Indian of the Reservation
by Grace Coolidge
The big, square, barren, rude room which in its
existence had progressed from store to schoolroom
and on to council hall, was filled to overflowing with a
throng of anachronous humanity, rank on rank, tier
behind tier. There was the sound of moccasins slipping
grittily over the knotty floor, of the dull, rhythmic
thudding of a mother’s foot as she trotted her fretful
baby, the rustling of soft garments, the stirring of
unhurried bodies, the hissing of stealthy whispers.
Here and there two Indians might be seen conversing
in the sign language; their hands, shielded from sight
by encircling backs, were lifted scarcely above the
level of their laps.
The people were massed one might say ethnologically.
The main part of the crowd was Indian, squatting,
seated on benches, or standing leaning against
the walls. The two tribes sat separately, as did also
the sexes of each. To right and left at the tapering
ends of the rows were the mixed-bloods, dressed mainly
like the whites except that their garments looked more
home-made, more patternless, more illy put. Then
quite at one end of the room and grouped about the
chairman’s table sat the whites; school and Agency
employees, traders, soldiers, ranch neighbors; an indifferent,
self-seeking, heterogeneous group. In the
midst of these last, dapper, conspicuously well-dressed,
and well-groomed, presided the inspector from Washington.
His old, dignified face, slightly pompous,
was crowned with gray hair brushed back from his
brow. His hands rested squarely upon his knees. By
his side, taking notes, sat his stenographer, his glance
half curious and half supercilious playing constantly
over the faces of the throng. At either end of the little
table behind which sat the inspector, were stationed
the interpreters, one for each tribe. The eyes of these
men were searching, though their lips seemed to mock
slightly, and when they spoke, rising to interpret, even
though they passed on the phrases with a certain
guarded vehemence, they seemed consciously to preserve
a detached attitude, as do those who speak but
will not be held accountable for what they say.
Perhaps the arrangement that caused the mixed-bloods
and the other younger Indians to be the first
to deliver their speeches was intentional on the part of
someone. At any rate one by one they arose, in overalls,
in spurs, in bright neckerchiefs, differing from
each other in type and temperament, as differed also
those two tribes, and indeed, the two races, represented
there within the council room.
Occasionally after some speech the inspector would
get up and pronounce in continuance a few elucidating
words. He gesticulated slightly and conventionally.
He bent a little toward the interpreters, each in turn.
His words came slowly and with unction.
The subject of the council was the desire of the
Indian Bureau to throw open to white settlement a
half of the reservation. The mixed-bloods and the
younger Indians were, though they spoke but briefly,
in accord in favoring the execution of the plan. Their
words, however, from some lack in themselves of
knowledge or of conviction, were not uttered in a
manner calculated to tip the scale greatly their way.
“It’s a question of water rights,” they said. “We
must have money to buy those rights and how else can
we obtain it? It’s an obligation to our children.”
Again and again the same note was struck. One by
one the young men arose, and one by one sat down
again. The interpreters mopped their tired brows.
The inspector sipped frequently from a glass of water
upon his table.
The air was full of the odor of people, pungent with
the herb perfume worn by the Indians in little sacks
sewed to the clothing, acrid with the smell of sage
clinging to shawls and dresses, with the flavor of
smoke-tanned buckskin. A half-open window let in
a little fitful breeze that played wantonly with the
dust showing in the sunlight of the upper reaches of
the room, flirting and whisking about the heads of
At last it came time for the weightier speeches, for
those of the councilmen, of the chiefs, of indeed the
older men of the two tribes, the patriarchs of this
“Sell our land?” they cried. “Retreat? Give up?
Be forced into contact with intermingling whites?
Take money in place of our land? What, money for
the good of these traders who will get it all from us
in the end?” Their old faces hardened; their eyes
flamed. “Give up? Retreat? Move on? Abrogate
the old promises, the old treaties? What, again?”
Their lips twisted bitterly. “Do you not know, does
not the Great Father at Washington know, that all we
ask now of life is a little land, a little peace, a little
place wherein to live quietly our quiet life, and in the
end a little ground for our narrow bed? Move on!
That we think was the first word the whites—” the
“outsiders,” the “aliens,” was the name they in the Indian
tongue gave this other race—“said to us. It seems
they are saying it yet.” The soft bitter voices ceased;
the old men sank into their seats, the interpreters, too,
relaxed, wiping their faces.
