Class 12 Reading Comprehension Chapter 3 The Indians and the Bluebird

The Indians and the Bluebird

This story took place before the Panama Canal was created, and all ships sailing from Europe to the west coast of America crossed the Atlantic, rounded Cape Horn at the tip of South America, and then proceeded northwards along the coast until they reached their destination. This was a long and hazardous journey and generally took several months to complete.

It was in the year 1860 that I made my first voyage, having joined the crew of the sailing ship Termagant, a large three-masted schooner, bound from London for the port of San Francisco on the west coast of the United States. Owing to a spell of calm weather, the first part of the trip across the Atlantic took much longer than expected, and by the time we had reached the “Roaring Forties”, and rounded “The Horn”, we had run very short of provisions. In some miraculous way, the cook managed, by strict rationing, to make what little food we had last until the ship was within a few days’ sailing distance of Frisco. At this point, however, there was not a scrap of food left in the larder, and in order to obtain something to eat, a few members of the crew landed early each evening on the neighboring coast to shoot the various waterfowl, which were plentiful in that region. I was the youngest of the hands, and had been advised not to wander far from the others on these expeditions, as the native Indian tribes were said to be unfriendly to white people.

One evening, having gone ashore just before sunset, I was attracted by a passing bluebird of remarkable beauty. It flew further inland towards a forest, and I immediately set off in hot pursuit. At last, when near enough to take aim, I shot, and to my intense delight, saw it fall straight to earth. In order to reach the bird, I had to make my way around a marsh on the edge of the wood, but eventually I secured my prize and slung it over my shoulder. As you may well imagine, I was very pleased with myself, for this particular bird was a fine specimen, much bigger than any bird caught previously, and certain to provide a welcome and tasty meal on board the ship.

Soon after, I spotted a flock of birds in the distance, apparently of the same kind as I had shot, and regardless of the consequences, I headed quickly in their direction. When I was near enough to shoot, it was too dark to aim accurately and I only succeeded in startling the birds. They flew quickly towards the forest uttering their weird cries. In my eagerness to obtain another bird, I followed, and fired my last remaining cartridges at them, but with no success.

It was only on giving up the chase that I realized how dark it had become, and that I had traveled a considerable distance from the shore without noticing the direction I had taken. I looked up for guidance from the stars, when, behold! I saw a pair of eyes gazing down at mine.

There, close to me, lying along the branch of a tree, was an Indian. When I moved away I saw others hidden behind bushes or tree trunks and pointing their arrows at me. I at once determined to make a wide curve to avoid these gentry; but wherever I turned, I found my way was cut off unless I went deeper into the forest. On I scrambled, making repeated efforts to turn right or left, but always finding myself faced by an Indian with pointed arrow. In one last desperate attempt, I dashed fully twenty yards but I was pulled up by an arrow, which whished dangerously close and struck a tree directly in my line of flight. I halted abruptly, changed my course and with a few more steps, suddenly came upon an Indian encampment with its wigwams, squaws and campfires.

It became plain to me then, that I was trapped and in power of a tribe of Indians. My pursuers closed around theme and conducted me to the tent of one whom I supposed to be the chief. Several of them mounted guard over me, and the others went into the wigwam chatting eagerly, as I imagined, over my face. Their voices grew louder and louder, until at last, one gave a sharp word of command and silence followed.

The chief, in long feathered headdress, came out and approached me, and I noticed, by the light of the fire, that on the front of his leather tunic there was a fine embroidered design of just such a bird as I carried slung over my shoulder. The design was worked with dyed porcupine quills and various colored threads.

My offense at once dawned on me. I had slain the totem, or the creature specially sacred to this tribe. I searched my memory to recall what fate awaited such an evil-doer. Would they burn me to death, or bury me alive, or chop me to pieces? I looked with horror at the carefully plaited scalp locks which adorned the chief’s war club. Would mine soon be amongst them?

Suddenly a strangely-attired creature, decked in a variety of skins and feathers, appeared and at once took command of the situation. What strange barbaric feast or sacrifice was being prepared, and the part I should be called upon to play in it, I could not guess. Great logs of wood were hurled on the fire till the flames leaped high in the dark night. To add to the general excitement, the drums were beaten and the women set up a dismal wail.

