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Histories:  Trempealeau Co. Historical Accounts:

"History of Trempealeau County Wisconsin, 1917":

Chapter 10:

Antoine Grignon and the Indians

-As transcribed from pages 212 - 218


Antoine Grignon has made history his debtor for much of its knowledge concerning the Indians of this vicinity.  Of the Dakota and Winnebago Indians Mr. Grignon has said:

"Beginning with the soil, the first work was agriculture.  The women were very industrious and would begin int he spring to spade up their ground for corn planting.  They raised what was known as squaw corn, which is a flint corn, and also raised pumpkins, and any other vegetables, seed of which had found its way into their camp from the fur traders.  But pumpkins and corn were the principal crops raised.  The corn was cultivated with hoes - big clumsy implements that weighed as much as three or four of our common garden hoes.  It was principally eaten hulled, also in meal after being ground up in a wooden bowl with a large wooden pounder.  This was their crude mill.  This meal they baked into corn bread, or made it into porridge.  They also used green corn as roasting ears, and dried it in the following fashion:  They dug a hole in the ground and heated large stones; on these heated stones they threw husks, and on the husks laid the green corn on cobs; over this corn they threw more husks, and then covered it up and let it cook.  When it was thoroughly cooked the corn was cut from the cob and put out on mats in the sun to dry.  This dried corn was used to make soup, and could be kept for years.

"Wigwams, before canvas was introduced, were made of woven grass; long grass called foxtail was utilized for this purpose.  Mats made from grasses were about four to six feet in width and twelve or sixteen feet in length.  A wooden rod was put at the end of the wigwam mat, and twine made of basswood bark was used to tie the mat to the rod.  Several of these mats were used to construct a wigwam, and they would shed rain as readily as canvas does.  Both twine and mats were made by hand; it was a long piece of work for the squaw to make matting for a wigwam, but once completed it lasted for years and was always kept in repair.  The matting was light and very easily carried either on ponies or in canoes.  In making this wigwam matting the Indians worked together, several squaws congregating and working until the wigwam was completed, just as pioneer women gathered at quilting bees.  Mats were also used as carpets in the wigwam, and were made for trading purposes as well, for the whites often bought them for use in their houses.  The women in the Indian camp also prepared the meat, made the pemmican and jerked the fresh venison.  This kept well though no salt whatever was used.  The women also made moccasins and tanned skins of animals for use as clothing.  Bags were made out of tanned skins of animals for use as clothing.  Bags were made out of tanned skin and woven out of wild grasses.  These bags were used to carry cooking utensils, clothing and implements used about the wigwam.

"The Winnebago were noted for mat weaving, basket making, ornamenting skins and making wooden brooms.  They dug out canoes, bowls and other dishes from wood.  These wooden vessels were made by the men and were ornamented with the heads of deer and bears, or of some other animal.  They also made wooden ladles with handles ornamented with the head of a fish or a bird.  The men also made the reed, a musical instrument like a flute.  This reed was used in wooing; a brave would play on his reed in front of the wigwam where resided his lady love.  He would play his love tune, and if he was a welcome caller he would be invited in to see the maid for whom he was playing.  If he was not welcome, no notice was taken of him, and he would take his departure.  Sometimes he would return and play night after night until the reluctant father of the Indian maid would invite him in, but sometimes the father would drive the young wooer away.

"Another instrument of a musical character was the drum, made of a hollow chunk of wood with a piece of rawhide stretched over it.  This was called the "tum-tum" and was used at all their dancing.

"Another article of manufacture was the bucket.  This was made of birch bark and sewed together with twine from basswood bark, while to keep the bucket from leaking a glue, made from cherry sap or gum and from the backbone of a sturgeon, was used.  These birch bark pails were used to catch sap.  This was collected in a storage trough made of a log dug out and burned so it would hold several barrels.  In former years the women did their sewing with sinew from the deer and elk and used bone needles.

