The Old North Trail, by Walter McClintock, , at sacred-texts.com
Appalling inroads of death upon the Blackfeet chiefs.—Decline in the tribal spirit and religion.—Pathetic appeal of an old chief to the young men to "keep up their old religion."—A government agent's prohibition of the annual Sun-dance causes despondency and indignation.—I attend a council of the Chiefs.—Stock-stchi's speech in behalf of the Sun-dance.—Challenges me to name anything harmful in its observance.—My reply.—Changed conditions bring to an end the development of the noble line of unselfish and patriotic Blackfeet Chiefs.—The passing of the buffalo gave the death-blow to their tribal organisation and brought poverty, government relief, pauperisation and moral decline.—The government passes remedial legislation.—President Roosevelt and Indian Commissioner Leupp give new impetus to the progressive policy.—The medical and practical missionary both needed.—The Blackfeet a promising field for Christian Missions.
FOURTEEN years have passed since I first went among the Blackfeet. In the meantime death has made appalling inroads upon the ranks of their leading chiefs and medicine men, and but few of my friends are left. There have passed over the "Wolf Trail" O-mis-tai-pokah, the head chief; Mad Wolf, their greatest orator and leader of the Sun-dance; Running Crane, leader of the southern division; Sik-si-ka-koan, the scout; Double Runner; Elk Horn; Little Plume; Flat Tail; Drags-his-robe; Morning Plume and Running Rabbit; the doctors Ear Rings and Awunna; and the medicine men Spotted Eagle and Bull Child, and many others.
At the last Sun-dance of the Blackfeet, I could not suppress a feeling of sadness, because of the absence of
the familiar and inspiring figures of so many of their leaders and because of the visible indifference of the people towards the old chiefs, who were still living.
I found the once noted chief and medicine man, Brings-down-the-Sun, in a small poor lodge on the outskirts of the camp, unnoticed and seemingly unknown by the younger generation of the Blackfeet. He had come from his home in Alberta to attend their tribal festival, and to lead in the ceremonials of the Sun-lodge. I saw him standing in his customary position before the sacred booth, praying and waiting. But, instead of having the people come before him for his blessing, as in former days, they were thronging the horse races and social dances, and the young men were engaged in a base ball game by the side of the Sun-lodge.
I heard the sorrowful entreaty of an elderly chief, made to the younger men, exhorting them to keep up the religion of their fathers. He said:
"Young men, come forth and help us! You now have homes of your own and should do your share in keeping up the worship of the Sun. You no longer are helpers, but sit idly by and seem willing to abandon all of our old religious customs. While we live, we should keep up our religion. You now seem to care only for whisky, gambling, and horse racing."
I was present when the Blackfoot agent permitted the tribe to assemble in their annual summer encampment, but his arbitrary interference prevented the religious ceremonies of the Sun-dance. Much preparation had already been made to fulfil the vow made by a woman to give the Sun-dance to secure the recovery of her sick son. The subsequent death of the boy and the prevalence of sickness and mourning for deceased relatives, during the encampment, filled the people with gloom and despondency. They very naturally attributed
their misfortunes to their inability to fulfil the vow. At that time a council of chiefs, to which I was invited, was
held beside the unfinished Sun-lodge. While I was seated in their midst, Stock-stchi, an old friend of Mad Wolf's, arose and addressing me said:
"You have been among us for many years, and have attended many of our ceremonials. Have you ever seen a disturbance, or anything harmful, that has been caused by our Sun-dance?"
Then turning towards the council he continued very earnestly,
"We know that there is nothing injurious to our people in the Sun-dance. On the other hand, we have seen much that is bad at the dances of the white people. It has been our custom, during many years, to assemble once every summer for this festival, in honour of the Sun God. We fast and pray, that we may be able to lead good lives and to act more kindly towards each other. I do not understand why the white men desire to put an end to our religious ceremonials. What harm can they do to our people? If they deprive us of our religion, we will have nothing left, for we know of no other that can take its place. We do not understand the white man's religion. The Black Robes (Catholic Priests) teach us one thing and the Men-with-white-neckties (Protestant Missionaries) teach us another; so we are confused. We believe that the Sun God is all powerful, for every spring he makes the trees to bud and the grass to grow. We see these things with our own eyes, and, therefore, know that all life comes from him."
Then, turning again towards me, Stock-stchi said,
"If the Indians should go to a church, where the white men were holding their religious ceremonials, and would order them to stop, what would they do?"
[paragraph continues] The attention of the council was fixed upon me, and they waited in dignified silence for my reply. After considering for a moment, I said,
"The white men, where I live, know nothing about your religion. Many things have been told to them about you that are not true. I have come to live among you, that I might learn the truth from you, and then tell the truth to the white people. The hearts of many of the white men feel warm towards their red brothers, and when they know the truth about you, they may act more wisely."
With these words, I arose to depart and the council broke up.
