Blood River ©
Dancing Crow was a young brave in the year 1863. He was Algonquian in origin, a member of the Blackfoot nation and the Piegan tribe. His people were many and they lived proudly, scattered about the Great Plains of the untamed Northwestern Territories.
Buffalo hunting was their culture and the lifeblood of his clan. It fulfilled many of their needs, such as food, clothing and shelter. It had been their way of life for generations.
It was the beginning of a new day out on the barren plain, and the morning sun streaked in brilliant fashion across the cloudless sky. Spokes of gleaming burgundy, sent to trail off and die over the distant snowcapped peaks that lay on the horizon. As the new light unveiled the beauty of this forsaken land, it did little to expose the horrors that lay just below the fragile surface. The blood that had been shed upon this open range was boundless, and the lives that had been lost needlessly in this covetous war were innumerable. The government soldiers were relentless in their quest. Once the taking of the lands had begun, their merciless fury and avarice nature became unstoppable. Dancing Crow and the rest of the Piegan clan stayed only steps ahead of General Shuman and the murder and mayhem his troops left behind.
The U.S. Cavalry was herding the remaining tribes, corralling the natives onto reservations throughout the Midwest. The regime under President Lincoln’s control was systematically stealing their tribal lands and forcing the all but now thinned out and bestraggled Indians to move about sporadically. The Blackfoot Nation (given the name Blackfeet by the white man, referring to the dark color of their moccasins), backed into a corner, began hopscotching across their most sacred and revered hunting grounds in search of a safe haven to live undisturbed.
Many of the tribes from the Great Plains Nations had refused to comply with the general’s orders, choosing not to conform to the white man’s laws, opting to ignore the imposed restrictions and timely amnesty period he had mandated for them. Time had now expired, and the Blackfeet were on the run.
With the older warriors and a handful of seasoned braves scouting on ahead for open routes through the mountains to the west and the relative safety of the plains beyond, they skirted the military cavalcades, avoiding contact if at all possible. The tribes had been emaciated by death and displacement. Now every man, woman and child’s contribution and presence was greatly magnified. As the elder males were off, the women and children packed most of their belongings, while the juvenile boys pitched in, disassembling tepees and long houses, bundling up the material and readying it for travel.
Bright colored blankets, hand woven with intricate patterns depicting their humble lives, were folded and draped over the horse’s backs as they began their evasive journey. For this was the third such excursion in as many weeks for Dancing Crow’s tribe. He was still a young brave and helped his mother earnestly along with both his sisters.
Venturing out, not far from camp, he gathered many sturdy lengths of close-grained elm and carried them on his back as he tramped through the frosted brush. He followed a hasty trail of footprints left in the snow on his return. Once there, he would clean the limbs with his trusty hatchet, which he wore on his side religiously, freeing them of shoots and twigs. With the branches smooth, Dancing Crow could weave them together, binding them with thin strips of resilient bark, thus fashioning a sturdy travois to carry his family’s load.
Now that the young brave had secured the newly-fashioned conveyances to his family’s steeds, his siblings helped his mother pile the sleds high with buffalo skins, beaver pelts and muskrat hide. Then they added the long rigid poles on top, which they would use again for their shelters; lastly packing what food and clothes they had to carry, making them easily accessible.
The next day, they made their way through Harney Peak and out of their South Dakota homeland. In search of new land and a chance to live in peace, they picked up the trail of a very large herd of bison. They were in luck as the buffalo were moving with them, southwesterly, probably heading for the Wind River as it snaked its way out of the Black Hills and flowed lazily across the stark and lonely plains of Wyoming’s northeast.
As the caravan of Indians, horses and possessions plodded along, Dancing Crow lost himself within the panoramic view that surrounded him. Ripples of tan colored sand and ivory snow intertwined, forming the linear bases of the towering mesas far in the distance. His thoughts were a jumble, a mixture of nervousness and emotion. Some were of the “Great Hunt,” an adventure that was on many young braves’ minds this time of year. Other images tossed and turned in his head, the fulfillment of his rites and the spiritual enlightenment that would come with it.
On the other hand, there was the unsettling disruption and turmoil that plagued his people, the white man’s government uprooting them and spreading chaos throughout the land. These opposites embraced in clamor, wrestling over and over in his head. The lush forests loomed to the right and the vast expanse of nothingness stretched out endlessly to his left. All this was so captivating to the young Blackfoot, holding his attention hostage with the steel of a talon’s grip, while a rich cloud of sparkling dust, kicked up by the many hooves, marched slowly along beside him.
