Tuesday, 22 April 2014
Friends and Foes of the Dakotas
Know Your Indians
Department of Special Features
By A. Hyatt Verrill
Double Action Western January 1954, Vol. 21, No. 3. Digitized April, 2014 by Doug Frizzle.
STRANGELY enough, the staunchest allies of the
(Sioux) were not of the same racial stock, and were not even distantly related.
The Cheyennes, Blackfeet and Arapahoes were all
Algonquins, closely related to the tribes of our Eastern and ,
and were originally sedentary, agricultural tribes with permanent villages of
well-built houses. Like the Middle States Cheyennes,
the Blackfeet and Arapahoes trekked westward and, abandoning their previous
mode of living, took to hunting the buffalo and leading a semi-nomadic life.
Although they spoke languages entirely different from that of the Dakotas, yet through long association the various dialects became merged until all could converse readily, the Sioux adopting many of their friend’s words and they, in turn, using innumerable Siouian terms. And when at a loss, they had the sign-language to fall back upon. Many persons are under the impression that the sign-language of the plains tribes consisted of a few gestures and was very limited in expressing ideas. As a matter of fact, persons familiar with the sign-language could converse as freely, and almost as rapidly, by its means as by word of mouth. Basically, it is quite simple; but as there is a gesture or motion of the hands for every possible action, name, place and idea, and as many of these do not at first appear to have any connection with their meaning, it developed into a very complex series of rapid motions; and when any new word or idea was required, a new gesture was invented to express it.
Near neighbors of the
Dakotas were the Blackfeet who, like
the Sioux, were a confederation of three bands or subtribes: the Siksitas,
Bloods and Piegans. For a time after their arrival in the Dakotas’
area the two groups were at war. but later became fast friends and allies.
Although they depended mainly upon the buffalo for a livelihood, became thoroughly “horse Indians” and dwelt in the plains-type skin tipis, yet—unlike the true plains nomads—they often maintained large villages for long periods, and cultivated some crops in the river bottoms. Physically and mentally, as well as in their character, the Blackfeet were (and are) a very fine people, good-natured, inclined to be peaceful and friendly, fond of jokes and laughter and gaiety, and enjoying the white men’s dances as much as their own. And they were famous for the beauty of their women.
A great many white men married Blackfeet girls and became adopted members of the tribe; and all who have lived among them, speak most highly of them. The author-naturalist, George Bird Grinnel, lived for a long time with the Blackfeet, and wrote a most interesting account of his experiences, “My Life With The Blackfeet”. They were the favorite tribe of the later Charles Russell, the famous painter of Indians, who lived so long with the tribe that he actually came to look like an Indian. And James Schultz, who married a Blackfoot girl and lived for thirty years with the tribe, wrote an excellent book, “My Life As An Indian”, in which he tells of his experiences with the people he admired and loved.
Although, like all of the plains Indians, the Blackfeet used the typical feather bonnet, they also had many other forms of headdresses, some of which were most elaborate affairs. Their “full dress” costumes consisted of loose tunics, leggins, and moccasins of buckskin and the inevitable breech-cloth. Famed for the excellent quality of their buckskin, their garments were often completely covered with beautiful bead and quill work, the designs consisting usually of the typical geometrical patterns of the Sioux, combined with floral figures such as their ancestors in the Middle West used—although quite often these were omitted.
Essentially sun-worshippers—or, in other words, regarding the sun as the visual manifestation of the one great God—the most sacred of all objects was a white (albino) buffalo.
The man who killed one of these rare animals was supposed to be under the protection of the Sun God and, together with his band, was greatly honored. The hide, carefully dressed and tanned, was dedicated to the Sun God and was given to the Shaman or Medicine Man who, after the prescribed ceremonies, suspended the hide on a pole erected over the “medicine shrine” where it remained until it fell to pieces. As a special favor, the man who killed the sacred beast was permitted to use some of the scraps and trimmings for his “medicine bundle”. Even enemy Indians who might pass near would never have dreamed of molesting the shrine and the sacred hide, for fear of bringing down the vengeance of the Sun-God.
