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“We Didn’t Have Flies Until the White Man Came”: A Yankton Sioux Remembers Life on the Plains in the Late 19th century

by Paul Picotte/Joseph Cash

In the era before the U. S. Army conquered the Great Plains Indians the region’s giant buffalo herds provided the primary food and clothing source for the Indians who lived there. Indeed, in 19th century America buffalo were more numerous than people. The various Lakota Sioux tribes who lived in the area that became South Dakota and Nebraska depended largely on the buffalo hunt according to Paul Picotte, a Yankton Sioux born in 1880. In this transcript of a 1968 interview with historian Joseph Cash, Picotte recalled the elaborate process used to hunt, dress, and preserve buffalo.

Listen to Audio:

Paul Picotte: The Indians in the early days, as I remembered, they did it in a group. Now my dad—we lived right down there north of Marty—and, and he farmed about a forty-acre tract, and he dug his own well there, and we raised chickens, and mother had a good garden. Of course, my mother was only a quarter Indian. And, ah, we had fruit trees and, and had a couple of cows to milk, raised hogs and stuff like that.

But the Indian, the full-blooded Indians that belong to those dance outfits, they would maneuver around some way, and get a hold of a hog or a calf or something, and give a feast and all come to their place and have a plowing-bee. And they’d plow up that fella’s land and the women’d go along and plant it by hand, you know. They’d fix up their dress some way and put corn in there and a sharp stick down that way and they’d stick that in there, and they’d go right down the field. They’d plow that field and plant it all at one time. Then the next guy, why he’d, he’d get a hold of something to eat and they’d all go over there and camp and they’d do the plowing there. Well, that’s the way they done that. But my dad never did do that. He farmed for himself.

Joseph Cash: This was back in the nineties, huh?

Picotte: Huh?

Cash: This was back in the nineties?

Picotte: Oh yes, way back in the eighty, nineties.

Cash: What other things do you remember about back then?

Picotte: Well, in the early days of old Indian people, you know, we were set here in 1859 and prior to that time, why our Indian people depended altogether on the buffalo hunt. And the last buffalo that was killed—there were seven of them located over here about twenty miles west of here. And they got all six of 'em and the last one they got in about 1869. That’s the last buffalo killed on this reservation: just out of town here a little ways, about a mile and a half. And in earlier days, 200 years ago... You’ve noticed this valley going down here between here and Pickstown?

Cash: Um hum.

Picotte: Well, that was known as the Gate of the Buffalo. In the late fall—November and December—all these potholes out across here, they were just full of buffalo. When those things’d freeze up and there wasn’t any water, they, they’d get together and by the thousands and come down in through here because right down in there they was springs in that Missouri River. They’d stampede down in there and many of them got drowned down in there.

And even here not too many years ago, my wife was down here at the laundromat and washing and I was sitting outside smoking a cigar and pretty soon a man come down from the rooming house up there. And he asked me, he said, “Say, mister,” he said. “You live here?” And I said, “Yes, I do.” He said, “What, what do you call this place out here they call Monument Hill?” You noticed that hill out here?

Cash: Yeah.

Picotte: And I said, “In the early days that was known as a lookout for, for buffalo game, for the Indian people.” And I said, “Those Indian people would... They had a regular program. No one private Indian could go out and, and kill a buffalo unless they went together.” And I said, "This old chief had his, his various lieutenants, and he would send them out to locate these buffaloes from these various lookout points. And wherever they located those buffalo, why then they’d have a meeting there—he’d come back and make his report—they’d have a meeting there. Then they’d go out as a, as a unit, and try to surround those buffaloes and get all of ‘em. And then they’d, they’d, they would camp. They’d move their camp up there on the ground and then they would, they would set up some forked poles—about like that, you know—and then put some across that way. They’d cut up all this meat in pieces about that thick—probably eight, ten feet long—and hang’em over these poles and let ’em dry. Let that meat dry. There was no flies. There was no potato bugs even during my time in the early days.

Cash: Really?

