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The Father of St. Kilda
Chapter XI - "Red Cloud" and "Sitting Bull" - Indians - A Winter in the Woods


Towards the end of June I found myself on the fertile soil of “Uncle Sam,” in the neighbourhood of the Yellowstone River. Bleached buffalo skulls strewed the prairie, but no live animals were to be seen. On the river bank stood an immense camp of Sioux Indians, ruled by the brave but notorious “Red Cloud.” “Sitting Bull,” I heard, was encamped up the Rosebud River Valley, with his braves in warpaint. This tribe alone could send out on the war-path six thousand warriors, and woe to the foe that should cross their path when the war-dance had fired their savage blood. A great deal of nonsense is talked about the value of military discipline as against the untutored courage of the savage. Of course, if the soldier is well fed, properly clothed, and in good health, and the Indian the reverse, there is little doubt where the victory will go. But soldiers have often to fight on empty stomachs, without sleep, ill-clothed, and sickly. Hunger and sleeplessness are sore enemies to courage. The Indian, if his friend the bison is in the locality, is sure to be well fed; the buoyant, free spirit of his independent life is in his nostrils, the hot blood of animal vigour is in his veins, and he has but one idea—that of fighting to the death. Then the victory is not always to the white man.

“Injuns,” says an American humourist, with expressive brevity, “is pison;” and that is, on the whole, the average American judgment of the red man. Yet it must be confessed that the dwindling survivals of the race which once held sway over the entire North American continent have not proved a very deadly poison to the paleface. Occasionally the old fighting propensity dashes out as among the Sioux of Minnesota, as when “Red Cloud” and his six hundred braves dashed down on the unfortunate Fetterma’s troops from the lower ranges of the Wyoming mountains and left not one to tell the tale. One is tempted occasionally to sentimental regrets over the disappearance of the “noble savage ” before the encroachments of the stranger. Yet such regrets are vain, for the event was inevitable. The truth is that the red man is incapable of civilisation, and since he cannot progress with it he must be crushed under its weight.

Never was this so strongly brought home to us as on that June day when we strolled slowly up the Rosebud Valley in the glorious sunshine. The hill in front of us was dotted with white patches, for which I could not account. In early spring they might have been lingering snowdrifts, but just now, impossible ! We went nearer, nearer still, gazing with a growing intensity and horror. They were the nude—absolutely nude—bodies of the troopers of the 7th United States Cavalry, with their officers and their rash but much-loved leader, General Custer, slain to a man, and mutilated beyond recognition by “Sitting Bull” and his braves. There they were, left to the wolves, the worms, and the fowls of the air, the last Indian lighters, let us hope, in the United States service. For assuredly the work of scalping-knife and tomahawk on 25th June, 1876, was of a kind to be long remembered, an object lesson, let us hope, to the Canadian authorities which might teach them to avert such tragedies on their side of the boundary. It had been thought that all previous differences between the Sioux Indians and the Americans had been long since forgotten ! The sight of these bodies was shocking in the extreme. I knew only too well what had happened, familiar as I was by this time with the Indians and their ways. After the scalps had been torn off, the most horrible and devilish barbarities had been committed upon the bodies. Then, when the warriors had ended their task, the squaws came to snatch a laurel from the victory, and adorn themselves with the remains ; gnawing and tearing the flesh like dogs, in a brutal frenzy of revenge. Then, in a delirium of ghastly triumph, the war-dance and other mysteries began, and these ceremonies ended, they squatted down together to a delicious preparation of American flesh, which no doubt satisfied stomach and conscience alike'. Eyeballs were dried and strung on a thread to adorn the squaws’ necks; teeth were used as rattlers on the war music-drums. An appalling spectacle truly. Who can ever forget it?