Like the Sioux, the
and the Arapahoes, the Blackfeet were hereditary' foes of the Crows and were
almost constantly at war with them. Just why these tribes should have so
greatly hated the Crows is a puzzle. According to the other Indians, the Crows
were thieves, liars, trouble-makers, and altogether worthless, and many of the
white traders and frontiersmen declared that the Crows did not possess a single
redeeming feature. Whatever the truth may be, and whatever faults were theirs,
lack of courage was not one of them. Time and time again they fought their
enemies to a finish and came out the victors. The greatest wonder is that, with
three of the largest, most powerful tribes pitted against them, the Crows were
not completely exterminated. Still, they managed to survive and hold their own.
As far as the whites were concerned, the Crows regarded them as inferiors and
seldom troubled them, considering them as beneath their notice. Today all the
old enmities are forgotten and Crows, Sioux, Blackfeet and the others
NOW THOROUGHLY civilized, most of the Blackfeet dwell in well-built houses and are well-to-do farmers and ranchers. But some of them almost always don their old tribal costumes and take part in Rodeos and similar events. Also, a number have their old-time tipis in our national parks, where, arrayed in all their finery, they prove an added attraction to tourists and gather in the latters’ shekels in exchange for curios, handiwork, and posing for photographs.
They were always inclined to be friendly toward the whites, and never caused any serious trouble except during our long disgraceful warfare with the
when a small number of the Blackfeet joined the Cheyennes for a time.
Also firm friends and allies of the Dakotas,
and Blackfeet, and friendly toward the whites, the Kiowas and Comanches, but
enemies of the Crows, the Utes, Pawnees and Shoshones, were the Arapaho. Among
themselves, they recognized five divisions or groups, each with a slightly-
different dialect, and probably representing five original tribes. Their common
name: Arapaho, is a corruption of the Pawnee “Larapihu” meaning “Traders”. They call themselves the “Inu-nya-ina” or “Our People” while to
the Sioux and Cheyennes
they are known as “The Blue Sky People”. They are now divided into two groups:
the Southern Arapahoes of the Arkansas River
valleys and the Northern Arapahoes of Wyoming.
Although they took to buffalo-hunting after wandering westward from their original home in the Red River Valley of Minnesota, and became seminomadic “horse Indians”, yet like the Blackfeet they often maintained large villages of tipis in one locality for considerable periods of time, and cultivated their gardens of food plants during the summer and autumn. Unlike most of the other plains-tribes they buried their dead in the earth instead of placing them in trees, or on raised platforms above the ground.
Always inclined to be peaceful, and friendly toward the whites, the Arapahoes never caused any serious trouble, although during the
Cheyenne war a few joined the latter with
whom they were closely affiliated. In their customs, religion, home life,
weapons and costumes they differed little from their Cheyenne, Blackfeet and Sioux neighbors,
although they had a number of distinctive headdresses.
Among the other friends of the Dakotas were the
the Hiditsas and the Arikaras who, having been greatly decimated by warfare and
epidemics finally combined and later became merged with the Dakotas.
Of Siouian stock, the Hidatsas were known to the
Minitari or “They Crossed The Waters”
owing to their traditional crossing of the Mississippi
when they moved westward from their original homes in the vicinity of the Great Lakes. The Sioux knew them as tire Hewak-tok-tou or “Tipis in a row”, by
which name they were also known to the Arapahoes and Cheyennes. To the Crows they were the Amashi or “Earth lodge people”, owing to
their lodges of sods and earth used in winter. A peaceful tribe, friendly
toward the whites, they never caused any serious trouble.
QUITE DIFFERENT were the Arikaras, the name being a corruption of “Ariki” meaning a “horn”, owing to their custom of wearing the hair twisted into horn-like shape on each side of the head. Belonging to the Caddo group, the
Ankara language is almost identical with that
of the Pawnees, with whom they were at one time affiliated. Originally
inhabiting the Missouri Valley as far south as the present city of Omaha, they migrated northward, after an intertribal war
with the Pawnees, and settled in Sioux territory near the Cheyennes. Aside from one occasion, when for
a short time they were at conflict with the whites over the treatment accorded
them by some white traders, the Arikaras were always friends of the white men.
