Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

October 9, 1873. Forest and Stream 1(9): 132-133.

A Hunt With the Yankton Sioux.

Summer hunting with the Ute Indians in the parks of the Rocky Mountains having rendered distasteful the civilization of our fashionable resorts, and unfitted me for quiet comfort of the farmhouse, I packed my prairie costume and sporting outfit and started for the West.

Reports received at Denver of my hunting friends, the Utes, were not encouraging. I decided, therefore, to ascend the Missouri, and join the Yankton Sioux of Dakota.

On reaching their reservation I communicated to Major Gasman, the efficient United States Agent, my wish to accompany the Indians on their annual hunt, and through his influence was received as a guest of the tribe.

On the 25th of July three hundred and twenty warriors, with their squaws and children, their lodges and worldly possessions, fifteen hundred ponies, and several hundred dogs, prepared to cross the Missouri. This was no easy task. The river was wide, the current rapid and filled with eddies, the sand-bars numerous, and the bottom shifting. As I sat on the bank watching the passage of this little army, I wished for some word artist to bring before the reader's eye the almost naked warriors, the busy chattering squaws, the frightened children, the struggling ponies, and the yelping dogs. Frank Trumbo, a herder on the reservation, and I, being the only white men of the party, were the last to leave. With a hearty "God speed" from the Major and his family we stepped into a canoe, and holding our swimming ponies firmly by the ears were soon clambering up the western bank of the Missouri.

The squaws were preparing the evening meal, and from the stew-pots suspended over the blazing fires came a savory odor. The warriors lay or sat in groups, smoking and passing the pipes, playing with their little ones, and telling stories. The half-grown boy wrestled good-naturedly with one another, and the young girls rolled and tumbled in the tall grass, as merry as children of a lighter hue. Ponies of every size and color, and innumerable dogs in idle contentedness, stood around.

We were soon on the best of terms with Leaping Thunder, our host, a bold warrior whose record placed him high in the council of the tribe, and his pretty squaw, whose unpronounceable name we changed to "Little Woman." The table cloth (a buffalo skin with the hair next to the ground) was spread, and an invitation extended to The Fat and Poor Bull, the chiefs in command, to sup with us. They came, and over stewed beans and coffee we vowed eternal friendship. Several warriors joined the circle, and until a late hour, the pipe passing from mouth to mouth, they told with animated gestures of their personal prowess in the chase, and their deadly skill on the war path. After the departure of our guests we turned our table cloth and rolled in for the night. The camp was filled with strange sounds; the medicine man drummed and sang a dismal chant; the young braves roamed among the lodges cawing to their lady loves; the dogs, fascinated by a single bark, joined in one united chorus. But in time all was still, and I was with the dear ones at home. By sunrise we were under way. From the top of the bluffs a beautiful and animated scene presented itself. In three lines moved the pack and travaux animals, surrounded by squaws and children; far out upon the prairie rode curiously-painted warriors gathering in the scattered ponies; boys wild with excitement, and as untamed as the colts to which, like leeches, they clung without saddle or bridle, dashed hither and thither pursued by barking dogs; dams shrilly neighing ran up and down, and through the train, wholly unmindful of the fell anathemas hurled after them by angry squaws compelled to drop the lariat to let them pass; the sun lighted up the scarlet blankets of a group smoking on the hillside, and barnished the tin armlets and ornamented belts of the Indian girls. The warriors refrained from hunting, but the young braves brought down from time to time rabbits, skins, prairie hens, and curlew. The skunk is considered a great delicacy, and from the number fastened to the waists of the boys, the thought of an invitation to a feast grew unpleasant.

