The Tar Baby and the Tomahawk: Race and Ethnic Images in American Children's Literature, 1880-1939


Recollections of the Wild Life

IV. An Indian Boy's Training

THE training of the Sioux boy begins when he listens to the songs of war, the songs of the chase, and the songs of the "Great Mystery," or Wakantanka; and these were the lullabies which we heard in our infancy. Of course there were some boys who were deprived of the training they needed, even in the wild life; but the true and loving parents were as ambitious and hopeful for their children as any civilized and educated parents could be.

Very early the Indian boy assumed the task of preserving and transmitting the legends and stories of his ancestors and his race. Almost every evening a myth, or a legend of some deed done in the past, was narrated by one of the parents or grandparents, and to it the boy listened
with parted mouth and shining eyes. On the following evening he was usually required to repeat it. If he was not an apt scholar, he struggled long with his task; but, as a rule, the Indian boy is a good listener and has a good memory, so that the stories were tolerably well mastered. The household became his audience, by whom he was alternately criticized and applauded.

This sort of teaching at once enlightens the boy's mind and stimulates his ambition. His conception of his own future career becomes a vivid and irresistible force. Whatever there is for him to acquire must be acquired; whatever qualifications are necessary to a truly great warrior and hunter, he must seek at any expense of danger and hardship. Such was the feeling of the imaginative and brave young Indian.

It becomes apparent to him early in life that he must accustom himself to rove alone, and not to fear or dislike the impression of solitude, but acquaint himself thoroughly with nature. Much has been said about Indian children's "instincts." To be sure, we inherited some of the characteristics of our ancestors, but the greater part of our faculties we had to acquire by practice. All the stoicism and patience of the Indian are acquired traits. Physical training and dieting were not neglected. I remember I was not allowed to drink beef soup or any warm drink. The soup was for the old men. The general rules for the young were never to eat their food very hot, nor to drink much water.

My uncle, who educated me, was a severe and strict teacher. When I left his teepee for the day, he would say to me: "Hakada, watch everything closely and observe its characteristics"; and at evening, on my return, he used to catechize me for an hour or so. "On which side of the trees is the lighter-colored bark? On which side do they have most regular branches?" It was his custom to let me name all the new birds that I had seen during the day. I would name them according to the color, or habits, or the shape of the bill, or their song, or the appearance and locality of the nest— in fact, anything about the bird which impressed me as characteristic. I made many ridiculous errors, I must admit. He then usually informed me of the correct name. Occasionally I made a hit, and this he would warmly commend.

He went much deeper into this science when I was a little older— that is, about the age of eight or nine years. He would say, for instance, "How do you know that there are fish in the lake?" "Because they jump out of the water for flies at midday." He would smile at my prompt but superficial reply. "What do you think of the little pebbles grouped together under the shallow water, and how came the rivulet-like and pretty curved marks in the sand under the water, and the little sandbanks? Where do you find the fish-eating birds?— by the fishless water? Have the inlet and the outlet of a lake anything to do with the question?" He did not expect a correct reply at once to all the voluminous questions that he put to me, but he meant to make me observant and careful in studying nature.

"Hakada," he would say to me, "you ought to follow the example of the shunktokeca [wolf]. Even when he is surprised and runs for his life, he will pause to take one more look at you before he enters his final retreat. So you must take a second look at everything that you may see.

"It is better to view nature unobserved. I was once an interested and unseen spectator of a contest between a pair of grizzly bears and three buffaloes— a rash act for the bears, for it was in the moon of strawberries, when the buffaloes sharpen and polish their horns for bloody contests among themselves. By the way, Hakada, I would advise you never to approach a grizzly's den from the front, but steal up behind, and then throw your blanket or a stone in front of the hole. He does not usually rush out for it, but comes out very indifferently, and sits on his haunches on the mound in front of the hole, before he makes any attack. While he is displaying himself in this manner, aim at his heart. Always be as cool as the animal himself." Thus he warned me against the cunning of savage beasts, by teaching me how to outwit them.

"In hunting," he would resume,"you will be guided by the habits of the animal you seek. Remember that a moose stays in swampy or low
land, or between high mountains near a spring or lake, for thirty to sixty days at a time. Most large game moves constantly, except the doe in the spring; it is a very easy matter then to find her with the fawn. Conceal yourself in a convenient place, as soon as you observe any signs of the presence of either, and then call with your birchen doe-caller. Whichever one hears you first will soon appear near you. But be very watchful, or you may be made a fawn of by a large wildcat! They understand the call of the fawn or of a doe perfectly well.

