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Saddle, Sled and Snowshoe
Chapter XXIII
We set out with Maskepetoon for the Blackfoot camp— A wife for a target—Indian scouts—Nearing the Blackfeet—Our Indians don paint and feathers—A picture of the time and place—We enter the Blackfoot camp—Three Bulls—Buffalo Indians—Father describes eastern civilization—The Canadian Government's treatment of the Indians a revelation—I am taken by a war chief as a hostage—Mine host and his seven wives—Bloods and Piegans—I witness a great dance—We leave for home—A sprained ankle —Arrival at the mission.


THE year 1865 had barely started on its way when there came a courier from Maskepetoon to father, requesting him if possible to come out and go with Maskepetoon to the Blackfoot camp. The old chief desired to ratify the peace treaty, and to lengthen its days as much as possible. Father at once sent him word to make ready, and that he would be out in a few days. He decided to take Peter and me with him. Mother and the rest of our women folk were naturally very anxious about this trip into the camp of the dreaded enemy, but this did not prevent their helping to make us ready for the journey, and soon we were off, father in his cariole, with Maple and her pups hitched to it, Peter and I with our dog sleds carrying the provisions and camp equipment.

Starting early, travelling fast, and keeping at it late, we reached Maskepetoon's camp the second evening, and father and Peter worked late that night teaching and preaching. Next morning we were away with the chief and some forty of his warriors and head men. The weather was very cold, and the buffalo were now travelling north in large numbers, making their way into the Beaver Hills, and on to the Saskatchewan. It looked now as if we would not have to haul our meat from as long distances as last winter.

Father was the only one in the party with a cáriole, and this he shared ever and anon with Maskepetoon. The rest of us were on foot, and as the snow was deep, except where the buffalo had trampled it down, our progress was slow. Other Indians, from camps situated at different points along the eastern and southern fringe of the Beaver Hills, joined us. Among these was a Blackfoot who was taking back a Cree wife. I took occasion to say to her, "Are you not afraid this peace may not last very long?" She merely laughed at my suggestion; but later on came to pass that this same woman fell a victim to the Blackfoot she had taken as her husband. It is related of them that a few months after this, he and some others were gambling on a bill while the camp was moving past, and as this Cree woman came opposite the gamblers, her husband said to his companions, "See how I can shoot," and aiming at the woman, shot her dead in her tracks. An unfeeling laugh from the crowd followed the shocking tragedy.

As we journeyed the hunters of the party provided meat. The "cattle upon a thousand hills" were our storehouse, the hunters were our commissariat, and with sublime confidence in these we travelled on. The third day from Maskepetoon's lodges, we camped within a few miles of the Blackfeet, and early next morning our scouts were every little while bringing us news of the numbers and situation of the camp.

Hardy fellows those scouts were. We were moving at a brisk, quiet walk, but they must run on for miles, and then double on their tracks back to us. While away they must be invisible; they must see all that is to be seen, but remain unseen themselves. To do this they must take the contour of the country, note the condition of the sun and wind, be on the lookout for buffalo, coyotes, wolves, dogs, and ravens, crows, and other fowl. They must keep a constant lookout for contra scouting, and for this the nose and ear and eye and mind must be always alert. I say, to do this well, as many of these fellows can, requires the quickening of every sense. Then while doing all this, at times to make ten miles an hour on foot also requires a depth of lung and strength of limb and purpose of will which heredity and constant practice alone can give.

Our scouts that morning were like telegraph bulletins. We knew how the camp was arranged, and changed our course to suit this arrangement. We were told of the windings of the coulee, or valley, down which the Blackfeet lodges were standing. We were told of hunting parties that had gone out that morning; of the bands of horses, and how closely these were guarded; of the long strings of women and ponies, and dogs and travois, which were coming and going in various directions, packing wood to camp; all of which was literally true, for our scouts had been there and seen it all.

When close we stopped behind a bluff, while our men put on their visiting paint and dress material, and in a few minutes, with the small circular mirrors and ochre bags, our company was transfigured in appearance and colors. Bright colors in garments and on face made a wonderful change, and to my eye this was exceedingly fitting. The scene was in accord with itself; it was natural.

