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Champion of the Sioux
By Stanley Vestal
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 1957 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
The Boy Volunteer
SITTING BULL came of a family of fighters. He was the only son of his parents, and since the Sioux believe that a son is the greatest and best gift of all, Sitting Bull was doubly welcome at his birth. He was born on the south bank of Ree River, now called Grand River, at a place named Many-Caches because of the many old storage pits there, a few miles below the present town of Bullhead, South Dakota. This happened during the Winter-when-Yellow-Eyes-Played-in-the-Snow, March, 1831.
At that time, however, no one could foresee his later fame and power, and he began life with no better title than the nickname "Slow." Apparently, he deserved it, for they say that, even as an infant, he was deliberate. When a bit of food or any other object was put into his baby hand, he did not immediately stick it into his mouth, like other children, but held it in his hand, turning it over and looking at it, until he had made up his mind. Once he accepted it, however, he never let go.
This deliberation, and a certain awkwardness with which he moved his sturdy body, earned him the nickname by which his world knew him for fourteen years.
That world was one in which Achilles or Odysseus would have felt at home. In those days the Sioux warrior had a dignified self-reliance which some of his unlucky descendants seem to have lost. "They are all gentlemen," wrote the Jesuit Father, and so they were. Gentlemen of the Epic, not the Romantic, mould. Aristocrats without the modern aristocrats' softness. Unafraid as a peasant of the hard labor of their hunter's life, yet without the peasant's subservience. Their camps contained no sordid vassals. And their chiefs were neither idle nor ostentatious, but shared the work and dangers of their people, and maintained their rank by sheer personal superiority.
"Slow" was a strong, lively lad, and found this world greatly to his liking. What wonder? Was not the Sioux or Dakota nation the greatest in the world, so far as he knew? Were not the Tetons, or Prairie Sioux, the most numerous and powerful division of that great nation?
Were not the Hunkpapa, his own tribe, the bravest and most warlike of all the Tetons? Their warriors were victorious on every frontier; their hunting grounds were in the very heart of the buffalo plains and teemed with every kind of game; their camps were full of fast horses; their territory contained every sort of country—timber, prairie, and river bottom, badlands, and mountaintops. So vast it was that his people were constantly on the move, traveling in their easygoing fashion from river to river and range to range, following their buffalo, and patrolling that rich domain to keep out the enemies who hovered on their frontiers, where—as yet—no shadow of the white invader had fallen.
While "Slow" was still strapped to his baby-board, he rode slung from the horn of his mother's rawhide saddle, peering out from under the decorated hood at the ever changing panorama of the ample plains. When somewhat older, he surveyed the world from the snug folds of a shaggy buffalo robe upon his mother's shoulders. Later, she put him in a basket slung between two lodgepoles crossed above her pony's withers, and there he sat, jouncing along under the horse's tail, watching the grass slide by beneath him, holding fast with small brown hands when the going was rough, or closing his eyes tight against the splashing water when the old nag forded a stream. By the time he was five, he was riding behind his mother, chubby legs outspread, clinging to her belt. Before he was ten, he rode a pony of his own, shaping his plastic legs to the curve of the animal's barrel-a curve which would make him slightly bowlegged as long as he lived.
With the possession of that pony, "Slow" entered upon the carefree, active, interesting life of the Indian boy, upon whom no restraints were laid other than the duty of rising early, hunting small game with bow and arrows, and perhaps herding the family stock through long, lazy days on the prairie. A life all games and sports: foot races, pony races, follow-my-leader up and down the bluffs, swimming all day long in the river, or wrestling with the Cheyenne neighbor boys in the intimate Cheyenne manner. And when boyish sports palled, hanging about to watch the endlessly changing activities of their elders, whom they mimicked in private. "Slow" liked it all.
How agreeable that constant traveling! The gray mornings when he rounded up the family ponies, while his mother furled the white tent, lashed the tent poles to the saddle of her pack horse, and rode away atop a mountain of baggage, leaving behind only a feeble column of smoke rising from between the flattened rectangles of grass where the beds had been. How jolly to ride with his boy companions on the edges of that great crawling ruck of equipage, watching the snarling, wolflike dogs trotting under their packs, their long red tongues lolling across their white fangs; watching the plodding pack-mules, the loose horses, the stray colts plunging about, the scolding of exasperated women. How amusing the loud, impatient harangues of old men, the shouted, broad jests of heralds, the singing—the endless singing—of warriors parading on the flanks in all the glory of eagle plumes, paint, fine horses, and lances tossing athwart the sky. And there was always the chance of flushing game along the line of march, the pursuits, the pony-races, the boyish brags, the feats of horsemanship before the eyes of the girls.