As to the question of blame, I am in doubt whether the responsibility should be laid more heavily upon the untaught savage-natured Indian than upon the rash and imprudent officers who thus annihilated their troops, and whose explanation and exculpation—if any— perished with them. Custer was a brave man, generous of life and no doubt confident of victory. But he certainly acted madly and recklessly in rushing upon a camp of savages with no plan but to hew them in pieces. Indiana! are not without their share of strategic ability, and soldiers are not invariably successful against them, though the outside world may not hear of the failures. But it :.s not possible to judge justly without information, and though I have admitted that the red man’s savagery is ineradicable, and that he must eventually cease to exist, 1 am at least able, after living, talking, camping with them, sharing their life and their language, to recognise and state his grievances. Whole camps existed in semi-starvation on Government doles, a state of things which arose simply out of the smart dealing on which civilisation prides itself. The Government offered to buy the land from the Indians, that meaning of course the end of their one means of life, buffalo hunting. In payment they were to receive so many pounds of pork, beef, flour, tea, sugar, tobacco, blankets, cloth, guns, ammunition, etc., all of which, expressed in round numbers of dollars, seemed enormous beyond comprehension to a savage only capable of counting his ten fingers. To him it seemed that each pound avoirdupois equalled a buffalo bull, and each dollar’s value as much as his pony could draw in a cart. The chiefs in council expressed the matter with characteristic brevity : “ Pork is fatter than our beef; flour we have not in our land; both are good to eat, and in such enormous (?) quantities must be better than our own beef.” A treaty was signed, and the contract secured by unscrupulous political hangers-on whose chief aim in life was to make money out of the “ hit ” at the Indians’ —or anybody’s—expense. By-and-by the supplies began to reach the camp—a modicum of inferior stuff, causing only disappointment and vexation of spirit. I do not hold that the savages were absolutely innocent and unsuspicious—that would be to censure the other side perhaps too heavily—but certainly they were no match for civilised politicians. Yet these politicians would have shown themselves wiser in showing themselves less clever. The treaty with “Red Cloud” and “Sitting Bull” was not planned by the wisest. It certainly was the beginning of the 1861-2 affairs, followed by Fetterma’s and closed by Custer’s annihilation.

The Sioux Indians were of splendid physique, active, bold, and warlike, far superior to the tribes in the North. “Sitting Bull” and “Red Cloud” were giants in a tribe of giants. The stars of the first magnitude which revolved about these dusky suns marked their distinguished rank by allowing their finger-nails to grow like eagles’ claws, by encircling their heads and wrists with wreaths of grizzly bear claws from the Rocky Mountains, and by wearing rich robes in council and in times of war. Even when attired in all their state adornments they were far from being the gloomy and hideous creatures, with wrinkled brows and fierce eyes, that some imagine. Their faces showed strength and keen intelligence, but they were a gregarious race, and had a genial and social side scarcely guessed at by those who knew them only in their wars and massacres. Under the influence of patriotism these men carried valour to its highest point. And if the evil and barbarous elements often seemed to predominate over the good, can it be wondered at, considering how their land was filched from them for an unsatisfactory equivalent ? No man who knows right, says Milton, “can be so stupid as to deny that all men were naturally born free.” Indeed, in the dreams of natural rights, in the rainbow vision of an inalienable claim to be left free in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, there is something that has for centuries, from age to age, evoked a spontaneous thrill in the hearts of toiling, suffering, hopeful men—civilised or uncivilised—something that they need no philosophic book to teach them. When the American General came upon their native soil he found the Sioux Warriors breathing the spirit of conquerors. The whole atmosphere was changed; logic began 'ts barbarous work, turned into a strange poison. The savage instinct did not rest until they had drained first principles to their very dregs—nay, argued down from the necessities of abstract reasoning, until they had ruined all the favouring possibilities of concrete circumstances! For ever, against Custer’s force, “Sitting Bull ” had now written in his heart the judgment written of old on the wall against Belshazzar. “We must,” said Oliver Cromwell, “annihilate the intruder, or he will annihilate us”—in Dreamland.

