The Dahcotah Convert Wabashaw

“Tell me,” said, Hiatu-we-noken-chah, or ‘woman of the night,’ “the Great Spirit whom you have taught me to fear, why has he made the white woman rich and happy, and the Dahcotah poor and miserable?” She spoke with bitterness when she remembered the years of sorrow that had made up the sum of her existence.

But how with the missionary’s wife? had her life been one bright dream had her days been always full of gladness her nights quiet and free from care? Had she never longed for the time of repose, that darkness might cover her as with a mantle and when ‘sleep forsook the wretched,’ did she not pray for the breaking of the day, that she might again forget all in the performance of the duties of her station? Could it be that the Creator had balanced the happiness of one portion of his children against the wretchedness of the rest? Let her story answer.

Her home is now among the forests of the west. As a child she would tremble when she heard of the savage whose only happiness was in shedding the blood of his fellow creatures. The name of an “Indian” when uttered by her nurse would check the boisterous gayety of the day or the tedious restlessness of the night.

As she gathered flowers on the pleasant banks of the Sciota, would it not have brought paleness to her cheek to have whispered her that not many years would pass over her, before she would be far away from the scenes of her youth?

And as she uttered the marriage vow, how little did she think that soon would her broken spirit devote time, energies, life, to the good of others; as an act of duty and, but for the faith of the Christian, of despair. For several years she only wept with others when they sorrowed; fair children followed her footsteps, and it was happiness to guide their voices, as they, like the morning stars, sang together; or to listen to their evening prayer as they folded their hands in childlike devotion ere they slept.

And when the father returned from beside the bed of death, where his skill could no longer alleviate the parting agonies of the sufferer: how would he hasten to look upon the happy faces of his children, in order to forget the scene he had just witnessed. But, man of God as he was, there was not always peace in his soul; yet none could see that he had cause for care. He was followed by the blessings of those who were ready to perish. He essayed to make the sinner repent, and to turn the thoughts of the dying to Him who suffered death on the cross.

But for months the voice of the Spirit spoke to his heart; he could not forget the words “Go to the wretched Dahcotahs, their bodies are suffering, and their souls, immortal like thine, are perishing. Soothe their temporal cares, and more, tell them the triumphs of the Redeemer’s love.”

But it was hard to give up friends, and all the comforts with which he was surrounded: to subject his wife to the hardships of a life in the wilderness, to deprive his children of the advantages of education and good influences, and instead to show them life as it is with those who know not God. But the voice said, “Remember the Dahcotahs.” Vainly did he struggle with the conflict of duty against inclination.

The time has come when the parents must weep for themselves. No longer do the feet of their children tread among the flowers; fever has paralyzed their strength, and vainly does the mother call upon the child, whose eyes wander in delirium, who knows not her voice from a stranger’s. Nor does the Destroyer depart when one has sunk into a sleep from which there is no awakening until the morn of the resurrection. He claims another, and who shall resist that claim!

As the father looks upon the still forms of his children, as he sees the compressed lips, the closed eyes of the beings who were but a few days ago full of life and happiness, the iron enters his soul; but as the Christian remembers who has afflicted him, his spirit rises above his sorrow. Nor is there now any obstacle between him and the path of duty. The one child that remains must be put in charge of those who will care for her, and he will go where God directs.

But will the mother give up the last of her children? it matters not now where she lives, but she must part with husband or child! Self has no part in her schemes; secure in her trust in God she yields up her child to her friend, and listens not to the suggestions of those who would induce her to remain where she would still enjoy the comforts of life. Nothing should separate her from her husband. “Entreat me not to leave thee; where thou goest I will go, where thou diest I will die, and there will I be buried.”

And as the Dahcotah woman inquires of the justice of God, the faces of her children rise up before her first in health, with bright eyes and lips parted with smiles, and then as she last saw them their hands white to transparency, the hue of death upon their features; the shrouds, the little coffins, the cold lips, as she pressed them for the last time.

The Dahcotah looked in astonishment at the grief which for a few moments overcame the usual calmness of her kind friend; and as she wondered why, like her, she should shed bitter tears, she heard herself thus addressed.

