The two orphans left behind after Slap Stone shot dead their father, the Rev. Tobias Jarvis, in front of the Badger Creek Indian Agency were called Sally and Ruth. Later Ruth came to be called Tishi by her Sioux relatives, tishi being their word for mockingbird. This was due to her innate ability to mimic sounds. Her stepmother sometimes watched her flap her arms as if she were imitating a grouse or prairie chicken, and sometimes at night the little girl would scrunch up on her hands and knees, rocking her head back a forth like a buffalo. She had difficulty learning words and as she grew it became clear to Amos and Keya Merriweather, her adoptive parents, that her view of the world was peculiar. She was loath to speak, became easily fixated on objects and would stare at rock or a tree for long periods of time. The little girl showed no affection either toward people or dogs or horses, and Amos, who believed the girl’s natural father to have been crazy, reckoned the girl to be slow of wit. However Keya believed her to share spirits of wild animals, a special and a good thing, a kind of magic.
Sally easily folded into the new family and was happily accepted by Molly, the Merriweather girl, as a sister. Initially Keya insisted that the girls include Ruth in all their chores and play, however Ruth’s silence and her staring at objects isolated her in a solitary world.
At the end the summer, the Hunkpapa band chief Crow Face, at his woman Nani-tak’s bidding, asked Amos to allow Tishi to live among the Hunkpapa, adding that her sister Sally was welcome too. However by her own request Sally would live with Amos, Keya and Molly .
Although Sally chose to live at the Badger Creek Station, she and her stepmother spent summers at the Hunkpapa camp. All three girls quickly became fluent in Siouan. As adopted granddaughters to the Hunkpapa band’s chief, the white girls were accepted as equals by the adults of the band. Foreigners were not uncommon as captive slaves or adoptees. Keya, the girls’ stepmother and adopted daughter of Crow Face, had herself been a Cheyenne captive from the age of five. The familiarity and even tolerance of strangers by adults did not, however, reach down to their children. Initially the Hunkpapa children saw the white girls as foreign, despite the girls’ Siouan language, dress, and custom. They looked different. Hunkpapa boys tended to ignore them because they were, after all, girls, but the Hunkpapa girls initially fought or engaged in trickery and name calling.
In time Molly and Sally toughened up, fought, returned the name calling and eventually integrated with other girls of the band, making friendships, but not Tishi, strange little Tishi, who cared not for others preferring things to people and solitude to company. It was Crow Face’s woman Nani-tak who took Tishi under her wing and became the first of only a few people to establish a rapport with this strange person.
Once the placement of the two orphaned girls was decided, Amos dug two fresh graves at the Badger Creek Station beside the Jarvis graves. In these he laid bones from a small antelope. Crude wooden crosses bore the penciled inscriptions “Dau. Sally 6 and Ruth 5 died of fever. RIP” Sally’s place was with them, Keya and Molly. Ruth’s with Nani-Tak and the Hunkpapa, of this he was certain. No one would take these girls from their rightful places which circumstances had so forcefully ordained. In his semiannual report, Amos falsely noted the deaths of the two girls and included a penned letter for the bureau to forward “To Jarvis Relatives.” In this he set down his version of the four Jarvis’s deaths. The family’s movables in the unfinished cabin were available to any legitimate claimant.
Of great concern was Sally’s understanding. She had grown close to the Merriweathers and especially to Molly. But at six years old awareness of the tragedy attending her father was likely fixed in her memory. She never spoke of her parents and avoided the area of the graves and had no inkling that one of the graves purported to be hers. Would she at some future time reject the frontier? Keya said that, in time, the memories of her parents would become fog and dissolve. Such had been the case with her own captivity at five years old. She and Tishi had been adopted by kind, accepting families. Still, the worry that a settler could assume that she was in fact a Jarvis troubled Amos, as did the idea that some white would identify Ruth among the Hunkpapa.
