Wasaki: the leader who embraced the inevitable change

Shoshone cross the river. Alfred Jacob Miller (Walters Museum of Art)

“My red-skinned brother Winnetou, the leader of the Apaches, and I were returning from guests at the Shoshone. Our friends escorted us to the Bighorn River, where the land of the Upsaroks, the Raven Indians began, and with them the Shoshone were on the warpath. We then continued our journey all the way east to the Bighorn Mountains and on to the Black Hills. “
Karl May. Deserts and prairies

Indian Wars. It has always been and always will be that the clash of two different civilizations gives rise to a conflict that is primarily associated with culture shock. Here, for example, how do you like such a funny incident, which one of my acquaintances told me about, who works in India. She once went to work on a pedicab. And then there was a traffic jam, everyone got up, and the worst thing is that an elephant stopped next to them. And … he immediately began to relieve himself. And it began to flop out of it onto the pavement, and the pedicab driver took out a plywood (he was experienced) and began to cover the “mistress” with her help from splashes, but … all the same, it got on her. Well, there was a lot more …

Indians Threatening to Attack Fur Traders’ Boats (Walters Museum of Art)


Now let’s take the United States of the era of the exploration of the Wild West. On the one hand, the Indians, until 1500, were engaged in walking, that is, very difficult and unsuccessful, hunting for bison. And there were relatively few of them. But by 1700 they mastered the art of horseback riding, got metal dishes from white, and already in 1800 it was a completely different world, where people had meat in abundance and … their explosive reproduction began. Now the Great Plains have become the habitat of many tribes, which it was the white man’s horse that helped to master them.

Chief Washaki (US National Archives)


But the time came, and a stream of immigrants from Europe poured into America. They paid for the move, they paid for the land, they worked hard in factories, fought in the army of the northerners and finally they, yesterday’s peasants from France, Italy, Ireland, Poland, Greece, received land there under the Homestead law. But some “indiences”, naked dirty savages interfered with them. They burned their farms, they prevented them from mining their gold veins, they scalped them. The concept of tolerance was completely absent at that time. The savage was a savage, that he was a man, no one even dreamed. So it is not surprising that a whole series of “Indian wars” swept across the Wild West, bloody and merciless, but natural and inevitable at that distant time. The Indians considered themselves the masters of their land and did not want to change their habitual way of life to “white civilization”, and they were in their own right, but people began to understand this only very recently, and in those years the white man’s right dominated the rights of everyone else. However, even at that time there were smart people among the Indians who understood that they would have to change, and for this, first of all, one should stop feuding with the pale-faced. And one of them was the leader of the Shoshone tribe – Washaki.

Eastern Shoshone loafers, circa 1900 (Museum of Man, San Diego, California)

Shoshone Moccasins 1860-1880 (Bath Shoe Museum in Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

Shoshone Moccasins 1895 (Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Ontario, Canada)


First of all, about the Shoshone themselves. They called themselves nyms or nyws, that is, “people”, spoke the language of the Uto-Aztec language family, but did not live in Mexico at all, but in the Great Basin region – a mountainous region where the states of Oregon, Idaho, western Utah are located , most of Nevada and California. It is here that the Great Salt Lake is located, the shores of which have become a refuge for Mormons. Shoshone are not homogeneous in their culture, but are divided into northern, western and eastern. The eastern ones were the most developed. Their culture was of a transitional nature, from the specific culture of the Great Basin to the culture of the Indians of the Great Plains. The Eastern Shoshone tribes were quite warlike. In any case, they had two military alliances. The first was called “Yellow Tops”. It included young warriors who were the first to attack the enemy, and the second: “Logs”, which included experienced warriors like the Roman Triarii.

Shoshone Pottery, Late 19th Century (Cleveland Museum of Art)


So Vasaki (c. 1804-1900) was the supreme leader of the Eastern Shoshone. His father was from the Bannock tribe, and his mother was a Shoshone from the vicinity of the Wind River. He spent his childhood among the Flathead Indians who roamed the lands of the modern state of Montana, and only after the death of his father he returned to the Shoshone with his mother. Apparently, trying to earn the respect of his fellow tribesmen, who, due to his origin, most likely looked down on him a little, constantly participated in battles against the Crow and the Blackfeet, and acquired a reputation as a brave warrior, as evidenced by the scar from the arrow on his face.

