THE SOUL OF THE INDIAN
By Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa)
<br /> <br />
TO MY WIFE
ELAINE GOODALE EASTMAN
IN GRATEFUL RECOGNITION OF HER
IN THOUGHT AND WORK
AND IN LOVE OF HER MOST
I DEDICATE THIS BOOK
I speak for each no-tongued tree
That, spring by spring, doth nobler be,
And dumbly and most wistfully
His mighty prayerful arms outspreads,
And his big blessing downward sheds.
But there's a dome of nobler span,
A temple given
Thy faith, that bigots dare not ban—
Its space is heaven!
It's roof star-pictured Nature's ceiling,
Where, trancing the rapt spirit's feeling,
And God Himself to man revealing,
Th' harmonious spheres
Make music, though unheard their pealing
By mortal ears!
God! sing ye meadow streams with gladsome voice!
Ye pine-groves, with your soft and soul-like sounds!
Ye eagles, playmates of the mountain storm!
Ye lightnings, the dread arrows of the clouds!
Ye signs and wonders of the elements,
Utter forth God, and fill the hills with praise!...
Earth, with her thousand voices, praises GOD!
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"We also have a religion which was given to our forefathers, and has been
handed down to us their children. It teaches us to be thankful, to be
united, and to love one another! We never quarrel about religion."
Thus spoke the great Seneca orator, Red Jacket, in his superb reply to
Missionary Cram more than a century ago, and I have often heard the same
thought expressed by my countrymen.
I have attempted to paint the religious life of the typical American
Indian as it was before he knew the white man. I have long wished to do
this, because I cannot find that it has ever been seriously, adequately,
and sincerely done. The religion of the Indian is the last thing about him
that the man of another race will ever understand.
First, the Indian does not speak of these deep matters so long as he
believes in them, and when he has ceased to believe he speaks inaccurately
Second, even if he can be induced to speak, the racial and religious
prejudice of the other stands in the way of his sympathetic comprehension.
Third, practically all existing studies on this subject have been made
during the transition period, when the original beliefs and philosophy of
the native American were already undergoing rapid disintegration.
There are to be found here and there superficial accounts of strange
customs and ceremonies, of which the symbolism or inner meaning was
largely hidden from the observer; and there has been a great deal of
material collected in recent years which is without value because it is
modern and hybrid, inextricably mixed with Biblical legend and Caucasian
philosophy. Some of it has even been invented for commercial purposes.
Give a reservation Indian a present, and he will possibly provide you with
sacred songs, a mythology, and folk-lore to order!
My little book does not pretend to be a scientific treatise. It is as true
as I can make it to my childhood teaching and ancestral ideals, but from
the human, not the ethnological standpoint. I have not cared to pile up
more dry bones, but to clothe them with flesh and blood. So much as has
been written by strangers of our ancient faith and worship treats it
chiefly as matter of curiosity. I should like to emphasize its universal
quality, its personal appeal!
The first missionaries, good men imbued with the narrowness of their age,
branded us as pagans and devil-worshipers, and demanded of us that we
abjure our false gods before bowing the knee at their sacred altar. They
even told us that we were eternally lost, unless we adopted a tangible
symbol and professed a particular form of their hydra-headed faith.
We of the twentieth century know better! We know that all religious
aspiration, all sincere worship, can have but one source and one goal. We
know that the God of the lettered and the unlettered, of the Greek and the
barbarian, is after all the same God; and, like Peter, we perceive that He
is no respecter of persons, but that in every nation he that feareth Him
and worketh righteousness is acceptable to Him.
CHARLES A. EASTMAN (OHIYESA) <br /> <br />
<br /> <br />
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<SPAN href="#link2H_FORE"> FOREWORD </SPAN>
<SPAN href="#link2H_4_0002"> I. THE GREAT MYSTERY </SPAN>
<SPAN href="#link2H_4_0003"> II. THE FAMILY ALTAR </SPAN>
<SPAN href="#link2H_4_0004"> III. CEREMONIAL AND SYMBOLIC WORSHIP </SPAN>
<SPAN href="#link2H_4_0005"> IV. BARBARISM AND THE MORAL CODE </SPAN>
<SPAN href="#link2H_4_0006"> V. THE UNWRITTEN SCRIPTURES </SPAN>
<SPAN href="#link2H_4_0007"> VI. ON THE BORDER-LAND OF SPIRITS </SPAN>
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I. THE GREAT MYSTERY
Solitary Worship. The Savage Philosopher. The Dual Mind.
Spiritual Gifts versus Material Progress. The Paradox of
The original attitude of the American Indian toward the Eternal, the
"Great Mystery" that surrounds and embraces us, was as simple as it was
exalted. To him it was the supreme conception, bringing with it the
fullest measure of joy and satisfaction possible in this life.
The worship of the "Great Mystery" was silent, solitary, free from all
self-seeking. It was silent, because all speech is of necessity feeble and
imperfect; therefore the souls of my ancestors ascended to God in wordless
adoration. It was solitary, because they believed that He is nearer to us
in solitude, and there were no priests authorized to come between a man
and his Maker. None might exhort or confess or in any way meddle with the
religious experience of another. Among us all men were created sons of God
and stood erect, as conscious of their divinity. Our faith might not be
formulated in creeds, nor forced upon any who were unwilling to receive
it; hence there was no preaching, proselyting, nor persecution, neither
were there any scoffers or atheists.
There were no temples or shrines among us save those of nature. Being a
natural man, the Indian was intensely poetical. He would deem it sacrilege
to build a house for Him who may be met face to face in the mysterious,
shadowy aisles of the primeval forest, or on the sunlit bosom of virgin
prairies, upon dizzy spires and pinnacles of naked rock, and yonder in the
jeweled vault of the night sky! He who enrobes Himself in filmy veils of
cloud, there on the rim of the visible world where our Great-Grandfather
Sun kindles his evening camp-fire, He who rides upon the rigorous wind of
the north, or breathes forth His spirit upon aromatic southern airs, whose
war-canoe is launched upon majestic rivers and inland seas—He needs
no lesser cathedral!
That solitary communion with the Unseen which was the highest expression
of our religious life is partly described in the word bambeday, literally
"mysterious feeling," which has been variously translated "fasting" and
"dreaming." It may better be interpreted as "consciousness of the divine."
The first bambeday, or religious retreat, marked an epoch in the life of
the youth, which may be compared to that of confirmation or conversion in
Christian experience. Having first prepared himself by means of the
purifying vapor-bath, and cast off as far as possible all human or fleshly
influences, the young man sought out the noblest height, the most
commanding summit in all the surrounding region. Knowing that God sets no
value upon material things, he took with him no offerings or sacrifices
other than symbolic objects, such as paints and tobacco. Wishing to appear
before Him in all humility, he wore no clothing save his moccasins and
breech-clout. At the solemn hour of sunrise or sunset he took up his
position, overlooking the glories of earth and facing the "Great Mystery,"
and there he remained, naked, erect, silent, and motionless, exposed to
the elements and forces of His arming, for a night and a day to two days
and nights, but rarely longer. Sometimes he would chant a hymn without
words, or offer the ceremonial "filled pipe." In this holy trance or
ecstasy the Indian mystic found his highest happiness and the motive power
of his existence.
When he returned to the camp, he must remain at a distance until he had
again entered the vapor-bath and prepared himself for intercourse with his
fellows. Of the vision or sign vouchsafed to him he did not speak, unless
it had included some commission which must be publicly fulfilled.
Sometimes an old man, standing upon the brink of eternity, might reveal to
a chosen few the oracle of his long-past youth.
The native American has been generally despised by his white conquerors
for his poverty and simplicity. They forget, perhaps, that his religion
forbade the accumulation of wealth and the enjoyment of luxury. To him, as
to other single-minded men in every age and race, from Diogenes to the
brothers of Saint Francis, from the Montanists to the Shakers, the love of
possessions has appeared a snare, and the burdens of a complex society a
source of needless peril and temptation. Furthermore, it was the rule of
his life to share the fruits of his skill and success with his less
fortunate brothers. Thus he kept his spirit free from the clog of pride,
cupidity, or envy, and carried out, as he believed, the divine decree—a
matter profoundly important to him.
It was not, then, wholly from ignorance or improvidence that he failed to
establish permanent towns and to develop a material civilization. To the
untutored sage, the concentration of population was the prolific mother of
all evils, moral no less than physical. He argued that food is good, while
surfeit kills; that love is good, but lust destroys; and not less dreaded
than the pestilence following upon crowded and unsanitary dwellings was
the loss of spiritual power inseparable from too close contact with one's
fellow-men. All who have lived much out of doors know that there is a
magnetic and nervous force that accumulates in solitude and that is
quickly dissipated by life in a crowd; and even his enemies have
recognized the fact that for a certain innate power and self-poise, wholly
independent of circumstances, the American Indian is unsurpassed among
The red man divided mind into two parts,—the spiritual mind and the
physical mind. The first is pure spirit, concerned only with the essence
of things, and it was this he sought to strengthen by spiritual prayer,
during which the body is subdued by fasting and hardship. In this type of
prayer there was no beseeching of favor or help. All matters of personal
or selfish concern, as success in hunting or warfare, relief from
sickness, or the sparing of a beloved life, were definitely relegated to
the plane of the lower or material mind, and all ceremonies, charms, or
incantations designed to secure a benefit or to avert a danger, were
recognized as emanating from the physical self.
The rites of this physical worship, again, were wholly symbolic, and the
Indian no more worshiped the Sun than the Christian adores the Cross. The
Sun and the Earth, by an obvious parable, holding scarcely more of poetic
metaphor than of scientific truth, were in his view the parents of all
organic life. From the Sun, as the universal father, proceeds the
quickening principle in nature, and in the patient and fruitful womb of
our mother, the Earth, are hidden embryos of plants and men. Therefore our
reverence and love for them was really an imaginative extension of our
love for our immediate parents, and with this sentiment of filial piety
was joined a willingness to appeal to them, as to a father, for such good
gifts as we may desire. This is the material or physical prayer.