After this trip to the country of the Sioux I returned to Prince Albert’s Settlement, but remained there only a very short time. In October I set out for Sandy Lake, sixty miles north of the Saskatchewan River, where I proposed to winter. My second day out I came upon an immense camp of Indians. They had been called together for the purpose of arranging a treaty with the Canadian Government, whose Commissioner was the Hon. A. Morris, Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba. I stayed a few days watching the proceedings, in which by that time I naturally took a Very special interest.

If it were nothing else, the cool tenacity of purpose with which Chief “Beardy” faced the Commissioner, with his three-cornered hat and gold lace, might have borne witness to the descent from a “canny Scot” of which he boasted. Except a cloth about his loins he was absolutely naked, besmeared all over with the light yellow clay of his native soil. Clothed thus in native dignity, he harangued the Commissioner for four hours without pausing for a word. “Yes,” he cried, pointing to Mr. Morris with a hand not over clean, and adorned with mourning borders round the tips of the nails, “I am here before you very proud because I am covered with a thin coat of my own ground. It is more precious to me than that fine coat you wear, though it is fringed with gold. What are you come for into my land ? You can see many line things in it. Overhead is the warm sun, shining out of a bright sky, which has no speck or stain to spoil the crystal clearness of its blue depths—you have nothing like it in your country. Its golden rays flash and shine as in a thousand glassy mirrors on my lakes and rivers throughout all my land. Out of one of these lakes, far away below where the sun is, come all our buffaloes, which have fed ourselves and our forbears for thousands of years. If you take the country from us, that sacred good lake will refuse to give me any further supply of buffaloes. For this reason you will go back to your own land without getting mine. What would you say if I were to go to your country and ask to be master of it?

“You give us beef to eat now, but it makes us ill. And even this will only last while you are trying to get our land. When that is done you will go away and forget us and our families. This is my land, and you have no right to it.”

There was, perhaps, in his eloquence, a tendency to incoherent rhapsody, but there was no question as to the definiteness of his intention. Mr. Morris, also of Scotch blood, eyed the savage with evident admiration. The untutored orator, however, excelled rather in speaking than in hearing, for whenever Mr. Morris introduced a legal phrase—even through the interpreter Erasmus—the dusky brow was knit, and the puzzled eyes showed how little he understood what was being said, and how much he would have liked a little elucidation. But none was forthcoming, and he and his braves sat patient and uncomprehending, their long hair hanging lank over shoulders and back, and their mouths wide open—as, indeed, they always were, except when mastication was actually going on. They were painfully awkward, with an awkwardness which was not in the least self-conscious, proving that they had not even a sense of the “ humanities ” which they lacked. Yet their keen eyes were a redeeming feature in faces by no means over intelligent, far less so than the Sioux of the South. “Beardy,” however, could make himself a somewhat embarrassing barrier to progress, and he stolidly refused to “let go,” or enter into any treaty for the present.

Having left “Beardy” behind, we reached Fort Carlton, where I found, on the face of a brae, the lonely grave of my shipmate from Bernera, who had shared my first shipboard prank in climbing the rigging of the Prince of Wales on our outward journey in 1859. When my train of five horses, with four carts and a buggy, had crossed the river, we camped on its north bank. The weather was beautiful, and the days pleasantly warm. The nights, however, were beginning to be very keen, and the lakes were already covered with their first thin coating of ice. That night, like Nebuchadnezzar of old, I was troubled with restless dreams, the result of long, sorrowful musings beside my old companion’s grave, and “my sleep brake from me.” I jumped up hastily and went out. As there was no process of undressing on retiring, all trouble of dressing was also saved. I walked back and forward on the level prairie, shaking oft- the effect of the evil dreams. When about a quarter of a mile east of the camp a huge, shaggy animal of great length of body, but with very short legs, appeared over the bank. I was unarmed, and totally unprepared for any such emergency, and was therefore glad to retreat as gracefully as might be possible, keeping my face to the foe, and backing out of his august presence. But suddenly I heard a low, stilled roar behind me, and turning my head in terror, I beheld another monster, as large as the first, right between me and the camp. There was no time to deliberate. I jumped the high sandbank, and made for the water’s edge, knocking against tree trunks and boulders in my flight, for I had discovered that my visitors were an old pair of grizzly bears.

