The Dahcotah Bride

The valley of the Upper Mississippi presents many attractions to the reflecting mind, apart from the admiration excited by its natural beauty. It is at once an old country and a new the home of a people who are rapidly passing away and of a nation whose strength is ever advancing. The white man treads upon the footsteps of the Dahcotah the war dance of the warrior gives place to the march of civilization and the saw-mill is heard where but a few years ago were sung the deeds of the Dahcotah braves.

Years ago, the Dahcotah hunted where the Mississippi takes its rise the tribe claiming the country as far south as St. Louis. But difficulties with the neighboring tribes have diminished their numbers and driven them farther north and west; the white people have needed their lands, and their course is onward. How will it end? Will this powerful tribe cease to be a nation on the earth? Will their mysterious origin never be ascertained? And must their religion and superstitions, their customs and feasts pass away from memory as if they had never been?

Who can look upon them without interest? hardly the philosopher surely not the Christian. The image of God is defaced in the hearts of the savage. Cain-like does the child of the forest put forth his hand and stain it with a brother’s blood. But are there no deeds of darkness done in our own favored land?

But the country of the Dahcotah, let it be new to those who fly at the beckon of gain who would speculate in the blood of their fellow-creatures, who for gold would, aye do, sell their own souls, it is an old country to me. What say the boundless prairies? how many generations have roamed over them? when did the buffalo first yield to the arrow of the hunter? And look at the worn bases of the rocks that are washed by the Father of waters. Hear the Dahcotah maiden as she tells of the lover’s leap and the warrior as he boasts of the victories of his forefathers over his enemies, long, long before the hated white man had intruded upon their lands, or taught them the fatal secret of intoxicating drink.

The Dahcotahs feel their own weakness they know they cannot contend with the power of the white man. Yet there are times when the passion and vehemence of the warriors in the neighborhood of Fort Snelling can hardly be brought to yield to the necessity of control; and were there a possibility of success, how soon would the pipe of peace be thrown aside, and the yell and whoop of war be heard instead! And who would blame them? Has not the blood of our bravest and best been poured out like water for a small portion of a country when the whole could never make up for the loss sustained by one desolate widow or fatherless child?

The sky was without a cloud when the sun rose on the Mississippi. The morning mists passed slowly away as if they loved to linger round the hills. Pilot Knob rose above them, proud to be the burial place of her warrior children, while on the opposite side of the Mine Soto 1 the frowning walls of Fort Snelling; told of the power of their enemies. No a breath disturbed the repose of nature, till the voice of the song birds rose in harmony singing the praise of the Creator.

But a few hours have passed away, and how changed the scene. Numbers of canoes are seen rapidly passing over the waters, and the angry savages that spring from them as hastily ascending the hill. From the gates of the fort, hundreds of Indians are seen collecting from every direction, and all approaching the house of the interpreter. We will follow them.

Few have witnessed so wild a scene. The house of the interpreter employed by government is near the fort, and all around it were assembled the excited Indians. In front of the house is a piazza, and on it lay the body of a young Dahcotah; his black hair plaited, and falling over his swarthy face. The closed eye and compressed lips proclaimed the presence of death. Life had but recently yielded to the sway of the stern conqueror. A few hours ago Beloved Hail had eaten and drank on the very spot where his body now reposed.

Bending over his head is his wife; tears fall like rain from her eyes; and as grief has again overcome her efforts at composure, see how she plunges her knife into her arm: and as the warm blood flows from the wound calls upon the husband of her youth!

“My son! my son!” bursts from the lips of his aged mother, who weeps at his feet; while her bleeding limbs bear witness to the wounds which she had inflicted upon herself in the agony of her soul. Nor are these the only mourners. A crowd of friends are weeping round his body. But the mother has turned to the warriors as they press through the crowd; tears enough have been shed, it is time to think of revenge. “Look at your friend,” she says, “look how heavily lies the strong arm, and see, he is still, though his wife and aged mother call upon him. Who has done this? who has killed the brave warrior? bring me the murderer, that I may cut him on pieces.”

It needed not to call upon the warriors who stood around. They were excited enough. Bad Hail stood near, his eyes bloodshot with rage, his lip quivering, and every trembling limb telling of the tempest within. Shah-co-pee, the orator of the Dahcotahs, and “The Nest,” their most famous hunter; the tall form of the aged chief “Man in the cloud” leaned against the railing, his sober countenance strangely contrasting with the fiend-like look of his wife; Grey Iron and Little Hill, with brave after brave, all crying vengeance to the foe, death to the Chippeway!

But yesterday the Dahcotahs and Chippeways, foes from time immemorial, feasted and danced together, for there was peace between them. They had promised to bury the hatchet; the Chippeways danced near the fort, and the Dahcotahs presented them with blankets and pipes, guns and powder, and all that the savage deems valuable. Afterwards, the Dahcotahs danced, and the generous Chippeways exceeded them in the number and value of their gifts. As evening approached, the bands mingled their amusements together they contended in the foot-race, or, stretching themselves upon the grass, played at checkers.

The Chippeways had paid their annual visit of friendship at Fort Snelling, and, having spent their time happily, they were about to return to their homes. Their wise men said they rejoiced that nothing had occurred to disturb the harmony of the two tribes. But their vicinity to the Fort prevented any outbreak; had there been no such restraint upon their actions, each would have sought the life of his deadly foe.

“Hole in the Day” was the chief of the Chippeways. He owed his station to his own merit; his bravery and firmness had won the respect and admiration of the tribe when he was but a warrior, and they exalted him to the honor of being their chief. Deeds of blood marked his course, yet were his manners gentle and his voice low. There was a dignity and a courtesy about his every action that would have well befitted a courtier.

He watched with interest the trials of strength between the young men of his own tribe and the Dahcotahs. When the latter celebrated one of their national feasts, when they ate the heart of the dog while it was warm with life, just torn from the animal, with what contempt did he gaze upon them!

The amusements of the dog feast, or dance, have closed, and the Chippeway chief has signified to his warriors that they were to return home on the following day. He expressed a wish to see several of the chiefs of the Dahcotahs, and a meeting having been obtained, he thus addressed them.

“Warriors! it has been the wish of our great father that we should be friends; blood enough has been shed on both sides. But even if we preferred to continue at war, we must do as our great father says. The Indian’s glory is passing away; they are as the setting sun; while the white man is as the sun rising in all his power. We are the falling leaves; the whites are the powerful horses that trample them under foot. We are about to return home, and it is well that nothing has happened to occasion strife between us. But I wish you to know that there are two young men among us who do not belong to my band. They are pillagers, belonging to another band, and they may be troublesome. I wish you to tell your young men of this, that they may be on their guard.”

After smoking together, the chiefs separated. “Hole in the Day” having thus done all that he deemed proper, returned with his warriors to his teepee.

Early in the morning the Chippeways encamped near St. Anthony’s falls; the women took upon themselves all the fatigue and labor of the journey, the men carrying only the implements of war and hunting. The Chippeway chief was the husband of three wives, who were sisters; and, strange to say, when an Indian fancies more than one wife, he is fortunate if he can obtain sisters, for they generally live in harmony, while wives who are not related are constantly quarreling; and the husband does not often interfere, even if words are changed to blows.

In the mean time, the two pillagers were lurking about; now remaining a short time with the camp of the Chippeways, now absenting themselves for a day or two. But while the Chippeways were preparing to leave the Falls, the pillagers were in the neighborhood of Fort Snelling. They had accompanied Hole in the Day’s band, with the determination of killing an enemy. The ancient feud still rankled in their hearts; as yet they had had no opportunity of satisfying their thirst for blood; but on this morning they were concealed in the bushes, when Red Boy and Beloved Hail, two Dahcotahs, were passing on horseback. It was but a moment and the deed was done. Both the Chippeways fired, and Beloved Hail fell.

Red Boy was wounded, but not badly; he hurried in to tell the sad news, and the two Chippeways were soon out of the power of their enemies. They fled, it is supposed, to Missouri.

The friends of the dead warrior immediately sought his body, and brought it to the house of the interpreter. There his friends came together; and as they entered one by one, on every side pressing, forward to see the still, calm, features of the young man; they threw on the body their blankets, and other presents, according to their custom of honoring the dead.

Troops are kept at Fort Snelling, not only as a protection to the whites in the neighborhood, but to prevent, if possible, difficulties between the different bands of Indians; and as every year brings the Chippeways to Fort Snelling, either to transact business with the government or on a visit of pleasure, the Chippeways and Dahcotahs must be frequently thrown together. The commanding officer of the garrison notifies the two bands, on such occasions, that no hostilities will be permitted; so there is rarely an occurrence to disturb their peace.