The elements and majestic forces in nature, Lightning, Wind, Water, Fire,
and Frost, were regarded with awe as spiritual powers, but always
secondary and intermediate in character. We believed that the spirit
pervades all creation and that every creature possesses a soul in some
degree, though not necessarily a soul conscious of itself. The tree, the
waterfall, the grizzly bear, each is an embodied Force, and as such an
object of reverence.
The Indian loved to come into sympathy and spiritual communion with his
brothers of the animal kingdom, whose inarticulate souls had for him
something of the sinless purity that we attribute to the innocent and
irresponsible child. He had faith in their instincts, as in a mysterious
wisdom given from above; and while he humbly accepted the supposedly
voluntary sacrifice of their bodies to preserve his own, he paid homage to
their spirits in prescribed prayers and offerings.
In every religion there is an element of the supernatural, varying with
the influence of pure reason over its devotees. The Indian was a logical
and clear thinker upon matters within the scope of his understanding, but
he had not yet charted the vast field of nature or expressed her wonders
in terms of science. With his limited knowledge of cause and effect, he
saw miracles on every hand,—the miracle of life in seed and egg, the
miracle of death in lightning flash and in the swelling deep! Nothing of
the marvelous could astonish him; as that a beast should speak, or the sun
stand still. The virgin birth would appear scarcely more miraculous than
is the birth of every child that comes into the world, or the miracle of
the loaves and fishes excite more wonder than the harvest that springs
from a single ear of corn.
Who may condemn his superstition? Surely not the devout Catholic, or even
Protestant missionary, who teaches Bible miracles as literal fact! The
logical man must either deny all miracles or none, and our American Indian
myths and hero stories are perhaps, in themselves, quite as credible as
those of the Hebrews of old. If we are of the modern type of mind, that
sees in natural law a majesty and grandeur far more impressive than any
solitary infraction of it could possibly be, let us not forget that, after
all, science has not explained everything. We have still to face the
ultimate miracle,—the origin and principle of life! Here is the
supreme mystery that is the essence of worship, without which there can be
no religion, and in the presence of this mystery our attitude cannot be
very unlike that of the natural philosopher, who beholds with awe the
Divine in all creation.
It is simple truth that the Indian did not, so long as his native
philosophy held sway over his mind, either envy or desire to imitate the
splendid achievements of the white man. In his own thought he rose
superior to them! He scorned them, even as a lofty spirit absorbed in its
stern task rejects the soft beds, the luxurious food, the
pleasure-worshiping dalliance of a rich neighbor. It was clear to him that
virtue and happiness are independent of these things, if not incompatible
There was undoubtedly much in primitive Christianity to appeal to this
man, and Jesus' hard sayings to the rich and about the rich would have
been entirely comprehensible to him. Yet the religion that is preached in
our churches and practiced by our congregations, with its element of
display and self-aggrandizement, its active proselytism, and its open
contempt of all religions but its own, was for a long time extremely
repellent. To his simple mind, the professionalism of the pulpit, the paid
exhorter, the moneyed church, was an unspiritual and unedifying thing, and
it was not until his spirit was broken and his moral and physical
constitution undermined by trade, conquest, and strong drink, that
Christian missionaries obtained any real hold upon him. Strange as it may
seem, it is true that the proud pagan in his secret soul despised the good
men who came to convert and to enlighten him!
Nor were its publicity and its Phariseeism the only elements in the alien
religion that offended the red man. To him, it appeared shocking and
almost incredible that there were among this people who claimed
superiority many irreligious, who did not even pretend to profess the
national faith. Not only did they not profess it, but they stooped so low
as to insult their God with profane and sacrilegious speech! In our own
tongue His name was not spoken aloud, even with utmost reverence, much
less lightly or irreverently.
More than this, even in those white men who professed religion we found
much inconsistency of conduct. They spoke much of spiritual things, while
seeking only the material. They bought and sold everything: time, labor,
personal independence, the love of woman, and even the ministrations of
their holy faith! The lust for money, power, and conquest so
characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon race did not escape moral condemnation
at the hands of his untutored judge, nor did he fail to contrast this
conspicuous trait of the dominant race with the spirit of the meek and
He might in time come to recognize that the drunkards and licentious among
white men, with whom he too frequently came in contact, were condemned by
the white man's religion as well, and must not be held to discredit it.
But it was not so easy to overlook or to excuse national bad faith. When
distinguished emissaries from the Father at Washington, some of them
ministers of the gospel and even bishops, came to the Indian nations, and
pledged to them in solemn treaty the national honor, with prayer and
mention of their God; and when such treaties, so made, were promptly and
shamelessly broken, is it strange that the action should arouse not only
anger, but contempt? The historians of the white race admit that the
Indian was never the first to repudiate his oath.
It is my personal belief, after thirty-five years' experience of it, that
there is no such thing as "Christian civilization." I believe that
Christianity and modern civilization are opposed and irreconcilable, and
that the spirit of Christianity and of our ancient religion is essentially
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II. THE FAMILY ALTAR
Pre-natal Influence. Early Religious Teaching. The
Function of the Aged. Woman, Marriage and the Family.
Loyalty, Hospitality, Friendship.
The American Indian was an individualist in religion as in war. He had
neither a national army nor an organized church. There was no priest to
assume responsibility for another's soul. That is, we believed, the
supreme duty of the parent, who only was permitted to claim in some degree
the priestly office and function, since it is his creative and protecting
power which alone approaches the solemn function of Deity.
The Indian was a religious man from his mother's womb. From the moment of
her recognition of the fact of conception to the end of the second year of
life, which was the ordinary duration of lactation, it was supposed by us
that the mother's spiritual influence counted for most. Her attitude and
secret meditations must be such as to instill into the receptive soul of
the unborn child the love of the "Great Mystery" and a sense of
brotherhood with all creation. Silence and isolation are the rule of life
for the expectant mother. She wanders prayerful in the stillness of great
woods, or on the bosom of the untrodden prairie, and to her poetic mind
the immanent birth of her child prefigures the advent of a master-man—a
hero, or the mother of heroes—a thought conceived in the virgin
breast of primeval nature, and dreamed out in a hush that is only broken
by the sighing of the pine tree or the thrilling orchestra of a distant
And when the day of days in her life dawns—the day in which there is
to be a new life, the miracle of whose making has been intrusted to her,
she seeks no human aid. She has been trained and prepared in body and mind
for this her holiest duty, ever since she can remember. The ordeal is best
met alone, where no curious or pitying eyes embarrass her; where all
nature says to her spirit: "'Tis love! 'tis love! the fulfilling of life!"
When a sacred voice comes to her out of the silence, and a pair of eyes
open upon her in the wilderness, she knows with joy that she has borne
well her part in the great song of creation!
Presently she returns to the camp, carrying the mysterious, the holy, the
dearest bundle! She feels the endearing warmth of it and hears its soft
breathing. It is still a part of herself, since both are nourished by the
same mouthful, and no look of a lover could be sweeter than its deep,
She continues her spiritual teaching, at first silently—a mere
pointing of the index finger to nature; then in whispered songs,
bird-like, at morning and evening. To her and to the child the birds are
real people, who live very close to the "Great Mystery"; the murmuring
trees breathe His presence; the falling waters chant His praise.
If the child should chance to be fretful, the mother raises her hand.
"Hush! hush!" she cautions it tenderly, "the spirits may be disturbed!"
She bids it be still and listen—listen to the silver voice of the
aspen, or the clashing cymbals of the birch; and at night she points to
the heavenly, blazed trail, through nature's galaxy of splendor to
nature's God. Silence, love, reverence,—this is the trinity of first
lessons; and to these she later adds generosity, courage, and chastity.
In the old days, our mothers were single-eyed to the trust imposed upon
them; and as a noted chief of our people was wont to say: "Men may slay
one another, but they can never overcome the woman, for in the quietude of
her lap lies the child! You may destroy him once and again, but he issues
as often from that same gentle lap—a gift of the Great Good to the
race, in which man is only an accomplice!"
This wild mother has not only the experience of her mother and
grandmother, and the accepted rules of her people for a guide, but she
humbly seeks to learn a lesson from ants, bees, spiders, beavers, and
badgers. She studies the family life of the birds, so exquisite in its
emotional intensity and its patient devotion, until she seems to feel the
universal mother-heart beating in her own breast. In due time the child
takes of his own accord the attitude of prayer, and speaks reverently of
the Powers. He thinks that he is a blood brother to all living creatures,
and the storm wind is to him a messenger of the "Great Mystery."
At the age of about eight years, if he is a boy, she turns him over to his
father for more Spartan training. If a girl, she is from this time much
under the guardianship of her grandmother, who is considered the most
dignified protector for the maiden. Indeed, the distinctive work of both
grandparents is that of acquainting the youth with the national traditions
and beliefs. It is reserved for them to repeat the time-hallowed tales
with dignity and authority, so as to lead him into his inheritance in the
stored-up wisdom and experience of the race. The old are dedicated to the
service of the young, as their teachers and advisers, and the young in
turn regard them with love and reverence.
Our old age was in some respects the happiest period of life. Advancing
years brought with them much freedom, not only from the burden of
laborious and dangerous tasks, but from those restrictions of custom and
etiquette which were religiously observed by all others. No one who is at
all acquainted with the Indian in his home can deny that we are a polite
people. As a rule, the warrior who inspired the greatest terror in the
hearts of his enemies was a man of the most exemplary gentleness, and
almost feminine refinement, among his family and friends. A soft, low
voice was considered an excellent thing in man, as well as in woman!
Indeed, the enforced intimacy of tent life would soon become intolerable,
were it not for these instinctive reserves and delicacies, this unfailing
respect for the established place and possessions of every other member of
the family circle, this habitual quiet, order, and decorum.