And when the final halt was made, and the great circle of conical tipis mushroomed on the plain, each tent in its appointed order, band by band and family by family, how good the smell of wood-smoke and meat cooking, how savory the steaming soup in the kettle, the big wooden bowls of crisp white tipsin! How filling the brown pemmican larded with buffalo tallow, how tart and spicy the wild choke-cherries! And when the warriors had made a hunt, how satisfying to spend the night going over the huge stacks of fresh meat, searching out choice tidbits—of buffalo hump, or bear's ribs, or haunch of good fat venison!
And always, at night, when he had eaten all that a small pot-belly could hold, how jolly to sit by the brisk little fire in the family tent, and be put to sleep with innumerable myths of Iktomi, trickster and fool, with legends of animals which spoke to men, giving good advice, with hero tales of his people, of their far travels, their great bravery, and of the cowardly, sneaking enemies who skulked about their camps at night, and never dared show their faces in the daytime!
Then he would hear how the Sioux first met the Iroquois, long ago, and how the Iroquois haughtily demanded, "Who are you?"
"Sioux" came the answer. "And who are you?"
"Iroquois. Where are you going?"
"We are hunting for buffalo," the Sioux replied. "And you?"
"We are looking for men," had come the haughty answer.
"Well, we are men," said the Sioux. "You need look no farther."
Whereupon the fight began, and when it was over, the Sioux had killed or captured all those Iroquois. They slit the noses of their captives (the punishment inflicted upon unfaithful wives), and let them go. "Tell your chiefs," they said, "to send no more women looking for men!"
And when he heard that, the boy "Slow" would sway restlessly on his haunches, arms folded about his knees, and long for the day when he himself could share such brave adventures. He was proud of his nation.
"Slow's" mind was not obsessed by thoughts of sex or hunger. Among his people, women were plenty, celibacy unknown, and a marriage could be formed or dissolved at will. All material comforts were homemade, and the woman could provide them readily—if only her man was a passable hunter. No, it was not love of woman or lust for wealth that haunted the dreams of the Sioux. Their country supplied all their needs, and they took sex in their stride. Love of prestige was the fire which consumed their hearts, and upon this passion all their institutions were erected. To them prestige was all-important, and it was to be won on the warpath. "Slow" envied the warriors. Though born a male, he as yet rated no better than a woman.
Those mighty men rode away to die or conquer, and came home again in loud triumph, bringing new horses, bringing hair and captured weapons, bringing strange foreign women to be adopted into the tribe. How they sang and boasted of their exploits, how grandly they paraded around the camp circle, how they stamped and postured in the unbroken series of dances in the sociable camps! What privileges they enjoyed, what dignity, what perquisites! No feast, no dance, no ceremony was complete without a war-story narrated by its hero. What boy could fail to long for equal honor? Not "Slow." His heart was full of war....
It is better to lie naked than to rot on a scaffold.
That old proverb rang in his head, as he rode idly about the summer camp of his people, reining in his gray pony now and then to watch some man straightening arrows or repairing a saddle, to watch some woman—perhaps in tears—swiftly plying her bright awl as she made new moccasins, pair after pair, and stuffed them full of good fat pemmican for the war party which was about to start.
To "Slow," war was no remote matter of hearsay. He had been born and reared in the midst of it. When he was little, his mother had often dressed his baby feet in tiny moccasins before she went to sleep at night, because they might have to run out of the tent and hide if an enemy attacked. He had learned to fear the hoot of the owl, which might really be the signal of prowling foes—perhaps Crow Indians—who would cut a small boy to pieces if they caught him. Wounds, and tears, and wild rejoicings, war dances, victory dances, with all their lively pantomime of battle, ambush, and sudden death, were part of his daily life. Only a few moons before, his uncle, Four Horns, had been left for dead on the battlefield.
"Slow" knew that on the frontiers of his nation were the bones of many heroes, who lay as they had fallen, stripped for battle, fighting his enemies. And when the wind was right, the boy did not need to turn his eyes toward the near-by hills in order to sense the gaunt burial scaffolds, which carried the carcasses of men who had died ingloriously in their beds—of sickness, of old age. He had often heard old men shouting their complaints among the tents: how they suffered from toothache, sore bones, from cold, from neglect.