So much for evil dreams ! My only thought, as I hastily stripped for the plunge into the cold Saskatchewan and the swim to the fort side of the river was—would they follow? 1 was exhausted after my run, and I stood hesitating, unclothed, in the keen air of dawn, waiting for the next move of my enemies. Bears are not particularly shrewd as beasts of the field go, and are often content to get a man’s clothes and tear them to bits, apparently quite unconscious that they are not slaying their enemy in doing so. So I left my outer presentment on the bank, and stood ready to plunge if they appeared. It was a long and a chilly wait, but with the first signs of sunrise I took heart, dressed, and returned to camp for my rifle and set forth for the spot where I had first encountered my foes. But nothing could be seen except the prints of their huge feet travelling northwards. Moral, never go out unarmed. A fine text for a sermon in the old days at home! The wise virgin has oil in her lamp—and the wise hunter his gun on his shoulder.

My men went on with the carts and cayooses, while I remained behind with Rock to take a last look at the fort, this last outpost of civilisation, standing on the very spot where McKenzie, Simpson, and Franklin had stood ere they penetrated the unexplored forests to the north. As I hurriedly followed my transport I was struck with the rich and fertile country through which I passed. Clumps of poplar, interspersed with birch and pine, dotted the undulating surface of the plain, the foliage being beautifully tinged with the reds and yellows of autumn, mingled with the natural blue-green. The trail was winding enough to please any Chinaman—if it is true, as they say, that a straight line is an abomination to the Chinese; but I came up with the men as they were unhitching for dinner, and taking my rifle I set out for a stroll through the thicket. In a small open space I noticed what looked like two boards standing up out of the grass. As I crept forward the things moved. All at once I realised that it was a moose deer, and getting within sixty yards I lay down and taking a steady aim drew the trigger, and the cream-coloured antlers disappeared. It proved to be a very large buck, and blood was oozing from a bullet-hole exactly between the horns. We emptied one of the carts, intending to put all the meat in it the next day in the green hide, and then we settled down for a feast on the camping ground where we had dined. In the morning, however, the whole animal had mysteriously disappeared, and on examination we saw plainly that two grizzly bears had carried off the huge buck to a distance of some fifty yards, and had there had a glorious feast. Probably they were the same two as had intruded upon my meditations before. On the whole I think I had treated them generously. If they let me off easily on the river bank I had at least proved no stingy host to them.

The wild fowl had all taken their winter flight to the Gulf of Mexico or some part of sunny South. Only a few stragglers remained, and they were tolerably certain to suffer for their procrastination, for, being too fat to rise on the wing, they would be ignominiously frozen.

The next day we travelled through the territory of the chief Mistaa-waa-sis, who, after sharing a hearty meal with us, invited us to winter with him and his people. We had to decline his hospitality, however, and press on. In four days we arrived at Sandy Lake, in the land of the big burly chief Ataa-kaa-koop, or “Star Blanket,” to whom 1 explained my desire to pass the winter on his land. Unlike Mistaa-waa-sis he was inclined to make terms. “Yes,” he said, “if you pay me for so doing.” “No,” I replied, “you sold your land to the big man in the gold-laced coat, and you have no further claim to it.” Eventually, however, I was so delighted with his urbanity that I agreed to give him a trifle.

The untiring Rock, who had been in constant work under saddle or harness since April, had now to share the fate of the Indian cayoose, and scrape his food from under the snow during the winter. I had little fear but that with his extraordinary appetite and equally extraordinary digestion he would turn up all right in the spring. For our winter abode we had a rude enclosure sixteen feet by eleven, made of rough pine logs which by no means lay in apposition. These were roughly mortised together at the corners of the hut. The interstices between them were tilled up with moss and clay. The roof was covered in by dry poles, and over these we threw marsh grass, mud and snow. A mud chimney poked itself out at one side, and a parchment window put the finishing touch to our winter quarters.