The elders of Dancing Crow’s clan had circled around the fire on many nights and listened as the chief spoke to the tribe in length, expressing the importance of the land of giant trees. Chief Iron Eyes lamented of the place where the timber grew in such abundance, like an army of mighty warriors that reached ever higher towards the Great Spirits in the sky, protecting his people down below. The wise man had also told of the magical hunts and mystical encounters that had taken place within the unknown recesses and darkened corners of the compelling and omnipotent forest.
As these riveting tales were professed, each brave sat in awe, wide-eyed and held fast, hanging on to each and every word. The Great Hunt was a baptismal adventure, a virile test like no other. When a boy reached his age of promise, it was time for him to embrace the ritual and engage in this sacred tradition.
The hunt was a physical action, drowned in spiritual becomings. It was held as witness to the beginning of a brave’s devotional life. A doorway to his soul is opened, and the hallowed spirits would absorb his consciousness and enter his psyche. In the end, the spirits would take hold of the young brave and emblazon him, sanctifying him forever, protecting him from evil. Each brave would venture out alone, seeking his kill and the ceremony of blood. Once he had endured these rites of manhood and was accepted by the spirits, only then could a young warrior return. Winter was upon them and the time crept near when Dancing Crow himself would be tested. He and the other braves his age prepared for the up and coming hunt.
As the distant sun fell to the heartless prairie, the Piegans settled at the bottom of a shallow rise that was closely studded with spreading firs. Here, they sheltered themselves against the harsh winds out of the west. The cold mountain air grew stronger as the night passed, and cascading, biting gusts from the Rockies whipped fiercely across the open plain. It was here that the Wind River twisted and turned sluggishly around the reverse side of the wooded knoll. There it branched off into frozen fingers that splayed out to feed the scant vegetation that spotted the desolate landscape beyond.
Dancing Crow’s thin, angular frame was striated with well-honed muscle, permanently bronze from the prairie sun…this giving him a deep, swarthy complexion and making him appear much older than his fourteen years would betray. It was December now. The season had turned frigid and the winter’s sun burned high in the solstice sky, sending little warmth down upon them. He wore smooth deer hide buckskins, pants and shirt, sewn together by his mother using a weave of dried buffalo intestine. His knee high moccasins that were lined with beaver pelts kept his feet warm and dry. The child warrior wore his thick, coal black hair long, letting it flow freely past his shoulders. Hanging loosely, from the right side of his temple, a single eagle feather was woven to his scalp, symbolizing the young brave’s virtue.
The Great Woods that bordered the open prairies is where Dancing Crow was bound. He would have to travel through the tall, dark forests to reach the vast plains and plentiful hunting grounds that lay beyond. A fresh snow had fallen during the day and evenly dusted the lofty pines with a fine coating of pristine powder.
Dancing Crow’s snowshoes, made of thatched willow branches, left deep, crescent-shaped divots trailing off behind him as he went. As he looked about, it registered in him with a quickening sharpness so sudden that it sent a fearful tremor racing through him. His were the only human tracks around. Dancing Crow was, for the first time in his short life, totally alone. The ground was covered over with a pure virginal whiteness that left him feeling as though every step taken was corrupting a masterpiece that had been painted across a canvas of glistening earth. The evening sun set off a dazzling array of spectral colors as it transversed along the frozen crust, capturing each crystal as it twinkled in a prism of glittering light.
A sudden noise broke the silent tranquility, shattering the placid stillness of the wooded coppice. High above, a withering branch over laden with heavy snow sharply cracks as the burden proves too much. Dancing Crow stops and looks around while the giant limb settles into a snowy grave. He turns now and listens to the funerary song of the powerful tallow-throated woodpecker as it pounds out the foreboding tolls upon the thick trunk of the whispering cedar. He thinks back to the stories he was told and as the night crept in and began to enter the inner sanctum of the darkening forest, his senses peaked. The air that swirled around him became vibrant, and the fine hairs on the back of his neck began to prickle as he became acutely aware of the spirit presence.
Before entering the mystic forest, the lone hunter had tracked a small herd moving slowly south. Working his way along a dried up arroyo, Dancing Crow caught up with a stray and lagging calf. Using his youthful cunning and practiced stealth, he had stolen close to his prey. Then, when the time was right, with his long knife in hand he attacked.
