It was summer on the western plains. Fields of golden sunflowers facing
eastward, greeted the rising sun. Blue-Star Woman, with windshorn braids
of white hair over each ear, sat in the shade of her log hut before an
open fire. Lonely but unmolested she dwelt here like the ground squirrel
that took its abode nearby,—both through the easy tolerance of the land
owner. The Indian woman held a skillet over the burning embers. A large
round cake, with long slashes in its center, was baking and crowding the
capacity of the frying pan.
In deep abstraction Blue-Star Woman prepared her morning meal. "Who am
I?" had become the obsessing riddle of her life. She was no longer a
young woman, being in her fifty-third year. In the eyes of the white
man's law, it was required of her to give proof of her membership in the
Sioux tribe. The unwritten law of heart prompted her naturally to say,
"I am a being. I am Blue-Star Woman. A piece of earth is my birthright."
It was taught, for reasons now forgot, that an Indian should never
pronounce his or her name in answer to any inquiry. It was probably a
means of protection in the days of black magic. Be this as it may,
Blue-Star Woman lived in times when this teaching was disregarded. It
gained her nothing, however, to pronounce her name to the government
official to whom she applied for her share of tribal land. His
persistent question was always, "Who were your parents?"
Blue-Star Woman was left an orphan at a tender age. She did not remember
them. They were long gone to the spirit-land,-and she could not
understand why they should be recalled to earth on her account. It was
another one of the old, old teachings of her race that the names of the
dead should not be idly spoken. It had become a sacrilege to mention
carelessly the name of any departed one, especially in matters of
disputes over worldy possessions. The unfortunate circumstances of her
early childhood, together with the lack of written records of a roving
people, placed a formidable barrier between her and her heritage. The
fact was events of far greater importance to the tribe than her
reincarnation had passed unrecorded in books. The verbal reports of the
old-time men and women of the tribe were varied,—some were actually
contradictory. Blue-Star Woman was unable to find even a twig of her
She sharpened one end of a long stick and with it speared the fried
bread when it was browned. Heedless of the hot bread's "Tsing!" in a
high treble as it was lifted from the fire, she added it to the six
others which had preceded it. It had been many a moon since she had had
a meal of fried bread, for she was too poor to buy at any one time all
the necessary ingredients, particularly the fat in which to fry it.
During the breadmaking, the smoke-blackened coffeepot boiled over. The
aroma of freshly made coffee smote her nostrils and roused her from the
The day before, friendly spirits, the unseen ones, had guided her
aimless footsteps to her Indian neighbor's house. No sooner had she
entered than she saw on the table some grocery bundles. "Iye-que,
fortunate one!" she exclaimed as she took the straight-backed chair
offered her. At once the Indian hostess untied the bundles and measured
out a cupful of green coffee beans and a pound of lard. She gave them to
Blue-Star Woman, saying, "I want to share my good fortune. Take these
home with you." Thus it was that Blue-Star Woman had come into
unexpected possession of the materials which now contributed richly to
The generosity of her friend had often saved her from starvation.
Generosity is said to be a fault of Indian people, but neither the
Pilgrim Fathers nor Blue-Star Woman ever held it seriously against them.
Blue-Star Woman was even grateful for this gift of food. She was fond of
coffee,-that black drink brought hither by those daring voyagers of long
ago. The coffee habit was one of the signs of her progress in the white
man's civilization, also had she emerged from the tepee into a log hut,
another achievement. She had learned to read the primer and to write her
name. Little Blue-Star attended school unhindered by a fond mother's
fears that a foreign teacher might not spare the rod with her darling.
Blue-Star Woman was her individual name. For untold ages the Indian
race had not used family names. A new-born child was given a brand-new
name. Blue-Star Woman was proud to write her name for which she would
not be required to substitute another's upon her marriage, as is the
custom of civilized peoples.
"The times are changed now," she muttered under her breath. "My
individual name seems to mean nothing." Looking out into space, she saw
the nodding sunflowers, and they acquiesced with her. Their drying
leaves reminded her of the near approach of autumn. Then soon, very
soon, the ice would freeze along the banks of the muddy river. The day
of the first ice was her birthday. She would be fifty-four winters old.
How futile had been all these winters to secure her a share in tribal
lands. A weary smile flickered across her face as she sat there on the
ground like a bronze figure of patience and long-suffering.
