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Storms in Life and Nature or Unktahe and the Thunder Bird
Posted By Dennis On In Native American,North Dakota | No Comments
“Ever,” says Checkered Cloud, “will Unktahe, the god of the waters, and Wahkeon, (Thunder,) do battle against each other. Sometimes the thunder birds are conquerors often the god of the waters chases his enemies back to the distant clouds.”
Many times, too, will the daughters of the nation go into the pathless prairies to weep; it is their custom; and while there is sickness, and want, and death, so long will they leave the haunts of men to weep where none but the Great Spirit may witness their tears. It is only, they believe, in the City of spirits, that the sorrows of Dahcotah women will cease there, will their tears be dried forever.
Many winters have passed away since Harpstenah brought the dead body of her husband to his native village to be buried; my authority is the “medicine woman,” whose lodge, for many years, was to be seen on the banks of Lake Calhoun.
This village is now deserted. The remains of a few houses are to be seen, and the broken ground in which were planted the poles of their
teepees. Silence reigns where the merry laugh of the villagers often met in chorus. The scene of the feast and dance is now covered with long grass, but “desolation saddens all its green.”
Dark and heavy clouds hung over the village of “Sleepy Eyes,” one of the chiefs of the Sioux. The thunder birds flapped their wings angrily as they flew along, and where they hovered over the “Father of many waters,” the waves rose up, and heaved to and fro. Unktahe was eager to fight against his ancient enemies; for as the storm spirits shrieked wildly, the waters tossed above each other; the large forest trees were up torn from their roots, and fell over into the turbid waters, where they lay powerless amid the scene of strife; and while the vivid lightning pierced the darkness, peal after peal was echoed by the neighboring hills.
One human figure was seen outside the many teepees that rose side by side in the village. Sleepy Eyes alone dared to stand and gaze upon the tempest which was triumphing over all the powers of nature. As the lightning fell upon the tall form of the chief, he turned his keen glance from the swift-flying clouds to the waters, where dwelt the god whose anger he had ever been taught to fear. He longed, though trembling, to see the countenance of the being whose appearance is the sure warning of calamity. His superstitious fears told him to turn, lest the deity should rise before him; while his native courage, and love of the marvelous, chained him to the spot.
The storm raged wilder and louder the driving wind scattered the hail around him, and at length the chief raised the door of his teepee, and joined his frightened household. Trembling and crouching to the ground were the mothers and children, as the teepee shook from the force of the wind. The young children hid their faces close against their mothers’ breasts. Every head was covered, to avoid the streaked lightning as it glanced over the bent and terrified forms, that seemed to cling to the earth for protection.
At the end of the village, almost on the edge of the high bluff that towered above the river, rose a teepee, smaller than the rest. The open door revealed the wasted form of Harpstenah, an aged woman.
Aged, but not with years! Evil had been the days of her pilgrimage.
The fire that had burned in the wigwam was all gone out, the dead ashes lay in the centre, ever and anon scattered by the wind over the wretched household articles that lay around. Gone out, too, were the flames that once lighted with happiness the heart of Harpstenah.
The sorrows of earth, more pitiless than the winds of heaven, had scattered forever the hopes that had made her a being of light and life. The head that lies on the earth was once pillowed on the breast of the lover of her youth. The arm that is heavily thrown from her once clasped his children to her heart. What if the rain pours in upon her, or the driving wind and hail scatter her wild locks? She feels it not. Life is there, but the consciousness of life is gone forever.
A heavier cloud hangs about her heart than that which darkens nature. She fears not the thunder, nor sees the angry lightning. She has laid upon the scaffold her youngest son, the last of the many ties that bound her to earth.
One week before, her son entered the wigwam. He was not alone; his comrade, “The Hail that Strikes,” accompanied him.
Harpstenah had been tanning deer-skin near her door. She had planted two poles firmly in the ground, and on them she had stretched the deer-skin. With an iron instrument she constantly scraped the skin, throwing water upon it. She had smoked it too, and now it was ready to make into moccasins or leggings. She had determined, while she was tanning the deer-skin, how she would embroider them. They should be richer and handsomer even than those of their chief’s son; nay, gayer than those worn by the chief himself. She had beads and stained porcupine quills; all were ready for her to sew.
The venison for the evening meal was cooked and placed in a wooden bowl before the fire, when the two young men entered. The son hardly noticed his mother’s greeting, as he invited his friend to partake of the venison. After eating, he filled his pipe, smoked, and offered it to the other. They seemed inclined to waste but little time in talking, for the pipe was put by, and they were about to leave the teepee, when the son’s steps were arrested by his mother’s asking him if he were going out again on a hunt. “There is food enough,” she added, “and I thought you would remain at home and prepare to join in the dance of the sun, which will be celebrated to-morrow. You promised me to do so, and a Dahcotah values his word.”
