SHAH-CO-PEE; THE ORATOR OF THE SIOUX.
by Mary Eastman
Legends of the Sioux
Shah-co-pee (or Six) is one of the chiefs of the Dahcotahs; his village
is about twenty-five miles from Fort Snelling. He belongs to the bands
that are called Men-da-wa-can-ton, or People of the Spirit Lakes.
No one who has lived at Fort Snelling can ever forget him, for at what
house has he not called to shake hands and smoke; to say that he is a
great chief, and that he is hungry and must eat before he starts for
home? If the hint is not immediately acted upon, he adds that the sun is
dying fast, and it is time for him to set out.
Shah-co-pee is not so tall or fine looking as Bad Hail, nor has he the
fine Roman features of old Man in the Cloud. His face is decidedly ugly;
but there is an expression of intelligence about his quick black eye and
fine forehead, that makes him friends, notwithstanding his many
At present he is in mourning; his face is painted black. He never combs
his hair, but wears a black silk handkerchief tied across his forehead.
When he speaks he uses a great deal of gesture, suiting the action to
the word. His hands, which are small and well formed, are black with
dirt; he does not descend to the duties of the toilet.
He is the orator of the Dahcotahs. No matter how trifling the occasion,
he talks well; and assumes an air of importance that would become him if
he were discoursing on matters of life and death.
Some years ago, our government wished the Chippeways and Dahcotahs to
conclude a treaty of peace among themselves. Frequently have these two
bands made peace, but rarely kept it any length of time. On this
occasion many promises were made on both sides; promises which would be
broken by some inconsiderate young warrior before long, and then
retaliation must follow.
Shah-co-pee has great influence among the Dahcotahs, and he was to come
to Fort Snelling to be present at the council of peace. Early in the
morning he and about twenty warriors left their village on the banks of
the St. Peters, for the Fort.
When they were very near, so that their actions could be distinguished,
they assembled in their canoes, drawing them close together, that they
might hear the speech which their chief was about to make them.
They raised the stars and stripes, and their own flag, which is a staff
adorned with feathers from the war eagle; and the noon-day sun gave
brilliancy to their gay dresses, and the feathers and ornaments that
Shah-co-pee stood straight and firm in his canoe—and not the less
proudly that the walls of the Fort towered above him.
"My boys," he said (for thus he always addressed his men), "the
Dahcotahs are all braves; never has a coward been known among the
People of the Spirit Lakes. Let the women and children fear their
enemies, but we will face our foes, and always conquer.
"We are going to talk with the white men; our great Father wishes us to
be at peace with our enemies. We have long enough shed the blood of the
Chippeways; we have danced round their scalps, and our children have
kicked their heads about in the dust. What more do we want? When we are
in council, listen to the words of the Interpreter as he tells us what
our great Father says, and I will answer him for you; and when we have
eaten and smoked the pipe of peace, we will return to our village."
The chief took his seat with all the importance of a public benefactor.
He intended to have all the talking to himself, to arrange matters
according to his own ideas; but he did it with the utmost condescension,
and his warriors were satisfied.
Besides being an orator, Shah-co-pee is a beggar, and one of a high
order too, for he will neither take offence nor a refusal. Tell him one
day that you will not give him pork and flour, and on the next he
returns, nothing daunted, shaking hands, and asking for pork and flour.
He always gains his point, for you are obliged to give in order to get
rid of him. He will take up his quarters at the Interpreter's, and come
down upon you every day for a week just at meal time—and as he is
always blessed with a ferocious appetite, it is much better to
capitulate, come to terms by giving him what he wants, and let him go.
And after he has once started, ten to one if he does not come back to
say he wants to shoot and bring you some ducks; you must give him powder
and shot to enable him to do so. That will probably be the last of it.
