Bird Woman—Sacajawea - James W. Schultz

Bird Woman's Story of her Capture

So here begins Bird Woman's own story as she told it to Hugh Monroe:—I must first tell you something about my Snake people [she began]. It is not because they are cowards that they are poor, that they hide and hunger in the mountain forests; it is because they cannot possibly hold their own against the tribes of the plains, the Blackfeet tribes especially. Always, when they went out upon the plains after buffalo, they would be driven back by enemies far outnumbering them. At last, in a summer of little rain, when few salmon ascended the rivers, and there were but few roots, the chiefs of the Snakes, the Flatheads, and the Pend 'Oreilles counseled together. Said the Snake chief: "It seems to me that we have not had good sense. We have been going out upon the plains to hunt, you Flatheads in one place, you Pend 'Oreilles in another, and my people in another, and that is where we have made a mistake. Let us now band together and go out to hunt buffalo; we will then number so many warriors that I doubt that the Blackfeet, or our other enemies, will even attempt to drive us from their plains. Their plains, say I? Why, they are our plains, too, and so are the herds of buffalo and antelope that cover them! Come! Let us all make plenty of arrows, and then go out and kill all that we want of our plains animals!"

The other chiefs agreed with the Snake chief to do that. They called themselves names because they had not long since banded together to hunt upon the plains. As soon as they and their warriors had made all the arrows that they could possibly need, the three tribes of them crossed the mountains and camped just above the Great Falls of the Missouri, in the midst of countless herds of buffalo. I do not know how long ago that was; it was some time before I was born.

Now the people of the three tribes were happy. They feasted upon the plenty of buffalo that the hunters killed. The women dried great quantities of it for future use, and tanned many buffalo hides for warm winter robes, and for leather for lodge skins. And day after day they kept scouts far out in all directions to watch for the approach of enemies. At last, one morning, some of them were discovered, coming from the north. The scouts hurried to camp with the news, and said that the war party numbered about two hundred men, all on foot. When the chiefs of the three tribes heard that they were glad. They laughed. "We are more than six hundred men," they said. "This day we shall teach the enemy something that they will never forget! We shall kill all of them, except two or three, who shall go home and tell their people that we are now united, and so powerful that they cannot drive us from the plains!"

All the warriors of the three tribes mounted their best horses, slung their thick, bull-hide shields, and with bows and arrows in hand rode out gladly to destroy the enemy war party. There they were, right out on the open plain, heading for the valley where the little river meets the big river, just above the falls. When they saw our warriors riding out to battle with them, they did not halt; they raised their war song and kept right on, and our chiefs said to one another: "They are crazy! Crazily brave! They should know—but it seems they do not—that we shall soon wipe them out!" Nearer and nearer the Snake, the Flathead, and the Pend 'Oreille warriors rode to them, arrows fitted to their bows, and shields held ready to stop, the flight of enemy arrows, and as they rode, their chiefs kept cautioning them not to shoot until they were so close to the enemy that they could see their eyes. But before they could ride that near, the enemy came to a halt, and some of them raised what appeared to be shining sticks, pointed them at the riders, and suddenly there burst from the ends of them fire, and smoke, and booms of thunder, and riders and horses fell as though they had been struck by lightning. Five riders and three horses went down, and all the rest of those more than six hundred riders turned and fled back to camp, and gathered in their horses and mounted their women and children and what they could of their property in their great hurry, and away they went up the trail to the mountains, once more to hide from their plains enemies and starve in the forests of the west slope. Never again, they said to one another, could they venture out after buffalo. Their plains enemies had been favored by their gods. They had been given thunder and lightning! It was useless to try to fight enemies who had the weapons of the sky gods, the terrible weapons with which great trees were scattered into splinters, with which even the solid rock of the mountains was broken into small pieces!

There followed winters and summers of hunger for the three tribes. They hid deep in the forests, catching a few salmon, killing a little game, eating what roots they could find, and summer after summer the plains war-men sought them, raiding their horse herds, and killing many of the people with the thunder and lightning weapons of the sky gods. It was a hard life that those mountain tribes led. But at last it was learned that those weapons were not sky god weapons. A party of Snakes, wandering far south, met white men; men who carried these same weapons, and who said that they were not medicine; that they made them themselves, and also the black stuff like sand, and the round balls with which they fed them. They would not give nor sell the Snakes even one of them, and so, watching their chance, the war party stole one of the weapons and food for it, and hurried north to their people with it. Thereafter, knowing that these weapons were man-made, not god-made, they became less timid, and at times ventured out upon the plains after buffalo, going out generally in the late fall when war parties of the plains tribes had ceased ' roaming about.

