An Injun Maid

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An Injun Maid  (1921) 
by Frederick Niven

Extracted from Popular magazine, 20 August 1921, pp. 145–148.

An Injun Maid

By Frederick Niven
Author of “In the Smoke Drift,” “Penny Scot’s Treasure,” Etc.

Steve Benson touches on romance

IT was when I was working for an outfit on the Little Missouri I got acquainted with Steve Benson, who one evening tells us his story of an Injun maid.

There was nine riders and, seeing we had begun to put up considerable hay, there was a machine-man regular, and there was a cook and the boss. Some good summers and hard winters I put in up there with Steve and the rest, observing all them things that constitutes God's country: heat haze, dust whirls, them still summer days, and hauling cows out of sloughs; and blizzards, and getting up at two in the morning—“Tumble up, you sons of guns!”—so's to keep track of where they were drifting.

In all these there occupations and enjoyments, and perils what ain't enjoyable except in the recollection, this here Steve takes part like a man. We was a kind of happy family there, for the boss he don't care for men to come and go too much. He says to any prospective assistant: “I don't look upon this ranch as a hand-out place for hobos, nor a passing resort of globe-trotters hitting across America. I like a man to stay a reasonable time, not just to quit when he gets able to tell his own stock without prying and wondering.” Consequent men came that meant to stay, if they could hold it down at all reasonable; and most stayed a good spell, and as I say we was a kind of happy family. The machine man didn't fit in very good; but he had been there so long that he was part of the family, although with a tendency to making what they call a break. Fred his name was. I disremember his last name—Babbacombe or Hecatombe or Somethingcombe, anyhow.

It was one night when the thin snow was managing somehow to come a-sifting in at a window, a-sieving through some indiscov'able crack and making a tiny indoor snowfall on the window ledge, and the stove was red-hot, and the riders for the day had come in, and supper was through, and that there clinging aroma of hash and apricots was bein' dispelled by this here aroma of Bull Durham rolled in wheat papers, that Steve indicated his story to us. I says “indicated” on purpose and intentional, for he was not utter obvious about his story. He leaves something to the imagination of his intelligent hearers, him feeling the story too deep to tell everything.

Getting his story at all came about owing to George Harrop, one of the riders, mentioning how he had met a string of Indians that day, and how they-all had stopped, tails to wind, to sign talk, just a passin' palaver in the drivin' snow. We talked first of all about sign talk, and shows each other signs, each addin' to the other's repertory so to speak! and we-all marvels at this here Babylonian strife of tongues among them aborigines, what makes sign talk a necessary invention.

This here machine man, Fred, he kind of snorts at sign talk and allows it might maybe serve for asking where's wood and water and eats, but not, for example, for expressing opinions and idees. Him talking about idees! It was just at that point Steve drifts in to explain that emotion and idees is sure capable of expression in sign language. He knew more about Injuns than any of us; so he could let us talk through our hats a whole lot and get the ground cleared—same as I'm clearing the ground for this here story of his—before chipping in at all.

Having corrected what you might call this machine man's superior ignorance regarding the impossibility of expressing heart trouble, or brain storm, by sign—instead of only signaling them simple desires, wood, water, and eats—he falls out of the talk and wets his wheat paper meditative where it had coiled loose from the tobacco. I see him yet. It's when the machine man says: “Me, I don't have any use for natives anywhere,” that Steve arouses himself again.

“We-all are natives of somewhere,” he murmurs, and again lapses into silence.

It was an interesting powwow with only this here fly in the ointment, so to speak, of Fred's foolish asides. But we evades unpleasantness, being in the mood for a soc'able evening, with the snow flying straight along outside and the stove red-hot inside. If it had only been the little machine man—this here Fred—who had made aspersive remarks about squaw men—which department of Injun talk we sure touches on in the course of our palaver—maybe Steve would never have spoken about his Injun maid. But George Harrop, with more intelligence, he promulgates his idee on that topic.

“Marrying a Injun don't appeal to me,” says he at some point in our powwow where the remark fits in. “I've seen some squaw men.”

“So have I,” says Steve. “Drunk half the time—whisky peddlers—noble white men that make some kind of an alliance with a red squaw to carry them home to a dugout and bring them round. The best Injuns despises them.”

“You can't edicate them,” says this here ornery machine man. “It takes generations to turn a savage into a civilized person.”

“Yes, I guess!” agrees Harrop.

Steve crushes his cigarette under his heel.

“Sometimes it takes only a few years,” he announces definite; and then he lets us have it.

