their warfare they employ every wile and stratagem, and faithless subterfuge, to deceive their enemies, and in battle are relentless and cruel in the extreme, yet they seldom resort to those horrid punishments and tortures upon their prisoners which were wont to be inflicted by the savages of the interior of the United States, during their early wars with the whites. The practice of burning their captives alive, said to have prevailed many years ago among some prairie tribes, seems now to have grown quite out of use.
Upon returning from a campaign after a defeat, the village resounds for many days with the lamentations, the shrieks and wailings of the women and children; in which, not only the bereft families, but all the relatives and most of the friends of the deceased join. If, on the contrary, the warriors have been successful, bring home scalps of their enemies, all join in their most famous festival, the scalp-dance. In this fete the savage trophies are usually elevated upon a pole in the centre of the dance; or perhaps the brave captors retain them in their hands, tossing and swinging them about their heads; at the same time vehemently apostrophizing these ghastly re-
presentatives of their enemies, with the most taunting and insulting bravadoes; branding the nation with cowardice and effeminacy; daring them to come forward and revenge the blood of their slain; then concluding with scoffs and exulting yells at the dastardly silence of their enemies, whom they represent as afraid to whisper a note of vengeance against their superiors and masters, the triumphing conquerors. After the warriors have become fatigued, the squaws and children generally continue the barbarous festivity; in the midst of which some vainglorious brave will rise perhaps, and repeat the apostrophic fanfaronades, representing that the very squaws and papooses hold them in cowering submission, and that henceforth these only will be sent to subdue them; their warriors being reserved for more noble enemies. These brutal rites and rodomontades being concluded, the scalps are handed to their owners, who cure and paint them for future war-dances and other kindred ceremonies.
When a tribe wishes to celebrate a treaty of peace with an enemy, a number of their warriors, as ambassadors, or perhaps a whole band, move to the neighborhood, and send the calumet or pipe of peace, which supplies the place of the flag of truce among civilized nations:* though, when the embassy
is to the whites, a flag usually accompanies, as they have learned that this is our token of peace. The overture being accepted, the chiefs and principals of each band meet in council, sometimes in a wigwam, if there be a suitable one, else in the open air, taking their seats, as usual, upon their haunches in a circle proportioned to the number. If there be presents — and these are an indispensable earnest of friendship from the whites — the essence, the seal of the treaty, without which negotiation is vain — these are laid in the centre. A personage in the capacity of an orderly sergeant then lights the calumet, which he hands to a principal chief, who, before smoking, usually points the stem towards the four cardinal points, and towards the heavens and the earth — then takes a certain number of whiffs (generally about three), and passing it to the next, who draws an equal number of whiffs, it thus continues around the circle, in the direction of the sun, each sending fumid
currents upward from the nozzle. It seems looked upon as sacrilege for a person to pass before the pipe while the chiefs are smoking; and the heedless or impudent are sometimes severely punished for the act. The ‘big talk’ follows, and the presents are distributed by a chief who exercises the office of commissary. But in the petty truces among each other, presents are scarcely expected, except they be claimed by the more powerful party as a matter of tribute.
Travellers and hunters are generally obliged to hold a treaty or ‘big talk’ with every band of prairie Indians they may encounter, if they wish to maintain, friendly relations with them. Treaties have also been held, at different periods, with most of the wild tribes, by agents of the U. S. Government, yet for the most part with but very little effect — they generally forget or disregard them by the time the presents they may have received are consumed.
These treaties, as well as other council deliberations, are generally promulgated by a sort of public crier, who proclaims the stipulations and resolutions from lodge to lodge; and the event is preserved in the memory of the sages to future generations. Among some of the tribes their memory is assisted by the famous ‘wampum belt,’ which is a list or belt made of wampum beads, so interwoven in hieroglyphic figures as to form a record of important events. Others preserve the same by hieroglyphic paintings on their buffalo rugs, and the like.
The arms of the wild Indians are chiefly the bow and arrows, with the use of which they become remarkably expert. A dextrous savage will lay a wager, at short shots, against many riflemen. Indeed, there is hardly any more effective weapon than the bow and arrow in the hands of an expert archer. While the musketeer will load and fire once, the bowman will discharge a dozen arrows, and that, at distances under fifty yards, with an accuracy nearly equal to the rifle. In a charge, they are eminently serviceable; for the Indian seems to discharge his arrows with about as much certainty when running at full speed as when standing.
