Boots and Saddles/Chapter 13

CHAPTER XIII.

A "STRONG HEART" DANCE!

The Indian scouts employed by our government and living at our post belonged to a tribe called the Arickarees. This tribe was small, and though not strong enough in numbers to attack the more powerful Sioux, there was implacable enmity between them, and a constant desire for revenge. During the preceding summer a band of Sioux came to Fort Lincoln, and drew the scouts belonging to the infantry garrison out of their quarters by some cunningly devised pretext. No sooner did they appear than they were fired upon by the Sioux. They fought all day, and finally the Rees succeeded in driving their enemies away. All this took place right at the post, where the firing could be seen from the windows. It was not known how many Sioux were killed, for all tribes make extraordinary exertions to carry their dead from the field. Four only were left. After some months the Sioux, for some reason best known to themselves, sent word that they were coming for a treaty. The Rees prepared to receive them with what they termed a "Strong Heart" dance. A message inviting the garrison was sent by them, through the interpreter, and we hailed with relief the variety in our existence this spectacle would afford. Indian life was still a novelty to us, for we had not been with any peaceable tribe before coming into Dakota. We stowed ourselves away in long sleighs which took us to the quarters of the scouts. Their buildings were of logs, and were long and low in construction. Around the walls on the inside were bunks on which were marks showing the quarters assigned to each family. When the outer door closed upon us we could scarcely breathe; the atmosphere was stifling, and loaded with the odor of smoked meat, tanned skins, and killikinick tobacco. The place was lighted by burning logs in a large fireplace, and the deep shadows threw into high-relief the figures that came into the glare of the fire, and produced effects from which Doré might have found material for a most powerful work.

Before the ceremonies began, we women went round the place to see the papooses in their mothers' arms, as they sat in the bunks or on the earthen floor. Each mother held her baby up for our inspection, with as much pride as if there had never been a little one on earth before. The squaws were not permitted to come near the charmed circle in front of the fire, where the mimic orchestra beat their drums; they were allowed to sing at a distance, and joined in the low monotone of the musicians. At regular intervals, as if keeping time, they jerked out a nasal twanging note which was emphasized by the coarse voices of the warriors. The dancers were naked, except for the customary covering over their loins. They had attached to their belts beads and metal ornaments. Some had so fastened to their girdles the feathers from the tail of the wild turkey, that they stood up straight as the savages bent over in the evolutions of the dance. One leg and arm would be painted bright vermilion or blue, and the other a vivid green, with cabalistic characters drawn on them in black. The faces were hideous, being painted in all colors. A few had necklaces of bears' claws, on which they set great value. These hung over the bronze shoulders, the claws pointing into the brown skin of their chests. One, evidently poorer than the rest, had a rudely cut shirt made out of an old ham-bag, on which the trade-mark and name of the manufacturing firm figured conspicuously as his sole decoration. Another, equally poor, wore only the covering over his hips, while suspended by a cord from his neck was a huge tin toy horse. From the scalp-lock of some there was a strip of cloth falling to the ground, on which silver disks made of coins were fastened at close intervals.

In the plait of hair falling to their waists we saw sticks crossed and running through the braid. The interpreter explained that these represented "coups." Our attention was arrested at once by a little four-year-old boy, who, from time to time during the evening, was brought to the circle by his mother, and left to make his little whirling gyrations around the ring of the dancers. It was explained to us that he had won his right to join in the festivities of the tribe when the fight took place the summer before, to settle which this treaty was planned. Of the four Sioux left on the battle-field that day, one, though mortally wounded, was not yet dead when the retreat took place. A Ree squaw, knowing that it would count her child "a coup" if he put another wound in the already dying man, sent him out and incited the child to plunge a knife into the wounded warrior. As a reward he was given the privilege of joining in all celebrations, and the right to wear an eagle feather standing straight from the scalp-lock of his tiny head. We saw the mother's eyes gleam with pride as she watched this miniature warrior admitted among the mature and experienced braves. All the dancers rotated around together for a time, their bodies always bent, and they howled as they moved. In the shadowy gloom, only momentarily made brilliant by the flashes of light from the fire, these grotesque, crouching figures were wild enough for gnomes. Only occasionally, where there was a large mixture of white blood, did we see a well-developed figure. The legs and arms of Indians are almost invariably thin. None of them ever do any manual labor to produce muscle, and their bones are decidedly conspicuous.

