Redbird, Nebraska seemed like a ghost town. The few families living there were near the small general store run by the Wrede family. There were dozens of empty houses scattered about the area. The house I rented from Mr. Wrede cost me one dollar a week. A cot, a small table and two chairs were the only furniture in the small three room house. There was no running water or electricity, but there was a well in back of the house, and a kerosene light for illumination. A small, wood-burning, cast iron stove was for heat or cooking. Outdoors there was an abundance of branches and wood for the stove. I was supplied with a frying pan, a large and small enamel pot, a few plates, spoons and forks, Mornings, I made coffee, fried eggs or made some oatmeal for breakfast. On my way to the “dig” I would stop at the general store, where for twenty cents, Mrs. Wrede supplied me a sandwich and a thermos of coffee. Some evenings, for fifty cents, I would have supper with the Wrede family. Other nights I would cook my own supper. Eggs were ten cents a dozen, and a chicken was a quarter,
Redbird was within walking distance of the prehistoric Ponca village being excavated for the University of Nebraska and the Smithsonian. The archeological site ran along the south shore of the Niobrara River. North of the Redbird, across the Niobrara River, was Lynch, Nebraska. The Niobrara Indian Reservation was on the north side of the river, a few miles east of Lynch.. Alexis Praus and I were the supervisors in charge of the archeological excavation. The ten workers, eight unemployed farm hands and two Indians from the reservation, were paid by the WPA. They were happy to have work since there was a depression and unemployment was rampant throughout the country.
One of the Indians, White Shirt, on some weekends, invited me to visit him and his family, on the Indian reservation. I looked forward to those visits, and I would drive there in the expedition’s Model A Ford. Living conditions for the Ponca Indians were pathetic. There were very few, or no jobs available, and many lived frugally on the doles that the government meted out. Alcoholism was rampant. The noble savage depicted in literature and movies, had been almost exterminated, and the survivors were demeaned and exploited. Initially, I was not well accepted in the Indian community. In time, I convinced some of them, that we were trying to save some of their artifacts and past history. Their ancient cities and culture was being obliterated by farmers plows, except in small areas where this was mutilation and destruction was halted, and archeologists are carefully excavating, recording, and preserving their past history. Without this effort, the evidence of the pre-historic Ponca village would be buried and destroyed under farmland. The unusual ancient Ponca village, with circular homes, some being sixty feet in diameter, stretched for almost two miles along the south banks of the Niobrara River. They finally accepted me and adopted me into the tribe. Turtle Foot was the name they gave me, explaining it was an honorable name of one who carries a great burden. They viewed my effort to save their ancient history as a difficult and burdensome task.
On the reservation, they taught me to ride bareback. While most present day Indian horsemen used saddles, a few rode bareback. They claimed that when riding without a saddle, the rider becomes one with the horse. Some had trained horses that were ridden without reins, a touch of a hand or the pressure of a knee would be used to direct and control the horse. Bird Head, my Ponca grandfather, said that they hunted buffalo, riding bareback while shooting their bows and arrows. While I learned to ride without a saddle, I never learned to fully control the horse without holding on to the reins.
Eating with White Shirt’s family was an experience. Food was expensive and the provisions doled out was often insufficient or unpalatable. They did not farm, and the days when game was abundant had disappeared. They were no dairy products available, and a variety of meat came from animals, birds and reptiles. Jack rabbits were the only game around, and they were hunted. One Sunday morning, he invited to go on a rabbit hunt. Weeks earlier, I purchased a rifle from Brown Elk, one of White Shirt’s neighbors. It was a 22 caliber Stevens automatic rifle. Brown Elk’s rheumy eyes had difficulty focusing on me, his alcohol breathe emphasized his urgency to obtain money to buy more liquor. He sold it to me for two dollars. White Shirt had an old single shot, twenty-two caliber, Mossberg rifle.
We walked along the furrows of abandoned farms looking for rabbits. Though not farmed, some overlooked or dropped seed had re-seeded themselves, along with the intrusion of native plants. Here and there were stalks of corn and wheat amongst stands of prairie and buffalo grass. Occasional toads and lizards scurried from underfoot, and once the buzzing of a prairie rattler warned us not to step on him. Then, White Shirt froze and stared in one direction. His eyes were fixed, pointing to a jack rabbit sitting erect and watching us. The rabbit seemed frozen like a statue until I raised my rifle to shoot. With long, zig zag leaps, he disappeared safely into the distance, while my automatic rifle spit fourteen wasted and ineffective bullets after the rabbit.
White Shirt merely pointed to his chest, indicating he would shoot next. A few minutes later he spotted and pointed to an alert, erect rabbit. Slowly he raised his rifle and fired. With erratic leaps the rabbit raced away. “You missed!” I taunted..
“No! Too easy a target. I shoot through his ear to make him run,” White Shirt smiled as he loaded his single-shot rifle, aimed, fired, and killed the running rabbit I ran to examine the animal. A hole was through his ear, and a clean head shot killed him. “Head shots don’t waste meat,” White Shirt emphasized.
That morning, he killed six rabbits with head shots. I missed six but managed to kill one, with my automatic rifle. Two of my bullets hit and killed the rabbit. One bullet smashed the rib cage and lungs, and the other splattered the entrails. Only the rabbit’s haunches and front shoulders were salvageable. My ego was also not salvageable.