Our people, though capable of strong and durable feeling, were not
demonstrative in their affection at any time, least of all in the presence
of guests or strangers. Only to the aged, who have journeyed far, and are
in a manner exempt from ordinary rules, are permitted some playful
familiarities with children and grandchildren, some plain speaking, even
to harshness and objurgation, from which the others must rigidly refrain.
In short, the old men and women are privileged to say what they please and
how they please, without contradiction, while the hardships and bodily
infirmities that of necessity fall to their lot are softened so far as may
be by universal consideration and attention.
There was no religious ceremony connected with marriage among us, while on
the other hand the relation between man and woman was regarded as in
itself mysterious and holy. It appears that where marriage is solemnized
by the church and blessed by the priest, it may at the same time be
surrounded with customs and ideas of a frivolous, superficial, and even
prurient character. We believed that two who love should be united in
secret, before the public acknowledgment of their union, and should taste
their apotheosis alone with nature. The betrothal might or might not be
discussed and approved by the parents, but in either case it was customary
for the young pair to disappear into the wilderness, there to pass some
days or weeks in perfect seclusion and dual solitude, afterward returning
to the village as man and wife. An exchange of presents and entertainments
between the two families usually followed, but the nuptial blessing was
given by the High Priest of God, the most reverend and holy Nature.
The family was not only the social unit, but also the unit of government.
The clan is nothing more than a larger family, with its patriarchal chief
as the natural head, and the union of several clans by intermarriage and
voluntary connection constitutes the tribe. The very name of our tribe,
Dakota, means Allied People. The remoter degrees of kinship were fully
recognized, and that not as a matter of form only: first cousins were
known as brothers and sisters; the name of "cousin" constituted a binding
claim, and our rigid morality forbade marriage between cousins in any
known degree, or in other words within the clan.
The household proper consisted of a man with one or more wives and their
children, all of whom dwelt amicably together, often under one roof,
although some men of rank and position provided a separate lodge for each
wife. There were, indeed, few plural marriages except among the older and
leading men, and plural wives were usually, though not necessarily,
sisters. A marriage might honorably be dissolved for cause, but there was
very little infidelity or immorality, either open or secret.
It has been said that the position of woman is the test of civilization,
and that of our women was secure. In them was vested our standard of
morals and the purity of our blood. The wife did not take the name of her
husband nor enter his clan, and the children belonged to the clan of the
mother. All of the family property was held by her, descent was traced in
the maternal line, and the honor of the house was in her hands. Modesty
was her chief adornment; hence the younger women were usually silent and
retiring: but a woman who had attained to ripeness of years and wisdom, or
who had displayed notable courage in some emergency, was sometimes invited
to a seat in the council.
Thus she ruled undisputed within her own domain, and was to us a tower of
moral and spiritual strength, until the coming of the border white man,
the soldier and trader, who with strong drink overthrew the honor of the
man, and through his power over a worthless husband purchased the virtue
of his wife or his daughter. When she fell, the whole race fell with her.
Before this calamity came upon us, you could not find anywhere a happier
home than that created by the Indian woman. There was nothing of the
artificial about her person, and very little disingenuousness in her
character. Her early and consistent training, the definiteness of her
vocation, and, above all, her profoundly religious attitude gave her a
strength and poise that could not be overcome by any ordinary misfortune.
Indian names were either characteristic nicknames given in a playful
spirit, deed names, birth names, or such as have a religious and symbolic
meaning. It has been said that when a child is born, some accident or
unusual appearance determines his name. This is sometimes the case, but is
not the rule. A man of forcible character, with a fine war record, usually
bears the name of the buffalo or bear, lightning or some dread natural
force. Another of more peaceful nature may be called Swift Bird or Blue
Sky. A woman's name usually suggested something about the home, often with
the adjective "pretty" or "good," and a feminine termination. Names of any
dignity or importance must be conferred by the old men, and especially so
if they have any spiritual significance; as Sacred Cloud, Mysterious
Night, Spirit Woman, and the like. Such a name was sometimes borne by
three generations, but each individual must prove that he is worthy of it.
In the life of the Indian there was only one inevitable duty,—the
duty of prayer—the daily recognition of the Unseen and Eternal. His
daily devotions were more necessary to him than daily food. He wakes at
daybreak, puts on his moccasins and steps down to the water's edge. Here
he throws handfuls of clear, cold water into his face, or plunges in
bodily. After the bath, he stands erect before the advancing dawn, facing
the sun as it dances upon the horizon, and offers his unspoken orison. His
mate may precede or follow him in his devotions, but never accompanies
him. Each soul must meet the morning sun, the new, sweet earth, and the
Great Silence alone!
Whenever, in the course of the daily hunt, the red hunter comes upon a
scene that is strikingly beautiful or sublime—a black thundercloud
with the rainbow's glowing arch above the mountain; a white waterfall in
the heart of a green gorge; a vast prairie tinged with the blood-red of
sunset—he pauses for an instant in the attitude of worship. He sees
no need for setting apart one day in seven as a holy day, since to him all
days are God's.
Every act of his life is, in a very real sense, a religious act. He
recognizes the spirit in all creation, and believes that he draws from it
spiritual power. His respect for the immortal part of the animal, his
brother, often leads him so far as to lay out the body of his game in
state and decorate the head with symbolic paint or feathers. Then he
stands before it in the prayer attitude, holding up the filled pipe, in
token that he has freed with honor the spirit of his brother, whose body
his need compelled him to take to sustain his own life.
When food is taken, the woman murmurs a "grace" as she lowers the kettle;
an act so softly and unobtrusively performed that one who does not know
the custom usually fails to catch the whisper: "Spirit, partake!" As her
husband receives the bowl or plate, he likewise murmurs his invocation to
the spirit. When he becomes an old man, he loves to make a notable effort
to prove his gratitude. He cuts off the choicest morsel of the meat and
casts it into the fire—the purest and most ethereal element.
The hospitality of the wigwam is only limited by the institution of war.
Yet, if an enemy should honor us with a call, his trust will not be
misplaced, and he will go away convinced that he has met with a royal
host! Our honor is the guarantee for his safety, so long as he is within
Friendship is held to be the severest test of character. It is easy, we
think, to be loyal to family and clan, whose blood is in our own veins.
Love between man and woman is founded on the mating instinct and is not
free from desire and self-seeking. But to have a friend, and to be true
under any and all trials, is the mark of a man!
The highest type of friendship is the relation of "brother-friend" or
"life-and-death friend." This bond is between man and man, is usually
formed in early youth, and can only be broken by death. It is the essence
of comradeship and fraternal love, without thought of pleasure or gain,
but rather for moral support and inspiration. Each is vowed to die for the
other, if need be, and nothing is denied the brother-friend, but neither
is anything required that is not in accord with the highest conceptions of
the Indian mind.
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III. CEREMONIAL AND SYMBOLIC WORSHIP
Modern Perversions of Early Religious Rites. The Sun Dance.
The Great Medicine Lodge. Totems and Charms. The Vapor-Bath
and the Ceremonial of the Pipe.
The public religious rites of the Plains Indians are few, and in large
part of modern origin, belonging properly to the so-called "transition
period." That period must be held to begin with the first insidious effect
upon their manners and customs of contact with the dominant race, and many
of the tribes were so influenced long before they ceased to lead the
The fur-traders, the "Black Robe" priests, the military, and finally the
Protestant missionaries, were the men who began the disintegration of the
Indian nations and the overthrow of their religion, seventy-five to a
hundred years before they were forced to enter upon reservation life. We
have no authentic study of them until well along in the transition period,
when whiskey and trade had already debauched their native ideals.
During the era of reconstruction they modified their customs and beliefs
continually, creating a singular admixture of Christian with pagan
superstitions, and an addition to the old folk-lore of disguised Bible
stories under an Indian aspect. Even their music shows the influence of
the Catholic chants. Most of the material collected by modern observers is
necessarily of this promiscuous character.
It is noteworthy that the first effect of contact with the whites was an
increase of cruelty and barbarity, an intensifying of the dark shadows in
the picture! In this manner the "Sun Dance" of the Plains Indians, the
most important of their public ceremonials, was abused and perverted until
it became a horrible exhibition of barbarism, and was eventually
prohibited by the Government.
In the old days, when a Sioux warrior found himself in the very jaws of
destruction, he might offer a prayer to his father, the Sun, to prolong
his life. If rescued from imminent danger, he must acknowledge the divine
favor by making a Sun Dance, according to the vow embraced in his prayer,
in which he declared that he did not fear torture or death, but asked life
only for the sake of those who loved him. Thus the physical ordeal was the
fulfillment of a vow, and a sort of atonement for what might otherwise
appear to be reprehensible weakness in the face of death. It was in the
nature of confession and thank-offering to the "Great Mystery," through
the physical parent, the Sun, and did not embrace a prayer for future
The ceremonies usually took place from six months to a year after the
making of the vow, in order to admit of suitable preparation; always in
midsummer and before a large and imposing gathering. They naturally
included the making of a feast, and the giving away of much savage wealth
in honor of the occasion, although these were no essential part of the
When the day came to procure the pole, it was brought in by a party of
warriors, headed by some man of distinction. The tree selected was six to
eight inches in diameter at the base, and twenty to twenty-five feet high.
It was chosen and felled with some solemnity, including the ceremony of
the "filled pipe," and was carried in the fashion of a litter, symbolizing
the body of the man who made the dance. A solitary teepee was pitched on a
level spot at some distance from the village, and the pole raised near at
hand with the same ceremony, in the centre of a circular enclosure of
Meanwhile, one of the most noted of our old men had carved out of rawhide,
or later of wood, two figures, usually those of a man and a buffalo.
Sometimes the figure of a bird, supposed to represent the Thunder, was
substituted for the buffalo. It was customary to paint the man red and the
animal black, and each was suspended from one end of the crossbar which
was securely tied some two feet from the top of the pole. I have never
been able to determine that this cross had any significance; it was
probably nothing more than a dramatic coincidence that surmounted the
Sun-Dance pole with the symbol of Christianity.
