Our Ancestors’ Tales: Rude and Fierce

Mahto Tatonka

For the month of November I’m writing a blog a day in celebration of Native American Heritage Month.

So, in keeping with the sense of heritage, I’m sharing stories about my ancestors, including Henri Chatillon, who served as Francis Parkman’s guide on the Oregon Trail in the 1800s.

I am a direct descendant, and I know more about Chatillon than I do about my grandmother, who didn’t share much about her life on the reservation in Oklahoma.

But much is written of my forebear Chatillon, thanks to Parkman’s book (The Oregon Trail) which has sold—literally—millions of copies.

Parkman writes about how smart, courtly and gracious was Chatillon, a French trapper from St. Louis who was as comfortable with the settlers as he was with the native denizens.

Chatillon’s wife was Bear Robe (or, Woman who Wears Robe of Bear) the daughter of Oglala leader Bull Bear (Mahto Tatonka). Parkman’s description of Bull Bear is far from complimentary:

“He was the father of Henry Chatillon’s squaw, a circumstance which proved of some advantage to us, as securing for us the friendship of a family perhaps the most distinguished and powerful in the whole Ogallalla band. Mahto-Tatonka, in his rude way, was a hero. No chief could vie with him in warlike renown, or in power over his people.”

Parkman writes that Bull Bear’s word was law: “He had a fearless spirit, and a most impetuous and inflexible resolution. His will was law. He was politic and sagacious, and with true Indian craft he always befriended the whites, well knowing that he might thus reap great advantages for himself and his adherents. “

And while Bull Bear made the pretext of listening to advice, he was intent about following his own path: “When he had resolved on any course of conduct, he would pay to the warriors the empty compliment of calling them together to deliberate upon it, and when their debates were over, he would quietly state his own opinion, which no one ever disputed. The consequences of thwarting his imperious will were too formidable to be encountered. Woe to those who incurred his displeasure! He would strike them or stab them on the spot.”

Interesting to read about my ancestors: one beloved and admired by so many for his bravery and hunting skills, and the other: rude, opinionated, fierce—and also admired.

I like to think I inherited the best qualities from my French and Oglala frontiersmen.

[Day six of Native American Heritage Month. I pledge one blog per day.]

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About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. She is enrolled with the Osage tribe.
This entry was posted in ethics, Henri Chatillion, Indian, Lakota, science and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Our Ancestors’ Tales: Rude and Fierce

  1. Russ L says:

    Isn’t family history great?!

    Like

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