The usual length of the Indian bow is about three feet, though it is sometimes as much as four. It is generally made of elastic wood, yet elk’s horn is occasionally used. Those of the latter are made of two of the longest and straightest shafts, which, being shaved down to the necessary proportions, are united by lapping their ends together and binding them firmly with sinew. Bows have also been made, in the same manner, of a pair of buffalo ribs; but as well these as those of elk-horn, are rather items of curiosity than of service: at least, they are not equal to bows of the bois-d’arc tree. Even the backs of the wooden bows are often lined the whole length with a broad strip of sinew, and the whole wrapped with shreds of the same. The arrows are generally about thirty inches long, and pointed with iron, though the primitive
flint points are still met with among some of the wildest tribes.
Besides these, the lance or spear, the use of which they may have learned from the Mexicans, is an effective weapon in the charge as well as the chase. Many are also provided with the Northwestern fusil, and some have rifles. Very few, however, have acquired the dexterity of our frontier Indians with this deadly weapon. But no Indian deems his equipage complete without a ‘scalping-knife;’ yet among the western prairie Indians the tomahawk is but little known. These employ, in its stead, the war-club or ‘warhawk,’ which are bludgeons with an encased stone for a head in the former, and with a transverse blade or spike in its place in the latter. Many are provided with shields of raw buffalo or elk skin, upon which are frequently painted some rude hieroglyphical devices representing the enemies they have slain, as well as any other notable exploits of which they can boast. Such as are without these have their titles to renown recorded commonly upon the handles of their hatchets, their war-clubs, or perhaps tattooed upon their breasts or arms.
Besides war, hunting seems the only creditable employment in which a warrior can engage. Every other labor is put upon the squaws; and even when a party of hunters set out, they generally provide themselves with enough of these ‘menials’ to take charge of the meat: the Indian only deigns to shoot
down the game; the squaws not only have it to cure and pack, but to skin and dress.
Except such tribes as are expert with the rifle, very few of the prairie Indians hunt other game than the buffalo: not, as some have presumed, because they deem all small game too ignoble for them, but because the former is at once easiest taken, and affords the most bounteous supply of food. The antelope is too wild and fleet for their mode of hunting, and is only occasionally taken by stratagem; while the deer, as difficult to take in the chase, is less easily entrapped. But, mounted upon their trained steeds, and with the arrow or lance, they are not to be excelled in the chase. A few of them, let loose among a herd of buffalo, will soon have the plain strewed with their carcasses.
Among the amusements of the Indians generally, dancing is perhaps the most favorite. Besides a war accompaniment, it is practised as a recreation, and often connected with their worship. Their social frolics, in which the squaws are commonly permitted to join, are conducted with less ferocity of manner than their war dances; though even these are accompanied with the wildest and most comical gesticulations, and songs full at once of mirth and obscenity. In these, as well as in the war and scalp dances, a sort of little drum and a shrill squeaking pipe are their common instruments of music.
As so many tongues, entirely different, are spoken by the prairie Indians, a ‘language of
signs’ has become the general medium of communication between the different nations. This system of signs has been brought to such perfection among them, that the most intricate correspondence seems to be intelligibly conducted by such as have acquired a proficiency in this ‘dumb language.’
Their systems of telegraphs are very peculiar, and though they might seem impracticable at first, yet so thoroughly are they understood by the savages, that it is availed of frequently to immense advantage. The most remarkable is by raising smokes, by which many important facts are communicated to a considerable distance — and made intelligible by the manner, size, number or repetition of the smokes, which are commonly raised by firing spots of dry grass. When travelling, they will also pile heaps of stones upon mounds or conspicuous points, so arranged as to be understood by their passing comrades; and sometimes they set up the bleached buffalo heads, which are everywhere scattered over those plains, to indicate the direction of their march, and many other facts which may be communicated by those simple signs.
Almost every tribe has some peculiarity in the construction of their lodges or wigwams, in the manner of arranging their camps, and in the different items of dress, by any or all which peculiarities the experienced traveller is able to recognize the tribe of their owner. If a moccasin, or other article of apparel be
found, he at once designates the nation to which it belongs — even a track is often sufficient to identify them.* Also by the ‘sign,’ and especially the remains of fires, he determines the interval elapsed since their departure with remarkable accuracy.
