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My People of the Plains

By Ethelbert Talbot, D.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Central Pennsylvania

New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1906.

Chapter III. Old Chief Washakie

GENERAL GRANT, when President, adopted the plan of parcelling out the various Indian tribes and reservations among the several religious bodies engaged in Indian work. Thus it happened that to the Episcopal Church, under the leadership of Bishop Spalding, of Colorado, then in charge of Wyoming, the Wind River Reservation was allotted. That was early in the eighties, just previous to my going West. In this beautiful valley of the Wind River, embracing a territory of ten thousand square miles, two noted tribes were domiciled--the Sho-shones and the Arapahoes. Their relations were not of the most cordial character, for hereditary feuds and occasional warlike sallies had from time to time disturbed that perfect mutual concord so important for neighbors to maintain. But the government hoped that, as the reservation was so large, being over one hundred miles square, the two tribes could live far apart, and have abundant room wherein to avoid collision. It must be admitted that, for the most part, serious tribal difficulties have been avoided. Each tribe prides itself on its superiority to the other, and it would be deemed a disgrace for a Shoshone warrior to marry an Arapahoe maiden, and vice versa. The presence, however, of a military garrison of Uncle Sam's troops, which has always been maintained by the government, has had a pacifying effect on any bellicose feelings that have from time to time arisen.

Since the Shoshones migrated to the Wind River--indeed, long before that date, until a few years ago--they have had but one chief, old Washakie, as he was familiarly known. The Indian word Washakie is said to mean "Shoots-on-the-fly," and may bear witness to the deadly and unerring aim for which the chief was famous. This reputation, coupled with his bravery, inspired much terror in the minds of the surrounding tribes. As a ruler of his people, Washakie was as autocratic as any Russian czar. In securing certain police supervision over the Indians, the government agent soon discovered that it was wiser and, in the long run, more humane to let Washakie, with the full knowledge of the commanding officer, exercise his unlimited monarchy, rather than interfere. The government learned that the chief could be trusted; that he kept his word and meant to be loyal. The fact was also quickly recognized that his word was law to his tribe. If any insubordination manifested itself, it was wiser to allow him to suppress it in his own way than to send the troops among them. So the agent, on hearing of anything that required attention, would summon the old chief and lay the matter before him. No time was lost in effecting a remedy. If it meant that somebody must die, it seemed best that Washakie should do the killing rather than that the government should incur the odium of being the executor. On one occasion it was reported to the Indian agent that a certain Shoshone buck was in the habit of beating unmercifully his squaw. The chief was summoned.

"Washakie," said the agent, "I am informed that Six Feathers is beating his wife. Do you allow your men to do that sort of thing?"

"Oh," said Washakie, "sometimes we beat them when they are bad."

"Well," said the agent, "I am sent here by Uncle Sam to see that such cruelty is stopped. Will you see to this case?"

"Yes," said Washakie, "I will speak to Six Feathers."

In a few days Washakie returned and said to the agent: "Colonel, Six Feathers no more beat his squaw. Me fix him."

"Why, what do you mean, Washakie?" said the agent.

"Oh," said Washakie, "me kill him. Me find him beating her. Me tell him white man say stop. Two sleeps go by. Me find him beating squaw again. Me shoot him, and drag him out to the rocks."

It is needless to say that wife-beating from that time forth greatly abated among the Shoshones. It only cost one buck, and Washakie, and not the government, had killed him.

Tradition has it that some years before I knew him, Washakie himself had not been free from blame, in that he had disposed of his mother-in-law. But he was the chief and had absolute rights, and the government could not wisely interfere with his domestic rule. The story is that on one occasion Washakie went hunting. Before leaving he ordered his squaw to move his tepee to a higher point of ground, for it was getting damp in the valley. He was gone a week. When he returned he was cold and tired and cross. Approaching his tent he saw with much disgust that the wigwam stood just where he had left it. He was not accustomed to being disobeyed even by his squaw. Entering his home he said:

"Did I not tell you to move this tepee?"