Their intellects vary, he tells us—all the same as intellects of white men, and he launches a nod at Fred. Some of them don't get the hang of what you-all calls civilization in a lifetime; some can pick up anything to it and understand it first pop. He sure is fair and unbiased, is this here Steve. He tells us how a full-blood Sioux, what come out of a tepee, ended with a M.D. degree and practices medicine; but he tells us also of an Injun that wanted to be a policeman, and the agent demurs; and so's to impress the agent with his ability, this here Injun comes to him one day and says: “Now you make me policeman. I see a family of Injuns going off the reserve without your leave, and here's the scalps of the whole bunch. Me make heap good policeman.”

Steve tells us both sides—about the ornery savage and the savage that becomes a company president sittin' at a roll-top desk. He tells us how another full-blood Injun—not a back-East, second-generation Injun at all, but a Cree or Ojibwa, born in a wigwam—became a sky scout, with full credentials, and able to quote chapter and verse in Greek and Hebrew. I can't give you it in Steve's words; he spoke fine and dandy himself, with a whole herd of vocabulary when he got whetted up that a way.

We all allows by our silent smoking that we realizes Steve has the floor, and the right to the floor, by reason of knowledge of his subject; and we kind of makes annoyed gestures, scratches our heads, shifts our positions, when little Fred holds up Steve's tendency to talk. But it is this Fred after all who draws him out full length of his rope, to talk from personal experience, clean out o' his heart, by insisting, the way a guy like that does, on a p'int we thinks is passed over.

“All the same,” he says, “I can't understand a white man ever marrying one, any more than George Harrop can.”

Steve sighs.

“Ten years ago I was teaming from the Platte into Pine Ridge,” he says. “And one day, crossing Wounded Knee Creek there, just as I get the wheels onto the bank, I looked up and saw an Injun girl watching me. I can see her still. Her head was a little on one side and a little bent, so she looked at me under her brows. She stood a little kind of sideways, one hip in advance; and she had braids of hair, thick and long, on each side of her face. She was in a blue-print gown with a pattern of flowers on it, and she wore a silver bangle on her wrist.

“I looked at her, and I tell you right now that I think that there race hatred is foolish. I saw her several times after that. We used just to look at each other and half smile, then look away. I met her proper, so to speak, was introduced and all formal, first at the agency,” Steve goes on. “She had her hair coiled and a blue hat on, and was dressed like a white person; but I think she looked even better with the braids hanging down.”

He tells us how he says to her, when they was introduced formal by somebody at the agency: “I've seen you often;” and how she, quite frank, says she's often seen him, too. He used to meet her a heap often, thereafter, to talk to. Down along the creek where there was two-three lodge frames near the crossing—he describes the scene to us with this here doting affection of memory—he would frequent see her. She was mighty fond of going down there and just watching the water a-flowing past, he explains.

What they talks of, we-all gathers, is these there ineffectual things: about the color of the stones in the water, about the comical little gophers, and how quaint they look settin' up imitating a stump and a twig with one foot straight out; and she tells him Injun nursery stories, so to speak, about the gophers' homes and the man what shrunk himself small to go visit them.

Steve explains to us all how she was full of this love of her people, and an encyclopedia of her people's stories; and what brought them together—apart from this inscrutable and everlasting sex business of which he is reticent, but which we-all realizes as present—is his liking for God's country likewise. She could speak English fluent, and Steve told us he believed she could have written a book all about these Injun stories in better American than some white folks know how to talk. I guess if there had been a different atmosphere in that there bunk house, what they call reticence might have taken Steve right there, and we'd never have heard any more; but the stove hums, and the snow sifts along the window, and we-all is attentive and at ease.

“I got a copy of a book of legends by that Canadian Injun, Pauline Johnson, for a present for her,” he goes on, “to sort of stimulate her. She was as proud of being Injun as a Scotsman of being Scotsman, and as fond of the foothills of the Black Hills and the queer ridges of the Bad Lands standing up to west as a Kentucky man of the blue-grass country. When we discussed getting married she said to me: 'Maybe you will want to leave Dakota and Nebraska some day, and go clean away, and then,' she says, 'I'll be like Ruth and I'll say: Thy people shall be my people and thy God my God.'

“That was early one morning, when I was just getting ready to pull out on the wagon road, and all the smell of the morning was in the air, and it was sure good. I said to her: 'Annie, Annie,' I said, 'there's only the one God over us,' and I turned around the way I'd seen some of them old Indians do, facing the sun that was up over the east, and lifted my hand with the palm flat to it. I can still see the way she stood looking at me, with her big dark eyes.”

It was at this here juncture he explained her name to us.

“That girl,” he mused aloud, so to speak, “Annie Red Willow she was called, was as good as any white person. Her father was Chief Red Willow,” he says, deflecting off his narrative. “He gives himself the name because he likes so greatly the smell of this here red willow burning in a camp fire. I guess Annie got a lot of what was in her from him. She told me how she got her name, and told me that the smell of burning red willow meant a lot to her, too. Going in from the agency school, or from visits to the agency, she'd feel something in her heart kind of rise up and sing when that there scent came to her nostrils. 'It's part of my people,' she said, 'and I love my people. And you love them, too.'”