The inspector stood up cautiously, apologetically
even. “But these old men, the chiefs, do not seem to
have caught the point. The whole question of selling
or not selling turns on the matter of their water rights;
on theirs and their children’s as has been said. Land
even in this beautiful Wyoming valley is a mockery
without water. They can I am sure understand that;
water they must have.”
An old chief rose solemnly, turned deep, scornful
eyes upon the inspector. “Let the white man from
Washington go but a mile yonder,” extended arm
pointed that way, “and he will see the river that flows
down our valley and waters our land. It is there. It
is ours. It is born in these mountains above us. God
made them, I suppose as he made it. It is ours.”
Along the packed rows there was a slight stirring.
Patiently again the inspector arose. “I know that it
is hard for the old people to understand that having
water does not necessarily mean having rights to that
water. There exist hundreds of white men below you,
beyond the border of your reservation, who have taken
up claims along this same stream and who have filed
on its water prior to any Indian having done so. The
State must recognize this priority. The whites have
filed on the water and have paid the dues. Beside
that as the law stands now the Indians cannot individually
take out water rights. I know that you will say
that when this reservation was given to these two
tribes, a matter of a generation and a half ago, the
water was included with the land, ‘to the center of the
streams bordering the reservation,’ as your old treaty
reads. But times and conditions have changed since
then. At that period the Federal Government controlled
the water of Wyoming, now its disposition
has been turned over to the State. Where the Indians
stand in this matter has never been decided by law.”
The mixed-bloods who understood at least partially,
“But now—although the question of priority has
still not been decided—the Indian Bureau—which I
represent—says that you as a tribe may buy your
water rights. For this you must have money.” He
named a sum reaching far into the thousands. “The
sale of your land will bring you this amount of money,
at least. This thing is intricate and impossible I believe
to elucidate to the older people, your leaders.
They must, I fear, just hear my statements and, if
they can, believe.” With his hands he made a deprecating
little gesture. Then he sat down.
There was silence in the room, complete save for a
slight stirring, the sound of deep breathing, and the
fretting, here and there, of a hungry child.
Finally at the back of the room, by some shifting of
his pose, by thrusting himself forward beyond the
relief of his line, an Indian made his presence known.
He was a man of powerful build, of nobly moulded
head; his hair instead of having been braided, had been
gathered forward into two loosely twisted strands; his
eyes showed, speculative yet keen, his mouth was
sharply chiseled though withal soft in its lines, and
there was a kindly look on his face which gave somehow
the impression of the morning light seen upon the
rugged side of a great mountain. In age he seemed to
be between the young and the old.
As he made his presence known there was a slow
turning of the heads in his direction, a slight tensing
of the crowd. The old chiefs appeared suddenly eager
and filled with hope; as for the younger men and the
mixed-bloods they glanced at him and looked away
again, as if, sighing they said: “Another on the wrong
side. Ah, the blind old men!”
Then he spoke. His voice was deep, very virile,
carefully subdued as something held in leash, and yet
through it there seemed to run a tremor, a quaver
almost, that gave an impression of strange intensity.
I repeat his words with elision.
“I am not one of the old men,” he said, “and yet I
can easily remember the time when this valley, these
mountains, were ours; not because someone had given
them to us, but because we had taken them for ourselves,
because our arrows flew straightest, our spears
reached furthest, our horsemen rode fastest, our hearts
Here several of the old men grunted sympathetically.
More and more the faces of the throng were turned
toward the speaker.
“Then everything was changed. The strangers came
like a flood, like our rivers in the spring; they surged
over us and they left us—as we are. Perhaps this was
the will of the Stranger-on-High, we cannot tell....
But these strangers on earth were not altogether unkind
to us. For what they took they gave a sort of
compensation. It was as though they carried away
from us fat buffaloes and then handed to us in exchange
each a little slice of their meat. They deprived
us of our valley and our mountains but instead they
gave us each eighty acres of the land. Then they sent
more strangers with chains and three-legged toys to
measure these off correctly for us. They gave us wire
for our fences but only enough so that we must spend
much money for more. They gave us seed, but also
so little that we were driven to buy more. We worked—some
of us with the chains and three-legged toys—some
at the ditches, every way we could, for now we
needed a new thing—something of which we had
before known nothing, money. We received it—and
then we spent it.”
