OUR WILD INDIANS
by COLONEL RICHARD IRVING DODGE
TRAITS AND PECULIARITIES
Collecting Activities Search Engine
Country of the Plains Indians - The Dream of an Enthusiast - The Indian as he
is - His Conduct in the Presence of Strangers - Clothes Only for Show - His Conduct in his
Own Camp - A Rollicking Miscreant - Night Scenes in an Indian Camp - The Disgrace of being
Surprised - A Pair of Climbing Boots - The Hero of the Telegraph Pole - How a Lady Excited
Surprise and Admiration - A Comical Incident - The Story of a Wooden Leg - Carrying a Joke
too Far - A Summary Ejectment - Endurance of Pain - Patience, an Indian Virtue - Blowing
his Own Trumpet - Extravagant Self-Praise - An Indians Idea of Modesty - Honor among
Thieves - Kicked Out of Camp - Early Lessons in Stealing - Apt Pupils - A Flagrant
Case - A Fair Field and No Favor - Differences of Opinion.
Indian is applied to all the aboriginal inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere;
comprising hundreds, possibly thousands of tribes, occupying every diversity of climate
from Arctic snows to Equatorial heats. As climate exerts a marked influence not only on
the habits, but on the character of a people, it is not possible, nor to be expected, that
these tribes can be grouped in any truthful common description. Ulloa has said: See
one Indian and you have seen all, a remark neither witty nor wise. With equal truth
he might have said: See one savage and you have seen all, or See one
European and you have seen all.
Even within the
comparatively narrow limits of the United States, the Indian tribes, though presenting a
general similarity of character, vary in habits, manners, customs and beliefs, in so
remarkable a degree, that no general description is applicable to all, except that all are
savage, all are swindled, starved, and imposed upon.
Though I have served in
almost every portion of our wide frontier, my largest experience has been with the Plains Indians, those inhabiting the country between the
Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. Among these Indians I have spent many years,
much of the time in peaceful every day intercourse.
Within the limits
specified, reside at the present time not less than sixty distinct tribes, cut up into
bands innumerable, comprising more than half of the whole Indian population of the United
Extending from the
British line almost to the Gulf of Mexico, they would appear to be subjected to such
climatic variation as might greatly influence their character. That this is not the case
is due to the peculiarity of those great elevated plains, or steppes, high, dry, and
generally destitute of trees, except along the margin of streams. All these tribes are
mounted, and all, until recently, depended upon the buffalo for all the necessaries and comforts of life.
Though distinct in
language, differing somewhat in character, and each tribe, as a rule, hostile to all
others, their common necessities have so assimilated their habits and modes of thought as
to enable the student to group them, for description, into one general class.
These Indians I know
best, and from them I have drawn most of my illustrations. In the following pages, when I
speak of Indians, I mean the Plains Indians, except when the context shows
that I mean the whole race. When I wish to draw attention to the peculiarities of other
Indians, as Utes, Apaches, etc., I will speak of them by name.
The ideal Indian of Cooper is a creation of his own prolific brain. No such savage as
Uncas ever existed, or could exist, and no one knew this better than Cooper himself.
IndiansMingoes, Iroquois, etc.are painted as fiends, in whom the furies
themselves would have delighted. his ideal, clothed him in moral and Christian virtues,
and placed him prominently in contrast with his surroundings. How he could possibly have
arrived at those good qualities, when born and reared among savages without a moral code,
is a question that admits of but one answer,no such individual could possibly
The wild Indian of to-day
is the Mingo painted by Cooper, modified somewhat by time and his surroundings; a human
being, in the earliest stage of development; a natural man.
Of all writers on the
North American Indians, Catlin deservedly stands first. In an intercourse with Indians
extending over half an ordinary lifetime, I have frequently been struck by his quickness
of apprehension, and the vividness of his colorings of Indian life. But Catlin, as he
himself admits, was an enthusiast. Though a poor painter, he was wrapped up in his art of
painting. Give him a model suited to his taste,a wild, free savage, adorned with all
the tinsel-trappings of barbarous life,and he immediately clothed him with all
Christian virtues and knightly honors.