"Yes," said his squaw, seeing fire in the old man's eye.

"Then why did you not do it?"

"Because," said she, "my mother would not permit me."

Then there ensued a passage-at-arms between the chief and his mother-in-law, and Washakie, in a fit of unbridled rage, cruelly slew the offending old woman.

I hope my readers will not unduly blame me for narrating this incident, for already it has brought upon my innocent head at least one serious reprimand. It was in Buffalo, New York. I was the guest of a prominent rector much beloved by his people. He had sent for me that I might inspire some missionary zeal in the hearts of his flock. He told me that they were a kind and thoughtful people, and towards him personally most gracious and considerate. He said they would give any amount of money for their own city or parish, but that he had tried in vain to get them interested in the cause of missions, foreign or domestic. He added that about a half dozen men of wealth sat in the front pews near the pulpit, and he hoped I might induce them to give liberally towards the cause which I represented. So I went at them. I told them of the poverty of my scattered flock on the big prairies; described how a few hundred dollars would enable me to send a clergyman here or there; explained that with five hundred dollars, aided by the people themselves, I could build a much-needed little church. But my appeals did not seem to move them. Then I told them some pathetic stories of suffering and self-denial on the part of my missionaries. Again I tried the effect of some facetious incidents; but all in vain. Finally, becoming desperate, I narrated, the story of old Washakie killing his mother-in-law, and reminded my hearers that even such a cruel and hard-hearted savage as he had been had come under the fascination of the Gospel story, and was now a good Christian. No greater testimony to the power of Christianity could be given, I added, than that a man mean enough to kill his mother-in-law had been converted. Then the plates went round. One man tore out the fly-leaf of his prayer-book and wrote, "Call on me for fifty dollars for that old chief that killed his mother-in-law. My heart goes out to him." Another wrote on a scrap of paper, "I have given the Bishop all I had in my pocket, but call on me for twenty-five dollars more for that old chief." About thirteen hundred and sixty dollars was gathered in for the Indian school.

After the service I received in the vestry-room a card. It was evidently from some one in mourning. I asked the rector who the lady was. He said she was a devout and wealthy parishioner, and added: "See her, by all means." When she stood before me I saw there was trouble ahead. She told me she had been so much interested in the early part of my address. "But," she continued, "I was deeply disappointed that you told that horrible incident about that cruel old chief who killed his mother-in-law." She said she dearly loved her mother-in-law, whom she had recently lost, and that it was evident I had taken delight in venting my own personal feelings against mothers-in-law. It was not until I had assured her that no personal experience had inspired my recital, and that a strange and inscrutable Providence had denied me a mother-in-law, that she completely forgave me, and produced a check for two hundred and fifty dollars, which she had brdught to church for me, and we parted excellent friends.

To return to the old chief. His hair had turned white when as yet he was a young man. His people explain it as having been caused by his remorse and grief at the loss of his son, a brave young warrior, killed by the Sioux. The circumstances were as follows: Washakie and a band of warriors, among whom was this son whom he idolized, were camping some distance from the reservation. The lad, with two companions, had gone with Washakie's consent to the hills for big game. While they were absent a band of hostile Sioux had surprised the camp and killed a number of Washakie's bravest and best men, but they had been driven off, and many of them slain by the chief's own hand. As the survivors were retreating the three young hunters returned. Washakie, in his rage and excitement, reproached his boy with being cowardly in running off in the time of battle, forgetting, for the moment, that he had given him permission to go. The young man, stung under the rebuke, asked which way the Sioux went, and seeing the dust in the far distance, followed with his two companions after the retreating Sioux. At last they overtook them, and killed and scalped several of the number, but in the fray Washakie's brave boy was slain and scalped. When his companions got back and told the story of his death it was nearly dark. Washakie, in great agony of soul, withdrew into his tent and threw himself on the ground, groaning, and in unutterable sorrow passed the long night. He was then in the full vigor of manhood; but when the day dawned it was found that the chief's hair was snow white, and ever afterwards he could not speak of his son without tears. It was thought that he blamed himself for unjustly taunting the youth with cowardice, and thus driving him into that act of desperation that he might redeem himself in his father's eyes.

