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The Sioux occupy a country from the Mississippi river to some point west of the Missouri, and from the Chippewa tribe on the north, to the Winnebago on the south; the whole extent being about nine hundred miles long by four hundred in breadth.
Dahcotah is the proper name of this once powerful tribe of Indians. The term Sioux is not recognized, except among those who live near the whites. It is said to have been given by the old French traders, that the Dahcotahs might not know when they were the subjects of conversation. The exact meaning of the word has never been ascertained.
Dahcotah means a confederacy. A number of bands live near each other on terms of friendship, their customs and laws being the same. They mean by the word Dahcotah what we mean by the confederacy of states in our union. The tribe is divided into a number of bands, which are subdivided into villages; every village being governed by its own chief. The honor of being chief is hereditary, though for cause a chief may be deposed and another substituted; and the influence the chief possesses depends much more upon his talents and capacity to govern, than upon mere hereditary descent. To every village there is also a war-chief , and as to these are ascribed supernatural powers, their influence is unbounded. Leading every military excursion, the war-chief’s command is absolute with his party.
There are many clans among the Sioux, and these are distinguished from each other by the different kinds of medicine they use. Each clan takes a root for its medicine, known only to those initiated into the mysteries of the clan. The name of this root must be kept a secret. Many of these roots are entirely destitute of medicinal power. The clans are governed by a sort of free-masonry system. A Dahcotah would die rather than divulge the secret of his clan. The clans keep up almost a perpetual warfare with each other. Each one supposes the other to be possessed of supernatural powers, by which they can, cause the death of any individual, though he may live at a great distance. This belief is the cause of a great deal of bloodshed. When a Dahcotah dies, it is attributed to some one of another clan, and revenge is sought by the relatives of the deceased. All their supposed supernatural powers are invoked to destroy the murderer. They first try the powers of their sacred medicine, imagining they can cast a fatal spell on the offender; if this fail, they have recourse to more destructive weapons, and the axe, knife or gun may be fatally used. After the supposed murderer is killed, his relations retaliate, and thus successive feuds become perpetual.
The Dahcotahs, though a reckless, are a generous people, usually kind and affectionate to their aged, though instances to the contrary frequently occur. Among the E-yanktons, there was a man so feeble and decrepit from age as to be totally unable to take care of himself; not being able to walk, he occasioned great trouble. When the band went out hunting, he entreated the young men to drag him along, that he might not fall a prey to the Chippeways, or to a fate equally dreaded, cold and starvation. For a time they seemed to pity him, and there were always those among the hunting party who were willing to render him assistance. At last he fell to the charge of some young men, who, wearied with carrying him from place to place, told him they would leave him, but he need not die a lingering death. They gave him a gun, and placed him on the ground to be shot at, telling him to try and kill one of the young warriors who were to fire at him; and thus he would have so much more honor to carry with him to the land of spirits. He knew it was useless to attempt to defend himself. In a few moments he received his death-wound, and was no longer a burden to himself or to others. The Sioux have a number of superstitious notions, which particularly influence the women. They are slavishly fearful of the spirits of the dead, and a thousand other fancies. Priests and jugglers are venerated from their supposed supernatural powers.
Little is generally known of their religion or their customs. One must live among them to induce them to impart any information concerning their mode of life or religious faith; to a stranger they are always reserved.
Their dances and feasts are not amusements. They all have an object and meaning, and are celebrated year after year, under a belief that neglect will be punished by the Great Spirit by means of disease, want, or the attacks of enemies. All their fear of punishment is confined to what they may suffer in this world. They have no fear of the anger of their deities being continued after death. Revolting as the ceremony of dancing round a scalp seems to us, an Indian believes it to be a sacred duty to celebrate it. The dancing part is performed by the old and young squaws. The medicine men sing, beat the drum, rattle the gourd, and use such other instruments as they contrive. Anything is considered a musical instrument that will assist in creating discordant sound. One of these is a bone with notches on it, one end of which rests on a tin pan, the other being held in the left hand, while, with a piece of bone in the right, which a medicine man draws over the notches, sounds as discordant and grating as possible are created.
The squaws dance around the scalps in concentric circles, in groups of from four to twelve together, pressing their shoulders against each other, and at every stroke of the drum raising themselves to their utmost height, hopping and sliding a short distance to the left, singing all the time with the medicine men. They keep time perfectly. In the centre, the scalps are attached to a pole stuck in the ground, or else carried on the shoulders of some of the squaws. The scalp is stretched on a hoop, and the pole to which it is attached is several feet long. It is also covered with vermilion or red earth, and ornamented with feathers, ribbons, beads, and other trinkets, and usually a pair of scissors or a comb. After dancing for a few minutes, the squaws stop to rest. During this interval one of the squaws, who has had a son, husband, or brother killed by a warrior of the tribe from which the scalp she holds was taken, will relate the particulars of his death, and wind up by saying, “Whose scalp have I now on my shoulders?” At this moment there is a general shout, and the dance again commences. This ceremony continues sometimes, at intervals, for months; usually during the warm weather. After the dance is done, the scalp is buried or put up on the scaffold with some of the deceased of the tribe who took the scalp. So much for the scalp dance a high religious ceremony, not, as some suppose, a mere amusement.
The Sacred Feast is given in honor of the sacred medicine, and is always given by medicine-men or women who are initiated into the mysteries of the medicine dance. The medicine men are invariably the greatest rascals of the band, yet the utmost respect is shown them. Every one fears the power of a medicine man. When a medicine man intends giving a feast, he goes or sends to the persons whom he wishes to invite. When all are assembled, the giver of the feast opens the medicine bag with some formality. The pipe is lit and smoked by all present; but it is first offered to the Great Spirit. After the smoking, food is placed in wooden bowls, or other vessels that visitors may have brought; for it is not a breach of etiquette to bring dishes with you to the feast. When all are served, the word is given to commence eating, and those that cannot eat all that is given them, must make a present to the host, besides hiring some one present to eat what they fail to consume. To waste a morsel would offend the Great Spirit, and injure or render useless the medicine. Every one having finished eating, the kettle in which the food was cooked is smoked with cedar leaves or grass. Before the cooking is commenced, all the fire within the wigwam is put out, and a fresh one made from flint and steel. In the celebration of the Sacred Feast, the fire and cooking utensils are kept and consecrated exclusively to that purpose. After the feast is over, all the bones are carefully collected and thrown into the water, in order that no dog may get them, nor a woman trample on them.
The Sioux worship the sun. The sun dance is performed by young warriors who dance, at intervals of five minutes, for several days. They hop on one foot and then on the other, keeping time to the drum, and making indescribable gestures, each having a small whistle in his mouth, with his face turned towards the sun. The singing and other music is performed by the medicine men. The drum used is a raw hide stretched over a keg, on which a regular beating of time is made with a short stick with a head to it. Women pretend to foretell future events, and, for this reason, are sometimes invited to medicine feasts.