Univ. Nebraska Studies


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The process of arriving at the chieftaincy—an instance of which was exemplified in the formation of the Red Root Band and of which we were an eyewitness—has always been the same and is as follows: Some ambitious brave young man with extensive relations separate[s] from another band, with eight or ten lodges of his connections, and [they] rove and hunt in a portion of the country by themselves, acknowledging this man as their head on account of his known bravery and successful management of large war expeditions. From time to time additions are made to this band from other bands of persons with their families who from different causes of dissatisfaction choose to leave their leaders and submit to the government of the new chief. This chief, wishing to rise, does all in his power to benefit his small band by protecting them, choosing good hunting grounds, giving to them all horses and other property taken by him from his enemies, and, if necessary, fearlessly risking his life to strike or kill one of his own people to preserve order or their sense of justice. In the course of some years around this nucleus is assembled a body which assumes the form and name of a band and the leader, rising in power and support, increases in respect, and the standing and name of chief rewards his perseverance. It will be thus seen that the title and position of chief is neither hereditary nor elective, but being assumed by the right and upon the principles above explained, is voluntarily granted him by his followers. . . .

Is each band entitled to one or more chiefs? There is, as observed before, but one nominal chief to each band, and it is he who leads it. Yet this position does not destroy nor militate against the will of several others in the same band whose voices are as much entitled to a hearing and sometimes more so than his. No man’s rule over them is absolute; their government is pure democracy. Their consent to be governed or led by any man is voluntarily given and likewise withdrawn at the discretion of the person. But their existence as a people depends on forming themselves into bodies capable of defense. These bodies must have leaders and these leaders must be brave, respected, followed, and supported. In case of a treaty either with whites or with Indians of other nations, the leading chief’s voice would have no additional weight because he is in that position. He would be allowed to state his opinions with others of the same standing as men in the same band, but nothing more. . . . There are no bands more honorable than others; some are more powerful, more rascally, or more tractable, but no aristocratic or honorable distinctions exist. . . .

What are the general powers of chiefs in council? To explain this, it will be necessary to describe a council as witnessed by me a few years since. The camp when I was a visitor consisted of about 110 lodges and in the neighborhood, say, 10 or 15 miles off, were two other camps, respectively 50 and 60 lodges, all being of the band Gens des Canots. The council was held in the soldiers’ lodge, where, being a stranger, I had a right to be, though having nothing to say regarding the question. This question was, Will we make peace with the Crow Nation? A few days previous the leading chief had received an intimation through me that overtures for a peace were made to them by the Crow Nation, and that the Crow tobacco sent for that purpose was in my possession at any time the council assembled; also that a deputation of Crow Indians was at the Fort, who had commissioned me to bear the tobacco with their request and to await a reply prior to their visiting the camp in person.

To decide this runners were sent immediately to the two camps mentioned with a message from the chief requesting the attendance of all chiefs, counselors, soldiers, and warriors who felt an interest in the affair in question, who in due time arrived and took up their residence in the different lodges around about until the hour for business arrived. . . . For nearly a half hour the pipe was passed around in silence, it being filled with their own tobacco and handed from mouth to mouth, making its circuit on the right hand, after which it was laid down by the leading chief and he opened the meeting by thus stating its object, the words of whom and others were taken down by us at the time and preserved. It will be necessary to state here that the Crow Indians had massacred about 30 lodges of this same band two years previous on the banks of the Yellowstone, yet had succeeded in making a peace with some of the upper bands of Assiniboin who had not suffered by them.

The leading chief spoke thus from where he sat:

"My children, I am a mild man. For upward of twenty years I have herded you together like a band of horses. If it had not been for me, you would long ago have been scattered like wolves over the prairies. Good men and wise men are scarce; and, being so, they should be listened to, loved, and obeyed. My tongue has been worn thin and my teeth loosened in giving you advice and instruction. I am aware I speak to men as wise as myself, many braver, but none older or of more experience. I have called you together to state that our enemies (the Crows) have sent tobacco, through the medium of the whites at the big fort, to me and my children, to see if they could smoke it with pleasure, or if it tasted badly. For my part I am willing to smoke. We are but a handful of men surrounded by large and powerful nations, all our enemies. Let us therefore by making a peace reduce this number of foes and increase our number of friends. I am aware that many here have lost relatives by these people, so have we by the Gros Ventres, and yet we have peace with them. If it be to our interest to make peace all old enmities must be laid aside and forgotten. I am getting old, and have not many more winters to see, and am tired seeing my children gradually decrease by incessant war. We are poor in horses—from the herds the Crows own we will replenish. They will pay high and give many horses for peace. The Crows are good warriors, and the whites say good people and will keep their word. Whatever is decided upon let it be manly. We are men; others can speak. I listen. I have said."

