The 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 the throng.

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 patriarchal people.

“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, shifted uneasily.

“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 were bravest.”

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 moment.

“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 was passing.

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.’”

Grace Coolidge.