The young man hesitated, for he loved his mother, and he knew it would grieve her to be told the expedition upon which he was going.
The eyes of his comrade flashed fire, and his lip curled scornfully, as he turned towards the son of Harpstenah. “Are you afraid to tell your mother the truth,” he said, “or do you fear the ‘long knives’1 will carry you a prisoner to their fort? I will tell you where we are going,” he added. “The Dahcotahs have bought us
whiskey, and we are going to meet them and help bring it up. And now cry you are a woman but it is time for us to be gone.”
The son lingered he could not bear to see his mother’s tears. He knew the sorrows she had endured, he knew too (for she had often assured him) that should harm come to him she would not survive it. The knife she carried in her belt was ready to do its deadly work. She implored him to stay, calling to his mind the deaths of his father and of his murdered brothers; she bade him remember the tears they had shed together, and the promises he had often made, never to add to the trials she had endured.
It was all in vain; for his friend, impatient to be gone, laughed at him for listening to the words of his mother. “Is not a woman a dog?” he said. “Do you intend to stay all night to hear your mother talk? If so, tell me, that I may seek another comrade one who fears neither a white man nor a woman.”
This appeal had its effect, for the young men left the teepee together. They were soon out of sight, while Harpstenah sat weeping, and swaying her body to and fro, lamenting the hour she was born. “There is no sorrow in the land of spirits,” she cried; “oh! that I were dead!”
The party left the village that night to procure the whiskey. They were careful to keep watch for the Chippeways, so easy would it be for their enemies to spring up from behind a tree, or to be concealed among the bushes and long grass that skirted the open prairies. Day and night they were on their guard; the chirping of the small bird by day, as well as the hooting of an owl by night either might be the feigned voice of a tomahawked enemy. And as they approached St. Anthony’s Falls, they had still another cause for caution. Here their friends were to meet them with the fire water. Here, too, they might see the soldiers from Fort Snelling, who would snatch the untasted prize from their lips, and carry them prisoners to the fort a disgrace that would cling to them forever.
Concealed under a rock, they found the kegs of liquor, and, while placing them in their canoes, they were joined by the Indians who had been keeping guard over it, and at the same time watching for the soldiers.
In a few hours they were relieved of their fears. The flag that waved from the tower at Fort Snelling, had been long out of sight. They kept their canoes side by side, passing away the time in conversation.
The women who were paddling felt no fatigue. They knew that at night they were to have a feast. Already the fires of the maddening drink had made the blood in their dull veins course quickly. They anticipated the excitement that would make them forget they had ever been cold or hungry; and bring to them bright dreams of that world where sorrow is unknown.
“We must be far on our journey to-night,” said the Rattler; “the long knives are ever on the watch for Dahcotahs with whiskey.”
“The laws of the white people are very just,” said an old man of the party; “they let their people live near us and sell us whiskey, they take our furs from us, and get much money. They have the right to bring their liquor near us, and sell it, but if we buy it we are punished. When I was young,” he added, bitterly, “the Dahcotahs were free; they went and came as they chose. There were no soldiers sent to our villages to frighten our women and children, and to take our young
men prisoners. The Dahcotahs are all women now there are no warriors among them, or they would not submit to the power of the long knives.”
“We must submit to them,” said the Rattler; “it would be in vain to attempt to contend with them. We have learned that the long knives can work in the night . A few nights ago, some young men belonging to the village of Marpuah Wechastah, had been drinking. They knew that the Chippeway interpreter was away, and that his wife was alone. They went, like cowards as they were, to frighten a woman. They yelled and sung, they beat against her door, shouting and laughing when they found she was afraid to come out. When they returned home it was just day; they drank and slept till night, and then they assembled, four young men in one teepee, to pass the night in drinking.
“The father of White Deer came to the teepee. ‘My son,’ said he, ‘it is better for you to stop drinking and go away. You have an uncle among the Tetons, go and visit him. You brought the fire water here, you frightened the wife of the Interpreter, and for this trouble you will be punished. Your father is old, save him the disgrace of seeing his son a prisoner at the Fort.’
“‘Fear not, my father,’ said the young man, ‘your Son will never be a prisoner. I wear a charm over my heart, which will ever make me free as the wind. The white men cannot work in the night; they are sleeping even now. We will have a merry night, and when the sun is high, and the long knives come to seek me, you may laugh at them, and tell them to follow me to the country of the Tetons.’ The father left the teepee, and White Deer struck the keg with his tomahawk. The fire water dulled their senses, for they heard not their enemies until they were upon them.
“It was in the dead of night all but the revelers slept when the soldiers from the fort surrounded the village.
“The mother of White Deer heard the barking of her dog. She looked out of the door of her teepee. She saw nothing, for it was dark; but she knew there was danger near.
