In the Name of his Ancestor.
By William Jones
The Harvard Monthly, 29 December 1899
TELL me, mother, what is keeping my father away so late to-night?
The traps, the beaver traps, my son. You know in these wintry moons when his fur is smooth and soft the beaver can hear from afar the crack of the tiniest twig, can see as far as you, and can scent, oh—I was going to say almost as far as he can see. One of these days you will accompany your father with the traps, and then you will no longer wonder why he has to work so long over them. Come, sit here with me on the buffalo robe before the light of this blaze. Now put your feet close up to the fire, but take care not to burn your moccasins.
Ooh, mother, how the wigwam is shaking! Is Nutenwi, the wind, angry?
Do not fear, my son. But hark, listen to the voices of the trees, our grandparents! It snows, it is growing cold, and the night blackens. Lonely out in the dark stand our grandparents. Now Nutenwi, the wind, is passing among them; and so, bowing together their heads, they are wailing one to another how cold, how lonely, and how sad they are. Their voices are not so full of mirth as in the warm summer moons, when the whip-poor-will, resting upon their shoulders, sings to them songs of the ripening corn.
Hish, listen, my son! Do you hear one moaning out slowly, “Ketona! Ketona!”?
It is Mitwiwa, mother, the old cottonwood down by the spring. I wonder why he should be calling me on a night like this?
Perhaps it is not you he is calling. It may be that the Chipiya, the spirit of the ancestor after whom you are named, is walking forth this night, revisiting the lodges of his people. If so, then it is he old Mitwiwa is calling by name.
Does old Mitwiwa know as much about Ketona as my father? As you, mother?
Yes, and more.
He was the one who long ago—do tell me about him again, will you, mother?
Lay your head down upon my lap then.
You are now eight winters of age. One morning, a moon after you were born, when it was beginning to whiten in the Wabeneki, in the land of the dawn, your father brought Tacumisawa into our wigwam. Tacumisawa, you know, is still the chief of the Eagles, our gens. Shortly after, there came other Eagles, until thirty, perhaps forty, of them were seated in a circle within the lodge. I sat over in a corner among the women and the children, holding you in my lap. After the priests had chanted prayers to Gisha Munetoa, and your father had done serving turkey, venison, and corn to the guests, there fell a silence so quiet in the lodge that we could hear one another breathe. And like the mist that was rising that morning from our brook down there under the hill, lifted the smoke from the long red-stone pipes of the men, floating in slowly-whirling rings and in tiny clouds up through the opening in the top of the wigwam. Tacumisawa had long been watching the smoke. By and by he gently laid aside his pipe and, in a tone as low as mine is now, said to us all:
“My brother and my sister Eagles, Gisha Munetoa is looking down upon us. The Eagles who have lived before us are listening. I name this child, Ketona. Hear, and let me tell you why.”
And then he went on with the story you have heard over and again from your father. Now all the events of that story happened winters and winters ago in our old Rock River country, far away off in the land of the North. The bitterest foes of our nation then were the Sioux, men of the long nose, hooked like the beak of a hawk. Coming again and again from the country beyond the Mississippi, they tried to drive us away from the Rock River; but finding that they were losing too many scalps, and feeling after each fight that the hearts of our men and of our women were growing stronger and braver, they finally decided that it was better to remain on the western side of the Mississippi.
At sunrise of a morning after the Sioux had been driven over the Great River, four of their men appeared on the bluffs of the eastern bank within sight of our lodges. Even while the runners were yelling the alarm fifteen men had started at the top of their speed toward the bluffs to kill or to capture the hated foe. But when the four Sioux lifted high their left hands, and pressed their right over their hearts, and after the old men down in the village yelled, “Messengers of peace! Messengers of peace! Let them alone! Let them come!” the men halted and unwillingly returned to their lodges. Then the runners went part way out to beckon and to escort the Sioux in.
When the strangers drew near, certain old men met them and shook hands. The Sioux at once asked to meet the chiefs and head men in Council, because they claimed to have had a message of great import from their nation.