Thus it was when I was born, when I was growing up, a young girl in the camp of my people. Many, oh, many times I have fled from sudden attacks upon us by the Blackfeet, the Minnetarees, and other plains enemies. We lived in constant fear of them, especially in the summer-time. From the going of the snow until it came again, the moons were moons of terror for us all.

As I grew older, deer and elk became more and more scarce in our mountain country, because of the constant hunting of them, and at last, in the spring of my tenth summer, food became so scarce that we had to cross the mountains and go down to hunt buffalo or starve to death on the west side. We were then well down on a fork of our Big River, or, as my white chiefs have named it, the Snake River. We could not wait there for the summer run of salmon to come up it; we broke camp and moved up to the west side of the pass at the head of the Missouri River. From there some of our hunters went on discovery through the pass and down the east slope, and, returning a few days later, brought what meat they could pack on their riding horses. They reported that the buffalo were well below the Three Forks of the east side of Big River, too far away for our men to hunt them from where we were; so our chiefs decided that we should cross the pass and go down and camp somewhere near the Forks. It was better, they said, for us to die with full bellies than to die from starvation where we were.

We crossed the pass, followed down the trail running to the Great Falls, and camped on the West Fork of Big River, not far above its meeting-point with the Middle Fork. From there our hunters went down the valley every day, always returning before sunset with buffalo meat and hides. For the first time in many moons we had enough to eat, yes, and meat to spare, which the women dried for future use. They worked from sunrise to sunset, cutting the meat into thin sheets for drying g and tanning the hides of the buffalo that the men brought in. But all of us, men, women, and children, ate and worked and played with fear in our hearts, always watching for a war party from some of the plains tribes to come in sight. We dared not sleep in our camp; as soon as the sun set and we had finished our evening meal, we scattered out, a family here, a family there, to sleep in the thick brush in the valley or up on the mountain-side. My friend, that was a terrible life we led; a life of constant fear! It is the kind of life that my Snake people still live! Oh, how my heart goes out to them! Just think, my friend, how I feel when I see the warriors of this village return from a raid with scalps that they have torn from the heads of my poor relatives!

One morning, soon after our hunters had gone down the valley to hunt more buffalo, one of them came hurrying back as fast as his horse could carry him and shouting to us that the enemy were coming. Right on his heels came others, hurrying to run in our horses from the mountain-side, and get us mounted and started off up the trail for the pass, while still others, among them my father, tried to keep the enemy back until we were well upon our way. I cannot begin to tell you the awful confusion that our camp was so suddenly thrown into! Women and children ran aimlessly about, crying, shrieking, paying no attention to the old men begging them to take courage, to wait for the horses that were being run in, and then to catch gentle ones and ride off up the trail. Some of the women ran at once for the brush with their children, and others gathered their little ones and started up the trail; only a few of them heeded the old men and waited for the horses to be brought in.

I was playing with three or four girls, and we were a little way above camp when the trouble began. We ran down into the camp as fast as we could, and I called and called my mother, running first to our lodge, then to other places, but I could not find her. I tried to stop people and ask them if they had seen her, but they paid no attention to me, seemed not to hear me, and, hardly knowing what I was about, I turned and ran from camp, got into the timber and brush and made my way up the valley as fast as I could go. I soon heard the boom of guns, the shouts of the fighters, off down the valley. I ran on faster, if that was possible, tearing my way through the brush, often stumbling against a dead branch or log and falling flat. Now and then I saw women and children on one side or the other of me, and I would hurry toward them, find that my mother was not with them and go on in search of her. I was a good runner, I was strong of body, but all too soon I began to tire, to run slower and slower. Out to my right I heard people, my people, calling to one another, urging their horses on as they fled for the pass. I worked my way out to the trail, just as a last party of them were passing, and I cried out to them for help, for a horse, but they were so frightened that they never even looked toward me, and I stumbled on after them a little way, then turned back into the brush and went on.