Today the few still living are prosperous ranchers and farmers and are scarcely
distinguishable from their white neighbors, although the majority—like my very
good friend, Walks His Horses, still retain their tribal regalia and costumes
for use at ceremonials, at Rodeos, and similar functions.
Mandans are, or rather were, a Siouian tribe that occupied
the upper . Prior to the
Lewis and Clark Expedition, the tribe dwelt in villages of log and earth lodges
that were partly underground, the whole village being enclosed in a stockade of
logs. They were a peaceful, sedentary, agricultural tribe, and have always
remained friendly with the whites. Almost exterminated by smallpox introduced
by the white men, the tribe was reduced from several thousand to less than one
hundred. For self protection, the survivors joined the Hidatsas and Arikaras;
the three tribes became merged, and later were affiliated with the Sioux. It is
doubtful if there are any of the living members of the three tribes who are of
Valley Mandan, Ankara or Hidatsa blood, for they have
intermarried for many years. Even my very good friend, Walks His Horses, who
considers himself an Arikara, had grandparents of both Hidatsa and Sioux blood,
while my friend Red Bear, who calls himself a Mandan, had a Cree grandmother.
At the present time, most of these tribes are living in their original homeland
on the northeastern side of the Mississippi,
but others are in the Dakota territory. They
are very fine, progressive and proud people, inclined to jollity and
good-nature, fond of jokes and dancing, and although outwardly thoroughly
civilized, many still retain their old tribal costumes and carry out the old
tribal ceremonials and traditions. Many are prosperous farmers, while others,
like Joseph Walks His Horses, and Red Bear, maintain large horse and cattle
When the first white men (an expeditionary force of British troops) met the Mandans, and found them dwelling in stockaded villages in a type of house not previously seen— and as some of the Indians were partial albinos with light hair—the Englishmen jumped to the conclusion that the Mandans were the descendents of survivors of some “lost” European expedition. Also, a Welsh soldier of the party claimed that the
spoke Welsh and that he could converse with them. Although this was not
confirmed, the Mandans
were believed to be the descendents of a Welsh expedition led by Prince Madoc,
which was supposed to have reached the eastern coast of our continent in the
twelfth century, and heading inland, disappeared.
As a matter of fact there is no linguistic similarity between the Mandan and Welsh dialects, and it is almost beyond all reason to believe that a handful of Welshmen, unfamiliar with the country and unable to converse with the Indians, could have made their way for any considerable distance through the forests of the eastern area, even as far as the Mississippi. It would have been an incredible feat for even a few survivors to have penetrated to the far northwest.
Even had this almost superhuman feat been accomplished, all traces of European ancestry would have disappeared in the four centuries that had elapsed between the time that Madoc's party vanished and time when the Mandans were “discovered”. If, as the explorers assumed, there was any admixture of white blood among these Indians, it is far more reasonable to suppose it was that of the Vikings, who are believed to have penetrated as far west as Minnesota, Wisconsin and probably farther.
Among other friends of the Sioux, although at one time their enemies, were the Winnebagos. Of Siouian stock and by nature peaceful, agricultural Indians they had their villages and fields in
But, as usual, the white settlers cast covetous eyes upon the Winnebagos’ land
and, claiming the Indians were a potential menace, demanded that the Government
remove them to a reservation. Evicted from their homes they were deported to a
reservation in Dakota where lack of adequate food, ill treatment, and other
conditions were so unbearable that the Indians broke away and sought refuge
among their former enemies, the Sioux. At the present time about 7,000 of the
tribe are on reservations and allotted lands in Nebraska. There are about 2,000 in Wisconsin in addition to
others in various localities.
