The Peace with the Snakes, by George Bird
In those days there was a Piegan chief named Owl Bear. He was a great
chief, very brave and generous. One night he had a dream: he saw many dead
bodies of the enemy lying about, scalped, and he knew that he must go to
war. So he called out for a feast, and after the people had eaten, he
"I had a strong dream last night. I went to war against the Snakes, and
killed many of their warriors. So the signs are good, and I feel that I
must go. Let us have a big party now, and I will be the leader. We will
start to-morrow night."
Then he told two old men to go out in the camp and shout the news, so that
all might know. A big party was made up. Two hundred men, they say, went
with this chief to war. The first night they travelled only a little way,
for they were not used to walking, and soon got tired.
In the morning the chief got up early and went and made a sacrifice, and
when he came back to the others, some said, "Come now, tell us your dream
of this night."
"I dreamed good," said Owl Bear. "I had a good dream. We will have good
But many others said they had bad dreams. They saw blood running from their
Night came, and the party started on, travelling south, and keeping near
the foot-hills; and when daylight came, they stopped in thick pine woods
and built war lodges. They put up poles as for a lodge, and covered them
very thick with pine boughs, so they could build fires and cook, and no one
would see the light and smoke; and they all ate some of the food they
carried, and then went to sleep.
Again the chief had a good dream, but the others all had bad dreams, and
some talked about turning back; but Owl Bear laughed at them, and when
night came, all started on. So they travelled for some nights, and all
kept dreaming bad except the chief. He always had good dreams. One day
after a sleep, a person again asked Owl Bear if he dreamed good. "Yes," he
replied. "I have again dreamed of good luck."
"We still dream bad," the person said, "and now some of us are going to
turn back. We will go no further, for bad luck is surely ahead." "Go back!
go back!" said Owl Bear. "I think you are cowards; I want no cowards with
me." They did not speak again. Many of them turned around, and started
north, toward home.
Two more days' travel. Owl Bear and his warriors went on, and then another
party turned back, for they still had bad dreams. All the men now left with
him were his relations. All the others had turned back.
They travelled on, and travelled on, always having bad dreams, until they
came close to the Elk River. Then the oldest relation said, "Come, my
chief, let us all turn back. We still have bad dreams. We cannot have good
[Footnote 1: Yellowstone River.]
"No," replied Owl Bear, "I will not turn back."
Then they were going to seize him and tie his hands, for they had talked of
this before. They thought to tie him and make him go back with them. Then
the chief got very angry. He put an arrow on his bow, and said: "Do not
touch me. You are my relations; but if any of you try to tie me, I will
kill you. Now I am ashamed. My relations are cowards and will turn back. I
have told you I have always dreamed good, and that we would have good luck.
Now I don't care; I am covered with shame. I am going now to the Snake camp
and will give them my body. I am ashamed. Go! go! and when you get home put
on women's dresses. You are no longer men."
They said no more. They turned back homeward, and the chief was all
alone. His heart was very sad as he travelled on, and he was much ashamed,
for his relations had left him.
Night was coming on. The sun had set and rain was beginning to fall. Owl
Bear looked around for some place where he could sleep dry. Close by he saw
a hole in the rocks. He got down on his hands and knees and crept in. Here
it was very dark. He could see nothing, so he crept very slowly, feeling as
he went. All at once his hand touched something strange. He felt of it. It
was a person's foot, and there was a moccasin on it. He stopped, and sat
still. Then he felt a little further. Yes, it was a person's leg. He could
feel the cowskin legging. Now he did not know what to do. He thought
perhaps it was a dead person; and again, he thought it might be one of his
relations, who had become ashamed and turned back after him.
Pretty soon he put his hand on the leg again and felt along up. He touched
the person's belly. It was warm. He felt of the breast, and could feel it
rise and fall as the breath came and went; and the heart was beating
fast. Still the person did not move. Maybe he was afraid. Perhaps he
thought that was a ghost feeling of him.
Owl Bear now knew this person was not dead. He thought he would try if he
could learn who the man was, for he was not afraid. His heart was sad. His
people and his relations had left him, and he had made up his mind to give
his body to the Snakes. So he began and felt all over the man,—of his
face, hair, robe, leggings, belt, weapons; and by and by he stopped feeling
of him. He could not tell whether it was one of his people or not.
Pretty soon the strange person sat up and felt all over Owl Bear; and when
he had finished, he took the Piegan's hand and opened it and held it up,
waving it from side to side, saying by signs, "Who are you?"