At the Niobrara we were presented with the first venison of the hunt, and as an Indian seldom gives without expecting something in return, we decided upon a feast. Whom to invite was the momentous question. In our dilemma we appealed to Leaping Thunder, who took the responsibility upon himself, and promised to secure the proper guests. Into the stew-pots went venison, beans, a rabbit, and prairie hen. The skin of the lodge was raised and tied to sticks, thus extending the area protected from the sun, and at the back we spread a scarlet blanket for The Fat and Poor Bull, and on either side skins for the braves. When everything was ready Leaping Thunder proclaimed in a loud voice that we were about to eat, and after a moment's pause the names of those he wished to join us. They came immediately, entering with a grave "How koda!" the latter word meaning friend, the former expressing an almost universal significance, expressing delight, thanks, welcome, questioning, affirmation, etc. While eating little was said, but when the pipe began to circulate the "talk" became general. One of the chiefs upbraided me for being without a lodge of my own, and gravely proposed that I should accept his daughter, and give my rifle in return. He spoke earnestly of her beauty, her capacity for labor, and the better position I should hold in the tribe is possessed of a maiden beloved by his people. I declined the offer in as choice language as possible, at which my would-be father-in-law grinned good-naturedly. The "talk" of the Indians among themselves is always the same-anecdotes of war and hunting-in which the teller figures as the hero. Their gestures are graceful, their actions animated and apparently suited to the word, while their voices, musical and many-toned, rise and fall with the lights and shades of their stories. Old Giant, a brave once connected with Little Raven's famous band, warming with his theme, seized my rifle, and taking aim at an imaginary foe glanced along the barrel with the expression of a fiend; then, dropping the weapon, he struck his right fist twice in quick succession into the hollow of his left hand, snapped his finger, gave a heavy sigh, and drooped his head upon his shoulder. "How! How!" uttered in tomes of suppressed excitement, and the nervous tightening of blankets, told of natures strangely stirred by the eloquence of the narrator. As the twilight deepened, the fire without threw its bright light into the lodge, bringing out in bold relief upon the canvas covering the dusky forms of the warriors.

The Niobrara, like the Missouri, is remarkable for its rapid current, its shifting bed, and numerous sand-bars. Following on my trail was an old squaw bearing a striking resemblance to Miss Cushman as "made up" for Meg-Merrilles, and mounted astride a huge pack fastened to a tall, raw-boned American horse. At the fording my pony so tore away the bank of the channel that the horse of the ancient maiden, in his struggles to gain a foothold, burst the girth, and his precious load was deposited in the stream. Such a splashing, spluttering, and incoherent chattering! The bluffs fairly echoed the shouts of the Indians, who keenly enjoyed the old woman's discomfiture, and carefully refrained from lending her any assistance. With the aid of Trumbo I fished her out, and landed her safely in the mud above, a drenched and furious woman.

The Indian method of hunting the deer and antelope seems to a looker-on, not heated by the chase, cruel sport. But food is the object of the Indian hunter, and he is wonderfully successful in securing it. Notwithstanding their great speed and bottom, these animals seldom escape their pursuers on the open prairie. Mounted on their swift ponies, the Indians become as it were a pack of hounds that run by sight. In all directions they move, searching the country with eyes that see everything. On discovering deer no attempt is made at concealment, but, with bridle rein between their teeth, loading their guns or adjusting their arrows as they ride, the hunter bears down on the doomed animals. Off bound the deer, but Indians are before them; they run to the right-more Indians; to the left-still Indians. The country, which at first seemed open, narrows to a small circle. The deer double on themselves. Hemmed in on every side, there is no escape; the bullet and the arrow do their work. All their hunting, whether of man or best, involves a system of surrounding. It is this method, thoroughly understood, and invariably practiced where numbers will allow, that renders the Indian so formidable on the prairie. Although numbers are in at the death, there is no dispute as to the distribution of the carcasses.

The meat generally goes to the hunters that most desire it, for the rest are sure at some future time to eat its equivalent with the receivers. The heart, liver, and parts of the throat, are often eaten raw upon the spot, or taken back to camp for the favorite child. After selecting a portion of the meat for immediate use, the remainder is cut into slices and hung on poles to dry. Thus prepared, it soon shrivels under the scorching rays of the sun, and presents the appearance of leather covered with a thin coating of mould. It is musty to the taste, and by no means satisfactory food even when boiled, for the Indians never use salt, of condiments of any kind, in cooking. Their skill in riding and managing their ponies is wonderful. At a full run they will drop to the animal's side and shoot an arrow from under his neck, or, without the least slackening their pace, pick up a turtle lying in the sand. The prairie hens often fly low over the train, and it is no uncommon sight to see an Indian use his lariat with such precision as to bring one to the ground, or throw his tomahawk with such accuracy as to cleave in two an unfledged chicken hiding in the grass. On the march many of the young braves occupy the time breaking colts. Securing a lariat about his lower jaw, they lash the poor brute into a run, occasionally jerking the rope with such violence as to throw him upon his nose. He rears and plunges, but the Indian, although often drawn for rods, never loosens his hold, but at the first opportunity vaults upon his back. Off rushes the pony like mad. No attempt is made to check him. Suddenly he stops, his eyes dilated, his nostrils quavering, and placing his feet as near together as possible jumps into the air, coming down with limbs stiff, and so forcibly as almost to start the blood from the rider's nose. Still, like Sinbad's "Old Man of the Sea," his tormentor keeps his place. Bolt upright stands the frightened animal, and the Indian, sliding off, by a quick and dexterous move throws him on his side. The work is done. Never, after such an ordeal, does the pony give any trouble, except perhaps at the first moment of starting.

