The Old North Trail, by Walter McClintock, , at sacred-texts.com
A practical joke at my expense.—Irregularity in time of meals.—How women bake camass roots.—Brings-down-the-Sun receives present of medicinal plants. He asks for my family history.—In return he gives the origins of the Blackfeet Societies.—The Sinopaix (Kit-foxes) and their society dance.—He describes Tsin-ksi-six (Mosquitoes).—Kuko (Doves).—Muto-ka-iks (Buffaloes).—Knut-some-taix (Mad Dogs).
OUR camping ground had once been the old bed of the river and was covered with a plentiful deposit of loamy sand. When the grass and undergrowth were tramped down, the ground became very dusty and the fine sand, carried by the wind, penetrated our food and everything we had. The South Piegans noticed that I was frequently scratching myself and seized the opportunity for a joke at my expense. Menake said to Onesta, so that I could overhear, "During the past few days I have been feeling itchy. I believe we have become lousy from sitting on the blankets and robes of the North Piegans." Onesta replied without a smile, "I have had the same trouble, but got rid of them by bathing in the river." I had had my own suspicions of the cause of our discomfort, but, after this conversation, I imagined that lice were crawling in my hair and all over my body. To the great amusement of the entire camp, I hastened to the river, where I soon discovered that sand was the real cause of my affliction. Onesta told me afterwards,
that few of the Blackfeet were troubled with vermin, but, that it was a common thing among the Crees, Gros Ventres and Assinniboines. The Blackfeet say that this fact made them feel uncomfortable, even to go near the Crees, or Assinniboines and because of it they disliked to fight with them, or use their spoils.
It is the custom of the Blackfeet to cook but two meals a day; one in the morning and the other late in the afternoon. The hours are very irregular, meal time coming when the women happened to feel hungry, or thought it convenient. When we were travelling, the morning meal was eaten very early, generally before sunrise. But, in a permanent camp, it sometimes did not come until noon, and if the women were not in the mood for cooking, they omitted it entirely. The evening meal varied from five o'clock until nine. Sometimes almost a day elapsed between meals, and I became so ravenously hungry that I resorted to the dried meats and pemmican, which the Indians ate at all times of the day, and which I finally acquired a liking for.
For baking the Mississa (camass roots, Camassia esculenta), Menake and Nitana dug a hole about three feet deep. They placed hot stones at the bottom of the hole, covering them over with long grass and leaves of the A-pono-kauki (Paper Leaves), Balsamorrhiza sagittata. The camass roots were placed in layers, with the grass and leaves between each layer. When the hole was filled, it was covered over and a fire built on the top. In this way the camass was thoroughly baked. Menake said that it required two days and two nights to prepare it properly for food. In former times, when the women were baking camass, it was contrary to their custom for men to come near the place. The
camass roots, that Menake dug, were in size like a small potato, and had a very delicate sweet flavour. The women generally secured them in the mountains, where they grew in great abundance. It was at its best for eating after the blossoms had fallen.
Menake chose a day, when Brings-down-the-Sun came alone to our camp, to present him with a supply of roots she had brought from the south. The old chief was a doctor with much skill and reputation. Very few of her medicinal plants grew along the Crow Lodge River, so that Menake's collection was of great value to him. She first handed him a large plant called Eksisoke (Sharp Vine) by the Blackfeet (Bear Grass or Yucca glauca), which she had found when travelling along Sun River, 250 miles to the south. Brings-down-the-Sun was greatly pleased by this rare plant and, as he took it, uttered a prayer and chanted a sacred song. He said to Menake, "I am glad to get the Sharp Vine, because of its great healing properties. I prefer it above all other remedies for fractures, or sprains. I first grind the root up and then put it in boiling water. For a broken leg, or arm, or sprain I use it with thin willow sticks for splints and then hold the part in the rising steam to allay the inflammation."