"The Dakotas were noted for their leather articles.  First was the wigwam made of tanned buffalo hides, sewed together in the shape of a tepee, which made a very warm dwelling.  The hair was removed from the buffalo skin in making these wigwams, but for blankets and carpets the hides were tanned with the hair left on.  These wigwams were decorated with bright paint.  As a rule buffalo, deer, elk, horses and birds were painted on the buffalo hide, but now and then you would see the human figure on a tent, and I have seen a few where a scene with hills, river and woods ornamented the wigwam.

"The Dakotas were the most ingenious of the western Indians in making ornaments.  They decorated their clothing with beads and shells.  Porcupine quills stained with different colors were used to adorn their arrow quivers, while the arrows were colored, that is, the feather was stained some gaudy color.  The bow was made of buffalo sinew and the arrows of wood.  The Dakotas were likewise expert pipe makers.  They used pipestone, with a reed that grows in marshy places, for a stem.  the pipe was decorated with bird claws, and tufts of fur from the weasel or mink.  I have seen some of the most beautiful pipes among the Dakotas that could be imagined.

"The Chippewas were noted for their birch bark canoes.  These were made of sheets of birch bark sewed together with sinew and watap root, and sealed with tamarack and pine pitch to keep them from leaking.  These canoes would carry more weight than one would suppose.

"Indian children usually have a happy time.  The child is put into a straight-back little cradle with sides and a bow handle.  It is flat and has no rocker, for none is needed.  The young Indian babe seldom cries, because it is seldom sick.  It is a breast-fed baby, and gets along a great deal better than the average white child.  Two saplings are used to make a swing for the baby.  They are sharpened on one end and stuck in the ground about seven feet apart.  A cord made of basswood bark is tied to the cradle and the babe is given a swing by tying the cord to the saplings.  There the little one is swung back and forth or jounced up and down.  Little trinkets are placed on the bow of the cradle for the baby's amusement, and it will lie by the hour and play with these trinkets.

"The principal game of the Indian in this part of the country was lacrosse.  This game was often played as a sacred game, to redeem the bereaved from their long mourning period.  They were obliged by custom to mourn a stated length of time, but could make a sacrifice instead, that is, give away a certain amount of furs, blankets, or ponies; and these were played for int he lacrosse game.  Two parties were formed, from a dozen to fifteen on a side, and these parties played the game for the goods as a stake, the winners taking the mourners' sacrifice.  After the game the mourning was at an end.  The game was played with a ball and lacrosse sticks.  The ball must not be touched except with the lacrosse stick.

"Among the Indian children games are indulged in; one something like shinny is played on the ice, and in another players throw a twisted hickory stick on the ice; this is driven towards a goal, the one coming nearest the goal winning.  Among the children sliding down hill is enjoyed.  They use basswood and elm bark in making sleds for coasting.  They always ride standing, and hold on to a string fastened to the front of their toboggan.  They also play on the glaring ice.  One game or sport was to take a small round niggerhead stone and spin it on the ice, then take a willow whip and whip it over the ice as fast as they could go.  They had tops to spin also, made of wood and set in motion with a string.

"The marriage ceremony among the Indians was very simple.  The young buck would call at the wigwam where resided the Indian maid he wished for a wife.  If the mother of the girl was pleased with the young brave she would not stir the fire in the least, but would sit quietly before the glimmering light of the ground hearth.  If, however, she was not pleased with the young suitor, she would stir the fire again and again until the wooer took his departure and would emphasize her disgust by spitting into the fire at times.  Another custom was for the young buck to bring presents to the parents of the girl he desired, and if these presents, such as ponies, furs and silver trinkets, were accepted, he would take the girl for his wife.

"The Indians believed in 'maunhoonah,' meaning the Great Spirit or Creator of Earth.  They believed in the hereafter, and that in order to get to the happy hunting ground they had to be good Indians.  They had a Grand Medicine Society, in its form allied to the Free Mason orders.  Not all could join this society, but a certain number were taken in each year.  Application was made for membership, and the names taken up in council, and if elected to become a member the candidate was initiated into the order, providing, of course, he could furnish the necessary fee of furs, blankets, ponies, or goods of any kind.  After being initiated the new member was given a medicine bag made of the skin of some animal, such as the coon, squirrel, otter or beaver.

