THE HORSE INDIANS OF THE HIGH PLAINS
Very early in the last century, European immigrants or their descendants moved, in very small numbers to explore the territory acquired by President Jefferson in one of the more celebrated real estate transactions in American history. First by river, then overland, they encountered an environment unlike any they had known. Rolling plains covered with short grass and broken by vari-colored hills and wind-eroded rock formations; spectacular canyons and mountain ranges, from the subdued splendor of the Black Hills through the Big Horns to the massive magnificence of the "Shining Mountains"- the front range of the Rockies in Colorado and the Tetons in western Wyoming. It was virgin land, populated with wildlife, ruled by nature's law of survival. All of this was viewed by the constantly probing, restless adventurers who relayed their stories and descriptions back to "civilization". But these explorers were not the first to marvel at this vast wilderness; it had been first seen, and claimed, by one of the many offshoots of the First Americans - the Horse Indians of the High Plains. Charles Russell called them "Nature's Soldiers"; they called themselves by such names as Cheyenne, Comanche, Blackfoot, Kiowa, Crow and Dakota.
There were, according to Mildred Mayhall, thirty-one tribal groups on the plains; "of these, eleven were typical", including the six just mentioned. They represented a culture that lasted roughly a century-from 1775 to 1875, but so meteoric was its rise and so great its "glamour and pageantry that. . .to almost all Americans the Plains Warrior symbolized the American Indian."
Two animals were indispensable to the Plains Indians; without them their pattern of life could not have emerged, and in their absence it could not survive. The first of these animals was the horse, the introduction of which unfettered the Indians from the restraint of geographic distance and made them aristocrats of the wilderness-Lords of a Grassland Empire! Stanley Vestal described them as "Gentlemen of the Epic, not the Romantic, mould" who briefly occupied a world "in which Achilles or Odysseus would have felt at home."
In the days before horses, tribesmen used dogs as beasts of burden. For this reason, the Blackfeet originally called horses "big dogs", but later re-named them "elk dogs" because of the size similarity. To the Sioux, horses were "wakan", or sacred dogs so greatly were they valued. And the Dakota did not overestimate the impact of the horse on all of the plains tribes. "The horse made the Plains Indian a new man, psychically as well as physically. It gave him wealth and prestige. It made him not just a hunter but a warrior, not just a warrior but a dangerous predator. . . In personality there arose the attitude of the 'centaur',combining values of human and horse, and the man now. . .was master of his environment, no longer a slave to it."
The second indispensable animal was the buffalo, the herds of which roamed from the Canadian border to the Rio Grande in numbers which almost defy comprehension. "In Kansas alone, it has been estimated that the bones of thirty-one million head were gathered and sold for fertilizer between 1868 and 1881. A vast herd comprising considerably more than four million animals was seen by competent witnesses in 1871 on the Arkansas River. . . The main herd was fifty miles deep and twenty-five miles wide-and this was only one of the many herds in existence at the time. On one occasion when the Great Herd moved north, it extended more than one hundred miles in width and was of unknown length, and it was estimated conservatively that the herd contained over one hundred million head." It is small wonder that these herds were thought to be the greatest natural commissary in the world.
Although other forms of meat and plant life were widely used on the plains, there was no substitute for the buffalo as the mainstay of the culture and of the economy. Various parts of the animal provided the raw material for food, robes, moccasins, tipis, rope, thread, tools, ornaments, rattles, household utensils, arrow points and knives.
In the early days, buffalo were hunted on foot. Many tribes used buffalo traps in order to catch large numbers of the animals. Blackfeet women sometimes made a semi-circular fence out of their dog travois and the men would chase a herd into the trap, then dispatch them with arrow and lance. Another technique involved stampeding a herd over a cliff, with hunters stationed below to finish what was begun by the drop. This method survived the appearance of the horse because a huge supply of meat and skins could thus be acquired in a very short time. One of the favorite spots used by Platte River Indians was the bluffs near present Interstate 25 in Wyoming's Chugwater Valley.
But the classic method was the chase, sometimes as dangerous to the hunter as to the hunted. The immediate aftermath of a hunt was fresh meat. Among the Comanches, in fact, it was not unusual for an entire family to make an instant meal from the just-killed animal. It would consist of such things as warm blood, raw brains mixed with marrow from the legbones, and liver, kidneys, and entrails "eaten raw while still warm and without washing". These entrees probably turn most modern stomachs, but such complete ingestion of the buffalo was for Indians the major source of the nutrition that is prerequisite to good health.