How often are we amused and then disgusted by merely made up scenes. Someone who has been just long enough in a new country to be made a victim of all the designing wags in it— who has just learned enough about Indians to, make himself ridiculous every time he opens his mouth on the subject—will don the buckskins of a pioneer, or the costume of the aboriginal Indian, and pose for one or the other; but the whole thing is forced and unreal. Here we have the genuine article, and each factor in the picture is complete and natural and true: the sweep of the valley of the Battle River which slopes from our feet; the ranges of forest-dotted hills, climbing one above the other, from the river's brink even to the limit of our vision; the intersecting fields of snow-clad prairie, reflecting each in its turn the brilliant sunlight; the buffalo that here and there seem like ink dots on the vast ground of dazzling white that stretches far and wide; and the great solitude of primeval nature that broods over all. Then the curling heavenward of the smoke of our temporary fire, the athletic and well-proportioned physique of the men, their costumes and paint—I say all this was to my mind and eye, as I stood there and watched and waited that winter's day, as something just as it should be, belonging to the place and time.

But now the last feather is tied on, the last touch of vermilion is in its place, and we move on for another hour's quick tramp. A hushed excitement is apparent. This whole thing is yet a very uncertain quantity. Will success or disaster be the result? The most thoughtless in our party is somewhat checked by the anxiety of the moment.

In a few minutes the last scout will be in.

"Here he is!" We are about to come in sight and be within a few hundred yards of the camp. Maskepetoon and father step to the front side by side, as the chief would have it. Next come the standard bearers, and the Union Jack and the Hudson's Bay Company's flag are unfurled to the breeze; then the head men and chief warriors; then the young men and scouts. Peter and I bring up the rear with our dog-trains, which we have difficulty in keeping in their place—old Draffan has been ahead so often, he cannot understand his having to stay behind now.

The horse guards and wood carriers, and the children at play, were in full view of our advancing column, and at first there was a rushing of stock homewards, and a scrambling for the road by those engaged in hauling wood, while the children screamed and fled over the hill into the deep narrow valley in which the lodges were situated. An inexperienced person would never have thought that hundreds of tents, filled with warriors and women and children, were only a short distance from us; but presently up out of the valley came a swarm of men and boys, all armed and anxious. Then when the older ones recognized Maskepetoon, they began to shout "Mon-e-guh-ba-now!" and came to meet us gladly. As they came they fired their guns into the air, and our men did likewise, and sang as they marched, and in a few minutes we were on the brow of the hill and the Blackfoot camp lay at our feet.

Maskepetoon and father, with Peter and myself, were taken to the head chief's tent, and hospitably entertained in the style and manner peculiar to this people. Buffalo meat and dried berries constituted the food. The former was served either fresh or dry, or as pounded meat and grease, or as pemmican. The latter were either boiled or eaten dry. The vessels the food was served in were wooden, and the ladles it was dipped with were made of horn. Neither of these, so far as I could see, were ever washed. The cooks would cut up the meat for the guests as is done for small children among the white people. While in the Blackfoot camp we had no use for a knife, though we would have infinitely preferred to cut and carve our own food. Father would quietly say, "Look the other way, John," and I would as quietly think, "If he can stand it, how much more can I."

Three Bulls, the chief in whose tent we were, was a tall, dignified old man. His war and hunting days were over, but there was a prestige in his manner and presence which spoke of a history for this man, and it was this no doubt which kept him in the commanding position he occupied. He had three wives living with him in his tent. These might be described as old, older, oldest. There were two handsome young men, his sons, evidently the children of different mothers. Both father and mothers were very proud of these superb specimens of physical manhood. The work of the camp was done by the chief's daughters-in-law and granddaughters, who came and went without noise or fuss in the discharge of their duties, while the trio of wives sat and sewed moccasins or played the role of hostesses.

These were thoroughly buffalo Indians. Without buffalo they would be helpless, and yet the whole nation did not own one. To look at them, and to hear them, one would feel as if they were the most independent of all men; yet the fact was they were the most dependent among men. Moccasins, mittens, leggings, shirts and robes— all buffalo. With the sinews of the buffalo they stitched and sewed these. Their lariats, bridle lines, stirrup-straps, girths and saddles were manufactured out of buffalo hide. Their women made scrapers out of the leg-bone for fleshing hides. The men fashioned knife-handles out of the bones, and the children made toboggans of the same. The horns served for spoons and powder flasks. In short, they lived and had their physical being in the buffalo. The Blackfoot word for buffalo in the mass is enewh. This same word in Cree means man. The Blackfoot word for buffalo bull is stomach, which in English means quite another thing. For the Blackfoot man the buffalo supplied the sole habiliment and the sole nutriment.

