IV: College Life In The West
COLLEGE LIFE IN THE WEST
The journey to Beloit College was an education in itself. At Yankton City I boarded the train for the first time in my life, but not before having made a careful inspection of the locomotive that fiery monster which had so startled me on my way home from Canada. Every hour brought new discoveries and new thoughts visions that came and passed like the telegraph poles as we sped by. More and more we seemed to me to be moving upon regions too small for the inhabitants. Towns and villages grew ever larger and nearer together, until at last we reached a city of some little size where it was necessary for me to change cars, a matter that had been arranged by Dr. Riggs with the conductor. The streets looked crowded and everybody seemed to be in the greatest possible hurry. I was struck with the splendor of the shops and the brilliant show windows. Some one took me to an eating house and left me alone with the pretty waitress, whose bright eyes and fluent speech alarmed me. I thought it best to agree with everything she said, so I assented with a nod of the head, and I fancy she brought me everything that was on the bill of fare !
When I reached Beloit on the second day of my pilgrimage, I found it beautifully located on the high, wooded banks of Black Hawk’s picturesque Rock River. The college grounds covered the site of an ancient village of mound-builders, which showed to great advantage on the neat campus, where the green grass was evenly cut with lawnmowers. I was taken to President Chapin’s house, and after a kindly greeting, shown to my room in South College, where I immediately opened all the windows. A young man emerged from our building and I could distinctly hear him shouting to another across the Common :
“Hurry up, Turkey, or you’ll not have the chance to face old Petty again ! We have Sitting Bull’s nephew right here, and it’s more than likely he’ll have your scalplock before morning!”
“Turkey,” as I soon learned, was the son of a missionary to that country, and both of these boys became good friends of mine afterward.
It must be remembered that this was September, 1876, less than three months after Ouster’s gallant command was annihilated by the hostile Sioux. I was especially troubled when I learned that my two uncles whom we left in Canada had taken part in this famous fight. People were bitter against the Sioux in those days, and I think it was a local paper that printed the story that I was a nephew of Sitting Bull, who had sent me there to study the white man’s arts so that he might be better able to cope with him. When I went into the town, I was followed on the streets by gangs of little white savages, giving imitation war whoops.
My first recitation at Beloit was an event in my life. I was brought before a remarkable looking man whose name was Professor Pettibone. He had a long, grave face, with long whiskers and scarcely any hair on his head, and was to me the very embodiment of wisdom. I was already well drilled in the elementary studies, except that I was very diffident about speaking the English language, and found it hard to recite or to demonstrate mathematical problems. However, I made every effort and soon learned to speak quite fluently, although not correctly ; but that fact did not discourage me.
I was now a stranger in a strange country, and deep in a strange life from which I could not retreat. I was like a deaf man with eyes continually on the alert for the expression of faces, and to find them in general friendly toward me was somewhat reassuring. In spite of some nerve-trying moments, I soon recovered my balance and set to work. I absorbed knowledge through every pore. The more I got, the larger my capacity grew, and my appetite increased in proportion. I discovered that my anticipations of this new life were nearly all wrong, and was suddenly confronted with problems entirely foreign to my experience. If I had been told to swim across a lake, or run with a message through an unknown country, I should have had some conception of the task; but the idea of each word as having an office and a place and a specific name, and standing in relation to other words like the bricks in a wall, was almost beyond my grasp. As for history and geography, to me they were legends and traditions, and I soon learned to appreciate the pure logic of mathematics. A recent letter from a Beloit schoolmate says, “You were the only boy who could beat me in algebra !”
At Beloit I spent three years of student life. While in some kinds of knowledge I was the infant of the college, in athletics I did my full share. To keep myself at my best physically, I spent no less than three hours daily in physical exercise, and this habit was kept up throughout my college days.
I found among the students many who were self-supporting, either the sons of poor parents, or self-reliant youth who preferred to earn money for at least a part of their expenses. I soon discovered that these young men were usually among the best students. Since I had no means of my own, and the United States Government had not then formulated the policy of Indian education, I was ready for any kind of work, and on Saturdays I usually sawed wood and did other chores for the professors.
During the first summer vacation I determined to hire out to a farmer. Armed with a letter of introduction from President Chapin, I set out in a southerly direction. As I walked, I recalled the troubles of that great chief of the Sac and Fox tribe, Black Hawk, who had some dispute with President Lincoln about that very region.
At the first farm I came to, I approached the front door with some misgivings. A young lady asked me to wait, and I fancied I read in her clear blue eyes the thoughts that passed through her mind. In ten minutes or so, the farmer came in from the field and entered his home by another door, apparently taking some precautions against a surprise before coming to me where I waited, hungry and tired, on the doorstep.
“Well, young man, what do you want?” quoth he.
I said, “I am a student of Beloit College, but the college is closed for the summer and I am looking for work.”
“Oho! you can not work the New Ulm game on me. I don t think you can reproduce the Fort Dearborn massacre on this farm. By the way, what tribe do you belong to?”
“I am Sioux,” I replied.
“That settles it. Get off from my farm just as quick as you can ! I had a cousin killed by your people only last summer.”
I kept on my way until I found another farmer to whom I made haste to present my letter. For him I worked all summer, and as treaties were kept on both sides, there was no occasion for any trouble.
It was here and now that my eyes were opened intelligently to the greatness of Christian civilization, the ideal civilization, as it unfolded itself before my eyes. I saw it as the development of every natural resource; the broad brotherhood of mankind; the blending of all languages and the gathering of all races under one religious faith. There must be no more warfare within our borders; we must quit the forest trail for the breaking-plow, since pastoral life was the next thing for the Indian. I renounced finally my bow and arrows for the spade and the pen ; I took off my soft moccasins and put on the heavy and clumsy but durable shoes. Every day of my life I put into use every English word that I knew, and for the first time permitted myself to think and act as a white man.
At the end of three years, other Sioux Indians had been sent to Beloit, and I felt that I might progress faster where I was not surrounded by my tribesmen. Dr. Riggs arranged to transfer me to the preparatory department of Knox College, at Galesburg, Illinois, of which he was himself a graduate. Here, again, I was thrown into close contact with the rugged, ambitious sons of western farmers. Among my stanch friends at Knox were S. S. McClure, John S. Phillips of the American Magazine, Edgar A. Bancroft of Chicago, now attorney for the International Harvester Company, Judge Merritt Pinckney of Chicago, Representative Rainey, and other men who have become well known and whose friendship is still retained.
As Knox is a co-educational institution, it was here that I mingled for the first time with the pale-face maidens, and as soon as I could shake off my Indian shyness, I found them very winning and companionable. It was through social intercourse with the American college girl that I gained my first conception of the home life and domestic ideals of the white man. I had thoroughly learned the Indian club and dumb bell exercises at Beloit, and here at Knox I was enabled by teaching them to a class of young ladies to meet a part of my expenses.
Soon I began to lay definite plans for the future. Happily, I had missed the demoralizing influences of reservation life, and had been mainly thrown with the best class of Christian white people. With all the strength of a clean young manhood, I set my heart upon the completion of a liberal education.
The next question to decide was what should be my special work in life. It appeared that in civilization one must have a definite occupation a profession. I wished to share with my people whatever I might attain, and I looked about me for a distinct field of usefulness apart from the ministry, which was the first to be adopted by the educated Sioux.
Gradually my choice narrowed down to law and medicine, for both of which I had a strong taste ; but the latter seemed to me to offer a better opportunity of service to my race ; therefore I determined upon the study of medicine long before I entered upon college studies. “Hitch your wagon to a star,” says the American philosopher, and this was my star!