It was a beautiful morning in June when we left Fort Snelling to go on a
pleasure party up the St. Peters, in a steamboat, the first that had
ever ascended that river. There were many drawbacks in the commencement,
as there always are on such occasions. The morning was rather cool,
thought some, and as they hesitated about going, of course their toilets
were delayed to the last moment. And when all were fairly in the boat,
wood was yet to be found. Then something was the matter with one of the
wheels—and the mothers were almost sorry they had consented to come;
while the children, frantic with joy, were in danger of being drowned
every moment, by the energetic movements they made near the sides of the
boat, by way of indicating their satisfaction at the state of things.
In the cabin, extensive preparations were making in case the excursion
brought on a good appetite. Everybody contributed loaf upon loaf of
bread and cake; pies, coffee and sugar; cold meats of every description;
with milk and cream in bottles. Now and then, one of these was broken or
upset, by way of adding to the confusion, which was already intolerable.
Champaigne and old Cogniac were brought by the young gentlemen, only for
fear the ladies should be sea-sick; or, perhaps, in case the gentlemen
should think it positively necessary to drink the ladies' health.
When we thought all was ready, there was still another delay.
Shah-co-pee and two of his warriors were seen coming down the hill, the
chief making an animated appeal to some one on board the boat; and as he
reached the shore he gave us to understand that his business was
concluded, and that he would like to go with us. But it was very evident
that he considered his company a favor.
The bright sun brought warmth, and we sat on the upper deck admiring the
beautiful shores of the St. Peter's. Not a creature was to be seen for
some distance on the banks, and the birds as they flew over our heads
seemed to be the fit and only inhabitants of such a region.
When tired of admiring the scenery, there was enough to employ us. The
table was to be set for dinner; the children had already found out which
basket contained the cake, and they were casting admiring looks
When we were all assembled to partake of some refreshments, it was
delightful to find that there were not enough chairs for half the party.
We borrowed each other's knives and forks too, and etiquette, that petty
tyrant of society, retired from the scene.
Shah-co-pee found his way to the cabin, where he manifested strong
symptoms of shaking hands over again; in order to keep him quiet, we
gave him plenty to eat. How he seemed to enjoy a piece of cake that had
accidentally dropped into the oyster-soup! and with equal gravity would
he eat apple-pie and ham together. And then his cry of "wakun"
[Footnote: Mysterious.] when the cork flew from the champaigne bottle
across the table!
How happily the day passed—how few such days occur in the longest
As Shah-co-pee's village appeared in sight, the chief addressed Col.
D——, who was at that time in command of Fort Snelling, asking him why
we had come on such an excursion.
"To escort you home" was the ready reply; "you are a great chief, and
worthy of being honored, and we have chosen this as the best way of
showing our respect and admiration of you."
The Dahcotah chief believed all; he never for a moment thought there was
anything like jesting on the subject of his own high merits; his face
beamed with delight on receiving such a compliment.
The men and women of the village crowded on the shore as the boat
landed, as well they might, for a steamboat was a new sight to them.
The chief sprang from the boat, and swelling with pride and self
admiration he took the most conspicuous station on a rock near the
shore, among his people, and made them a speech.
We could but admire his native eloquence. Here, with all that is wild in
nature surrounding him, did the untaught orator address his people. His
lips gave rapid utterance to thoughts which did honor to his feelings,
when we consider who and what he was.
He told them that the white people were their friends; that they wished
them to give up murder and intemperance, and to live quietly and
happily. They taught them to plant corn, and they were anxious to
instruct their children. "When we are suffering," said he, "during the
cold weather, from sickness or want of food, they give us medicine
And finally he told them of the honor that had been paid him. "I went,
as you know, to talk with the big Captain of the Fort, and he, knowing
the bravery of the Dahcotahs, and that I was a great chief, has brought
me home, as you see. Never has a Dahcotah warrior been thus honored!"
Never indeed! But we took care not to undeceive him. It was a harmless
error, and as no efforts on our part could have diminished his self
importance, we listened with apparent, indeed with real admiration of
his eloquent speech. The women brought ducks on board, and in exchange
we gave them bread; and it was evening as we watched the last teepee of
Shah-co-pee's village fade away in the distance.
