A Long Way From The Buffalo Road


The chief that I remember best from my boyhood was Left Hand. He, too, had been a great war chief, but he helped us learn the white man’s ways. For instance, Left Hand understood that the old customs of marriage—by which a young man left ponies and other gifts outside his sweetheart’s tepee, and her parents, if she chose him, accepted these—did not make a marriage legal according to the white man’s law. When his daughter wished to marry, he set the example by having the ceremony performed at the agency, with a license from the probate judge and a minister to perform the rites. But he kept some of the old Arapaho way, too, in that ceremony. After the minister’s prayer, Left Hand also made a prayer. Then he took the hands of his son-in-law and his daughter, touched his heart and his forehead, and blessed them. Each of the Indian guests then took the hands of the couple in theirs while they said a prayer. So the marriage was legal and Christian, and Arapaho as well. The agent thought this ceremony so impressive that he wrote about it in his report to Washington. Soon many other marriages were performed in this same way. The young man did not have to give up his best ponies; he had only to pay for the marriage license, and the white man’s prayers and those of the Indian went up together to the Man-Above. It was a good ceremony.

We Arapaho had always been a sociable people, so we found it hard, in the early days on the reservation, to learn to work and plan as individuals. Every occasion that brought us together gave us pleasure. We gathered for it early and wore the best we had and made the most of the chance to visit and feast and celebrate. So grass payments and annuity issues meant big times in our lives.

The grass money was rental for lands on our reservation that we leased to white men for cattle grazing. Since nobody owned the land individually and there was far more of it than we could cultivate and farm, it was leased in large tracts in the name of the Cheyenne and the Arapaho tribes, through the agent, and the money for the leases was paid to us once a year. Every man, woman, and child received an equal share. Often many of us had spent most of our money in advance, before it was paid to us, but all of us went to the agency anyhow at the time of the grass payments. Sometimes we had spent our money wisely, for farm implements or household goods; sometimes we hardly knew where it had gone, for one thing or another at the commissary or at the store, where we had been given credit. But we made a good thing of the gathering. Even though the agents tried to persuade us to come to the pay table wearing no paint and dressed in what they called civilized clothing, and even though many of us had little or no cash to take home with us when the traders had deducted what we owed them, we were all there and in a good mood. There was trading at the stores and feasting in the tepees and visiting everywhere, and everybody went away happy.

By the terms of the Treaty at Medicine Lodge, the United States government was to furnish us what we needed to live on, after we sat down on the reservation, until we had time to learn to provide for ourselves. The government was also to give us schools and teachers, and farm implements and blacksmiths and agency farmers, to start us on the corn road. All this was paid for out of the fund credited to us when we surrendered our own lands and moved to the reservation. Each winter, under this plan, we received an issue of what was called annuity goods. What we were given varied from year to year, but usually there were blankets, strouding for lodge covers, calico and denim for the women to use in making clothing, coats and trousers and shoes and stockings, axes and knives, and needles and thread and kettles and frying pans. Often the goods, which were supposed to reach us at the beginning of winter for use during the cold months ahead, were delayed a long time in the shipping; often too they had been carelessly packed and handled, so that the cloth was stained and mildewed and the knives and pans were rusty. And although the agent and his men were good at figures, there was always some mistake in the count and not enough of any one thing for everyone. Sometimes there was a new lodge covering for only one family in three, or one pair of shoes for every two men. We laughed at some of these shortages and made the best of them. If a man’s share of shoes was only one instead of a pair, that was reason enough for him to sell it and wear moccasins. And if only part of the men got trousers, that was a good excuse to cut them up and wear them as leggings, as the older men usually wore them anyhow.

Sometimes the agents threatened to withhold the annuity goods, to compel us to send our children to school or to give up our medicine dances or to break sod and plant crops. They even threatened to withhold the goods from families of men who refused to cut their hair and to wear trousers. But there was nothing in the terms of the Medicine Lodge treaty to permit this kind of withholding, and the agents learned not to try it.