Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Chief Ten Bears: 'We Wish Only To Wander On The Prairie Til We Die'

The last conference between the white man and Indians took place at Medicine Lodge Creek, about 75 miles southwest of the present site of Wichita, Kansas in October 1867. The participants were the U.S. peace commission, which tried to persuade the Indians to accept life on reservations, and representatives of the Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Kiowa Apache tribes. S.C. Gwynne write in Empire of the Summer Moon that the conference was the last great gathering of free Indians in the American West.

"The event was magnificent, surreal doomed, absurd, bizarre," Gwynne writes, "and surely one of the greatest displays of pure western pageantry ever seen."

Representative from each side spoke eloquently, but the speech by Ten Bears (above, left), the aging chief of the Yamparika band of the Comanches, was the show stopper:
My heart is filled with joy when I see you here, as the brooks fill with water when the snows melt in the spring, and I feel glad as the ponies do when the fresh grass starts in the beginning of the year . . .

My people have never first drawn a bow or fired a gun against the whites. There has been trouble between us . . . my young men have danced the war dance. But it was not begun by us. It was you who sent out the first soldier . . .

Two years ago I came upon this road, following the buffalo, that my wives and children might have their cheeks plump and their bodies warm. But the soldiers fired on us . . . so it was upon the Canadian [River]. Nor have we been made to cry once alone. The blue-dressed soldiers and the Utes came out from the night . . . and for campfires they lit our lodges. Instead of hunting game they killed my braves, and the warriors of the tribe cut short their hair for the dead.

So it was in Texas. They made sorrow in our camps, and we went out like the buffalo bulls when the cows are attacked. When we found them we killed them, and their scalps hang in our lodges. The Comanches are not weak and blind, like the pups of a dog when seven sleeps old. They are strong and farsighted, like grown horses. We took their road and we went on it. The white women cried and our women laughed.

But there are things which you have said to me which I do not like. They were not sweet like sugar, but bitter like gourds. You have said that you want to put us on a reservation, to build us houses and make us medicine lodges. I do not want them. I was born under the prairie, where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures and everything drew a free breath. I want to die there and not within walls. I know every stream and wood between the Rio Grande and the Arkansas. I have hunted and lived our that country. I live like my fathers before me and like them I lived happily.

When I was in Washington the Great Father told me that all the Comanche land was ours and that no one should hinder us in living upon it. So, why do you ask us to leave the rivers and the sun and the wind and live in houses? Do not ask us to give up the buffalo for the sheep. The young men have heard talk of this, and it has made them sad and angry. Do not speak of it more. I love to carry out the talk I get from the Great Father. When I get goods and presents I and my people feel glad, since it shows that he holds us in his eye.

If the Texans had kept out of my country, there might have been peace. But that which you now say we must live in, is too small. The Texans had taken away the places where the grass grew the thickest and the timber was best. Had we kept that, we might have done the things you ask. But it is too late. The whites have the country which we loved, and we wish only to wander on the prairie til we die.
But it was even to late for that, as the Indians knew better than anyone.

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