About forty years ago, Ahak-tah, “The Male Elk,” was taken sick with a sore throat. It was in the winter too, and sickness and cold together are hard to bear. Want was an evil from which they were suffering; though the Dahcotahs were not so poor then as they are now. They had not given so much of their lands to the white people; and they depended more upon their own exertions for support than they do at present.
The medicine men did all they could to cure Ahaktah; they tried to charm away the animal that had entered into his body; they used the sacred rattle. But Ahaktah’s throat got worse; he died, and while his wives and children wept for him, he had started on his long journey to the land of spirits.
He was wrapped in scarlet cloth, and laid upon a scaffold. His wives sat weeping in their teepee, when a cry from their young children drew their attention to the door. There stood he for whom they mourned. The dead man again took his place among those who sat beside the household fire. Tears of grief were shed no more food was given to Ahaktah, and when he was refreshed he thus addressed his wondering family:
“While you were weeping for me, my spirit was on its way to the great city where our fathers, who have taught us all the wonders of our sacred medicine, of Haokah the giant, and of the Thunder bird, are now living. Twice has the sun ceased to shine since I left you, and in that short time I have seen many strange things. First, I passed through a beautiful country; the forest-trees were larger than any you have ever seen. Birds of all colors filled them, and their music was as loud as when our medicine men play for us to celebrate the scalp dance. The broad river was full of fish, and the loon screamed as she swam across the lakes. I had no difficulty in finding my way, for there was a road through this country. It seemed as if there must have been many travelers there, though I saw no one.
“This great road was made by the spirits of those who were killed in battle. No warrior, however brave he may have been, has ever assisted in making this road, except those who sang their death songs under the tomahawk of their enemies. Neither did any woman ever assist. She is not considered worthy to touch the war implements of a Dahcotah warrior, and she was not permitted to do anything towards completing the path in which the braves of the Dahcotahs would walk, when they joined their forefathers in the land of spirits.
“As I pursued my journey, I saw near the banks of the river a teepee; I entered it, and saw paint and all that a warrior needed to dress himself in order to be fit to enter the city of spirits. I sat down and plaited my hair, I put vermilion on my cheeks, and arranged the war-eagle feathers in my head. Here, I said to myself, did my father rest when he was on the same journey. I was tired, but I could not wait I longed to see my friends who had traveled this path before me I longed to tell them that the Dahcotahs were true to the customs of their forefathers I longed to tell them that we had drunk deep of the blood of the Chippeways, that we had eaten the hearts of our enemies, that we had torn their infants from their mothers’ breasts, and dashed them to the earth.
“I continued my journey, looking eagerly around me to see some one, but all was desolate; and beautiful as everything was, I would have been glad to have seen the face of a friend.
“It was evening when a large city burst upon my sight. The houses were built regularly on the shores of the river. As far as I could see, the homes of the spirits of my forefathers were in view.
“But still I saw no one. I descended the hill towards the river, which I must cross to reach the city of spirits. I saw no canoe, but I feared nothing, I was so near my journey’s end. The river was wide and deep, and the waves were swiftly following one another, when I plunged among them; soon I reached the opposite shore, and as I again stood on the land, I heard some one cry, ‘Here he comes! here he comes!’ I approached the nearest house and entered; everything looked awful and mysterious.
“In the corner of the room sat a figure whom I recognized. It was my mother’s brother, Flying Wind, the medicine man. I remembered him, for it was he who taught me to use my bow and arrow.
“In a bark dish, in the corner of the room, was some wild rice. I was very hungry, for I had not eaten since I left the earth. I asked my uncle for some rice to eat, but he did not give it to me. Had I eaten of the food for spirits, I never should have returned to earth.
“At last my uncle spoke to me. `My nephew,’ said he, ‘why are you traveling without a bow and arrow? how can you provide yourself with food when you have no means of killing game? When my home was on the Mississippi, the warriors of the Dahcotahs were never without their bows and arrows either to secure their food or to strike to the hearts of their enemies.’
“I then remembered that I had been travelling without my bow and arrows. `But where,’ said I to my uncle, `where are the spirits of my forefathers? where is my brother who fell under the tomahawk of his enemy? where is my sister who threw herself into the power of Unktahe, rather than to live and see her rival the wife of the Sun? where are the spirits of the Dahcotah braves whose deeds are still told from father to son among us?’
“‘The Dahcotah braves are still watching for their enemies the hunters are bringing in the deer and the buffalo our women are planting corn and tanning deer-skin. But you will not now see them; your step is firm and your eye is bright; you must return to earth, and when your limbs are feeble, when your eye is dim, then will you return and find your home in the city of spirits.’
“So saying, he arose and gave me a bow and arrow. I took it, and while trying it I left the house; but how I do not know.
“The next thing that I remember was being seated on the top of the cliffs of Eagle’s Nest, below Lake Pepin. I heard a sound, and soon distinguished my mother’s voice; she was weeping. I knew that she was bending over my body. I could see her as she cut off her hair, and I felt sad when I heard her cry, ‘My son! my son!’ Then I recollect being on the top of the half-side mountain on Lake Pepin. Afterwards I was on the mountain near Red Wing’s village, and again I stood on a rock, on a point of land near where the waters of the Mississippi and St. Peter’s meet, on the ‘Maiden’s Jumping Rock;’ 1 here I recovered my right mind.”
The daughter of Ahaktah says that her father retained the “wahkun” bow and arrow that was given him by his uncle, and that he was always successful in hunting or in war; that he enjoyed fine health, and lived to be a very old man; and she is living now to tell the story.
- Near Fort Snelling is a high rock called the Maiden’s Jumping Rock; where formerly the Dahcotah girls used to jump for amusement, a distance of many feet from the top to the ground.[↩]