“Our warriors, roused from their sleep, determined to find out the cause of the alarm; they were thrust back into their teepees by the bayonets of the long knives, and the voice of the Interpreter was heard, crying, ‘The first Dahcotah that leaves his lodge shall be shot.’
“The soldiers found out from the old chief the teepee of the revelers. The young men did not hear them as they approached; they were drinking and shouting. White Deer had raised the cup to his lips, when the soldier’s grasp was upon him. It was too late for him to fly.
“There was an unopened keg of liquor in the teepee. The soldiers struck it to pieces, and the fire water covered the ground.
“The hands of White Deer were bound with an iron chain; he threw from him his clothes and his blanket. He was a prisoner, and needed not the clothing of a Dahcotah, born free.
“The grey morning dawned as they entered the large door of the fort. His old father soon followed him; he offered to stay, himself, as a prisoner, if his young son could be set free.
“It is in vain, then, that we would contend with the white man; they keep a watch over all our actions. They work in the night.”
“The long knives will ever triumph, when the medicine men of our nation speak as you do,” said Two Stars. “I have lived near them always, and have never been their prisoner. I have suffered from cold in the winter, and have never asked clothing, and from hunger, and have never asked food. My wife has never stood at the gate to ask bread, nor have my daughters adorned themselves to attract the eyes of their young men. I will live and die on the land of my forefathers, without asking a favor of an enemy. They call themselves the friends of the Dahcotahs. They are our friends when they want our lands or our furs.
“They are our worst enemies; they have trampled us under foot. We do not chase the deer on the prairies as eagerly as they have hunted us down. They steal from us our rights, and then gain us over by fair words. I hate them; and had not our warriors turned women, and learned to fear them, I would gladly climb their walls, and shout the war-cry in their ears. The Great Spirit has indeed forsaken his children, when their warriors and wise men talk of submission to their foes.”
Well might Harpstenah sit in her lodge and weep. The sorrows of her life passed in review before her. Yet she was once the belle of an Indian village; no step so light, no laugh so merry as hers. She possessed too, a spirit and a firmness not often found among women.
She was by birth the third daughter, who is always called Harpstenah among the Sioux. Her sisters were married, and she had seen but fourteen summers when old Cloudy Sky, the medicine man, came to her parents to buy her for his wife.
They dared not refuse him, for they were afraid to offend a medicine man, and a war chief besides. Cloudy Sky was willing to pay them well for their child. So she was told that her fate for life was determined upon. Her promised bridegroom had seen the snows of eighty winters.
It was a bright night in the “moon for strawberries.”2 Harpstenah had wept herself to sleep, and she had reason too, for her young companions had laughed at her, and told her that she was to have for a husband an old man without a nose. And it was true, though Cloudy Sky could once have boasted of a fine aquiline. He had been drinking freely, and picked a quarrel with one of his sworn friends. After some preliminary blows, Cloudy Sky seized his antagonist
and cut his ear sadly, but in return he had his nose bitten off.
She had wept the more when her mother told her that in four days she was to go to the teepee of her husband. It was in vain to contend. She lay down beside the fire; deep sleep came upon her; she forgot the events of the past day; for a time she ceased to think of the young man she loved, and the old one she hated. In her dreams she had traveled a long journey, and was seated on the river shore, to rest her tired limbs. The red light of the dying sun illumined the prairies, she could not have endured its scorching rays, were it not for the sheltering branches of the tree under which she had found a resting-place.
The waters of the river beat against her feet. She would fain move, but something chained her to the spot. She tried to call her mother, but her lips were sealed, and her voice powerless. She would have turned her face from the waters, but even this was impossible. Stronger and stronger beat the waves, and then parted, revealing the dreaded form of the fairy of the waters.
Harpstenah looked upon death as inevitable; she had ever feared that terrible race of beings whose home was in the waters. And now the fairy stood before her!
“Why do you tremble maiden? Only the wicked need fear the anger of the gods You have never offended us, nor the spirits of the dead. You have danced in the scalp-dance, and have reverenced the customs of the Sioux. You have shed many tears. You love Red Deer, and your father has sold you to Cloudy Sky, the medicine man. It is with you to marry the man you love, or the one you hate.”
“If you know everything,” sighed the girl, “then you must know that in four days I am to take my seat beside Cloudy Sky in his wigwam. He has twice brought calico and cloth, and laid them at the door of my father’s teepee.”
“You shall not marry Cloudy Sky, if you have a strong heart, and fear nothing,” replied the fairy. The spirits of the water have determined on the death of Cloudy Sky. He has already lived three times on earth. For many years he wandered through the air with the sons of the thunder bird; like them he was ever fighting against the friends of Unktahe.