Owl Bear put his closed hand against the person's cheek and rubbed it; he
said in signs, "Piegan!" and then he asked the person who he was. A finger
was placed against his breast and moved across it zigzag. It was the sign
"Hai yah!" thought Owl Bear, "a Snake, my enemy." For a long time he sat
still, thinking. By and by he drew his knife from his belt and placed it in
the Snake's hand, and signed, "Kill me!" He waited. He thought soon his
heart would be cut. He wanted to die. Why live? His people had left him.
Then the Snake took Owl Bear's hand and put a knife in it and motioned that
Owl Bear should cut his heart, but the Piegan would not do it. He lay down,
and the Snake lay down beside him. Maybe they slept. Likely not.
So the night went and morning came. It was light, and they crawled out of
the cave, and talked a long time together by signs. Owl Bear told the Snake
where he had come from, how his party had dreamed bad and left him, and
that he was going alone to give his body to the Snakes.
Then the Snake said: "I was going to war, too. I was going against the
Piegans. Now I am done. Are you a chief?"
"I am the head chief," replied Owl Bear. "I lead. All the others follow."
"I am the same as you," said the Snake. "I am the chief. I like you. You
are brave. You gave me your knife to kill you with. How is your heart?
Shall the Snakes and the Piegans make peace?"
"Your words are good," replied Owl Bear. "I am glad."
"How many nights will it take you to go home and come back here with your
people?" asked the Snake.
Owl Bear thought and counted. "In twenty-five nights," he replied, "the
Piegans will camp down by that creek."
"My trail," said the Snake, "goes across the mountains. I will try to be
here in twenty-five nights, but I will camp with my people just behind that
first mountain. When you get here with the Piegans, come with one of your
wives and stay all night with me. In the morning the Snakes will move and
put up their lodges beside the Piegans."
"As you say," replied the chief, "so it shall be done." Then they built a
fire and cooked some meat and ate together.
"I am ashamed to go home," said Owl Bear. "I have taken no horses, no
scalps. Let me cut off your side locks?"
"Take them," said the Snake.
Owl Bear cut off the chiefs braids close to his head, and then the Snake
cut off the Piegan's braids. Then they exchanged clothes and weapons and
started out, the Piegan north, the Snake south.
"Owl Bear has come! Owl Bear has come!" the people were shouting.
The warriors rushed to his lodge. Whish! how quickly it was filled!
Hundreds stood outside, waiting to hear the news.
For a long time the chief did not speak. He was still angry with his
people. An old man was talking, telling the news of the camp. Owl Bear did
not look at him. He ate some food and rested. Many were in the lodge who
had started to war with him. They were now ashamed. They did not speak,
either, but kept looking at the fire. After a long time the chief said: "I
travelled on alone. I met a Snake. I took his scalp and clothes, and his
weapons. See, here is his scalp!" And he held up the two braids of hair.
No one spoke, but the chief saw them nudge each other and smile a little;
and soon they went out and said to one another: "What a lie! That is not an
enemy's scalp; there is no flesh on it He has robbed some dead person."
Some one told the chief what they said, but he only laughed and replied:—
"I do not care. They were too much afraid even to go on and rob a dead
person. They should wear women's dresses."
Near sunset, Owl Bear called for a horse, and rode all through camp so
every one could hear, shouting out: "Listen! listen! To-morrow we move
camp. We travel south. The Piegans and Snakes are going to make peace. If
any one refuses to go, I will kill him. All must go."
Then an old medicine man came up to him and said: "Kyi, Owl Bear! listen
to me. Why talk like this? You know we are not afraid of the Snakes. Have
we not fought them and driven them out of this country? Do you think we are
afraid to go and meet them? No. We will go and make peace with them as you
say, and if they want to fight, we will fight. Now you are angry with those
who started to war with you. Don't be angry. Dreams belong to the Sun. He
gave them to us, so that we can see ahead and know what will happen. The
Piegans are not cowards. Their dreams told them to turn back. So do not be
angry with them any more."
"There is truth in what you say, old man," replied Owl Bear; "I will take
In those days the Piegans were a great tribe. When they travelled, if you
were with the head ones, you could not see the last ones, they were so far
back. They had more horses than they could count, so they used fresh horses
every day and travelled very fast. On the twenty-fourth day they reached
the place where Owl Bear had told the Snake they would camp, and put up
their lodges along the creek. Soon some young men came in, and said they
had seen some fresh horse trails up toward the mountain.
"It must be the Snakes," said the chief; "they have already arrived,
although there is yet one night." So he called one of his wives, and
getting on their horses they set out to find the Snake camp. They took the
trail up over the mountain, and soon came in sight of the lodges. It was a
big camp. Every open place in the valley was covered with lodges, and the
hills were dotted with horses; for the Snakes had a great many more horses
than the Piegans.
