Susette La Flesche Tibbles

Untitled - c. 1880

Susette La Flesche Tibbles
January 01, 1880
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By Susette LaFlesche Tibbles

[handwritten] I have this in original manuscript VB [handwritten]

At the time I was born we were all savages, that is my tribe the Omahas. I suppose if you were to see us on our reserve now you would think we were savages yet, for only a few can speak or read or write the English language and most of us dress in our own costume. I have sometimes had the question asked me, is your tribe civilized? And I have really not known what to answer. I have known men and women all my life who are brave, generous, truthful, honest, industrious, patriotic, and lovely in all the relations of life and yet if you were to see them you would call them savages because they can neither speak or read or write the English languages or dress as you do.

My own father and mother are examples of that I think. My father is rather stern and strict in his ideas of right and wrong, and people - both whites and Indians - are apt to be a little afraid of him, not physically but morally. But my mother's gentleness makes up for that, and even my father's political enemies come to him for help when they get into trouble, and strangers from the other tribes come long distances to ask his advice about their tribal affairs. As for us children, although my father was strict and stern in our upbringing, yet we never doubted his love for us.

I can't tell in words what my mother had been to us all. My father can never bear to have her away from his side even for one day, and we four sisters as we have grown into womanhood have learned by experience to realize more and more the beauty and nobility of my mother's whole life. It seems curious to think of, that here is a family, the father stern, upright, independent and one who has been in battles with the enemies of his tribe and who is chief of his tribe, and four daughters educated in the religion and accomplishments of a foreign people, one of whom has just graduated in a school in the east, another who is studying medicine in Philadelphia and who will be a physician, and another married to an American and mother of a lovely family of growing children, - all these clinging to the love of one uneducated woman as their highest earthly good and the central object of all of them, around which everything seems to center. I think it is only another instance of the power of character over mere intellectual attainments. Outside of our own family, I believe that everyone on our reserve, from the missionaries down, values my mother's good opinion above that of anyone else. So you see it puzzles me when people ask me, Is your tribe civilized?

Perhaps you will understand a little more about us if I tell you a little about our tribal government before the United States government interfered with us. A tribe is divided into bands. Our tribe has nine bands. Each band is divided into families and the geneologies are kept so exactly that in some bands there are a great many families and in others only a few according as they diminished or increased during the years. Each band has its own chief, then there is a headchief over all. When a council is to be held the men of a band are summoned together, usually at a feast, and they consult together as to what the chief is to say in that council. In other words, he represents the men of his band in council and votes as they wish. Then all the chiefs in a tribe hold a council by themselves and decide what they shall do or say when the final council with the United States government or another tribe is held. It is really a representative government. I think that this is the reason that an Indian tribe has never been known to violate a treaty made with the United States government. From the very form of their government the whole people have pledged themselves, as it were, to keep the treaty.

The executive power is vested in the Soldiers Lodge, which is a powerful organization, and the headsoldier of the Soldiers Lodge has the power of life and death in his hands. The Soldiers Lodge executes all the orders of the council. The members of the Soldiers Lodge are elected and they elect the headsoldier, who is usually a man of energy and character and who often has more influence than a chief. When the headsoldier leads a war party he is treated with the greatest honor that can possibly be shown him. The members of the party vie with each other in waiting on him,-his campfire is made first, his food is cooked first, and his comfort is to be considered above everything else. On the other hand the headsoldier must be at the front in battle and he must be last in a retreat, and he must be ready to sacrifice his life for the safety of the party any moment that it may required of him.

There are rules governing the conduct of a war party. The principle on which the American Indian race have acted in their relations with other peoples has been the same as that of the Old Testament doctrine "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." A tribe occupies a piece of land which is the permanent home of the tribe. The tribe lives in villages, in mud-lodges as they are called, and in tents. Some of the bigger lodges are capable of holding two or three hundred people at a council or feast. Besides this permanent home of a tribe, each one claimed a large scope of country as a hunting ground and it was while encroaching on each others hunting grounds that battles took place between different tribes, and war was kept up for generations between certain tribes. The most sacred things which the Indians possess are Peace Pipes, of which there are always two. When the Peacemaker of a tribe goes forth in the midst of a battle with the Peace Pipes held before him the battle instantly ceases even though it were in the very height of a battle. The Pipes are four or five feet long and beautifully decorated. They are never allowed to touch the ground and are kept wrapped in furs. When the pipe of peace is smoked with an enemy, even a personal individual enemy, his life is sacred in your hands.

There were also rules for the conducting of the annual buffalo hunt. The Indians made most of their living from the buffalo. Every summer after the crop was put in the whole tribe started for the buffalo hunt to be gone for about three months. The tribe camped at night in one great circle in the order of bands and families. Each band had its place in the great circle, each family its place in the band and each member of a family his or her place in the tent. Father and mother usually occupied the right hand side of the tent. The middle place of the tent at the back (for the fire was in the center) was usually cleared for honored guests. In the summer the fire was built out of doors and the sides of the tent would be turned up halfway to let the wind blow through, and the fresh green grass with buffalo robes or straw mats thrown over it made as soft a lounging place as one could wish. The life we lived while on these hunts seems like one long joy to look back on and we children were happy all day long. There was such a sense of utter freedom. But to get back to my subject.