Dogs in great numbers are found in every Indian encampment. They are snarling, cowardly brutes, singly incapable of mischief, but the bark of one will call around a pack that, brave in numbers, are dangerous. They are never regularly fed. Starved to-day and gorged to-morrow, never caressed, but kicked and cuffed at every turn, it is a wonder that they retain any of the habits of domestic animals.

The heat in the lodge was insufferable. The canvas snapped as if protesting against the efforts of the sun to scorch it. What air there was came impregnated with the smell of drying meat. I sauntered down to the river to bathe. While splashing about in the shallow water I was startled by a merry laugh on the bank, and looking up saw several Indian girls curiously examining my clothing. The situation did not seem to strike them as peculiar, but to me it was exceedingly embarrassing. They showed no signs of leaving, so after remaining in the water nearly half an hour, I came out with the best grace possible, and dressed myself, they looking on the while. Returning o camp, I proposed to Trumbo that we should ride a race with five braves, wagering a blanket and two cans of powder on the result. The wager was accepted, and each, selecting his favorite pony, rode back about a mile, taking a position abreast of the others-the Indians stripped to their breech-cloths, and mounted bareback, with only a noosed lariat for bridle. Trumbo, removing his outer garments, appeared in a costume almost as airy, and I, performing the same operation, stepped forth in red flannel underclothing. We started at a given signal, and for full a quarter of the distance kept a lope, but suddenly each pony bounded forward. Yelling like wildcats, we sped as arrows from a bow. The braves lashed right and left, but neither whip nor spur was needed for my little beauty. Straightened as a greyhound, on the run she moved with scarce a motion, seeming not to touch the ground. The shouts of the Indians before, the screams of the squaws on either side, and the bark of the dogs in our rear, passed all unheeded. Neck and neck we neared the goal. A huge cur sprang out, and the pony at the right swerved badly. Trumbo reached home first, and just behind, but with no daylight between us, an Indian and I. We held high carnival at the "feast" that day, and a white havelock which I wore for the occasion procured me the Indian name of Wa-ha-pa Ska, meaning White Cap.

While in the Sand Hills an unsuccessful attempt was made by a party of Tetons to stampede the horses, and capture several Indian girls gathering plums in a ravine near camp. They were driven off, except from the elements. A furious wind, accompanied by heavy rain, lasted from midnight until nearly morning. Several of the lodges were blown down, and their occupants exposed to the "peltings of the pitiless storm." We turned out of our beds before daylight, a soaked and surly crowd; but good humor returned with the rising sun, and the day's ride was enlivened by horse and foot races, wrestling, and shooting with the bow and arrow. To the lover of wild sport, hardships and annoyances are as nothing. The rough hours so blend with the happy ones as to form a perfect whole. He scarcely remembers when, hungry, wet, and numbed to the bones, he rode over the lonely prairie in search of camp; but how vividly he recalls the glorious chase, the speed of his straining horse, the hound of the running deer, and the death shot of his trusty rifle.

At the noon halt a fawn, started from its hiding place in the willow bushes, ran through the camp closely pursued by the dogs. An arrow shot by an Indian passed through its neck, and cutting its way into a lodge, grazed the cheek of a squaw within. She rushed out in great haste, but ceased scolding on being presented with the skin and intestines. The arrows used by the Indians are about twenty inches in length, and are furnished with triangular iron points, the edges of which are very sharp. Within a certain range, say thirty yards, they are as effective as a bullet.