"Slow" himself was young and strong, with a deep chest and broad shoulders, though of no great height for his years. Four winters back he had killed his first buffalo calf, and already he was beginning to feel himself a man. He longed to prove it. Yes, it was true. It is better to lie naked on the field of honor than to rot on a burial scaffold....
Members of the war party were already mounted and jogging out of camp, leading their best horses, going quietly away by twos and threes, to meet at the appointed rendezvous and start off against the Crows or the Ho'he, looking for glory, scalps, and horses. For two days the camp had been humming with excitement over the departure of the warriors. Now the men were leaving.
There was no parade, no crowd out to see them off. The Teton Sioux reserved their cheers for successful fighters. Anyone could go to war. The question was, What would he do when he got there?
"Slow" watched the men ride away, deliberating. But not for long. His mind was made up. He decided to go too.
He did not inform his family of this intention. His mother, a strong-minded, serious woman, full of common sense, might raise objection, and "Slow" always listened to her. Then again, his two sisters might cry and beg him to stay at home, and remind him that he was just a boy, only fourteen years old. That would be unpleasant; and besides, it was very awkward, almost impossible, to refuse the request of a close relative. And of course it was not the part of a man to consult a woman about war! "Slow" turned his pony's nose away from the camp and followed the last of the warriors.
When "Slow" reached the rendezvous of the war party, he found twenty men assembled, and among them his own father. They stared in silence at this uninvited volunteer, at his barebacked gray pony, his boyish calfskin robe, his small quiver full of blunt-headed arrows, good only for shooting small birds! All at once the boy felt the silent disapproval of these men, felt that perhaps he might be unwelcome. He rode up to his father, who waited to hear his son explain himself. The pony seemed to be "Slow's" best, perhaps his only, friend just then. Slipping from its back and throwing one arm over its neck, he declared, "We are going too."
The father listened to that simple statement, and his heart was big with pride. The family had always taken care never to thwart the boy or break his spirit, and now it was too late to begin. It was no good attempting to budge "Slow," once he had made up his mind. His father did not try.
Four years back, the boy had killed his first buffalo. And more recently, when a prowling enemy was killed close by the tents, the boy had shown his courage. For when the men dragged the slain man into the circle of tipis, and egged on the boys to go up and touch that strange, bloody image of death, "Slow" had been the first to go. That day he showed more bravery than any boy in camp....
"You have a good running horse," said his father. "Try to do something brave. That man is most successful who is foremost. And in hunting or in war, that man is foremost who has the fastest horse."
"Slow's" father gave him a coup-stick—a long, peeled wand with a feather tied at the small end—a stick to be used in striking the enemy. The boy had brought no weapons, and perhaps his father thought him too young to use them to advantage. Perhaps he thought it braver to go into the fight without weapons, to strike the enemy with a harmless stick.
When the necessary ceremonies had been performed and the leader had given his orders, the young men set out. Good- Voiced-Elk was leader.
They started. Then it was riding, riding, riding, riding away to the north and west, toward the place where Red Water empties into Muddy Water, the Missouri River. There they hoped to encounter enemies.
Plains Indian warfare, as practiced in those days, was probably the finest sport ever known in this world. No man who loves horseflesh and the bright face of danger but must long to have shared its thrilling chances. It had all the dash and speed of polo, the informality of a fox hunt, the sporting chance of sudden wealth afforded by the modern horse race, and danger enough to satisfy the most reckless. And it was no game for weaklings, for the Plains Indian seldom gave, and never expected, quarter.
Yet its prime object was not bloodshed or manslaughter. The warrior, unless he was out for loot or revenge for recent injuries, or fighting in defense of his family, made war a grandstand play. He fought, not so much to damage his enemy as to distinguish himself. In very early times the Sioux warrior had fought at close quarters simply because he had no long-range weapons. Later, when he had obtained these, he still regarded hand-to-hand combat as the only manly form of battle. He still felt that a brave man would grapple with his foe. On this conviction he erected his elaborate system of military honors, citations, and insignia of rank. He still desired, above everything, to strike his enemy with his hand or with something held in his hand. And to accomplish this, he was often willing to take dreadful risks.
This touching or striking the enemy—alive or dead—was the goal of every warrior. It is known as the coup a term borrowed from the French frontiersmen. As a war honor, it ranked far above the mere killing of an enemy. Rescues, wounds, and captured horses or weapons also counted for honors: but the coup was the great prize. And so it was the object of every man to win as many coups as possible, for all social privileges and perquisites depended upon this achievement.
Excerpted from Sitting Bull by Stanley Vestal. Copyright © 1957 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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