“With his own hand he killed the son of that god, and for that was he sent to earth to be a medicine man. But long ago we have said that the time should come, when we would destroy him from the earth. It is for you to take his life when he sleeps. Can a Dahcotah woman want courage when she is to be forced to marry a man she hates?”
The waters closed over the fairy as he disappeared, and the waves beat harder against Harpstenah’s feet. She awoke with the words echoing in her heart, “Can a Sioux woman want courage when she is to be forced to marry a man she hates?” “The words of the fairy were wise and true,” thought the maiden. “Our medicine-men say that the fairies of the water are all wicked; that they are ever seeking to do harm to the Dahcotahs.
My dream has made my heart light. I will take the life of the war chief. At the worst they can but take mine.”
As she looked round the teepee, her eye rested upon the faces of her parents. The bright moonlight had found its way into the teepee. There lay her father, his haughty countenance calm and subdued, for the “image of death” had chased away the impression left on his features of a fierce struggle with a hard life. How often had he warned her of the danger of offending Cloudy Sky, that sickness, famine, death itself, might be the result. Her mother too, had wearied her with warnings. But she remembered her dream, and with all a Sioux woman’s faith in revelations, she determined to let it influence her course.
Red Deer had often vowed to take the life of his rival, though he knew it would have assuredly cost him his own. The family of Cloudy Sky was a large one; there were many who would esteem it a sacred duty to avenge his death. Besides he would gain nothing by it, for the parents of Harpstenah would never consent to her marriage with the murderer of the war chief.
How often had Red Deer tried to induce the young girl to leave the village, and return with him as his wife. “Have we not always loved each other,” he said. “When we were children, you made me moccasins, and paddled the canoe for me, and I brought the wild duck, which I shot while it was flying, to you. You promised me to be my wife, when I should be a great hunter, and had brought to you the scalp of an enemy. I have kept my promise, but you have broken yours.”
“I know it,” she replied; “but I fear to keep my word. They would kill you, and the spirits of my dead brothers would haunt me for disobeying my parents. Cloudy Sky says that if I do not marry him he will cast a spell upon me; he says that the brightness would leave my eye, and the color my cheek; that my step should be slow and weary, and soon would I be laid in the earth beside my brothers. The spirit that should watch beside my body would be offended for my sin in disobeying the counsel of the aged. You, too, should die, he says, not by the tomahawk, as a warrior should die, but by a lingering disease fever should enter your veins, your strength would soon be gone, you would no longer be able to defend yourself from your enemies. Let me die, rather than bring such trouble upon you.”
Red Deer could not reply, for he believed that Cloudy Sky could do all that he threatened. Nerved, then, by her devotion to her lover, her hatred of Cloudy Sky, and her faith in her dream, Harpstenah determined her heart should not fail her; she would obey the mandate of the water god; she would bury her knife in the heart of the medicine man.
In their hours for eating, the Sioux accommodate themselves to circumstances. If food be plenty, they eat three or four times a day; if scarce, they eat but once. Sometimes they go without food for several days, and often they are obliged to live for weeks on the bark of trees, skins, or anything that will save them from dying of famine.
When game and corn are plenty, the kettle is always boiling, and they are invariably hospitable and generous, always offering to a visitor such as they have it in their power to give.
The stars were still keeping watch, when Harpstenah was called by her mother to assist her. The father’s morning meal was prepared early, for he was going out to hunt. Wild duck, pigeons, and snipe, could be had in abundance; the timid grouse, too, could be roused up on the prairies. Larger game was there, too, for the deer flew swiftly past, and had even stopped to drink on the opposite shore of the “Spirit Lake.”
When they assembled to eat, the old man lifted up his hands “May the Great Spirit have mercy upon us, and give me good luck in hunting.” Meat and boiled corn were eaten from wooden bowls, and the father went his way, leaving his wife and daughter to attend to their domestic cares.
Harpstenah was cutting wood near the lodge, when Cloudy Sky presented himself. He went into the teepee and lighted his pipe, and then, seating himself outside, began to smoke. He was, in truth, a sorry figure for a bridegroom. Always repulsive in his looks, his present dress was not calculated to improve him. He wore mourning for his enemy, whom he had killed.
His face was painted perfectly black; nothing but the whites of his eyes relieved the universal darkness. His blanket was torn and old his hair unbraided, and on the top of his head he wore a knot of swan’s down.
Every mark of grief or respect he could have shown a dead brother, he now assumed in honor of the man whom he had hated whose life he had
destroyed who had belonged to the hateful tribe which had ever been the enemy of his nation.
He looked very important as he puffed away, now watching Harpstenah, who appeared to be unconscious of his presence, now fixing his eyes on her mother, who was busily employed mending moccasins.
Having finished smoking; he used a fan which was attached to the other end of his pipe-stem. It was a very warm day, and the perspiration that was bursting from his forehead mingled with the black paint and slowly found its way down his face.