His pen-portraits of
Indians are admirable in one sense, in another faulty beyond measure. Indians of whom he
wrote are still living, their tribes maintaining to this day the same manners and customs
which he so vividly describes. To see them now is to have seen them then, yet how
different the pictures from those he drew. He could see only the natural noble qualities.
To the natural ignoble qualities (inseparable from the savage state) he evinced a
blindness inexplicable in a man of such perceptive faculties, except on the hypothesis of
Of the miserably low
condition of the Crows and Blackfeet, he has not a word to say, but gives pages of eloquent
writing to the beauties of their dresses and the magnificent length of their hair.
He descants on the
modesty of some tribes, but tells us, in almost the same breath, that several families,
consisting of men with two, three, or more wives, and children of all ages and sexes,
occupy, for all purposes, one single lodge of twelve or fifteen feet in diameter.
His whole attention is
occupied with externals,dress, dances, religious and other ceremonies. Nowhere does
he give us a close insight into their inner life, their religion, social and domestic
habits and customs. Had he written of these things, his characters must have assumed other
shadings than those his fancy painted.
Here and there throughout
his works are evidences that he does see these things, but is determined to say nothing
about them. He evidently regarded the Indian as doomed to speedy extinction, and in so
far, already dead. He constitutes himself his biographer, and closely adheres to the
charitable Roman maxim: nil de mortuis nisi bonum, (say nothing but good of
Writing of the Indian of
forty years ago, Catlin says, In his native state, he is an honest, hospitable,
brave, warlike, cruel, revengeful, relentless, yet honorable, contemplative, and religious
being. To these epithets, which are yet true in a certain sense, as I shall show
hereafter, I add, that he is vain, crafty, deceitful, ungrateful, treacherous, grasping,
and utterly selfish. He is lecherous, without honor or mercy; filthy in his ideas and
speech, and inconceivably dirty in person and manners. He is affectionate, patient,
self-reliant, and enduring. He has a marvellous instinct in travelling, and a memory of
apparently unimportant landmarks simply wonderful. In short, he has the ordinary good and
bad qualities of the mere animal, modified to some extent by reason.
Primitive man is an
animal differing from other animals in but one single quality, the greater development of
the reasoning faculties. The condition of the races of mankind is simply the greater or
less progression of each from that starting-point. The Indian, though so far behind in
this race of progress as to be still a savage, is yet far ahead of many tribes and people.
The grand difference between the North American Indian and the civilized people of the
same continent comes not from degrees of intelligence, or forms of religion, but from what
we call morality. The intellect of an Indian may be as acute as that of a congressman, and
his religion as austere as that of a bishop, yet he remains a savage simply from lack of a
code of morals.
Religion is the
disposition of man to recognize some power superior to, and hidden from, himself. It is
innate, a part of the constitution of man, common alike to savage and to sage.
It is doubtful if there be a race of mankind so low as to be without a religion.
Morality recognizes and
inculcates the rights and duties of individuals in their relation to their social life. It
is above religion, and its possession by a people is indicative of great strides in
advance of the primitive condition.
The Jewish code, the ten
commandments, mingled the two in one common law, and the embodiment of these into two
simple commandments by Christ (himself a Jew) nearly nineteen hundred years ago, have
forever, to all Christian people, so welded together religion and morality that the one
cannot exist without the other.
We are taught in
childhood, at our mothers knee, that certain things are right, others wrong. The
morality is inculcated with the religion, and we with difficulty separate the one from the
As will be seen further
on, the Indian has a religion, as firmly seated in his belief as Christianity in the faith
of the Christian; but that religion has no added moral code. It teaches no duty or
obligation either to God or man.
Right and wrong, as
abstract terms, have no meaning whatever to the Indian. All is right that he wishes to do,
all is wrong that opposes him. It is simply impossible for him to grasp the abstract idea
that anything is wrong in itself. He has no word, or set of words, by which the ideas of
moral right and wrong can be conveyed to him; his nearest synonyms are the words good and
He will tell you that it
is wrong (bad) to steal from a man of his own band, not that theft is wrong, but because
he will be beaten and kicked out of the band if detected. There is no abstract wrong in
the murder of a white man, or Indian of another tribe; it is wrong (bad) simply because
punishment may follow.