Not far from here a Mr. Treemiss wintered in 1862-3, an<l “Star Blanket” still retained many stories of him. About a mile away there was a mission-station of the Church Missionary Society in charge of a Mr. J. Hines, a very earnest man, evidently sincerely desirous of doing good to his fellow-men. I went to service one day and noticed that in the middle of the English-Indian discourse the chief and some of his braves became uneasy. By-and-by they filled their pipes, lit up, and soon the whole building was full of a thick cloud of tobacco-smoke— a sufficient sign that, convert and reform as you will, make them Anglicans, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, they remain Indians still.

The discourse was a somewhat literal and matter-of-fact account of the Creation and other portions of Old Testament history. They listened quietly while the interpreter told them that the universe was made in six days; that the Lord God walked in the garden in the cool of the day ; that the serpent talked in human language to a woman named Eve. But when he assured them that the first generations of men lived a thousand years there was a deep sound of “0 hoo, 0 hoo, neet-chee, neet-chee,” indicating dissent and incredulity. The statement that God in anger drowned the whole race of man was allowed to pass, in that "land of floods and mighty rivers, but to the story that Balaam’s ass (a kind of horse with long ears) spoke in human language on being struck with a stick, there were again cries of “O hoo, O hoo,” while the story of Jonah and the whale fairly brought out the pipes and tobacco. Apparently they thought it was to be taken as a camp-fire yarn. When “Star Blanket” consented to be baptised, and appeared in church in Spartan simplicity, wrapped in a white blanket not too clean, he and his braves, becoming impatient at the length of the preliminary service, filled their pipes, and beguiled the time by stolidly puffing forth clouds of smoke.

As I did not smoke myself, I left the “smoking concert” and went out into the night, where I spent my time looking at my friends the stars, and wondering idly what was going on in the sword of Orion, and whether stones fell upward there and parallel lines met. It would be a good thing if missionaries would follow the example of John Campbell, who penetrated Africa in 1813 simply to study the necessities and idiosyncrasies of the savage races. What these red men needed was practical human instruction, to show him what duty meant, and that his particular duty was to plant potatoes and cultivate the soil, The best plan would have been to make a better man of him, not merely an indilterent Christian. I, who have traded with the red men and know their many dialects and have studied their nature and habits through all the tract from Hudson Bay to this point, am convinced that they are both amenable and amendable. Indians they must remain. European customs sit but lightly upon them. But they have the saving grace of honesty, upon which foundation much excellence may be built. The Wood Crees are of very different disposition from the wild Crees of the plain. They are much more peaceable, and spend their time as solitary trappers and hunters on foot.

Big game, too, was scarce, though a few years before buffalo had been shot in the neighbourhood. Moose deer, too, were rare where once they had been abundant. The Indian method of trapping is exceedingly cunning. He builds a small circular fence of wood, about a foot high, at one part of which an opening is left. Across the aperture a thin tree trunk .s laid with one end resting on the ground. Inside the circle, a forked stick holds a piece of meat or fish as a bait. That forked stick is set so as to support another small stick upon which rests the half-raised log. No sooner is the baited stick pulled than the support mg one slips, which again lets the horizontal log fall, to the death of the unwary animal.

In the .same way they make all wooden traps, only using larger pieces of wood as larger animals are to be caught. But of all the country’s animals there are two that baffle the hunter—the grizzly bear and the moose deer, the former by its strength, the latter by its craftiness. The moose deer is valued by epicures for its nose, ugly to the eye, but delicious to the taste. Its ears are of great length, and are indeed its chief means of protection, for its hearing is so preternaturally acute that the snapping of a twig or the crackle of a dry leaf is enough to warn him of a man’s approach,—though the falling of many trees in a storm will not disturb him in the least. I had encountered both these animals, the former when I was helpless and had no choice but to retreat, the latter when I had an advantage over him in finding him asleep. But I resolved to have a fair trial, although I had often heard that no man can hunt a moose but an Indian, whose instinct for the chase has been perfected by years of study and practice.

