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A short story by Charles M. Skinner

The Death Of Umatilla

Title:     The Death Of Umatilla
Author: Charles M. Skinner [More Titles by Skinner]

Umatilla, chief of the Indians at the Cascades of the Columbia, was one of the few red men of his time who favored peace with the white settlers and lent no countenance to the fierce revels of the "potlatch." In these "feasts of gifts" the savages, believing themselves to be "possessed by the spirit," lashed themselves into a frenzy that on several occasions was only quieted by the shedding of blood. Black Eagle's Feather--or Benjamin, as he was called by the settlers--was the only one of the children of the old chief who survived a summer of plague, and on this boy Umatilla had put all his hopes and affections.

The lad had formed a great trust in his white teacher, a college-bred man from the East, who had built a little school-house beside the Columbia and was teaching the Indian idea how to shoot something beside white people. This boy and his teacher had hunted together; they had journeyed in the same canoe; had tramped over the same trail to the great falls of the Missouri; and at the Giant Spring had seen the Piegans cast in their gifts, in the belief that the manitou of the place would deliver them in the hereafter to the sun-god, whom they worshipped. One day Benjamin fell ill, and the schoolmaster saw that he, too, was to die of the plague. Old Umatilla received the news with Indian stoicism, but he went into the forest to be alone for a time.

When he returned day was breaking and a flock of wild-geese trumpeted overhead. The boy heard them, and said, "Boston tilicum" (white man), "does the Great Father tell the geese where to go?"


"Then he will tell me, too?"


"We shall never go back to the Missouri together. My father--"

"We will watch over him."

"That is well." And, in a few hours, he had intrusted the guidance of his soul through the world of shadows to the white man's unseen father.

Umatilla sat beside the body through the night, and in the morning he called his people together. He told them that he was prepared to follow his boy out of the world, but that first he wanted to have their promise that they would no longer war on the whites, but look to them for friendship and guidance. There was some murmuring at this, for the ruder fellows were already plotting a descent on the settlers, but Umatilla had given them great store of goods at the last potlatch, and they reluctantly consented. The venerable chief ordered them to make a grave for Benjamin like the white man's, and, when it had been dug, four warriors laid the body of his son within it. Then, standing at the brink, the chief said, "My heart is growing cold, for it is in the grave there with my son. When I take three steps to the side of him, I, too, shall die. Be good to the white men, as you have said, and bury us both together. Great Spirit, I come." And, sinking to the ground, the old man's life ebbed in a breath. They buried him and his son in a single grave, and next day they went to the teacher and asked him to lead and instruct them. And with that year ended all trouble between red and white men along the Columbia.

[The end]
Charles M. Skinner's short story: Death Of Umatilla