Brings-down-the-Sun having carefully stowed the precious gift of roots in his medicine sack, came over to the big log and sat down by my side. He smoked awhile in silence, as was his custom, and then addressed me,
"From the time when you first came into my camp, I have been doing all the talking, while you have listened. I do not as yet know very much about you, but I want to know you better, and to come closer to you, because you are now my son. I now ask that you will talk to me. Tell me your age, and in what moon you were born, the ages of your father and mother, and what the country is
like where you live." When I told him my age and that of my father and mother, he looked at me in surprise, saying, "You look like a mere youth, and have the voice of a young man. You were born in the year of the last great scourge of small-pox (Apicksosin, Great Sickness, 1869-70). It came during the winter, while you arrived in the spring. I have recorded three of these Great Sicknesses. The first was sixty years ago (1845). Twelve years intervened until the second (in 1857). The third and last came during the winter of 1870. I hope there will never be another. Your father was born in the year when Big Lodge, head chief of the Blackfeet, was killed. Your mother during the hard winter, when the snows lay so deep that many of our horses perished."
He inquired if I lived beyond the Big River (Mississippi). I endeavoured in my reply to use words and ideas he could easily understand, and said,
"My home (Pittsburg) is far away toward the rising Sun. It is beyond the Big River and not far from the Great Water (Ocean). There are many people where I live, more than the leaves on these trees. The sun seldom shines clearly there, for it is hidden by heavy clouds of smoke, like that from a great prairie fire. Great fire-places light up the night skies like a burning forest. We make the trails for the Iron Horse (Locomotive) in these fires. When the iron trails come first from the fires, they are red hot and glide around like huge snakes. The houses are built of stone, and some of them are so large and high they look like the peaks of the Rocky Mountains. My father lives down there now, and his heart feels warm towards the Indians."
During my talk, Brings-down-the-Sun sat, closely watching my every movement. My remarks brought forth exclamations of surprise and wonder, and, when I had finished, he said simply, "I would like to go to your home, that I may meet that new friend of mine, your father. If you can arrange it for me, I will go back with you." Then slowly shaking his head he said, "The white man does very wonderful things and does not seem to realise it." He sat smoking and musing, until I broke the long silence by asking that he would tell me about their different societies, or brotherhoods, which he described as follows:
"None of the dances of this society have been given in the last twenty-five years. It was one of our old societies and had this origin: The Blackfeet once went on a war expedition against the Snakes. When they reached the Yellowstone country a man named Elk Tongue decided to turn back. After he left the expedition, he came to a prairie-dog village, where he saw two Kit-foxes run ahead of him for a short distance and then disappear in a hole. He sat down near the hole to rest, for he was very tired after his long, hard journey, and fell asleep. He dreamed that a Kit-fox came out and invited him to go inside. In his vision, he followed the little fox into a den, where he found the chief of the foxes with his mate seated beside him. They were kind to him, and finally explained to him their dance, and showed him how to dress for it. They instructed him to get a fox-skin and to carry it with him as his medicine, always wearing it on his back. On the right side of their lodge, Elk Tongue saw two spears covered with other skins and fringed with feathers, while on the left side, were two spears decorated with white swan's down, and fringed with bells and plumes, and bent into a circle at one end. Before Elk Tongue left the hole, the Fox Chief said: 'When you return to your people, gather some of the young men together, and form the society of Kit-foxes. Instruct the members to dress and to dance, just as we have taught you. If you will do these things; and not kill any more foxes, all of your members will have good fortune and long life. If any of you should harm a fox, it will surely bring misfortune.' When Elk Tongue
returned to camp, he did just as the fox had directed. He wore the fox-skin for his medicine, and founded the society of Kit-foxes. He was the only one, who could explain the mysteries of the society. He directed the other members, but they did not understand the significance of the dances. When he died, the Fox-skin Medicine and the story were given to his son. From that time, they have been handed down from father to son. The Blackfeet used to trap foxes, but after this society was formed, the members did not allow their children to injure a fox."
"When the Kit-foxes gave a dance, they opened up two large lodges and made them into one. For four days and four nights they sat inside, painting and dressing themselves, singing and making ready for the dance, only appearing at night, outside of the dance lodge. On the fifth day they marched through the camp. Their chief wore the fox-skin, with the head made into the form of a hood. The nose was in front, the ears on the top and the skin, with hells fastened to the tail, hung down his back. The face of the leader was painted green to look as frightful as possible and inspire the spectators with awe. The second in rank, called the White-Circle-Man, carried a spear, with one end bent into a circle. It had bells attached, and was covered with white swan's down and white plumes. The third held a spear of the same shape, covered with white feathers, but fringed with black and red plumes. The rest of the members carried pointed spears, covered with otter skins ornamented with feathers and bells.
