Pick from the Past
Natural History, January-February 1926

The Ordeal of Getting Civilized

Troubles of an Indian treading the white man’s path

HE old Indian was wending his way upward to his cabin, but stopped halfway up the hill. He was too far away for us to see his features, as he stood gazing earnestly into the evening shadows where they fell on the rolling Missouri; then he turned again toward his cabin.

The young reservation schoolmaster laughed.

“Old Wolf-eye,” he said, “I guess he is thinking of other days. He often comes out in the evening and stands gazing at the river. He finds it hard to live like a white man, but he is making a plucky try at it.”

“Making any progress?” I asked.

“More than I would make if I were an old buck like him. He’s been out in twelve war parties and lifted a half dozen scalps. He walks the white man’s way now--has a small trading store beside his cabin; and with a few cattle and horses, and a potato field, and corn, he manages to get out a pretty fair living.”

“Does he know English?”

“No, can’t speak it anyway. He attended the reservation school for a time, after he was thirty years old, and learned to figure and spell easy words, so he can keep accounts in his trading store; but he has to have an interpreter if a white man comes in. Old Wolf-eye isn’t a bad fellow, honest as pure gold.”

“Good qualities,” I said.

“They certainly are; and Wolf-eye isn’t above learning yet, if he is old. Last winter he let his squaw go down to the woods every Monday and cut the week’s wood. In the evening the old buck went down with his pony and sledge and hauled the wood home. I told him that wasn’t a white man’s way; that our women didn’t cut the wood; men did that. He was much surprised. ‘Indian women always chopped wood in old times,’ he said. ‘I thought white women did.’ The next week old Wolf-eye went to the woods with his ax, and in the evening his squaw brought down his horse and sledge. I guess Wolf-eye isn’t as good an ax man as his squaw, for his load was smaller.” And the schoolmaster chuckled.

I had wondered what would be the trials of an Indian getting adjusted to civilized life and it struck me that here I had a real find, a native of the old school, who could make clear to me the difficulties a barbarian must experience in treading the white man’s path. I determined to seek out Wolf-eye.

The evening of the next day found me with my interpreter, Wolf-eye’s nephew, in the old Indian’s cabin. The sickly glow of a kerosene lamp half- lighted the room. Wolf-eye sat rather back in the shadows, but his face was toward the light and showed heavy but regular features, with full lips, wide cheek bones, and kindly eyes. He wore a calico shirt outside his overalls; on his feet were moccasins. He was smoking a long-stemmed pipe of red- stone. Evidently he was expecting us. A comb lay on the table and his hair, untinged by gray, was newly kempt. Indian-like, Wolf-eye let me begin the conversation.

”“You Indians don’t show your age,” I began diplomatically. “I think you are older than I, but your hair is black as a raven; mine is quite gray.”

His answer rather startled me.

“I wish my hair was gray. Then I would be a white man.”

“But why would you want to be a white man?”

“Because then I could learn more about this world. I can speak very little English; and there are not more than 500 people to whom I can speak in my own language. What can I learn of them? I know a big war has just ended in Europe. What caused that war? I want to know things.” The interpreter’s English was broken, but I have put his words into intelligible idiom.

“But Wolf-eye,” I said, “at least you can live like a white man even if you are not white.”

“That is not an easy path for an Indian to walk. Indian ways are not white man’s ways, and one cannot refuse to keep to the customs of his tribe. In olden days, we Indians held our foods almost in common. When one family ate, all ate. When one family starved, all were starving. We could not do otherwise. There were few families in the tribe which had not more than once been saved from starvation by food stores of others, especially in winter.

“A young couple, just home from the white man’s school, are eager to raise wheat and build a good house. In the fall, they gather in their crops and store up potatoes, beans, and dried meat for winter. Then their relatives come to visit them, and stay until all their food stores are gone. I do not think white people do that.”

“We do not live so close to starvation now, but we find it hard to forget our old customs. A young couple, just home from the white man’s school, are eager to raise wheat and build a good house. In the fall, they gather in their crops and store up potatoes, beans, and dried meat for winter. Then their relatives come to visit them, and stay until all their food stores are gone. I do not think white people do that.

“It is the same if we try to raise stock. Our agent tells us that we ought to raise hogs. My son bought a pig to raise. He built a pen for that pig, and fed it much corn; and he subscribed one dollar for an agricultural paper, to learn how to raise that pig. In the paper he read that he should let the pig out every afternoon for fresh air. So my son bought an alarm clock for two dollars, and set the alarm every day for four o’clock, so he would remember to let out his pig. The pig grew big and fat, and the bigger it grew the more corn it ate. That pig never seemed to get enough corn. In October my son butchered that pig. Then all the families of his relatives came to see that dead pig, and to every family my son gave a big piece of meat. In four days all the pig was eaten. My son says it does not pay to raise pigs.”

