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A Nez Perce Funeral by J. T.

 

"Call me, Washington, when they are going to bury him," said the doctor.

George Washington, evidently not quite sure that he understood the doctor, said with an interrogative glance, "You like—see him—dead man—put in ground?" And, pointing downward and alternately bending and extending one knee, he made a semblance of delving.

The doctor nodded.

"Good! Me tell you."

"I want to go, Washington," said the lieutenant.

"And I too," said the lieutenant's guest, myself.

George Washington was one of the Nez Percé prisoners surrendered by Joseph to General Miles after the battle of Bear-Paw Mountain. The dead man was one of the wounded in that action who died from his wounds, aggravated, no doubt, by fatigue and exposure while the prisoners were marching to the east in the winter of 1877 under orders from the War Department. George spoke a few words of English, and was quite an intelligent Indian. He was very clean—for an Indian—and was comfortably clad.

"How soon?" asked the doctor.

"He—call me—when he ready: me call you."

"Good! Then I shall go to dinner."

"We had better eat our dinner," said the lieutenant: "it is growing late.—Come and have some dinner, Washington."

Washington seemed not quite sure that he understood correctly. He had a modest distrust of his English. In the matter of an invitation to dinner doubt is admissible. "You—want me—" here George Washington tapped himself on the savage breast—"eat—with you?" And here, gracefully reversing his hand, with the index extended, he touched the lieutenant on the civilized bosom.

"Yes: come in."

We three entered the tent. As it was an ordinary "A" tent, with a sheet-iron stove in it, it was pretty full with the addition of two good-sized white men and an Indian of no contemptible proportions. The lieutenant and I sat on the blankets, camp-fashion: Washington sat on my heavy riding-boots, with the stove perforce between his legs.

"Good wahrrm!" ejaculated George Washington, hugging the stove.

"Hustleburger!" shouted the lieutenant.

"Yes, sir."

"George Washington will take dinner with us. Set the table for three."

"All right, sir, lieutenant!"

"Good man—docther," Washington remarked, nodding several times to emphasize his observation: "ver'—good man—docther."

We eagerly assented, pleased to see that the Indian appreciated the doctor's kindness to his people.

Rabelais's quarter of an hour began to hang heavily on us. Washington was equal to the occasion: taking a survey of the tent, he nodded approvingly and remarked, "Good tepee."

"Not bad this weather."

"Good eyes!" said Washington in a burst of enthusiasm.

These two simple words in their Homeric immensity of expression meant all this: "The fire made on the ground in our Indian lodges fills them with continual smoke, and consequently we Indians suffer very much from sore eyes. Now, your little stove, while it warms the tent much better than a fire, does not smoke, and your eyes are not injured."

Our habitual table, a small box, was not constructed on the extension plan. It would not accommodate three. So Hustleburger handed directly to each guest a tin cup of macaroni soup. Washington disposed of the liquid in a very short time, but the elusive nature of the macaroni rather troubled him. We showed him how to overcome its slippery tendency. Smacking his lips, he said, with a broad smile, "Good! What you call him?"

"Macaroni."

"Maclony? Good! Maclony—maclony." he continued, repeating the word to fix it in his memory.

Our only vegetable was some canned asparagus. Washington was delighted with it after he had been initiated into the mystery of its consumption. He did not stop at the white. "What you call—him?"

"Asparagus."

"Spalagus—spalagus? Goo-oo-d!"

"Did you never eat asparagus before, Washington?"

"Never eat him—nev' see him. Spalagus—spalagus! Goo-oo-d!"

Hustleburger now brought in the dessert, which consisted of canned currant-jelly, served in the can. Each guest helped himself from the original package, using a "hard tack" for a dessert-plate, more antiquo. Washington was bidden to help himself. Before doing so, however, he wished to test the substance placed before him, and, taking a little on the end of his spoon, he carried it to his lips. Then an expression of intense enjoyment overspread his dusky face; his black eyes sparkled like diamonds; his full lips were wreathed in a smile. "Ah! goo-oo-oo-d!" he cried, with a mouthful of o's. "What you call him?"

"Jelly."

"Yelly? Ah! yelly goo-oo-ood! Me—like—yelly—much." And he helped himself plentifully.

A smell of burning woollen became unpleasantly noticeable. Washington still had the stove between his legs: it was red-hot. He never moved, but ate "yelly."

"Washington, you're burning!" cried the lieutenant.

Washington smiled. "Much wah-r-rum!" he remarked in the coolest manner possible.

"Throw open the front, then."

A long, shrill cry now rang through the silence and the darkness. Washington jumped up suddenly, ran out of the tent, and uttered a cry in response so similar that it might pass for an echo of the first. Then, returning, he said, "He call. He—ready—put—dead man—down. Come! Me—come back—eat—yelly."

Fortunately, the Indian camp was not far off. The night was pitch-dark. Led by Washington, we got through the thick underbrush without much trouble. The grave was dug near the water's edge, where the Missouri and the Yellowstone, meeting, form an angle. A large fire of dry cottonwood at the head of the grave fitfully lit up the dismal scene. A bundle of blankets and buffalo-robes lay by the open grave. Some Indians of both sexes with bowed and blanketed heads stood near it. Washington was evidently awaited. As soon as he appeared a little hand-bell was rung, and a number of dark, shrouded figures with covered faces crept forth like shadows from the lodges throughout the camp and crowded around the grave, a mute and gloomy throng.

The bell was rung again, and the dark crowd became motionless as statues. Then Washington in a mournful monotone repeated what I supposed to be prayers for the dead. At the end of each prayer the little bell was rung and responses came out of the depths of the surrounding darkness. Then the squaws chanted a wild funeral song in tones of surpassing plaintiveness. At its close the bell tinkled once more, and the figures that surrounded the grave vanished as darkly as they came. Washington, one or two warriors and ourselves alone remained.

"You like—see—him—dead man?" asked Washington.

The question was addressed to me.

I never want to look on a dead face if I can avoid it; so with thanks I declined. Washington seemed a little disappointed, as if he considered we showed a somewhat uncourteous want of interest in the deceased. Noticing this, the lieutenant said he would like to see the dead man's face, and, preceded by Washington, we moved toward the bundle of blankets and buffalo-robes that lay by the side of the grave. Washington threw back the buffalo-robes, and a bright gleam of the cottonwood fire disclosed the upturned face of the dead Nez Percé and lightened up the long, thick locks of glossy blue-black hair. It was the face of a man about thirty—bold, clear-cut features and long, aquiline nose: a good face and a strong face it seemed in death.

When we had looked upon the rigid features a few moments, Washington covered the face of his dead brother. The body, coffined in blankets and skins, was placed in the grave, and the men began to throw the earth upon it.

"That's—all," said Washington. "Come!"

And he moved away toward our tent.

He seemed to think some apology necessary for the simplicity of the ceremonial. "If," said he, "Chapman [the interpreter]—he tell—we sleep here to-morrow—we put dead man—in ground—when sun he ver' litt'; an' Yoseph he come—an' you come—an' I come—all come—white man an' Injun."

"He was a fine-looking young man," I remarked, alluding to the dead Indian.

Washington was pleased by the compliment to his departed brother. He stopped short, and, turning toward me, said, "Yes, he fine young man—good man—good young man."

"I thought he was rather an oldish man," remarked the lieutenant.

"No, no," replied Washington, touching his head—"all black hairs—no white hairs. Good young man."

And Washington led the way back toward the lieutenant's tent, saying, "Let us go—eat up—yelly."

J. T.