"When you have any difficulty with a bear or a wildcat,—that is, if the creature shows signs of attacking you,—you must make him fully understand that you have seen him and are aware of his intentions. If you are not well equipped for a pitched battle, the only way to make him retreat is to take a long, sharp-pointed pole for a spear, and rush toward him. No wild beast will face this unless he is cornered and already wounded. All fierce beasts know the common weapon of the larger animals—the horns. If they are very long and sharp, they dare not risk an open fight. They always prefer to surprise the enemy. In this respect they are not far different from men.

"There is one exception to this rule: the gray wolf will attack fiercely when very hungry. But their courage entirely depends upon their number: in this they are like white men. One wolf or two never attack a man. They will stampede a herd of buffaloes in order to get at the calves; they will rush upon a herd of antelopes, for these are helpless; but they are always careful about attacking men.

"Of this nature were the instructions of my uncle, who was widely known at that time as the greatest hunter of his tribe.

All boys were expected to endure hardship without complaint. In savage warfare, a young man must of course be an athlete and used to undergoing all sorts of hardships. He must be able to go without food or water for two or three days, or to run for a day and a night without rest. He must know how to traverse a pathless and wild country without losing his way either in the day or night time. He cannot refuse to do any of these things, if he claims to be a warrior. Sometimes my uncle would waken me very early in the morning, and challenge me to fast with him all day. I had to accept. We blackened our faces with charcoal, so that every boy in the village would know that I was fasting for the day. Then the little tempters would make my life a misery until the merciful sun hid behind the western hills.

I can scarcely recall the time when my stern teacher began to give sudden war-whoops over my head in the morning, while I was sound asleep. He expected me to leap up with perfect presence of mind, always ready to grasp a weapon of some sort, and to give a shrill whoop in reply. If I was sleepy or startled, and hardly knew what I was about, he would deride me, and would say that I need never expect to sell my scalp dear! Often he would vary these tactics by shooting off a gun just outside of the teepee while I was yet asleep, at the same time giving blood-curdling yells. After a while I became used to this.

When Indians went upon the war-path, it was their custom to try the new warriors thoroughly before coming to an engagement. For instance, when they were near a hostile camp, they would select the novices to go after the water, and make them do all sorts of things to display their courage. In accordance with this idea my uncle used to send me off after water when in a strange place and after dark. Perhaps the country was full of wild beasts, and there might be scouts from hostile bands of Indians lurking about our camp. Yet I never objected, for that would show cowardice. I picked my way through the woods, dipped my pail in the water, and hurried back, always careful to make as little noise as a cat. Being only a boy, my heart would leap at every crackling of a dry stick under my feet, or distant hoot of an owl, until at last I reached our teepee. Then my uncle would perhaps say, "Ali, Hakada, you are a thorough warrior!" empty out the precious contents of the pail, and order me to go for a second time.

Imagine how I felt! But I wished to be a brave as much as a white boy desires to be a great lawyer, or even President of the United
States! So I silently took the pail, and endeavored to retrace my footsteps in the dark.

With all this our manners and morals were not neglected. I was made to respect the adults, and especially the aged. I was not allowed to join in their discussions, or even to speak in their presence, unless requested to do so. Indian etiquette was perfect in these respects, and I am glad to say that it is still observed by some. We were taught generosity to the poor, and reverence for the "Great Mystery." Religion was the basis of all Indian training.

I recall to the present day some of the kind warnings and reproofs that my good grandmother was wont to give me. "Be strong of heart— be patient!" she used to say. She told me of a young chief who was noted for his uncontrollable temper. While in one of his rages he attempted to kill a woman, for which he was slain by his own band, and left unburied as a mark of disgrace— his body simply covered with green grass. If I ever lost my temper, she would say, "Hakada, control yourself, or you will be like that young man, and lie under a green blanket!"

In the old days, no young man was allowed to use tobacco in any form until he had 
become an acknowledged warrior, and had
 achieved the public respect. If a youth should
 seek a wife before he had reached the age of
 twenty-two or twenty-three, and been recognized as a brave man, he was sneered at and
 considered an ill-bred Indian. Especially he
 must be a skilful hunter. An Indian cannot 
be a good husband unless he brings home 
plenty of game. These precepts were in the line of our training for the wild life.

(To be continued.)