The paint indicated that the man who was about to give thanks publicly had
been potentially dead, but was allowed to live by the mysterious favor and
interference of the Giver of Life. The buffalo hung opposite the image of
his own body in death, because it was the support of his physical self,
and a leading figure in legendary lore. Following the same line of
thought, when he emerged from the solitary lodge of preparation, and
approached the pole to dance, nude save for his breechclout and moccasins,
his hair loosened and daubed with clay, he must drag after him a buffalo
skull, representing the grave from which he had escaped.
The dancer was cut or scarified on the chest, sufficient to draw blood and
cause pain, the natural accompaniments of his figurative death. He took
his position opposite the singers, facing the pole, and dragging the skull
by leather thongs which were merely fastened about his shoulders. During a
later period, incisions were made in the breast or back, sometimes both,
through which wooden skewers were drawn, and secured by lariats to the
pole or to the skulls. Thus he danced without intermission for a day and a
night, or even longer, ever gazing at the sun in the daytime, and blowing
from time to time a sacred whistle made from the bone of a goose's wing.
In recent times, this rite was exaggerated and distorted into a mere
ghastly display of physical strength and endurance under torture, almost
on a level with the Caucasian institution of the bull-fight, or the yet
more modern prize-ring. Moreover, instead of an atonement or
thank-offering, it became the accompaniment of a prayer for success in
war, or in a raid upon the horses of the enemy. The number of dancers was
increased, and they were made to hang suspended from the pole by their own
flesh, which they must break loose before being released. I well remember
the comments in our own home upon the passing of this simple but
impressive ceremony, and its loss of all meaning and propriety under the
demoralizing additions which were some of the fruits of early contact with
the white man.
Perhaps the most remarkable organization ever known among American
Indians, that of the "Grand Medicine Lodge," was apparently an indirect
result of the labors of the early Jesuit missionaries. In it Caucasian
ideas are easily recognizable, and it seems reasonable to suppose that its
founders desired to establish an order that would successfully resist the
encroachments of the "Black Robes." However that may be, it is an
unquestionable fact that the only religious leaders of any note who have
arisen among the native tribes since the advent of the white man, the
"Shawnee Prophet" in 1762, and the half-breed prophet of the "Ghost Dance"
in 1890, both founded their claims or prophecies upon the Gospel story.
Thus in each case an Indian religious revival or craze, though more or
less threatening to the invader, was of distinctively alien origin.
The Medicine Lodge originated among the Algonquin tribe, and extended
gradually throughout its branches, finally affecting the Sioux of the
Mississippi Valley, and forming a strong bulwark against the work of the
pioneer missionaries, who secured, indeed, scarcely any converts until
after the outbreak of 1862, when subjection, starvation, and imprisonment
turned our broken-hearted people to accept Christianity, which seemed to
offer them the only gleam of kindness or hope.
The order was a secret one, and in some respects not unlike the Free
Masons, being a union or affiliation of a number of lodges, each with its
distinctive songs and medicines. Leadership was in order of seniority in
degrees, which could only be obtained by merit, and women were admitted to
membership upon equal terms, with the possibility of attaining to the
highest honors. No person might become a member unless his moral standing
was excellent, all candidates remained on probation for one or two years,
and murderers and adulterers were expelled. The commandments promulgated
by this order were essentially the same as the Mosaic Ten, so that it
exerted a distinct moral influence, in addition to its ostensible object,
which was instruction in the secrets of legitimate medicine.
In this society the uses of all curative roots and herbs known to us were
taught exhaustively and practiced mainly by the old, the younger members
being in training to fill the places of those who passed away. My
grandmother was a well-known and successful practitioner, and both my
mother and father were members, but did not practice.
A medicine or "mystery feast" was not a public affair, as members only
were eligible, and upon these occasions all the "medicine bags" and totems
of the various lodges were displayed and their peculiar "medicine songs"
were sung. The food was only partaken of by invited guests, and not by the
hosts, or lodge making the feast. The "Grand Medicine Dance" was given on
the occasion of initiating those candidates who had finished their
probation, a sufficient number of whom were designated to take the places
of those who had died since the last meeting. Invitations were sent out in
the form of small bundles of tobacco. Two very large teepees were pitched
facing one another, a hundred feet apart, half open, and connected by a
roofless hall or colonnade of fresh-cut boughs. One of these lodges was
for the society giving the dance and the novices, the other was occupied
by the "soldiers," whose duty it was to distribute the refreshments, and
to keep order among the spectators. They were selected from among the best
and bravest warriors of the tribe.
The preparations being complete, and the members of each lodge garbed and
painted according to their rituals, they entered the hall separately, in
single file, led by their oldest man or "Great Chief." Standing before the
"Soldiers' Lodge," facing the setting sun, their chief addressed the
"Great Mystery" directly in a few words, after which all extending the
right arm horizontally from the shoulder with open palm, sang a short
invocation in unison, ending with a deep: "E-ho-ho-ho!" This performance,
which was really impressive, was repeated in front of the headquarters
lodge, facing the rising sun, after which each lodge took its assigned
place, and the songs and dances followed in regular order.
The closing ceremony, which was intensely dramatic in its character, was
the initiation of the novices, who had received their final preparation on
the night before. They were now led out in front of the headquarters lodge
and placed in a kneeling position upon a carpet of rich robes and furs,
the men upon the right hand, stripped and painted black, with a round spot
of red just over the heart, while the women, dressed in their best, were
arranged upon the left. Both sexes wore the hair loose, as if in mourning
or expectation of death. An equal number of grand medicine-men, each of
whom was especially appointed to one of the novices, faced them at a
distance of half the length of the hall, or perhaps fifty feet.
After silent prayer, each medicine-man in turn addressed himself to his
charge, exhorting him to observe all the rules of the order under the eye
of the Mysterious One, and instructing him in his duty toward his
fellow-man and toward the Ruler of Life. All then assumed an attitude of
superb power and dignity, crouching slightly as if about to spring forward
in a foot-race, and grasping their medicine bags firmly in both hands.
Swinging their arms forward at the same moment, they uttered their
guttural "Yo-ho-ho-ho!" in perfect unison and with startling effect. In
the midst of a breathless silence, they took a step forward, then another
and another, ending a rod or so from the row of kneeling victims, with a
mighty swing of the sacred bags that would seem to project all their
mystic power into the bodies of the initiates. Instantly they all fell
forward, apparently lifeless.
With this thrilling climax, the drums were vigorously pounded and the
dance began again with energy. After a few turns had been taken about the
prostrate bodies of the new members, covering them with fine robes and
other garments which were later to be distributed as gifts, they were
permitted to come to life and to join in the final dance. The whole
performance was clearly symbolic of death and resurrection.
While I cannot suppose that this elaborate ritual, with its use of public
and audible prayer, of public exhortation or sermon, and other Caucasian
features, was practiced before comparatively modern times, there is no
doubt that it was conscientiously believed in by its members, and for a
time regarded with reverence by the people. But at a later period it
became still further demoralized and fell under suspicion of witchcraft.
There is no doubt that the Indian held medicine close to spiritual things,
but in this also he has been much misunderstood; in fact everything that
he held sacred is indiscriminately called "medicine," in the sense of
mystery or magic. As a doctor he was originally very adroit and often
successful. He employed only healing bark, roots, and leaves with whose
properties he was familiar, using them in the form of a distillation or
tea and always singly. The stomach or internal bath was a valuable
discovery of his, and the vapor or Turkish bath was in general use. He
could set a broken bone with fair success, but never practiced surgery in
any form. In addition to all this, the medicine-man possessed much
personal magnetism and authority, and in his treatment often sought to
reestablish the equilibrium of the patient through mental or spiritual
influences—a sort of primitive psychotherapy.
The Sioux word for the healing art is "wah-pee-yah," which literally means
readjusting or making anew. "Pay-jee-hoo-tah," literally root, means
medicine, and "wakan" signifies spirit or mystery. Thus the three ideas,
while sometimes associated, were carefully distinguished.
It is important to remember that in the old days the "medicine-man"
received no payment for his services, which were of the nature of an
honorable function or office. When the idea of payment and barter was
introduced among us, and valuable presents or fees began to be demanded
for treating the sick, the ensuing greed and rivalry led to many
demoralizing practices, and in time to the rise of the modern "conjurer,"
who is generally a fraud and trickster of the grossest kind. It is
fortunate that his day is practically over.
Ever seeking to establish spiritual comradeship with the animal creation,
the Indian adopted this or that animal as his "totem," the emblematic
device of his society, family, or clan. It is probable that the creature
chosen was the traditional ancestress, as we are told that the First Man
had many wives among the animal people. The sacred beast, bird, or
reptile, represented by its stuffed skin, or by a rude painting, was
treated with reverence and carried into battle to insure the guardianship
of the spirits. The symbolic attribute of beaver, bear, or tortoise, such
as wisdom, cunning, courage, and the like, was supposed to be mysteriously
conferred upon the wearer of the badge. The totem or charm used in
medicine was ordinarily that of the medicine lodge to which the
practitioner belonged, though there were some great men who boasted a
There are two ceremonial usages which, so far as I have been able to
ascertain, were universal among American Indians, and apparently
fundamental. These have already been referred to as the "eneepee," or
vapor-bath, and the "chan-du-hu-pah-yu-za-pee," or ceremonial of the pipe.
In our Siouan legends and traditions these two are preeminent, as handed
down from the most ancient time and persisting to the last.
