LIVING as we did under
the great blue of heaven, where nothing interfered with the caress of
the sun nor kept the pure breath of the Four Ways from our bare skins,
there was little sickness among us.
Dyspepsia, for example,
was unknown. For our articles of food were limited in number and
prepared in the simplest way. At times we, as individuals, fasted from
choice, or we all went hungry from compulsion. Occasionally, we ate to
repletion, but always at what might be termed our regular meals we were
sparing eaters. The less the variety, the smaller the appetite.
We did not suffer from
colds. In winter time we thought it fun to run barefooted through the
snow, to tumble naked into the soft drifts, and to plunge into icy
water. On the approach of cold weather we rubbed a little bear oil on
our bodies to keep the dampness out, and in winter time we mixed paint
with the oil in the belief that it not only gave added protection
against the cold, but that the colours enhanced our appearance as well.
Our men were proud of
their strong, well-proportioned bodies and they used to believe that
white men wore clothes because they were ashamed of their weak bodies
and small legs. They suffered in comparison with our race of natural
athletes whose untrammelled life made them unequalled in fleetness of
foot and in power of endurance.
Once a party of our young
warriors were chased on horseback by a squad of soldiers and almost
overtaken, when they jumped to their feet and outran the cavalry horses.
In the flight the soles of their moccasins became slick from the prairie
grass, so they kicked them off and in their bare feet escaped.
One thing which aided in
keeping our men healthy, was the frequent use of the vapour bath. This
was taken in a tepee pitched for the purpose. It was called the
sweat-tepee and differed from the ordinary lodge in having no outlet at
the top. Instead the poles were bent over and intertwined, and the
rawhide was stretched tightly over them and fastened down securely.
Just outside the owner
dug a shallow, crescent-shaped trench to hold the fire for the heating
of the stones necessary to the bath.
Always he invited several
friends to join him, and when the guests were seated in a circle inside
the lodge, he brought in the hot stones and put them on the ground in
the centre of the circle. He used sticks for tongs in carrying them, and
before making the actual transfer he went through the process in
pantomime four times, in recognition of the four quarters of the
earth—The Four Ways. When he had fastened down the flap of the lodge, he
poured water on the stones.
In the big steam that
filled the tepee the men stayed until they perspired freely. Then they
went to the stream for a cool plunge. Religious ceremonies frequently
accompanied this custom, which insured more than cleanliness. Often it
meant considerably more. For, when the young men, off the war-trail or
the hunt, were idle, this vapour bath got rid of a surplus energy
dangerous to self-control.
The hair and the scalp of
every man, woman and child received special care that kept the scalp
healthy and the hair glossy. We used a hair-wash made from a root dug
from the prairie, and frequently we rubbed our scalps with black
river-mud, and plastered our hair down with it. Then we wound a piece of
cloth or deerskin about our heads. A day or two later we rubbed and
combed out the dried mud. For combs we had spears of joint-grass tied in
Our women rarely knew
other than perfect health, for their duties kept them out in the pure
air and sunshine the greater part of the time. So, when motherhood came
to them they did not experience long, cruel suffering. It was not an
uncommon thing, when we were on the march, for a woman to drop out
alone, and on the second day ride up in line with her newborn baby in
We needed little
medicine, but what we did need was gathered from forest and prairie or
dug from the earth.
Once in my childhood I
ate some poison berries.
They made me burn as
though on fire and caused me to break out in a red rash. A medicine man
took me into his tepee and bled me. He scratched me all over from head
to foot with the teeth of a garfish, after which he smeared my body with
the juice of an herb. Then he buried me up to the chin in black mud. He
finished his treatment by dancing around me, shaking his gourd rattle
and singing his Medicine Song to chase away the evil spirits. I soon
fell asleep and when I awoke the fever was gone. Remained only the
discomfort of the scratches with which my body was covered.
The medicine man had a
sure antidote for snake bite. They gave it internally, just before
applying to the wound the still warm flesh of a freshly killed prairie
dog. Sometimes, instead, they used a plaster of blue mud.
We drank from mud holes
full of disease germs, we ate putrid meat, we were drenched by rains,
burnt by summer suns and bitten by winter frosts, but a healthier people
would be hard to find.