Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Buckskin Brigades - Chapter 3 - Running Elk Talks Himself to Death

"The Request" is a short and straightforward chapter, which starts by telling us that Running Elk died that night, and everyone knew it would happen because "he knowingly hastened his death by talking."  Then the chapter rewinds a bit to reveal what he had to say, making me wonder why we needed to be told about his death beforehand if the author planned on showing it.

The other Pikuni warriors are sleeping, while Yellow Hair is on guard duty - even though the Blackfoot know the Kitchi-Mokans have left their territory, both Low Horns and White Fox agreed that someone needs to be on watch.  My question is whether there was a warrior amongst them that might be better-suited for this task than an impulsive, irreverent hothead who's repeatedly threatened to ditch his comrades to pursue vengeance.  But I suppose the others have had a big day and deserve some rest, and of course Yellow Hair needs to be awake to hear Running Elk's dying speech.

Running Elk beckons him over and immediately apologizes for flinching from Yellow Hair earlier, which our hero insists he's already forgotten.  Good for him, and good for us - we've finally got a positive trait to associate with our hero, the ability to forgive minor offenses.

"That is well.  In a little time, Yellow Hair, I will find the place the Great Spirit has reserved for me in the Sand Hills."

"It will be a mighty place, Running Elk."

I guess the "Great Spirit" is Nah-Too-Si, the Blackfoot's creator/sun deity.  As for the Sand Hills, the Blackfoot Digital Library confirms that the Sand Hills are indeed the realm of the dead, but also that death is sort of a taboo topic.  The only media about it on the site is a discussion in their native tongue, which they don't intend to translate.  Presumably this is why Wikipedia and other sources don't have anything to say about the Blackfoot afterlife.

"I will know the stories of our people who have not come back to tell them, but, Yellow Hair, I will never be able to tell Bright Star."

Down in the cottonwoods an owl hooted dismally.  It knew that a great man would die.

A wolf's quavering howl sounded far off on the darkened plains.

I think this scene would work without the cliched animal noises, myself.

"Hear?" said Running Elk.

Even in his first book, Hubbard preferred that his characters say questions rather than ask them.  And he kept annoying me by doing it all the way to his last book. 

"He knows too.  Yellow Hair, I have been a foolish old man.  I have been too vain.  I have held my head too high to see the path before my feet, and now that I trip, it's too late.  We are a day and a half's journey from my people, and I understand that I have been wrong.  Someday, Yellow Hair, you will be a great man in the tribe.  The Pikunis will need you to guide them.  You are swift and strong, Yellow Hair.  You are brave.  The Pikunis will need all their brave men.

Heavens forbid a white man join an Indian group and not become one of the tribe's heroes, if not its leader.  Otherwise what's the point of joining in the first place, eh?  Wouldn't want to go native and become a mediocre fisherman or something.

Running Elk recounts his people's history with the white folk, how when he was a child only one white man had visited their country and asked them to travel north to a river and trade beaver pelts for goods.  The elders of that time demurred since many people starved during the journey to the trading camps, which I find dubious - surely they could forage and hunt on the move?

Running Elk also mentions that "They cared nothing for travel on the rivers and did not believe that there were many whites and they could not understand what whites wanted with the pelts of the sacred beaver."  Now, according to again, the Blackfoot disdained traveling by canoe and eating fish due to their religious beliefs - the Suyitapis, or Underwater People, powered medicine bundles and other sacred stuff, and I guess the last thing you wanna do is drop a fishing hook in that.  As for the beaver, apparently a beaver medicine bundle was a prized item, but if the Blackfoot did consider the creature sacred, this did not prevent them from hunting and skinning the animals in great numbers to trade with white folk.  Somewhere I read that the exchange rate was one musket for a stack of beaver pelts as tall as it was standing on its stock.

Anyway, Running Elk goes on to say how that first white man was joined by another who built a fort on the river, and then others arrived to chase that guy off, and then more came and established more trading posts.

"They have given us guns, cooking pots, blankets and knives in exchange for small animals we easily catch along the streams.  We have taken advantage of their foolishness and we have not tried to discover why they should value these furs so highly that they murder each other to get them.

Good ol' "stupid white people coveting material goods" observation.  Nothing about how the white man's guns allowed the Blackfoot to become the dominant military power of their corner of the plains.

Running Elk is starting to think that old Many Guns might have been right when he claimed there were "hundreds" of these white folk out to the east, white men who won't respect the Blackfoot's boundaries.  Indeed, now that he's dying, Running Elk's "sight is clear like a fire which flares up just before it goes out," and he can see a time when his people are driven west, and starving.  I think he's referring to the Native Americans in general, it looks like the (Piegan/Pikuni) Blackfoot reservation in Montana is north of the Marias River along the Canadian border, while the other branches of the Confederacy went further north to Canada.