“Where is your husband?” at length he asked of the mother.
“He saw a deer fly past this morning,” she replied, “and he has gone to seek it, that I may dry it.”
“Does he come back to-night?”
“He does; he said you were to give a medicine feast to-morrow, and that he would be here.”
Harpstenah knew well why the medicine feast was to be given. Cloudy Sky could not, according to the laws of the Sioux, throw off his mourning, until he had killed an enemy or given a medicine dance. She knew that he wanted to wear a new blanket, and plait his hair, and paint his face a more becoming color. But she knew his looks could not be improved, and she went on cutting wood, as unconcernedly as if the old war chief were her grandfather, instead of her affianced husband. He might gain the good will of her parents, he might even propitiate the spirits of the dead: She would take his life, surely as the senseless wood yielded to the strength of the arm that was cleaving it.
“You will be at the feast too,” said Cloudy Sky to the mother; “you have always foretold truly. There is not a woman in the band who can tell what is going to happen as well as you. There is no nation so great as the Dahcotah,” continued the medicine man, as he saw several idlers approach, and stretch themselves on the grass to listen to him. “There is no nation so great as the Dahcotah but our people are not so great now as they were formerly. When our forefathers killed buffaloes on these prairies, that the white people now ride across as if they were their own, mighty giants lived among them; they strode over the widest rivers, and the tallest trees; they could lay their hands upon the highest hills, as they walked the earth. But they were not men of war. They did not fight great battles, as do the Thunder Bird and his warriors.”
There were large animals, too, in those days; so large that the stoutest of our warriors were but as children beside them. Their bones have been preserved through many generations. They are sacred to us, and we keep them because they will cure us when we are sick, and will save us from danger.
I have lived three times on earth. When my body was first laid upon the scaffold, my spirit wandered through the air. I followed the Thunder Birds as they darted among the clouds. When the heavens were black, and the rain fell in big drops, and the streaked lightning frightened our women and children, I was a warrior, fighting beside the sons of the Thunder Bird.
Unktahe rose up before us; sixty of his friends were with him: the waters heaved and pitched, as the spirits left them to seek vengeance against the Thunder Birds. They showed us their terrible horns, but they tried to frighten us in vain. We were but forty; we flew towards them, holding our shields before our breasts; the wind tore up the trees, and threw down the teepees, as we passed along.
All day we fought; when we were tired we rested awhile, and then the winds were still, and the sun showed himself from behind the dark clouds. But soon our anger rose. The winds flew along swifter than the eagle, as the Thunder Birds clapped their wings, and again we fought against our foes.
The son of Unktahe came towards me; his eyes shone like fire, but I was not afraid. I remembered I had been a Sioux warrior. He held his shield before him, as he tried to strike me with his spear. I turned his shield aside, and struck him to the heart.
He fell, and the waters whirled round as they received his body. The sons of Unktahe shouted fearful cries of rage, but our yells of triumph drowned them.
The water spirits shrank to their home, while we returned to the clouds. The large rain drops fell slowly, and the bow of bright colors rested between the heavens and the earth. The strife was over, and we were conquerors. I know that Unktahe hates me that he would kill me if he could but the Thunder bird has greater power than he; the friend of the ‘Man of the West’3 is safe from harm.
Harpstenah had ceased her work, and was listening to the boaster. “It was all true,” she said to herself; “the fairy of the water told me that he had offended her race. I will do their bidding. Cloudy Sky may boast of his power, but ere two nights have passed away, he will find he cannot despise the anger of the water spirits, nor the courage of a Dahcotah woman.”
The approach of night brought with it but little inclination to sleep to the excited girl. Her father slept, tired with the day’s hunt; and her mother dreamed of seeing her daughter the wife of a war chief and a medicine man.
The village was built on the shores of the lake now known as Lake Calhoun. By the light of the moon the teepees were reflected in its
waters. It was bright as day; so clear was the lake, that the agates near the shore sparkled in its waters. The cry of the whippoorwill alone disturbed the repose of nature, except when the wild scream of the loon was heard as she gracefully swept the waters.
Seated on the shore, Harpstenah waited to hear the low whistle of her lover. The villagers were almost all asleep, now and then the laugh of some rioters was heard breaking in upon the stillness of night. She had not seen her lover for many days; from the time that her marriage was determined upon, the young warrior had kept aloof from her. She had seized her opportunity to tell him that he must meet her where they had often met, where none should know of their meeting. She told him to come when the moon rose, as her father would be tired, and her mother wished to sleep well before the medicine feast.
Many fears oppressed her heart, for he had not answered her when she spoke to him, and he might not intend to come. Long she waited in vain, and she now arose to return to the teepee, when the low signal met her ear.