These incidents in my recent experience indicate the drift of events and the changed conditions of the Blackfeet, which have brought to an end the development of such illustrious chiefs as O-mis-tai-po-kah, Mad Wolf, Brings-down-the-Sun and Running Crane. The growth of such strong and noble characters, out of the seemingly unfavourable moral soil of Sun Worship seems unaccountable. Their unselfish and patriotic lives, devoted to the welfare of their tribe, rise before me in strange and painful contrast with the selfish and sordid lives of many of the rich and powerful of my race. The latter's wealth and power, notwithstanding the advantages of education and Christianity, are not devoted to the amelioration, but tend rather to increase the suffering and degradation of their fellow men.
The constantly increasing migration of white settlers, like the rising tide of the sea, meant the inevitable extinction of the herds of buffalo, which had formerly sustained the Blackfeet, and the other plains-tribes, with food and shelter. The extermination, in 1883, of the last of these great herds, gave the final death-blow to their tribal organisation and suddenly cut off their food supply, necessitating governmental relief to prevent their perishing of starvation. Then followed the governmental policy of herding the Indian tribes on reservations, and supporting them on a ration-system, which included blankets, clothing and food supplies, conditioned upon their remaining upon their reservations and refraining from acts of violence. The gratuitous support of the government and an enforced life of idleness inevitably tended to pauperise and degrade them.
[paragraph continues] And, as if to doubly seal their fate, their contact with the white race was chiefly with its worst representatives, who had gathered along the frontier to seek their fortunes. These looked upon the Indian as only an obstacle to their personal advantage, a hindrance to the progress of civilisation and of necessity to be exterminated. No race, civilised, or uncivilised, could long withstand such adverse conditions. Moral decline was the swift and sure result. Then came the economic necessity of cutting down the Blackfeet Reservation limits, through selling their lands to the government by treaty, and the investment of the proceeds in cattle and supplies, with a view to making them self supporting. But, because of the inability of the Indians, from lack of experience, to adapt themselves to the new conditions, and because of the incompetency of government agents to properly handle their interests, their resources were wasted. Their cattle perished in large numbers, and their rich grazing lands, which had long been a coveted prize to the cattle-men, were depleted through over-grazing and the machinations of the cattle kings. Their condition and the similar condition of other Indian tribes simultaneously reached an acute stage. Dispossessed of their ancestral domains, their armed resistance overcome, their source of subsistence destroyed, they had become the helpless dependents of the American nation, requiring immediate action and the highest statesmanship and constructive philanthropy for their redemption.
The accession of Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency in 1905 and of Francis E. Leupp, as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, gave great impetus to the humane and progressive Indian policy of the government. This new policy, in general, seeks to dissolve the tribal organisation, to individualise the Indian, to make him a
self-supporting citizen, and to ultimately assimilate him with the white race. Under it the Indian receives full recognition of his rights and, at the same time, protection for his interests. Under it, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs cuts up the reservations, giving to all Indians a generous farm-allotment, and selling the remaining, or surplus Indian lands to the public for settlement. The proceeds of such sales are set aside as tribal funds, to be used for their general benefit by the government under a wise and provident trusteeship, which safeguards their interests.
In pursuance of this policy, the House of Representatives, in 1906, passed a bill to survey and open for settlement lands formerly included in the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, comprising about one and a half million acres. The disposal of these lands is now well under way. Irrigation systems are also being constructed at the expense of the tribal funds, which will give increased value to land heretofore unavailable for agriculture.
Under the passing of the old conditions and the coming in of the new policy, the younger generation of Blackfeet is already responding, and manifesting a capacity for improvement. They are becoming the owners of real estate, and are developing thrift and an ability to provide for the future. A visitor to-day, in the Blackfeet country, unless he should happen to come at a time when they have quit work and have assembled for a few days’ recreation in their tribal camp, would not know that he was among Indians. He would now see a marked advance towards civilised conditions, and a striking contrast between the older generation of Indians, who, because of their fixed habits of hereditary savagery, are incapable of work, or a
settled occupation, and their children, who are being educated and trained to work and to industrial pursuits. The industrious are rapidly becoming self-supporting. Some of them live in well-made and comfortable houses, and own ranches, with large herds of cattle and horses. They wear white men's clothes, purchased from the trading stores, own high priced wagons and buggies and make use of modern farming implements.
The mental and spiritual slavery of the Blackfeet, under their "Medicine" superstitions, and the unchecked ravages of tuberculosis and other diseases, which have come with the white men, offer a promising field of usefulness for the medical missionary. There is also a great opportunity for the practical missionary, who will not only teach the Blackfeet Christianity, but also by personal contact and personal example teach them how to live, in respect to hygiene, industry and thrift, how to become self-supporting and make the most out of their environment.
The whole question of lifting up the Indian is one of economical, educational, and moral difficulty to both state and church. They are together responsible for its solution, the work of each supplementing the other.
Christian missions among the Blackfeet have not yet made equal progress with the government. Nevertheless, the virility of the Blackfeet character, and the robustness of their physical manhood, under the old conditions of barbarism, give assurance of what should be forthcoming under Christianity, rightly applied. The Blackfeet stock is endowed with as favourable qualities for grafting upon it the fruits of our Christian Civilisation, as was the Anglo-Saxon before its conversion to Christianity.