Washakie was without fear, and his prowess and skill were so well known that hostile tribes dreaded him as invincible. Numerous stories have been handed down to illustrate how the old chief, sometimes against terrible odds, put to flight his enemies. He was rather proud of his martial deeds, and during the later years of his life was wont to entertain himself and his friends by placing on record a sort of autobiographical sketch of his most noted victories. The method he adopted to accomplish this was a striking one. He could neither read nor write, nor did he ever learn to speak English with any facility. But he fell upon the plan of representing upon canvas his battles. On the four walls of his log cabin he tacked up strips of cloth three feet wide, and on that white background the old man would try his hand as an artist. For paint he used the red and blue and yellow pebbles which he picked up along the banks of the Wind River.

With this primitive outfit he worked away until all around his room were to be witnessed the scenes of his valor. On one occasion when I visited him he said to his friend and pastor, the Reverend John Roberts: "Tell the Bishop I want him to see Wash-akie killing the Sioux." He would then point out with evident glee, beginning at the first, all his battles. In every case it was easy to recognize himself as the chief figure. In one instance he represented himself as hiding behind a tree, while two Sioux, mounted on one horse, are approaching. Suddenly he lets fly an arrow that pierces through the bodies of both Indians, transfixing them in the agony of death. Again, he lies behind a log, concealed, as a party of Sioux draw near, all unsuspecting. He fires upon them, and they reel backward from their horses in answer to his deadly aim. In another picture he is scalping a great savage chieftain whom he has slain in mortal combat. He would delight in recalling all the details and bloody conflicts wherein he never failed to come out triumphant. His heart had become tender, and he had received with a certain unaffected and childlike simplicity the story of the cross and the great love of the Saviour who had died upon it for him. Indeed, I have seen him moved to tears as I read the Gospel account of the crucifixion, interpreted to him by Mr. Roberts. And yet, with the old savage instinct still surviving within in his nature, those reminiscences of the wild forest days of tumult and slaughter gave him evident satisfaction.

The government for some years had made use of his services as a scout. His wide knowledge of the country, his fearlessness, and, above all, his loyalty to the flag, made him an ideal guide. He was also among the first of the Indian leaders to recognize the new era which was about to dawn upon his race, and to adjust himself and his people to the new conditions which it imposed. He early saw with prophetic vision that the only salvation for the red-man, destined to come into contact with the whites, was education, whereby his intelligence could be of use, and labor as a means of support and independence. He co-operated with the government in providing schools for his people, and did all in his power to encourage them to till the soil, put in crops, and learn to earn a living. It was in the interest of a government appropriation for the better education of his. people, and that he might explain the need of agricultural implements, that he once made a pilgrimage to Washington.

The journey was a revelation to the old man. He had no idea of the magnitude of our country, its enormous resources, the hundreds of towns and cities through which he passed, and the countless numbers of white men in evidence everywhere. It overwhelmed at first and saddened him. He saw by contrast how comparatively small and insignificant a factor in the great swarming millions of people the few scattered tribes of his own race constituted. He also reflected that the white man's power and wealth and greatness came from industry and agriculture and schools. He was philosopher enough to learn the lesson that the day of the buffalo and the wigwam and nomadic life was forever past.