After a fall of snow we set out, and at sunset camped on a fresh track. Punctually at daylight we decamped,the Indian closely examining the willows upon which the quarry had been feeding as he went leisurely along. We had our mid-day repast, but my companion had still nothing to say but “gieapitchi waiawen,” “far yet,” scrutinising the willows and the footprints on the snow with the patience and exactness of an archaeologist deciphering an inscription of Pharaoh’s tomb. Again we camped, and again we resumed our cold and weary pilgrimage, when the Indian in speaking glances hinted we should leave the trail to leeward. Stealthily the Indian returned towards the trail alone, and returned bending in an attitude of a bob-curtsey to avoid touching twigs. Again this manoeuvre was repeated, making as it were the curves of the letter B, the perpendicular line being the moose’s trail. The reason for this is that the animal when it wishes to rest circles to the right and back and lies down at the end of this curve, so that the hunter who follows the direct track passes it, and thus warned it bounds away. At last we found ourselves close to our quarry and felt that the critical moment was at hand. A gale of wind was blowing ; fortunately, in a favourable direction. But those long, sharp ears! We moved more and more stealthily, examining every bush and thicket. Suddenly my companion stopped. “See!” he whispered, as he raised his hand and broke a dry twig overhead. A huge dark-haired moose rose in a thicket some forty yards away, and instantly first one bullet and then another pierced him, and he sank back into his former bed.

But these excursions were only occasional. My time through the winter was chiefly passed in setting traps and baits, the latter heavily charged with strychnine. The animals, especially foxes, were very cautious. The wolverine, or carcajou, was on my track and robbed me of nearly all that fate entangled in my traps, just as had been the case on Lake Winnipeg. His tactics are marvellously skilful, and baffle even the Indians over the whole continent. During the whole winter he lives off the labour of the hunter and trapper, and so great is the injury he nilicts that these people call him “Mitche Manitou,” or “Evil One.” Day and night he searches for the trail of man, and he follows it with untiring perseverance when found. He is rarely caught in the ordinary “ dead fall,” but is occasionally poisoned or caught in a steel trap. In this case he does not, like other animals, proceed to amputate the limb, but lifting the trap in his mouth he carries or drags it hastily away to a place where he supposes himself safe, and there devotes himself to the extrication of the imprisoned limb, a task in which he often succeeds. Strange stories are related by the Indians of this animal, which they believe to have a reasoning power almost human. He has certainly the human weakness of curiosity, investigates everything closely, and ferrets objects out of the snow simply to find out what they are. Anything left behind by a trapper offers him an irresistible temptation, and whatever portion of the spoil he cannot eat he utterly destroys by tearing, breaking, or besmearing it. Whatever be the useful purpose served by these animals in the economy of Nature, they have but one redeeming feature in the eyes of an Indian, and that is, that they are not very plentiful.

The winter was long, and yet it seemed to come to an end suddenly, after weeks of from twenty to seventy degrees of frost. The untiring Rock was brought back from his winter pasture, and I found him to my delight “ rolling fat,” confirming my previous conviction as to the nutritious qualities of the grass, though covered under many feet of frozen snow. On the 13th of April we loaded our carts and turned our backs on Sandy Lake and “Star Blanket” with mingled feelings of joy and regret. Four days later we crossed the Saskatchewan on very thin and treacherous ice, which was within an ace of plunging Rock and me into our last bath ; miraculously and providentially saved by an instinct of my noble horse Rock, who, when he felt the ice move, jumped into the only gap in the high bank, like lightning, and thus saved us both from sudden destruction; and just opposite the spot where I stood naked seven months before to escape being devoured by the would-be grizzlies!


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