During our stay in the camp the women and children were frequently sent out of the chief's tent, and then the lodge would be packed with minor chiefs and headmen and warriors, who would listen to Maskepetoon and father. Lively discussions there took place on the benefits of peace among men. Father's descriptions of eastern civilization and Christianity were as strange revelations to these men. They listened, and wondered if these things could be true, so different were their experiences of white men from what father had to tell them of the conduct of our Government and of Christian men to the Indians in general. He told them of the many villages and tribes of Indians who were living in harmony and peace right in the midst of the white people, in the country he came from. One could see that most of these men were glad of the present respite, and yet there were some who chafed under the necessity of even a short intermission from their business of horse-stealing and scalp-taking.

There was one young war chief in camp who kept aloof from us, and as he had considerable influence and a large following, some anxiety was felt, both by our party and by the Blackfeet friendly to us. However, during the second evening of our stay, he came to the chief's tent, and it was announced that he was waiting outside. Our host gathered his robe around him and went out, and presently the proud young chieftain stepped in and took a seat beside us. Later on the old chief returned, and I enquired of Maskepetoon, "Why this unusual ceremony?" He told me that this young warrior chief was the son-in-law of the old man, and it was a rule of etiquette that the son-in-law should not come into a tent while his father-in-law was in it. So the old man had gone out until his son-in- law came in. Even here, as elsewhere, high-toned society must conform to rule.

This war chief said that he was not very anxious for peace, that war to him was like eating good fruit—he loved it; but as the others were favorable, he would join them for a while. Then turning to father, he said, "You must, if you are in earnest, let your son come to my tent and live with me while in our camp." Father asked me if I was willing, and I said, "Yes." So it was arranged that I should go; and presently the young chief signed to me to follow him, and we started for his tent.

It was dark as we wended our way in and out among the lodges in the windings of the valley, and it seemed to me that the dogs were without number; but a quiet, sharp word from my leader made them shrink away from us, and on we went for quite a distance. Presently we came to a large lodge, and entering this I found we were at home. The chief motioned me to a reclining couch of buffalo skins, and then began to speak to his wives and to a number of young men who seemed to be his dependents, and who were very obedient to his word. In the matter of wives he was four ahead of his father-in-law, having seven to own him lord, the last and youngest being the old chief's daughter.

Mine host—for I would rather consider him as such than my captor—was a tall, athletic fellow, about thirty-five years of age. He had a wild, wicked look about him, was quick and nervous in movement, and was, from appearance at any rate, a man not to be trifled with. His wives' ages, I should judge, ranged all the way from eighteen to thirty years, and there were several children. The lodge was the largest I had ever been in, necessitating at times the making of two distinct fires in it to keep us warm; for all this time the cold was severe, and our northern January weather was in full sway over this land. Some of the women untied a bundle of newly dressed robes, and made up for me a couch next to the chief's. They handed me some dried meat and berries, and eating a late supper, I turned in for the night. The isolation from the rest of our party was complete, and I could not repress a feeling of loneliness; but as father had arranged the affair of my being thus alone in this man's camp, I felt it was all right, and went to sleep.

Before daylight the camp was astir, and huge fires were burning in the centre of the lodge, but the keen cold was very apparent a few feet from these. As soon as I sat up in my couch one of the women brought me water in a wooden bowl for my morning ablutions, and I had my pocket-handkerchief to serve as a towel. Then they gave me for my breakfast boiled meat cut into small pieces. I longed for salt, but there was none.

All day strangers kept coming and going in our tent. It seemed to me I was on exhibition. Once during the day my host signed to me to follow him, and we went out to the summit of a hill, where his band of horses were driven up by some young men who had them in charge, and I admired the number and quality of his stock. There must have been a hundred or more in the bunch, most of them, no doubt, the result of his stealings. Then we went back to the tent, and the day passed quietly away. In the evening a crowd of men occupied the space in our lodge, and much smoking and speech-making went on; but as I could catch a word only here and there, I did not understand what they said. As they talked and smoked I studied their faces and costumes, many of which were peculiar, inspiring me alternately with the feeling of dread and of curiosity. Everyone carried his weapons —bow and arrows, flint-lock gun, or war-club.

