Reading, Writing, And History

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The medicine bundle was partly a religious symbol, partly an instrument of magic, and partly an earthly habitation for the Without Fires people who were represented in it. It could contain almost anything- a hawk’s head, the skin of a fox, a couple of eagle’s feathers, an oddly shaped rock, a bit of deerskin stitched with porcupine quills and wrapped around an otter’s skull—and it was treated with vast care and reverence because if you had no bundle you could not hope to accomplish anything.

Two Leggings set out to follow the ritual in his early teens, beginning by undergoing the agonizing self-torture of the sun dance. This was rough. The candidate let people thrust two wooden skewers through the fleshy part of his breast, watched as rawhide thongs were attached to each skewer and led to the top of a tall pole, and spent a day dancing about, leaning back against the strain of the instruments of pain and gazing steadfastly at the sun. Not everybody could stand it; Two Leggings remembered one young man who broke down in the middle of it, disengaged himself, and ran down to the river for water. Naturally, lie put a curse on the whole camp; the next war party was a flat failure, and it was all the fault of the man who could not quite stand the agony. (A description of a somewhat similar ceremony, among the Mandans, begins on page 30.)

Two Leggings: The Making of a Crow Warrior, by Peter Nabokov, with a foreword by John C. Ewers. Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 226 pp. $6.95.

Two Leggings stood it, and after the skewers had been torn out of him by the weight of his own body, he spent a couple of nights lying alone on a robe, looking up at the sky and waiting for whatever dream the combination of pain, weariness, and belief would bring him. Unfortunately, the dream he got was confused and inadequate, and as far as he could learn it conveyed no message. So a bit later he tried fasting on a mountain top.

This was not much better. He began by taking his knife and cutting off the tip of his left index finger; then he lay under the sky for three days and nights without food and drink, waiting for the supernaturals to speak to him. If they spoke at all, it was with blurred voices and confused meaning, and he was no better off than before. He tried it again, after a time, and then again, and although he no longer felt obliged to cut off a finger he cut gashes in his arms and waited for delirium and hunger to send him off to the Other Side Camp. He had certain dreams, but they were fuzzy. The supernaturals had been ignoring him.

It is interesting to note that at this point Two Leggings showed that he was as modern as any of us. He had had no worth-while dreams and he had not been able to get a medicine bundle, but he thought maybe he could cheat a little; that is, he set himself up in business as a youthful warrior leader and took a few small expeditions out against the nearest enemy tribes. As he ought to have known, these did not work out well. When he had successes they were small ones, and when he had failures they were bad. He was pressing his luck when his luck was bad, and as any present-day poker player could have told him, this is not the way to do it. Two Leggings at last gave up and threw himself on the mercy of the medicine men.

In short, he had to take a second best; he finally bought a medicine bundle from an elderly chief who, apparently, had had it and was ready to pass his power on to a deserving youth. As everybody knew, this was not nearly as good as getting your own bundle, but it could work; unable to get the power he needed by having and following his own visions, a man might get it by taking someone else’s. In a manner of speaking, this worked. Two Leggings with his medicine bundle was at last able to lead war parties, and he became what his tribe called a pipeholder: which is to say that he was a war chief, carrying the sacred pipe that (along with all of the assorted bundles) somehow guided and directed the war party, and he won moderate distinction thereafter. He had by no means reached the top of the ladder. A pipeholder, as this book points out, was a sort of platoon lieutenant, not a top war chief. But since most actions in the Indian wars of the Old West were fought on the squad or platoon level, this was good enough. Two Leggings had at last made a success.

As is so often the case nowadays, there were built-in contradictions in the life of the Indian warrior. The man who died fighting was lucky. His Without Fires guardian immediately took him in charge, he became an honored warrior in the Other Side Camp, and his soul did not need to go whisking across the plain in a tiny dust cloud. To live to a ripe old age was much less honorable. Everybody wanted it, to be sure, and it showed that your sacred helper was a good gambler who never lost a game to a careless supernatural; besides, the Crow Indian enjoyed living as much as any man now enjoys it, and he knew that when at last he died he would have an honored place in the Other Side Camp. But the man who died in battle was the luckiest—except that this reflected on his supernatural helper, who could not have been very powerful if his earthly charge lost his life and his scalp. It also indicated that the young warrior in question probably had not obeyed his otherworld father. As Two Leggings explained it: