I have noticed the many singular notions of the Sioux concerning thunder, and especially the fact that they believe it to be a large bird. They represent it thus. This figure is often seen worked with porcupine quills on their ornaments. Ke-on means to fly.
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Thunder is called Wah-ke-on or All-flier. U-mi-ne-wah-chippe is a dance given by some one who fears thunder and thus endeavors to propitiate the god and save his own life.
A ring is made, of about sixty feet in circumference, by sticking saplings in the ground, and bending their tops down, fastening them together. In the centre of this ring a pole is placed. The pole is about fifteen feet in height and painted red. From this swings a piece of birch bark, cut so as to represent thunder. At the foot of the pole stand two boys and two girls.
The two boys represent war: they are painted red, and hold war-clubs in their hands. The girls have their faces painted with blue clay: they represent peace.
On one side of the circle a kind of booth is erected, and about twenty feet from it a wigwam. There are four entrances to this circle.
When all the arrangements for the dance are concluded, the man who gives the dance emerges from his wigwam dressed up as hideously as possible, crawling on all fours towards the booth. He must sing four tunes before reaching it.
In the meantime the medicine men, who are seated in the wigwam, beat time on the drum, and the young men and squaws keep time to the music by first hopping on one foot, and then on the other moving around inside the ring as fast as they can. This is continued for about five minutes, until the music stops. After resting a few moments, the second tune commences, and lasts the same length of time, then the third, and the fourth; the Indian meanwhile making his way towards the booth. At the end of each tune, a whoop is raised by the men dancers.
After the Indian has reached his booth inside the ring, he must sing four more tunes as before. At the end of the fourth tune the squaws all run out of the ring as fast as possible, and must leave by the same way that they entered, the other three entrances being reserved for the men, who, carrying their war implements, might be accidentally touched by one of the squaws and the war implements of the Sioux warrior have from time immemorial been held sacred from the touch of woman. For the same reason the men form the inner ring in dancing round the pole, their war implements being placed at the foot of the pole.
When the last tune is ended, the young men shoot at the image of thunder which is hanging to the pole, and when it falls a general rush is made by the warriors to get hold of it. There is placed at the foot of the pole a bowl of water colored with blue clay. While the men are trying to seize the parts of the bark representation of their god, they at the same time are eagerly endeavoring to drink the water in the bowl, every drop of which must be drank.
The warriors then seize on the two boys and girls the representations of war and peace and use them as roughly as possible taking their pipes and war-clubs from them, and rolling them in the dirt until the paint is entirely rubbed off from their faces. Much as they dislike this part of the dance, they submit to it through fear, believing that after this performance the power of thunder is destroyed.
Now that the water is drank up and the guardians of the Thunder bird are deprived of their war-clubs and pipes, a terrible wailing commences. No description could convey an idea of the noise made by their crying and lamentation. All join in, exerting to the utmost the strength of their lungs. Before the men shoot at thunder, the squaws must leave the ring. No one sings at this dance but the warrior who gives it; and while the visitors, the dancers, and the medicine men, women and children, all are arrayed in their gayest clothing, the host must be dressed in his meanest.
In the dance Ahahkah Koyah, or to make the Elk a figure of thunder, is also made and fought against. The Sioux have a great deference for the majesty of thunder, and, consequently for their own skill in prevailing or seeming to prevail against it.
A Sioux is always alarmed after dreaming of an elk, and soon prevails upon some of his friends to assist him in dancing, to prevent any evil consequences resulting from his dream. Those willing to join in must lay aside all clothing, painting their bodies with a reddish gray color, like the elk’s. Each Indian must procure two long saplings, leaving the boughs upon them. These are to aid the Indians in running. The saplings must be about twelve feet in length. With them they tear down the bark image of thunder, which is hung with a string to the top of the pole.
All being ready, the elks run off at a gallop, assisted by their saplings, to within about two hundred yards of the pole, when they stop for a while, and then start again for the pole, to which is attached the figure of thunder. They continue running round and round this pole, constantly striking the figure of thunder with their saplings, endeavoring to knock it down, which after a while they succeed in accomplishing.