“Do not think that you alone have been unhappy. God afflicts all his children. There is not a spot on the earth which is secure from sorrow. Have I not told you why? This world is not your home or mine. Soon will our bodies lie down in the earth and we would forget this, if we were always happy.

“And you should not complain though your sorrows have been great. Do not forget the crown of thorns which pressed the brow of the Savior, the cruel nails that pierced his hands and feet, the desertion of his friends, his fear that God his Father had forsaken him. And remember that after death the power of those who hated him ceased; the grave received but could not keep his body. He rose from the dead, and went to Heaven, where he has prepared a place for all who love him; for me and mine, I trust, and for you too, if you are careful to please him by serving him yourself, and by endeavoring to induce your friends to give up their foolish and wicked superstitions, and to worship the true God who made all things.”

The Dahcotahs believe in the existence of a Great Spirit, but they have very confused ideas of his attributes. Those who have lived near the missionaries, say that the Great Spirit lived forever, but their own minds would never have conceived such an idea. Some say that the Great Spirit has a wife.

They say that this being created all things but thunder and wild rice; and that he gave the earth and all animals to them, and that their feasts and customs were the laws by which they are to be governed. But they do not fear the anger of this deity after death.

Thunder is said to be a large bird; the name that they give to thunder is the generic term for all animals that fly. Near the source of the St. Peters is a place called Thunder-tracks where the footprints of the thunder-bird are seen in the rocks, twenty-five miles apart.

The Dahcotahs believe in an evil spirit as well as a good, but they do not consider these spirits as opposed to each other; they do not think that they are tempted to do wrong by this evil spirit; their own hearts are bad. It would be impossible to put any limit to the number of spirits in whom the Dahcotahs believe; every object in nature is full of them. They attribute death as much to the power of these subordinate spirits as to the Great Spirit; but most frequently they suppose death to have been occasioned by a spell having been cast upon them by some enemy.

The sun and moon are worshipped as emblems of their deity.

Sacrifice is a religious ceremony among them; but no missionary has yet been able to find any reference to the one great Atonement made for sin; none of their customs or traditions authorize any such connection. They sacrifice to all the spirits; but they have a stone, painted red, which they call Grandfather, and on or near this, they place their most valuable articles, their buffalo robes, dogs, and even horses; and on one occasion a father killed a child as a kind of sacrifice. They frequently inflict severe bruises or cuts upon their bodies, thinking thus to propitiate their gods.

The belief in an evil spirit is said by some not to be a part of the religion of the Dahcotahs. They perhaps obtained this idea from the whites. They have a far greater fear of the spirits of the dead,especially those whom they have offended, than of Wahkon-tun-kah, the Great Spirit.

One of the punishments they most dread is that of the body of an animal entering theirs to make them sick. Some of the medicine men, the priests, and the doctors of the Dahcotahs, seem to have an idea of the immortality of the soul but intercourse with the whites may have originated this. They know nothing of the resurrection.

They have no custom among them that indicates the belief that man’s heart should be holy. The faith in spirits, dreams, and charms, the fear that some enemy, earthly or spiritual, may be secretly working their destruction by a spell, is as much a part of their creed, as the existence of the Great Spirit.

A good dream will raise their hopes of success in whatever they may be undertaking to the highest pitch; a bad one will make them despair of accomplishing it. Their religion is a superstition, including as few elements of truth and reason as perhaps any other of which the particulars are known. They worship they “know not what,” and this from the lowest motives.

When they go out to hunt, or on a war party, they pray to the Great Spirit “Father, help us to kill the buffalo.” “Let us soon see deer” or, “Great Spirit help us to kill our enemies.”

They have no hymns of praise to their Deity; they fast occasionally at the time of their dances. When they dance in honor of the sun, they refrain from eating for two days.

The Dahcotahs do not worship the work of their hands; but they consider every object that the Great Spirit has made, from the highest mountain to the smallest stone, as worthy of their idolatry.