The breadmaking was finished. The skillet was set aside to cool. She
poured the appetizing coffee into her tin cup. With fried bread and
black coffee she regaled herself. Again her mind reverted to her
riddle. "The missionary preacher said he could not explain the white
man's law to me. He who reads daily from the Holy Bible, which he tells
me is God's book, cannot understand mere man's laws. This also puzzles
me," thought she to herself. "Once a wise leader of our people,
addressing a president of this country, said: 'I am a man. You are
another. The Great Spirit is our witness!' This is simple and easy to
understand, but the times are changed. The white man's laws are
Blue-Star Woman broke off a piece of fried bread between a thumb and
forefinger. She ate it hungrily, and sipped from her cup of fragrant
coffee. "I do not understand the white man's law. It's like walking in
the dark. In this darkness, I am growing fearful of everything."
Oblivious to the world, she had not heard the footfall of two Indian men
who now stood before her.
Their short-cropped hair looked blue-black in contrast to the faded
civilian clothes they wore. Their white man's shoes were rusty and
unpolished. To the unconventional eyes of the old Indian woman, their
celluloid collars appeared like shining marks of civilization. Blue-Star
Woman looked up from the lap of mother earth without rising. "Hinnu,
hinnu!" she ejaculated in undisguised surprise. "Pray, who are these
would-be white men?" she inquired.
In one voice and by an assumed relationship the two Indian men addressed
her. "Aunt, I shake hands with you." Again Blue-Star Woman remarked,
"Oh, indeed! these near white men speak my native tongue and shake hands
according to our custom." Did she guess the truth, she would have known
they were simply deluded mortals, deceiving others and themselves most
of all. Boisterously laughing and making conversation, they each in turn
gripped her withered hand.
Like a sudden flurry of wind, tossing loose ends of things, they broke
into her quiet morning hour and threw her groping thoughts into greater
chaos. Masking their real errand with long-drawn faces, they feigned a
concern for her welfare only. "We come to ask how you are living. We
heard you were slowly starving to death. We heard you are one of those
Indians who have been cheated out of their share in tribal lands by the
Blue-Star Woman became intensely interested.
"You see we are educated in the white man's ways," they said with
protruding chests. One unconsciously thrust his thumbs into the
arm-holes of his ill-fitting coat and strutted about in his pride. "We
can help you get your land. We want to help our aunt. All old people
like you ought to be helped before the younger ones. The old will die
soon, and they may never get the benefit of their land unless some one
like us helps them to get their rights, without further delay."
Blue-Star Woman listened attentively.
Motioning to the mats she spread upon the ground, she said: "Be seated,
my nephews." She accepted the relationship assumed for the occasion. "I
will give you some breakfast." Quickly she set before them a generous
helping of fried bread and cups of coffee. Resuming her own meal, she
continued, "You are wonderfully kind. It is true, my nephews, that I
have grown old trying to secure my share of land. It may not be long
till I shall pass under the sod."
The two men responded with "How, how," which meant, "Go on with your
story. We are all ears." Blue-Star Woman had not yet detected any
particular sharpness about their ears, but by an impulse she looked up
into their faces and scrutinized them. They were busily engaged in
eating. Their eyes were fast upon the food on the mat in front of their
crossed shins. Inwardly she made a passing observation how, like
ravenous wolves, her nephews devoured their food. Coyotes in midwinter
could not have been more starved. Without comment she offered them the
remaining fried cakes, and between them they took it all. She offered
the second helping of coffee, which they accepted without hesitancy.
Filling their cups, she placed her empty coffeepot on the dead ashes.
To them she rehearsed her many hardships. It had become a habit now to
tell her long story of disappointments with all its petty details. It
was only another instance of good intentions gone awry. It was a paradox
upon a land of prophecy that its path to future glory be stained with
the blood of its aborigines. Incongruous as it is, the two nephews, with
their white associates, were glad of a condition so profitable to them.
Their solicitation for Blue-Star Woman was not at all altruistic. They
thrived in their grafting business. They and their occupation were the
by-product of an unwieldly bureaucracy over the nation's wards.