Steve shook his head.

“I just told her,” he said, “that I loved her, and that I loved individuals everywhere—white or red. I like folks,” he says, “the way I like horses and dogs. I've liked a buckskin horse and a sorrel and a pinto; and I've known 'em mean—buckskin and sorrel and pinto. Same with folks. Injuns ain't Fenimore Cooper maybe, Fred,” he says; “but they ain't 'the only good Injun is a dead Injun,' and don't you forget it.”

He recalls her telling him of her earliest memory, which was lying under a cottonwood tree as a papoose and following up all the ramifications of the branches, all in among the moving sunlight and green leaves.

We-all opines to ourselves—and mentions to each other afterward in discussing this story of Steve's—that she was sure suitable to him if she had been pea-green instead of the color of a new one-cent piece—which you see when you get back East where a dime ain't the smallest coin in circulation. For Steve was always talking of nature things. He would set and watch a dust whirl till it pirouettes from sight, and he couldn't pass a bunch of wild honeysuckle in the bush without he put a sprig in his hat, and he's always the first to announce, in the spring: “I hear a crow a-cawing over to-day.” But as for his story:

“Well, sir,” he said, “we were to be married, and then that there white man down in Utah began telling the Utes about the Messiah, and, of course, they got it wrong—thought it meant the buffalo coming back and the whites dying out and no more barbed-wire fences and grain elevators anywhere.”

This here remark gets us where we live. Cattlemen don't admire barbed wire and grain elevators any. We-all, at them words, has an additional jolt of fellow feeling with Steve's reticent narrated but whatever love story.

“The Utes,” he explains, “carried the story to the Sioux in their annual visit. They began dancing. The ignorant ones—all same as in white communities—outnumbered the sensible. It is sure the bogus sentiment that “is put over easiest and the real goods waits a long time for followers,” says Steve. “They danced, and hypnotizes themselves dancing. Then they braids up their horses' tails for war, if so be the Messiah wanted them to make a fight for it instead of just supernacherally eliminating the whites and bringing back the buffalo. They was dancing at the Fort Hall reserve in Idaho, and scaring folks around Pocatello-with the tomtoming; and down on Green River the Utes were on the verge of shooting up the settlers. The Pine Ridge reserve got it so bad that the stock men thereabouts were getting their womenfolks out of the country.

“And then the cavalry comes along with their patrols and the cordons; and next a bunch of black cavalry is sent down. The Injuns starts loadin' their Winchesters. This here is an insult at such a moment, when their scrap is chiefly with white folks. Progress has sure its way with what Fred calls 'natives,'” says Steve. “And where there are guns, guns are liable to go off. It's in the nature of guns. They went off all right, eventually, and it culminates in the cavalry charge on Big Foot's camp at the Pine Ridge reserve. Down they charges, seein' the Injuns refuses to desist from dancing; and the camp pots and kettles is sent flying, the tepees is knocked down, the troopers yell, the Injuns war-cry, and it's all whoops and the biff of six-guns and rifles.”

He pauses, and then he says: “The Messiah did not come,” he says, and opens the stove door with his toe, throws in his cigarette end, then taps the door shut again, not fierce, but slow and deliberate. Well, we got to be fair and just,” says he. “I suppose we got to take life philosophical. What's done is done.”

It was little Fred, of all men, his eyes protruding, who asks: “But what was done? What d'ye mean got to take life philosophic?”

Steve puckers his lips, recalling, and looking into the past.

“When the cavalry charged Big Foot's camp where Annie Red Willow lived, they sang out that they'd revenge Custer,” he says. “They did all right. There was an inquiry afterward about that battle—the battle of Wounded Knee Creek, they calls it—and America Horse and some others even went to Washington to give evidence. It was an incident that calls for an inquiry. And the finding of that inquiry was that the troops couldn't tell an Injun woman from an Injun man—not in the dusk. Maybe they couldn't. I try to look at it calm; and I'm inclined to think, trying to be just, that perhaps they could not.”

“But about this girl?” persists that foolish machine man.

Steve looks at him sadly for a moment as if sorry for his intellect. He had felt it all too deeply inside him to do more than what you might call indicate this here love story of his, instead of narrating it with a whole raft of obvious detail same as a man might who did not feel it hard. Some folks you got to tell everything to, and Fred's one of 'em.

Says Steve: “Annie Red Willow was killed in that charge. They couldn't tell an Injun woman from an Injun man—not in the dusk.”

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.


The author died in 1944, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.