So important to the plains tribes were the buffalo that many of them felt something of a supernatural quality attached to the animals. The Dakotas, for instance, "thought vaguely of a grand buffalo who ruled over all the unseen and who was human enough either to take pity on man or to retaliate." Thus, prayers and rituals involving the buffalo were common to most Plains Indians; probably because of its scarcity, the white buffalo was the most revered of all. Many believed that good fortune would follow for a hunting party that did not disturb a herd that included an albino animal.
With the chase ended, the hunters returned to camp. Where the camp might be located varied among the tribes. Some of the transplanted eastern Indians, such as the Shawnees, chose sites with heavy underbrush, while the Arapahoes and Cheyennes opted for "open prairie, but near timber". The Sioux, on the other hand, preferred to camp "near water but away from all timber"; the Comanches and Kiowas "Near a running stream in open timber".
Now the job of converting the buffalo hides and flesh to useful products fell to the women. Much meat was immediately consumed in amounts that can only be described as staggering; hunters always feasted when the kill was large and fasted when it was not. The only method of preserving meat was through a process of drying before a fire or in the rays of the sun. "Jerky", as it was called by the whites, could subsequently be carried in the form of hard strips to be gnawed at interminably for nourishment, or it could be softened with boiling water before serving. A mixture called pemmican was made by pulverizing dried meat together with marrow and berries, particularly chokecherries.
Preparation of buffalo robes was an arduous and time consuming task, which, of course, meant it was a job for the women! First, the inside of the hide had to be scraped clean, then it was allowed to dry for several days in the sun. Next, further scraping reduced the hide to an even thickness before it was turned over and thoroughly scraped on the outside to remove the hair. By now, the hide was "stiff as a board", so it was soaked in water for a day or so before the finishing touches were applied. "Mixtures of brains, liver, fats, and sometimes red grass were rubbed thoroughly into the skin, and then allowed to dry. Next, the skin was stretched and finally worked back and forth over a twisted rawhide thong to completely break down the tissue."
Clothing was made entirely from such hides; after "tanning", women cut and sewed a good deal of the time. Sewing with "a bone needle. . .and a thread twisted of sinews" was not a speedy process, but it "was extremely durable."
Camp life was by no means all work, particularly for the children. They played games children have always played, "like tag and follow-the-leader and crack-the-whip and hide-and-seek and tug-of-war and running and relay races and high-jump and broad-jump contests and wrestling." In the winter time, youngsters frequently went sledding on buffalo hides. They were allowed to use the hides until the hair had been worn off, then their mothers, having thus avoided a hard job, retrieved the "sleds" for more prosaic use.
As the children grew older, the "games" became more functional. Assinboin boys learned to hunt mice "with bows and dried-grass arrows. . . (in) tall grass along the edge of a slough. . ." while "girls played camp with toy lodges made of large cotton wood leaves." And frequently, in the summer evenings, they listened to tales told in their grandparent's lodge, thus learning who their people were, where they came from and what they, as individuals, were expected to be.
Much of what children were taught involved religion and the supernatural, both of which permeated Indian life on the plains. Like the Sioux, most Indians believed man to be "but an infinitesimal part of a stupendous and mysterious universe". Natural forces being omnipotent, reverence, gratitude and supplication were not only the proper attitudes to adopt, they were the only ones imaginable. The God they worshipped might be called Wakan Tanka, Maheo or Ti-ra'-wa, but all recognized the dominant role played by the supernatural in the lives of men. Vision quests, medicine bundles and sacred symbols were a defining element of Indian life. For most plains tribes, one ceremony stood above all other religious activities; it was a source of tribal unification as well as a rite of personal sacrifice for the collective good-the Sun Dance. Most men danced the Sun Dance to redeem a vow taken earlier in time of great need; some sought to invoke supernatural aid for themselves or others in the present or the future, and a few sought to achieve such power for themselves. The ceremony involved several days of fasting and prayer, and sometimes ritual captivity; it culminated in a physical sacrifice of self. Skewers were thrust through the flesh of the participants' chest or back; these were attached to a center pole by means of rawhide ropes. The participant, through the remainder of the ceremony, danced against the pressure of the taut rope in an effort literally to tear himself free.
Belief in some form of life after death was common to most tribes. Both the Assiniboin and the Arapahoe believed the spirits of the dead traveled east; the latter believed the land of the dead to be located "on a plane far away, beyond and below the mountains." Warriors who died in battle had a shorter route open to them called "the comfortable road"-the Milky Way. For Cheyennes, life in Si'han would be much the same as they knew on earth-hunting, playing, and warring. The Hanging Road, also the Milky Way, led to Si'han.