"Dear aunt, you failed to establish the facts of your identity," they
told her. Hereupon Blue-Star Woman's countenance fell. It was ever the
same old words. It was the old song of the government official she
loathed to hear. The next remark restored her courage. "If any one can
discover evidence, it's us! I tell you, aunt, we'll fix it all up for
you." It was a great relief to the old Indian woman to be thus
unburdened of her riddle, with a prospect of possessing land. "There is
one thing you will have to do,—that is, to pay us half of your land and
money when you get them." Here was a pause, and Blue-Star Woman answered
slowly, "Y-e-s," in an uncertain frame of mind.
The shrewd schemers noted her behavior. "Wouldn't you rather have a half
of a crust of bread than none at all?" they asked. She was duly
impressed with the force of their argument. In her heart she agreed, "A
little something to eat is better than nothing!" The two men talked in
regular relays. The flow of smooth words was continuous and so much like
purring that all the woman's suspicions were put soundly to sleep. "Look
here, aunt, you know very well that prairie fire is met with a
back-fire." Blue-Star Woman, recalling her experiences in fire-fighting,
quickly responded, "Yes, oh, yes."
"In just the same way, we fight crooks with crooks. We have clever white
lawyers working with us. They are the back-fire." Then, as if
remembering some particular incident, they both laughed aloud and said,
"Yes, and sometimes they use us as the back-fire! We trade fifty-fifty."
Blue-Star Woman sat with her chin in the palm of one hand with elbow
resting in the other. She rocked herself slightly forward and backward.
At length she answered, "Yes, I will pay you half of my share in tribal
land and money when I get them. In bygone days, brave young men of the
order of the White-Horse-Riders sought out the aged, the poor, the
widows and orphans to aid them, but they did their good work without
pay. The White-Horse-Riders are gone. The times are changed. I am a poor
old Indian woman. I need warm clothing before winter begins to blow its
icicles through us. I need fire wood. I need food. As you have said, a
little help is better than none."
Hereupon the two pretenders scored another success.
They rose to their feet. They had eaten up all the fried bread and
drained the coffeepot. They shook hands with Blue-Star Woman and
departed. In the quiet that followed their departure she sat munching
her small piece of bread, which, by a lucky chance, she had taken on her
plate before the hungry wolves had come. Very slowly she ate the
fragment of fried bread as if to increase it by diligent mastication. A
self-condemning sense of guilt disturbed her. In her dire need she had
become involved with tricksters. Her nephews laughingly told her, "We
use crooks, and crooks use us in the skirmish over Indian lands."
The friendly shade of the house shrank away from her and hid itself
under the narrow eaves of the dirt covered roof. She shrugged her
shoulders. The sun high in the sky had witnessed the affair and now
glared down upon her white head. Gathering upon her arm the mats and
cooking utensils, she hobbled into her log hut.
Under the brooding wilderness silence, on the Sioux Indian Reservation,
the superintendent summoned together the leading Indian men of the
tribe. He read a letter which he had received from headquarters in
Washington, D.C. It announced the enrollment of Blue-Star Woman on their
tribal roll of members and the approval of allotting land to her.
It came as a great shock to the tribesmen. Without their knowledge and
consent their property was given to a strange woman. They protested in
vain. The superintendent said, "I received this letter from Washington.
I have read it to you for your information. I have fulfilled my duty. I
can do no more." With these fateful words he dismissed the assembly.
Heavy hearted, Chief High Flier returned to his dwelling. Smoking his
long-stemmed pipe he pondered over the case of Blue-Star Woman. The
Indian's guardian had got into a way of usurping autocratic power in
disposing of the wards' property. It was growing intolerable. "No doubt
this Indian woman is entitled to allotment, but where? Certainly not
here," he thought to himself.
Laying down his pipe, he called his little granddaughter from her play,
"You are my interpreter and scribe," he said. "Bring your paper and
pencil." A letter was written in the child's sprawling hand, and signed
by the old chieftain. It read:
"I make letter to you. My heart is sad. Washington give my tribe's land
to a woman called Blue-Star. We do not know her. We were not asked to
give land, but our land is taken from us to give to another Indian. This
is not right. Lots of little children of my tribe have no land. Why this
strange woman get our land which belongs to our children? Go to
Washington and ask if our treaties tell him to give our property away
without asking us. Tell him I thought we made good treaties on paper,
but now our children cry for food. We are too poor. We cannot give even
to our own little children. Washington is very rich. Washington now
owns our country. If he wants to help this poor Indian woman, Blue-Star,
let him give her some of his land and his money. This is all I will say
until you answer me. I shake hands with you with my heart. The Great
Spirit hears my words. They are true.