[paragraph continues] The Kit-foxes all painted their faces. They wore, for garters around their legs, wide bands of otter skins, with bells attached, and an eagle feather, decorated with red, green and yellow, in their back hair. White weasel-skins were also attached to either end of this feather, while a strip of otter skin was suspended from its centre. When they marched through the camp they formed in the shape of a fox head. The chief went first standing for the nose. Behind him were the second and third men for the eyes, and then came the rest of the society in a group, all together representing a fox head. The two second-men, as the eyes, watched the chief, who was the nose, or leader, and acted just as he directed, the rest following after. When they were ready to dance, they sat in lines. In the first line were the regular members. If there were men withdrawing from the society, or giving their spears to new candidates, they sat in the second line, while the wives of the members sat behind. As soon as the drum began, the chief started the dance. The two circle men with the white spears followed. After them came the other members, with otter spears. They danced in pairs,—the same way that Kit-foxes run together. They gave short regular jumps with their feet close together, imitating the movements of a fox, barking and moving about, first in one direction, and then in another, just as a fox does. The two second-men (eyes) danced between the two lines, barking and swinging their spears. They did not move in straight lines, because the fox never goes straight. His tail always seems to guide him. When the white-circle men shouted, 'That is enough,' the dance ceased and they all seated themselves. After a short rest the dance was continued."
"There was once a man who was thickly surrounded by mosquitoes. They stung him so badly that he wondered if they could kill him. Removing his clothes he lay upon the ground. The mosquitoes quickly covered him and bit him so severely, that he lost all feeling. In this condition, he dreamed that a mosquito came to him saying, 'because you have been generous and have allowed us to drink our fill from your body, we give you the Mosquito society and dance, and we make you its chief.' The Mosquito society wore bracelets of eagle-claws, and also buffalo robes, with the hair-side out. They painted themselves, and tied a plume in their back hair. When they danced, they sat in a circle, with the drummers in the centre. They jumped up, waving their robes like wings, dancing in a stooping posture, hovering close together and pushing each other, imitating the movements of mosquitoes. Whenever they were making ready to light, or sit down, they made a singing noise, like a mosquito. They danced four times. After the fourth dance, they scattered throughout the camp, some going on foot, others on horseback. Anyone whom they met, whether a chief, or Medicine Pipe man, they attacked and scratched with their eagle-claws. They were always specially delighted to catch a man without clothes. If anyone resisted, or ran away, the Mosquitoes followed, even into the lodges, just as real mosquitoes do, and scratched them hard. But, if a man bared himself and offered himself freely, they did not wound him, but passed on. If they caught a woman on the way to the river for water, and she held forth her hand saying, 'It is yours, fill yourselves up,' they did not hurt her, because, if
you let a mosquito alone, until he fills up, the sting does not pain. If the Mosquitoes came to a lodge and decided to enter, one of their members, who had at some time entered the lodge of an enemy, opened the door, saying, 'I come in, because I was brave and once entered the lodge of an enemy.' If the women, and even the children, endeavoured to hide under the robes, or behind the lodge lining, he scratched them with his eagle-claws. If they resisted, the entire society followed, and all scratched them, until they yielded."
"This society was originated in recent years among the South Piegans. When an expedition of our people went to visit them, they brought it back and started the dance over here. The Bloods afterwards borrowed it from us. There is a high hill, just north of here, where the society once went to feast and prepare for their dance. It was then named Dove Hill. The society originated in the dream of an old man named Change Camp. When the doves gave him the dance, they said to him: 'Gather together a band of people of all sizes, both young men and boys, that have no power in the tribe. If they band together, they will become strong and every one else will fear them.' They carried bows and arrows made of sarvis berry wood. Their quivers were made of the yellow skins of buffalo calves. They stripped and painted their bodies for their dance. The doves did many mean and cowardly acts and had no regard for anyone. They molested no one who obeyed their orders. If a prominent chief did not do as they said, they continually annoyed him. They played many mean tricks. In
those days we did not have buckets, but used buffalo paunches for water bags. Sometimes the Doves lay in ambush, and, when they saw a woman returning from the river with her water bags filled, they shot their arrows into them and let the water run out. If she became angry, or if they could not pierce the skin, they sometimes destroyed the bags. If a woman was starting off to pick berries, and they ordered her not to go, and she disobeyed, they awaited her return and spilled her berries, or they took long willow sticks and beat the berries from the bushes where she was picking. They always took one woman into their society, who liked to dig roots and to pick berries, so that they could have an abundance for their feasts. She always followed them through the camp, carrying a bow and arrow just as they did, calling out, 'the Doves are now out. It will be better for everyone to stay inside.' All feared them. The head chief, and even the powerful societies, overlooked their mean actions and excused them, saying: 'the Doves are young and foolish and will go to any extreme to have their own way. It is dangerous to oppose them.'''
