GAMES AND SPORTS OF THE INDIAN BOY

BY DR. CHARLES ALEXANDER EASTMAN
[These are actual recollections of the wild life. The Indian boy whose experiences are described wrote them out himself many years afterward when, having graduated at Dartmouth College and the Boston University School of Medicine, he had become an educated man, and a physician among his own people.]

 

THE Indian boy was a prince of the wilderness. He had but very little work to do during the period of his boyhood. His principal occupation was the practising of a few simple but rigid rules in the arts of warfare and the chase. Aside from this, he was master of his time.

Whatever was required of us boys was quickly performed; then the field was clear for our games and plays. There was always keen competition between us. We felt very much as our fathers did in hunting and war—each one strove to excel all the others. It is true that our savage life was a precarious one, and full of dreadful catastrophes; however, this never prevented us from enjoying our sports to the fullest extent. As we left our tepees in the morning, we were never sure that our scalps would not dangle from a pole in the afternoon! It was an uncertain life, to be sure. Yet we observed that the fawns skipped and played happily while the gray wolves might be peeping forth from behind the hills, ready to tear them limb from limb.

Our sports were molded by the life and customs of our people—indeed, we practised only what we expected to do when grown. Our games were feats with the bow and arrow, foot and pony races, wrestling, swimming, and imitations of the customs and habits of our fathers. We had sham fights with mud balls and willow wands, we played lacrosse, made war upon bees, shot winter arrows (which were used only in that season), and coasted upon ribs of animals and buffalo-robes.

Our games with bow and arrow were usually combined with hunting; but as I shall take hunting for the subject of another letter, I will speak only of such as were purely plays.

No sooner did the boys get together than they divided into squads, and chose sides; then a leading arrow was shot at random into the air. Before it fell to the ground, a volley from the bows of the participants followed. Each player was quick to see the direction and speed of the leading arrow, and he tried to send his own with the same speed and at an equal height, so that when it fell it would be closer than any of the others to the first.

It was considered out of place to shoot an arrow by first sighting the object aimed at. This was usually impracticable, because the object was almost always in motion, while the hunter himself was often on the back of a pony in full gallop. Therefore, it was the offhand shot that the Indian boy sought to master. There was another game with arrows which was characterized by gambling, and was generally confined to the men.

The races were an every-day occurrence. At noon the boys were usually gathered by some pleasant sheet of water, and as soon as the ponies were watered, they were allowed to graze for an hour or two, while the boys stripped for their noonday sports. A boy might say, "I can't run, but I challenge you for fifty paces," to some other whom he considered his equal. A former hero, when beaten, would often explain his defeat by saying, "I had drunk too much water!" Boys of all ages were paired for a "spin," and the little red men cheered on their favorites with spirit! As soon as this was ended, the pony races followed. All the speedy ponies were picked out, and riders chosen. If a boy said, "I cannot ride," what a shout went up! Such derision!

Last of all came the swimming. A little urchin would hang to his pony's long tail, while the latter held only his head above water and glided sportively along. Finally the animals were driven into a fine field of grass, and we turned our attention to other games.

Lacrosse was an older game, and was confined entirely to the Sisseton and Santee Sioux. Shinny, such as is enjoyed by white boys on ice, is now played by the western Sioux. The "moccasin-game," although sometimes played by the boys, was intended mainly for adults.

The "mud-and-willow" fight was rather a severe and dangerous sport. A lump of soft clay was stuck on one end of a limber and springy willow wand, to be thrown with considerable force—as boys throw apples from sticks. When there were fifty or a hundred on each side, the battle became warm; but anything to arouse the bravery of Indian boys seemed to them a good and wholesome sport.

Wrestling was largely indulged in by all of us. It may seem odd, but the wrestling was by a great number of boys at once—from ten to any number on a side. It was really a battle, but each one chose his own opponent. The rule was that if a boy sat down, he was let alone; but as long as he remained standing within the field he was open to an attack. No one struck with the hand, but all manner of tripping with legs and feet and hurting with the knees was allowed; altogether it was an exhausting pastime—fully equal to the American game of foot-ball. Only the boy who was an athlete could really enjoy it.

One of our most curious sports was a war upon the nests of wild bees. We imagined ourselves about to make an attack upon the Chippewas or some other tribal foe. We all painted and stole cautiously upon the nest; then, with a rush and a war-whoop, sprang upon the object of our attack and endeavored to destroy it. But it seemed that the bees were always on the alert, and never entirely surprised; for they always raised quite as many scalps as did their bold assailants! After the onslaught upon the bees was ended, we usually followed it by a pretended scalp-dance.

On the occasion of my first experience in this mode of warfare, there were two other little boys who also were novices. One of them, particularly, was too young to indulge in such an exploit. As it was the custom of the Indians, when they killed or wounded an enemy on the battle-field, to announce the act in a loud voice, we did the same. My friend Little Wound (as I will call him, for I do not remember his name), being quite small, was unable to reach the nest until it had been well trampled upon and broken, and the insects had made a counter charge with such vigor as to repulse and scatter our numbers in every direction. However, he evidently did not want to retreat without any honors; so he bravely jumped upon the nest and yelled:

"I, brave Little Wound, to-day kill the only fierce enemy!"

