A Dakota Boyhood

PrintPrintEmailEmail

I also have another Indian statue which was inspired by the same period — The Buffalo Prayer . In the early morning just at sunrise I saw a medicine man, or counselor of the tribe, make his prayer. It was for the return of the buffalo. His prayer to the Great Spirit was made after a night in a sweat lodge, having partaken of no food. He went to the creek, bathed himself, put on a few strips of buffalo hide, placed in front of him a buffalo skull, then built a fire of buffalo chips toward the east. A thin column of smoke lifted to the sky and the rising sun shed a glow over the whole scene. The bronze color of the man, his black hair with bits of red wound into his braids, and his religious attitude made an indelible picture in my mind. The Indian boys and I watched from a respectful distance.

A HEROIC MOTHER

For some time after our ranch house was built, we had to carry water from Mitchell, and finally it was decided that we must have a well. It was a long deep dig, but when water was struck, we had great difficulty keeping the well bailed out so that we could wall it.

Stones were scarce on the prairie and it would take a day to pick up one small wagon-box full. Fortunately, this had been foreseen and the prairie had already been searched for stones suitable for walling the well. When it was completed, we had a great supply of water, but it had a strong alkali flavor that I came to like after the first distaste had worn off. I remember distinctly that whenever we went East, I was always surprised at the insipid taste of the water.

This well was the scene of an almostfatal accident to my three-year-old sister. It was fifty feet deep, held twenty feet of water, and was surrounded by a wellhead of boards with four upright posts supporting the roof, which held a wheel through which a rope ran. One day my sister was standing on the coil of rope beside the wellhead and pulling the rope attached to a bucketful of water which was resting on an inside shelf. The bucket fell and the coil of rope pulled her over the top of the wellhead. My mother, hearing the unusual sound, ran out of the house, and to her horror saw her child slipping over the edge into the well. My sister fell thirty feet, hitting the stones on the way down, severely cutting her head. Unfortunately, there were no men around, so my mother, resisting the efforts of my aunt to prevent her, climbed over and went down the rope, hand over hand, and pulled my sister out of the water. Standing on the stone walling of the well, she took off the child’s wet clothes, stopped the flow of blood as best she could, and in some way got off her own skirt to wrap around her. My sister was seriously ill for a long time. Many people came to congratulate my mother for her courage, and a committee from Mitchell presented her with an inscribed silver dish. Where they were able to obtain it puzzled us, for Mitchell, at that time, was a primitive town.

PRAIRIE SCHOOL

When I was about eight, a little schoolhouse was built a mile or so away from our ranch, and when it was finished, settlers from twenty miles around were invited to a dance in celebration of its completion. This was one of those western dances with fiddlers and a man to call the various moves. It was gay and very noisy. There were quite a few children and plenty of good things to eat. The dinner began late at night with an oyster stew. In those days oysters were shipped to Dakota in oblong tin cans. The oysters were excellent and made what seemed to be the favorite soup of most westerners.

This school was the first that I attended. On particularly cold days, when the thermometer was around fifteen or twenty below zero, it was arranged that the children would be picked up by a team of horses with a bobsled and a hayrack full of hay for warmth. I thought it a very satisfactory and delightful vehicle for carrying children in any kind of weather.

In the fall, terrible storms came, and we often thought that the little schoolhouse was on the point of being blown away. It quivered and shook and the lightning glinted and the thunder reverberated through the small building. On one of these occasions, when we children were all very scared, there were simultaneously a terrible flash and a crash. The chimney had been hit by lightning. A great ball of blue-green fire rolled along the top of the iron stovepipe to the stove in the middle of the room and down into the stove with a tremendous crash, leaving us children with our heads on our desks and semiconscious. There were many other storms while I was at school but none quite like that one.

Also, the school must have been built in the runway of timber wolves, because very often we children would be startled and greatly agitated by seeing these great animals trot by, usually going south. We would crowd (I say “crowd”—there were about seven or eight pupils) around the windows, the teacher included, to watch them pass, one or two at a time. I don’t recall ever seeing three together. They trotted along, never looking right or left, often within yards of the schoolhouse.

A THIRTY-FIVE-CENT LUNCH

Whenever we took a train journey it was with some difficulty, as there were no sleeping cars in those early days in Dakota. The coaches were heated by small stoves at each end of the car, which the brakeman had to take care of. It seemed like an adequate arrangement then, but now it would certainly be thought primitive.