She did not wait to hear it a second time, but made her way along the shore: now her steps were printed in the wet sand, now planted on the rocks near the shore; not a sound followed her movements until she stood on the appointed place. The bright moonlight fell upon her features, and her rich dress, as she waited with folded arms for her lover to address her. Her okendokenda of bright colors was slightly open at the neck, and revealed brooches of brass and silver that covered her bosom; a heavy necklace of crimson beads hung around her throat; bracelets of brass clasped her wrists, and her long plaited hair was ornamented at the end of the braids with trinkets of silver.
Her cloth petticoat was richly decorated with ribbons, and her leggings and moccasins proved that she had spent much time and labor on the adorning of a person naturally well formed, and graceful.
“Why have you wished to meet me, Harpstenah?” said the young man, gloomily. “Have you come to tell me of the presents Cloudy Sky has made you, or do you wish to say that you are ashamed to break the promise you made me to be my wife?”
“I have come to say again that I will be your wife,” she replied: “and for the presents Cloudy Sky left for me, I have trampled them under my feet. See, I wear near my heart the brooches you have given me.”
“Women are ever dogs and liars,” said Red Deer, “but why do you speak such words to me, when you know you have agreed to marry Cloudy Sky? Your cousin told me your father had chosen him to carry you into the teepee of the old man. Your father beat you, and you agreed to marry him. You are a coward to mind a little pain. Go, marry the old medicine man; he will beat you as he has his other wives; he may strike you with his tomahawk and kill you, as he did his first wife; or he will sell you to the traders, as he did the other; he will tell you to steal pork and whiskey for him, and then when it is found out, he will take you and say you are a thief, and that he has beaten you for it. Go, the young should ever mate with the young, but you will soon lie on the scaffold, and by his hand too.”
“The proud eagle seeks to frighten the timid bird that follows it,” said the maiden; “but Red Deer should not speak such angry words to the woman that will venture her life for him. Cloudy Sky boasts that he is the friend of the thunder bird; in my dreams, I have seen the fairy of the waters, and he told me that Cloudy Sky should die by my hand. My words are true. Cloudy Sky was once with the sons of the thunder birds when they fought against Unktahe. He killed a son of the water god, and the spirits of the water have determined on his death.
“Red Deer, my heart is strong. I do not fear the medicine man, for the power of Unktahe is greater than his. But you must go far away and visit the Tetons; if you are here, they will accuse you of his death, and will kill you. But as I have promised to marry him, no one will think that I have murdered him. It will be long ere I see you again, but in the moon that we gather wild rice,4 return, and I will be your wife. Go, now,” she added, “say to your mother that you are going to visit your friends, and before the day comes be far away. To-morrow Cloudy Sky gives a medicine feast, and to-morrow night Haokah will make my heart strong, and I will kill the medicine man. His soul will travel a long journey to the land of spirits. There let him drink, and boast, and frighten women.”
Red Deer heard her, mute with astonishment. The color mantled in her cheek, and her determined countenance assured him that she was in earnest. He charged her to remember the secret spells of the medicine man. If she loved him it was far better to go with him now; they would soon be out of the reach of her family. To this she would not listen, and repeating to him her intention of executing all she had told him of, she left him.
He watched her as she returned to her teepee; sometimes her form was lost in the thick bushes, he could see her again as she made her way along the pebbled shore, and when she had entered her teepee he returned home.
He collected his implements of war and hunting, and, telling his mother he was going on a long journey, he left the village.
The feast given in honor of their medicine was celebrated the next day, and Cloudy Sky was thus relieved of the necessity of wearing mourning for his enemy.
His face was carefully washed of the black paint that disfigured it; his hair, plentifully greased, was braided and ornamented. His leggings were new, and his white blanket was marked according to Indian custom. On it was painted a black hand, that all might know that he had killed his enemy. But for all he did not look either young or handsome, and Harpstenah’s young friends were astonished that she witnessed the preparations for her marriage with so much indifference.
But she was unconscious alike of their sympathy and ridicule; her soul was occupied with the reflection that upon her energy depended her
future fate. Never did her spirit shrink from its appointed task. Nor was she entirely governed by selfish motives; she believed herself an instrument in the hand of the gods.
Mechanically she performed her ordinary duties. The wood was cut and the evening meal was, cooked; afterwards she cut down branches of trees, and swept the wigwam. In the evening, the villagers had assembled on the shores of the lake to enjoy the cool air after the heat of the day.
Hours passed away as gossiping and amusement engaged them all. At length they entered their teepees to seek rest, and Harpstenah and her mother were the last at the door of their teepee, where a group had been seated on the ground, discussing their own and others’ affairs. “No harm can come to you, my daughter, when you are the wife of so great a medicine man. If any one hate you and wish to do you an injury, Cloudy Sky will destroy their power. Has he not lived with the Thunder Birds, did he not learn from them to cure the sick, and to destroy his enemies? He is a great warrior too.”