This scene continued for at least half an hour. Then a Foung brave, uttering a wild cry, leaped in my direction, at the same time swinging a heavy club. Truth to tell, I thought my last hour had come. Instead of striking me as I expected, he began to dance around me, making frightful faces and gestures. As he swayed and swept hither and thither, he seemed carried away by a frenzy of wild feeling.

After some moments, this jumping performer was joined by another, and they swept and revolved around me, faces rapt with excitement; but they never touched each their other or me. Another short interval and three more men joined them; then more and more, until I was the center of a bewildering circle of dancers.

The women, meanwhile, were preparing some hot and very intoxicating drink, of which the men took gulps from time to time. The drums continued to boom and thunder with every quickening beat, and the wailing of the women could be heard above the din.

After some considerable time, an idea flashed into my mind. The bluebird, which was still hanging around my shoulder, might be the center of attraction. Was it possible that this fine show was in honor of its death, and was I a mere trifle, a beast of burden carrying a sacred idol? I determined to put my theory to the test. I raised my hands, loosened the string, laid the bird down at my feet, and then, thinking it the best policy to startle the Indians, I leaped high in the air, and to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”, which I sang at the top of my voice, I began to dance a Highland Fling, of which I had a vague remembrance.

The more sober and the less excited of the Indians watched me carefully, but the greater number continued their wild dance. At first I jigged and wheeled about in a small circle, and then by degrees I widened it, the hope of freedom springing in my heart. On and on I danced, getting further and further from the fire and the chief’s tent. Occasionally a fierce glance terrified me, and a club swung in my direction, but I was now quite certain that the bluebird was the reason for this fantastic ceremony.

Ten minutes later, I had danced to the outer edge of the Indians, and was looking about anxiously for an avenue of escape. Selecting a broad footpath, I waited my opportunity, and then dashed off as fast as I could. Soon, I was crashing my way through the dark forest, fearful lest the Redmen would pursue and recapture me.

Fortunately, by the time day had dawned, I had regained the coast, and saw the ship at anchor in the bay. My absence had been noted and it was not long before I fell in with the search party sent to my assistance. Once more, saved despite my rashness, I set sail on the good ship Termagant.

From The Bluebird and the Indians by E.C. Matravers

Interesting Facts about Native Americans

  1. The original natives of North America were known as Red Indians. They are now referred to as Native Americans or American Indians. They roamed about in freedom until the white settlers from Europe arrived and made their homes there. Since the occupation of the land by the “palefaces”, they have lived in special allotted territories called reservations.
  2. The chief hunting tribes were the Apache, Blackfeet, Cherokee, Cree, Iroquois, Mohawk, Navajo and Sioux. The Pawnee and Pueblo tribes were noted for farming and the Hopi tribe was famous for the making of baskets, carpets and pottery.
  3. Native Americans wore leggings and moccasins of antelope skin, and adorned their heads with eagle feathers. In winter, they added a loose mantle of bison skin. The women of the tribe wore long, belted, skin robes and carried their babies strapped to their backs.
  4. The following were the four chief types of dwellings used by the various tribes: 

(a) The wigwam was a tent hung with bark and hides and shaped like a beehive. 

(b) The tepee was a pointed tent made of skins wrapped around a few poles.

(c) The longhouse was a large wooden hut.

(d) The pueblo was a peculiar stone and building of terraced houses with doorways i their flat roofs. Ladders were laid against the walls and these were drawn up when an enemy attacked them.