The ceremony is now ended, and the dreamer has nothing to fear from elks until he dreams again. There is no end to the superstitions and fancies entertained by the Sioux concerning thunder. On the cradle of the Indian child we frequently see the figure of thunder represented. It is generally carved on the wood by the father of the child, with representations of the Elk, accompanied with hieroglyphic looking figures, but thunder is regarded as the type of all animals that fly.
There are many medicine feasts and I saw one celebrated near the Oak Grove mission, and near, also, to the villages of Good Road, and the chief Man in the Clouds. It was on a dark cold day about the first of March. We left the fort at about nine o’clock and followed the road on the St. Peter’s river, which had been used for many months, but which, though still strong, was beginning to look unsafe. As we advanced towards the scene of the feast, many Indians from every direction were collecting, and hurrying forward, either to join in the ceremony about to be celebrated, or to be spectators. We ascended quite a high hill, and were then at the spot where all the arrangements were made to celebrate one of the most sacred forms of their religion. Many of the Indians to be engaged in the performance were entirely without protection from the severe cold their bodies being painted and their heads adorned with their choicest ornaments, but throwing aside even their blankets, according to the laws of the ceremony. The Indians continued to assemble. At eleven o’clock, the dance commenced. Although I could not faithfully describe, yet I never can forget the scene. The dark lowering sky the mantle of snow and ice thrown over all the objects that surrounded us, except the fierce human beings who were thus, under Heaven’s arch for a roof, about to offer to their deities a solemn worship.
Then the music commenced, and the horrid sounds increased the wildness of the scene; and the contortions of the medicine man, as he went round and round, made his countenance horrible beyond expression. The devoted attention of the savages, given to every part of the ceremony, made it in a measure interesting. There were hundreds of human beings believing in a Great Spirit, and anxious to offer him acceptable service; but how degraded in that service! How fallen from its high estate was the soul that God had made, when it stooped to worship the bones of animals, the senseless rock, the very earth that we stood upon! The aged man, trembling with feebleness, ready to depart to the spirit’s land, weary with the weight of his infirmities the warrior treading the earth with the pride of middle age the young with nothing to regret and everything to look forward to, all uniting in a worship which they ignorantly believe to be religion, but which we know to be idolatry.
I was glad to leave the scene, and turn towards the house of the Rev. Mr. Pond, who lives near the spot where the feast was celebrated. Here, pursuing his duties and studies, does this excellent man improve every moment of his time to the advantage of the Sioux. Always ready to converse kindly with them in order to gain their confidence giving medicine to the sick, and food to the hungry; doing all that lies in his power to administer to their temporal comfort, he labors to improve their condition as a people. How can it better be done than by introducing the Christian religion among them? This the missionaries are gradually doing; and did they receive proper assistance from government, and from religious societies, they would indeed go on their way rejoicing.
Placed under the government of the United States, these helpless, unhappy beings are dependent upon us for the means of subsistence, in a measure, and how much more for the knowledge of the true God? Churches will soon rise where the odious feast and medicine dance are celebrated, but will the Indians worship there? When the foundations of these churches are laid, the bones of the original owners of the country will be thrown out but where will be the souls of those who were thrust out of their country and their rights to make way for us?
I have seen where literally two or three were met together where in a distant country the few who celebrated the death of the Redeemer were assembled where the beautiful service of our church was read, and the hearts that heard it responded to its animating truths. We rejoiced that the religion which was our comfort was not confined to places; here were no altars, nor marble tablets but here in this humble house we knew God would meet and be with us.
An Indian silently opened the church door and entered. As strange to him was the solemn decorum of this scene, as to us were the useless ceremonies we every day witnessed. He watched the countenance of the clergyman, but he knew not that he was preaching the doctrine of a universal religion. He saw the sacred book upon the desk, but he could not read the glorious doctrine of a world redeemed by a Savior’s blood. He heard the voice of prayer, but how could his soul like ours rise as on eagle’s wings, and ascend to the throne of God! Who was he, this intruder? It may be a descendant of those who guarded the oracles of God, who for a time preserved them for us.
No wonder he tired and turned away. Not his the fault that he did not join in the solemn service, but ours. If we disregard the temporal wants of the Dahcotah, can we shut our ears against their cry, that rises up day after day, and year after year, Show us the path to happiness and God?