A Long Way From The Buffalo Road

PrintPrintEmailEmail

What astonished us more than anything else was to learn that the white man cut and stored ice in winter, for use in summer. At the agency they built a thick-walled storage house, and when the ponds and streams were frozen solid they sawed the ice into blocks, hauled it in, and packed it in sawdust from the agency sawmill. We had never heard of ice in summer before. It would have seemed like strong medicine, if we had not seen for ourselves how it was done. But when the next summer came, and some of the Indians drank the white man’s iced lemonade, and when we tasted ice cream, we knew that the white man had schemes for comfort and good living that we had never dreamed of.

The first thing I remember about my childhood is the tepee where my family lived. It was one of many that belonged to our band or village, and was always somewhere near the agency. All of our tepees were a good deal alike, and yet none of us children ever made the mistake of getting into the wrong one when we wanted to go home to our mothers, perhaps for the same reason that prairie dogs never ran into the wrong hole in the ground or cliff swallows never flew into the wrong opening in the river bank. We were within sound of the big bell that hung above the stable at the agency and was rung at seven in the morning and at noon and at six in the evening to tell the employees there when to go to work and when to stop. On good days, too, we could hear the bugle calls from Fort Reno, a mile and a half away from the agency on the high land across the Canadian River. For us in our villages, these bells and bugle calls served as clocks when we needed to take notice of time in the white man’s way.

Except in midwinter, most of us were stirring in our village long before we heard the agency bell ring seven o’clock. Our circle of lodges was open to the east, and each one of the lodges within the circle also opened eastward, to the dawn of light and to the sunrise. That was the way the Arapaho had been taught to build their lodges, at the beginning of time, and that was the way we had always built them.

When I was born, most of the Cheyenne and the Arapaho still lived in tepees. Brinton Darlington, when he first came to the agency, had called our chiefs together and told them he wanted them to live as white people lived, in houses with gardens and orchards and fields around them. There was plenty of rich land, and each man was to choose ground whereever he wanted it within our boundaries and settle down. The government, he said, would help us build our houses when we were ready to live in them. But this meant a great change, and one we could not make in a hurry. We liked our tepees, with all our things around us in a circle.

Also the Arapaho had always lived in bands, with their tepees side by side, their horses grazing together, and with hunting and fighting and feasting and worship all carried on by the group. It took years to learn to work alone on a farm and see one’s neighbors only once in a while. Neither we nor our dogs nor our ponies understood this new way of the white people. To us it seemed unsociable and lonely, and not the way people were meant to live.

The corn road, we found, was different from the buffalo road in more ways than anyone, white or Indian, had realized. The old people—even our tribal leaders who were great men at hunting and fighting- could not learn it in a hurry. The country itself was new to the agents and the teachers, too. Sometimes all the corn failed because of heat and drought; sometimes grasshoppers and locusts swept in and ate up everything. After a few years, the agents and the agency farmers were ready to admit that cattle raising and dairying were better, on most of our land, than raising corn and oats.

It was easier for those of us who were boys and were taught farming and dairying in the schools. We could grow up with the new idea, and some of us were also learning other trades. For in 1872 a man named John Seger was hired to come to Darlington, to set up a new mill and a brick plant, and to help build houses and school buildings and offices and a commissary there. He built good buildings, some of them three stories high, and we liked him. He lived among the Cheyenne and Arapaho for more than fifty years, building and teaching and farming and running a stage and mail line, and he was our friend until he died in 1928. His children played with us and went to our Arapaho school and learned our language and songs and games and stories. Some people said they even came to look like us.