Powashik was our chief in those days. After he had called his head men together in his lodge, he sent a runner to fetch in the messengers. When they came and seated themselves by the entrance way, Powashik filled four pipes with sacred tobacco, rolled a live coal into the bowl of each, and then handed a pipe to each of the Sioux. You have seen buzzards sitting on the limb of a tree, how their heads droop, and how still and stiff are their bodies. That was the way the Sioux were sitting as they smoked our sacred pipes, their blankets pulled tightly about their waists and over their shoulders. And when they were done smoking, they rose one after the other and spoke like this:
“Our nation sends us to you with this message. Once upon a time our young men married your young women, and your young men married our young women. We went to war together, and we were friends, close friends. We want to see the days when all these things happened come back again. So let us stop fighting. Winter will soon be here, and neither of us have laid in our buffalo meat. Our messengers will shake hands with you. Shake hands with them, and we will make ready a great feast at our village, two day’s journey by canoe up the river. And we would ask you to come to the feast and rejoice with us, because we are once more friends.
Pownshik and the old men went out, leaving the Sioux alone in the lodge. Many were so glad at heart that they were for shaking hands with the messengers at once; but some, who in their younger days had won the scalp-lock and eagle feather in wars with the Sioux, shook their heads and counselled against haste. But Powashik was old and gray. He was tired of war. Like most of the old men, he believed in what the Sioux had told him, so went in and shook hands with them. He told them to say to their nation that his heart was glad, that he wished the things they wished, and that he and many of the head men would go to the feast.
In the morning, the people thronged the shore and the bluffs of the Mississippi to watch Powashik and twenty of his counsellors depart for the village of the Sioux. The old chief and a few of the older men who were weak with the paddle were in their newest buckskins, wore black-tipped eagle feathers on their scalp-locks, and hung beaded and bear-claw necklaces about their necks. They took no war-club, no bow, no arrow, no kind of weapon whatever, because Gisha Munetoa had bade our people long ago never to have these things about them when on a mission of peace. But instead of these things, they had in the canoes tobacco, buckskins, and eagle feathers, all presents of peace to be given to the Sioux at the feast. And the people kept watching the canoes till the last turned the big bend far up the river.
On the evening of the second day before it had begun to grow dark in earnest, Ketona, a young man of twenty winters who had gone to help paddle his father’s canoe, was seen coming toward the village. As he drew near, men, women, and children pressed round about him, eager to know about the feast. But when they saw that his leggins and moccasins were torn and spattered with mud, that his naked body and arms had been gashed by thorns and briers, and when they noticed that he hung his head and made no reply, and was making straight for his lodge, they all stopped and gazed after him with mouths wide open. Old men leaning upon their canes crossed fore-fingers over the lips, and, shaking their heads, murmured one to another, “Something bad! Something bad!” As Ketona sat with legs crossed before the fine in his lodge and stared into the flickering blaze with eyes gleaming like those of a panther at bay, his mother stepped softly near, and, fearing she would hear something bad, asked, “My son! My son! What has happened? Why these deep scratches on your body? How came these leggins, these moccasins to be so yellow with mud?”
Ketona kept looking steadily into the fire, while the eyes of his mother were overflowing with tears. Then she put before him on a mat some dried venison and a wooden bowl with corn in it, and begged:
“Eat, my son. You look tired and hungry. Eat all you want. There is plenty left for your father. Tell me, when will he be home?”
Ketona beckoned his mother to sit down beside him.
“My father,” he began in an undertone, “will never come home again. His scalp, and that of old Powashik, and of all who went away yesterday morning, are hanging to-night in the lodges of the Sioux. I am the only one to escape. My heart is too sick to tell you how as we turned in shore last evening to camp, the Sioux pounced upon us as quickly as a hawk upon a dove; how my father yelled to me then, ‘Dive, my son! Dive!’; and how, shortly after, when I raised my head above water among the tall reeds under the bank, I saw two men standing proudly over my father’s body, one with a tomahawk that had crushed in his skull, the other with a knife that had just taken off his scalp. Do not weep, mother. Be brave. Go tell the people the little I have told you. The rest, they will know later. Tell them not to fear, for the Sioux are far off now on their way to the North into the land of the wild rice. Wait, mother. Give me your right hand. As sure as I am a Red-Earth, as sure as I am an Eagle, and as sure as I am your son, I will see our nation and you and me avenged.”
