Red Deer: Life Among the Mandans

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The head-dress was a crest of two polished buffalo horns set in a thick mat of ermine, from which fell clear to his heels a ridgy tail of countless eagle plumes also set in the ermine fur. The belt was of tanned buck-skin, supporting tomahawk and broad-bladed scalping knife with elk-horn haft.

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The robe slung from his shoulders like a. Roman toga was the softened hide of a young buffalo bull worn fur side in; and on the white skin side all the battles of his life had been painted. The medicine-bag was a beaver skin, ornamented with hawk-bills and ermine. He held it in his right hand. His tobacco sack was of otter skin decorated with porcupine quills. In it were dried red-willow bark, flint and steel, and tinder. His pipe was of curiously carved red pipe-stone from the peace quarries in present Minnesota. The stem was ash, three feet long, wound with porcupine quills to form pictures of men and animals; decorated with wood-peckers' skins and heads, and the hair of the white buffalo's tail.

It was half painted red, and notched for the years of his life. His quiver was of panther skin and filled with arrows, flint pointed and steel pointed, and some bloody. His bow was of strips of elk-horn polished white, cemented with glue of buffalo hoof, and backed with deer sinews to give it spring.


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Three months had been required to make it. There was none better. His lance had a deadly two-edge steel blade, stained with the dried blood of Sioux and Arikaree and Cheyenne and Assiniboin. The six-foot ashen shaft was strung with eagle feathers. His shield was the hide from a buffalo's neck, hardened with hoof glue. Its center was a pole-cat skin; its edges were fringed with eagle feathers and antelope hoofs that rattled. His battle-axe was of hammered iron blade and skull-pecker, with ash handle four feet long and deer-sinew grip.

Eagle feathers and fur tufts decorated it.

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His war-club was a round stone wrapped in raw-hide at the end of a cow-tail, like a policeman's billy. After his portrait was painted, Mahtotohpa spread out his wonderful robe, and told the stories of the twelve battles and the fourteen scalps pictured on it by his own hand; and these stories included that of his Arikaree lance, and Cheyenne knife. The lance story came about in this way. In the shaft of the lance, near the blade, there had been set an antelope prong; and when Mahtotohpa posed for his portrait, with the butt of the lance proudly planted on the ground, he carefully balanced an eagle feather across this prong.

It is great medicine, and belongs to the Great Spirit, not to me. I pulled it from the wound of an enemy. Whereupon, presently, he told theostory of the mighty lance. This had been the lance of a famous Arikaree warrior, Won-ga-tap. Some years back, maybe seven or eight, the Mandans and the Arikarees had met on horses near the Mandan towns, and had fought. The Mandans chased the Arikarees, but after the chase the brother of Mahtotohpa did not come in. Several days passed; and when Mahtotohpa himself found his brother, it was only the body, scalped and cut and pierced with an arrow, and fastened through the heart to the prairie by the lance of Won-ga-tap.

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Many in the village recognized that as the lance of Won-ga-tap. Mahtotohpa did not clean it of its blood, but held it aloft before all the village and swore that he would clean it only with the blood of Wongatap the Arikaree. He sent a challenge to the Arikarees; and for four years he waited, keeping the lance and hoping to use it as he had promised. Finally his heart had grown so sore that he was bursting; and again holding the lance up before the village, he made a speech.

Let nobody speak his name, or ask where he is, or try to seek him. He will return with fresh blood on this lance, or he will not return at all. He set out alone, on foot, like Piskaret, the Adirondack, had set out in his great adventure against the Iroquois. By night journeys he traveled two hundred miles, living on the parched corn in his pouch, until lie was seven days hungry when at last he came to the Arikaree town where the lodge of Wongatap was located.

He knew the village well, for there had been brief periods when the Mandans and the Arikarees were at peace; besides, it was a warrior's business to know an enemy's lodges. The Arikaree towns were much the same as the Mandan towns. Now Mahtotohpa lay outside and watched, until at dusk he might slip through between the pickets, and seek the lodge of Wongatap. He was enveloped in a. He peeped through a crack in the Wongatap lodge and saw that his enemy was getting ready for bed. There he was, Wongatap himself, sitting with his wife in the fire-light, and smoking his last pipe. Pretty soon, as the fire flickered out, he rapped the ashes from his pipe, his wife raked the coals of the fire together, until morning; and now they two crawled into their bunk.

Hotly grasping his lance, and surrounded by the enemy, Mahtotohpa delayed a little space; then he arose and boldly stalked into the lodge and sat by the fire. Over the coals was hanging a. Amidst the dusk Mahtotohpa ate well of the cooked meat; and filling the pipe, smoked calmly, half lying down, on one elbow. That was right. By Indian law a person in need may enter any lodge, and eat, and no questions shall be asked until he has finished. Mahtotohpa's heart almost failed him. Had that not been the killer of his brother, he would only have left a challenge, and gone away.

But he thought of his brother, and his vows, and his heart closed again. When his pipe was smoked out, he laid it aside, and gently stirred the fire with the toe of his moccasin, for more light. He dared to wait no longer. On a sudden he grasped his lance with both hands, sprang up and drove it through the body of Wongatap, in the bunk. With his knife he instantly snatched off the scalp.

Then he uttered the Mandan scalp-halloo, and dived for the door. There he paused, for just a second, to look back, that the squaw might see his faceā€”and in the glimmer of fire-light he noted a feather from the lance sticking in the hole in Wongatap's side. So back he darted, plucked the feather, and carrying it in his left hand, that the Great Spirit might help him, he ran hard.

Wongatap's wife was shrieking; all the village heard and answered, and the warriors streamed out of the lodges. The whole night Mahtotohpa ran, while the Arikarees vainly searched for his trail. This day he hid, in the brush along the Missouri River. The next night he ran again; and on the sixth morning he panted into the Mandan town, with the dried blood of Wongatap on his lance's blade and the stiffened scalp of Wongatap hanging to its handle.


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So that was why he cherished the lance, and that was why he considered the loose eagle's feather to be a strong medicine from the Great Spirit. His next-biggest deed was as follows, and it is bigger, according to white man's way of thinking. By that deed he won his knife. Early one morning one hundred and fifty Cheyenne warriors attacked the Mandan town.

They took a scalp and many horses before they rode away. The Mandans had been surprised; but Mahtotohpa rallied fifty warriors and pursued. The fifty warriors led by Mahtotohpa pursued for a day and half a day.

At noon they sighted the Cheyennes driving the stolen horses; but the Cheyennes were so numerous that the Mandan warriors lost their hearts and. Not so, Mahtotohpa! Iie galloped forward alone; he planted his lance in the earth, to the full length of the blade; and making a circle around it with his horse he tore from his clothing a strip of red cloth and hung that to the lance shaft, for a banner.

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