Skynses -- Their traffic -- Hunting -- Food -- Horses -- A horse-race -- Devotional feeling of the Skynses, Nez Perces and Flatheads -- Prayers -- Exhortations -- A preacher on horseback -- Effect of religion on the manners of the tribes -- A new light.
DURING the absence of this detachment, a sociable intercourse had been kept up between the main party and the Skynses, who had removed into the neighborhood of the camp. These people dwell about the waters of the Way-lee-way and the adjacent country, and trade regularly with the Hudson's Bay Company; generally giving horses in exchange for the articles of which they stand in need. They bring beaver skins, also, to the trading posts; not procured by trapping, but by a course of internal traffic with the shy and ignorant Shoshokoes and Too-el-icans, who keep in distant and unfrequented parts of the country, and will not venture near the trading houses. The Skynses hunt the deer and elk occasionally; and depend, for a part of the year, on fishing. Their main subsistence, however, is upon roots, especially the kamash. This bulbous root is said to be of a delicious flavor, and highly nutritious. The women dig it up in great quantities, steam it, and deposit it in caches for winter provisions. It grows spontaneously, and absolutely covers the plains.
This tribe was comfortably clad and equipped. They had a few rifles among them, and were extremely desirous of bartering for those of Captain Bonneville's men; offering a couple of good running horses for a light rifle. Their first-rate horses, however, were not to be procured from them on any terms. They almost invariably use ponies; but of a breed infinitely superior to any in the United States. They are fond of trying their speed and bottom, and of betting upon them.
As Captain Bonneville was desirous of judging of the comparative merit of their horses, he purchased one of their racers, and had a trial of speed between that, an American, and a Shoshonie, which were supposed to be well matched. The race-course was for the distance of one mile and a half out and back. For the first half mile the American took the lead by a few hands; but, losing his wind, soon fell far behind; leaving the Shoshonie and Skynse to contend together. For a mile and a half they went head and head: but at the turn the Skynse took the lead and won the race with great ease, scarce drawing a quick breath when all was over.
The Skynses, like the Nez Perces and the Flatheads, have a strong devotional feeling, which has been successfully cultivated by some of the resident personages of the Hudson's Bay Company. Sunday is invariably kept sacred among these tribes. They will not raise their camp on that day, unless in extreme cases of danger or hunger: neither will they hunt, nor fish, nor trade, nor perform any kind of labor on that day. A part of it is passed in prayer and religious ceremonies. Some chief, who is generally at the same time what is called a "medicine man," assembles the community. After invoking blessings from the Deity, he addresses the assemblage, exhorting them to good conduct; to be diligent in providing for their families; to abstain from lying and stealing; to avoid quarrelling or cheating in their play, and to be just and hospitable to all strangers who may be among them. Prayers and exhortations are also made, early in the morning, on week days. Sometimes, all this is done by the chief from horseback; moving slowly about the camp, with his hat on, and uttering his exhortations with a loud voice. On all occasions, the bystanders listen with profound attention; and at the end of every sentence respond one word in unison, apparently equivalent to an amen. While these prayers and exhortations are going on, every employment in the camp is suspended. If an Indian is riding by the place, he dismounts, holds his horse, and attends with reverence until all is done. When the chief has finished his prayer or exhortation, he says, "I have done," upon which there is a general exclamation in unison.
With these religious services, probably derived from the white men, the tribes above-mentioned mingle some of their old Indian ceremonials, such as dancing to the cadence of a song or ballad, which is generally done in a large lodge provided for the purpose. Besides Sundays, they likewise observe the cardinal holidays of the Roman Catholic Church.
Whoever has introduced these simple forms of religions among these poor savages, has evidently understood their characters and capacities, and effected a great melioration of their manners. Of this we speak not merely from the testimony of Captain Bonneville, but likewise from that of Mr. Wyeth, who passed some months in a travelling camp of the Flatheads. "During the time I have been with them," says he, "I have never known an instance of theft among them: the least thing, even to a bead or pin, is brought to you, if found; and often, things that have been thrown away. Neither have I known any quarrelling, nor lying. This absence of all quarrelling the more surprised me, when I came to see the various occasions that would have given rise to it among the whites: the crowding together of from twelve to eighteen hundred horses, which have to be driven into camp at night, to be picketed, to be packed in the morning; the gathering of fuel in places where it is extremely scanty. All this, however, is done without confusion or disturbance.
"They have a mild, playful, laughing disposition; and this is portrayed in their countenances. They are polite, and unobtrusive. When one speaks, the rest pay strict attention: when he is done, another assents by 'yes,' or dissents by 'no;' and then states his reasons, which are listened to with equal attention. Even the children are more peaceable than any other children. I never heard an angry word among them, nor any quarrelling; although there were, at least, five hundred of them together, and continually at play. With all this quietness of spirit, they are brave when put to the test; and are an overmatch for an equal number of Blackfeet."
The foregoing observations, though gathered from Mr. Wyeth as relative to the Flatheads, apply, in the main, to the Skynses also. Captain Bonneville, during his sojourn with the latter, took constant occasion, in conversing with their principal men, to encourage them in the cultivation of moral and religious habits; drawing a comparison between their peaceable and comfortable course of life and that of other tribes, and attributing it to their superior sense of morality and religion. He frequently attended their religious services, with his people; always enjoining on the latter the most reverential deportment; and he observed that the poor Indians were always pleased to have the white men present.
The disposition of these tribes is evidently favorable to a considerable degree of civilization. A few farmers settled among them might lead them, Captain Bonneville thinks, to till the earth and cultivate grain; the country of the Skynses and Nez Perces is admirably adapted for the raising of cattle. A Christian missionary or two, and some trifling assistance from government, to protect them from the predatory and warlike tribes, might lay the foundation of a Christian people in the midst of the great western wilderness, who would "wear the Americans near their hearts."
We must not omit to observe, however, in qualification of the sanctity of this Sabbath in the wilderness, that these tribes who are all ardently addicted to gambling and horseracing, make Sunday a peculiar day for recreations of the kind, not deeming them in any wise out of season. After prayers and pious ceremonies are over, there is scarce an hour in the day, says Captain Bonneville, that you do not see several horses racing at full speed; and in every corner of the camp are groups of gamblers, ready to stake everything upon the all-absorbing game of hand. The Indians, says Wyeth, appear to enjoy their amusements with more zest than the whites. They are great gamblers; and in proportion to their means, play bolder and bet higher than white men.
The cultivation of the religious feeling, above noted, among the savages, has been at times a convenient policy with some of the more knowing traders; who have derived great credit and influence among them by being considered "medicine men;" that is, men gifted with mysterious knowledge. This feeling is also at times played upon by religious charlatans, who are to be found in savage as well as civilized life. One of these was noted by Wyeth, during his sojourn among the Flat-heads. A new great man, says he, is rising in the camp, who aims at power and sway. He covers his designs under the ample cloak of religion; inculcating some new doctrines and ceremonials among those who are more simple than himself. He has already made proselytes of one-fifth of the camp; beginning by working on the women, the children, and the weak-minded. His followers are all dancing on the plain, to their own vocal music. The more knowing ones of the tribe look on and laugh; thinking it all too foolish to do harm; but they will soon find that women, children, and fools, form a large majority of every community, and they will have, eventually, to follow the new light, or be considered among the profane. As soon as a preacher or pseudo prophet of the kind gets followers enough, he either takes command of the tribe, or branches off and sets up an independent chief and "medicine man."