"The Muto-ka-iks is composed entirely of women. Their dances are continued even to this day among the Bloods. A large lodge is erected, having a centre pole, to which is tied the sacred 'root digger,' as a cross piece. The women assemble clothed in the costumes of their society. They wear robes and headdresses of soft tanned buckskin. There are four leaders, called 'Snake Medicine Hats,' with bonnets of eagle feathers. One of these, 'Lodge-Pole' by
name, is chief. Four more, wearing bonnets of hawk feathers, are called 'Hawk Medicine Hats.' Two others, called 'Old Bulls,' wear head-dresses with red plumes fastened to the horns. Old women and young children come before them and are painted on their foreheads with a red cross, symbolical of the 'centre pole' and the 'root digger.' A young boy, son of a prominent chief, is chosen to take part in the ceremonies. He is elaborately dressed and rides a horse to the lodge of the society, followed by his father and mother bearing presents in return for the honour conferred upon their son. When the dancers come forth from their main lodge, they walk slowly to a lake, or stream, like a herd of buffalo going to water. They lie down upon the shore and wait for the two bulls which follow slowly. When they too lie down, the boy rides to windward with a lighted buffalo chip, allowing the smoke to blow towards the dancers. They rise slowly to their feet. After sniffing at the wind and tossing their heads, in imitation of buffaloes, they start towards their lodge. The boy on horseback follows, imitating the call formerly used by Indians in driving buffalo. When the women reach the lodge, they run about the centre pole, until they fall exhausted. The old bulls do not join in the stampede, but walk slowly and deliberately, with heavy tread and bellowing, sometimes lowering their heads and running at each other like bulls fighting. Finally, they too enter the lodge and join those about the pole. The actions of the dancers, after smelling the smoke, are in imitation of buffalo driven by Indians to a piskun. When they enter the lodge, they are supposed to be driven over a cliff. When they run around the pole, their
motions are in imitation of buffalo wounded by their fall, and caught in the corral at the bottom of the cliff."
"This society is sometimes also called Crazy Dogs. Two prominent Gros Ventre chiefs, Big Road and
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MAD DOG SOCIETY WAITING FOR EXPECTED FEAST.
Wolf-skin-around-his-neck, who killed enemies in battle, by riding over them with their horses, were the founders. The society of Mad Dogs was secured from the Gros Ventres by the Blackfeet, through O-mis-tai-po-kah. One of the most influential of the Gros Ventre societies had refused to accept Wolf-skin-around-his-neck as a member, and he was so angry with them that, in retaliation, he disclosed the secrets and
mysteries of the Mad Dog society, of which he was one of the founders, to O-mis-tai-po-kah, head chief of the Blackfeet. Many members of the Mad Dog society are living to-day, and they still give their dances in our big camps. They dress and prepare for their ceremonial together, in a large lodge. Before beginning to dance, they notify the camp of their readiness, by first marching around and singing their society song. There
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MAD DOGS MARCHING THROUGH CAMP.
are two head men, or leaders on horseback, who are said to be braver than the other members, and represent the two Gros Ventre chiefs, founders of the society, The two leaders must see that the big dance lodge is erected, and their wives must cook food for the society feast. While marching through camp, the Mad Dogs stop beside the lodges of chiefs, who are under obligations to them for favours, and dance until they are given a feast, or suitable reward. If there should be
no response, the society seat themselves in a circle and wait, attracting the attention of the entire camp, by drumming and by singing their songs. The mounted leaders move slowly along the line, riding in opposite directions, and making the others rise when it is time to begin the dance. The Mad Dogs formerly had great power, because they were composed of chiefs who had earned a reputation for bravery and everyone feared to act in opposition to them."