In our Creation myth or story of the First Man, the vapor-bath was the
magic used by The-one-who-was-First-Created, to give life to the dead
bones of his younger brother, who had been slain by the monsters of the
deep. Upon the shore of the Great Water he dug two round holes, over one
of which he built a low enclosure of fragrant cedar boughs, and here he
gathered together the bones of his brother. In the other pit he made a
fire and heated four round stones, which he rolled one by one into the
lodge of boughs. Having closed every aperture save one, he sang a mystic
chant while he thrust in his arm and sprinkled water upon the stones with
a bunch of sage. Immediately steam arose, and as the legend says, "there
was an appearance of life." A second time he sprinkled water, and the dry
bones rattled together. The third time he seemed to hear soft singing from
within the lodge; and the fourth time a voice exclaimed: "Brother, let me
out!" (It should be noted that the number four is the magic or sacred
number of the Indian.)
This story gives the traditional origin of the "eneepee," which has ever
since been deemed essential to the Indian's effort to purify and recreate
his spirit. It is used both by the doctor and by his patient. Every man
must enter the cleansing bath and take the cold plunge which follows, when
preparing for any spiritual crisis, for possible death, or imminent
Not only the "eneepee" itself, but everything used in connection with the
mysterious event, the aromatic cedar and sage, the water, and especially
the water-worn boulders, are regarded as sacred, or at the least adapted
to a spiritual use. For the rock we have a special reverent name—"Tunkan,"
a contraction of the Sioux word for Grandfather.
The natural boulder enters into many of our solemn ceremonials, such as
the "Rain Dance," and the "Feast of Virgins." The lone hunter and warrior
reverently holds up his filled pipe to "Tunkan," in solitary commemoration
of a miracle which to him is as authentic and holy as the raising of
Lazarus to the devout Christian.
There is a legend that the First Man fell sick, and was taught by his
Elder Brother the ceremonial use of the pipe, in a prayer to the spirits
for ease and relief. This simple ceremony is the commonest daily
expression of thanks or "grace," as well as an oath of loyalty and good
faith when the warrior goes forth upon some perilous enterprise, and it
enters even into his "hambeday," or solitary prayer, ascending as a rising
vapor or incense to the Father of Spirits.
In all the war ceremonies and in medicine a special pipe is used, but at
home or on the hunt the warrior employs his own. The pulverized weed is
mixed with aromatic bark of the red willow, and pressed lightly into the
bowl of the long stone pipe. The worshiper lights it gravely and takes a
whiff or two; then, standing erect, he holds it silently toward the Sun,
our father, and toward the earth, our mother. There are modern variations,
as holding the pipe to the Four Winds, the Fire, Water, Rock, and other
elements or objects of reverence.
There are many religious festivals which are local and special in
character, embodying a prayer for success in hunting or warfare, or for
rain and bountiful harvests, but these two are the sacraments of our
religion. For baptism we substitute the "eneepee," the purification by
vapor, and in our holy communion we partake of the soothing incense of
tobacco in the stead of bread and wine.
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IV. BARBARISM AND THE MORAL CODE
Silence the Corner-Stone of Character. Basic Ideas of
Morality. "Give All or Nothing!" Rules of Honorable
Warfare. An Indian Conception of Courage.
Long before I ever heard of Christ, or saw a white man, I had learned from
an untutored woman the essence of morality. With the help of dear Nature
herself, she taught me things simple but of mighty import. I knew God. I
perceived what goodness is. I saw and loved what is really beautiful.
Civilization has not taught me anything better!
As a child, I understood how to give; I have forgotten that grace since I
became civilized. I lived the natural life, whereas I now live the
artificial. Any pretty pebble was valuable to me then; every growing tree
an object of reverence. Now I worship with the white man before a painted
landscape whose value is estimated in dollars! Thus the Indian is
reconstructed, as the natural rocks are ground to powder, and made into
artificial blocks which may be built into the walls of modern society.
The first American mingled with his pride a singular humility. Spiritual
arrogance was foreign to his nature and teaching. He never claimed that
the power of articulate speech was proof of superiority over the dumb
creation; on the other hand, it is to him a perilous gift. He believes
profoundly in silence—the sign of a perfect equilibrium. Silence is
the absolute poise or balance of body, mind, and spirit. The man who
preserves his selfhood ever calm and unshaken by the storms of existence—not
a leaf, as it were, astir on the tree; not a ripple upon the surface of
shining pool—his, in the mind of the unlettered sage, is the ideal
attitude and conduct of life.
If you ask him: "What is silence?" he will answer: "It is the Great
Mystery!" "The holy silence is His voice!" If you ask: "What are the
fruits of silence?" he will say: "They are self-control, true courage or
endurance, patience, dignity, and reverence. Silence is the cornerstone of
"Guard your tongue in youth," said the old chief, Wabashaw, "and in age
you may mature a thought that will be of service to your people!"
The moment that man conceived of a perfect body, supple, symmetrical,
graceful, and enduring—in that moment he had laid the foundation of
a moral life! No man can hope to maintain such a temple of the spirit
beyond the period of adolescence, unless he is able to curb his indulgence
in the pleasures of the senses. Upon this truth the Indian built a rigid
system of physical training, a social and moral code that was the law of
There was aroused in him as a child a high ideal of manly strength and
beauty, the attainment of which must depend upon strict temperance in
eating and in the sexual relation, together with severe and persistent
exercise. He desired to be a worthy link in the generations, and that he
might not destroy by his weakness that vigor and purity of blood which had
been achieved at the cost of much self-denial by a long line of ancestors.
He was required to fast from time to time for short periods, and to work
off his superfluous energy by means of hard running, swimming, and the
vapor-bath. The bodily fatigue thus induced, especially when coupled with
a reduced diet, is a reliable cure for undue sexual desires.
Personal modesty was early cultivated as a safeguard, together with a
strong self-respect and pride of family and race. This was accomplished in
part by keeping the child ever before the public eye, from his birth
onward. His entrance into the world, especially in the case of the
first-born, was often publicly announced by the herald, accompanied by a
distribution of presents to the old and needy. The same thing occurred
when he took his first step, when his ears were pierced, and when he shot
his first game, so that his childish exploits and progress were known to
the whole clan as to a larger family, and he grew into manhood with the
saving sense of a reputation to sustain.
The youth was encouraged to enlist early in the public service, and to
develop a wholesome ambition for the honors of a leader and feast-maker,
which can never be his unless he is truthful and generous, as well as
brave, and ever mindful of his personal chastity and honor. There were
many ceremonial customs which had a distinct moral influence; the woman
was rigidly secluded at certain periods, and the young husband was
forbidden to approach his own wife when preparing for war or for any
religious event. The public or tribal position of the Indian is entirely
dependent upon his private virtue, and he is never permitted to forget
that he does not live to himself alone, but to his tribe and his clan.
Thus habits of perfect self-control were early established, and there were
no unnatural conditions or complex temptations to beset him until he was
met and overthrown by a stronger race.
To keep the young men and young women strictly to their honor, there were
observed among us, within my own recollection, certain annual ceremonies
of a semi-religious nature. One of the most impressive of these was the
sacred "Feast of Virgins," which, when given for the first time, was
equivalent to the public announcement of a young girl's arrival at a
marriageable age. The herald, making the rounds of the teepee village,
would publish the feast something after this fashion:
"Pretty Weasel-woman, the daughter of Brave Bear, will kindle her first
maidens' fire to-morrow! All ye who have never yielded to the pleading of
man, who have not destroyed your innocency, you alone are invited, to
proclaim anew before the Sun and the Earth, before your companions and in
the sight of the Great Mystery, the chastity and purity of your
maidenhood. Come ye, all who have not known man!"
The whole village was at once aroused to the interest of the coming event,
which was considered next to the Sun Dance and the Grand Medicine Dance in
public importance. It always took place in midsummer, when a number of
different clans were gathered together for the summer festivities, and was
held in the centre of the great circular encampment.
Here two circles were described, one within the other, about a rudely
heart-shaped rock which was touched with red paint, and upon either side
of the rock there were thrust into the ground a knife and two arrows. The
inner circle was for the maidens, and the outer one for their grandmothers
or chaperones, who were supposed to have passed the climacteric. Upon the
outskirts of the feast there was a great public gathering, in which order
was kept by certain warriors of highest reputation. Any man among the
spectators might approach and challenge any young woman whom he knew to be
unworthy; but if the accuser failed to prove his charge, the warriors were
accustomed to punish him severely.
Each girl in turn approached the sacred rock and laid her hand upon it
with all solemnity. This was her religious declaration of her virginity,
her vow to remain pure until her marriage. If she should ever violate the
maidens' oath, then welcome that keen knife and those sharp arrows!
Our maidens were ambitious to attend a number of these feasts before
marriage, and it sometimes happened that a girl was compelled to give one,
on account of gossip about her conduct. Then it was in the nature of a
challenge to the scandal-mongers to prove their words! A similar feast was
sometimes made by the young men, for whom the rules were even more strict,
since no young man might attend this feast who had so much as spoken of
love to a maiden. It was considered a high honor among us to have won some
distinction in war and the chase, and above all to have been invited to a
seat in the council, before one had spoken to any girl save his own
It was our belief that the love of possessions is a weakness to be
overcome. Its appeal is to the material part, and if allowed its way it
will in time disturb the spiritual balance of the man. Therefore the child
must early learn the beauty of generosity. He is taught to give what he
prizes most, and that he may taste the happiness of giving, he is made at
an early age the family almoner. If a child is inclined to be grasping, or
to cling to any of his little possessions, legends are related to him,
telling of the contempt and disgrace falling upon the ungenerous and mean
Public giving is a part of every important ceremony. It properly belongs
to the celebration of birth, marriage, and death, and is observed whenever
it is desired to do special honor to any person or event. Upon such
occasions it is common to give to the point of utter impoverishment. The
Indian in his simplicity literally gives away all that he has, to
relatives, to guests of another tribe or clan, but above all to the poor
and the aged, from whom he can hope for no return. Finally, the gift to
the "Great Mystery," the religious offering, may be of little value in
itself, but to the giver's own thought it should carry the meaning and
reward of true sacrifice.