On the frontier, a Sioux wife was commonplace. A man needed the comfort of a woman and children and if a white man was willing to acknowledge his half-breeds then his neighbors were usually inclined to accept them too. But this was the only recognition of acceptable miscegenation. Any white man, woman, or child who had lived among Indians bore eternally a stigma of the savage. Especially women. A woman freed from Indian captivity was an anathema to a white community. From the earliest days of confrontation between whites and Indians these “freed” women often chose to flee the hypocrisy of the white world, returning to their former tribes.
Similarly, half-breeds and freed captive children seldom integrated successfully into the white man’s world. The idea that a white Christian child would be voluntarily handed over to heathens was unthinkable. And that the district Indian Agent would engage in such a travesty was beyond imagination. The imbalance of these two worlds generated untold misery. Amos had seen it before during the war. Whites who had given sustenance or comfort to those bands of roaming, homeless and starving Negroes had been shunned by neighbors as traitors to the cause. These so-called civilized men treated their animals better than people and out here it was the same damned hateful way, in his opinion. And despite his strong bias toward the redskins, he was the best Indian agent on the frontier. In the earliest days of his commission as he’d thought, “By God they made the wrong man Indian Agent, and I’m sure glad it’s me.”
The years of his commission had seen no organized resistance within his district, only seven murders and the lowest incidence of crime on the frontier. Most settlers in the 850 square miles of the Badger Creek District felt reasonably secure from Indian attack. Pioneers heading west across the district passed unmolested. Amos Merriweather’s insistence on fairness in justice and trade, his friendship with the whiskey and rifle trading Pierre Pardieu, and his kinship with the Hunkpapa band of Sioux had kept this peace.
Deliverance of the strange little Jarvis girl to the Hunkpapa however, broached a vulnerability. Despite all goodness, and reason, and despite the clear realization that Tishi’s place was with Nani-Tak and Crow Face, the white community would never tolerate any Christian girl’s place among godless savages.
When beings encounter one another for the first time they use their eyes and their ears and their sense of smell to sort and place one another in their respective worlds; perception is mostly physical. However, sometimes a special aura envelops an initial encounter and the beings are able to feel the spirit as well as the body of one another. This happens more often between a man and his horse but sometimes between two people. So it was with Nani-tak and Tishi. That invisible nimbus of understanding enshrouded those two and a strong knot of understanding and affection immediately bound them together. For Nani-Tak, who had seen sixty winters, Tishi arrived as a blessing. The old woman’s sight had dimmed but the strength of her inner vision remained and in this child she sensed the agency for continuance of The Spirit.
Increasingly Whites had been like grasshoppers coming across the plains and she knew there was no stopping them and that they would destroy The People by force, by magic, or change. This white girl was surety and perhaps hope that there were whites who were also endowed with vision and understanding. Little Tishi perceived those unseen entities that decided the fates of people, animals, and all things. Nani-Tak would guide her, teach her to listen to wind and clouds, to feel the urges of the earth and waters, to appreciate the commonality of The People with all things. It was already within the child, she need only be led gently to learn to draw from the cosmic font of wonder. Nightly the child slept curled snugly against Nani-Tak and daily trotted by her side through daily chores of gathering, cleaning, and cooking. While Tishi seldom chose to speak, she became a marvelous listener, enthralled by Nani-Tak’s endless stories and explanations of the world’s doings. Early one morning the two encountered three wolves feasting on the carcass of an elk calf.
“You see, the three wolves look at us. Now the black one looks at you Tishi. Can you hear him?”
“He thinks ‘She is white.’ I think to him ‘I only look white.’ He fears whites.”
“He is wise to fear them.”
“Am I still white, Nani-Tak?”
“Yes, but only a little.”
“Is black wolf true, am I too much white?”
“The answer is both yes and no. Only your skin and hair are too white. That is all black wolf sees. Because the rest of you escapes this whiteness is how you come to hear this wolf. In time you will hear many animals, but also trees, rocks, and even the wind. But some white will always be in you.”