“I know it, my mother,” replied the girl, “but we have sat long in the moonlight, the wind that stirred the waters of the spirit lake is gone. I must sleep, that I may be ready to dress myself when you call me. My hair must be braided in many braids, and the strings are not yet sewed to my moccasins. You too are tired; let us go in and sleep.”
Sleep came to the mother to the daughter courage and energy. Not in vain had she prayed to Haokah the Giant, to give her power to perform a great deed. Assured that her parents were sleeping heavily, she rose and sought the lodge of the medicine man.
When she reached the teepee, she stopped involuntarily before the door, near which hung, on a pole, the medicine bag of the old man. The medicine known only to the clan had been preserved for ages. Sacred had it ever been from the touch of woman. It was placed there to guard the medicine man from evil, and to bring punishment on those who sought to do him harm. Harpstenah’s strength failed her. What was she about to do?
Could she provoke with impunity the anger of the spirits of the dead? Would not the Great Spirit bring terrible vengeance upon her head. Ready to sink to the earth with terror, the words of the fairy of the waters reassured her. “Can a Dahcotah woman want courage when she is to be forced to marry a man she hates?”
The tumult within is stilled the strong beating of her heart has ceased her hand is upon the handle of her knife, as the moonlight falls upon its glittering blade.
Too glorious a night for so dark a deed! See! they are confronted, the old man and the maiden! The tyrant and his victim; the slave dealer and the noble soul he had trafficked for!
Pale, but firm with high resolve, the girl looked for one moment at the man she had feared whose looks had checked her childish mirth, whose anger she had been taught to dread, even to the sacrificing of her heart’s best hopes.
Restlessly the old man slept; perchance he saw the piercing eyes that were, fixed upon him, for he muttered of the road to the land of spirits. Listen to him, as he boasts of the warrior’s work.
“Many brave men have made this road. The friend of the Thunder Birds was worthy. Strike the woman who would dare assist a warrior. Strike ”
“Deep in his heart she plunged the ready steel,” and she drew it out, the life blood came quickly. She alone heard his dying groan. She left the teepee her work was done. It was easy to wash the stains on her knife in the waters of the lake.
When her mother arose, she looked at the pale countenance of her daughter. In vain she sought to understand her muttered words. Harpstenah, as she tried to sleep, fancied she heard the wild laugh of the water spirits. Clouds had obscured the moon, and distant thunder rolled along the sky; and, roused by the clamorous grief of the many women assembled in the lodge, she heard from them of the dark tragedy in which she had been the principal actor. The murderer was not to be found. Red Deer was known to be far away. It only remained to bury Cloudy Sky, with all the honors due to a
Harpstenah joined in the weeping of the mourners the fountains of a Sioux woman’s tears are easily unlocked. She threw her blanket upon the dead body.
Many were the rich presents made to the inanimate clay which yesterday influenced those who still trembled lest the spirit of the dead war-chief would haunt them. The richest cloth enrobed his body, and, a short distance from the village, he was placed upon a scaffold.
Food was placed beside him; it would be long before his soul would reach the city of spirits; his strength would fail him, were it not for the refreshment of the tender flesh of the wild deer he had loved to chase, and the cooling waters he had drank on earth, for many, many winters.
But after the death of Cloudy Sky, the heart of Harpstenah grew light. She joined again in the ball plays on the prairies. It needed no vermilion on her cheek to show the brightness of her eye, for the flush of hope and happiness was there.
The dark deed was forgotten; and when, in the time that the leaves began to fall, they prepared the wild rice for winter’s use, Red Deer was at her side.
He was a good hunter, and the parents were old. Red Deer ever kept them supplied with game and winter found her a wife, and a happy one too; for Red Deer loved her in very truth and the secret of the death of the medicine man was buried in their hearts.
Ten years had passed away since their marriage, and Red Deer had never brought another wife to his teepee. Harpstenah was without a rival in his affections, if we except the three strong boys who were growing up beside them.
Chaske (the oldest son) could hunt for his mother, and it was well that he could, for his father’s strength was gone. Consumption wasted his limbs, and the once powerful arm could not now support his drooping head.
The father and mother had followed Cloudy Sky to the world of spirits; they were both anxious to depart from earth, for age had made them feeble, and the hardships of ninety years made them eager to have their strength renewed, in the country where their ancestors were still in the vigor of early youth. The band at Lake Calhoun were going on a hunt for porcupines; a long hunt, and Harpstenah tried to deter her husband from attempting the journey; but he thought the animating exercise of the chase would be a restorative to his feeble frame, and they set out with the rest.