"The medicine man who looks after the bodily ailments of the tribe is not to be confounded with the medicine man of the Great Medicine Lodge.  The former is usually above the average intelligence, and gifted with the power of impressing his superiority upon the Indians, that is, in dealing with disease.  This power of dispelling disease is supposed to be given him by the Great Spirit.  In treating a patient, the medicine man goes through certain incantations and rattles a gourd, which has seed or shot in it.  He also uses roots and herbs for the treatment of the sick.  A great deal of ginseng is used, and the bark of poplar trees, mandrake or May apple root and sweet flag.  The list of herbs would be a long one, and some of the medicine men obtained very good results from these herbs, which they used as a tea, after steeping them over a fire in a kettle containing a sufficient amount of water.  Some of these Indian doctors became noted even among the whites, and were able in a limited number of diseases to give relief and obtain cures.  They also practiced surgery, setting bones, opening abscesses and treating wounds of various kinds.  Their instruments were crude and were made mostly of bone and iron.

"At the burial or funeral ceremony, some member of the tribe was appointed to speak at the grave of the departed Indian.  The mourners passed around the head of the grave in single file and scattered tobacco over the open grave.  The funeral orator gave an oration on the life of the departed and pictured his journey into the land of the hereafter.  Food was left on the grave sufficient to carry him on his journey, and a supply of tobacco, so that he could take comfort on the way to the happy hunting ground.  On the death of a member of the tribe, the survivors had a wake; friends and mourners met at the home where a death occurred, a speech was made, after which all except the mourners joined in a feast.  This wake was the beginning of mourning, and the mourners observed the custom of fasting for at least three days.  If a woman lost her husband, she remained with her husband's relatives for a number of months and was compelled to do their work without a murmur.  She was not allowed to comb her hair for a number of months, or to ornament herself in any way, but went ragged and dirty with her hair unkempt and was forced to do the bidding of her husband's relatives.  At the end of the mourning period she was liberated to go where she pleased and do as she pleased; she frequently remarried.

"When I was at Long Prairie, I was much interested in a custom among the Winnebago of making morning speeches.  Early each morning when the weather would permit, one of the orators would appear in front of his wigwam and give an address of a religious nature to the Indians, who would assemble to hear the exhorter.  He usually spoke in a kindly way, offering advice and telling the tribesmen to carry themselves in a manner befitting good, true men and women.  I suppose such a person among the whites would be called an evangelist.

"Among the noted orators and chiefs that I have known were Winnoshiek, Black Hawk, Decorah, Wah-pa-sha, Little Creek, Little Priest, Snake Hide, Little Hill, Short Wing, and many others whose names I cannot recall.  Big Fire was a noted astronomer.  He studied the heavens and was familiar with the principal groups of stars.

"The Indians had the heavens mapped out into constellations and were familiar with all the changes of the moon.  They often studied the stars on cold nights when the light from the constellations was most brilliant.  A month was called a moon and a year of time designated a winter. 

"Legends and traditions of the tribes were passed down from one generation to another by means of 'word passers.'  A number of young Indians, say eight or ten, were chosen on account of their good memories to study, and learn lessons from the older 'word passers.'  These young Indians were drilled int he legends, history, and traditions of the tribe.  They were required to repeat them over and over again, omitting no detail, until they knew them by heart; and when the old 'word passers' died, another generation of young men was selected and instructed by their predecessors.  Thus dates and incidents were passed on from generation to generation, and a living history was kept.  An old Winnebago chief, Decorah, had a very interesting cane that he showed me one day, when I visited him in his wigwam.  On this cane were carved many figures, a sort of hieroglyphics.  It had been handed down from father to son and was in reality a record which old Decorah could read.  It was a crude history of the tribe covering a good many years, and if I could remember some of the accounts Decorah gave me as recorded on the cane, they would be worth hearing.