Orphans and the aged are invariably cared for, not only by their next of
kin, but by the whole clan. It is the loving parent's pride to have his
daughters visit the unfortunate and the helpless, carry them food, comb
their hair, and mend their garments. The name "Wenonah," bestowed upon the
eldest daughter, distinctly implies all this, and a girl who failed in her
charitable duties was held to be unworthy of the name.
The man who is a skillful hunter, and whose wife is alive to her
opportunities, makes many feasts, to which he is careful to invite the
older men of his clan, recognizing that they have outlived their period of
greatest activity, and now love nothing so well as to eat in good company,
and to live over the past. The old men, for their part, do their best to
requite his liberality with a little speech, in which they are apt to
relate the brave and generous deeds of their host's ancestors, finally
congratulating him upon being a worthy successor of an honorable line.
Thus his reputation is won as a hunter and a feast-maker, and almost as
famous in his way as the great warrior is he who has a recognized name and
standing as a "man of peace."
The true Indian sets no price upon either his property or his labor. His
generosity is only limited by his strength and ability. He regards it as
an honor to be selected for a difficult or dangerous service, and would
think it shame to ask for any reward, saying rather: "Let him whom I serve
express his thanks according to his own bringing up and his sense of
Nevertheless, he recognizes rights in property. To steal from one of his
own tribe would be indeed disgrace, and if discovered, the name of
"Wamanon," or Thief, is fixed upon him forever as an unalterable stigma.
The only exception to the rule is in the case of food, which is always
free to the hungry if there is none by to offer it. Other protection than
the moral law there could not be in an Indian community, where there were
neither locks nor doors, and everything was open and easy of access to all
The property of the enemy is spoil of war, and it is always allowable to
confiscate it if possible. However, in the old days there was not much
plunder. Before the coming of the white man, there was in fact little
temptation or opportunity to despoil the enemy; but in modern times the
practice of "stealing horses" from hostile tribes has become common, and
is thought far from dishonorable.
Warfare we regarded as an institution of the "Great Mystery"—an
organized tournament or trial of courage and skill, with elaborate rules
and "counts" for the coveted honor of the eagle feather. It was held to
develop the quality of manliness and its motive was chivalric or
patriotic, but never the desire for territorial aggrandizement or the
overthrow of a brother nation. It was common, in early times, for a battle
or skirmish to last all day, with great display of daring and
horsemanship, but with scarcely more killed and wounded than may be
carried from the field during a university game of football.
The slayer of a man in battle was expected to mourn for thirty days
blackening his face and loosening his hair according to the custom. He of
course considered it no sin to take the life of an enemy, and this
ceremonial mourning was a sign of reverence for the departed spirit. The
killing in war of non-combatants, such as women and children, is partly
explained by the fact that in savage life the woman without husband or
protector is in pitiable case, and it was supposed that the spirit of the
warrior would be better content if no widow and orphans were left to
suffer want, as well as to weep.
A scalp might originally be taken by the leader of the war party only and
at that period no other mutilation was practiced. It was a small lock not
more than three inches square, which was carried only during the thirty
days' celebration of a victory, and afterward given religious burial.
Wanton cruelties and the more barbarous customs of war were greatly
intensified with the coming of the white man, who brought with him fiery
liquor and deadly weapons, aroused the Indian's worst passions, provoking
in him revenge and cupidity, and even offered bounties for the scalps of
innocent men, women, and children.
Murder within the tribe was a grave offense, to be atoned for as the
council might decree, and it often happened that the slayer was called
upon to pay the penalty with his own life. He made no attempt to escape or
to evade justice. That the crime was committed in the depths of the forest
or at dead of night, witnessed by no human eye, made no difference to his
mind. He was thoroughly convinced that all is known to the "Great
Mystery," and hence did not hesitate to give himself up, to stand his
trial by the old and wise men of the victim's clan. His own family and
clan might by no means attempt to excuse or to defend him, but his judges
took all the known circumstances into consideration, and if it appeared
that he slew in self-defense, or that the provocation was severe, he might
be set free after a thirty days' period of mourning in solitude. Otherwise
the murdered man's next of kin were authorized to take his life; and if
they refrained from doing so, as often happened, he remained an outcast
from the clan. A willful murder was a rare occurrence before the days of
whiskey and drunken rows, for we were not a violent or a quarrelsome
It is well remembered that Crow Dog, who killed the Sioux chief, Spotted
Tail, in 1881, calmly surrendered himself and was tried and convicted by
the courts in South Dakota. After his conviction, he was permitted
remarkable liberty in prison, such as perhaps no white man has ever
enjoyed when under sentence of death.
The cause of his act was a solemn commission received from his people,
nearly thirty years earlier, at the time that Spotted Tail usurped the
chieftainship by the aid of the military, whom he had aided. Crow Dog was
under a vow to slay the chief, in case he ever betrayed or disgraced the
name of the Brule Sioux. There is no doubt that he had committed crimes
both public and private, having been guilty of misuse of office as well as
of gross offenses against morality; therefore his death was not a matter
of personal vengeance but of just retribution.
A few days before Crow Dog was to be executed, he asked permission to
visit his home and say farewell to his wife and twin boys, then nine or
ten years old. Strange to say, the request was granted, and the condemned
man sent home under escort of the deputy sheriff, who remained at the
Indian agency, merely telling his prisoner to report there on the
following day. When he did not appear at the time set, the sheriff
dispatched the Indian police after him. They did not find him, and his
wife simply said that Crow Dog had desired to ride alone to the prison,
and would reach there on the day appointed. All doubt was removed next day
by a telegram from Rapid City, two hundred miles distant, saying: "Crow
Dog has just reported here."
The incident drew public attention to the Indian murderer, with the
unexpected result that the case was reopened, and Crow Dog acquitted. He
still lives, a well-preserved man of about seventy-five years, and is much
respected among his own people.
It is said that, in the very early days, lying was a capital offense among
us. Believing that the deliberate liar is capable of committing any crime
behind the screen of cowardly untruth and double-dealing, the destroyer of
mutual confidence was summarily put to death, that the evil might go no
Even the worst enemies of the Indian, those who accuse him of treachery,
blood-thirstiness, cruelty, and lust, have not denied his courage, but in
their minds it is a courage that is ignorant, brutal, and fantastic. His
own conception of bravery makes of it a high moral virtue, for to him it
consists not so much in aggressive self-assertion as in absolute
self-control. The truly brave man, we contend, yields neither to fear nor
anger, desire nor agony; he is at all times master of himself; his courage
rises to the heights of chivalry, patriotism, and real heroism.
"Let neither cold, hunger, nor pain, nor the fear of them, neither the
bristling teeth of danger nor the very jaws of death itself, prevent you
from doing a good deed," said an old chief to a scout who was about to
seek the buffalo in midwinter for the relief of a starving people. This
was his childlike conception of courage.
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V. THE UNWRITTEN SCRIPTURES
A Living Book. The Sioux Story of Creation. The First
Battle. Another Version of the Flood. Our Animal Ancestry.
A missionary once undertook to instruct a group of Indians in the truths
of his holy religion. He told them of the creation of the earth in six
days, and of the fall of our first parents by eating an apple.
The courteous savages listened attentively, and, after thanking him, one
related in his turn a very ancient tradition concerning the origin of the
maize. But the missionary plainly showed his disgust and disbelief,
"What I delivered to you were sacred truths, but this that you tell me is
mere fable and falsehood!"
"My brother," gravely replied the offended Indian, "it seems that you have
not been well grounded in the rules of civility. You saw that we, who
practice these rules, believed your stories; why, then, do you refuse to
Every religion has its Holy Book, and ours was a mingling of history,
poetry, and prophecy, of precept and folk-lore, even such as the modern
reader finds within the covers of his Bible. This Bible of ours was our
whole literature, a living Book, sowed as precious seed by our wisest
sages, and springing anew in the wondering eyes and upon the innocent lips
of little children. Upon its hoary wisdom of proverb and fable, its mystic
and legendary lore thus sacredly preserved and transmitted from father to
son, was based in large part our customs and philosophy.
Naturally magnanimous and open-minded, the red man prefers to believe that
the Spirit of God is not breathed into man alone, but that the whole
created universe is a sharer in the immortal perfection of its Maker. His
imaginative and poetic mind, like that of the Greek, assigns to every
mountain, tree, and spring its spirit, nymph, or divinity either
beneficent or mischievous. The heroes and demigods of Indian tradition
reflect the characteristic trend of his thought, and his attribution of
personality and will to the elements, the sun and stars, and all animate
or inanimate nature.
In the Sioux story of creation, the great Mysterious One is not brought
directly upon the scene or conceived in anthropomorphic fashion, but
remains sublimely in the background. The Sun and the Earth, representing
the male and female principles, are the main elements in his creation, the
other planets being subsidiary. The enkindling warmth of the Sun entered
into the bosom of our mother, the Earth, and forthwith she conceived and
brought forth life, both vegetable and animal.
Finally there appeared mysteriously Ish-na-e-cha-ge, the "First-Born," a
being in the likeness of man, yet more than man, who roamed solitary among
the animal people and understood their ways and their language. They
beheld him with wonder and awe, for they could do nothing without his
knowledge. He had pitched his tent in the centre of the land, and there
was no spot impossible for him to penetrate.
At last, like Adam, the "First-Born" of the Sioux became weary of living
alone, and formed for himself a companion—not a mate, but a brother—not
out of a rib from his side, but from a splinter which he drew from his
great toe! This was the Little Boy Man, who was not created full-grown,
but as an innocent child, trusting and helpless. His Elder Brother was his
teacher throughout every stage of human progress from infancy to manhood,
and it is to the rules which he laid down, and his counsels to the Little
Boy Man, that we trace many of our most deep-rooted beliefs and most
Foremost among the animal people was Unk-to-mee, the Spider, the original
trouble-maker, who noted keenly the growth of the boy in wit and
ingenuity, and presently advised the animals to make an end of him; "for,"
said he, "if you do not, some day he will be the master of us all!" But
they all loved the Little Boy Man because he was so friendly and so
playful. Only the monsters of the deep sea listened, and presently took
his life, hiding his body in the bottom of the sea. Nevertheless, by the
magic power of the First-Born, the body was recovered and was given life
again in the sacred vapor-bath, as described in a former chapter.