But now it is impossible to restrain the excited passions of the Dahcotahs. Capt. B; who was then in command at Fort Snelling, sent word to the Chippeway chief of the murder that had been committed, and requested him to bring all his men in, as the murderer must be given up.

But this did not satisfy the Dahcotahs; they longed to raise the tomahawk which they held in their hands. They refused to wait, but insisted upon following the Chippeways and revenging themselves; the arguments of the agent and other friends of the Dahcotahs were unavailing; nothing would satisfy them but blood, The eyes, even of the women, sparkled with delight, at the prospect of the scalps they would dance round; while the mother of Beloved Hail was heard to call for the scalp of the murderer of her son!

Seeing the chiefs determined on war, Capt. B   told them he would cease to endeavor to change their intentions; “but as soon” said he, “as you attack the Chippeways, will I send the soldiers to your villages; and who will protect your wives and children?”

This had the desired effect, and the warriors, seeing the necessity of waiting for the arrival of the Chippeways, became more calm.

Hole in the Day with his men came immediately to the Fort, where a conference was held at the gate. There were assembled about three hundred Dahcotahs and seventy Chippeways, with the officers of the garrison and the Indian agent.

It was ascertained that the murder had been committed by the two pillagers, for none of the other Chippeway warriors had been absent from the camp. Hole in the Day, however, gave up two of his men, as hostages to be kept at Fort Snelling until the murderers should be given up.

The Dahcotahs, being obliged for the time to defer the hope of revenge, returned to their village to bury their dead.

We rarely consider the Indian as a member of a family we associate him with the tomahawk and scalping-knife. But the very strangeness of the customs of the Dahcotahs adds to their interest; and in their mourning they have all the horror of death without an attendant solemnity.

All the agony and grief that a Christian mother feels when she looks for the last time at the form which will so soon molder in the dust, an Indian mother feels also. The Christian knows that the body will live again; that the life-giving breath of the Eternal will once more re-animate the helpless clay; that the eyes which were brilliant and beautiful in life will again look brightly from the now closed lids when the dead shall live when the beloved child shall “rise again.”

The Dahcotah woman has no such hope. Though she believes that the soul will live forever in the “city of spirits,” yet the infant she has nursed at her bosom, the child she loved and tended, the young man whose strength and beauty were her boast, will soon be ashes and dust.

And if she have not the hope of the Christian, neither has she the spirit. For as she cuts off her hair and tears her clothes, throwing them under the scaffold, what joy would it bring to her heart could she hope herself to take the life of the murderer of her son.

Beloved Hail was borne by the Indians to his native village, and the usual ceremonies attending the dead performed, but with more than usual excitement, occasioned by the circumstances of the death of their friend.
The body of a dead Dahcotah is wrapped in cloth or calico, or sometimes put in a box, if one can be obtained, and placed upon a scaffold raised a few feet from the ground. All the relations of the deceased then sit round it for about twenty-four hours; they tear their clothes; run knives through the fleshy parts of their arms, but there is no sacrifice which they can make so great as cutting off their hair.

The men go in mourning by painting themselves black and they do not wash the paint off until they take the scalp of an enemy, or give a medicine-dance.

While they sit round the scaffold, one of the nearest relations commences a doleful crying, when all the others join in, and continue their wailing for some time. Then for awhile their tears are wiped away. After smoking for a short time another of the family commences again, and the others join in. This is continued for a day and night, and then each one goes to his own wigwam.

The Dahcotahs mourned thus for Beloved Hail. In the evening the cries of his wife were heard as she called for her husband, while the rocks and the hills echoed the wail. He will return no more and who will hunt the deer for his wife and her young children!

The murderers were never found, and the hostages, after being detained for eighteen months at Fort Snelling, were released. They bore their confinement with admirable patience, the more so as they were punished for the fault of others. When they were released, they were furnished with guns and clothing. For fear they would be killed by the Dahcotahs, their release was kept a secret, and the Dahcotahs knew not that the two Chippeways were released, until they were far on their journey home. But one of them never saw his native village again. The long confinement had destroyed his health, and being feeble when he set out, he soon found himself unequal to the journey. He died a few days before the home was reached; and the welcome that his companion received was a sad one, for he brought the intelligence of the death of his comrade.

But we will do as the Dahcotahs did turn from the sadness and horror of an Indian’s death, to the gayety and happiness of an Indian marriage. The Indians are philosophers, after all they knew that they could not go after the Chippeways, so they made the best of it and smoked. Beloved Hail was dead, but they could not bring him to life, and they smoked again: besides, “Walking Wind” was to be married to “The War Club,” whereupon they smoked harder than ever.

