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


An Indian Letter

The painted signs on a piece of leather—Running Buffalo's letter to Oo-Nuzhe-Cuda.

SOME time ago Running Buffalo, a big chief of the Sioux tribe, wished to write a letter to Oo-Nuzhe-Cuda, of the Omaha Indian tribe ; he wished to tell his friend how his farm and his herds were getting along, and to assure the Omaha that the Sioux was now living like a white man and would continue to do so all the rest of his life.

But Running Buffalo did not know a word of the Omaha language, and Oo-Nuzhe-Cuda did not know a word of the Sioux tongue.

Now when an American wants to write to a Spaniard, and neither understands the language of the other, the American gets an interpreter to change the English words into Spanish, and the Spaniard gets his letter in words he can understand.

But there was no interpreter between the Sioux and the Omaha, and then Running Buffalo, being a brave of the old school, did not know a single one of the " signs " which a white man can write on paper, and another white man can " read," or, by looking at them, can tell what the maker of the signs meant. Running Buffalo had always steadfastly refused to learn a single word of the white man's language. He wanted to remain a Sioux Indian. But while Running Buffalo could not writ English, he could make the " pictures any Indian of any tribe on the great North American continent could understand. 11,3 Moqui Indian from Arizona, a Seminole from Florida, and a Crow Indian from Montana should meet and wish to tell each other where the best camping ground is, they would have a difficult time talking each other's language' for all three are different. But these three Indians from three different tribes would Or ply begin making signs, and then each Indian would soon understand just what the other two were saying.

So Running Buffalo got a piece of leather a sharp stick, and some black mineral paint which he himself made out of the material which the Sioux have used to make war pail', of for many centuries. Then he began to make signs on the piece of leather. And here is a photograph of it, showing the signs which Running Buffalo sent to his friend, Oo-Nuzhe-Cuda.

Running Buffalo lives over on the great Sioux Indian reservation, in South Dakota. And Oo-Nuzhe-Cuda, being an Omaha, live: over in Nebraska where the Omaha tribe has


its reservation. Running Buffalo took his letter to the Indian Agent and got the Agent to address it to Oo-Nuzhe-Cuda, over on the Omaha reservation. And when Oo-Nuzhe-Cuda received the piece of painted leather, this is the way he read rthe signs which Running Buffalo had made for him.

"The way to the old Indian life (signified by the tepee or wigwam) is barred, and I can no more return thereto (the bars are before the tepee). I am now living in the white man's Way and I have a horse (shown by the picture Of the horse), seven head of cattle (seven dots under the horns) and a farm (the square surmounted by a plow).

My squaw (the circle inclosing a dot), myself (the triangle) and my son (the dot following the other sign) have come a long and crooked (eventful) path (the crooked sign following the sign for the boy). We have lived many years and our lives have been full of adventure. But I am now getting old and feeble ; the fires of life are almost extinguished (the small fire sign on the ground within the Indian represents the fire burning low in an Indian tepee) ; my energies are almost spent ; am an old man. Even the last warpath rile flying arrow) upon which I traveled (the last war in which I took part) lasted only two dots moons (one month, signified by the two dots in a half moon).

But my squaw, myself and my son are "w living in peace. I have smoked the pipe of peace (the ornaments on the pipe show it t be a peace pipe ') and I have abandoned' the warpath forever. I can never again go n the warpath ; there is a barrier in the way (the bars separate the flying arrow from the pipe of peace) ; and I will live in.peace forever, squaw, myself and my son.


(In the signature the " horns " are intended to stand for buffalo ; the snaky line means running.")

And so, after reading this queer " letter," 0o- Nuzhe-Cuda knew that his friend, Running Buffalo, was living in peace, had a farm and a herd of cattle, and was an old man.

But while Oo-Nuzhe-Cuda cannot read Sioux, he knows English as well as any other every-day American. Although he is a mem- man of the Omaha Indian tribe, he is a white man and is not an Indian at all.

The first time he went among the Indians, long, long ago, he wore a suit of gray clothes,

and the Indians immediately named him Oo-Nuzhe-Cuda, which means " The Man Who Wears Gray Clothes," and they have called him by that name for more than 40 years. But the white men call him Thomas H. Tibbles, and in 1904 Mr. Tibbles was the candidate of the Populists for Vice-President of the United States.

Years ago, Mr. Tibbles came west and settled in Nebraska. He was out on the plains scouting and hunting a great deal, and soon became well known to the Indians. At that time the Omaha tribe lived in eastern Nebraska and Mr. Tibbles spent much of his time with them. After a while they adopted him into their tribe, and gave him the full rights of an Indian warrior.

While out hunting one cold winter day years and years ago, Mr. Tibbles and a party of Omahas were camped on the banks of the Niobrara river in northern Nebraska. The river was frozen over. After awhile, there appeared a single Indian on the opposite bank of the river. He signaled that he was hungry. Mr. Tibbles answered and beckoned him to " come on," and turned the palms of his hands toward the strange Indian. That meant that he would be received as a friend.

The Indian started across the ice. Suddenly the ice wavered and broke and down went the redskin into the " Swift Running Water " (that is the meaning of " Niobrara "). The water was shallow, but was filled with quicksands.

Tying a lariat around his waist, Mr. Tibbles, at the risk of his own life, rescued the strange Indian, brought him to the shore, and gave him warm, dry clothing, fed him and kept him for several days.

The stranger was Running Buffalo, a sub- chief of the Sioux. He had been wounded by a buffalo in the hunt and had strayed from the tents of his people.

When Running Buffalo was well, he started for the Sioux country, after vowing eternal friendship to Mr. Tibbles, whom he claimed as his " brother." The entire conversation was carried on in the sign language, because neither could talk the language of the other.

These two men, Running Buffalo, the Sioux, and Mr. Tibbles, Oo-Nuzhe-Cuda, the White- Omaha, have corresponded for nearly forty years. Their letters are always written in " picture " writing, and are sent at intervals of two or three years. The two men have met half a dozen times only since Running Buffalo was rescued from the quicksands. But each prizes highly the picture-letters of the other.