Picotte: We didn’t have flies until these white fellows come here. Anyway, ah, those Indian people would, would take this meat after it was cured, and they’d go down to the river, pretty close there, and they’d, they’d cut this hay there. I saw some of that, that bottom grass just this morning. It grows about so high.

Cash: About three, three feet high? Three or four feet high?

Picotte: Yeah, all of that. There’s some of that along the road going down to Greenwood. They’d cut that with their knives—they didn’t have anything else. They’d cut that with their knives, and lay it to one side and then they’d cut this—the top to this, this ground out in sections, about like that—and they’d lay that over to one side. Then they’d dig up this earth, and the Indian women would put it in their dresses, and haul it over to the river, and empty it into the river. They’d dig a pit there possibly, oh three, four feet across, and maybe five or six foot deep. Then they’d put a layer of this straw down there, and a layer of this dry meat so it wasn’t touching one another. Then they’d put another layer of grass, and so on, 'til they filled it all up and then they’d kind of tamp that down a little bit, and put some more hay on the top. Then they’d go get this, this tops of the grass there, and blocks of dirt, and they’d place that just the way they took it out. Then they’d go over there so far away, and they’d blaze a tree. Then the camp would move on to the next buffalo hunting stop.

In the meantime, these, these lookout fellas would be on, on duty going out there, trying to locate more buffalo. So then when fall come, why the farthest away they got from this section of the world here—we take for instance—why then they, they’d move down to their first cache and when they’d run, they’d... they was right close to the river where they could get water and wood and set their camps up. They slept right on the ground. They were healthy. Old Grandma White Talon, down here to Greenwood, down here to Marty, lived to be a hundred years old and by golly, you know, she didn’t have hardly any gray hair.

Cash: Hmm.

Picotte: And she was the one that gave me all of this, all of this history, because she was a pretty progressive old Indian lady and she, she knew the Indian ways and, and all that stuff. And she gave me that history, because we stayed with her four years and took care of her before she died. So that’s where I got a lot of that history. And it’s very valuable and interesting to me.

Cash: Well, tell me some more.

Picotte: Yeah and, so then whenever that cache run out, why, they’d move down to the next one. So on down the line. And then spring’d come and they’d... buffalo’d go back out on the green grass or they’d go out on the buffalo hunts and do the same thing again.

Cash: Uh, these Yankton Indians apparently then never gave up, gave up farming—at least growing corn completely—like the ones that went out West did?

Picotte: No, no, no. And not only that, they took advantage of all the wild fruit that grew on our river bottom here, you know? They was... there was wild plums and wild cherries and wild buffalo berries and, and other plants that they could use. Wild onions, they’d take those and, and dry ‘em. Then they’d go out on the prairies and dig up these wild turnips—wild Indian turnips—and they would peel those things and make a braid out of ’em. They’d braid maybe forty or fifty of ‘em, and hang ’em over a pole and they’d dry. In the winter months, they’d take that, they’d take that, this corn. They’d pound that all up. They’d take the cherries and they’d pound them up in patties— about like that—and, and dry 'em. And they would mix that together and mix a, a buffalo tallow with that, and, and they had something that was just out of this world. Healthy.

Cash: Have you ever eaten it?

Picotte: Oh, yes. A lot of it. A lot of it.

Cash: Did they have any salt or anything like that?

Picotte: No. No salt, no sugar, no flour. And in 1859 when they were first moved here at Greenwood under Major Redfield or Redpath, why they issued the Indians some commodities, and among other things in those commodities was flour. And they taught the Indians how to use that. And they’d just cook their bread right on top of the stove, you know?

Cash: Fried bread?

Picotte: Yeah, and, and then they, they issued 'em some salt pork. And you know what the Indians done with that?

Cash: No?

Picotte: They throwed it in the river.

Cash: (LAUGHING) They didn’t know what to do with it, huh?

Picotte: They didn’t want it! There was no such thing as a hog in the world among the Indian people.

Source: Oral history courtesy of Institute of American Indian Studies, South Dakota Oral History Center, University of South Dakota.