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Chapter IX How We Took Care of Our Bodies

LIVING as we did under the great blue of heaven, where nothing interfered with the caress of the sun nor kept the pure breath of the Four Ways from our bare skins, there was little sickness among us.

Dyspepsia, for example, was unknown. For our articles of food were limited in number and prepared in the simplest way. At times we, as individuals, fasted from choice, or we all went hungry from compulsion. Occasionally, we ate to repletion, but always at what might be termed our regular meals we were sparing eaters. The less the variety, the smaller the appetite.

We did not suffer from colds. In winter time we thought it fun to run barefooted through the snow, to tumble naked into the soft drifts, and to plunge into icy water. On the approach of cold weather we rubbed a little bear oil on our bodies to keep the dampness out, and in winter time we mixed paint with the oil in the belief that it not only gave added protection against the cold, but that the colours enhanced our appearance as well.

Our men were proud of their strong, well-proportioned bodies and they used to believe that white men wore clothes because they were ashamed of their weak bodies and small legs. They suffered in comparison with our race of natural athletes whose untrammelled life made them unequalled in fleetness of foot and in power of endurance.

Once a party of our young warriors were chased on horseback by a squad of soldiers and almost overtaken, when they jumped to their feet and outran the cavalry horses. In the flight the soles of their moccasins became slick from the prairie grass, so they kicked them off and in their bare feet escaped.

One thing which aided in keeping our men healthy, was the frequent use of the vapour bath. This was taken in a tepee pitched for the purpose. It was called the sweat-tepee and differed from the ordinary lodge in having no outlet at the top. Instead the poles were bent over and intertwined, and the rawhide was stretched tightly over them and fastened down securely.

Just outside the owner dug a shallow, crescent-shaped trench to hold the fire for the heating of the stones necessary to the bath.

Always he invited several friends to join him, and when the guests were seated in a circle inside the lodge, he brought in the hot stones and put them on the ground in the centre of the circle. He used sticks for tongs in carrying them, and before making the actual transfer he went through the process in pantomime four times, in recognition of the four quarters of the earth—The Four Ways. When he had fastened down the flap of the lodge, he poured water on the stones.

In the big steam that filled the tepee the men stayed until they perspired freely. Then they went to the stream for a cool plunge. Religious ceremonies frequently accompanied this custom, which insured more than cleanliness. Often it meant considerably more. For, when the young men, off the war-trail or the hunt, were idle, this vapour bath got rid of a surplus energy dangerous to self-control.

The hair and the scalp of every man, woman and child received special care that kept the scalp healthy and the hair glossy. We used a hair-wash made from a root dug from the prairie, and frequently we rubbed our scalps with black river-mud, and plastered our hair down with it. Then we wound a piece of cloth or deerskin about our heads. A day or two later we rubbed and combed out the dried mud. For combs we had spears of joint-grass tied in little bundles.

Our women rarely knew other than perfect health, for their duties kept them out in the pure air and sunshine the greater part of the time. So, when motherhood came to them they did not experience long, cruel suffering. It was not an uncommon thing, when we were on the march, for a woman to drop out alone, and on the second day ride up in line with her newborn baby in her arms.

We needed little medicine, but what we did need was gathered from forest and prairie or dug from the earth.

Once in my childhood I ate some poison berries.

They made me burn as though on fire and caused me to break out in a red rash. A medicine man took me into his tepee and bled me. He scratched me all over from head to foot with the teeth of a garfish, after which he smeared my body with the juice of an herb. Then he buried me up to the chin in black mud. He finished his treatment by dancing around me, shaking his gourd rattle and singing his Medicine Song to chase away the evil spirits. I soon fell asleep and when I awoke the fever was gone. Remained only the discomfort of the scratches with which my body was covered.

The medicine man had a sure antidote for snake bite. They gave it internally, just before applying to the wound the still warm flesh of a freshly killed prairie dog. Sometimes, instead, they used a plaster of blue mud.

We drank from mud holes full of disease germs, we ate putrid meat, we were drenched by rains, burnt by summer suns and bitten by winter frosts, but a healthier people would be hard to find.

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