Later, walnut husks would darken the child’s skin and hair and the tiny image of a bird, her totem, tattooed between her left eye and ear rendered her Indian to most eyes, white and Indian. And as her superficial whiteness dissipated, the little girl’s perceptions sharpened. Something within her compelled her to imitate living creatures. After hearing it sung two or three times she could accurately duplicate any birdsong. This had earned her the name Tishi, and the totem Little Mockingbird. She also mimicked with her body the motions of deer, elk, beaver, and jackrabbits. She could call across a meadow clearly as a coyote, wolf, raven, hawk or owl. Once while gathering firewood with several women in a copse of oaks she was seen by the others from afar standing still staring down at her feet. When the women called to her she did not respond and when they went to her they were astonished to see two rattlesnakes silently coiled before her.
“Come away, Tishi, come away slow,” they whispered to her.
“They are asleep, they dream now,” she replied as she turned and joined the others, leaving the snakes motionless where they lay. At times she would sit silent and still staring at a distant point for as long as an hour without moving. At other times she flapped her arms like wings while staring at the fire or some object close by, cooing or uttering a low whistle sound and sometimes drooling, proof to Nani-Tak of her link to the spirit world. These incidents, her ability to mimic, and her peculiarities added to her a special status among her band of Hunkpapa. Old Mishtana, the shaman, took notice, and with Nani-Tak endeavored to ensure the little girl was present at all sings, blessings, and dances.
The fall powwow in August of 1875 was dismal. For the second year there had been no treaty rations nor had Amos received his pay for the past two years. The Panic that had begun back East two years before had quickly blanketed every state and territory. Pardieu confided to Amos that the Sioux to the west had negotiated large purchases of rifles from other Canadian traders. “Over dar all de brave talk to make war. Beeg trouble she’s come over dar soon. Now dar’s beaucoup talk of steenkin’ railroad come t’ru.”
The chiefs were reluctant to speak openly but a palpable anxiety had descended over the plains. Amos and Pardieu mulled over how the fears had steadily mounted since the terrible massacre at Marias where soldiers had killed nearly two hundred Blackfeet. General Custer had passed through Badger Creek Station the year before with a cavalry troop headed west to protect a Northern Railroad survey crew. The Sioux would never allow the railroad to cross their territory. But the absolute worst was the news of a gold discovery at Paha Sapa.
“Nothin’ will stop ‘em now, Pardieu. The handwriting is on the wall, mon ami.”
At the powwow’s final big dance Tishi huddled wrapped in a blanket alongside Nani-Tak with a buffalo robe across their laps and feet. The drums and flute fascinated the girl who began a fierce rocking motion from side to side. Nani-Tak placed her hand on the child’s shoulder to calm her but the little body resisted. Soon little Tishi’s eyes glazed then rolled upward and she commenced to sing “ama, ama, ama, ama” to the rhythm of the music. Nani-Tak shifted her arm and placed it around the girl’s waist as she followed the trance. This went on for a long time, until at last the dance ended. Then Tishi’s eyes closed as she slipped quickly into deep sleep.
In the morning Nani-Tak and Crow Face were awakened by Tishi’s little voice speaking in English above the patter of rain on the teepee. Staring up through the smoke hole at the gray skies they listened to the unusual voice of the little girl who seldom spoke now making such strange speech in commanding tones, emphasizing phrases and words by increased force and volume. When at last the girl fell silent Nani-Tak pulled her close and asked the meaning of the strange speech. “My white mother, Nani-Tak, spirit of my white mother talked to me. Oh Nani-Tak and Crow Face, I am afraid. She says very bad things are sure to pass here. She tells me we should all of us, Hunkpapa, Daddy Amos, Keya, EVERYONE, all of us must go from this place north some place called Can-da-da”.
This was the first of several visions Tishi would relate to Nani-Tak, each foretelling of some unnamed ominous tragedy to be avoided only by moving north. Mishtana the shaman urged Crow Face to consider the warnings seriously for he, like Nani-Tak believed Tishi’s link to the spirit world to be fortuitous. With the troubles to the west a sense of urgency had pervaded the band of Hunkpapa. They were sure that “Can-Da-Da” must be Canada to the north. But Crow Face staunchly refused to consider wintering in Canada. “All the signs show this will be a winter of very deep cold. We will go south and east to our safe winter camp. Canada we will reconsider in the spring.”