"The Dakotas were fond of decorating themselves with quills, furs, and feathers; but I think they had one custom which is worth noting.  A brave, or more particularly a warrior, used a war-eagle feather to adorn his hair.  This long feather in the hair of a warrior was a mark of distinction, and it was acquired on merit, for no brave could wear one who did not merit it.  On the feather notches were cut if the warrior had been successful in war.  Each notch on one side of the feather represented a scalp taken from an enemy.  The notches on the other side signified the number of times the brave had been on the war-path.  this made it easy for one to tell what kind of a war record a brave had.  If a warrior had a well-notched feather he was looked up to and envied and praised by his tribesmen; he felt his superiority, too, and carried himself with a distinguished air.  War-eagles were scarce and it was sometimes hard to get feathers.  I remember one time seeing an Indian trade a pony for a war-eagle feather.  Hunting parties from Wabashaw's village used to go out to search for the war-eagle, and a favorite resting-place for these eagles was among the hills of Waumandee.  Waumandee means in the Dakota tongue 'the land of the war-eagle.'

"Another peculiar custom which I recollect is the method of inviting a party of Indians to attend a dance, feast, or other gathering.  One day while I was camped with a band of Sioux near the site of what is now Marshland, an Indian came into camp who was from another camp near Homer (Minnesota).  He had crossed the Mississippi in a canoe, and came to invite several of the Indians over to his camp to attend a medicine dance.  He would enter a tent and pass around some small sticks, and explain his object and depart.  He must have had at least fifty sticks answering the purpose of invitation cards, which he distributed. 

"One August day in the '50s we went up the tamarack pluming, for the place was noted for its wild plums.  We had started to gather plums, and were intent on our work, when all of a sudden the stillness of the summer solitude was broken by a yell, a war-cry uttered in its wild, blood-curdling manner.  On looking up I saw our party completely surrounded by a band of Sioux warriors.  It was a war party out after Chippewa; they mistook us for their enemies, but soon saw their mistake and went peaceably away.  We gathered our plums in safety and returned home, but we never forgot the surprise we received by the Sioux warriors.

"In cases of murder in the tribe the guilty party was given a trial.  Witnesses were called to testify and speakers were chosen for and against the defendant.  If the accused person was found guilty, a council was held to determine the punishment.  They usually ordered the murderer killed in the same manner he used in slaying his victim - death by shooting, stabbing, or tomahawking as the case might be.  In some cases the accused would redeem himself by furnishing enough goods such as ponies, furs, or weapons, to secure his liberty; these goods which were distributed among the dead person's immediate relatives, prevented retaliation on their part.

"The Indians as I knew them were as a general thing peaceable.  They loved their native haunts and their families and may be called a happy people.  They had plenty.  Game abounded; there was an abundance of fur-bearing animals; and the streams were full of fish.  There was no need of poverty, for with plenty of corn and wild meat and with fur enough to buy ammunition, traps, and knives, there was little else needed to make their lot an easy and comfortable one.  They were not a stolid people, but were fond of fun.  There was a humorous side to the Indian and a genial friendship when once you came to know him, and I have no respect for that unnatural picture so often made of him - the word picture of the novelist that shows him devoid of sentiment and emotion, a cold, cruel, unfeeling stoic, whose face is never rippled with a smile or stained with a tear.  I think there is a truer picture of the Indian, as a natural human being with a heart that feels pain and pleasure, with a mind that appreciates the good and bad, the true and false, with a spirit that enjoys home and companions and friendship, with a life that throbs with love and sentiment.  The Indian I know loved and laughed with his children, visited his neighbor, had warm personal friendships, and loved the life of peaceful contentment he was living, a life near to nature.

"I have often visited the Dakota and Winnebago and passed long, pleasant hours in their wigwams, talking with them on various subjects as we sat circled about the glowing fire.  I have heard the laugh of their children and seen them frolic about as happy as any young ones I ever saw.  I have seen them play games and join in sports, and they were as interesting to watch as other children.  Of course, there were some whose barbarous nature was revealed.  There are some white people also whose barbarous nature gets the upper hand of them.  But take the Indian, all in all, he was a happy creature during the fur-trading days."

(See Eben D. Pierce, Recollections of Antoine Grignon, Wis. Hist. Soc. Proceedings, 1913, pp. 110-136.)




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