This speech was received by a slight response by some of "Hoo-o-o-o" and by the majority in silence. After a few minutes’ interval he was replied to by another chief, the third or fourth from where he sat. This was a savage, warlike, one-eyed Indian, and his speech was characteristic. He said: "He differed from all the old chief had said regarding their enemies. Individually as a man and as their leader he liked his father, the chief, but he must be growing old and childish to advise them to take to smoke the tobacco of their enemies, the Crows. Tell the whites to take it back to them. It stinks, and if smoked would taste of the blood of our nearest relations. He thought (he said) his old father (the chief) should make a journey to the banks of the Yellowstone, and speak to the grinning skulls of 30 lodges of his children, and hear their answer. Would they laugh? Would they dance? Would they beg for Crow tobacco or cry for Crow horses? If horses were wanted in camp, let the young men go to war and steal and take them as he had done—as he intended to do as long as a Crow Indian had a horse. What if in the attempt they left their bones to bleach on the prairie? It would be but dying like men! For his part it always pleased him to see a young man’s skull; the teeth were sound and beautiful, appearing to smile and say, ’I have died when I should and not waited at home until my teeth were worn to the gums by eating dried meat.’ The young men (he said) will make war—must have war—and, as far as his influence went, should have war. I have spoken."

This speech was received with a loud and prolonged grunt of approbation by more than two-thirds of the assembly.

Other speeches followed on both sides of the question, some long, some short, until the council became somewhat heated and turbulent; not, however, interrupting one another, but mixing a good deal of private invective and satire with the question in their speeches. At a point of violent debate and personal abuse, two [Indian] soldiers advanced to the middle of the lodge and laid two swords crosswise on the ground, which signal immediately restored order and quiet. The debate was carried on with spirit for about two hours but it was easily to be perceived long before it terminated, by their responses and gestures, that the war faction greatly predominated. The chief, after asking if all had spoken and receiving an affirmative answer, remarked they could go and eat the feast that had been prepared for them. The warriors gave a loud yell and when out commenced singing their war song. We asked the old chief what was the decision. He said, "It is plain enough; listen to that war cry." He then desired me to send the Crow tobacco back without delay and tell them to leave the fort immediately and go home. A few days after a large war party started to the Crow village. The morning after the council’s decision was made known by the haranguer or public crier, at the break of day, walking through the village and crying it out at the top of his voice. From the foregoing it will be seen that the chief only expressed his opinion as the others, yet the large majority or rather the feeling evinced for war by the leaders of the war parties, warriors, heads of families, soldiers, and all who could make war, left none to contend with.

Had the same general exhibition for peace prevailed, the same powers could make it, or rather force would be unnecessary when a unanimity of such a body prevailed. Had the parties or feeling been equally manifest the question would have been laid aside for another time, perhaps years, and each went to war or remained at home as he pleased.1

3Lowie, R.H.n/an/an/an/a, , 94; Smith, M.G.n/an/an/an/a, "Political Organization of the Plains Indians with Special Reference to the Council," , 24: 1–84.

1 Denig, E. T., "Indian Tribes of the Upper Missouri," Bur. Amer. Ethnol., Ann. Rep., 46: 432, 435–440.

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Chicago: Univ. Nebraska Studies in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed May 23, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=6PXPK89MK6E4SCJ.

MLA: . Univ. Nebraska Studies, Vol. 24, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 23 May. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=6PXPK89MK6E4SCJ.

Harvard: , Univ. Nebraska Studies. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 23 May 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=6PXPK89MK6E4SCJ.