ALTHOUGH they had many friends and allies, the
Dakotas had fully
as many—if not more—enemies. And just as some of their firmest friends were
tribes of alien stock, so, among their most implacable foes, there were Indians
of Siouian stock. Among these were the Osage, the largest and most important of
the southern Sioux group who were almost constantly at war with other tribes,
but were friendly toward the whites. In 1808 they ceded all of their lands to
the Government, the territory including almost all of what are now Missouri and Arkansas,
retaining only a portion of northern Oklahoma.
It was not until 1870, however, that the present boundaries of the Osage
territory were definitely established. In 1906 this consisted of 1,470,058
acres in Oklahoma.
Unwittingly, the Osages made a very good bargain with Uncle Sam, for rich oil
fields were discovered on their lands and today they are the richest tribe in
the United States.
For that matter they are probably the wealthiest persons, per capita, of any
people in the world. An Army officer, who, during World War I, was in command
of a company of Osage, boasted it was the richest group of soldiers in the
allied armies, for every member was a millionaire.
A fine race physically, tall, muscular and perfectly proportioned, many of the men were several inches over six feet in height. Naturally of a peace- loving nature, and good tempered, yet when necessity arose the Osage were as valiant, courageous, and savage fighters as any of the Siouian tribes.
In their costumes, weapons, and life they differed little from their relatives—although maintaining more or less permanent villages for considerable periods of time and, like the Blackfeet and Arapahoes, cultivating some crops.
Totally unlike the Osage, and often at war with them—although they forgot enmities and joined forces against the northern Sioux and the Comanches—were the Skidi or Pawnees. Although inclined to be friendly toward the whites, and rarely causing trouble, they were implacable foes of most of the neighboring tribes. Of Caddoan stock, they dwelt in permanent or semipermanent villages and carried on a certain amount of agriculture—although also hunting the buffalo—and were fully the equal of other plains tribes when it came to horsemanship and fighting. Many of them were employed as Army scouts by our Government, and were always considered the best and most reliable of all Indian scouts. However, they were most widely famed as notorious horsethieves. Many of their raids were for the sole purpose of stealing horses, and they seem to have had an almost uncanny ability in this direction.
To the Pawnees, horse-stealing was more of a game than an act of hostility, and they carried their raids as far north as the Dakotas, as far west as the
Rockies, and as far south as the Mexican border. Over and
over again they would make away with other Indians’ horses, regardless of the
keen-eyed guards; and on one occasion they even stole the entire herd of horses
and mules of an Army post under the very eyes of the sentries. Later they
returned the animals, telling the commandant that they had made off with the
herd just to prove how inadequately it was protected. “If we were hostile,”
said the Pawnee spokesman, “we could destroy the settlement and post, and you
wouldn’t be able to chase us.”
Practically all Indians consider dogs’ flesh excellent eating (as it really is) but the Pawnees were especially fond of dog, and their dog feasts are time-honored and most important institutions, and are almost rituals.
A very intelligent and mentally-adaptable race, they were quick to adopt any innovation that would benefit them, and were seldom at a loss when it came to facing something new or strange. Mr. S. G. Goodrich, who in 1844 wrote a book telling of his experiences among the Indians, described a Fourth of July feast, given by the officers of
, at which a
number of Pawnee chiefs were invited guests. Fort
“We had spent an hour or two in festivities,” he wrote, “when one hundred and fifty Pawnees arrived under the guidance of Mr. Dougherty, the Indian Agent. Upon invitation of the officers, fourteen of their chiefs came into the mess room. I already had seen many Indians but none so wild and unsophisticated as these. They entered the room with ease and dignity, however, shook hands all around and sat down comfortably to cigars and champagne. I was astonished at the tact and self-possession of these Indians, who had never been in a settlement of white men before, nor had ever seen a table, chair, fork or tableware in their lives; yet without asking questions or appearing to observe what was passing, they caught the idea with intuitive readiness, and during the whole dinner were not guilty of a single absurdity of breach of decorum.”