"CHIEF HIGH FLIER.
"X (his mark)."
The letter was addressed to a prominent American woman. A stamp was
carefully placed on the envelope.
Early the next morning, before the dew was off the grass, the
chieftain's riding pony was caught from the pasture and brought to his
log house. It was saddled and bridled by a younger man, his son with
whom he made his home. The old chieftain came out, carrying in one hand
his long-stemmed pipe and tobacco pouch. His blanket was loosely girdled
about his waist. Tightly holding the saddle horn, he placed a moccasined
foot carefully into the stirrup and pulled himself up awkwardly into the
saddle, muttering to himself, "Alas, I can no more leap into my saddle.
I now must crawl about in my helplessness." He was past eighty years of
age, and no longer agile.
He set upon his ten-mile trip to the only post office for hundreds of
miles around. In his shirt pocket, he carried the letter destined, in
due season, to reach the heart of American people. His pony, grown old
in service, jogged along the dusty road. Memories of other days thronged
the wayside, and for the lonely rider transformed all the country. Those
days were gone when the Indian youths were taught to be truthful,—to be
merciful to the poor. Those days were gone when moral cleanliness was a
chief virtue; when public feasts were given in honor of the virtuous
girls and young men of the tribe. Untold mischief is now possible
through these broken ancient laws. The younger generation were not being
properly trained in the high virtues. A slowly starving race was growing
mad, and the pitifully weak sold their lands for a pot of porridge.
"He, he, he! He, he, he!" he lamented. "Small Voice Woman, my own
relative is being represented as the mother of this strange
Blue-Star—the papers were made by two young Indian men who have
learned the white man's ways. Why must I be forced to accept the
mischief of children? My memory is clear. My reputation for veracity is
"Small Voice Woman lived in my house until her death. She had only one
child and it was a boy!" He held his hand over this thumping heart,
and was reminded of the letter in his pocket. "This letter,—what will
happen when it reaches my good friend?" he asked himself. The chieftain
rubbed his dim eyes and groaned, "If only my good friend knew the folly
of turning my letter into the hands of bureaucrats! In face of repeated
defeat, I am daring once more to send this one letter." An inner voice
said in his ear, "And this one letter will share the same fate of the
Startled by the unexpected voice, he jerked upon the bridle reins and
brought the drowsy pony to a sudden halt. There was no one near. He
found himself a mile from the post office, for the cluster of government
buildings, where lived the superintendent, were now in plain sight. His
thin frame shook with emotion. He could not go there with his letter.
He dismounted from his pony. His quavering voice chanted a bravery song
as he gathered dry grasses and the dead stalks of last year's
sunflowers. He built a fire, and crying aloud, for his sorrow was
greater than he could bear, he cast the letter into the flames. The fire
consumed it. He sent his message on the wings of fire and he believed
she would get it. He yet trusted that help would come to his people
before it was too late. The pony tossed his head in a readiness to go.
He knew he was on the return trip and he was glad to travel.
The wind which blew so gently at dawn was now increased into a gale as
the sun approached the zenith. The chieftain, on his way home, sensed a
coming storm. He looked upward to the sky and around in every direction.
Behind him, in the distance, he saw a cloud of dust. He saw several
horsemen whipping their ponies and riding at great speed. Occasionally
he heard their shouts, as if calling after some one. He slackened his
pony's pace and frequently looked over his shoulder to see who the
riders were advancing in hot haste upon him. He was growing curious. In
a short time the riders surrounded him. On their coats shone brass
buttons, and on their hats were gold cords and tassels. They were Indian
"Wan!" he exclaimed, finding himself the object of their chase. It was
their foolish ilk who had murdered the great leader, Sitting Bull.
"Pray, what is the joke? Why do young men surround an old man quietly
"Uncle," said the spokesman, "we are hirelings, as you know. We are sent
by the government superintendent to arrest you and take you back with
us. The superintendent says you are one of the bad Indians, singing war
songs and opposing the government all the time; this morning you were
seen trying to set fire to the government agency."