The boy brave killed the young buffalo quickly, and by cutting the animal's thick hide across the forehead with a deep straight incision, then making a perpendicular laceration down the beast’s belly, he neatly stripped the carcass clean. He bagged some meat for the next few days and buried the rest in the frozen ground, marking it with a tall evergreen branch, preserving it for the return trip home.
Now, coming to the edge of the woodland, Dancing Crow would wait patiently upon the coming herd and the welcomed cloak of darkness. He busied himself with attaching a newly fashioned spear point, which he had recently carved from a small piece of Bighorn red jasper, to a long straight shaft of sturdy ash.
Done by instinct, before he had eaten, the boy brave had scraped the bloody hide down, freeing it of excess fat and the tough stringy gristle that once held the mammoth beast together. So, with his anticipation on an all-time high, he sat cross-legged on a small knoll with the buffalo skin draped loosely over him. The calf’s furry scalp lay warm upon his own as he waited. And as he sat there, Dancing Crow could feel a sense of unity and bonding with his dark surroundings. All the while, a profound but subtle sound of silence stole within his untouched being and harnessed his inner spirit.
Before Dancing Crow left on his sacramental journey, he and the other Piegan tribe remnants had congregated at the foot of the pine and oak studded hills. They had put many miles and many moons between them and their last sighting of the general’s men. So it was here that they worked together, constructing their small village. Within two days’ time, nine towering tepees rose majestically from the snow-covered plains. A spacious longhouse was erected as well, built with stout poles of birch and maple, draped with animal hides to insulate from the cold and biting winds. The whole tribe could gather as one in these larger structures and would do so often, listening to Chief Iron Eyes as he passed down pivotal pieces of tradition and lore.
But now, with most of the men away, either hunting the new herds of buffalo coming out of the west or baiting traps along the riverbank for beaver and muskrat, the village was unhurried and unusually quiet. Aside from the ornate blanket weaving and moccasin stitching, the women also sewed together strong nets, from thin strands of hemp. The older and younger boys alike would cast these nets into the teeming waters of the icy rivers. Their catch was plentiful, reaping vast quantities of troutperch and large-mouth bass. The children would then take the day’s bounty and hang it from long drying poles to cure in the bitter winter wind. Not today, though, as there was a light flurry of glistening powder fluttering in the air, and there were no fish to bind. So, the children did what they do best…..they played.
There was one young girl in particular, whose name was Singing Rain. She had been playing along the braided river, not far from the tribal lodge, when the sharp report from Winchester repeating rifles ricocheted with a sonic clatter off the shallow canyon walls. It froze the girl in her tracks as the flat rock she had pitched continued on its path, skipping briskly across the frigid waters.
Scared and running on pure adrenaline, she deftly picked her way through the dense copse of firs that were so prevalent along the northwestern bluffs. The relentless crack of gunfire spurred her on as she could hear the screams of her people and the deranged whooping and laughter of evil men. The voices of the women and children rang in her ears like the shrill cry of the red-tailed hawk, driving her little legs faster.
Cresting the rise, Singing Rain fell to the ground in shock, as the sight before her was beyond the twelve year old’s comprehension: The total massacre and complete destruction of her village; the entire area lay in waste. A sliver of pain pulsed in the back of her eyes, sending a profound and resilient vibration of unknown terror rippling through her shoulders and racing down her spine.
The young native girl was trembling, and the tears rolled freely over her small brown cheeks, hanging for a moment, quivering, before falling gently to the ground like the soft flakes of snow around her. She struggled to her feet, tearing her eyes away from the ungodly sight. Singing Rain looked to the west as the sound of pounding hooves grabbed her attention. A slew of soldiers rode off in a fury, and their horses hammered out a hasty retreat, thundering ominously, reverberating across the prairie basin like a thousand drums of war.
The lone Algonquian girl was knocked roughly to the frozen tundra when a cavalryman kicked her in the back as he rode by. His horse was bucking wildly and frothing from the mouth as if it, too, was caught up in the frenzy of the slaughter. The frightened child rolled to her side and gained her knees. She looked in horror at her hands, dripping with bright red blood, and her own heart skipped several beats. The bodies lay everywhere, twisted in the throes of death and chopped into pieces by the soldiers’ lethal blades.
The women and children that were strewn about her had bled profusely -- their blood, their pride, running in rivulets through the crisp white blanket of snow. Here and there it gathered, forming sticky pools of sickening death. Her stomach wretched violently and she choked back hard, gagging as the acidic bile rose uncontrollably in her throat. A shiny booted soldier rode up as she knelt amid the butchery and raised his steel high. The fledgling Blackfoot girl (kskwe’sis) hid her face in her hands and sobbed, waiting for the razor sharp edge to slice through her tender flesh. She lay still, and when the finely honed blade wavered and the horse galloped off, an eerie silence befell the obliterated village.