In the old days the Pawnees practised cannibalism as a religious ceremony, and it was their custom to put women prisoners to death and devour their flesh—a practice that was brought to an end in a most romantic and unusual manner. A captive Comanche girl had been bound to the stake in preparation for torture and death while the Pawnees gathered in a circle to witness the ceremony. Then, just at the last minute, a young warrior dashed forward, slashed through the girl’s bonds, and seizing her in his arms ran with her to two ponies he had tethered nearby. Swinging the girl onto one horse, he mounted the other, and before the amazed Indians could recover from their astonishment the two galloped at full speed toward the Comaches’ camp. After three days’ travel the Pawnee brave pointed out the way to the girl’s home, provided her with enough food to last her for three days and returned to his village. To his surprise nothing was said or done regarding his courageous act, for the Pawnees had decided that it was done by the guidance of the Great Spirit, who had been displeased at the sacrifice; the ceremony never again was repeated.
ALLIED with the Pawnees and closely related were the Caddos together with the
Omahas and the Poncas,
the two latter of Siouian stock, who were all bitter foes of the northern Sioux
bands. Like their cousins, the Pawnees, the Caddos were a confederation of
related tribes whose original home was the lower Red
River Valley in Louisiana, but who later
spread north and west. They were peaceful, agricultural people with fixed
villages, friendly toward the whites and aided the latter in their warfare with
During our Civil War, they stood by the
Union. Most of
the whites in the area were Confederates, and hated the Caddos for their
loyalty to the Government, and a number of them plotted a wholesale massacre of
the tribe. Word of the impending slaughter reached the Government officials,
however, and, with a great deal of difficulty, the tribe was safely transferred
where some 2,000 or more members of the tribe remain, while others are
scattered elsewhere. They are mainly farmers and are a quiet industrious and
prosperous lot. Although the Poncas are mainly famed for their Sun Dance, with
its self-inflicted tortures, yet this dance was common to a number of tribes,
including the Cheyennes
and Sioux, and is still celebrated, although the voluntary tortures of the
participants have largely been done away with. At one time both the Poncas and Omahas were almost completely exterminated by the northern
Sioux, but after becoming allied with the Pawnees they managed to hold their
own; today there are over 2,500 Omahas in Nebraska, with about 1,000 Poncas in Oklahoma
and a few hundred in Nebraska.
No account of the Indians of the far west would be complete without some mention of the Kickapoos, whose common name was made famous by the wide-spread publicity given the so-called “Kickapoo Indian Remedies" and the innumerable “Indian shows” held throughout the east—although, as a matter of fact, few of the Indians who took part in these were Kickapoos. The name is a corruption or adaptation of Kiwi-gapaw-ah meaning “He moves about, standing now here, now there,” which is a very appropriate name for the tribe that has “stood now here now there” over a very wide area. Of Algonquin stock, the Kickapoos are related to the Sauk and Fox,
Miamis, Shawnees and
Menonimes; as early as 1667-70 they were reported by Allouez as being in what
is now Columbia County, Wisconsin,
while other early explorers mentioned them as inhabiting parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Then, in 1765, the majority moved to Illinois
and from there spread south and west, abandoning their former sedentary and
agricultural mode of life, and became true “horse Indian” nomads.
Although they aided Tecumseh in his campaign against the
United States, and fought as allies
of Black Hawk in 1832, yet in 1837 about 100 Kickapoo warriors were employed by
our Government to fight the Florida Seminoles. As early as 1809 the Kickapoos
had ceded their lands on the Wabash and the Vermilion
Rivers to the United States, and in 1819 they made over all
their lands in Illinois.
They then “moved about” into Kansas and Missouri and in 1852, together with a number of the
Pottawottomis, they migrated to Texas and
thence into Mexico
where they became inveterate raiders and a terror to the inhabitants. However,
in 1873, apparently still intent on living up to their name, a large number
returned to the United States and settled down to a peaceful existence in
The remainder of the tribe, amounting to about one half of their numbers, remained in Mexico, and having concluded a peace-treaty with the Mexican Government, settled on territory granted them in the Santa Rosa Mountains of eastern Sonora. At the present time there are approximately 500 Kickapoos in
between five and six hundred in Kansas,
with the remainder “Standing now here, now there.”
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.