When a Sioux warrior is ready to take a squaw he selects from among the Indian girls the one that suits his fancy, and if there is no obstacle in the way, buys her of her father, paying the equivalent of from thirty-five to fifty dollars, usually in ponies. She is expected to remain true to him, and perform all the labor. He in return provides the lodge with food, and contributes largely toward the support of her numerous relatives. While many of the Indian women are repulsive in appearance, the girls and younger squaws of the Yankton Sioux are, generally speaking, tall and finely formed, with regular features, that seen in profile resembled chiselled marble. Their eyes are often large and soft as those of the fawn, though usually sharp and bright, like beads. The teeth of both the men and women are singularly beautiful, notwithstanding their utter disregard of all dental laws. They use them to straighten arrows, break bones, right the turned edges of their hunting knives, and after cutting bullets into pieces to chew the pieces round for buckshots. But few old women accompany a hunting party, for if any cause they become disabled, they are left upon the prairie as a thing that has outlived its usefulness, and are devoured by the wolves that in large numbers always follow the trail.

While watching the train from a hillside-for the scene never lost its charm-two Indian boys, Red Cloud and Famisoed Wolf, came galloping up, and jumping from their ponies began wrestling. Red Cloud, throwing his companion, held him face downward, planting his knees upon his shoulders, grasped his braided lock, pretended to give a circular cut, and tugged as if tearing away the scalp; then shaking an imaginary trophy he sprang to his feet, and with a yell was off like a shot. It was no altogether a pleasing exhibition. Trumbo joined me, and together we rode into the hills for a shot at two cranes perched on an elevation at no great distance. We secured one, that must have measured full six feet from tip to tip of his wings, but on returning for our horses, to our great dismay beheld them making off into the bottom. To follow would provoke an endless chase, so we imitated the whiney of a colt, and the horses turned and galloped directly towards us. As they came over the ridge, behind which we were concealed, we clutched the lariats, and for an instant turned a very fair furrow in the sand. With torn shirts, and chests like nutmeg graters, we mounted the runaways, determined to ride some of the surplus spirit out of them. Stumbling recklessly through a prairie-dog village, unheeding the remonstrances of its pert and brighteyed residents, we struck the trail of a large gray wolf, who knuckled down to work, and with lolling tongue and drooping tail made for the hills before us. In the excitement we failed to notice the deepening green of the grass, when suddenly, as if the earth had opened, the ponies sank to their bellies, and we were off quickly, but not gracefully. We were in a mud hole. To turn was impossible. I fancy the wolf laughed as he turned the rising ground. With considerable difficulty we extricated ourselves and animals, and reached camp just as The Fat, alarmed at our long absence, was sending a party in search of us. In Poor Bill's lodge we "feasted" on a tough old badger, and even in death defined the softening influence of the stew-pots, and soon after I was fast asleep on Mme. Poor Bull's buffalo skin. "Tetons! Tetons!" and a violent shaking from Mardi, an Indian girl, brought me to my feet. The Tetons had driven in the scouts, and as they dashed through camp, proclaiming the presence of their hated foe, the wildest excitement prevailed. I shall never forget their appearance, or wonder at the settler's tale of the "swooping savage," for with bodies bent low over their ponies, with lips drawn back from their glittering teeth, and shouting the fierce war cry of the tribe, they seemed transformed by the passions of the moment into demons. For several hours we followed on the trail of the Tetons, but finding they had divided, returned to camp.

On a cloudy, cheerless day, when to lie wrapped in a buffalo skin and smoke seemed the only comfort, Poor Bull came with news that his young men had signalled a herd of elk. A ride of nearly two hours brought us to the hills were the scouts were stationed, but they reported that they had only repeated signs given by scouts beyond. A drizzling rain set in, but two of the Indians, lying down a little apart, motioned me to lie in the middle, and, covered by their friendly blankets, I passed a comfortable night. Numerous lizards shared our bed, and dashed away with surprising rapidity when we shook the saddle cloths next morning. Trumbo and several of the Indians started before daybreak, with instructions to shoot at elk only. The rest of us, hugging the remaining of last night's fire, smoked in lieu of eating breakfast. Suddenly a rifle shot rang out on the air, and looking through the grass on the hill, our eyes were blessed by a sight that banished all thoughts of cold or hunger. A herd of elk were making directly for us, downwind, at a shuffling kind of trot, followed by Trumbo and his party. Leaving four of the Indians to watch, we mounted our ponies and moved to the right and left, carefully keeping from sight, until, at a sign from above, we rode around the hill just as the elk, with tremendous strides, came down the last swell of rising ground and turned to avoid the steep ascent. Catching sight of us, they dashed up, and at the brow received the shots of the Indians stationed there. They hesitated for an instant, then with heads thrown back, at a fierce gallop, their hoofs clattering at every bound, turned into the hollow, and we closed in upon them. Panic stricken at the wild yells of the Indians, most of the herd huddled in on one another, while from twanging bow and rifle sped death right and left. Hunters and hunted were mixed in inexplicable confusion. The dust enveloped us in a cloud. Notwithstanding the excitement and close shooting, but one hunter was seriously injured. My pony was badly cut in the neck and side, several others were cruelly scarred, and one received an arrow in the shoulder. The long upper lips, tongues, and palates, cut from a dozen of the elks, were roasted on our hunting knives, and we ate as only men that have fasted for twenty-four hours can eat. The Indians carefully removed the six incisors from the lower jaws for ornaments. Flensing the carcasses, and packing the meat and skins on our tired horses, amid shouts and exultant songs, we returned to camp. It was late before the fires were deserted and quiet reigned in the village. Yet in the midst of this general rejoicing there were anxiety and trouble. Two of the warriors that followed the Teton trail had not appeared, and long after the skins were drawn, shutting out the night, the discordant sound of the drum and doleful chant of the medicine man told of faithful wrestling for their safe return.