When we got to the country where the buffalos were, all the men of the tribe got together to give chase while the women hurried on to the next camping place to put up the tents and get ready for the return of the men with the meat. There were two men of our tribe who violated the hunting laws. They were flogged so severely that one of them died from the effects of it, and the other lost his mind and became paralyzed for life. They had discovered a herd of buffalo and instead of going back to tell the proper authorities so that all the men of the tribe might join in the chase they scared the whole herd away just to get a few. A tribe might be starving and their lives might depend on getting a herd.

We used to have such happy times in the evening waiting for the return of the hunters. We children used to run to meet our fathers and brothers when we saw them coming over the prairies that we might have the fun of leading in the horses loaded with meat. A man would kill a buffalo with his bow and arrows leaving the buffalo where it fell would run along by the herd to kill others. Then after the chase was over he would ride back over the ground to look for the buffalo he had killed. Each man knew his own by his arrows. The women took the meat when it was brought home and, excepting what was reserved for immediate use, they sliced it in broad thin slices and hung it up in the air to dry for winter use. The atmosphere on the prairies is so dry and bracing and there is such a constant breeze that it took a very short time for the meat to dry. It was taken in at night if there was a dew. The prairies are more like the ocean than anything I know of and you might travel for days without seeing a house or a human being.

The buffalo skins were tanned in a good many different ways for different uses. They were tanned in such a way with the hair left on that they could be used as rugs or robes or wraps and could also be used as moccasins in the winter with their hair inside. Another way was to take the hair off and tan them till they were as soft and pliable as cloth and then they were used for clothing and the finer sorts of moccasins and also for tent cloth. Still another way was to tan them leaving the skin so hard that they could be used for packing cases. These packing cases were usually painted on the outside. I remember once when we came to a stream which was too deep to be waded and there was no time to build canoes, and they took these packing cases and put two or three of us children in each and towed us across. It used to be a fine sight to see hundreds of horses swimming in a river. The sinew was used as thread and the bones for the handles of tools and implements.

Hunting was a business with the Indians. Besides the buffalo they hunted deer, elk, antelope and wild turkeys. Hunting was not with them as with you mere sport but hard work, for when they did not meet with a herd of buffalo a man might be all day hunting and return home at night with nothing. I believe the white people think that the Indian men look down on their wives and make them do all the hard work. It is not true. The man had to provide all the meat for the family including of course the clothing, take care of the horses and be on the alert for the enemy. The woman put up the tent took care of the children and got the wood and water. The tribe always camped near a stream. The young girls usually carried the water and they looked on it as fun. The women also did the tanning of the hides in the long days when the men were out hunting. At home the women put in the usually small crop of Indian corn, beans, and pumpkins, and the produce of the fields was considered theirs. They dried the corn and pumpkins for winter use. A man would not think of giving away any of the field produce without asking his wife. Neither would she give away any of the meat without asking him. Of course the nearer a man and his wife are the less need is there for them to ask each other for anything. When a woman marries, her property (an Indian's wealth is usually reckoned by the number of horses he has) is her own and her husband cannot dispose of it without her consent. If there is any trouble and they separate, she takes her own property with her. Of course there are men among us who tyrannize over their wives just as there are among you, for I have read about it in your books, and we have also among us what you call henpecked husbands.

When our tribe submitted to the government we were placed on a reserve which we could not leave without the permission of the government. Then you see the man's occupation was gone, but the woman's work still went on. The men of our tribe have begun to adapt themselves to the new condition of things and are beginning to do most of the work in the fields.

In the domestic government of the tribe before the United States government interfered with us, the punishment for stealing was that a man had to restore twice the value of what he stole to the one he stole from. The penalty for murder was usually banishment. It was a severe punishment. The rules with regard to young girls was very strict. A girl was not allowed to go anywhere without an older woman with her and a girl could not speak to any man excepting her own immediate relatives. Laughing or talking aloud in public was frowned upon as being unmaidenly. At home we children were not allowed to speak unless we were spoken to when visitors were present and never to pass in front of anyone. The Indians are very courteous to visitors, but all their forms are so opposite to your own that it would be hard for you to understand them. For instance it is considered very rude to ask a man his name. When food is set before you you are expected to eat it all or carry away with you what you do not eat, and that also arose from courtesy. But my paper is already too long and I cannot stop to explain the why and wherefore. I will only say in addition that a guest is expected by his host to look on the whole house as belonging to him and the whole household as at his service and they carry out this idea literally. The hostess herself waits personally on her guests in everything relating to their comfort.

The generosity of the Indians is almost a vice. It prevents them from being thrifty and from accumulating. A man is considered great according to what he has given away and not according to what he has. Every year we had a harvest feast lasting three days. Whoever chose to do so gave a horse or as many horses as he wished to give, and these horses were given to the poorest man in the tribe. When a calamity occurs to a family all the members of his band make up to them what they have lost. A family on our reserve was burnt out by a prairie fire and a house and barn were lost and the value of them was made up to him by his band. Another family camped in a valley and struck by a water-spout and the tent was swept away and the grandmother was drowned. His band gave him seven horses where he had had none before. Sometimes I think you white people do not know how to love each other as we Indians do, but then you see we have nothing in the world but each other. The love between parents and children is very tender, and there are numerous instances of men and women

[handwritten] MS incomplete[handwritten]

Typed December, 1956 VKB

La Flesche Tibbles, Susette. Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C. National Museum of the American Indian Archives Transcription Center, 1880.

This speech is incomplete, but due to the lack of primary sources for historical women of color it has been added to this digital archive.