Crow Face was reluctant to discuss this with Amos said to Keya, “In her vision the spirit always tells little Tishi, that you, Amos, and the girls, all of you must come along with us to Canada. Talk to Amos. Make him understand that in the spring we may strike north for new hunting grounds. We must do this. Pardieu says the whites in Canada are like the whites here but they do not have killing blue coat soldiers. No one wishes to be killed by the white men or whatever great sickness that is coming. If Amos will not listen, leave him and come with us.”
Now a strange thing happened. When Amos Merriweather and his family returned to Badger Creek Station from the powwow at Elk Creek they encountered a man camped on the porch of the station.
“You Captain Merriweather, sir?”
“I’m Amos Merriweather, late of the U. S. Army, yes sir.”
“My name is Louis Ford, Captain Merriweather. I been deputized by the Sheriff of Stone County, Missouri to fetch two little girls, the Jarvis girls, back to Missouri. Are them the Jarvis girls there? Hey, honey? Sally? Ruth?”
“No sir. Keya take the girls inside. No, Mr. Ford, the Jarvis girls are dead, dead of fever, Come along with me, sir, I’ll take you to their graves. I’m afraid you’ve come a long way for nothing. All this was reported two years ago.”
“Well, sir, a Mr. Jensen, homesteader here abouts, has wrote a letter claims them girls ain’t dead but is been taken – one by you, the other by injuns. I have already spoke with him and his missus. Him and his missus says they’s ready to swear to it in a court of law.”
“Then Mr. Jensen is either a liar or crazy.”
“Them girls I jist seen look ‘bout the right age. Let’s see Sally would be nine or ten years old and Ruth ‘bout eight.”
“Those are our girls.”
“Then you won’t mind if I question the girls.
As they entered the station, Keya speaking Siouan quietly told the girls that the stranger was a skinwalker, come to trick Sally and Ruth into going away. Her best protection would be to tell the man that Keya was her mother and to make no mention of Ruth.
After a very brief interview with the girls. Ford faced Amos Merriweather and said, “Well sir, somebody’s sure ‘nuf lyin’. On one side I got the word of the United States Marshal and Indian Agent, his wife, and two little girls and I seen two graves. On the other hand is the letter and the word of that square head been livin’ out here. Captain Merriweather, you got any reason could explain why this Swede would wanna stir up this hornet’s nest, . . . write that letter, tell tales?”
“Well could be that him and Jarvis did not get on very well. He’s still sore at me about the Jarvis’ moveables. He claimed Jarvis had welched on a deal they’d made. Jensen helped Jarvis roof his cabin and he figured Jarvis to sell him an ox as part of the deal, but when the roof was up Jarvis said no mention had ever been made of the ox. They both come to me. There was nothing I could do. Far as the movables are concerned they belong to any heirs.”
“What was the outcome?”
“Someone stole Jarvis’s ox one night. A band of Crow come through here about that time and I reckon it could have been them; poor devils looked half starved. Then after Mrs. Jarvis died and Mr. Jarvis was shot dead, Jensen and his missus tried to claim the two little girls like chattel. I wasn’t haven’ any of it. Those poor little girls were bad sick and staying with us while I was trying to locate any relatives back East. He put up an ornery fuss and after the girls died he claimed he was owed the Jarvis wagon and movables. I had to order him off the station, Mr. Ford. Jensen is the only white man ever ordered off the station. He’s a sore head and a drunk. I don’t reckon he told you any of that, did he?”
Amos, like most folks, often lied. A lie told to evade a responsibility or for some gain or edge always unsettled him, but these lies, heaped on the deputy sheriff from Missouri, were thrilling and made him feel good inside like a successful bluff at poker.