The central activity upon which tribal life focused was none of those thus far mentioned. Prestige, public acclaim and glory could only be earned through exhibiting that kind of bravery and fortitude associated with battle. A Sioux proverb expressed the dominant attitude: "It is better to die on the battle field than to live to be old."
The techniques of warfare were, however, aimed as much at the achievement of prestige as at "victory". But prestige was meaningful only to those who survived the conflict; thus, prudence and the seeking of supernatural advantage through ritualistic preparation were of equally great importance. So important and prestigious was combat to the plains tribes "that it actually took precedence over the much more fundamental activity of procuring food through hunting." This in itself is evidence of how rich the land was with game; had food been harder to obtain, frequent warfare would have been a luxury to be purchased only at the price of starvation.
Indian war parties usually fell into one of several distinct categories. Most were small, private raiding parties. These were bands of volunteers who were motivated more by the hope of increasing their economic wealth and social status than by tribal or band loyalty. A second category involved larger groups, usually based on membership in one of the tribal military societies. With the notable exception of the Comanches, such "soldier societies" were characteristic of all the plains tribes. Among the Cheyennes, for instance, "There were six military societies. . .the Fox Soldiers, Elk Soldiers, Shield Soldiers, Bowstring Soldiers, Dog Men and Northern Crazy Dogs," In general, these societies, while vying with each other for war honors, "were largely responsible for protecting the tribe and maintaining tribal discipline." Finally, on relatively rare occasions, a threat, loss or insult was considered of sufficient magnitude to justify a tribal effort. Among the Blackfeet such an effort might result from the killing of a very popular leader or the loss of a large number of men to an enemy raiding party. On such occasions, members of other tribes of the Blackfoot confederation would likely be invited or requested to participate in a punitive expedition. How unusual it was for most Plains Indians to launch a tribal attack is illustrated by the fact that, in the entire history of the Cheyenne people, such an effort was undertaken only six times.
The dominating influence of prestige and prudence in plains warfare is revealed most clearly in the system by which war honors could be earned. The system literally involved keeping score, based on the number of "coups" counted by each warrior. A coup consisted of "touching or striking an enemy with hand or weapons." The danger, and thus the honor, attached to counting coup greatly exceeded the mere act of killing and scalping an enemy. "Rescues, wounds, and captured horses or weapons also counted for honors; but the coup was the great prize." More than one warrior could count coup on the same enemy, but the first carried the most prestige. Among the Assiniboines and the Sioux, four men could count coup on the same enemy, while the Southern Cheyennes limited the figure to three.
The number of coups was, however, only one factor in determining a warrior's rank, particularly as a leader. The other major consideration was his ability to lead successful raids, for this demonstrated the potency of his "medicine". A successful raid was one in which material gain was great and manpower losses low or non-existent.
Brave war deeds were recounted afterwards at ceremonial tribal gatherings. The ritual used can only be called boasting; humility and modesty in such matters were totally alien to plains culture. There is little evidence, however, that the requirement of public proclamation of brave actions led to any measurable falsifying of the record. In almost all instances, a coup had to be witnessed by others, and their testimony was a prerequisite to conferral of prestige. In cases where witnesses were not present, the warrior had to swear a public oath as to the accuracy of his claim, and it was only a fool who would risk his "medicine" by perjury.
Scalping was practiced very widely but, despite the emphasis placed on the act in white accounts, it did not rank very high. For the most part, scalps were considered to be trophies and little more.
Before the introduction of firearms, a warrior's arsenal normally consisted of war club, shield and lance, bow and arrows. All of these weapons were admirably adapted to mounted attacks. As noted earlier, proficiency in the use of these instruments was developed through games at a very early age. John G. Bourke tells of two sub-teen Apache boys who could, with great consistency, shoot arrows into a narrow-necked bottle from a dozen paces. a full-grown hunter on occasion could put an arrow all the way through a running buffalo. Sometimes, the lethal effect of an arrow was enhanced artificially; rattlesnake venom was, of course, a natural for this purpose. Another mixture consisting of "pulverized ants and the spleen of an animal, which had been allowed to decay in the direct rays of the sun" was also used.
Important as warfare was in Plains Indian culture, the warrior, or military, element never dominated the making of major tribal decisions. From the sophisticated social structure of the Cheyennes to the near-anarchy of the Comanches, the separation of civil and military authority, and the primacy of civil authority, was a common characteristic. With the Cheyennes, civil authority was vested in a "tribal council of forty-four peace chiefs." Among the Comanches, a peace chief "emerged"; he was not elected to the post in competition with others. The office was not overtly sought; a man became peace chief for his group when his advice was consistently sought and followed. Such a man had to demonstrate the qualities of "generosity, kindness, evenness of temper, wisdom in council. . .knowledge of his territory. . .good sense and the ability to speak persuasively on matters at issue. He epitomized the ideal of order and tranquility, not strife." Leadership among the Plains tribes represented a curiously sophisticated and effective combination of wisdom and courage, conciliation and combat.