“But this reservation has fine grazing lands,” I said. “Why don’t you keep milch cows?”

“We tried to keep milch cows,” answered Wolf-eye, “for we liked the milk. But none of our older Indians can read or speak English. The Government has allotted us farms and tells the Indians they must live on their farms. But these farms are far apart. The 500 Indians of my small tribe are scattered for fifty miles along the Missouri River. They have no books to read, no magazines to amuse them. An Indian family becomes lonesome and goes to visit friends; maybe they cross the Missouri in a flat boat, and are gone two or three weeks. When they come home again they find their cows dry; or the cows are wild, and kick if the Indians try to milk them. Also the coyotes have stolen the Indian’s chickens. One cannot keep a strong heart when things are like that.”

“But your young men are educated in our schools. If they are ambitious, they can join white communities and live like white men.”

“That is hard to ask of them. A young man’s heart yearns for his own people. In olden times, a young man was ambitious. He was eager to be a warrior, not that he liked to fight, but if he struck an enemy, every one praised him, the girls smiled at him, and he could marry any one he wanted. White men are ambitious to make money, so that others will think well of them, and they can marry into good families. But we Indians cannot get rich on this reservation, where all our relatives visit us and eat our food. There is now nothing to make us ambitious.”

““But if your young men are educated and know English, why cannot they compete with whites, and get rich as white men do?”

“That is not easily done. Our reservation schools are not good, and an Indian lad is not equipped as a white boy is equipped. Then, even if a young Indian has a strong heart, there is not much he can do on this reservation and his relatives often try to keep him back in the Indian ways.”

“Cannot many of your young men find employment with white people?”

“Even if trained to some trade, an Indian raised on our reservation cannot know the thousand-and-one little things that will make him at home in white society and which are such a help to one’s work.”

“Some of them do, but white men often refuse to employ Indians. Even if trained to some trade, an Indian raised on our reservation cannot know the thousand-and-one little things that will make him at home in white society and which are such a help to one’s work.”

“But white men usually treat Indians kindly, do they not? I asked. Americans admire the Indians. Many books are written about Indians and their customs.”

Wolf-eye answered with feeling, but he spoke calmly.

“For twenty years I have tried hard to learn white men’s ways. In all that time I have met but three white men who treated me like a brother, Mr. Hall, the missionary, an agency clerk, and a man who came to us from the American Museum of Natural History. We Indians are proud. It hurts our hearts when white men tell us we are greasy and dirty. We do not like to have them say, ‘You are just like dogs!’ We Indians know very well how we now live, and that our old customs do not fit into the life our young people must learn to live. In old days, every young man went each morning for a bath in the Missouri; in winter he cut a hole in the ice, and after his bath, rubbed himself with white clay. We lived then in Like-a- fishhook Village, right on the river. Now our families are, many of them, two or three miles from the river, and we have no baths in our cabins.

“In olden days, we dressed in skins, which we could clean with white clay. Now our clothes are of cloth, and we do not know how to care for them.”

“Our clothes are not neat and clean, like white men’s clothes. In olden days, we dressed in skins, which we could clean with white clay. Now our clothes are of cloth, and we do not know how to care for them. Many of our women own washtubs, and know how to use soap; but it is hard for them to heat water in our cold winters. Our cabins are small; our women cannot take their tubs out of doors in the biting wind, when the ice is four feet thick on the Missouri; and if they wash the clothes in the cabin, the air gets full of steam while the water that splashes on the floor freezes. Then the door is opened to let out the steam and the room gets cold; so we build a hot fire in the stove, until we have to open the door again, to cool the cabin. Our children thus catch cold, and have lung sickness.”

“But you have more to eat now than you had when you lived by hunting, have you not? I asked.

“Yes, but we do not know how to prepare many of our new foods- In old days, when a buffalo was killed, our women knew how to cook every part. But our women cannot make things like rice, potatoes, wheat, and oats, into good-tasting foods. And this I think very bad for sick people. An Indian woman’s baby gets sick. The reservation doctor is maybe thirty miles away. That Indian woman gets scared. She does not know what to do. She remembers that when she feels tired, she drinks coffee, and it makes her feel good. So she makes a big pot of coffee, and gives it to that baby. Maybe that is why so many babies die on this reservation.”

“Did they not die so in olden times?” I asked.

