To Speak for My People
My old grandfather, named Missouri River, taught me of the spirit guides... "Not all the spirits are good," he said. "Some seek to harm us. The good spirits send us buffaloes, and rain to make our corn grow. But it is not well to provoke the spirits. My little granddaughter should never laugh at them or speak of them lightly."
Among the Hidatsas of the Upper Missouri lived the extended family of Buffalo Bird Woman and her brother, Wolf Chief. They were grandchildren of an important Hidatsa elder, the keeper of a sacred medicine bundle -- two human skulls wrapped in a blanket, passed along for generations and used throughout Hidatsa history to invoke the help of spirits in war, hunting, and especially in bringing rain for their crops.
Buffalo Bird Woman's mother had taught her the special ceremonies for making an earth lodge -- a skill that earned her many buffalo robes from other families. But now the government insisted that her people live in square cabins. Building a house, she was told, was now a man's job -- and no longer sacred. To try to please her, her husband placed their stove in the center of the house, where an earth lodge fire would have been. But for Buffalo Bird Woman it was never the same.
I think our old way of raising corn is better than the new way taught us by white men. Last year, our agent held an agricultural fair... and we Indians competed for prizes for the best corn. The corn which I sent to the fair took the first prize... I cultivated the corn exactly as in the old times, with a hoe.
She spoke only her native language, and shunned the ways of white people. When her husband died in 1906, she mourned in the traditional way: she cut her hair short and wore it loose, and sliced off the tip of her little finger.
Sometimes at evening, I sit looking out on the big Missouri. The sun sets and dusk steals over the water. In the shadows I seem again to see our Indian village, with smoke curling up from the earth lodges. And in the river's roar I hear the yells of the warriors and the laughter of the children, as of old. It is but an old woman's dream. Again, I see but shadows and hear only the roar of the river. Tears come into my eyes. Our Indian life, I know, is gone forever.
My people often talk against me and laugh and say "That man wants to be a white man"... But I want to be strong and go forward.
Unlike his sister, who resisted any change, Wolf Chief was quick to adopt new ways, not just to survive, but to succeed. At age 30, he had decided to learn the white man's language.
When Indians come to a white man's store for bacon and think he cannot understand them, they make signs like a flat curled up nose for pig and go "unh-unh" -- grunting. But when I go to a store I say "bacon" and get it right away.
Soon, he opened his own store, but when the reservation agent's brother decided to get into the business, Wolf Chief was pressured to close it. Instead he wrote to Washington.
To the Commissioner of Indian Affairs
A federal inspector was dispatched. Eventually, the agent's brother had to close his store. Wolf Chief's stayed open. But he kept writing letters to Washington, more than a hundred before he was through.
Fort Berthhold, Dakota Territory
April 29th, 1891
Wolf Chief converted to Christianity, and donated ten acres of land for a chapel close to his cabin. But in an old earth lodge near his house was the sacred medicine bundle that had belonged to his grandfather. Missionaries and Indian agents had urged Wolf Chief to destroy it. He had refused, out of respect for his ancestors, but he also worried that neglecting the medicine bundle while he practiced Christianity would anger both his old gods and his new one. In 1907, he sold the relic to an anthropologist who placed it in a New York museum.
Wolf Chief kept writing letters to Washington for more than half a century. His last one described the drought that was turning the plains into a Dust Bowl. When Wolf Chief died, the Hidatsa petitioned the Museum of the American Indian for the return of the sacred medicine bundle. In 1938, the bundle was sent back to the tribe, one of the first sacred Indian objects ever returned to the people who revered them.
That summer, rain fell again on the plains.
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