Into their "wilderness empire" a new factor was introduced early in the last century. Beginning with Lewis and Clark, a small but ever-growing stream of white men invaded the land over which roamed the Horse Indians. Early travel was almost entirely by water, and the Missouri was navigable deep into present Montana. In 1823, however, the Arickara closed the river to most traffic, thus virtually forcing the fur hunters to search for an overland rout to the pelt-rich mountains.
These men, and their successors, traced the ways of passage to the mountains and beyond with their feet and recorded a quarter of a continent in their minds. The Mountain Men fought, traded, sometimes lived and inter-married with various Indian tribes; they did not, however, attempt to change them. Such lack of general hostility as existed was a function of the Mountain Man's tendency to meet Indians on the latter's terms; "if they did not adopt, at least they 'co-existed' with most of the norms of Indian social and religious value systems." At the annual rendezvous, where last year's catch was traded for next year's supplies, attendance by a number of Indians was considered quite normal. Such "trading fairs" were, in fact, not unique to white men; there is evidence indicating that the Shoshonis had earlier held such an affair near the location of the Green River Rendezvous.
Although their numbers were too small for the direct impact on Indian life to be great, the Mountain Men were, nonetheless, purveyors of substantial indirect change. Trade items-whether they were blankets, guns or knives-replaced their homemade counterparts; as the techniques for making such goods first rusted, then disappeared, an element of dependency entered into Indian life patterns, a dependency that heretofore had not existed. Three other products of "civilization" had a much more immediate, and totally negative, impact-whiskey, small pox and venereal disease. The first was introduced deliberately as an aid to "negotiating"; the latter two came more accidentally, but not less devastatingly. It is estimated, for example, that the small pox epidemic of 1837 destroyed almost two-thirds of the entire Blackfoot population; the Mandans, further down river, were even harder hit.
The day of the Mountain Men was a short one. By the 1840's beaver was playing out and silk top hats had measurably lessened the demand for pelts. Now the Mountain Men were replaced by tens of thousands of transients. They were attracted to journey by the lure of rich Oregon soil. yellow rock in California, and some sought the isolation of the Salt Lake Valley. While some sailed around the Horn or took the southern trail to Santa Fe, most followed the central route which followed a series of rivers-Platte, Sweetwater, Green, Bear, Snake and Columbia-that marked the Oregon-California Trail.
Except for petty thievery and begging, most trains were relatively untroubled by the plains Indians as noted earlier. Of course, if the opportunity presented itself, horses were stolen, but cattle almost never were. They were called the "white man's buffalo", but while the real thing was available, no Indian gourmet would settle for less. So long as danger did not threaten, many emigrants commented favorably on the physical appearance of the Northern Plains tribes, particularly the Dakota. But they were always thought of as "children", and treated accordingly. If the Indian presence took on a more menacing hue, the designation changed to "savages", and, once again, the native population was treated accordingly.
As the number of emigrants increased, so did the tension between the two races. In 1850, more than 50,000 travelers made their way west on the Oregon-California Trail. At the height of the season's travel, it was not unusual for the wagon trains to stretch as far as the eye could see. Game was driven off; grass was eaten and trampled. The tribes watched and waited, but at not time did they, either individually or collectively, mount a raiding force against the emigrant trains that would bear comparison with those regularly sent against enemy tribes. The hereditary enmity that marked inter-tribal relations undoubtedly saved more white lives that did the varied arsenal of weapons which most pilgrims carried, but few could use effectively.
First came the beginnings of the white flood, then the government constructed or purchased forts to aid and protect the wayfarers. Fort Kearney, Fort Laramie, Fort Caspar, Fort Bridger, Fort Hall, and a number of others, marked the beginning of a link between the Missouri and the Pacific. In the 1860's, the link grew stronger; the "thin blue line" was augmented by the telegraph in the first years of the decade and by the first transcontinental railroad in the latter.