At last the timber and brush on my side of the river gave out. Ahead was a long, open bottom, but on the opposite side of the river the growth of timber continued. I looked for a place to cross the river and got into it, but the water was very deep and swift, and I went quite a long way up the open bottom before I found a shallow ford. As I started to cross it I saw four riders coming and thought that they were my people. I stopped on the shore, intending to ask them to let me ride behind one of them. Then, all too late, I saw that they were enemy riders, and I ran into the river, stooping low, hoping that the bank would prevent them from seeing me as I crossed over into the brush. I did not look back; I had to watch my footing upon the slippery stones of the ford. I was no more than halfway to the brush when, above the roar of a rapid close upstream, I heard a horse splash into the water behind me, heard him make two or three jumps, heard other horses splash into the water, and then a rider suddenly seized my left arm and yanked me up on his horse in front of him. I whirled about and looked at him, and tried to bite and scratch his face, but he just laughed, and clasped me with his left arm so that I could not hurt him. He turned his horse about, and the three other riders turned too, and down the trail we went, they talking and laughing in their language so strange to me, I frightened so much that I could not cry, no, not even when we passed a boy and a girl, two of my playmates, lying dead beside the trail! On our way down to the camp we were joined by others of the enemy, some of them with captured horses, two of them with girl captives of my own age. Oh, how low-hearted we were; so sad feeling, and so afraid of our captors, that we did not even speak to one another as we were borne on down the trail!



When we arrived at camp we found there a gathering of more than a hundred of the enemy, a few of them holding a great band of Snake horses, others guarding boy and girl prisoners, the rest going about through the camp, taking whatever they found that pleased them, and setting fire to the lodges, hides, saddles, everything that would burn. We were nine prisoners, four boys and five girls, all of them of about my age. One of the girl prisoners, named otter Woman, was my close friend. She ran to me as soon as my captor let me down from his horse, and we cried together. She told me that she had been captured by the man who had brought me in, and that he had left her with some of his companions when he went on in pursuit of our people.

While the camp was burning, our captor caught a horse for otter Woman and one for me, and saddled them with saddles that he saved from the burning. The other prisoners were also given saddled horses, and we were all soon ordered to mount and ride. We just had to go. There were riders in front of us, riders behind us; we could not possibly escape from our captors by riding away from them. Down the trail we went, passing here and there one and another of our people, dead and scalped. And as we passed each one the boys and girls cried afresh; all but otter Woman and I. We felt as badly as the others, worse, perhaps, but somehow we could not cry.

On and on we went down the valley, and at sunset made camp beside the river. We prisoners were ordered to build a little fire for ourselves and were given plenty of fat buffalo meat to roast. We did cook it, but felt so sad that we could no more than taste it. All around us the war party were gathered about little fires, talking, laughing, roasting meat. There was a full moon; the night was so bright that we could see the great band of horses out on the flat, four or five men constantly riding around them and keeping them together while they grazed. We were very miserable. We mourned for our relatives, dead, perhaps, and we trembled as we thought of what might be in store for us,—death, most likely!

After a time the man who had captured Otter Woman and me came and sat near us, and said to us in signs: "You two are mine. I shall take you to my big lodge, and there you will have plenty to eat, good clothing, and you will help my women in their work, and you will be the same to me as my own children. So do not be afraid of me. But do not try to escape; if you do, I shall have to kill you, for I cannot be bothered by chasing you and bringing you back."

We made no answer to that; so, looking straight at us, he went on: "How is it? Do you understand?" And we then signed back to him that we did. He was a man of about fifty years was our captor, and he had a kind face and a soft, laughing voice, but, oh, how otter Woman and I feared him that first evening! He signed to us all to lie down and go to sleep, and we all did lie down around our little fire, otter Woman and I closely side by side, and then he made signs, "That is good!" and moved away from us. We did not intend, any of us, to sleep. We watched the circle of our captors, hoping to escape from them when they lay down and fell asleep. But before they did that they left three men on guard and these came and sat near us. At midnight three others took the watch and they lay down. And at that, afraid though we were, we, too, slept. We were so tired that we could not keep awake.

We were awakened at daylight, taken to the river to wash ourselves, brought back and given more meat, and told to hurry cooking and eating it. We were now so hungry, and so much less frightened, that we did eat. After that the horses were brought in, and we were soon all mounted and on our way again down the valley. We rode steadily until noon, and again, after a short rest, until night. During the long day we had become somewhat used to our captivity, and less and less afraid that our captors were going to do worse than make slaves of us. But we did not intend to be slaves; we sat around our little fire that evening and made all kinds of plans to escape and return to the mountains and find our people, hiding, we were sure, somewhere in the forests of the west side. But as fast as we made our plans we saw that they were not good. How could we escape when, all through the night, there was a guard over us? We could not do it! Again we became very low-hearted; we cried; and crying, fell asleep.