I could readily see that the idea of placing confidence in anyone had not as yet entered the minds of these men. Sometimes they became greatly excited, and as they frequently nodded or pointed to me, I could not but imagine all manner of trouble. Finally the crowd dispersed, and I was still alive and quite ready for the second supper mine hostesses served me with. I found that I was by heredity and practice a confirmed salt eater, and to be without it for a few meals was a hardship. There had been no communication since last night with any of our party. So far as I was concerned they might as well have been back at the Cree camp or our mission. However, when all was quiet I settled down into a sound sleep, undisturbed by even the dream of being scalped by dusky Blackfoot braves.

Long before daylight the big fires were blazing and crackling, faintly forcing back the fearful cold which had taken possession of the thin- walled and unfloored lodge during the few hours which the camp slept. I was up with the dawn trying to thaw myself out, but did not fully succeed until I had breakfasted. Another long day passed, much in the same way as the last, without any word from my party.

In the evening a number of Blood Indians arrived, and a dance was organized in our tent. This was my first meeting with any of these people. So far as I could see, they were the same as the Blackfeet, only of a more pronounced type—that is, the difference between them and the northern Indians was more marked. Proud arrogance and intense self-sufficiency seemed to speak out in their every word and action. One would think they were the aristocracy of the plains.

The meeting was more than a dance that night—it was an experience meeting; for each one recited his deeds of daring, and acted in pantomime the approach, the ambush, the charge, and the shooting, stabbing, scalping, and horse taking of his past.

With frantic energy these men told of their various deeds of valor, and every now and then a comrade, a living witness, would shout, "It is true! I was there!" At this the crowd applauded, and the drums beat, while the next man sprang to his feet, and leaped, danced, whooped and sang; then when the drums ceased, he too would vaunt his feats of valor. All this was at first quite interesting to me, but as the hours went by, and it grew past midnight, I lost my interest, and wished the ball would break up. There seeming no immediate prospect of this, I stepped out, and running the risk of dogs and men, wended my way up the valley until I came to the old chief's tent, which I quietly entered, and raking the coals together made up a fire, as the night was bitterly cold. I saw that father and Peter were asleep, and Maskepetoon was stretched in his blanket between father and the fire; so I got down in front of Maskepetoon, and gradually crept under his blanket, until he gave it to me, after which he got up, made on more fire, and sat and smoked for the rest of the night, while I slept with a profound sense of rest and security beside my friends once more. Many a time in after days Maskepetoon would joke me about taking his blanket from him when in the Blackfoot camp.

From the time of our arrival here I had taken particular notice to a fine, manly young Blackfoot, who seemed to me to have an unusual interest in Maskepetoon. He would get as near to him as he could, and occasionally lay his hand on the chief's arm or shoulder, and name him "Mon-e-guh-ba-now," "the great chief," "the strong man," "the brave man," and Maskepetoon would laughingly turn him aside with a wave of his hand, but always in a kindly way. I wondered what could be the bond between these two, and at last I asked Maskepetoon who that young man was. "Why," said he, "he was the leader of the crowd that rushed at me and my grandchild a few weeks since. He and I are great friends now." The old man's brave act had won the enemy's heart.

The next day we started for home. We might have peace for three months or less. This was the impression on our minds. The people on both sides were too widely scattered and too independent of each other, and the range of country too big, to hope for any permanent peace under present conditions. In the meantime, even a short respite was something to be grateful for. Our route. home was more direct, and we travelled much faster than in coming. The buffalo had been moving north, and in their progress trampled the snow for miles in many places, which helped us on our way. About the middle of the first afternoon I slipped on a lump of frozen snow and sprained my ankle, which made travelling for the rest of the evening a very painful, matter, so that I was glad when we camped in the lee of a bluff of timber for the night. We had come a long distance, and it was pleasant to be in the open camp again.

After the work was done and our dogs fed, I took off my moccasin and found my ankle blue and much swollen. Through the long winter evening I sat there applying snow to the inflamed parts. This took down the swelling and assuaged the pain considerably; but I did not sleep much that night, and limped along with difficulty the next day. In spite of this, however, we reached our camp before night, and found that Muddy Bull had several animals staged ready for us. So father piled the camp equipment and our provisions into his cariole, while Peter and I took loads of meat, and with them reached the mission the second evening from Maskepetoon's camp, finding all well, and everybody wonderfully pleased to see us back. Peter resumed his work of lumber making, and I that of bringing in provisions.


 


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