Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Painted Woods: A Tragic Love Story

"The young lovers approach the dead cottonwood tree," Dakota Wind, 2014.
Painted Woods
A Tragic Love Story
By Dakota Wind
This paper was originally part of another paper that appeared in the Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation's quarterly paper "The Past Times," Vol. IX, No. 4, 2002.

The story goes, that a long time ago the wooded area now called Painted Woods was neutral ground between the Yanktonai Dakota and the Mandan. Then it happened one day in the autumn that the Yanktonai Dakota came to trade with the Mandan, for that’s the time of year when fighting stopped between the native nations and friendly trade relations were opened. Sometimes it happened that men and women would choose a mate from another tribe, cementing a friendly trade alliance between families.

A young Yanktonai Dakota brave came with his people to learn how to trade, to learn how to meet on friendly terms with a traditional enemy. The term “enemy” in those days implied people not one’s own, that there were “good” enemies who one traded and occasionally married into, and that there were “bad” enemies who one fought against and sometimes stole horses from.

The Mandan Indians were a sedentary horticultural tribe who lived on the Missouri River bottomlands between the Knife River (present-day Stanton) to the north and the Heart River (present-day Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park near the city of Mandan) to the south. It was a golden age for the Mandan. They dwelt in as many as a dozen fortified earthlodge villages. The women owned the lodges. The women owned the gardens. The women determined the worth of their produce when it came time to trade. The bloodline was carried down from mother to child. A woman usually stayed in her mother’s village all the days of her life. The Mandan lived along the Missouri River for a thousand years. 

"Winter village of the Minatarres," by Karl Bodmer.

The fall is a beautiful time of year along the Missouri River. Frost glitters on everything, thickly on leaves, vines, and branches, sparsely on boulders and grass, but everything shines in the morning light. Fog stretches along the Missouri River bottomlands as far as the eye can follow, so thick one couldn’t see the lodge at the end of the village, to thin wispy tendrils hanging in the air so delicately one feels almost an otherworldly presence.

The Yanktonai came to trade with the Mandan. War was politely put aside in efforts for each side to acquire needs and wants from the other. For the Yanktonai, they needed the corn, squash, beans, sunflowers, and tobacco the Mandan grew in their gardens; the Mandan wanted trade items, guns, trade iron, mirrors, beads, and such that could only be obtained by trade with the Yanktonai.

The story goes a Yanktonai Dakota brave met and fell in love with a Mandan maiden, and she for him, most likely during the time of trade.

The Mandan have many cultural conventions, among which is when a couple marry it is the man who goes to live with the woman in her mother’s lodge. The Lakota/Dakota too have many cultural standards about how to live and how to live married, but should a man take a wife from another tribe it would often work out that she would live with him.

Young, innocent, first love often sees past the barriers and codes set in place by wiser, more experienced love. So it seems.

When trade came to an end, the Mandan held a feast to see their trade partners off, a strong tradition that they held even for enemies.

The story goes that when the Yanktonai broke camp to head south towards winter camp, north of Omaha territory, the brave opted to stay behind with his true love. It seemed that Mandan custom won out and the Yanktonai departed in peace. Sometime after the Yanktonai left, the young couple eloped and made a departure of their own. Mandan custom didn’t hold the young man or the young woman as strongly as they hoped. 

Sitting Rabbit, a Mandan, painted a lengthy mural of the Missouri River which showcases the old villages, various significant cultural sites, and landmarks as the Mandan knew them. 

She must have loved him for she gave up a thousand years of tradition, her ancestral homeland, and the lines of her family to be with him and his traveling people.

The Mandan and Yanktonai agree on the story up to this point: that a Mandan maiden and a Yanktonai brave fell in love. The Mandan say the Yanktonai brave stole her and that the Yanktonai people killed her. The Yanktonai say that the Mandan killed the brave and lost the young woman.

What is the truth? Is there a middle ground? There just might be if we look at through the cultural eyes of the times.

The brave and the maiden eloped. Her father probably gifted the Black Mouth Society, a police society of the Mandan made up of fierce warrior protectors, to bring her back. The brave led them to neutral ground, a wooded area on the east bank of the Missouri River just south of the Knife Rive confluence.

In the old days, in the grandeur of the Plains Indian horse culture, when a woman was kidnapped, she died to her people for they often never saw her again. Women and children were often brought into the circle of the tribe and made one of them, women to live and eventually love as their captors, children raised to be like their captors. To borrow a Christian thought, one “died” to one’s self and became a member of another tribe, even given a new name to reflect a new stage of life.

The Yanktonai say that the Mandan killed the brave. When the Mandan warriors came to get back one of their own, the brave turned and fought his last stand and died for the love of his life.

In the old days, in the splendor of the Plains Indian culture, a woman would sometimes pick up and carry a man’s weapons, even ride into battle – but that’s another story. It is reasonable to say that the Mandan maiden, blind in her grief, reached for her lover’s weapons. She died to her people and became a Yanktonai. She became the enemy and the time for trade passed by. She died when she eloped. She died when she became a Yanktonai Dakota. She died with her lover.

The Mandan and Yanktonai agree that the bodies of the young lovers were wrapped in bison robes and placed them in the branches of the grove of cottonwoods where they spent their last day together. The Mandan warriors took out their paints and illuminated the trunks of dead cottonwood trees nearby.

The story concludes that in the spring when the Yanktonai ventured north, ostensibly to visit the brave they left behind, they came across the bodies of the young lovers hanging in the branches of the cottonwoods. The Yanktonai carefully removed the bodies and buried them in the ground below. They also saw the pictographs painted on the bleached and weathered trees around, and the Yanktonai warriors took out their paints and went to neighboring cottonwoods and adorned them with pictographs of their own.

Gradually, all the trees in that particular wooded area became known to all as “Painted Woods.” The Mandan were struck by smallpox and moved north and west, eventually to Fort Berthold, their concerns mainly for survival. The Yanktonai were split and moved onto different reservations in North Dakota and South Dakota.

A likely time this may have happened is after the Yanktonai wintered with the Mandan, a winter of peace, in 1715, and before Pierre la Verendrye made first contact with the Mandan in 1738, for the Yanktonai and the Mandan were sore enemies.

Today a game and wildlife preserve protects the Missouri River bottomlands of the Painted Woods. An interpretive sign tells an abbreviated version of the tragic love story on site.

Yanktonai Ethnohistory and the John K. Bear Winter Count by James Howard, as published in the Plains Anthropologist, 1976.

Origins of North Dakota Place Names by Mary Ann Barnes Williams, 1966.

Author conversations with various elders of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, particularly Mr. Edwin Benson and Ms. Diana Medicine Stone, 2002-2010. 

No comments:

Post a Comment