The Siouan Mythology

It was partly through pioneer study of the Siouan Indians that the popular fallacy concerning the aboriginal “Great Spirit” gained currency; and it was partly through the work of Dorsey among the ȼegiha and Dakota tribes, first as a missionary and afterward as a linguist, that the early error was corrected. Among these tribes the creation and control of the world and the things thereof are ascribed to “wa-kan-da” (the term varying somewhat from tribe to tribe), just as among the Algonquian tribes omnipotence was assigned to “ma-ni-do” (“Manito the Mighty” of “Hiawatha”); yet inquiry shows that wakanda assumes various forms, and is rather a quality than a definite entity. Thus, among many of the tribes the sun is wakanda-not the wakanda or a wakanda, but simply wakanda; and among the same tribes the moon is wakanda, and so is thunder, lightning, the stars, the winds, the cedar, and various other things; even a man, especially a shaman, might be wakanda or a wakanda. In addition the term was applied to mythic monsters of the earth, air, and waters; according to some of the sages the ground or earth, the mythic under-world, the ideal upper-world, darkness, etc, were wakanda or wakandas. So, too, the fetiches and the ceremonial objects and decorations were wakanda among different tribes. Among some of the groups various animals and other trees besides the specially wakanda cedar were regarded as wakandas; as already noted, the horse, among the prairie tribes, was the wakanda dog. In like manner many natural objects and places of striking character were considered wakanda. Thus the term was applied to all sorts of entities and ideas, and was used (with or without inflectional variations) indiscriminately as substantive and adjective, and with slight modification as verb and adverb. Manifestly a term so protean is not susceptible of translation into the more highly differentiated language of civilization. Manifestly, too, the idea expressed by the term is indefinite, and can not justly be rendered into “spirit,” much less into “Great Spirit;” though it is easy to understand stand how the superficial inquirer, dominated by definite spiritual concept, handicapped by unfamiliarity with the Indian tongue, misled by ignorance of the vague prescriptorial ideation, and perhaps deceived by crafty native informants or mischievous interpreters, came to adopt and perpetuate the erroneous interpretation. The term may be translated into “mystery” perhaps more satisfactorily than into any other single English word, yet this rendering is at the same time much too limited and much too definite. As used by the Siouan Indian, wakanda vaguely connotes also “power,” “sacred,” “ancient,” “grandeur,” “animate,” “immortal,” and other words, yet does not express with any degree of fullness and clearness the ideas conveyed by these terms singly or collectively-indeed, no English sentence of reasonable length can do justice to the aboriginal idea expressed by the term wakanda.

While the beliefs of many of the Siouan tribes are lost through the extinction of the tribesmen or transformed through acculturation, it is fortunate that a large body of information concerning the myths and ceremonials of several prairie tribes has been collected. The records of Carver, Lewis and Clark, Say, Catlin, and Prince Maximilian are of great value when interpreted in the light of modern knowledge. More recent researches by Miss Fletcher 1 and by Dorsey 2 are of especial value, not only as direct sources of information but as a means of interpreting the earlier writings. From these records it appears that, in so far as they grasped the theistic concept, the Siouan Indians were polytheists; that their mysteries or deities varied in rank and power; that some were good but more were bad, while others combined bad and good attributes; that they assumed various forms, actual and imaginary; and that their dispositions and motives resembled those found among mankind.

The organization of the vague Siouan thearchy appears to have varied from group to group. Among all of the tribes whose beliefs are known, the sun was an important wakanda, perhaps the leading one potentially, though usually of less immediate consideration than certain others, such as thunder, lightning, and the cedar tree; among the Osage the sun was invoked as “grandfather,” and among various tribes there were sun ceremonials, some of which are still maintained; among the Omaha and Ponka, according to Miss Fletcher, the mythic thunder-bird plays a prominent, perhaps dominant role, and the cedar tree or pole is deified as its tangible representative. The moon was wakanda among the Osage and the stars among the Omaha and Ponka, yet they seem to have occupied subordinate positions; the winds and the four quarters were apparently given higher rank; and, in individual cases, the mythic water-monsters or earth-deities seem to have occupied leading positions. On the whole, it may be safe to consider the sun as the Siouan arch-mystery, with the mythic thunder-bird or family of thunder-birds as a sort of mediate link between the mysteries and men, possessing less power but displaying more activity in human affairs than the remoter wakanda of the heavens. Under these controlling wakandas, other members of the series were vaguely and variably arranged. Somewhere in the lower ranks, sacred animals-especially sports, such as the white buffalo cow-were placed, and still lower came totems and shamans, which, according to Dorsey, were reverenced rather than worshiped. It is noteworthy that this thearchic arrangement corresponded in many respects with the hierarchic social organization of the stock.

The Siouan thearchy was invoked and adored by means of forms and ceremonies, as well as through orisons. The set observances were highly elaborate; they comprised dancing and chanting, feasting and fasting, and in some cases sacrifice and torture, the shocking atrocities of the Mandan and Minitari rites being especially impressive. From these great collective devotions the ceremonials graded down through war-dance and hunting-feast to the terpsichorean grace extolled by Carver, and to individual fetich worship. In general the adoration expressed fear of the evil rather than love of the good-but this can hardly be regarded as a distinctive feature, much less a peculiar one.

Some of the mystery places were especially distinctive and noteworthy. Foremost among them was the sacred pipestone quarry near Big Sioux river, whence the material for the wakanda calumet was obtained; another was the far-famed Minne-wakan of North Dakota, not inaptly translated “Devil’s lake;” a third was the mystery-rock or medicine-rock of the Mandan and Hidatsa near Yellowstone river; and there were many others of less importance. About all of these places picturesque legends and myths clustered.

The Siouan mythology is especially instructive, partly because so well recorded, partly because it so clearly reflects the habits and customs of the tribesmen and thus gives an indirect reflection of a well-marked environment. As among so many peoples, the sun is a prominent element; the ice-monsters of the north and the rain-myths of the arid region are lacking, and are replaced by the frequent thunder and the trees shaken by the storm-winds; the mythic creatures are shaped in the image of the indigenous animals and birds; the myths center in the local rocks and waters; the mysterious thearchy corresponds with the tribal hierarchy, and the attributes ascribed to the deities are those characteristic of warriors and hunters.

Considering the mythology in relation to the stages in development of mythologic philosophy, it appears that the dominant beliefs, such as those pertaining to the sun and the winds, represent a crude physitheism, while vestiges of hecastotheism crop out in the object-worship and place-worship of the leading tribes and in other features. At the same time well-marked zootheistic features are found in the mythic thunder-birds and in the more or less complete deification of various animals, in the exaltation of the horse into the rank of the mythic dog father, and in the animal forms of the water-monsters and earth-beings; and the living application of zootheism is found in the animal fetiches and totems. On the whole, it seems just to assign the Siouan mythology to the upper strata of zootheism, just verging on physitheism, with vestigial traces of hecastotheism.

McGee, W. J. The Siouan Indians. Published in the Fifteenth Annual Report of Bureau of Ethnology, 1893 – 1894. Washington. 1897.

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  1. Several of these are summarized in “The emblematic use of the tree in the Dakota group,” Science, n.s., vol. IV, 1896, pp. 475-487.[]
  2. Notably “A Study of Siouan Cults,” Seventh Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology for 1889-90 (1894), pp. 351-544.[]

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