They have a vague idea of a future state; many have dreamed of it. Some of their medicine men pretend to have had revelations from bears and other animals; and they thus learned that their future existence would be but a continuation of this. They will go on long hunts and kill many buffalo; bright fires will burn in their wigwams as they talk through the long winter’s night of the traditions of their ancients; their women are to tan deer-skin for their moccasins, while their young children learn to be brave warriors by attacking and destroying wasps’ or hornets’ nests; they will celebrate the dog feast to show how brave they are, and sing in triumph as they dance round the scalps of their enemies. Such is the Heaven of the Dahcotahs! Almost every Indian has the image of an animal or bird tattooed on his breast or arm, which can charm away an evil spirit, or prevent his enemy from bringing trouble or death upon him by a secret shot. The power of life rests with mortals, especially with their medicine men; they believe that if an enemy be shooting secretly at them, a spell or charm must be put in requisition to counteract their power.

The medicine men or women, who are initiated into the secrets of their wonderful medicines, (which secret is as sacred with them as free-masonry is to its members) give the feast which they call the medicine feast.

Their medicine men, who profess to administer to the affairs of soul and body are nothing more than jugglers, and are the worst men of the tribe: yet from fear alone they claim the entire respect of the community.

There are numerous clans among the Dahcotahs each using a different medicine, and no one knows what this medicine is but those who are initiated into the mysteries of the medicine dance, whose celebration is attended with the utmost ceremony.

A Dahcotah would die before he would divulge the secret of his clan. All the different clans unite at the great medicine feast.

And from such errors as these must the Dahcotah turn if he would be a Christian! And the heart of the missionary would faint within him at the work which is before him, did he not remember who has said “Lo, I am with you always!”

And it was long before the Indian woman could give up the creed of her nation. The marks of the wounds in her face and arms will to the grave bear witness of her belief in the faith of her fathers, which influenced her in youth. Yet the subduing of her passions, the quiet performance of her duties, the neatness of her person, and the order of her house, tell of the influence of a better faith, which sanctifies the sorrows of this life, and rejoices her with the hope of another and a better state of existence.

But such instances are rare. These people have resisted as encroachments upon their rights the efforts that have been made for their instruction. Kindness and patience, however, have accomplished much, and during the last year they have, in several instances, expressed a desire for the aid and instructions of missionaries. They seem to wish them to live among them; though formerly the lives of those who felt it their duty to remain were in constant peril.

They depend more, too, upon what the ground yields them for food, and have sought for assistance in plowing it.

There are four schools sustained by the Dahcotah mission; in all there are about one hundred and seventy children; the average attendance about sixty.

The missionaries feel that they have accomplished something, and they are encouraged to hope for still more. They have induced many of the Dahcotahs to be more temperate; and although few, comparatively, attend worship at the several stations, yet of those few some exhibit hopeful signs of conversion.

There are five mission stations among the Dahcotahs; at “Lac qui parle,” on the St. Peter’s river, in sight of the beautiful lake from which the station takes its name; at “Travers des Sioux” about eighty miles from Fort Snelling; at Xapedun, Oak-grove, and Kapoja, the last three being within a few miles of Fort Snelling.

There are many who think that the efforts of those engaged in instructing the Dahcotahs are thrown away. They cannot conceive why men of education, talent, and piety, should waste their time and attainments upon a people who cannot appreciate their efforts. If the missionaries reasoned on worldly principles, they would doubtless think so too; but they devote the energies of soul and body to Him who made them for His own service.

They are pioneers in religion; they show the path that others will walk in far more easily at some future day; they undertake what others will carry on, what God himself will accomplish. They have willingly given up the advantages of this life, to preach the gospel to the degraded Dahcotahs. They are translating the Bible into Sioux; many of the books are translated, and to their exertions it is owing that the praise of God has been sung by the children of the forest in their own language.

However absurd may be the religion of the Dahcotahs, they are zealous in their devotion to it. Nothing is allowed to interfere with it. Are their women planting corn, which is to be in a great measure depended upon for food during the next winter? whatever be the consequences, they stop to celebrate a dance or a feast, either of which is a part of their religion. How many Christians satisfy their consciences by devoting one day of the week to God, feeling themselves thus justified in devoting the other six entirely to the world! But it is altogether different with the Dahcotahs, every act of their life is influenced by their religion, such as it is.

