October 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 6
One of the vainest of modern beliefs may be the assumption that it is civilization that makes life complicated. We like to dream that primitive man found existence very simple. He was at the mercy neither of his possessions, which were few, nor of his political and economic arrangements, which were extremely sketchy; all he had to do, apparently, was to solve the basic problems of survival—find shelter and food and some sort of security for life and limb—and he was home free. Life may have been hard, but it needed only to be lived, and while he was living it, primitive man did not need to think about it much.
As any ethnologist could testify, that is not quite the way it was. The simple savage did not have our worries, but he had plenty of his own, and a major concern of his life was the attempt to adjust himself to a universe that seemed just as complicated to him as ours does to us. For an illustration, read Two Leggings: The Making of a Crow Warrior , by Peter Nabokov.
Two Leggings was a war chief of the Crow nation, one of the most active and interesting of the Plains tribes. He was born sometime around 1840, and he died in the early igao’s, and a year or so before his life ended, his recollections were transcribed by William Wildschut, a field researcher for the Museum of the American Indian. A few years ago the manuscript came into the hands of Mr. Nabokov, a writer and a worker in the field of western Indian studies, who edited it and prepared it for publication. The book that now appears is the result, and it gives a revealing picture of the extraordinary amount of time and thought a savage warrior had to devote to the process of finding and maintaining his place in a baffling and unpredictable world.
Two Leggings was a hard-luck warrior. He spent nearly the first fifty years of his life fitting himself to understand and cope with the specialized society that lay between his horizons, and just as he had finished doing it, that society vanished forever. The life the Plains Indians led was over, every aspect of it gone beyond recall, and nothing the Indian had ever thought, done, or learned fitted him for the new existence the white man thrust upon him. Two Leggings wound up in a cabin on a reservation shortly before 1890, and there he spent his last thirty years. He dismissed those years, when he told his story to Mr. Wildschut, with these words: “Nothing happened after that. We just lived. There were no more war parties, no capturing of horses from the Piegans and the Sioux, no buffalo to hunt. There is nothing more to tell.”
What makes the book interesting is its detailed picture of the kind of world Two Leggings lived in and the beliefs and actions it required of the people who lived in it. Like all of his fellows, Two Leggings was born to be a hunter and a warrior, and to win distinction, or indeed even to survive, he needed power and protection. He could get these only from the supernatural beings who inhabited the next world —the Without Fires people, who lived in the Other Side Camp, and who laid down the rules and exerted the authority that controlled everything the Indian did. These Without Fires were divided into clans, just as Indian tribes were, and they included everything imaginable—sun and moon and stars, animals and birds, mountains and trees and flowers and rocks, plus the souls of the dead Indians that were visible on windy days in the little whirlwinds that dance over the plains.
To get power and protection, the Indian needed to be adopted by one or another of these supernaturals. Kere the going began to be complicated, for some of these Without Fires were powerful chiefs, some of them were lesser chiefs, and some of them were not of much account. When you finally got a protector, it paid to get one of the good ones, because one in the lower ranks might not be able to take good care of you. In addition, the supernaturals were inveterate gamblers, and when they gambled they used their earthly children as stakes. Your protector in the Other Side Camp, be he ever so benign and active, might at any time lose you, through an unlucky throw of the bones, to some other supernatural. This, apparently, represented the Indian’s recognition of a fact modern man also has to absorb: no matter how faithfully you follow the rules and conform to the proper pattern, a bit of bad luck can send it all down the drain at any moment.
In any case, it was above all things necessary for the Indian to get and to recognize a supernatural protector. He did this through dreams and visions, and to have these the young Indian had to go through a trying and painful ritual that might go on for years before it produced a satisfactory result. Once the proper dream had been dreamed it was of course necessary to have it interpreted, because to try to figure it out on your own hook was very risky, and here was where the medicine man came in. He would construe your dream for you, and tell you who or what your supernatural protector was, what other supernaturals were allied with him, and how you yourself had to order your life as a result. The medicine man was as devout a student of dreams as any Freudian analyst, and once he told you what your dream meant you could construct a proper medicine bundle which, if you used it right, would make you a great warrior and a successful hunter.
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:
When we receive a medicine our sacred helper gives us certain instructions. Sometimes we must not do certain things, like eating certain foods. If we disobey we may have bad luck or sickness or suffer a wound in battle. If we keep disobeying our sacred helper he will grow angry and place the life of his child as a stake against some powerful opponent who always wins. The souls of people who die this way are of a lower kind, but they are allowed to enter the Other Side Camp. However, the souls of suicides and murderers must roam the earth as ghosts.
Both ends, in short, worked against the middle, and even with the most steadfast faith and the most scrupulous care for observance of the proper ceremonies the Indian never quite knew where he was coming out. As we do today, he lived by prestige. If he could become a bureau chief, a branch manager, or a best-selling novelist—if, in other words, he could become a pipeholder—he had it made; except that to stand on the summit is to stand on a very slippery place. Even with the best medicine in the world, your war party could fail if your own skill and bravery were inadequate; on the other hand, the most brave and skillful man could fail if his medicine failed him. It was hard to figure.
The innocent and uncomplicated savage, thus, lived as we live, in a world he had never made. Life was infernally complicated and anything could happen. Man’s biggest problem was to figure out the rules by which the world worked and then abide by them, and if things eventually went wrong it could only mean that the Without Fires party to whom he had entrusted his destiny had played a losing game with some other supernatural. Or, as a man might say nowadays, he was a good man who just did not get the breaks. The savage was singularly modern in his outlook. He just used a different language.
The point is that this particular Indian, Two Leggings, spent more than the first half of a long and active life trying to understand the complexities of the universe in which his lot had been cast, and at last he supposed that he had caught on. So he abided by the rules, made a substantial success, was entitled to call himself a sort of war chief—and then he found that the rules of the game had been changed while he was looking the other way. Then there was nothing left. As Two Leggings put it: “Nothing happened after that. … There is nothing more to tell.”
Nothing more, except for the glimpse of a wild poetry by which these highly complicated men lived; the poetry, with its glimpse of the Other Side Camp and the Without Fires peoole, and the little puff-clouds of dancing dust shimmering across the endless plains.