More kissing of the main character's buttocks, along with a quest for our hero:

"Yellow Hair, do not be offended at my brothers.

And absolutely do not under any circumstances apologize for offending them.

You are brave and strong, but you are also kind and can forgive.  You have needed us for years.  You will be the needed one in time to come.  Train yourself for war, learn the ways of these whites, help us keep them out of our nation.  You can see what they do to us, what they have done to me.  Once these people defeat us, we are no more.  This Kitchi-Mokan who talked so much and told so many lies is only one of many.  I know now what your father meant.  These white people will tell us anything and then break their promises as I could snap an arrow.

As far as I can tell, the Blackfoot were treated better than most tribes.  After initial hostility to white fur traders, they ended up benefiting from the beaver trade, and stayed neutral in the Indian Wars.  They were victimized in the pretty heinous Marias Massacre, but that was more an example of idiocy than malicious intent.  The biggest betrayal might be the time in 1874 when the US Government redrew the borders of the Blackfoot reservation without consulting or compensating them, which prompted all but the Pikuni to leave for Canada.  A pretty dick move, but not on the scale of the Trail of Tears.

Again, I guess Running Elk is speaking for all Indians here.

His final words concern his daughter, or more specifically how he was wrong to deny her to Yellow Hair.  You can't blame him for being cautious: Lost-in-Mountains gave his eldest daughter to some lousy brave who is now claiming his rights to her sister, and even if he dies his brother would get the wives and be even worse.

"You will forgive me, Yellow Hair.  Now it will be difficult to take Bright Star as your wife.  She is fine and beautiful.  She is brave and resourceful and even though her moods are stormy she would make a good woman for you.  And you need a good woman, Yellow Hair.  Too long you and White Fox have lived in a lodge together without women.  You must have clothes and new robes and better food.

So I guess that's why Yellow Hair and White Fox were off on their own - they weren't advance scouts, they were living out there.  Follow-up question: why were they living out there?

"Even if Bright Star refuses you, do not despair.  My son Fleetfoot will know you speak the truth when you tell him what I have said.

According to Wikipedia, the Blackfoot did practice polygamy, but in most cases stuck with one wife.  When someone decided one woman wasn't enough, it was thought that taking the first wife's sister as a second wife would cause fewer arguments, but I don't find any indication that the man was obligated to all of his wife's sisters.  In any case, women ultimately decided whether or not they wanted to marry someone, so if Bright Star still refuses Yellow Hair, just because her dad gave him permission to marry her doesn't mean she'd have to if her brother Fleetfoot believed it.  Conflicting with this is, which claims that Blackfoot marriages were arranged by friends or relatives, or even by a girl's parents when she was still a child.  Before it went through, the groom had to prove himself as a provider or warrior.  At any rate, the Lost-in-Mountain scenario seems a bit unlikely - either this lousy warrior would've failed to win the hand of a daughter, or would have no ability to claim her sisters without their consent.

And that's about it.  Running Elk says Yellow Hair can have his horses, robes and daughter, and has given him a mission to learn the ways of the White Man so the Pikuni may defeat them.

"I am an old man, Yellow Hair.  It is right that I die still a warrior.  Do not let them mourn for me.

"I have finished."

Yellow Hair gently shook White Fox's shoulder and whispered in the gloom, "He is dead."

I think that last part could've used more narration and less dialogue.  Something about Yellow Hair's reaction to all this, of finally getting his heart's desire in the worst way, or being given such a heavy burden.  Or maybe something about whether Running Elk died in peace or whether his face was etched with pain.  Instead, we only know he even died in the first place because the start of the chapter tells us, and Yellow Hair tells White Fox.

Huh, wonder why no one else woke up when Running Elk started talking?  

Back to Chapter 2, part 2


  1. Lol, at one point in the spork you called him Running Elf. Is that a typo, or intentional?

    1. Definitely a typo, Hubbard hasn't wasted enough words on the Blackfoot's physical perfection for me to call them elves.

  2. Lol, that wikipedia article: "Historically, one of the primary sources of food and other needs for the Blackfoot was the American Bison. The typical hunting method was to drive a herd off of a cliff, and butcher them after they died at the bottom."

    1. In their defense, that was before the introduction of horses allowed native hunters to efficiently bring down individual bison. But yes, it is a good fact to keep in mind whenever someone gushes about the Native Americans living in perfect harmony with nature.