The lodges are composed of a frame of small poles or rods, covered usually with buffalo skins, which receive but little further preparation than the currying off of the hair. Some give their lodges a round wagon-top shape, as those of the Osages, which commonly consist of a frame of bent rods, resembling wagon-bows, and covered with skins, the bark of trees, or, as is generally the case in their villages, with grass and earth. Again, some dispose the poles in two parallel lines, and incline them against a ridge-pole, which gives the wigwam the shape of a house-roof: others, planting small rods in a circle, so twine the points together as to resemble, in some degree, when covered, a rounded hay-mow: but by far the most general style, among the wild tribes, of constructing their wigwams, is by planting the lodge-poles so as to enclose a circular area of from ten to twenty feet in diameter (the size depending upon the number of the family); and the tops being brought together, it forms a conical frame, Which is closely covered with skins, except an aperture in the apex for the escape of the
smoke. This is the style of the Comanches and most other tribes of the great plains. The doors of the lodges being closed with a skin, they are kept very comfortable in winter with but little fire. This is kindled in the centre, and a hole is left in the vertex of the lodge, through which the smoke is discharged so freely, that the interior is but seldom infected by it.
These lodges are always pitched or set up by the squaws, and with such expedition, that, upon the stopping of an itinerant band, a town springs up in a desert valley in a few minutes, as if by enchantment. The lodge-poles are often neatly prepared, and carried along from camp to camp. In conveying them, one end frequently drags on the ground; whereby the trail is known to be that of a band with families, as war parties never carry lodge-poles. The Chayennes, Sioux and some other northern tribes, often employ dogs for carrying and dragging their lodge covers and poles; indeed for conveying most of their light baggage: but, for ordinary travelling purposes and packing their more weighty baggage, they use horses. So few navigable waters traverse the Prairies, that none of the Indians of the high plains have learned the use of canoes or water-craft of any kind.
There is some variety in the dress in vogue among the different tribes; though they all use moccasins, leggins, flap or breech-clout, and, when not in active pursuits, they generally wrap their bodies in buffalo rugs, blankets or
mantles of strouding, according to their wealth or opportunities. Some of the northern tribes display considerable ingenuity and taste in the manufacture of moccasins. But this is the work of the women, who often embroider them with beads and colored porcupine quills, in a most beautiful manner. The leggin is a buckskin or cloth covering for the leg and thigh, as of the pantaloon. A superfluous list is usually left outside the seam, which, if of skin, is slitted into long tassels, or if of cloth, the wide border remains entire, to dangle and flap upon the exterior of the legs. A strip of strouding ( that is, coarse broad-cloth) about a foot in width and a yard or more long, constitutes the most usual flap; which being passed betwixt the legs, the ends are secured under the belt around the waist, whence the leggins, are suspended. As the flap is sometimes near two yards long, a surplusage of half a yard or more at each end is sometimes left dangling down before and behind.
The Indians use no head-dress, but support the bleakest rains and hottest suns of those bare plains with naked heads. Nevertheless, their coarse black hair seems ‘fertilized’ by exposure; for they rarely become gray till an exceeding old age; and I do not recollect to have ever seen a bald Indian. Their eye sight also, they retain in extraordinary vigor, notwithstanding the want of protection even of the eye-lashes and brows (which are plucked out), and in spite of the constant use of apparently deleterious paints around the edges.
of the lids. Though using no regular headdress, they sometimes wear, as a temporary ornament, a fantastic cap of skins; and it is not unusual to see a brave with the entire shaggy frontlet of a buffalo, horns and all, set upon his head — which, with his painted face, imparts a diabolical ferocity to his aspect.
The Indians of the Plains, almost without exception, wear long hair, which dangles in clotted tresses over the shoulders — besmeared with gum, grease and paints, and ornamented with feathers and trinkets. But most of those intermediate tribes nearer our border, trim their hair in a peculiar manner.
Vermillion seems almost indispensable to the Indian’s toilet; but in default of this they paint with colored earths. When going to war, they bedaub their bodies with something black — mud, charcoal or gunpowder, which gives them a frightful appearance. But ‘ornamental’ painting is much more gay and fanciful. The face, and sometimes arms and breast are oddly striped and chequered, interspersed with shades of yellow and white clay, as well as occasional black, though the latter is chiefly appropriated to war. Especial pains are taken to tip the eyelids most gaily with vermillion.
Besides painting, most of the tribes tattoo — some sparingly, while others make their faces, breasts, and particularly their arms, perfectly piebald. This seems practised to some extent by all the savages from the Atlantic
to the Pacific. Figures are pierced in the skin with any sharp pointed instrument — often the keen prickles of the cactus — and pulverized charcoal or gunpowder, or sometimes the coloring juice of a plant, is rubbed into the fresh punctures, which leaves a lasting stain.
