A Long Way From The Buffalo Road

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Wherever we lived on the reservation—and as the years went on, some of our villages were as much as sixty-five miles away from the agency—everyone that could make the trip was on hand at Darlington for the annuity issue. Many of the people, coming from a distance, brought their tepees and camping equipment with them and settled down there to visit and enjoy life together until the distribution was over. They walked or rode on ponies with a travois dragging behind or came in wagons, and a few of them rode in carriages. The agents and the teachers argued against an Indian’s buying a carriage when he needed, they said, to buy a stove and beds and chairs and farm equipment, but the Indian who managed to get together enough money to buy a carriage argued that he had been told to try to do as the white people did, and white people rode in carriages. We couldn’t do everything at once; so we did first what pleased us most.

All of us wore our best to the agency for the annuity issue. The women came dressed in their buckskin jackets and leggings, or in calico dresses with bright shawls or blankets over them; they carried their babies on cradle boards and led along small children wearing beaded buckskin or calico or denim, with small shawls and blankets of their own. The men with long hair oiled their braids and bound them with otter skin or with colored string, and wore hats on top of these if they had hats. There was every color and every kind of clothing to be seen, and everyone was in good spirits. Annuity meant a happy, sociable time for everyone. The children played such Indian games as the hoop-and-stick and the mud-ball game, or prisoner’s base and drop the handkerchief, which they had learned from white children; the young men raced their ponies up and down the agency streets, showing off; the older people, who hadn’t seen one another in a long time, sat together for hours in the lodges, visiting and telling stories of the old days. Hunting stories, war stories, stories of brave marches and hard winters and perfect summers when the buffalo grew fat and the bushes were loaded with wild fruit, were told over again by those who remembered them. All around the agency, for two or three miles up and down the river, the tepees glowed at night from the fires inside.

When the goods were distributed everyone put on something new—a blanket or a hat or a coat or a shirt or a shawl. If a man got a pair of shoes or trousers that he did not want, he sold them or traded them off for something he fancied for himself or his family. There was trading going on everywhere, and those who came out of a deal with something to sell or with some money to spend then went to the traders’ stores to see what they could get. We were always glad to have coffee and sugar and flour, and maybe some canned goods, to take home with us. By the time the gathering broke up, everyone had something new and everyone was happy.

Food was issued on a different plan. At first when we raised no crops and had no knowledge of how to do any kind of work that would give us employment at the agency, nearly all of our food had to be issued to us. Beef was issued only after we no longer had buffalo meat or when smaller game was not to be had. Every two weeks other items of food that white people considered necessary were distributed to us: bacon and salt pork, flour, sugar, salt, coffee, and lard. Some of these things, especially the bacon and the salt pork, we had to learn to eat, because they were too salty for our taste. Later, when the buffalo were all gone and even small game was less plentiful, but when many of us began to have foodstuffs from our farms and some money to buy part of our supplies, only beef and flour were issued. These rations were supposed to be enough to last each family for two weeks, but it was hard for any Indian to learn to divide what he had on hand and make it last fourteen days. It had always been our custom to feast when food was plenty and to share all we had when there were visitors. The advice our agents gave us—to cut wood in summer when it was hot to use in winter when it would be cold, to stack hay before frost, to dry corn and beans and save sugar and flour for the future—was hard for us to follow. The agents thought we were wasteful and blind to everything but the present, but they had never grown up in a village that used and enjoyed whatever food and fuel and pasture was at hand and then moved on to where there was sure to be more.

Among the Arapaho, and many other Indians, the word for beef was wohaw. This was not an Indian word, in the old sense. We had never seen cattle until we saw white men driving their ox teams across the country. The driver had a good deal of whacking and yelling to do to keep them going, and “Wo!” and “Haw!” were what he yelled at them. So, having no word for oxen in our language, we called them wohaw. When we slaughtered a beef and ate it, we called that wohaw too.

Our older people had to learn to like wohaw. Meat had always been their principal food, and whatever else they had they were always hungry without it. But beef had a different smell and a different taste from buffalo; it was stronger and not so sweet. And since the contractors who supplied the beef bought range cattle, often thin and of poor grade, for the commissary, the meat was likely to be tough. It took long cooking to make a range steer tender, and we had always eaten our buffalo meat rare. But we children who had been born on the reservation liked the white man’s meats, beef and bacon and salt pork, from the beginning.