Once more our first ancestor roamed happily among the animal people, who
were in those days a powerful nation. He learned their ways and their
language—for they had a common tongue in those days; learned to sing
like the birds, to swim like the fishes, and to climb sure-footed over
rocks like the mountain sheep. Notwithstanding that he was their good
comrade and did them no harm, Unk-to-mee once more sowed dissension among
the animals, and messages were sent into all quarters of the earth, sea,
and air, that all the tribes might unite to declare war upon the solitary
man who was destined to become their master.
After a time the young man discovered the plot, and came home very
sorrowful. He loved his animal friends, and was grieved that they should
combine against him. Besides, he was naked and unarmed. But his Elder
Brother armed him with a bow and flint-headed arrows, a stone war-club and
a spear. He likewise tossed a pebble four times into the air, and each
time it became a cliff or wall of rock about the teepee.
"Now," said he, "it is time to fight and to assert your supremacy, for it
is they who have brought the trouble upon you, and not you upon them!"
Night and day the Little Boy Man remained upon the watch for his enemies
from the top of the wall, and at last he beheld the prairies black with
buffalo herds, and the elk gathering upon the edges of the forest. Bears
and wolves were closing in from all directions, and now from the sky the
Thunder gave his fearful war-whoop, answered by the wolf's long howl.
The badgers and other burrowers began at once to undermine his rocky
fortress, while the climbers undertook to scale its perpendicular walls.
Then for the first time on earth the bow was strung, and hundreds of
flint-headed arrows found their mark in the bodies of the animals, while
each time that the Boy Man swung his stone war-club, his enemies fell in
Finally the insects, the little people of the air, attacked him in a body,
filling his eyes and ears, and tormenting him with their poisoned spears,
so that he was in despair. He called for help upon his Elder Brother, who
ordered him to strike the rocks with his stone war-club. As soon as he had
done so, sparks of fire flew upon the dry grass of the prairie and it
burst into flame. A mighty smoke ascended, which drove away the teasing
swarms of the insect people, while the flames terrified and scattered the
This was the first dividing of the trail between man and the animal
people, and when the animals had sued for peace, the treaty provided that
they must ever after furnish man with flesh for his food and skins for
clothing, though not without effort and danger on his part. The little
insects refused to make any concession, and have ever since been the
tormentors of man; however, the birds of the air declared that they would
punish them for their obstinacy, and this they continue to do unto this
Our people have always claimed that the stone arrows which are found so
generally throughout the country are the ones that the first man used in
his battle with the animals. It is not recorded in our traditions, much
less is it within the memory of our old men, that we have ever made or
used similar arrow-heads. Some have tried to make use of them for shooting
fish under water, but with little success, and they are absolutely useless
with the Indian bow which was in use when America was discovered. It is
possible that they were made by some pre-historic race who used much
longer and stronger bows, and who were workers in stone, which our people
were not. Their stone implements were merely natural boulders or flint
chips, fitted with handles of raw-hide or wood, except the pipes, which
were carved from a species of stone which is soft when first quarried, and
therefore easily worked with the most primitive tools. Practically all the
flint arrow-heads that we see in museums and elsewhere were picked up or
ploughed up, while some have been dishonestly sold by trafficking Indians
and others, embedded in trees and bones.
We had neither devil nor hell in our religion until the white man brought
them to us, yet Unk-to-mee, the Spider, was doubtless akin to that old
Serpent who tempted mother Eve. He is always characterized as tricky,
treacherous, and at the same time affable and charming, being not without
the gifts of wit, prophecy, and eloquence. He is an adroit magician, able
to assume almost any form at will, and impervious to any amount of
ridicule and insult. Here we have, it appears, the elements of the story
in Genesis; the primal Eden, the tempter in animal form, and the bringing
of sorrow and death upon earth through the elemental sins of envy and
The warning conveyed in the story of Unk-to-mee was ever used with success
by Indian parents, and especially grandparents, in the instruction of
their children. Ish-na-e-cha-ge, on the other hand, was a demigod and
mysterious teacher, whose function it was to initiate the first man into
his tasks and pleasures here on earth.
After the battle with the animals, there followed a battle with the
elements, which in some measure parallels the Old Testament story of the
flood. In this case, the purpose seems to have been to destroy the wicked
animal people, who were too many and too strong for the lone man.
The legend tells us that when fall came, the First-Born advised his
younger brother to make for himself a warm tent of buffalo skins, and to
store up much food. No sooner had he done this than it began to snow, and
the snow fell steadily during many moons. The Little Boy Man made for
himself snow-shoes, and was thus enabled to hunt easily, while the animals
fled from him with difficulty. Finally wolves, foxes, and ravens came to
his door to beg for food, and he helped them, but many of the fiercer wild
animals died of cold and starvation.
One day, when the hungry ones appeared, the snow was higher than the tops
of the teepee poles, but the Little Boy Man's fire kept a hole open and
clear. Down this hole they peered, and lo! the man had rubbed ashes on his
face by the advice of his Elder Brother, and they both lay silent and
motionless on either side of the fire.
Then the fox barked and the raven cawed his signal to the wandering
tribes, and they all rejoiced and said: "Now they are both dying or dead,
and we shall have no more trouble!" But the sun appeared, and a warm wind
melted the snow-banks, so that the land was full of water. The young man
and his Teacher made a birch-bark canoe, which floated upon the surface of
the flood, while of the animals there were saved only a few, who had found
a foothold upon the highest peaks.
The youth had now passed triumphantly through the various ordeals of his
manhood. One day his Elder Brother spoke to him and said: "You have now
conquered the animal people, and withstood the force of the elements. You
have subdued the earth to your will, and still you are alone! It is time
to go forth and find a woman whom you can love, and by whose help you may
reproduce your kind."
"But how am I to do this?" replied the first man, who was only an
inexperienced boy. "I am here alone, as you say, and I know not where to
find a woman or a mate!"
"Go forth and seek her," replied the Great Teacher; and forthwith the
youth set out on his wanderings in search of a wife. He had no idea how to
make love, so that the first courtship was done by the pretty and
coquettish maidens of the Bird, Beaver, and Bear tribes. There are some
touching and whimsical love stories which the rich imagination of the
Indian has woven into this old legend.
It is said, for example, that at his first camp he had built for himself a
lodge of green boughs in the midst of the forest, and that there his
reverie was interrupted by a voice from the wilderness—a voice that
was irresistibly and profoundly sweet. In some mysterious way, the soul of
the young man was touched as it had never been before, for this call of
exquisite tenderness and allurement was the voice of the eternal woman!
Presently a charming little girl stood timidly at the door of his
pine-bough wigwam. She was modestly dressed in gray, with a touch of jet
about her pretty face, and she carried a basket of wild cherries which she
shyly offered to the young man. So the rover was subdued, and love turned
loose upon the world to upbuild and to destroy! When at last she left him,
he peeped through the door after her, but saw only a robin, with head
turned archly to one side, fluttering away among the trees.
His next camp was beside a clear, running stream, where a plump and
industrious maid was busily at work chopping wood. He fell promptly in
love with her also, and for some time they lived together in her cosy
house by the waterside. After their boy was born, the wanderer wished very
much to go back to his Elder Brother and to show him his wife and child.
But the beaver-woman refused to go, so at last he went alone for a short
visit. When he returned, there was only a trickle of water beside the
broken dam, the beautiful home was left desolate, and wife and child were
The deserted husband sat alone upon the bank, sleepless and faint with
grief, until he was consoled by a comely young woman in glossy black, who
took compassion upon his distress and soothed him with food and loving
attentions. This was the bear-woman, from whom again he was afterward
separated by some mishap. The story goes that he had children by each of
his many wives, some of whom resembled their father, and these became the
ancestors of the human race, while those who bore the characteristics of
their mother returned to her clan. It is also said that such as were
abnormal or monstrous in form were forbidden to reproduce their kind, and
all love and mating between man and the animal creation was from that time
forth strictly prohibited. There are some curious traditions of young men
and maidens who transgressed this law unknowingly, being seduced and
deceived by a magnificent buck deer, perhaps, or a graceful doe, and whose
fall was punished with death.
The animal totems so general among the tribes were said to have descended
to them from their great-grandmother's clan, and the legend was often
quoted in support of our close friendship with the animal people. I have
sometimes wondered why the scientific doctrine of man's descent has not in
the same way apparently increased the white man's respect for these our
Of the many later heroes or Hiawathas who appear in this voluminous
unwritten book of ours, each introduced an epoch in the long story of man
and his environment. There is, for example, the Avenger of the Innocent,
who sprang from a clot of blood; the ragged little boy who won fame and a
wife by shooting the Red Eagle of fateful omen; and the Star Boy, who was
the off-spring of a mortal maiden and a Star.
It was this last who fought for man against his strongest enemies, such as
Wazeeyah, the Cold or North-Wind. There was a desperate battle between
these two, in which first one had the advantage and then the other, until
both were exhausted and declared a truce. While he rested, Star Boy
continued to fan himself with his great fan of eagle feathers, and the
snow melted so fast that North-Wind was forced to arrange a treaty of
peace, by which he was only to control one half the year. So it was that
the orderly march of the seasons was established, and every year Star Boy
with his fan of eagle feathers sets in motion the warm winds that usher in
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VI. ON THE BORDER-LAND OF SPIRITS
Death and Funeral Customs. The Sacred Lock of Hair.
Reincarnation and the Converse of Spirits. Occult and
Psychic Powers. The Gift of Prophecy.
The attitude of the Indian toward death, the test and background of life,
is entirely consistent with his character and philosophy. Death has no
terrors for him; he meets it with simplicity and perfect calm, seeking
only an honorable end as his last gift to his family and descendants.