There are two kinds of marriages among the Dahcotahs, buying a wife and stealing one. The latter answers to our runaway matches, and in some respects the former is the ditto of one conducted as it ought to be among ourselves. So after all, I suppose, Indian marriages are much like white people’s.

But among the Dahcotahs it is an understood thing that, when the young people run away, they are to be forgiven at any time they choose to return, if it should be the next day, or six months afterwards. This saves a world of trouble. It prevents the necessity of the father looking daggers at the son-in-law, and then loving him violently; the mother is spared the trial of telling her daughter that she forgives her though she has broken her heart; and, what is still better, there is not the slightest occasion whatever for the bride to say she is wretched, for having done what she certainly would do over again to-morrow, were it undone.

So that it is easy to understand why the Dahcotahs have the advantage of us in runaway matches, or as  they  say in “stealing a wife;” for it is the same thing, only more honestly stated.

When a young man is unable to purchase the girl he loves best, or if her parents are unwilling she should marry him, if he have gained the heart of the maiden he is safe. They appoint a time and place to meet; take whatever will be necessary for their journey; that is, the man takes his gun and powder and shot, and the girl her knife and wooden bowl to eat and drink out of; and these she intends to hide in her blanket. Sometimes they merely go to the next village to return the next day. But if they fancy a bridal tour, away they go several hundred miles with the grass for their pillow, the canopy of heaven for their curtains, and the bright stars to light and watch over them. When they return home, the bride goes at once to chopping wood, and the groom to smoking, without the least form or parade.

Sometimes a young girl dare not run away; for she has a miserly father or mother who may not like her lover because he had not enough to give them for her; and she knows they will persecute her and perhaps shoot her husband. But this does not happen often. Just as, once in a hundred years in a Christian land, if a girl will run away with a young man, her parents run after her, and in spite of religion and common sense bring her back, have her divorced, and then in either case the parties must, as a matter of course, be very miserable.

But the marriage that we are about to witness, is a “marriage in high life” among the Dahcotahs, and the bride is regularly bought, as often occurs with us.

“Walking Wind” is not pretty; even the Dahcotahs, who are far from being connoisseurs in beauty do not consider her pretty. She is, however, tall and well made, and her feet and hands (as is always the case with the Dahcotah women) are small. She has a quantity of jet-black hair, that she braids with a great deal of care. Her eyes are very black, but small, and her dark complexion is relieved by more red than is usually seen in the cheeks of the daughters of her race. Her teeth are very fine, as everybody knows for she is always laughing, and her laugh is perfect music.

Then Walking Wind is, generally speaking, so good tempered. She was never known to be very angry but once, when Harpstenah told her she was in love with “The War Club;” she threw the girl down and tore half the hair out of her head. What made it seem very strange was, that she was over head and ears in love with “The War Club” at that very time; but she did not choose anybody should know it.

War Club was a flirt yes, a male coquette and he had broken the hearts of half the girls in the band. Besides being a flirt, he was a fop. He would plait his hair and put vermilion on his cheeks; and, after seeing that his leggings were properly arranged, he would put the war eagle feathers in his head, and folding his blanket round him, would walk about the village, or attitudinize with all the airs of a Broadway dandy. War Club was a great warrior too, for on his blanket was marked the Red Hand, which showed he had killed his worst enemy for it was his father’s enemy, and he had hung the scalp up at his father’s grave. Besides, he was a great hunter, which most of the Dahcotahs are.

No one, then, could for a moment doubt the pretensions of War Club, or that all the girls of the village should fall in love with him; and he, like a downright flirt, was naturally very cold and cruel to the poor creatures who loved him so much.

Walking Wind, besides possessing many other accomplishments, such as tanning deer-skin, making moccasins, &c., was a capital shot. On one occasion, when the young warriors were shooting at a mark, Walking Wind was pronounced the best shot among them, and the War Club was quite subdued. He could bear everything else; but when Walking Wind beat him shooting why the point was settled; he must fall in love with her, and, as a natural consequence, marry her.

Walking Wind was not so easily won. She had been tormented so long herself, that she was in duty bound to pay back in the same coin. It was a Duncan Gray affair only reversed. At last she yielded; her lover gave her so many trinkets. True, they were brass and tin; but Dahcotah maidens cannot sigh for pearls and diamonds, for they never even heard of them; and the philosophy of the thing is just the same, since everybody is outdone by somebody. Besides, her lover played the flute all night long near her father’s wigwam, and, not to speak of the pity that she felt for him, Walking Wind was confident she never could sleep until that flute stopped playing, which she knew would be as soon as they were married. For all the world knows that no husband, either white or copper-colored, ever troubles himself to pay any attention of that sort to his wife, however devotedly romantic he may have been before marriage.