The Indian is absolutely
without what we call conscience, that inward monitor which comes of education, but which
our religious teachers would persuade us is the voice of God.
He is already as
religious as the most devout Christian, and if our good missionaries would let him alone
in his religion, cease their efforts to proselyte him to their particular sect, and simply
strive to supply him with a code of morals, his subsequent conversion might be easy and
his future improvement assured.
In his manner and
bearing, the Indian is habitually grave and dignified, and in the presence of strangers he
is reserved and silent. These peculiarities have been ascribed by writers on Indian
character to stoicism, and the general impression seems to be that the Indian, wrapped in
his blanket and impenetrable mystery, and with a face of gloom, stalks through life
unmindful of pleasure or pain. Nothing can be farther from the truth. The dignity, the
reserve, the silence, are put on just as a New York swell puts on his swallow-tailed coat
and white choker for a dinner-party, because it is his custom. In his own camp, away from
strangers, the Indian is a noisy, jolly, rollicking, mischief-loving braggadocio, brimful
of practical jokes and rough fun of any kind, making the welkin ring with his laughter,
and rousing the midnight echoes by song and dance, whoops and yells.
He is really as excitable
as a Frenchman, and as fond of pleasure as a Sybarite. He will talk himself wild with
excitement, vaunting his exploits in love, war, or the chase, and will commit all sorts of
extravagances while telling or listening to an exciting story. In their every-day life
Indians are vivacious, chatty, fond of telling and hearing stories. Their nights are spent
in song and dance, and for the number of persons engaged, a permanent Indian camp (safe
from all danger of enemies) is at night the noisiest place that can be found on about him.
He must know the meaning of every mark on the ground; he must know all the camp tattle. A
stranger arrives in the village and goes into a lodge. In a few moments half the
inhabitants of the village are in or about that lodge standing on tiptoe, straining eyes
and ears, and crowding each other and the stranger, with as little compunction as if the
whole thing were a ward primary meeting.
Whether or not he evinces
surprise at anything depends on his surroundings, and somewhat on the nature of the thing
itself. In a formal assemblage, or when in the presence of strangers, it would be the
height of bad manners to show surprise, however much might be felt. Uneducated people of
our own race feel no surprise at the rising and setting of the sun, the changes of season,
the flash of lightning or the roll of thunder. They accept them as facts without
explanation, and though beyond their comprehension, without surprise. One shows surprise
at something out of the ordinary range of his experience. It is an act of comparison.
The Indian has actual and
common experience of many articles of civilized manufacture, the simplest of which is as
entirely beyond his comprehension as the most complicated. He would be a simple
exclamation point, did he show surprise at everything new to him, or which he does not
understand. He goes to the other extreme, and rarely shows, because he does not feel,
surprise at anything.
He visits the States,
looks unmoved at the steam-boat and locomotive. People call it stoicism. They forget that
to his ignorance the production of the commonest glass bottle is as inscrutable as the
sound of the thunder. The whirl and clatter of innumerable spindles are as far beyond his
power of comprehension as that the summers heat should be succeeded by the
winters snows; and a common mirror is as perfect a miracle as the birth of a child
in his lodge. He knows nothing of the comparative difficulties of invention and
manufacture, and to him, the mechanism of a locomotive is not in any way more a cause for
surprise than that of a wheel-barrow.
When things, in their own
daily experience, are performed in what to them is a remarkable way, they feel and express
the most profound astonishment. I have seen several hundred Indiansmen, women, and
childreneager and excited, following from one telegraph pole to another, a repairer
whose legs were encased in climbing-boots. When he walked easily, foot over foot, up the
pole, their surprise and delight found vent in the most vociferous expression of applause
I once rode into a large
Indian village, accompanied by a beautiful lady, an accomplished horsewoman. The horse,
not liking his surroundings, brought out, by his plunges and curveting's, all her grace
and skill. Had she been astride, as is customary with Indian women, no notice whatever
would have been taken of her, but, being perched on a side-saddle, in what to the Indian
was an almost impossible position, she was soon surrounded by a crowd of all ages and
sexes, evincing in every possible way their extremity of surprise and delight.