Again faint grunts and groans encouraged him.
“For we cannot keep money long. We are children.
This the Great Father in Washington understands,
and also that our ears are dull, that our eyes cannot
read his written words. Therefore, in his kindness,
he sends to us this man to speak to us face to face.”
He turned his slow gaze upon the inspector. In his
eyes was the look of mockery. “We have listened to
his words. But what has he said to us? ‘Give up the
eighty acres, for your children to be born, give up the
money you earned and spent, give up your homes; as
you gave up this valley and these mountains. The
white men need them. Your day is past. But I am
not unkind. Without compensation I will not deprive
you. See, I will give you even a little more money—’”
He stopped abruptly. His eyes drooped, his shoulders,
his hands, the whole man.
A strained silence had fallen upon the room,
smothered it. From it escaped the faint sighing of the
younger men. The chiefs stiffened as they sat.
By an effort the speaker seemed to rouse himself.
He stared strangely about the room. “There was a
little boy once,” he said, and his voice had grown
dreamy, slightly high in pitch, “and this little boy held
his hand out toward the flames, nearer,—I saw it—the
fire was so pretty, so warm, it danced, purred,
sparkled. His hand crept nearer, nearer. His father
watched him. At the last moment he caught him and
pulled him away. The child cried then, he struggled
in his father’s arms, he pushed away from him, he
fought. Again he reached out toward the flame. But
finally he looked up into the man’s face and suddenly
it seemed to dawn on him that, although he could not
understand, this was indeed his father, old and wise
and loving; and that he, by comparison, was only a
little misguided child....” The strange, vibrant
voice dwindled, broke. The speaker made a wide gesture
toward the attentive inspector, held it while the
interpreters got forth in English his last sentence.
Then he sank back into his old place against the wall;
with one bent hand he wiped the sweat from his brow.
A faint sound of muttering passed over the room;
old fierce eyes were veiled, young keen ones peered incredulously.
But the inspector was on his feet on
the instant, his hand outstretched to grasp the golden
“There is no more to be said,” he cried. “Our ears
are ringing with words. Our hearts are full. I have
here, prepared, a paper. Let those who for their own
good and the good of their children are of a mind to
sell, now sign it.”
Slowly, amidst moving and murmuring, the long
paper, in the hands of one of the interpreters, made its
deliberate rounds. Difficult signatures were inscribed
in slow succession. Ancient, unaccustomed hands, deft
enough with spear or bow, grasped awkwardly the
pen and with it made their wavering “mark.”
Some there were of the old men, indeed the majority
of them, who wrapping their blankets about them
arose, and shambling, withdrew, aloof and soundless.
Like a shaken kaleidoscope the council broke up.
The inspector leaned back in his chair, a hand
shielding the working of his mouth. His eyes searched
the variegated, dissolving throng. The stenographer,
still seated and playing with his idle pencil, shot him
an understanding glance.
Later the Half-breed, standing on the board walk
outside the trading store, a box of crackers in one hand,
a paper containing pickles in the other, was lunching
heartily. Suddenly he shifted everything into his left
hand and strode down into the road. For in company
with his wife and a young son the last of the speakers
The Half-breed’s extended hand grasped the Indian’s.
“I thank you for what you said,” he cried. “It was
a noble thing to have done. You faced them all; the
old timers, the chiefs, public opinion, prejudice. And
you won. It was a brave act.”
The rugged, illuminated face was turned to him, the
deep eyes rested squarely upon his. “You have perhaps
forgotten,” he said. “You are younger than I am and
too you have been for a long time with the whites—but
I remember well the time when we were boys and our
great head-chief Black Star used to sit and talk with
us. Yes, you have perhaps forgotten,” he repeated,
and his look, just touched with yearning, rested upon
the younger man. “But I remember—I have never
forgotten what he used to say to us. ‘Be brave,’ he
would tell us. ‘That is the chief thing to learn; to do
what each one believes is right, to speak for the right,
everywhere, always. To be fearless of tongues, of
persecution, to take counsel with our own minds and
being sure to speak out surely. That,’ he always said
to us, ‘and that only, is the man’s part.’”