Sometimes the Dahcotah lover buys his wife without her consent; but the War Club was more honorable than that: he loved Walking Wind, and he wanted her to love him.

When all was settled between the young people, War Club told his parents that he wanted to marry. The old people were glad to hear it, for they like their ancient and honorable names and houses to be kept up, just as well as lords and dukes do; so they collected everything they owned for the purpose of buying Walking Wind. Guns and blankets, powder and shot, knives and trinkets, were in requisition instead of title-deeds and settlements. So, when all was ready, War Club put the presents on a horse, and carried them to the door of Walking Wind’s wigwam.

He does not ask for the girl, however, as this would not be Dahcotah etiquette. He lays the presents on the ground and has a consultation, or, as the Indians say, a “talk” with the parents, concluding by asking them to give him Walking Wind for his wife.
And, what is worthy to be noticed here is, that, after having gone to so much trouble to ask a question, he never for a moment waits for an answer, but turns round, horse and all, and goes back to his wigwam.

The parents then consult for a day or two, although they from the first moment have made up their minds as to what they are going to do. In due time the presents are taken into the wigwam, which signifies to the lover that he is a happy man. And on the next day Walking Wind is to be a bride.

Early in the morning, Walking Wind commenced her toilet and it was no light task to deck the Indian bride in all her finery.

Her moccasins were worked with porcupine, and fitted closely her small feet; the leggings were ornamented with ribbons of all colors; her cloth shawl, shaped like a mantilla, was worked with rows of bright ribbons, and the sewing did honor to her own skill in needle-work. Her breast was covered with brooches, and a quantity of beads hung round her neck. Heavy ear-rings are in her ears and on her head is a diadem of war eagle’s feathers. She has a bright spot of vermilion on each cheek, and behold an Indian bride!

When she is ready, as many presents as were given for her are collected and put on a horse; and the bride, accompanied by three or four of her relations, takes the road to the wigwam of the bridegroom.

When they arrive within a hundred yards of the wigwam, Walking Wind’s father calls for the War Club to come out. He does not come, but sends one of his relations to receive the bride. Do not suppose that Walking Wind’s father takes offence at the bridegroom’s not coming when he is called; for it is as much a part of the ceremony, among the Dahcotahs, for one of the bride’s relations to call for the bridegroom, and for the groom to refuse to come, as it is for us to have the ring put upon the third finger of the left hand.

As soon as the warrior deputed by the husband elect to receive the bride makes his appearance, the Indians raise a shout of applause, and all run towards him as he approaches them, and while they are running and shouting they are firing off their guns too.

But the ceremony is not over yet. Walking Wind, in order to complete the ceremonies, to be a wife, must jump upon the back of her husband’s relative, and be thus carried into the wigwam of which she is to be the mistress.

What a situation for a bride! Walking Wind seriously thinks of rebelling; she hesitates while the man stands ready to start for the wigwam so soon as the luggage is on. The bride draws back and pouts a little, when some of her friends undertake to reason with her; and she, as if to avoid them, springs upon the back of the Dahcotah, who carries her into the wigwam.

But where on earth is the bridegroom? Seated on the ground in the teepee, looking as placid and unconcerned as if nothing was going on. Of course he rises to receive his bride? Not he; but Walking Wind is on her feet again, and she takes her seat, without any invitation, by the side of him, who is literally to be her lord and master and they are man and wife. As much so, as if there were a priest and a ring, pearls and bride-cake. For the Dahcotah reveres the ceremony of marriage, and he thinks with solemn awe of the burial rites of his nation, as we do.

These rites have been preserved from generation to generation, told from father to son, and they will be handed down until the Dahcotahs are no more, or until religion and education take the place of superstition and ignorance until God, our God, is known and worshipped among a people who as yet have hardly heard His name.Citations:

  1. Mine Soto, or Whitish Water, the name that the Sioux give to the St. Peter’s River. The mud or clay in the water has a whitish look.[]

Legends, Sioux,

Eastman, Mary H. Dahcotah, Or Life and Legends of the Sioux around Ft. Snelling. New York: John Wiley. 1849.

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