The Assiniboins are of the great Sioux family. Today there are in the United States about one thousand of them. But when they were a free and powerful people they numbered as high as ten thousand, and ranged far from the Missouri River in northern North Dakota and northern Montana clear into Canada, above.
This cold, high country of vast plains made them hardy and roaming. In their proud bearing and good size they resembled the Dakota Sioux, but with the Sioux they had little to do, except in war. They were at war with the Mandans also, and other nations to the south. In the north they mingled with the Ojibwas or Chippewa people who had journeyed westward into Canada. The 0jibwas had given them their name, As-si-i-bo-in, meaning "They-cook-with-stones."
The Assiniboins were horse Indians and buffalo hunters. They had two peculiar customs. They did cook their meat with stones, just as the Chippewas said. Instead of using kettles, they used holes. They dug a hole about the size of a large kettle; then they pressed a square of raw buffalo-hide into it, for a lining. This they filled with water; they put their meat in, and heating stones, dropped them in, too, until the water was boiling.
Their other peculiarity lay in their style of hair. The longer the hair, the better. They divided it into strands, and plastered the strands with a paste of red earth and hoof glue, in sections of an inch or two.
When the hair did not grow long enough to suit, they spliced it by gluing on other hair, sometimes horse-hair, until it reached the ground.
In the year 1831 Wi-jun-jon, or Pigeon's-egg Bead, was a leading young warrior among the long-haired Assiniboins. It was a custom of those days to have chiefs and warriors from the various Indian tribes sent to Washington, to talk with their White Father and see how the Americans lived.
This was supposed to teach the Indians the value of white man's ways, and to show them how useless was war with the white race.
The Assiniboins were still a wild people. They were located so far from St. Louis that they knew nothing about white man ways, except such as they noticed at the fur-trading posts—and here the ways were mixed with Indian ways.
So in the fall of this year Major J. F. A. Sanborn, the Indian agent at the American. Fur Company's trading-post of Fort Union, where on the border between North Dakota and Montana the Yellowstone River empties into the Missouri River, decided to take a party of Indians to Washington.
The Assiniboins, the Cheyennes, the Blackfeet, the Crows—they all came to Fort Union, to trade their furs for powder, lead, sugar and blankets.
Major Sanborn asked the Assiniboins for a warrior. They appointed Wijunjon and another.
Now, this was to be a long journey, among strangers. To be sure, from the Mandans down-river, old Shaha-ka, or White Head, had made the trip, in 1806, when the Red Head Chief and the Long Knife Chief were bound home from the salty water; and he had returned unharmed. Others had gone since, from the upper Missouri, and others had died; Sha-ha-ka himself had almost been killed by the Sioux.
Nobody had gone yet, from as far away as the Assiniboin country; therefore young Wijunjon feared, but was brave. He bade his wife, Chin-cha-pee, or Fire-bug-that-creeps, and his little children goodby, and with the other Assiniboin and chiefs from the Blackfeet and Crows, set out on a fur company flat-boat under protection of Major Sanborn. The Assiniboin women on the shore wept and wailed. His people scarcely expected to see him again.
It was one thousand miles by river through the enemies of his nation, thence on to the great village of St. Louis; but he passed in safety. And when he began to see the first smaller villages of the Americans in Missouri, Wijunjon started in to count the houses, so that he might tell his people.
He had promised to report everything.
He commenced to count by making notches in his pipe stem—one notch for every lodge. The cabins became thicker, along the river banks, and his comrade needs must call off the lodges while he made the notches. Soon there was no more space on the pipe stem, and Wijunjon changed to his war club. Speedily he had filled this also.
Luckily, the barge tied up at the shore, while dinner was cooked. This gave him chance to cut a long willow stick, which surely would be enough.
In fact, so certain he was that the end of the white man's lodges must be close before them, that he worked hard to recut the pipe stem notches and the war club notches, in his willow stick, to have all together. But this very day he had filled the willow stick, and the lodges before them seemed more numerous than those behind!
Ere they arrived in sight of St. Louis itself, he and his comrade had an arm-load of willow sticks—all filled with notches. And here was St. Louis! How many people? Fifteen thou and! How many lodges? Thousands of lodges!
Pigeon's-egg Head pitched the bundle of willow sticks over-board. His knife was worn out, and his hand and brain were tired.
At St. Louis he stood for his portrait, painted by the same Artist Catlin who the next year, in the Mandan towns, listened to the hero tales of Mah-to-toh-pa. He was a great man at painting Indians, this Artist Catlin.
Wijunjon was somewhat confused by so many sounds and sights, but he made a fine figure of a chief—in his mountain-goat skin leggins and shirt, decorated with porcupine quills, and with scalp locks from his enemies; his long plaited hair, which reached to the ground; his war bonnet of eagles' plumes; his buffalo-hide robe, painted with the battles of his career; his beautiful moccasins; and his quiver and bow and bull-neck shield.
Having had his portrait painted, he continued on the long trail, of two thousand more miles by water and by stage, to Washington. And as every mile of it was amidst still more lodges of the white man, he soon saw that all the willow sticks of the Missouri River could not have counted their numbers.
This winter Wijunjon and his companions had a wonderful time among the white men. The Pigeon's-egg Head was the foremost. He was the first to shake the hand of the Great White Father. He declined nothing. The sights of Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York—he inspected them all. He scarcely rested, night or day. He learned so much that when, in the spring of 1832, he turned homeward, he was filled to bursting.