When the hunters had obtained a large number of those valued animals, the women struck their teepees and prepared for their return. Harpstenah’s lodge alone remained, for in it lay the dying man by his side his patient wife. The play of the children had ceased they watched with silent awe the pale face and bright eye of their father they heard him charge their mother to place food that his soul might be refreshed on its long journey. Not a tear dimmed her eye as she promised all he asked.
“There is one thing, my wife,” he said, “which still keeps my spirit on earth. My soul cannot travel the road to the city of spirits that long road made by the bravest of our warriors while it remembers the body which it has so long inhabited shall be buried far from its native village. Your words were wise when you told me I had not strength to travel so far, and now my body must lie far from my home far from the place of my birth from the village where I have danced the dog feast, and from the shores of the ‘spirit lakes’ where my father taught me to use my bow and arrow.”
“Your body shall lie on the scaffold near your native village,” his wife replied. “When I turn from this place, I will take with me my husband; and my young children shall walk by my side. My heart is as brave now as it was when I took the life of the medicine man. The love that gave me courage then, will give me strength now. Fear not for me; my limbs will not be weary, and when the Great Spirit calls me, I will hear his voice, and follow you to the land of spirits, where there will be no more sickness nor trouble.”
Many stars shone out that night; they assisted in the solemn and the sacred watch. The mother looked at the faces of her sleeping sons, and listened to their heavy breathing; they had but started on the journey of life.
She turned to her husband: it was but the wreck of a deserted house, the tenant had departed.
The warrior was already far on his journey; ere this, he had reached the lodge where the freed spirit adorns itself ere entering upon its new abode.
Some days after, Harpstenah entered her native village, bearing a precious burden. Strapped to her back was the body of her husband. By day, she had borne it all the weary way; at night, she had stopped to rest and to weep. Nor did her strength fail her, until she reached her home; then, insensible to sorrow and fatigue, she sunk to the earth.
The women relieved her from the burden, and afterwards helped her to bury her dead.
Many waters could not quench her love, nor could the floods drown it. It was strong as death. Well might she sit in her lodge and weep! The village where she passed her childhood and youth was deserted. Her husband forgotten by all but herself. Her two sons were murdered by the Chippeways, while defending their mother and their young brother.
Well might she weep! and tremble too, for death among the Dahcotahs comes as often by the fire water purchased from the white people, as from the murderous tomahawk and scalping-knife of the Chippeways.
Nor were her fears useless; she never again saw her son, until his body was brought to her, his dark features stiff in death. The death blow was given, too, by the friend who had shamed him from listening to his mother’s voice.
What wonder that she should not heed the noise of the tempest! The storms of her life had been fiercer than the warring of the elements. But while the fountains of heaven were unsealed, those of her heart were closed forever. Never more should tears relieve her, who had shed so many. Often had she gone into the prairies to weep, far from the sight of her companions. Her voice was heard from a distance. The wind would waft the melancholy sound back to the village.
“It is only Harpstenah,” said the women. “She has gone to the prairies to weep for her husband and her children.” The storm raged during the night, but ceased with the coming of day. The widowed wife and childless mother was found dead under the scaffold where lay the body of her son.
The Thunder Bird was avenged for the death of his friend. The strength of Red Deer had wasted under a lingering disease; his children were dead; their mother lay beside her youngest son.
The spirit of the waters had not appeared in vain. When the countenance of Unktahe rests upon a Dahcotah, it is the sure prognostic of coming evil. The fury of the storm spirits was spent when the soul of Harpstenah followed her lost ones.
Dimly, as the lengthened shadows of evening fall around them, are seen the outstretched arms of the suffering Dahcotah women, as they appeal to us for assistance and not to proud man!
He, in the halls of legislation, decides when the lands of the red man are needed one party makes a bargain which the other is forced to accept.
But in a woman’s heart God has placed sympathies to which the sorrows of the Dahcotah women appeal. Listen! for they tell you they would fain know of a balm for the many griefs they endure; they would be taught to avoid the many sins they commit; and, oh! how gladly would many of them have their young children accustomed to shudder at the sight of a fellow creature’s blood. Like us, they pour out the best affections of early youth on a beloved object. Like us, they have clasped their children to their hearts in devoted love. Like us, too, they have wept as they laid them in the quiet earth.
But they must fiercely grapple with trials which we have never conceived. Winter after winter passes, and they perish from disease, and murder, and famine.
There is a way to relieve them would you know it? Assist the missionaries who are giving their lives to them and God. Send them money, that they may clothe the feeble infant, and feed its starving mother.
Send them money, that they may supply the wants of those who are sent to school, and thus encourage others to attend.
As the day of these forgotten ones is passing away, so is ours. They were born to suffer, we to relieve. Let their deathless souls be taught the way of life, that they and we, after the harsh discords of earth shall have ceased, may listen together to the “harmonies of Heaven.”
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