"History and Stories of Nebraska"
by Addison Erwin Sheldon

Produced by Connie Snyder


BLACKBIRD
(Wazhinga-sah-ba)


The first Nebraska Indian whose name we know is Blackbird. He was head chief of the Omaha tribe and lived more than one hundred years ago in the Omaha country, which then extended on both sides of the Missouri River from Bow River in Cedar County to Papillion Creek in Sarpy County.

Blackbird died about the year 1800, before there were any white settlements in Nebraska. He left behind him a fame so fierce and cruel among the Indians that it endures to this day. During Blackbird's life Nebraska belonged to France and Spain and French and Spanish traders came up the river to deal with the Indians for furs. Blackbird was one of the first Indian chiefs on the Missouri to do business with the white traders. He was very shrewd in his dealing. When a trader came to his village he had him bring all his goods into the chief's lodge and spread them out. Blackbird then selected the things he wished,-- blankets, tobacco, whisky, powder, bullets, beads and red paint,-- and laid them to one side, not offering any pay for them. Then, calling his herald, he ordered him to climb to the top of the lodge and summon all the tribe to bring in their furs and trade with the white man. In a few minutes the lodge would be crowded with Indians bearing beaver, buffalo, otter and other skins. No one was allowed to dispute the prices fixed by the white trader, who was careful to put them high enough to pay five times over for all the goods taken by the chief.

Thus Blackbird and the traders grew rich together, but his people grew poor and began to complain. A wicked trader noticed this and gave Blackbird a secret by which he could maintain his power. He taught him the use of arsenic and gave him a large supply of that deadly poison. After that the terror of Blackbird and his mysterious power grew in the tribe. He became a prophet as well as a chief. When anyone opposed him Blackbird foretold his death within a certain time and within that time a sudden and violent disease carried the victim off in great agony. Before long all his rivals disappeared and the people. agreed to everything Blackbird wished.

Blackbird was also a great warrior. When a boy he was captured by the Sioux, but escaped and fought them afterward until they feared his name. He led his warriors against the Pawnees and burned one of their large towns. He took scalps from the Otoes and from the Kanzas tribes. To his ability as a fighter he added the mysterious art of "making medicine" which would overcome his enemies. Once when following the trail of a hostile war party across the prairies he fired his rifle often into the hoofprints of their horses, telling his band it would cripple them so that they would be overtaken. He did overtake and kill them all and his tribe looked upon the fact as proof of the wonderful effect of his "medicine."

The Ponca Indians lived at the mouth of the Niobrara River, in what is now Boyd and Knox counties, and were neighbors of the Omahas. The two tribes were related and spoke languages much alike. A party of Ponca young men made a raid on the Omahas and stole a number of horses and women. Blackbird gathered all his fighting men and started to "eat up the Poncas." He drove them into a rude fort made by throwing up a wall of dirt. The Omahas greatly outnumbered the Poncas and were about to kill them all. The Poncas sent a herald carrying a peace pipe. Blackbird shot him down. Another herald was treated in the same way. Then the head chief of the Poncas sent his daughter, a young girl, in her finest Indian suit of white buckskin, with the peace pipe. Blackbird relented, took the pipe from the girl's hand, smoked it and there was peace between the tribes.

The Ponca maiden became the favorite wife of Blackbird. She had great influence over him, but in one of his violent fits of anger he drew a knife and struck her dead. When he knew what he had done his rage ended in violent grief. He covered his head with a buffalo robe and sat down by the dead body, refusing to eat or sleep. He answered no one. The tribe feared that he would starve to death. One of them brought a child and, laying it on the ground, put Blackbird's foot upon its neck. This touched the chief's heart. He threw off his buffalo robe, forgot his deep sorrow and resumed his duties.

At last an enemy came against the Omahas which not even Blackbird with all his medicine and mystery could withstand. This was the smallpox, the white man's disease which the Indians had never known. It came among them like a curse. They could not understand how it traveled from lodge to lodge and from village to village. The fever and the fearful blotches drove them wild. Some of them left their villages and rushed out on the prairies to die alone. Others set fire to their houses and killed their wives and children. Two thirds of the Omaha tribe perished and it never after recovered its old strength and power.

Blackbird, the great chief, was finally stricken. His friends gathered about his dying bed to hear his last word. He ordered them to bury him on the top of the great hill which rose several hundred feet above the Missouri and from which one could see up and down the river for thirty miles. Here the Indians watched for the coming of the white traders, and the latter as they toiled against the current saw its summit with joy, for they knew great springs of cold water gushed from the sandstone rock at the foot of the hill and there were rest and food and friendship for the white man in the lodges of the Omaha village. On the top of this hill Blackbird desired to be buried, seated on his favorite horse so that his spirit might overlook the entire Omaha country and first see the boats of the white men as they came up the river.


Blackbird Hill.
(From Thwaites's "Early Western Travels." Arthur H. Clark Co., Cleveland, Ohio.)

The dying chief's command was carried out. The horse was led to the summit of the hill with the dead chief firmly fastened upon his back. Then the sod and dirt were piled about them in a great mound until both were buried from sight. A pole was set in the mound and upon it were hung scalps Blackbird had taken in battle. From time to time food for the spirit of the dead was placed upon the mound by the few Omahas who survived the smallpox scourge of 1800.

When Lewis and Clark came up the river in 1804 the mound and pole were yet there. All the other early writers mention the mound. It was the great landmark of the Nebraska shore. In 1832 George Catlin, the painter and traveler who spent years among the western Indians painting their pictures and learning their life, came down the Missouri and climbed up on Blackbird Hill. There was a gopher hole in the side of the mound. He dug into it and a skull dropped down. He quickly wrapped it in a blanket and carried it to Washington where it was placed in the Smithsonian Museum.

These are some of the stories told about Blackbird by the old Indians and early white men told around the campfires in the long cold winter nights or in the circle of story tellers which sits on hot July days beneath the shade of a great tree in the Omaha country. Stories told in this way are often changed in the telling. We cannot say how far they are changed, but whether much or little, they are all we are ever likely to know of the life of the first noted Nebraska Indian.


Pictured Rocks near Blackbird Hill.
(From photograph by A. E. Sheldon.)

Blackbird Hill stands close by the side of the great river to-day as it did a hundred years ago. Great springs gush from the sandstone cliffs at its base. Upon the walls of these cliffs are deeply cut pictures of wild animals and strange Indian signs mingled with the names of early explorers. The mound seen by Lewis and Clark has long since gone. The spirit of Blackbird looks in vain to-day for the boats of the fur traders beating up the river. But the living eye sees from the summit a most wonderful Nebraska landscape, thirty miles of river shining in sunlight; the whole range of lesser Blackbird hills buried in a beauty of grass and flowers and foliage; great fields of grain; the homes of a hundred Omahas living in the land of their forefathers in white men's houses, and far below in the valley a thin thread of smoke where, faster than elk or buffalo, dashes the Omaha evening mail headed for the city of the Sioux.


QUESTIONS

  1. Was Blackbird a good chief? Why?
  2. Why was the smallpox more deadly to the Indians than to white men?
  3. Do you think the Omaha Indians obeyed Blackbird's dying request?
  4. Which would you prefer, the landscape Blackbird saw or the one now seen from Blackbird Hill? Why?



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