  1. The Native Americans were skilled hunters and clever trackers. The old warriors taught the young boys, so that, at an early age, they became skilled at archery, and expert at paddling their frail canoes in dangerous streams and rapids. Their food consisted chiefly of deer and buffalo meat, and some tribes grew corn and potatoes. Wampum (ornamental beads made from shells) was widely used as money.
  2. Western culture learned the use of things like moccasins, snowshoes, toboggans, hammocks, tobacco and potatoes from the Native Americans. They did not write their language in letters, but made drawings and painted pictures on the skins of their wigwams.
  3. From early childhood Native Americans were taught to endure pain and suffering without crying, and they seldom showed signs of joy and happiness. They believed magical powers to be present in the sun, moon and stars and the medicine man (witch-doctor) was supposed to be able to control these powers. A powwow is a celebration of the Native Americans in which people from different tribes gather for the purpose of singing and dancing and honoring their ancestors.
  4. The Native Americans had a very strict code of honor and pride amongst themselves, and severely punished anyone who broke the tribal laws. The carved totem poles, with their peculiar designs, were thought to protect them from danger and hunger, and they were held sacred. The calumet or “Pipe of Peace”, smoked and passed around a a token of friendship, was a long pipe adorned with plaited hair and feathers. The “Happy Hunting Ground” of the Native Americans was the paradise in which they expected to live after death.
  5. Long before the Morse code was invented with its dots and dashes, the Native Americans used smoke signals to send messages. They often raided the settlements of the early pioneers and ambushed the covered wagons on the trail. When the Native American tribes were on the warpath, they fought with great cunning. The warriors took their victims’ scalps to display as a sign of their courage and daring in battle. This was known as scalping. Their weapons were the tomahawk, club, flint-knife, and bow and arrow.
  6. Sacagawea was a Native American woman belonging to the Lemhi Shoshone tribe. She accompanied the Lewis and Clark Expedition which aimed at mapping and exploring the western portion of the USA. She acted as the party’s guide and interpreter.

Questions on the Story

  1. Describe the route taken by sailors to get to the west coast of America from Europe before the creation of shortcuts like the Panama Canal.
  2. In what year did the narrator’s first voyage take place?
  3. Name the ship.
  4. For which port was she bound?
  5. Which route was taken by ships in those days?
  6. What caused them to run short of provisions?
  7. How did the crew obtain food? 
  8. What prize did the narrator secure one evening?
  9. What did he do with it?
  10. What caused him to stray towards the forest? 
  11. Who chased and surrounded him?
  12. What did he come upon in the heart of the forest?
  13. What peculiar design had the chief on his leather tunic?
  14. What punishment did the narrator expect to receive?
  15. Describe the scene around the campfire.
  16. What idea flashed suddenly through the narrator’s mind?
  17. What song did he sing?
  18. What dance did he try to do?
  19. When did he reach the coast after his escape?
  20. Who came to his assistance?

Questions on the Interesting Facts

  1. (a) What is the name given to white people by some Native Americans?

(b) What is the name given to the special territories in which Native Americans live?

  1. Name five famous Native American tribes. 
  2. What are the following?

(a) a tepee (b) a longhouse

  1. Name three types of Native American dwellings. 
  2. What was a wampum?
  3. Name some of the things they use of which Native Americans taught to westerners.
  4. (a) Who was the “medicine man”?

(b) What is a powwow?

  1. (a) What was the purpose of the totem pole? 

(b) What was the “Happy Hunting Ground”?

  1. Why did Native American warriors “scalp” their victims? 
  2. Who was Sacagawea?

Development Exercises

  1. (a) Trace the Termagant’s outward voyage on the map.

(b) Trace the usual present-day shipping route between Liverpool and San Francisco.

  1. The Native Americans were the original natives of North America. Who were the original natives of the following?

(a) Australia (b) New Zealand (c) South Africa

  1. The crew ran short of provisions and rationing was introduced. What is the purpose of rationing?
  2. The bluebird appeared to be the special sign of that particular tribe. Of what countries are the following creatures the national emblems?

lion, eagle, bear, kangaroo, beaver, springbok, elephant, rooster, dragon

  1. Complete the following table. No. 1 is done for you:

Father : mother : son

Stepfather : stepmother : _______________

grandmother : grandfather : _______________

aunt : uncle : _______________

king : queen : _______________

  1. Maize is popularly known as “Indian Corn”. What nationa ames are used for a special kind of the following?

_____________ stew ______________ rarebit 

_____________ bun ______________ cakes 

_____________ sausage ______________ toffee 

_____________ delight ______________ butter 

_____________ cheese ______________ onions 

_____________ tart

  1. The Native Americans had different kinds of homes such as the tepee, wigwam, longhouse and pueblo. Who live in the following?

igloo, kraal, dower, tent, caravan, manse, monastery, convent

  1. From the picture words on page 25 can you write the following sentences in the language of the American Indians?

(a) Although it was a stormy morning the man killed a bear in the mountains.

(b) At night, when the weather cleared, they had plenty of food in the Indian camp.

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