Indians of Bannock County, Idaho

Some years ago, when life was young and all the world one luring and beckoning field of adventure, the writer of this modest history spent five dollars to hear Dan Beard, Ernest Seton Thompson and others, lecture on “Woodcraft and Indians.” They spoke of the “noble red man,” and pictured a romantic and heroic being of high ideals and chivalrous life, whose adventures were clean and admirable, whose domestic life was happy and blameless. At least one member of the audience went home from those lectures and shed bitter tears of remorse and shame because it was his sad lot to be a cowardly paleface. “We mention the incident because it serves to illustrate the nonsense that is published broadcast for mercenary reasons, by people who really know the truth.

This chapter does not pretend to be a scholarly dissertation on the American Indian, but is rather intended to preserve the first impressions made by the Indians on an interested and uninitiated observer. For the salient and noticeable traits of these people are more likely to excite the comment of a newcomer than they are to live in the hard soil of familiarity.

The Arabs of the Sahara desert, like our own Bannock Indians, wrap themselves closely in camels-hair blankets during the hottest weather, which as everyone knows, is extreme in North Africa. They also wrap their heads in turbans, and explain the custom by saying that it protects them from the scorching rays of the sun. Otherwise their skin would blister and dry up with the reflected heat of the desert. This is probably true, and it is no doubt for some similar reason that the Indians wear blankets all through the summer. It has been said that the Indians use a powder of vegetable or mineral character with which they rub the inside of their blankets, thereby rendering them impervious to heat rays. Certain it is that an Indian, clad in a blanket, is seldom seen to perspire, even in the hottest weather, while his civilized brother drips just as profusely as a white man.

In like manner all strange and seemingly fantastic and heathen customs have their birth in reason, if we can only detect it. The Indian, for instance, paints his face as a protection from the dry and arid western winds, which make some artificial application of grease necessary. Let those who doubt this take a glance at the parched visage of some Arizona rancher.

Some people maintain that the Indian is equal in intelligence to the white man. Common sense tells us that this is not true. No race mentally equal to the Caucasian would remain for centuries in barbarism and turn from civilization even when it is thrust upon them. It is sometimes said that an Indian is a white man’s equal because he can pass the intelligence test of a twelve-year-old white boy, this modicum of intelligence being scientifically sufficient to rescue a white man from the ranks of the mentally deficient. A man might almost as well be insane as to escape insanity by a hair’s breadth. And so, also, of his intellect.

An Episcopalian missionary to the Indians on the Fort Hall reservation, said in this connection: “I noticed when I first began to work among these Indians that I could establish no footing of equality between myself and the bucks, although the latter seemed to be on the most familiar terms with my twelve-year-old boy. This puzzled me for some time, and I began to watch the intercourse between my boy and the Indians. Then I discovered the secret. The mentality of my boy and of the Indians was on a par. The red men, although adults in years, were twelve-year-olds in mind. From that time on I talked with them on such terms and my former trouble was ended.”

For this reason and because of the results so far attained, it seems very questionable whether it is wise to attempt to civilize these people, in the ordinary meaning of the term. Christianize them by all means. But two men practicing the principles of Christianity can live as happily in a wigwam as in a palace perhaps more so, and there is no reason why we should want the squaws to wear split-skirts because our own women wear them. There is but little choice, and perhaps the squaw has the best of it at that. The South Sea islander does not want us to wear rings in our noses because he does, and it seems hardly fair that we should wish to throttle the poor Indian with the shackle that civilization calls a collar, just because we are foolish enough to wear collars. Christianity alone will bring these people as much civilization as they need for both their happiness and salvation, and that is more than many of our own boastful race possess. For the rest, the Indian, to his honor, be it said, is a child of nature, who loves his sagebrush and desert freedom, and it is no kindness to tear him from the life he loves so well. No wonder he hates the white man. Most of us would hate people who insisted upon making canary-birds, guaranteed to sing in the parlor, out of us, when we wanted to be eagles. Perhaps it is some such reason as this that leads the Indians on the reservation to despise those who live among the whites. The average Indian who hangs around Pocatello is certainly inferior to his brother in the sagebrush.

Although the Indian is a lazy man, who makes his squaw do most of the work, he is not without some strain of generosity. The squaw usually follows along some ten paces behind her husband, and it is no uncommon thing to see the buck eating a bag of apples or other delicacies and throwing the cores to his faithful squaw, who devours them with relish.

The Bannocks, in common with all other Indians, have a decided sense of beauty, a trait that is seldom noticed, although one of the best possessed by the redmen. This artistic instinct finds play in the basket and beadwork done by these people. Many of their designs combine great beauty with great simplicity, and display a taste that is far from uncultured. In their names, too, the Indians show a love of the beautiful. Where in the whole wide world can more beautiful names be found than Wyoming and Arizona, Idaho and Oregon, Nevada and Oklahoma? Resonant and poetical names they are, suggestive of bigness quite commensurate with the vastness of the states they name. It has been said that the west, inspired by the beauty of her Indian names, will some day produce a new school of poetry, made possible only by the poetry of the wild, free redmen.