“No sir. And that ‘bout settles this shit. I’d be obliged if you could write it up mentionin’ my interview with you so’s I can get my pay for this damned wild goose chase. ”
The deputy spit tobacco juice expertly over the rail of the porch onto a grasshopper. ” I got half a mind to ride over and kick that Swede’s ass.”
“Now don’t go doin’ that. I don’t need any more trouble. You stay the night, have supper with us, Mr. Ford. You can sleep in the Jarvis cabin down the hill; I’ll have your statement ready when you ride in the morning.”
The next morning, as Amos saw Louis Ford off, Keya rode her pony south to the Hunkpapa encampment to warn Nani-Tak and Crow Face to hide Tishi in case the skinwalker should appear.
At the Sioux camp, news of Tishi’s vision permeated all talk. Some were ready to head north to Canada immediately, but Crow Face’s will prevailed — the band would winter at the place they called Elk Valley to the south then move to Canada when the spring melt began. Crow Face did send his son Spotted Turtle north with instructions to winter with the trader Pardieu and to scout for a safe summer camp site.
That winter, Mishtana, shaman for the Hunkpapa band, recorded two visions of Tishi on the buffalo skin that served as the band’s chronicle. A depiction of a small bird with an outstretched wing pointing north to a plain of elk and buffalo, while behind, to the south, blue coats with rifles, and prairie fires. Rather than black, the figures were done in blue dye, signifying a vision. Later that winter, Tishi would endure several more powerful trances. The second vision in blue depicted Sioux riders overwhelming dismounted blue-coated soldiers.
At Badger Creek Station, the incident with Louis Ford had moved Amos Merriweather. While he had fended off the attempt to take the girls, he felt insecure. “What’s next,” he wondered. ’74 and ’75 had seen a marked increase in traffic at Badger Creek. Three army units had passed through headed into the Dakotas. Two Army topographic units and a small detachment of Custer’s Seventh Cavalry had penetrated Sioux lands supposedly protected by treaty. Now in 1875 with news of the gold strike at Paha Sapa, a flood of prospectors and spoilers looking to get rich quick would tramp through bringing nothing but trouble.
Amos knew the good days at Badger Creek were behind. The deleterious effects of the Panic had stopped the flow of all treaty goods. In the past two years Amos had received one single bank draft for $100 to cover expenses of the station and not one penny in salary. His heart told him that Crow Face and Keya’s advice to go north to Canada was the right thing to do for his family, for indeed his family was Keya, the girls and the Hunkpapa band. He couldn’t imagine a life in St. Louis or any city for that matter, and each year’s facing of problems as Indian Agent had turned him further and further from the injustices and betrayals of his government and even his race. Yes, he’d gladly strike north but he lacked funds.
The dream that evolved was to homestead somewhere near the Hunkpapa summer camp, to farm, keep livestock, and to hunt and fish while watching the girls grow, hopefully with two or three brothers beside them and far away from the whining, hateful settlers, away from the unenforceable rules transmitted without end from Washington. Away from the fictional semi-annual report he compiled for Washington. Away from being asked to solve the greed-driven problems of lesser men. Away from the responsibility of judging or punishing anyone. He would need funds, however, and he had no money nor prospects.
Pardieu introduced the idea. “Look, my good friend Amos, all dis weel soon be turn to shit, eh? Now dose Lakota Sioux plenty mad an’ dares two, three ‘undred young braves only ting stop dem to make war rat now dey got no rifle, no cartridge. Las’ two year Sioux, Crow, Cheyenne buy all de gun available. You wan’ buy rifle across de border in Canada now cost tree times more dan two years ago. Merriweather, eef you can find rifles, we can quick be rich men. Eef you can buy for ‘tirty dollar, we can sell for ‘undred, eh?”
The thought soon consumed Amos Merriweather and for weeks he turned various schemes in his head. Shipments of rifles for the army came through Badger Creek Station, sometimes two or three wagons of weapons and ammunition.
“Pierre, supposin’ I can get rifles, how in God’s name can we turn ‘em into cash? Tell me that, will you?”