Now, Singing Rain wandered aimlessly through the bloodshed, looking for anyone who might have survived. Their tribal lodge, the just constructed longhouse, had been reduced to nothing more than a heaping pile of ash and smoldering cinder. All about, the sturdy long poles of the many great tepees stood smoking, turning the pristine innocence of the surrounding white into a murky ebon of burning chaos.
Through the ashen haze, a feeble whimper struggled to be heard. The addled kskwe’sis hurried toward the pleading sound. The muffled cries brought her round to the side of her family’s shelter. There, lying naked in the mud and bleeding badly from his head, was her sister’s infant son. She picked the screaming baby up, cradling it against her heaving chest, which rose and fell from her own uncontrollable sobs.
As she tried to comfort the newborn babe, she felt a light tapping on the soft leather of her moccasin. Looking down she saw a steady stream of blood and gore dripping from the wounded child, spattering off her toe and speckling the snow about her feet.
The suffering toddler suddenly stopped his tortured trill and fell utterly still within her arms. All to be heard now was the constant pattering of red as its brief life quickly slipped away. Singing Rain swaddled the infant in an unburnt pelt, covering its head as well. She then laid the silent one down upon her sister’s bloodstained corpse, and taking down a loosely hanging hide from the blackened poles beside her, she shrouded the blameless pair from the falling ash and snow.
Amid the thick smoke that moved like a serpent, wafting ominously by, a breath of hope reached out to her and filled her aching lungs. It renewed her strength and sparked a light within her as she thought of Dancing Crow. He was not here. He had left days ago on a solo hunt, as had most of the young braves in their village, and had yet to return from this sacred quest of manhood. So the fledgling Piegan girl gathered what food and clothes she could carry and with a final look about the mayhem (that was only moments ago her happy home), she headed west, for the forest and the safety of her big brother.
It had been a harrowing journey across the treacherous plains, a lethal game of hide and seek. The Cavalry were in such abundance, scouring the area, searching for any and all surviving members of the Blackfoot tribe. The evasive odyssey through the open range had taken the remainder of that day and most of the next before Singing Rain reached the overwhelming, prophetic forest.
She stopped upon entering the giant timbers and listened anxiously. While she stood just inside the veil of shade, her palms began to sweat and her heart raced erratically. The unknown, yet still, nervous anticipation of what might lay ahead drummed the blood in her neck so loud that she could feel it beating in her ears.
It was much darker in here than she expected. Under the cover of the imposing pines, the light filtering down waned dramatically, before reaching the shaded confines of the forest floor. An eerie noise startled her, sending an icy river of shivers tingling up her spine. The young girl’s eyes were wide as they darted back and forth in a mixture of fear and curiosity. She strained to hear the strange new sounds. Singing Rain had never been to the Great Woods before, seeing them only in passing and hearing of the grand mysteries and exotic adventures that took place within.
She had only gone a few feet and was taken by surprise as a firm hand gripped around her thin shoulder. Singing Rain turned quickly and when she saw who it was. She collapsed, her knees turning to rubber and simply giving out.
Dancing Crow caught his little sister in his arms, holding her tight as she cried like he had never seen her do before, releasing the hardened tears of the horrors she had witnessed. When she calmed, Singing Rain told her brother of the maniacal soldiers and the human carnage they had left behind.
Her brother told her that he had seen the white man ride from where he sat in the forest and that they were still roaming the plains openly. He said that he began to fear for the village and had been on his way to return when he found her. Dancing Crow looked out onto the darkening prairie with protective and watchful eyes. The pair was safe for now as they took solace within the guarding shadows of the great forest.
“Where do we go from here?” Dancing Crow asked himself. Having fulfilled his tribal rites and completing the sacred journey, he thought, “I should call out to the Great Spirits and seek their guidance, for they will undoubtedly know the answer and the way.”
With his mind set, he tucked the little one beneath the heavy cape of buffalo skin, as she sat beside him. Her head lay gently against his chest, next to the fresh set of horns that hung from around his neck. Dancing Crow could feel her hot breath and the wetness of her tears on his cool skin and leaned his head to hers, whispering softly in her ear. “I will protect you, Singing Rain. No harm will come your way, for now your brother is a man.” She snuggled close and quickly fell fast asleep as the wind and snow wisped gracefully through the tall majestic pines.