As a friend of the church and the school, and a believer in the gospel of work and progress, General Grant learned to love and honor him. After Washakie returned home the President determined to send him some present, that the old chief and his people might know how highly he valued his services. At first a horse was thought of as a suitable token, but some one suggested that Washakie was rich in ponies. At last a saddle was decided upon, and General Grant gave order that no expense be spared in making his old friend the most beautiful and appropriate saddle possible. Red and blue and yellow, bright colors that appeal to the Indian's fancy, were to be lavished upon it, and every ornament and convenience that art could suggest. The saddle was duly made and sent to the colonel commanding the military garrison for presentation. The fort itself had been named Washakie in honor of the chief. When the present arrived a letter accompanied it from the President to the colonel, suggesting that the saddle be presented publicly, that all the Indians might appreciate its significance. The day appointed was an ideal Wyoming day, clear and bright. The Indians gathered in large numbers. By invitation Black Coal, the chief of the Arapahocs, was there with his warriors, while the Shoshoncs turned out with great enthusiasm. When all was in readiness the colonel asked an orderly to hold up the saddle in full view of the assembled Indians, among whom Washakie stood foremost. In a few well-chosen words the commanding officer reminded them that the Great Father, General Grant, had not forgotten Wash-akie's visit, nor had he failed to appreciate all their chief had done for the nation and his own people. He knew that in the early days Washakie had saved the lives of innocent women and children; that he had never been upon the war-path against the whites; that he was a Christian, and a friend of the schools; that he believed in the importance of the red-man's learning to work in order to become independent and self-supporting; and that this beautiful saddle had been sent him as a slight testimonial of the great affection in which Washakie was held by the President of the United States.

Meanwhile, Washakie stood profoundly moved by all that had been said. With his arms folded, his lips quivering, and tears rolling down his cheeks, he stood speechless. At last the colonel said:

"Washakie, will you not send the Great Father some word of acknowledgment?"

The old man hesitated a moment, and then replied: "Colonel, I cannot speak. My heart is so full that my tongue will not work."

"Oh, but," said the colonel, "Washakie, you must try to say something. Just a word, that the Great Father may know how highly you value his gift."

Then, struggling with his emotions, the old man said: "Well, colonel, it is very hard for an Indian to say thank you like a white man. When you do a kindness for a white man the white man feels it in his head, and his tongue talks. But when you do a kindness for a red-man, the red-man feels it in his heart. The heart has no tongue." Surely this simple eloquence of his grateful friend must have appealed to General Grant's noble nature, and added to the pleasure he felt in being able to honor so faithful a public servant.

I have already referred to Washakie's religious nature and his interest in the church. He was a devoted friend to the Reverend John Roberts, who for over twenty-five years has been ministering to the Indians on that reservation. Again and again has Mr. Roberts assured me of Washakie's simple and earnest faith. Morning and night he was wont to pray to Him whom he spoke of now as the "Indian's friend," and again as "the Son of God." He was baptized by Mr. Roberts a number of years ago when he was lying critically ill. It happened that from the hour of his baptism he began to grow better rapidly, and was soon restored to perfect health. It was not strange that to a superstitious people this remarkable recovery should have seemed entirely due to the magic effect of the baptism. Therefore, the Indians flocked in great numbers to the minister, begging him to baptize them in order that they also might receive some of "the same medicine" that saved the life of their beloved chief. It was difficult to make them understand that the real virtue of baptism was spiritual and not physical, and to make use of the occasion as a wholesome example for them to follow.

The last time I saw Washakie was at the close of the Spanish-American War. I had not been at the reservation for a whole year, and had come back from central Pennsylvania to make my final visitation. He greeted me as usual as "Big Chief of the White Robes," and begged Mr. Roberts to tell me of his sorrow at my leaving Wyoming; that he had not been well, and that he was growing old and feeble, and could no longer mount his horse from the ground without using the stirrup; but that he still prayed day by day to the Saviour. Then pausing, and looking earnestly at me, his face beamed with delight and satisfaction. He said to Mr. Roberts: "Tell the Bishop my heart is dancing for joy, because Uncle Sam's troops have whipped the Spanish." He was very patriotic.

It was not many months after this interview that the brave old man passed away. The same faithful friend and clergyman ministered to him in his last illness, and it was gratifying to me to know that the loyal old warrior remembered me in his last hours. He was no longer able to speak, but he said to his minister in the sign-language: "Tell the good friend who has gone East that Washakie has found the right trail."

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