“Eef you secure rifles I promise I can dispose of dem in no more dan one week. Ever’ mont’, de gold mined at Paha Sapa day ship de smelted ingots east with army escort. I tell Dakota, I tell Lakota. I tell Ogalala, Hunkpapa, Cheyenne . . . all Indian nations. Maybe Crazy Horse he attack, get de gold for us, so we give to heem rifles and cartridges.
Later Amos would show Pardieu the letter he’d crafted. “Pierre — this is one huge lie, but if it works we just might make this happen.”
* * *
CONFIDENTIAL AND PERSONAL
From: Capt. Amos Merriweather, Ret. Superintendent, Indian Agency, Badger Creek, Dakota Territory
To the Hon. Senator XXXX, Washington, D.C.
My Dear Senator:
You may be aware that this station has failed to receive funding, salary, or annual treaty provisions and rations for two years. The Department of the Interior has announced that the moratorium is likely to continue for some time. I am sure you are also aware of the unrest among the various and several Indian nations, particularly in the Dakota Territory. Another winter without the promised treaty provisions will assuredly lead to violence. Should violence occur within the Badger Creek reserve, a situation similar to or worse than the 1862 Wisconsin uprising is a very liable threat. I have a proposal which if effected will restore the peaceful and cooperative association between the United States and the Indian nations here. This plan must needs be unconventional, secret, and must bypass bureaucratic morass. We cannot afford even one day’s delay.
The newly formed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police with nearly 300 recruits training at Ft. Macleod, Alberta needs rifles. Hudson’s Bay Company representatives have ventured to supply Badger Creek with blankets, beans, corn flour, salt pork, salt horse, coffee, various smalls and trade goods in numbers far exceeding three years quantity of treaty goods and rations, this in exchange for 144 Winchester Model 1873 rifles and 25,000 cartridges. If Model 1873s are unavailable, Model 1866 will suffice. The rifles must be of the repeating lever action design. The gist of this irregular three-way negotiation is this: RCMP gets badly needed rifles without the four to five year delay dealing with the crown; Hudson’s Bay receives the exclusive government contract to supply the RCMP; Badger Creek receives promised treaty provisions to distribute, thereby assuaging the various Indian nations.
Hudson’s Bay representatives demand complete secrecy in this matter and will deny involvement if challenged by American or English authorities. I propose that the rifles be shipped to this station from the Springfield armory. This will appear normal as three such shipments have recently passed through this station en route to Army units further west. Hudson’s Bay will ensure safe transport from Badger Creek to Ft. Maleod. I have heard from reliable Army sources that the Springfield Armory desperately wishes to clear much of its present stock in anticipation of the new Remingtons. I strongly urge you to employ all resources within your power to propel this into motion. Viewed amid the larger frame of events, this is a small action, but an action with the capacity and potential to prevent widespread violence and bloodshed.
I thank you, sir for your help and understanding is this urgent matter. May God bless and protect you.
I remain your humble, ob’t svt, . . . . . . Amos Merriweather, Capt. Ret.”
* * *
As the unpaid, unfunded Indian Agent holding one of the vital points of the Western Frontier, his irregular request was pushed through secretly by the same congressman, now United States senator, who had appointed Merriweather to his post as Indian Agent. He received no word from the senator, however in May 1876 an Army escort delivered 144 Winchester model 1866 rifles and 25,000 cartridges to the station.
In early June, an Army escort of six soldiers guarding the Paha Sapa gold shipment was ambushed near Carrick Flats. All soldiers were killed; the shipment of seventy-five gold ingots went missing.
On 25 June at the Little Big Horn River in eastern Montana Territory a large force of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho well armed with repeating rifles attacked and defeated a U. S. Army cavalry unit, killing 255, including General George Armstrong Custer. Two weeks later the Badger Creek Indian Agency was burned to the ground at night. The Indian Agent Captain Amos Merriweather and his family presumably taken prisoner by the raiding band of Sioux warriors, was never found.
© Gary Ives
First published in January 2012, “Frontier Tales”, Issue №28