The most usual female dress is of the style worn by the Comanche squaws, which is described in speaking of that nation. With respect to dress and other ornaments, however, the order of the civilized world is reversed among the Indians. The ‘fair sex.’ paint less than the men — use fewer ornaments generally, and particularly, wear no pendants in the ears. While a savage beauty pays but little attention to her person, a ‘brave’ will spend as much time at his toilet as a French belle, in the adjustment of his ornaments — his paint, trinkets, beads and other gewgaws. A mirror is his idol: no warrior is equipped without this indispensable toilet companion, which he very frequently consults. He usually takes it from its original case, and sets it in a large fancifully carved frame of wood, which is always carried about him. He is also rarely without his tweezers, whether of a fold of tin, of hardened wood, or of spirally twisted wire, with which he carefully eradicates, not only his beard, eye-lashes and brows, but every villous particle from his body, as fast as it appears; for they consider everything of the kind as extremely unbecoming a warrior. It is on this account that Indians
have frequently been represented as naturally beardless.
All Indians are passionately fond of beads, trinkets and gewgaws of every kind. The men often cut up the rim of the ears in a frightful manner to admit their pendants of beads, plate, shells, etc.; and even strips of lead are sometimes twined around the separated rim, by the weight of which the detached portion of the ear is frequently swagged down some inches. It is not unusual to see near half a pound even of beads and ‘jewelry’ swung to each ear; and among some tribes, also a large quantity to the nose. The hair is likewise garnished with the same, and the neck with strings of beads, bear’s claws, and the like; while the arms are profusely ornamented with bracelets of wire or plated metal. The ‘braves’ are those who commonly deck themselves with the most gaudy trappings, and would usually be taken by a stranger for the chiefs of the band, who, on the other hand, are often apparelled in the most ordinary manner.
The squaws are, in every sense of the word, the slaves of the men. They are called upon to perform every toilsome service — to carry wood and make fires — to skin and dress the meat and prepare the food — to herd, drive up, saddle and unsaddle their lords’ horses — to pitch and strike the lodges — to pack up the baggage, and often indeed to carry heavy loads during travel — in short, everything else pretty much but fight and hunt, which the
Indian boasts of, as being his peculiar, if not his sole vocations.
What little of manufacturing is done among the Indians is also the work of the women. They prepare the different articles of apparel. In embroidering. moccasins and their leathem petticoats, etc., their greatest skill, particularly among the northern tribes, is exhibited. But the most extensive article of their manufacture is the buffalo rug, which they not only prepare for their own use, but which constitutes the largest item of their traffic with the Indian traders. These are dressed and cured exclusively by the squaws.
To dress a buffalo rug, the first step is to ‘flesh’ the skin, or neatly scrape from the inner surface every carneous particle. This is generally done with an instrument of bone, cut something in the shape of a small adz, with a serrate edge. For this operation the skin is sometimes suspended in a frame upon the branch of a tree, or a fork of the lodge — though more commonly, perhaps, stretched with pegs upon the smooth ground, with the flesh-side up. After it dries, the spongy surface of the skin is neatly curried off with another adz-shaped bone or handle of wood, with a flat bit of iron transversely set for the blade, which is edged after the manner of a currier’s instrument. The surface is then besmeared with brains (which the Canadians call mettre la cervelle), and rolled up with the flesh-side in, in which condition it is left for two or three days. The brains of the same
animals are generally used; those of a buffalo being more than sufficient to dress his own hide. The pores of the skin being fully penetrated by the brains, it is again wetted, and softened by continual working and rubbing till it dries. To facilitate this last operation, it is sometimes stretched in a frame and suspended before a fire, when the inner surface is scraped with the serrated adz before mentioned, and finished off by assiduous rubbing with a pumice-stone, if that article can be had; if not, by passing the skin by small sections rapidly back and forth over a slack cord.
Buffalo rugs are often observed with a seam in the middle. This is caused by cutting them in two, partly for convenience in dressing them, and partly to take out the hollow occasioned by the hump, particularly of the bulls. The hump of the cow being less, their skins generally bear dressing without being cut. The hide is frequently split in two, however, in skinning the animal, the Indians preferring to commence on the back.
The buffalo skin is often dressed without the wool. To this end the hide is soaked in water till the hair is loosened, when it is ‘curried’ and ‘brained,’ and softened as above. Of these dressed buffalo skins (known among Mexicans as anta blanca) is made a considerable portion of the Indian clothing for both sexes — even the petticoats of the females; though these prefer buckskin when they can procure it.