But sorrow mingles with the remembrance of that bright day. One of those
who contributed most to its pleasures is gone from us—one whom all
esteemed and many loved, and justly, for never beat a kinder or a
Shah-co-pee has looked rather grave lately. There is trouble in the
The old chief is the husband of three wives, and they and their children
are always fighting. The first wife is old as the hills, wrinkled and
haggard; the chief cares no more for her than he does for the stick of
wood she is chopping. She quarrels with everybody but him, and this
prevents her from being quite forgotten.
The day of the second wife is past too, it is of no use for I her to
plait her hair and put on her ornaments; for the old chief's heart is
wrapped up in his third wife.
The girl did not love him, how could she? and he did not succeed in
talking her into the match; but he induced the parents to sell her to
him, and the young wife went weeping to the teepee of the chief.
Hers was a sad fate. She hated her husband as much as he loved her. No
presents could reconcile her to her situation. The two forsaken wives
never ceased annoying her, and their children assisted them. The young
wife had not the courage to resent their ill treatment, for the loss of
her lover had broken her heart. But that lover did not seem to be in
such despair as she was—he did not quit the village, or drown himself,
or commit any act of desperation. He lounged and smoked as much as ever.
On one occasion when Shah-co-pee was absent from the village the
They had to look well around them, for the two old wives were always on
the look out for something to tell of the young one; but there was no
one near. The wind whistled keenly round the bend of the river as the
Dahcotah told the weeping girl to listen to him.
When had she refused? How had she longed to hear the sound of his voice
when wearied to death with the long boastings of the old chief.
But how did her heart beat when Red Stone told her that he loved her
still—that he had only been waiting an opportunity to induce her to
leave her old husband, and go with him far away.
She hesitated a little, but not long; and when Shah-co-pee returned to
his teepee his young wife was gone—no one had seen her depart—no one
knew where to seek for her. When the old man heard that Red Stone was
gone too, his rage knew no bounds. He beat his two wives almost to
death, and would have given his handsomest pipe-stem to have seen the
faithless one again.
His passion did not last long; it would have killed him if it had. His
wives moaned all through the night, bruised and bleeding, for the fault
of their rival; while the chief had recourse to the pipe, the
never-failing refuge of the Dahcotah.
"I thought," said the chief, "that some calamity was going to happen to
me" (for, being more composed, he began to talk to the other Indians who
sat with him in his teepee, somewhat after the manner and in the spirit
of Job's friends). "I saw Unk-a-tahe, the great fish of the water, and
it showed its horns; and we know that that is always a sign of trouble."
"Ho!" replied an old medicine man, "I remember when Unk-a-tahe got in
under the falls" (of St. Anthony) "and broke up the ice. The large
pieces of ice went swiftly down, and the water forced its way until it
was frightful to see it. The trees near the shore were thrown down, and
the small islands were left bare. Near Fort Snelling there was a house
where a white man and his wife lived. The woman heard the noise, and,
waking her husband, ran out; but as he did not follow her quick enough,
the house was soon afloat and he was drowned."
There was an Indian camp near this house, for the body of Wenona, the
sick girl who was carried over the Falls, was found here. It was placed
on a scaffold on the shore, near where the Indians found her, and
Checkered Cloud moved her teepee, to be near her daughter. Several other
Dahcotah families were also near her.
But what was their fright when they heard the ice breaking, and the
waters roaring as they carried everything before them? The father of
Wenona clung to his daughter's scaffold, and no entreaties of his wife
or others could induce him to leave.
"Unk-a-tahe has done this," cried the old man, "and I care not. He
carried my sick daughter under the waters, and he may bury me there
too." And while the others fled from the power of Unk-a-tahe, the father
and mother clung to the scaffold of their daughter.