We were surprised to observe that though dancing in so small a space, and weaving in and out in countless figures, without an apparent effort to avoid collisions, they never interfered or caught their brandished weapons in the ornaments of one another's toggery. When a warrior wished to speak, he made some sign to the others. They then sat down around him, and the music ceased. He began with a recital of his achievements—Indians never fail to recapitulate these as a preface to each speech. Sometimes the speaker's career was illustrated, and a cotton sheet was unfolded on which were painted a number of primitive figures. He gradually grew more and more earnest; his dull eyes glared as he pointed to the scalps he had taken, which were even then dangling from his belt. Finally the warrior began to give presents, and to receive them in return, as is the custom on those occasions. If he gave a pony, he declared it by throwing down a stick on which were cut notches that signified the gift to the recipient.

After several had told their "coups," for so they designate their deeds of prowess, one bounded with great energy into the circle. He narrated with spirit how he had revenged the death of two of their band by killing the murderer at the last fight at the post. Before any one realized it, an old squaw pushed her way violently into the open space, threw down a roll of calico at his feet, and flung off her leggings and blanket as presents in her gratitude, for it was of her husband and son that he spoke. As she was about to complete the gift by removing her last garment, the interpreter, in consideration for us, hurried her out to her bunk in the darkness, and we saw her no more. Last of all an old Sioux, wrapped in a black mourning blanket, tottered into the circle, and silence settled down on all. He spoke of his son who had been in the fight, and had fallen bravely, but said that before he was killed he had made many Rees "bite the dust," as he then figuratively expressed it. Excited by the story of the courage of his offspring, he tottered back to his place, but his pride soon succumbed to his greater sorrow; he buried his head in his blanket when he sank down to his seat. Hardly had he ceased, before a young Ree leaped into the midst of the warriors, threw off his blanket, and with flashing eye plunged into a hurried enumeration of his achievements, to prove his courage in days past. Then, striding up to the bereaved father, he said in exultant, imperious tones, "Boast no longer of the successes of your dead, I who stand here am he who killed him!" The father did not even raise his eyes. The Ree called out to the listening warriors, "Will he not fight me? I stand ready." The old warrior remained unmoved, even under the insolent words of the aggressor. Many years of an eventful life had made him too well versed in, and too subservient to the laws of Indian warfare, not to know that a "Strong Heart" dance bound all in inviolable honor not to break the temporary peace; but he knew that once meeting each other on the open plain there were no restrictions.

When we left the unearthly music, the gloom, and the barbaric sights, and breathed pure air again, it seemed as if we had escaped from pandemonium.

One morning soon after that we heard singing, and found that the squaws were surging down from their quarters nearly a mile distant. We had not received a hint of the honor to be conferred, and were mystified when they all halted in front of our house. They had come to give us a dance. It was an unusual occurrence, for the women rarely take part in any but the most menial services. They were headed by Mrs. Long Back, the wife of the chief of the scouts. She was distinguished as the leader by a tall dress-hat that had been the property of some society man when he wore civilian dress in the States. They began going around after each other in a jogging, lumbering sort of movement, and singing a humdrum song in a minor key. Much of the finery we had seen at the genuine war-dance was borrowed from the warriors for this occasion. It was festooned over the figures of the women already well covered with blankets, and the weight was not calculated to add materially to their grace. The ranking lady had a sabre which her chief had received as a present, and this she waved over the others in command. One woman carried her six-weeks'-old papoose on her back, and its little, lolling head rolled from side to side as the mother trotted round and round after the others.

During the dance one of the officers' colored servants rushed out, and in his excitement almost ran his head into the charmed precincts. An infuriated squaw, to whom all this mummery was the gravest and most momentous of concerns, flew at him, brandishing a tomahawk over his head. He had no need to cry, "O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt!" for his manner of vanishing was little short of actual evaporation into air. Neither his master nor any one else saw him for twenty-four hours afterwards.

When the women stopped their circumvolutions for want of breath, we appeared on the porch and made signs of thanks. They received them with placid self-satisfaction, but the more substantial recognition of the general's thanks, in the shape of a beef, they acknowledged more warmly.