Surprise in an Indian
sometimes takes very comical forms. An officer, now on the retired list, who having lost a
leg in service, had had it skillfully replaced by one of light hollow wood, with open
slits, was one day visiting the lodge of a distinguished Sioux chief (now dead). After
some rather abortive attempts at conversation, the officer took a knitting-needle from the
hand of the old wife of the chief, and passed it through his leg. This at once attracted
the notice of all. The chief made signs asking to see the leg. Stripping up his pantaloons
the officer managed to show the artificial limb, but concealing its connection with the
leg proper. After a long and minute examination the chief asked if the other leg was the
same. The amused officer could not resist a little lie, and nodded yes, whereupon the
chief took him by the shoulders and thrust him out of the lodge as bad
The excitability of the
Indian results in another peculiarity, generally overlooked by his historians. Though
undoubtedly brave, and performing feats and taking chances almost incredible, he is, when
surprised, more easily and thoroughly stampeded than any other race of people of which I
have any knowledge.
Custom and Indian public
opinion have made endurance the exponent of every manly virtue; and he who can subject
himself, without a look or expression of pain, to the greatest amount of excruciating
torture, is the best man, whatever may be his other qualities.
Another most admirable
quality he possesses in an eminent degree. This is patience. Endurance and patience would
seem to be naturally allied, and to a close observer they appear to be the warp and woof
of Indian character. Every manly quality possessed by the Indian is the outgrowth of one
or the other of these traits. His skill and success as warrior, or thief, or hunter; his
avoidance of quarrels or conflicts with his associates; his submission to wrongs, outrages
and starvation, all come from his endurance and his patience. Even his disposition to
torture his enemies is, to some extent, but the reflex of the conscious pride which would
enable him to bear those tortures without flinching.
Modesty, as we understand
the term, is totally lacking in the Indian character. The chief or warrior who put a low
estimate on his qualities or achievements would be taken at his word and nothing thought
of. There are no reporters, no newspapers, to herald the praises of a skilful warrior. He
must blow his own trumpet, and he does it with magnificent success. Self-praise is no
disgrace to him, and half the talk of warriors to each other is made up of exaggerated
boasts of what they have done, and most extraordinary assertions as to what they intend to
conversations, at home or in company, are broad even to indecency. In some of the tribes
the women are retiring and modest in manners, because custom requires it, but they listen
with delight to the story-tellers most filthy recitals, and receive with great
applause indecent jests and proposals in the sign-dance.
Clothing is for ornament, not for decency. Ordinarily, even among the
wildest tribes, men and women wear some covering (very frequently the men only the
breech-clout), but I have seen entirely naked men stalking about a village, or joining in
a dance, without exciting surprise, comment, or objection from others. Although most gayly
bedecked on occasions of ceremony, the ordinary covering of the male Indian is not what
would be regarded as decent among civilized people. The women are more decently clothed
habitually, but men and women, even young girls, think nothing of bathing together in
puris naturalibus, and it is not at all unusual to see boys and girls, even up
to ten years of age, running around the camp in the same condition.
There is a curious
difference of opinion among writers as to the honesty of the Indian, some asserting that
he is an arrant thief, others insisting that he is exceptionally honest. Catlin says that
the Indian is honest and honorable, and that he never stole a
shillings worthy of property from him. The fact is, that all these authors are
both right and wrong.
In their own bands,
Indians are perfectly honest. In all my intercourse with them, I have heard of not over
half a dozen cases of such theft. It is the sole unpardonable crime among Indians. There
being no bolts nor bars, no locks nor safes, and each Indian having by common custom the
right to enter into any lodge of the band, at any and at all hours, the property of no one
would be safe for a moment but for the most rigid infliction of the severest punishments
on the perpetrator of this solitary Indian crime.