As in all frontier communities, many amusing incidents have transpired between the Indians and whites. Probably everyone in Pocatello knows ”Stonewall” Johnson and probably no one in Pocatello knows horseflesh better than he. One day Mr. Johnson bought a horse from an Indian. The animal had seven diseases all-fatal but Mr. Johnson, with infinite skill and patience, gradually cured him of them all. He nursed the dying beast back to health and made a valuable horse of him. Prom time to time the Indian dropped around to inspect the animal. One fine day, when the cure was fully effected, the Indian deliberately entered the field where the horse was grazing in care of Mr. Johnson’s little boy, mounted and rode away, leaving the youngster to carry the news home. Mr. Johnson has never seen either horse or Indian since. It is said that the only way to bind a bargain with the Indians is by a deed of sale. On the other hand, the missionary previously mentioned, says that he would rather lend money to an Indian than to a white man, as the former never fails to repay the loan.

We have spoken of the Indian’s sense of beauty. He is also cruel, and his cruelty is written on his face. Imagine, then, the dismay and terror of a missionary’s wife, who, with her husband, alighted one dark night at a little way station just north of Pocatello. the depot was locked, and while the missionary went to look for a night’s lodging, his wife disposed herself comfortably on a soft and well-filled gunnysack lying or” the station platform. Presently the gunnysack moved, stretched a pair of moccasined legs, and said “Woof!” The lady eventually recovered, but whether the Indian did, the story does not tell.

While possessing much innate nobility, the Indian sometimes appears in a ridiculous light. It is said that when a part of the reservation was thrown open a few years ago, and the redmen reimbursed in cash, many of them invested their money in vehicles. They bought every old wagon for miles around, and when the supply ran low, took what they could get. So it happened that one buck bought an old hearse. In the body of this he was wont to carry his numerous papooses, who gazed at the passing throng with their squat faces pressed flat against the windows, while the proud parents occupied the driver’s box.

These people have a strange aversion to the camera, probably as to something uncanny and not understood. They believe that to be photographed saps the strength. At the last sun dance held in the Bottoms near Pocatello, it was necessary to pay one old centenarian five dollars to induce him to pose for one snapshot.

Among the commonplaces of former days that are fast passing away are the wild horses. These animals still roam the plains of Bannock County, but they are becoming scarcer every year. They travel in bands of fifteen or twenty and are very bold. They will approach within close range of a human being and feed unconcernedly under his gaze, but at the sound of the human voice they become terror stricken and stampede away in great confusion. Some daring men rope these animals during the summer months and break them in for saddle use, but their wild blood is never really tamed. It is necessary to break their spirit with cruelty before they are of any use, and then they are apt to relapse at any time. When one escapes from captivity it is said that he will travel hundreds of miles with unerring instinct back to the plains whence he was taken.

The fact that a large portion of the land included in Bannock County was set apart for and inhabited by Indians retarded its settlement for many years. The Indians were hostile to the white men, few of whom settled in the vicinity, except employees of the stage lines running from Salt Lake to Butte, government agents, etc.

The Shoshone in the Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for 1913, this name is spelt Shoshoni and Bannock Indians now living on the Fort Hall reservation are types of the great Lemhi family. The Shoshone, or Snake Indians, are fairly honest, intelligent and peaceable, although all the Indians west of the Rocky Mountains are inferior to those living to the east. The Bannocks are more cunning, sly, and restless than the Shoshones. The Shoshone family, of which the Bannock is a branch, are thought to have come originally from California. While the name Shoshone is commonly supposed to mean, “snake,” some authorities hold that it means “inland.” These Indians are more pretentious in dress and ornamentation than those living farther south, and possess no mean skill in the art of pottery. Ross, an authority on Indian affairs, says: “The Snakes have been considered as a rather dull and degraded people, weak in intellect and wanting in courage. And this opinion is very probable to casual observer, at first sight or when they are seen in small numbers, for their apparent timidity, grave and reserved habits, give them an air of stupidity. An intimate knowledge of the Snake character will, however, place them on an equal footing with that of other kindred nations, both in respect to their mental faculties and moral attributes.”

The different tribes or families of these Indians speak different dialects, but have a sign language that is understood by all. Although stolid and silent in their intercourse with white men, they are vivacious and even garrulous among themselves. The play of their hands when they talk with signs resembles the conversation of deaf mutes.

Another writer says: “The Bannocks of Idaho are highly intelligent and lively, the most virtuous and unsophisticated of all the Indians in the United States.”

These Indians were at least intelligent enough to devise a system of hieroglyphics, examples of which are still to be seen on the lava rocks to the west and south of Pocatello, although the Indians of today seem to have lost the art of reading them, and their contents remain a mystery. They are recent enough in execution to have survived the wear of wind and weather, but how interesting it would be if we could read the crude romance they tell some memorable page of barbarous history or some forgotten tragedy of desert life!

There are in the neighborhood of Pocatello also some old Indian forts crude constructions of dugouts and mountain boulders, interesting only on account of their origin. The curious may find one about two miles out of Pocatello, to the left of the road that winds back from West Sublette street. It probably differs in no way from those built by the Indians of this vicinity two thousand years ago, and were they to construct another today it would be impossible except by age, to tell the new from the old. Civilization rolls on apace, and today’s triumph of mechanism is the scrap heap of tomorrow, but the stolid Indian, imperturbable and un-interested, remains much the same, yesterday, today and apparently forever.

History of Bannock County, Idaho

Source: The History of Bannock County Idaho, By Arthur C. Saunders, Pocatello, Idaho. U. S. A., The Tribune Company. Limited, 1915

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