"Hunhunhe!" replied the old chief, placing the palm of his hand over his
mouth agap in astonishment. "All this is unbelievable!"
The policeman took hold of the pony's bridle and turned the reluctant
little beast around. They led it back with them and the old chieftain
set unresisting in the saddle. High Flier was taken before the
superintendent, who charged him with setting fires to destroy government
buildings and found him guilty. Thus Chief High Flier was sent to jail.
He had already suffered much during his life. He was the voiceless man
of America. And now in his old age he was cast into prison. The chagrin
of it all, together with his utter helplessness to defend his own or his
people's human rights, weighed heavily upon his spirit.
The foul air of the dingy cell nauseated him who loved the open. He sat
wearily down upon the tattered mattress, which lay on the rough board
floor. He drew his robe closely about his tall figure, holding it
partially over his face, his hands covered within the folds. In profound
gloom the gray-haired prisoner sat there, without a stir for long hours
and knew not when the day ended and night began. He sat buried in his
desperation. His eyes were closed, but he could not sleep. Bread and
water in tin receptacles set upon the floor beside him untouched. He was
not hungry. Venturesome mice crept out upon the floor and scampered in
the dim starlight streaming through the iron bars of the cell window.
They squeaked as they dared each other to run across his moccasined
feet, but the chieftain neither saw nor heard them.
A terrific struggle was waged within his being. He fought as he never
fought before. Tenaciously he hung upon hope for the day of
salvation—that hope hoary with age. Defying all odds against him, he
refused to surrender faith in good people.
Underneath his blanket, wrapped so closely about him, stole a luminous
light. Before his stricken consciousness appeared a vision. Lo, his good
friend, the American woman to whom he had sent his messages by fire, now
stood there a legion! A vast multitude of women, with uplifted hands,
gazed upon a huge stone image. Their upturned faces were eager and very
earnest. The stone figure was that of a woman upon the brink of the
Great Waters, facing eastward. The myriad living hands remained uplifted
till the stone woman began to show signs of life. Very majestically she
turned around, and, lo, she smiled upon this great galaxy of American
women. She was the Statue of Liberty! It was she, who, though
representing human liberty, formerly turned her back upon the American
aborigine. Her face was aglow with compassion. Her eyes swept across the
outspread continent of America, the home of the red man.
At this moment her torch flamed brighter and whiter till its radiance
reached into the obscure and remote places of the land. Her light of
liberty penetrated Indian reservations. A loud shout of joy rose up from
the Indians of the earth, everywhere!
All too soon the picture was gone. Chief High Flier awoke. He lay
prostrate on the floor where during the night he had fallen. He rose and
took his seat again upon the mattress. Another day was ushered into his
life. In his heart lay the secret vision of hope born in the midnight of
his sorrows. It enabled him to serve his jail sentence with a mute
dignity which baffled those who saw him.
Finally came the day of his release. There was rejoicing over all the
land. The desolate hills that harbored wailing voices nightly now were
hushed and still. Only gladness filled the air. A crowd gathered around
the jail to greet the chieftain. His son stood at the entrance way,
while the guard unlocked the prison door. Serenely quiet, the old
Indian chief stepped forth. An unseen stone in his path caused him to
stumble slightly, but his son grasped him by the hand and steadied his
tottering steps. He led him to a heavy lumber wagon drawn by a small
pony team which he had brought to take him home. The people thronged
about him—hundreds shook hands with him and went away singing native
songs of joy for the safe return to them of their absent one.
Among the happy people came Blue-Star Woman's two nephews. Each shook
the chieftain's hand. One of them held out an ink pad saying, "We are
glad we were able to get you out of jail. We have great influence with
the Indian Bureau in Washington, D.C. When you need help, let us know.
Here press your thumb in this pad." His companion took from his pocket a
document prepared for the old chief's signature, and held it on the
wagon wheel for the thumb mark. The chieftain was taken by surprise. He
looked into his son's eyes to know the meaning of these two men. "It is
our agreement," he explained to his old father. "I pledged to pay them
half of your land if they got you out of jail."
The old chieftain sighed, but made no comment. Words were vain. He
pressed his indelible thumb mark, his signature it was, upon the deed,
and drove home with his son.