Stewart considered it a great honor to be invited to attend an Indian council. In the course of the troop’s stay at the rendezvous in 1837, he evidently had an opportunity to join several such gatherings as an observer and, on one occasion, to even serve as an intermediary between contested interests.
In this drawing, Stewart can be seen on his white horse witnessing the beginnings of a council. No orator has come forward to command attention as yet, but the open ground in the center of the circled group invites the intrusion of such a speaker. The drawing was part of the numbered portfolio that Miller assembled for his patron at the end of their travels.
Peter H. Hassrick
Native Government (Crow Tribe):
Trapper Osborne Russell provided this description of the hierarchy and general government among the Crow Indians: “Their government is a kind of Democracy The Chief who can enumerate the greatest number of valiant exploits is unanimously considered the Supreme ruler All the greatest warriors below him and above a certain grade are Counsillors and take their seats in the council according to their respective ranks. The voice of the lowest rank having but little weight in discussing matters of importance. When a measure is adopted by the council and approved by the head Chief it is immediately put in force by the order of the military commander who is appointed by the Council to serve for an indefinite period A standing Company of soldiers is kept up continually for the purpose of maintaining order in the Village. The Captain can order any young man in the Village to serve as a soldier in turn and the council only can increase or diminish the number of soldiers at pleasure. The greatest Chiefs cannot violate the orders which the Capt. receives from the Council - No office or station is hereditary neither does wealth constitute dignity. The greatest Chief may fall below the meanest citizen for misdemeanor in office and the lowest citizen may rise to the most exalted station by the performance of valiant deeds.”
Mountain man Jim Beckwourth, who resided with the Crow Indians for several years and claimed to have been made a chief of that tribe, indicated that a “grand council” was the gathering of two or more villages or bands of the same tribe to discuss important tribal business. While living with the Crows, Beckwourth recalled the following meeting: “At the assembly of our two villages a grand council was held, wherein certain principles of action were deliberated and adjusted. On the death of a chief all his plans die with him, and it devolves upon his successor to come to an understanding with his confederate head chief. In this deliberation it is determined upon what rules the villages shall move, which direction each shall take, and what shall be the relations existing between them. There is generally a harmony preserved between the chiefs, and much method is shown in the preliminary adjustment of details.”
Reasons for Council:
The treatment of visitors by native tribes, especially “whites” was a common reason for holding a council. In one encounter with a band of Snake Indians, American Fur Company trapper Warren Ferris related: “Relying on their professions of friendship, and unsuspicious of ill faith, we took no precautions against surprise, but allowed them to rove freely through camp, and handle our arms, and in short gave them every advantage that could be desired. The temptation was too much for their easy virtue. Such an opportunity of enriching themselves, though at the cost of the blackest ingratitude, they could not consent to let slip, and therefore held a council on the subject at which it was resolved to enter our camp under the mask of friendship, seize our arms, and butcher us all on the spot.”
Initiating peace and trade were also reasons for tribes to council as described in another passage by Ferris: “Two or three days after their arrival, the whole village, consisting of fifty lodges of Flatheads, Nezperces, and Pend'orielles, came in sight, but unlike all other Indians we have hitherto seen, they advanced to meet us in a slow and orderly manner singing their songs of peace … When the Chief had come up, he grasped the hand of our Partizan, (leader) raised it as high as his head, and held it in that position while he muttered a prayer of two minutes duration. In the same manner he paid his respects to each of our party, with a prayer of a minute's length. His example was followed by the rest, in the order of rank. The whole ceremony occupied about two hours, at the end of which time each of us had shaken hands with them all. Pipes were then produced, and they seated themselves in a circle on the ground, to hold a council with our leaders respecting trade.”
Jim Hardee & Clay Landry
For Further Reading:
Beckwourth, James P., The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth
Ferris, Warren A., Life in the Rocky Mountains
Russell, Osborne, Journal of a Trapper
Verso: Indians assembled in grand Council to hold a “talk.” Verso: pencil drawing of a horse. UL: 50
The artist; Sir William Drummond Stewart, ca. 1839; Frank Nichols; [Chapman’s, Edinburgh, 1871]; Bonamy Mansell Power; willed to Edward Power, 1900; by descent to Major G.H. Power, Great Yarmouth, England; [Parke-Bernet Galleries, 1966]; W.R. Coe Foundation, Oyster Bay, NY; present owner by gift, 1973