Monday, October 04, 2010

What I Found under a Cairn of Stones

Our wild Indians; thirty-three years' personal experience among the red men ...
 "One day I crossed a fresh trail of Indians. On a hill a little distance off was planted a slight pole, ten or twelve feet high, to the top of which was fastened a streamer of white cotton cloth. Under a small cairn of stones at the foot of the pole was discovered a piece of skin carefully rolled and tied with a thong. On opening it I found a bundle of thirty-seven sticks tied together; a piece of cotton cloth on which were painted in colors some ten or twelve hieroglyphics; a small pouch containing tobacco, and another of corn. My interpreter, an old Mexican who had married and lived almost all his life among the Sioux, explained. The party which made the trail consisted of thirty seven warriors; the hieroglyphics were the totems or signatures of the chiefs and most prominent men (all reservation Indians), and the totem of the band of hostile Sioux to which they were going; the tobacco indicated that they were going to " smoke," that is, join their fortunes with the hostiles; corn indicated that they had, or expected to have plenty to eat, (an unusual thing with reservation Indians); the white streamer invited their friends to follow them; while the pole marked the place of deposit of their communication.
If, as is generally believed, these Indians could have expressed all these ideas by painting, there would have been no need for so many other symbols.
A vast deal of research and wisdom have been devoted to the elucidation of Indian hieroglyphics. Inscriptions on rocks and trees have been photographed, or carefully and minutely copied, and sent to various learned bodies for interpretation. The lucubrations of these sages, are, as a rule, exactly on a par with those of the Pickwick club, over the stone sent by its learned founder from Cobham.
In common with all "the rest of mankind," the Indian dearly loves to see his name in a conspicuous place. Wherever, near a camping-place of favorite resort, is found a large stone, or mass of rock, favorably situated, it will, almost invariably, be covered with drawings. In nearly every case, these are merely the signatures, the almost universal expression of vanity, of the warriors; or are designs and sketches made by the young men and boys in wantonness, and with no more hidden significance than those which the white schoolboy in his moments of laziness or mischief draws on his slate, or on the newly whitewashed fence of his neighbor.
While this is literally true of most of the isolated figures drawn on rocks and trees by different hands, generally believed to be, and spoken of by learned writers as symbolic, it must yet be understood that the Plains Indians, more than most others, use pictures to express action and situation. There is a broad line of demarcation between symbolism and pictography. The Plains Indian uses the former but little, and then only as an adjunct to the latter, enabling him to show in his picture something which is impossible to his limited knowledge of drawing and perspective. Almost every warrior makes a picture of each prominent event of his life, and many of them keep a book in which their acts are thus recorded. But his pictures are not symbolic. The fight or other act is depicted as nearly as possible as the Indian wishes it to be seen; himself the prominent figure in the foreground, dealing death, or otherwise performing the act. Their pictures of fights in which numbers are engaged, are simply the representation of individuals who were prominent either for courage or from being killed or wounded. In such pictures symbolism is used to make up the deficiencies of the draughtsman; thus a great many marks of horses' feet indicate that great numbers were engaged; many arrows or bullets represented in the air show that the fight was hotly contested.
There is nothing in which white men differ more than in drawing. One draws exquisitely, another with equal opportunities, and equally as well educated in other respects, cannot draw at all. Kot sq with Indians; all draw, and though entirely without knowledge of perspective, all draw quite as well as, the average of whites. If one wants Indian pictures^ {here is no need to hunt a special artist. All he has to do is to give some paper and a few colored pencils to any middle-aged warrior. I have many such pictures, drawn by men of different tribes, all so essentially alike in character and execution, that they might have been drawn by the same hand."

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