The runners took up the message of the mother and carried it from lodge to lodge. When the women heard it, they gasped, and, for a time, were speechless. By and by, slowly gathering their cloaks about their waists and over their heads, they slipped softly out of the wigwams; and each going to a lonely spot in the forest or on the bluffs of the river, there prayed in silence to Gisha Munetoa. But the men on hearing the news said never a word. Some of them straightened up, clinched their fists, and gritted their teeth.
Two moons had come and gone, and the snow lay deep on the hills, in the valleys, and in the forest. One night Nutenwi, the wind, roared and the snow fell deeper than ever. Even though the snow had banked almost half way up the lodges, yet in the morning rumor flew through all the village that Ketona and fifty young men were missing, gone no one knew whither. Each of those fifty young men had slipped from his wigwam as a fox from his lair, so that even the nearest kinsman did not know when he had gone. Runners slid over the country far and wide upon snow-shoes, but they could find nowhere the faintest sign of a trail.
That was a bitter winter for our nation. Day and night the women wept, and the men were sick at heart. It was hard enough to lose the old men, but what will become of our nation, they thought, if we must lose our young men, too? But the men and the women were mindful that they were Red-Earth people, and so waited patiently for the day when their young men would return.
And they did return, but not till the snow was melting and the ice was floating in the rivers. Forty of them came home. And the light of day was never so bright as on the afternoon when the forty were seen coming in single file down the bluffs of the river toward the village. And as they came on, men and boys rushed whooping from all the lodges, and, gathering round the young men, accompanied them home. All the while, the women, the girls, and the little children waited in groups before their lodges, their hearts glad, their faces beaming, and all of them proud at seeing long, black scalps dangling like horse-tails from the belts of the young warriors.
In the night a fire was kindled from a pile of logs in front of old Powashik’s lodge. The scalp-pole was set up, and on it were hung the scalps of the Sioux. And all around within the firelight sat the men, the women, and the children, all wrapped snugly in blankets. Then back and forth and around the pole danced the young men, stepping to the time of the drum and of the war songs sung by the old warriors. Now and again was a pause in the dance long enough for one to tell a short story of how he had taken a scalp. And when he was done speaking, the chief of his gens amid the whoops of the old warriors stepped up and gave him an eagle feather.
Last of all to speak was Ketona himself. He told how he and the others had slipped into the land of the Sioux, how they had slain warriors and ripped off their scalps before the very eyes of their women, and how they had not let up pursuing the Sioux till they had more that avenged the death of Powashik and that of those slain with him. And when the people saw Ketona standing there in the light of the blaze, holding in his right hand the scalps of the two Sioux who had slain his father, and in the left was holding the knife he had plunged into their hearts and had used to rip off their scalps, they breathed easier and felt that they were beginning to be avenged.
Such, my son, is the story of Ketona as Tacumisawa told it on the morning he gave you your name. And I remember so well when closing he said to us all:
“Now, my brother and my sister Eagles, now that this Eaglet may be brave and do valiant deeds to make him forever remembered by his people, I name him Ketona. And when he is old enough to know this story, this war story of the Eagles, may he wish to be like the Ketona who winters ago leading fifty young braves avenged the death of his father and the leaders of his nation.”
When Tacumisawa was done, your father stepped over to where I was and took you from me. He handed you to Tacumisawa, who stood you on your wabbling legs, your back against his breast. Then rose all the Eagles, the men first; and as they filed past you out of the lodge, they stopped long enough to shake gently this little right hand of yours.
Yes, my son, that is the tramp of your father’s footstep.