Scarcely was the last word uttered when he screamed as if stabbed to the heart. One of his older companions shouted:

"Dive into the water! Run! Dive into the water!" for there was a lake near by. This advice he obeyed.

INDIAN BOYS PLAYING "FOLLOW MY LEADER" INDIAN BOYS PLAYING "FOLLOW MY LEADER"

When we had reassembled and were indulging in our mimic dance, Little Wound was not allowed to dance. He was considered not to be in existence—he had been "killed" by our enemies, the Bee tribe. Poor little fellow! His tear-stained face was sad and ashamed, as he sat on a fallen log and watched the dance. Although he might well have styled himself one of the noble dead who had died for their country, yet he was not unmindful that he had screamed, and that this weakness would be apt to recur to him many times in the future.

We had some quiet plays which we alternated with the more severe and warlike ones. Among them were throwing wands and snow-arrows. In the winter we coasted much. We had no "double-rippers" nor toboggans, but six or seven of the long ribs of a buffalo, fastened together at the larger end, answered all practical purposes. Sometimes a strip of bass-wood bark, four feet long and half a foot wide, was used with much skill. We stood on one end and held the other, using the inside of the bark for the outside, and thus coasted down long hills with remarkable speed.

Sometimes we played "Medicine Dance." This to us was almost what "playing church" is among white children. Our people seem to think it an act of irreverence to imitate these dances, but we children thought otherwise; therefore we quite frequently enjoyed in secret one of these performances. We used to observe all the important ceremonies and customs attending it, and it required something of an actor to reproduce the dramatic features of the dance. The real dances usually occupied a day and a night, and the program was long and varied, so that it was not easy to execute all the details perfectly; but the Indian children are born imitators.

I was often selected as choirmaster on these occasions, for I had happened to learn many of the medicine songs, and was quite an apt mimic. My grandmother, who was a noted medicine woman, on hearing of these sacrilegious acts (as she called them), warned me that if any of the medicine men should learn of my conduct, they would punish me terribly by shriveling my limbs with slow disease.

Occasionally we also played "white man." Our knowledge of the pale-face was limited, but we had learned that he brought goods whenever he came, and that our people exchanged furs for his merchandise. We also knew, somehow, that his complexion was white, that he wore short hair on his head and long hair on his face, and that he had coat, trousers, and hat, and did not patronize blankets in the daytime. This was the picture we had formed of the white man. So we painted two or three of our number with white clay, and put on them birchen hats, which we sewed up for the occasion, fastened a piece of fur to their chins for a beard, and altered their costume as much as lay within our power. The white of the birch-bark was made to answer for their white shirts. Their merchandise consisted of sand for sugar, wild beans for coffee, dried leaves for tea, pulverized earth for gunpowder, pebbles for bullets, and clear water for dangerous "fire-water." We traded for these goods with skins of squirrels, rabbits, and small birds.

When we played "hunting buffalo" we would send a few good runners off on the open prairie with meat and other edibles; then start a few of our swiftest runners to chase them and capture the food. Once we were engaged in this sport when a real hunt by the men was going on near by; yet we did not realize that it was so close until, in the midst of our play, an immense buffalo appeared, coming at full speed directly toward us. Our mimic buffalo hunt turned into a very real "buffalo scare"! As it was near the edge of a forest, we soon disappeared among the leaves like a covey of young prairie-chickens, and some hid in the bushes while others took refuge in tall trees.

In the water we always had fun. When we had no ponies, we often had swimming-matches of our own, and we sometimes made rafts with which we crossed lakes and rivers. It was a common thing to "duck" a young or timid boy, or to carry him into deep water to struggle as best he might.

I remember a perilous ride with a companion on an unmanageable log, when we both were less than seven years old. The older boys had put us on this uncertain bark and pushed us out into the swift current of the river. I cannot speak for my comrade in distress, but I can say now that I would rather ride on a wild bronco any day than try to stay on and steady a short log in a river. I never knew how we managed to prevent a shipwreck on that voyage, and to reach the shore!

We had many curious wild pets. There were young foxes, bears, wolves, fawns, raccoons, buffalo calves, and birds of all kinds, tamed by various boys. My pets were different at different times, but I particularly remember one. I once had a grizzly cub for a pet, and so far as he and I were concerned our relations were charming and very close. But I hardly know whether he made more enemies for me or I for him. It was his custom to treat unmercifully every boy who injured me. He was despised for his conduct in my interest, and I was hated on account of his interference.

COPY IN BLACK AND WHITE OF A COLOR-DRAWING BY AN INDIAN BOY COPY IN BLACK AND WHITE OF A COLOR-DRAWING BY AN INDIAN BOY