At St. Louis the first "through" steamboat, the Yellowstone, was waiting to ascend to Fort Union and the Assiniboin country. Artist Catlin was aboard. This was to be his first trip, also.
The steamboat Yellowstone made a huge sensation, as it ploughed the thick muddy current of the Missouri, frightening the Indians and buffalo along the shores. It moved without sweeps—it nosed for the deepest channels—and the Indians called it "Big-medicine canoe-with-eyes." It spoke with its guns, and belched much smoke—and they called it "Big Thunder-canoe."
But Wijunjon feared not at all. He was used to thunder-canoes, now; and he had seen many great sights, back there in the villages of the white men. In fact, he was a sight, himself, for on the way up he had changed his clothes, that his people might know him for a wide traveler.
Gone were his fringed and quilled goat-skin legging and shirt; gone his war bonnet and painted robe and handsome moccasins, his bow and quiver and shield.
Instead, he wore a badly fitting colonel's uniform, of the United States Army, given to him by the Great White Father: wrinkled trousers and coat of bright blue, with gilt epaulets upon the shoulders, and a stiff collar that reached above his ears. Atop his long painted hair there was settled, to the coat collar, a stove-pipe hat, with a silver-braid band and a red wool plume two feet high. His feet were squeezed into high-heeled military boots of shiny leather. Around his neck was a tight black stock, or collar. Around his waist was a red sash. Upon his hands were loose white cotton gloves. Upon his chest, and the ruffles of a white shirt, dangled a silver medal, on a blue ribbon. Hung by a belt across one shoulder, at his leg dangled a huge broad-sword. In one hand he carried a blue umbrella, in the other a fan, and in his arms a keg of rum.
Thus Wijunjon, the big brave, proudly strode the deck of the steamer Yellowstone, and impatiently looked forward to the moment when he might step off, among his people.
The moment came. Two thousand Indians had gathered on the prairie at Fort Union, to greet the thunder-canoe and the returning travelers. Wijunjon led the procession down the gang-plank.
It was not Indian etiquet to make an ado over the return. Wijunjon was roundly eyed, but nobody spoke to him. His wife, the Fire-bug-that-creeps, was here; so were his children, who scarcely knew him; so were his old parents. He felt that he was admired and that his family and friends were glad to see him; but they let him alone and he only stalked about in his glory, whistling the American war-cry of "Yankee Doodle."
After due time, of course they all loosened up. This night in his lodge in the Assiniboin village he commenced to tell his stories. But he could not tell one tenth—and yet, with the very first, several of the old men and chiefs arose and went out.
They said that this Wijunjon was a liar, and that they would not listen to him. The white people were known to be great liars, and he had learned from them!
In vain, the next day, and the next day, the Pigeon's-egg Head tried to make himself popular.
First, he let his wife cut off the tails of his frock coat, to fashion herself a pair of nice blue leggins. His silver-lace hat-band she took for garters. The rest of his coat he gave to his brother; and now he wore his white shirt with the tails outside.
He gave away his boots—which hurt his feet. He gave away the tails of his shirt, also his brass studs and sleeve-buttons. And with his keg of rum, and his broad-sword dragging and tripping him, he paid visits from lodge to lodge, and whistled "Yankee Doodle."
Pretty soon he had nothing left but his blue umbrella. That was the only thing he kept. Even his hat was gone; his sword was used by his wife, as a meat chopper. And still he was not popular.
Each night men and women gathered from near and far, to hear him talk, in his lodge. They sat silent and critical, while he told them the honest truth.
He worked very hard. He labored to describe the long journey, and the marvelous number of white man's lodges, and villages, and the stage coaches, and the railroads; the forts, and the ships-of-many-big-guns, and the tremendous "council-house" at Washington; and the patent office (great-medicine-place, filled with curious machines); and the war parade of American soldiers, and the balloon—a huge ball which carried a man to the Great Spirit in the sky; and the beautiful white squaws with red cheeks.
The people listened; and when they went out they said among themselves: "Those things are not true. The Pigeon's-egg Head is the greatest liar in the world. The other nations will laugh at the Assiniboins."
Wijunjon did not despair. He was so full of words that he simply must talk, or burst. He wished that he might bring forward the other Assiniboin who had been with him and who knew that all these stories were true; but the other Assiniboin had died on the way home. That was too bad.
However, he stuck to his stories, for he knew that he was right. His people had sent him to see, and he had seen, and he spoke only true words.
After a while, the Assiniboins took a different view of Wijunjon. Any person who had such stories in his brain was certainly great medicine. No common liar could invent these stories about impossible wonders.
Yes, Wijunjon was doubtless taught by a spirit. He had dreamed.
Now the Assiniboin people looked upon Wijunjon with awe and fear. A person equipped with such power might be very dangerous. They decided that he ought to be killed.
Meanwhile Wijunjon went right on telling his stories. He still had hopes—and besides, it was pleasant to be the center of a gaping circle, and to walk around with folks gazing so at him.
There was a young man who agreed to rid the Assiniboins of this wizard. Beyond question, Wijunjon was too great medicine to be killed by an ordinary bullet; another way should be found.
This young man, also, was a dreamer. And in his dreams he was told, he said, how to kill Wijunjon. The wizard must be shot with an iron pot handle! Nothing else would do the work.
Accordingly, the young man appointed to kill Wijunjon for being bad medicine, found an iron pot handle, and spent a whole day filing it down to fit into the muzzle of his gun. Then from behind he shot the terrible Pigeon's-egg Head and scattered his lying brains about, and the wizard fell dead.