A Long Way From The Buffalo Road

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Mr. Seger had a fine memory, and he liked to tell stories about interesting and amusing things that happened on the reservation. One of the stories he told was about Little Raven, who objected to the house the agent proposed to build for him. Little Raven had been taken east, with some other chiefs of the Cheyenne and the Arapaho, to meet the Great White Father and to see the wonders of Washington and Philadelphia and other cities. The house of the Great White Father was big and fine, Little Raven said, and so were the houses of many other people living there. Since he was one of the principal chiefs of the Arapaho, as the President was the principal chief of the white people, would the agent see that his house was built like the White House in Washington? Such a house, the agent explained, would cost too much money. Little Raven, enjoying the argument, answered that money was made in Washington; he had been taken to the United States Mint and had seen it made. Would the agent send word to the mint to make enough money to build him a house like that of the President? There was a good deal of fun over that argument, and Little Raven enjoyed it as much as the others did. Later, he accepted one of the government buildings at Cantonment as his house, and he plowed and planted some of the land around it. But he kept a tepee in his yard, and when he longed for the old ways that were passing, he could stay there.

The tepees I lived in as a boy were easy to move. I suppose any family’s goods could be packed and the tepee taken down in an hour or two. The mother kept the robes and moccasins in heavy skin holders, called parfleches, that were heavier and stiffer than a bag and made like a little trunk; and she kept her few pots and kettles and cooking supplies in two or three boxes that she had got from some one of the traders. These, and some skins and low bed frames and willowrod mattresses that were thin and light enough to roll up easily, were all we had to move except the tepee itself.

The woman of the family had built the lodge, and when we went to a new location she was the one who moved it. We used no nails and needed no saws or hammers to put up our houses. Raising or striking a tepee was not such heavy work as people who have never seen it done suppose it to be, but it was work that needed training and skill. It needed what white people watching it done called know-how. It was women’s work, as it always had been, and they took great pride in it. The important thing, besides the know-how, was the lodgepoles. These must be long and straight and slender, and for a good family lodge there must be from sixteen to twenty of them. They must be of some wood like cedar that would not rot when they were exposed to rain and snow. Such poles were not easy to find on the plains, and the women took great care of them.

An Arapaho woman, in putting up a tepee, started with three poles that she bound together about three feet from the small end. These she set up on the ground like a big tripod. Then she propped more poles on the ground and rested them above in the fork of the first three. These were spaced evenly in a circle and formed the framework of the tepee. Many buffalo skins sewed together had once made the cover for this frame, but the old lodge skins soon wore out after the buffalo were gone, and then a heavy white cloth called lodge cloth or strouding was used. This cloth was cut and sewed in such a way that it formed a kind of cone stretched over the poles. Yet it was not exactly a cone, for two flaps, or ears, were left open at the top, with two more poles thrust through them in such a way that they made the smoke hole above the center of the lodge large or small, depending on how they were braced on the ground. These could be adjusted according to how much wind blew and in what direction.

Above the entrance, the cone-shaped canvas was fastened together with wooden pegs about the way an overcoat is fastened with big buttons. The opening that made the entrance was covered with a skin or a length of canvas held down by a strip of wood that weighted the bottom. This was the only kind of door we knew, long ago. In fine weather it was raised on poles to make a kind of awning over the opening. This door could not be locked, of course, like a wooden door on hinges; but the Cheyenne and the Arapaho, like most other Indians, had always respected other people’s homes and never molested them.