Therefore he courts death in battle; on the other hand, he would regard it
as disgraceful to be killed in a private quarrel. If one be dying at home,
it is customary to carry his bed out of doors as the end approaches, that
his spirit may pass under the open sky.
Next to this, the matter that concerns him most is the parting with his
dear ones, especially if he have any little children who must be left
behind to suffer want. His family affections are strong, and he grieves
intensely for the lost, even though he has unbounded faith in a spiritual
The outward signs of mourning for the dead are far more spontaneous and
convincing than is the correct and well-ordered black of civilization.
Both men and women among us loosen their hair and cut it according to the
degree of relationship or of devotion. Consistent with the idea of
sacrificing all personal beauty and adornment, they trim off likewise from
the dress its fringes and ornaments, perhaps cut it short, or cut the robe
or blanket in two. The men blacken their faces, and widows or bereaved
parents sometimes gash their arms and legs till they are covered with
blood. Giving themselves up wholly to their grief, they are no longer
concerned about any earthly possession, and often give away all that they
have to the first comers, even to their beds and their home. Finally, the
wailing for the dead is continued night and day to the point of utter
voicelessness; a musical, weird, and heart-piercing sound, which has been
compared to the "keening" of the Celtic mourner.
The old-time burial of the Plains Indians was upon a scaffold of poles, or
a platform among the boughs of a tree—their only means of placing
the body out of reach of wild beasts, as they had no implements with which
to dig a suitable grave. It was prepared by dressing in the finest
clothes, together with some personal possessions and ornaments, wrapped in
several robes, and finally in a secure covering of raw-hide. As a special
mark of respect, the body of a young woman or a warrior was sometimes laid
out in state in a new teepee, with the usual household articles and even
with a dish of food left beside it, not that they supposed the spirit
could use the implements or eat the food but merely as a last tribute.
Then the whole people would break camp and depart to a distance, leaving
the dead alone in an honorable solitude.
There was no prescribed ceremony of burial, though the body was carried
out with more or less solemnity by selected young men, and sometimes noted
warriors were the pall-bearers of a man of distinction. It was usual to
choose a prominent hill with a commanding outlook for the last
resting-place of our dead. If a man were slain in battle, it was an old
custom to place his body against a tree or rock in a sitting position,
always facing the enemy, to indicate his undaunted defiance and bravery,
even in death.
I recall a touching custom among us, which was designed to keep the memory
of the departed near and warm in the bereaved household. A lock of hair of
the beloved dead was wrapped in pretty clothing, such as it was supposed
that he or she would like to wear if living. This "spirit bundle," as it
was called, was suspended from a tripod, and occupied a certain place in
the lodge which was the place of honor. At every meal time, a dish of food
was placed under it, and some person of the same sex and age as the one
who was gone must afterward be invited in to partake of the food. At the
end of a year from the time of death, the relatives made a public feast
and gave away the clothing and other gifts, while the lock of hair was
interred with appropriate ceremonies.
Certainly the Indian never doubted the immortal nature of the spirit or
soul of man, but neither did he care to speculate upon its probable state
or condition in a future life. The idea of a "happy hunting-ground" is
modern and probably borrowed, or invented by the white man. The primitive
Indian was content to believe that the spirit which the "Great Mystery"
breathed into man returns to Him who gave it, and that after it is freed
from the body, it is everywhere and pervades all nature, yet often lingers
near the grave or "spirit bundle" for the consolation of friends, and is
able to hear prayers. So much of reverence was due the disembodied spirit,
that it was not customary with us even to name the dead aloud.
It is well known that the American Indian had somehow developed occult
power, and although in the latter days there have been many impostors,
and, allowing for the vanity and weakness of human nature, it is fair to
assume that there must have been some even in the old days, yet there are
well-attested instances of remarkable prophecies and other mystic
A Sioux prophet predicted the coming of the white man fully fifty years
before the event, and even described accurately his garments and weapons.
Before the steamboat was invented, another prophet of our race described
the "Fire Boat" that would swim upon their mighty river, the Mississippi,
and the date of this prophecy is attested by the term used, which is long
since obsolete. No doubt, many predictions have been colored to suit the
new age, and unquestionably false prophets, fakirs, and conjurers have
become the pest of the tribes during the transition period. Nevertheless,
even during this period there was here and there a man of the old type who
was implicitly believed in to the last.
Notable among these was Ta-chank-pee Ho-tank-a, or His War Club Speaks
Loud, who foretold a year in advance the details of a great war-party
against the Ojibways. There were to be seven battles, all successful
except the last, in which the Sioux were to be taken at a disadvantage and
suffer crushing defeat. This was carried out to the letter. Our people
surprised and slew many of the Ojibways in their villages, but in turn
were followed and cunningly led into an ambush whence but few came out
alive. This was only one of his remarkable prophecies.
Another famous "medicine-man" was born on the Rum River about one hundred
and fifty years ago, and lived to be over a century old. He was born
during a desperate battle with the Ojibways, at a moment when, as it
seemed, the band of Sioux engaged were to be annihilated. Therefore the
child's grandmother exclaimed: "Since we are all to perish, let him die a
warrior's death in the field!" and she placed his cradle under fire, near
the spot where his uncle and grandfathers were fighting, for he had no
father. But when an old man discovered the new-born child, he commanded
the women to take care of him, "for," said he, "we know not how precious
the strength of even one warrior may some day become to his nation!"
This child lived to become great among us, as was intimated to the
superstitious by the circumstances of his birth. At the age of about
seventy-five years, he saved his band from utter destruction at the hands
of their ancestral enemies, by suddenly giving warning received in a dream
of the approach of a large war-party. The men immediately sent out scouts,
and felled trees for a stockade, barely in time to meet and repel the
predicted attack. Five years later, he repeated the service, and again
saved his people from awful slaughter. There was no confusion of figures
or omens, as with lesser medicine-men, but in every incident that is told
of him his interpretation of the sign, whatever it was, proved singularly
The father of Little Crow, the chief who led the "Minnesota massacre" of
1862, was another prophet of some note. One of his characteristic
prophecies was made only a few years before he died, when he had declared
that, although already an old man, he would go once more upon the
war-path. At the final war-feast, he declared that three of the enemy
would be slain, but he showed great distress and reluctance in foretelling
that he would lose two of his own men. Three of the Ojibways were indeed
slain as he had said, but in the battle the old war prophet lost both of
his two sons.
There are many trustworthy men, and men of Christian faith, to vouch for
these and similar events occurring as foretold. I cannot pretend to
explain them, but I know that our people possessed remarkable powers of
concentration and abstraction, and I sometimes fancy that such nearness to
nature as I have described keeps the spirit sensitive to impressions not
commonly felt, and in touch with the unseen powers. Some of us seemed to
have a peculiar intuition for the locality of a grave, which they
explained by saying that they had received a communication from the spirit
of the departed. My own grandmother was one of these, and as far back as I
can remember, when camping in a strange country, my brother and I would
search for and find human bones at the spot she had indicated to us as an
ancient burial-place or the spot where a lone warrior had fallen. Of
course, the outward signs of burial had been long since obliterated.
The Scotch would certainly have declared that she had the "second sight,"
for she had other remarkable premonitions or intuitions within my own
recollection. I have heard her speak of a peculiar sensation in the
breast, by which, as she said, she was advised of anything of importance
concerning her absent children. Other native women have claimed a similar
monitor, but I never heard of one who could interpret it with such
accuracy. We were once camping on Lake Manitoba when we received news that
my uncle and his family had been murdered several weeks before, at a fort
some two hundred miles distant. While all our clan were wailing and
mourning their loss, my grandmother calmly bade them cease, saying that
her son was approaching, and that they would see him shortly. Although we
had no other reason to doubt the ill tidings, it is a fact that my uncle
came into camp two days after his reported death.
At another time, when I was fourteen years old, we had just left Fort
Ellis on the Assiniboine River, and my youngest uncle had selected a fine
spot for our night camp. It was already after sundown, but my grandmother
became unaccountably nervous, and positively refused to pitch her tent. So
we reluctantly went on down the river, and camped after dark at a secluded
place. The next day we learned that a family who were following close
behind had stopped at the place first selected by my uncle, but were
surprised in the night by a roving war-party, and massacred to a man. This
incident made a great impression upon our people.
Many of the Indians believed that one may be born more than once, and
there were some who claimed to have full knowledge of a former
incarnation. There were also those who held converse with a "twin spirit,"
who had been born into another tribe or race. There was a well-known Sioux
war-prophet who lived in the middle of the last century, so that he is
still remembered by the old men of his band. After he had reached middle
age, he declared that he had a spirit brother among the Ojibways, the
ancestral enemies of the Sioux. He even named the band to which his
brother belonged, and said that he also was a war-prophet among his
Upon one of their hunts along the border between the two tribes, the Sioux
leader one evening called his warriors together, and solemnly declared to
them that they were about to meet a like band of Ojibway hunters, led by
his spirit twin. Since this was to be their first meeting since they were
born as strangers, he earnestly begged the young men to resist the
temptation to join battle with their tribal foes.
"You will know him at once," the prophet said to them, "for he will not
only look like me in face and form, but he will display the same totem,
and even sing my war songs!"
They sent out scouts, who soon returned with news of the approaching
party. Then the leading men started with their peace-pipe for the Ojibway
camp, and when they were near at hand they fired three distinct volleys, a
signal of their desire for a peaceful meeting.
The response came in like manner, and they entered the camp, with the
peace-pipe in the hands of the prophet.
Lo, the stranger prophet advanced to meet them, and the people were
greatly struck with the resemblance between the two men, who met and
embraced one another with unusual fervor.
It was quickly agreed by both parties that they should camp together for
several days, and one evening the Sioux made a "warriors' feast" to which
they invited many of the Ojibways. The prophet asked his twin brother to
sing one of his sacred songs, and behold! it was the very song that he
himself was wont to sing. This proved to the warriors beyond doubt or
cavil the claims of their seer.