The first peace treaty with the northern tribes was designed to provide safe passage for gold-seekers headed for the El Dorado which had surfaced at Sutter's Mill. Most of the tribes signed the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, but the peace it sought lasted only three years. In 1854, Lieutenant John Grattan, just out of West Point, attempted to arrest a Dakota brave for killing a cow which strayed from a wagon train. Grattan was accompanied by a small command, and a drunken interpreter. Shots were fired, the Indian chief was fatally wounded-and Grattan's command was annihilated. The following year a punitive strike force under General Harney retaliated by over-running Little Thunder's camp of Brulé northwest of Ash Hollow. The pattern was set. Treaties were signed, then violated by individuals or small groups, followed by retaliation against the first people encountered who measurably resembled the violators. This pattern marked the effective beginning of the Indian Wars on the Northern Plains. Into the last decade of the century Indians and whites periodically painted the buffalo grass with each other's blood-from Blue Water Creek to Sand Creek, from Beecher's Island to the Little Big Horn. And finally to the little stream called Wounded Knee.
The Civil War slowed the pace of expansion; frontier posts were undermanned with volunteers or ex-Confederates-the "Galvanized Yankees." With the end of the fratricidal bloodletting, white men again looked west. But now it was the homeland of the Plains Indians which they coveted. Trail herds moved north from Texas to railheads in Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado; some of them moved further north to stock the valleys of Wyoming and Montana. And gold was discovered in Montana. The Bozeman Trail cut through the heart of Indian hunting ground and very close to their favorite camp sites on the Tongue, Rosebud and Powder Rivers. As usual, forts were built to protect those who followed James Bozeman's footsteps. But the Sioux and Northern Cheyennes retaliated; for more than two years Red Cloud effectively closed the Bozeman Trail. Its forts were literally under siege from the moment construction began. Captain Fetterman, foolishly disobeying orders, led his entire command of 80 men from Fort Phil Kearney into an ambush; they were destroyed to a man in a 20-minute explosion. In 1868, the Bozeman forts were abandoned under the terms of the second Treaty of Fort Laramie. The northern tribes were assured of their rights to their hunting land and against white encroachment. Particularly were whites forbidden to enter the Black Hills of South Dakota.
In 1874, a scientific and surveying expedition probed into these hills; very shortly after their arrival, a rider whipped his horse for more speed as he headed for the telegraph at Fort Laramie to spread the word that the Black Hills were rich with gold.
The Army was unable to keep gold-seekers out of the hills, and negotiations for their purchase were unsatisfactory. Incidents multiplied, until the orders were given. After a stipulated date, all Indians off their reservations would be considered hostile. A full-scale campaign, aimed at locating the Indians and forcing them back to their reservations, was launched in the spring of 1876. The campaign is best remembered because of the man who, two years earlier, had commanded the military escort for the survey party which had confirmed the presence of gold. On June 25, George Armstrong Custer and his entire immediate command were wiped out in the valley of the Little Big Horn. Among the dead was "Lonesome Charley" Reynolds, the scout and messenger who had delivered the news of gold to Fort Laramie.
The Little Big Horn was the high water mark of Plains Indian military strength and success. Stung by the Montana disaster, the whites retaliated in strength. In a series of battles scattered across the northern plains, during the next few years Indian power was broken and reservation life was imposed upon them.
A decade later, one final hope for the return of the free days sprang to life. It began with a Paiute named Wovoka, and he told of an Indian Messiah. In the promised new world, the white man would be gone, and if only the followers of this new ritual were diligent enough in their efforts they could "dance back the buffalo". It was a call to believe, not a call to war, but as the Ghost Dance spread, white fears multiplied. And so was played out the final tragedy. The last dream of the free days was crushed in the bitter cold of a Dakota winter and buried in a common grave at Wounded Knee.
Four decades later, looking back "from this high hill of my old age", Black Elk, holy man of the Oglala, said "I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream."
A way of life had ended; the native peoples of the high plains were now faced with different ways and different problems, more difficult because they were new. Many of these problems have not, even yet, been satisfactorily dealt with. But that is another story for another time. The Horse Indians of the High Plains are gone; their descendents are scattered. What, one may ask, is left to mark their passage? They left a rich body of folk literature, an interesting as it is little known. They left names spread across the continent; names that still sing with the wind-from Shawnee to Cheyenne, from the Dakotas to the Tetons. And as you drive through this broad land, it is not difficult to imagine the presence of the spirits of those who passed this way before us.
But something else also remains-a continuing reverence for life and for the Sacred Powers That Be, an attitude Black Elk expressed in this prayer.
"Great Spirit, my Grandfather, all over the earth the faces of living things are all alike. With tenderness have these come up out of the ground. Look upon these faces of children without number and with children in their arms, that they may face the winds and walk the good road to the day of quiet."
Copyright Robert Munkres 1981-2009 All Rights Reserved