The value of the article
stolen is not considered. The crime is the theft. A man found guilty of stealing even the
most trifling article from a member of his own band, is whipped almost to death (every
individual of the band having the disposition, as well as the right, to take part in the
amusement, and there being no limit, except his own will, to the amount of punishment
inflicted by each), his horses are confiscated, his lodge, robes, blankets, and other
property destroyed or divided among the band, and, naked and disgraced, he is, with his
wives and children, unceremoniously kicked out of the band, to starve, or live as best
they can. A woman caught stealing is beaten and kicked out of the band, but her husband
and children are not included in the punishment.
But this wonderfully
exceptional honesty extends no further than to the members of his immediate band. To all
outside of it, the Indian is not only one of the most arrant thieves in the world, but
this quality or faculty is held in the highest estimation, the expert thief standing in
honor, and in the estimation of the tribe almost, if not quite, on the same plane as the
brave and skilful warrior.
The earliest lessons of
the youthful brave are in stealing. The love-sick youngster can only be sure of winning
his mistress by stealing enough horses to pay for her. Indians are not very successful
breeders of horses, and every man of the tribe expects to keep himself in stock by
Even different bands of
the same tribe (when not in one general encampment) do not hesitate to steal from each
other. A most flagrant case came under my personal observation. In the winter of 1867-8, I
was stationed at North Platte, Nebraska, in charge of Spotted Tails band of BrulÚ
Sioux. A party of six Minneconjon Sioux came into Spotted Tails camp on a visit.
They were stalwart, good-looking youngsters, beautifully dressed, well armed and mounted,
and claimed to have been in the Phil. Kearny massacre of the year before. They were received as most
distinguished guests, with all hospitality and honor. Feasted and honored by day, danced
with, ogled and made love to at night, the happy visitors, fascinated with their
surroundings, apparently thought only of pleasure; but early on the morning of the fourth
or fifth day after their arrival, I was waked up by an Indian who informed me that the
Minneconjous had gotten away in the night with over one hundred of their
entertainers ponies. A war party was promptly organized for pursuit, but returned
unsuccessful, after running the fugitives for over a hundred miles.
The Indian, as a rule, is
honorable after a fashion of his own. Hide anything from him and he will find and steal
it. Place it formally in his possession, or under his charge for safe keeping, and it will
in all probability be returned intact, with, however, a demand for a present as reward for
I apply the term
wild to a class of Indians to distinguish it from another class inhabiting the
Indian Territory, or living within the boundaries of some of the States, and which has
made some progress in civilization and moral knowledge. With these exceptions, the vast
numbers of Indians in the territory of the United States are wild. Sioux,
Cheyennes, Arrapahoes, Comanches, Apaches, Utes, Shoshones, Chippewas, and the almost
numberless small tribes and fragments scattered through the vast region west of the
Mississippi, or collected at agencies, or on reservations, all furnish material and
shading for the picture I give of them. Here and there a small tribeas the Nez PercÚsshow a slight advance in morality, due to the efforts
of Roman Catholic priests so many years ago that their traditions but vaguely fix the
time. Here and there, also, even among the wild tribes, are found men who give some
evidence of moral perception, probably due to the influence of missionaries and teachers.
These cases are, however, individual. The mass of the wild tribes are as depicted.
A large class of most
excellent people conscientiously believe that the Indian is a supernatural hero, with a
thousand excellent qualities, so admirably woven and dove-tailed into his nature that even
civilization and Christianity could not improve him. To such persons I have nothing to
say. Their opinions are simply sentimental prejudice, without foundation in knowledge or
reason, and could not be changed, though one rose from the dead.
There is another class of
excellent people who firmly believe that it is impossible to civilize the Indian, and who
argue that humanity and policy alike point to his extermination as the most prompt and
effectual way of solving our Indian problem. These are also wrong. The Indian has never
had a fair chance, and he is entitled to a full and fair trial. That, with his miserable
opportunities, he has been at least partially civilized, as shown by the exceptions before
noted, and by the condition of the more advanced of the Cherokees, is ample evidence of capacity for a further improvement.
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