They were saved, and they lived by the body of Wenona until they buried
her. "The power of Unk-a-tahe is great!" so spoke the medicine man, and
Shah-co-pee almost forgot his loss in the fear and admiration of this
monster of the deep, this terror of the Dahcotahs.
He will do well to forget the young wife altogether; for she is far
away, making mocassins for the man she loves. She rejoices at her escape
from the old man, and his two wives; while he is always making speeches
to his men, commencing by saying he is a great chief, and ending with
the assertion that Red Stone should have respected his old age, and not
have stolen from him the only wife he loved.
Shah-co-pee came, a few days ago, with twenty other warriors, some of
them chiefs, on a visit to the commanding officer of Fort Snelling.
The Dahcotahs had heard that the Winnebagoes were about to be removed,
and that they were to pass through their hunting grounds on their way to
their future homes. They did not approve of this arrangement. Last
summer the Dahcotahs took some scalps of the Winnebagoes, and it was
decided at Washington that the Dahcotahs should pay four thousand
dollars of their annuities as an atonement for the act. This caused much
suffering among the Dahcotahs; fever was making great havoc among them,
and to deprive them of their flour and other articles of food was only
enfeebling their constitutions, and rendering them an easy prey for
disease. The Dahcotahs thought this very hard at the time; they have not
forgotten the circumstance, and they think that they ought to be
consulted before their lands are made a thoroughfare by their enemies.
They accordingly assembled, and, accompanied by the Indian agent and the
interpreter, came to Fort Snelling to make their complaint. When they
were all seated, (all on the floor but one, who looked most
uncomfortable, mounted on a high chair), the agent introduced the
subject, and it was discussed for a while; the Dahcotahs paying the most
profound attention, although they could not understand a word of what
was passing; and when there was a few moments' silence, the chiefs rose
each in his turn to protest against the Winnebagoes passing through
their country. They all spoke sensibly and well; and when one finished,
the others all intimated their approval by crying "Ho!" as a kind of
chorus. After a while Shah-co-pee rose; his manner said "I am Sir
Oracle." He shook hands with the commanding officer, with the agent and
interpreter, and then with some strangers who were visiting the fort.
His attitude was perfectly erect as he addressed the officer.
"We are the children of our great Father, the President of the United
States; look upon us, for we are your children too. You are placed here
to see that the Dahcotahs are protected, that their rights are not
While the Indians cried Ho! ho! with great emphasis, Shah-co-pee shook
hands all round again, and then resumed his place and speech.
"Once this country all belonged to the Dahcotahs. Where had the white
man a place to call his own on our prairies? He could not even pass
through our country without our permission!
"Our great Father has signified to us that he wants our lands. We have
sold some of them to him, and we are content to do so, but he has
promised to protect us, to be a friend to us, to take care of us as a
father does of his children.
"When the white man wishes to visit us, we open the door of our country
to him; we treat him with hospitality. He looks at our rocks, our river,
our trees, and we do not disturb him. The Dahcotah and the white man
"But the Winnebagoes are not our friends, we suffered for them not long
ago; our children wanted food; our wives were sick; they could not plant
corn or gather the Indian potato. Many of our nation died; their bodies
are now resting on their scaffolds. The night birds clap their wings as
the winds howl over them!
"And we are told that our great Father will let the Winnebagoes make a
path through our hunting grounds: they will subsist upon our game; every
bird or animal they kill will be a loss to us.
"The Dahcotah's lands are not free to others. If our great Father wishes
to make any use of our lands, he should pay us. We object to the
Winnebagoes passing through our country; but if it is too late to
prevent this, then we demand a thousand dollars for every village they
Ho! cried the Indians again; and Shah-co-pee, after shaking hands once
more, took his seat.
I doubt if you will ever get the thousand dollars a village,
Shah-co-pee; but I like the spirit that induces you to demand it. May
you live long to make speeches and beg bread—the unrivalled orator and
most notorious beggar of the Dahcotahs!