On our return we followed the beautiful valley of the Keya Pake, under the shadow of the Turtle Hills beyond, and camped, on the evening of the hottest day we had experienced, at its confluence with the Niobrara. Al through the afternoon the muttering of a distant thunder and a fitful glare along the horizon told of a coming storm. After the evening meal we gathered in groups, but the pipe passed silently. The usual sounds of mirth were wanting. Not a breath of air stirred, and a feeling of awe oppressed us all at the solemn stillness, and a feeling of awe oppressed us all at the solemn stillness that hung over the valley. Presently a few drops fell silently, and we separated to our several lodges. A fierce rushing wind, a torrent of driving rain, and the storm was upon us. Flashes of forked lightning fired the camp with lurid light, while peals of rattling thunder seemed to shake the very foundations of the earth. Mardi and the "little woman" lay grovelling on the ground, moaning a song to the angry elements. Leaping Thunder sat stoically awaiting his fate, equal to either fortune.

Trumbo and I reclined on the buffalo skin in momentary expectation of a revelation of the Great Secret. Suddenly from across the camp came a piercing shriek, followed by a prolonged low wail, as it were the sob of nature. Guided by the incessant flashes we hurried to where a number of Indian women were gathered about two shattered lodges, the inmates of which lay insensible among the ruins. Removing the rubbish, we carried them to the grass, and strove by every means in our power to restore them to consciousness. Three revived, but a brave and his squaw were dead. Wrapping the bodies in our blankets, we laid them side by side in a lodge, and left them with their friends. Before daybreak they were buried.

Early the next morning The Fat brought to our lodge several bundles of willow twigs, and requested us to count them. They numbered 1,082, and represented the deer, antelope, and elk killed on the hunt. No account had been kept of the smaller animals, which would have added largely to the list. The Indians decided not to move, and, although forty miles from the Missouri, I resolved to push forward and catch the stage due at the reservation soon after midnight. With Trumbo, and an Indian named, from having lost an eye, The-Fire-is-Quenched, as a guide. I rode from camp, pausing a moment by the new-made grave. On the fresh earth some faithful hand had placed a bowl of stewed meat and several bunches of wild cherries, to feed the dead on their journey to the happy hunting-grounds. We lingered an instant on the bluff to take a last look at the encampment, then shouted "Good-by," and galloped across the prairie. Before reaching the Missouri, Trumbo's horse gave out. Nothing disheartened, his rider dismounted, and with lariat in hand trudged on singing as he went. He was a glorious hunting companion, "a fellow in infinite jest, of most excellent fancy," cool in the moment of danger, and fertile in expedients. "May he live long, and prosper." Late in the day we reached the river, and a volley from our rifles brought the boat from the opposite shore. Under the porch of the mess-house we told of "hair-breadth 'scapes," and dreamed at night of our dusky sweethearts.

It was with regret that I bade adieu next morning to the friends that had so kindly welcomed me, and took my seat in the stage. A tedious ride of two days and a night, and we rattled up in true Western style to the Hubbard House in Sioux City. On the rails for three days, and my glorious summer trip was ended.

Theo. E. Leeds, in the Galaxy.