Northern Shoshone Men’s Leggings (National Museum of the American Indian, Washington)

Northern Shoshone parflesh belonged to To-Mo (“Cloudy”) (National Museum of the American Indian, Washington)


His past was forgotten, and in the late 1840s Vashaka became the supreme leader of the Eastern Shoshone. That he was bold is obvious. But he had the wisdom to keep his tribe from participating in the uprising of the rest of the Shoshone, who in 1863, under the leadership of the leaders of Pocatello and the Bear Hunter, opposed the Whites and suffered serious damage as a result. On the contrary, he tried to be friends with whites, especially army officers, and this friendship came in handy when in 1865 the Shoshone were attacked by their primordial enemies, the Sioux Dakota.

Tomahawk of the White Swan from the Crow tribe. He lived in 1851-1904. Montana, 1890 (National Museum of the American Indian, New York)


Life for the Indians was difficult, and most importantly, they constantly had to fight for areas convenient for hunting and grazing horses, and a lot of men died in these skirmishes. So, somewhere in 1856, a fierce battle between the Washaki tribe and a large group of Crow Indians occurred precisely as a result of rivalry over hunting grounds. Interestingly, this event was witnessed by a white boy named Elijah Wilson, who, by coincidence, lived for two years in the family of the leader Washaki. In this battle, he said, more than 50 Shoshone warriors and 100 Crow were killed.

The shirt of an Indian named Spotted Tail. Dakota tribe, 1823-1881 (National Museum of the American Indian, New York)


Another clash took place in March 1866, when the Crow Indians, led by the leader Big Shadow, settled along the Vetra River, and the Wasaki tribe was also nearby. Upon learning that the Crow was near, he sent to them for negotiations, sent his wife and a warrior, who told the chief of the Crow that he was glad to see them, but offered to hunt further east, since they were on the Wind River, which belonged to the Shoshone.

But the leader of the Crow considered (everything is just like in the story of Bernard Schultz “The Lonely Buffalo Mistake”) that the Crow are brave warriors (and, most importantly, there are many of them!), And the Shoshone are “cowards and dogs.” Therefore, he ordered the killing of the warrior-envoy, and with his wife Vasaki told him that they were ready to fight.

Drawing of an Indian named Rain on the Face. Hunkpapa Dakota, approx. 1835-1905 (National Museum of the American Indian, New York)


The Shoshone were indeed outnumbered by the Crow, so Washaki sent a messenger to the Bannocks, the Shoshone allies, whose camp was several miles south. The Bannocks allied with the Shoshone, attacked the Crow camp and laid siege to them on the hill. The siege lasted five days, but neither the attackers nor the defenders managed to gain an advantage.

Arrows of the Indians of the Great Basin. California, 1911-1915 (National Museum of the American Indian, New York)


The forces of the Crow were running out, and the Big Shadow decided to challenge the leader of Wasaki to a duel in order to solve the matter by single combat. At the same time, they agreed that the valley of the Wind River belongs to the winner, but if he loses the battle, then the Crow get the right to leave in peace.

Jute shirt, circa 1870-1880 (National Museum of the American Indian, New York)


The distance between the tribes was chosen such that no one could either help or place them. And then everything happened as it was shown in the movie “Winnetu – the leader of the Apaches”, where Winnetou had to also fight with the Comanche leader Big Bear. Each leader mounted his favorite horse, armed himself with spears and shields made of leather from the neck of a buffalo bull, and rushed at each other, while the Crow and Shoshone watched them in silence.

This is how they sorted out the relationship … Still from the movie “Sons of the Big Dipper”


In the clouds of dust, it was difficult to see who was winning, but then everyone saw Washaki returning to his tribe and the Crow leader sprawled on the ground. Moreover, Vasaki was so delighted with the courage of his defeated opponent that he did not remove the scalp from him, but cut out his heart and brought it to his camp, planting it on a spear! And then, after the girls-shoshone danced the dance of scalps, he … ate it to “take” his courage in this way. Well, one of the captured Crowe women became his wife. Such were the customs of the Indians of the Great Basin and Prairies at that time!

To be continued…

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