“Not so many died. In winter we lived in earthlodges, down in the timber, out of the cold prairie winds. The fire did not warm the lodge much, but we had warm robes and plenty of fresh air came down through the smoke- hole. We did not sicken and die then.”

“But you have many things, now, that you did not have then. Do you not live more comfortably?”

“In many ways, yes. We have iron axes, and iron hoes and guns. In my grandfather’s lifetime we had few horses; and when we made long marches over the prairie, our baggage was borne on the backs of women, or on travois dragged by dogs. Old people suffered very much on these marches; if they fell sick, we sometimes had to leave them to die on the prairie. Horses have made traveling easier for our tribe.

“Iron axes make the work of our women easier. When I was a boy, we still lived in earthlodges, which our women built. My grandfather told me that it was hard to cut posts with stone axes, and split puncheons with horn wedges. Our iron hoes are better than our hoes of bone; and we can cultivate more corn now that we have plows.

“But I am not sure that gunpowder has been a blessing. For a time that made it easier to hunt game, but the buffalo herds were soon killed off. Then, in olden days, when we fought with arrows, not so many men were killed. After the Sioux got guns, they could come opposite our village, and shoot across the Missouri at our women as they went down to get water. The Sioux could not have done that with arrows”.

“I am sure horses are useful to the Indians,” I said, “and you have other live stock, also.”

“We have live things from white people that we do not like. We have rats and a new kind of mice. We did have lice in old times, but we never had flat bugs that now get into our beds.”

“Yes, we have cattle; some families raise pigs, and not a few have chickens. But we have other live things from white people that we do not like. We have rats and a new kind of mice. We did have lice in old times, but we never had flat bugs that now get into our beds.

“We knew what fleas were. When a hunter killed a kit fox and fetched it home, he always found himself covered with fleas that came out of the pelt. But he put a robe over him and smoked some sage under it, and all the fleas were killed or driven off. When we first got white men’s fleas, we thought they were like kit fox fleas; but we soon found they were not. ‘Kit fox fleas hardly bite us,’ our old men said. ‘But these new fleas are different. They have big teeth.’ Some summers our cabins are just overrun with fleas. If a family is away for two or three weeks, they hardly dare enter their cabin. Sometimes a man rolls up his trousers and smears oil over his legs before he will enter: the fleas die if they hop up on the oil that is on his legs.”

“But I hear that the Indians are having better health now that they send more often for the reservation doctor when they are sick.”

“That is true. I think he understands many white men’s diseases better than our medicine men do. Then, too, he tells us that in the white man’s road we are now trying to travel, there are many things that make us have diseases, that we did not know in our old life. He says we will get lung sickness if our cabins are not clean. My wife sweeps my cabin every day and I whitewash the outside and the inside twice a year. If my child takes sick, I send for the reservation doctor right away. But my father was a medicine man who said sickness comes from evil spirits. If the doctor does not come at once to my sick child, I sometimes sing one of my father’s sacred medicine songs. I cannot always wait till the doctor comes. Once a man from a museum wanted to buy my father’s medicines. I was afraid to sell them, because I knew the wonderful things those medicines had done. I worship the one, true God now, and I know it is wrong to worship my father’s medicines, and I never do worship them. Still, I know the magic cures they have done, and I was afraid to sell them to the museum until one night I had a dream from my father’s spirit that they would be put into a big house built of stone, in New York, where they would rest forever and white people could see them. I thought, too, that it was perhaps best to sell them away from the reservation. I am a Christian now and if those medicines are in New York the spirits that may be in them will not get angry at me because I do not worship them. It is very hard for me to be a Christian because I cannot read the Bible much in English, and so I cannot know all of God’s commandments. Then, too, I see Christians do things which the missionary tells me are wrong when I do them. I do not understand it!”

“I cannot read the Bible much in English, and so I cannot know all of God’s commandments. Then, too, I see Christians do things which the missionary tells me are wrong when I do them. I do not understand it!”

““Your children will understand better, perhaps. They are learning the Christian way in the mission schools.”

“It is true; but they are learning many things that I cannot believe. The missionary teacher tells my son that the earth is round like a ball. That seems foolish to me. I have stood on the top of one of the Rocky Mountains, and the earth looked flat, just as it does here on the prairie. The teacher also says it is wicked to make war, and our Indian warriors did wrong in old days when they went out to fight other tribes. Why then do white men make war? In that big war in Europe, the Government took many young Indians from this reservation to be soldiers, to fight the Germans. Why don’t white men leave off making war?”

And come to think about it, why do white men make war?

Return to Web Site Archive, Picks from the Past