Some of the Snakes saw the Piegans coming, and they ran to the chief,
saying: "Two strangers are in sight, coming this way. What shall be done?"
"Do not harm them," replied the chief. "They are friends of mine. I have
been expecting them." Then the Snakes wondered, for the chief had told them
nothing about his war trip.
Now when Owl Bear had come to the camp, he asked in signs for the chiefs
lodge, and they pointed him to one in the middle. It was small and old. The
Piegan got off his horse, and the Snake chief came out and hugged him and
kissed him, and said: "I am glad you have come to-day to my lodge. So are
my people. You are tired. Enter my lodge and we will eat." So they went
inside and many of the Snakes came in, and they had a great feast.
Then the Snake chief told his people how he had met the Piegan, and how
brave he was, and that now they were going to make a great peace; and he
sent some men to tell the people, so that they would be ready to move camp
in the morning. Evening came. Everywhere people were shouting out for
feasts, and the chief took Owl Bear to them. It was very late when they
returned. Then the Snake had one of his wives make a bed at the back of the
lodge; and when it was ready he said: "Now, my friend, there is your
bed. This is now your lodge; also the woman who made the bed, she is now
your wife; also everything in this lodge is yours. The parfleches, saddles,
food, robes, bowls, everything is yours. I give them to you because you are
my friend and a brave man."
"You give me too much," replied Owl Bear. "I am ashamed, but I take your
words. I have nothing with me but one wife. She is yours."
Next morning camp was broken early. The horses were driven in, and the
Snake chief gave Owl Bear his whole band,—two hundred head, all large,
All were now ready, and the chiefs started ahead. Close behind them were
all the warriors, hundreds and hundreds, and last came the women and
children, and the young men driving the loose horses. As they came in sight
of the Piegan camp, all the warriors started out to meet them, dressed in
their war costumes and singing the great war song. There was no wind, and
the sound came across the valley and up the hill like the noise of
thunder. Then the Snakes began to sing, and thus the two parties advanced.
At last they met. The Piegans turned and rode beside them, and so they came
to the camp. Then they got off their horses and kissed each other. Every
Piegan asked a Snake into his lodge to eat and rest, and the Snake women
put up their lodges beside the Piegan lodges. So the great peace was made.
In Owl Bear's lodge there was a great feast, and when they had finished he
said to his people: "Here is the man whose scalp I took. Did I say I killed
him? No. I gave him my knife and told him to kill me. He would not do it;
and he gave me his knife, but I would not kill him. So we talked together
what we should do, and now we have made peace. And now (turning to the
Snake) this is your lodge, also all the things in it. My horses, too, I
give you. All are yours."
So it was. The Piegan took the Snake's wife, lodge, and horses, and the
Snake took the Piegan's, and they camped side by side. All the people
camped together, and feasted each other and made presents. So the peace was
For many days they camped side by side. The young men kept hunting, and the
women were always busy drying meat and tanning robes and cowskins. Buffalo
were always close, and after a while the people had all the meat and robes
they could carry. Then, one day, the Snake chief said to Owl Bear: "Now, my
friend, we have camped a long time together, and I am glad we have made
peace. We have dug a hole in the ground, and in it we have put our anger
and covered it up, so there is no more war between us. And now I think it
time to go. To-morrow morning the Snakes break camp and go back south."
"Your words are good," replied Owl Bear. "I too am glad we have made this
peace. You say you must go south, and I feel lonesome. I would like you to
go with us so we could camp together a long time, but as you say, so it
shall be done. To-morrow you will start south. I too shall break camp, for
I would be lonesome here without you; and the Piegans will start in the
The lodges were being taken down and packed. The men sat about the
fireplaces, taking a last smoke together.
They were now great friends. Many Snakes had married Piegan women, and many
Piegans had married Snake women. At last all was ready. The great chiefs
mounted their horses and started out, and soon both parties were strung out
on the trail.
Some young men, however, stayed behind to gamble a while. It was yet early
in the morning, and by riding fast it would not take them long to catch up
with their camps. All day they kept playing; and sometimes the Piegans
would win, and sometimes the Snakes.
It was now almost sunset. "Let us have one horse race," they said, "and we
will stop." Each side had a good horse, and they ran their best; but they
came in so close together it could not be told who won. The Snakes claimed
that their horse won, and the Piegans would not allow it. So they got
angry and began to quarrel, and pretty soon they began to fight and to
shoot at each other, and some were killed.
Since that time the Snakes and Piegans have never been at peace.