The chief aliment of the Prairie Indians is
flesh, though in default of this they often sustain themselves for weeks together upon roots, herbs and fruits. The buffalo are the common herds of these savages, affording them ‘food, raiment and shelter.’ It seems there were anciently occasional cannibal tribes* in those regions, but not a vestige of cannibalism, as I believe, now remains; except such an inhuman appetite may be ascribed to some of the more savage warriors, who, as I have heard, in the delirium of exultant victory, have been known to devour the hearts of their bravest victims, at once to satiate their bloodthirsty propensities, and to appropriate to themselves, as they fancy, the valor of the slain enemy.
However, they make food of nearly every animal of their country, and often of insects and even the filthiest vermin. By some tribes, grasshoppers, locusts and the like are collected and dried for future use. Among nearly all the northern tribes, the flesh of the dog* is considered as the greatest delicacy; so much so, indeed, that when a favorite visitor is expected to dine, they are sure to have served up for him the choicest pieces from some one of the many fat whelps which pertain to every lodge. In this way travellers have often been
constrained to eat Indian dog-meat, and which, prejudice apart, is by no means an unsavory viand; but the flesh of the wolf; and even the American dog, is generally said to be illflavored and sometimes insupportable. The polecat is also a favorite food among the Indians; and though the celebrated Irving, during a “Tour on the Prairies,” seems to claim a deal of credit for having “plumped into the river” a dressed polecat, whereby he prevented an Osage from “disgracing” their fire by the cooking of it, yet all travellers who have tasted the flesh of this animal have pronounced it fine, and of exquisite relish. “The flesh of the skunk,” observes Dr. James, in his account of Maj. Long’s Expedition, “we sometimes had dressed for dinner, and found it remarkably rich and delicate food.”
These wild tribes are without other kitchen utensils than an occasional kettle. They sometimes broil their meats, but often eat them raw. A savage will feast upon the warm carcass of the buffalo; selecting bits of the tenderloin, liver, etc., and it is not uncommon to see him use the gall as sauce! Feasting is one of their favorite enjoyments; though their ability to endure hunger almost exceeds belief. They will fast a week and yet retain their strength and vigor: but then when they do procure food again, it seems as if they never would be satiated.
The Indians of the Prairies have become acquainted with the medical virtues of many of their indigenous plants, which are often
used in connection with the vapor sweat, and cold bath: wherefore we may consider them as the primitive Thomsonians. After a profuse sweating, assisted by decoctions of sudorific herbs, in a tight lodge filled with vapor by pouring water over heated stones, and while still dripping’ they will leap into a pool of cold water, and afterwards wrap themselves in a buffalo rug. This course has proved successful in some diseases, and extraordinary cures have thus been performed: but in other cases, and especially in the small-pox, it has been attended with horrible fatality. They frequently let blood for disease, which is oftenest performed with the keen edge of a flint: and though they sometimes open a vein they more commonly make their incisions indiscriminately. They have great faith in their ‘medicine men,’ who pretend to cure the sick with conjurations and charms; and the Comanches and many others often keep up an irksome, monotonous singing over the diseased person, to frighten away the evil spirit which is supposed to torment him: all of which, from its effect upon the imagination, often tends, no doubt, to hasten recovery.
These Indians keep no domestic animals, except horses, mules, and dogs. With the latter every lodge is abundantly supplied; yet, as has already been shown, they are more useful appendages than the annoying packs which so often infest the country cabins, and frequently the villages, in the United States.
Horses, however, constitute the chief wealth of the prairie Indian. These are the incentives to most of their predatory excursions. The tribes of the north in particular, as well as the white trappers, frequently maintain their horses, during winter, upon the tender bark of the sweet cottonwood, the poputus angulata of the Mississippi valley.
The western savages know nothing of the value of money. The wampum bead, it is true,, among a few tribes, somewhat resembles a currency: for, being generally esteemed, it acquires a value in proportion to size, and sometimes passes from hand to hand, in exchange for necessaries. The legitimate wampum is only of shells, and was of aboriginal manufacture; being small long tubes with an ovate surface, or sometimes simply cylindrical; and handsomely polished: but imitations of glass or porcelain seem now the most common. The color is generally white, though sometimes blue or striped.
These Indians have no knowledge of the divisions of time, except by palpable distinctions; as days, moons and years; which last they commonly represent as so many springs, or falls of the leaves, or as often by winters, that is, frosts or snows. Distances are represented by days’ journey, which are oftener designated by camps or ‘sleeps.’ When a day’s journey is spoken of in general terms, it is meant that of a band in regular travel, which rarely exceeds twenty miles.