They believe they are a great people, that their country is unrivalled in beauty, their religion without fault. Many of the Dahcotahs, now living near Fort Snelling, say that they have lived on the earth before in some region far distant, that they died, and for a time their spirits wandered through the world seeking the most beautiful and delightful country to live in, and that after examining all parts of, the earth they fixed upon the country of the Dahcotahs.

In fact, dreams, spells and superstitious fears, constitute a large part of the belief of the Dahcotahs. But of all their superstitious notions the most curious is the one which occasions the dance called Ho-saw-kah-u-tap-pe, or Fish dance, where the fish is eaten raw.

Some days since, an Indian who lives at Shah-co-pee’s village dreamed of seeing a cormorant, a bird which feeds on fish. He was very much alarmed, and directed his friend to go out and catch a fish, and to bring the first one he caught to him.

The Indian did so, and the fish, which was a large pike, was painted with blue clay. Preparations were immediately made to celebrate the Fish dance, in order to ward off any danger of which the dream might have been the omen.

A circle was formed of brush, on one side of which the Indians pitched a wigwam. The war implements were then brought inside the ring, and a pole stuck up in the centre, with the raw fish, painted blue, hung upon it.

The men then enter the ring, almost naked; their bodies painted black, excepting the breast and arms, which are varied in color according to the fancy of each individual.

Inside the ring is a bush for each dancer; in each bush a nest, made to resemble a cormorant’s nest; and outside the ring is an Indian metamorphosed for the occasion into a wolf that is, he has the skin of a wolf drawn over him, and hoops fixed to his hands to enable him to run easier on all fours; and in order to sustain the character which he has assumed, he remains outside, lurking about for food.

All being ready, the medicine men inside the wigwam commence beating a drum and singing. This is the signal for all the cormorants (Indians), inside the ring, to commence quacking and dancing and using their arms in imitation of wings, keeping up a continual flapping. Thus for some time they dance up to and around the fish when the bravest among them will snap at the fish, and if he have good teeth will probably bite off a piece, if not, he will slip his hold and flap off again.

Another will try his luck at this delicious food, and so they continue, until they have made a beginning in the way of eating the fish. Then each cormorant flaps up and takes a bite, and then flaps off to his nest, in which the piece of fish is concealed, for fear the wolves may get it.

After a while, the wolf is seen emerging from his retreat, painted so hideously as to frighten away the Indian children. The cormorants perceive the approach of the wolf, and a general quacking and flapping takes place, each one rushing to his nest to secure his food.

This food each cormorant seizes and tries to swallow, flapping his wings and stretching out his neck as a young bird will when fed by its mother.

After the most strenuous exertions they succeed in swallowing the raw fish. While this is going on, the wolf seizes the opportunity to make a snap at the remainder of the fish, seizes it with his teeth, and makes his way out of the ring, as fast as he can, on all fours. The whole of the fish, bones and all, must be swallowed; not the smallest portion of it can be left, and the fish must only be touched by the mouth never with the hands. This dance is performed by the men alone their war implements must be sacred from the touch of women.

Such scenes are witnessed every day at the Dahcotah villages. The missionary sighs as he sees how determined is their belief in such a religion. Is it not a source of rejoicing to be the means of turning one fellow-creature from a faith like this?

A few years ago and every Dahcotah woman reverenced the fish-dance as holy and sacred even too sacred for her to take a part in it. She believed the medicine women could foretell future events; and, with an injustice hardly to be accounted for, she would tell you it was lawful to beat a girl as much as you chose, but a sin to strike a boy!

She gloried in dancing the scalp dance aye, even exulted at the idea of taking the life of an enemy herself.

But there are instances in which these things are all laid aside beneath the light of Christianity; instances in which the poor Dahcotah woman sees the folly, the wickedness of her former faith; blesses God who inclined the missionary to leave his home and take up his abode in the country of the savage; and sings to the praise of God in her own tongue as she sits by the door of her wigwam. She smiles as she tells you that her “face is dark, but that she hopes her heart has been changed; and that she will one day sing in heaven, where the voices of the white people and of the converted Dahcotahs, will mingle in a song of love to Him ‘who died for the whole world.'”

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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