Wanata, Grand Chief of the Sioux

Wanata Grand Chief of the Sioux
Grand Chief of the Sioux

This is a fine picture, and represents a very distinguished personage. Although the Sioux are divided into several tribes, governed by different leaders, this individual, in consideration of his paramount influence, is called the grand chief. His dress exhibits an air of state and dignity which is often assumed by the aboriginal chiefs, but is seldom so successfully displayed. It consists of a long robe of the skin of the buffalo, skillfully prepared by the Indian women, by a laborious process, which renders it at once soft and white. Figures are traced upon this material with paint, or worked into it with splinters of the quills of the porcupine, dyed with the most gaudy colors. The plumage of the bird is tastefully inter woven; and the whole is so disposed as to form a rude, but appropriate dress for the powerful ruler of a savage people.

Mr. Keating, in his narrative of the Expedition to the Source of the St. Peter’s, describes an interview with this chief, and gives an account of his person and apparel, which nearly conforms with the portrait in this number. ” He was dressed in the full habit of an Indian chief; we have never seen a more dignified person, or a more becoming dress. The most prominent part of his apparel was a splendid cloak, or mantle of buffalo skin, dressed so as to be of a fine white color; it was decorated with small tufts of owls’ feathers, and others of various hues, probably a remnant of a fabric, once in general use among the aborigines of our territory, and still worn in the north-east and north-west parts of this continent, as well as in the South Sea Islands. It was what was called by the first European visitors of North America, the feather mantle and feather blanket, which were by them much admired. A splendid necklace, formed of about sixty claws of the grizzly bear, imparted a manly character to his whole appearance. His leggings, jacket, and moccasins were in the real Dacota fashion, being made of white skins, profusely decorated with human hair; his moccasins were variegated with the plumage of several birds. In his hair he wore nine sticks, neatly cut and smoothed, and painted with vermilion; these designated the number of gunshot wounds which he had received; they were secured by a strip of red cloth; two platted tresses of his hair were allowed to hang forward; his face was tastefully painted with vermilion; in his hand he bore a large fan of the feathers of the turkey; this he frequently used.

“We have never seen a nobler face, or a more impressive character, than that of the Dacota chief, as he stood that afternoon, in his manly and characteristic dress, contemplating a dance performed by the men of his own nation. It would require the utmost talent of the artist to convey a fair idea of this chief; to display his manly and regular features, strongly stamped, it is true, with the Indian character, but admirably blended with an expression of mildness and modesty; and it would require no less talent to represent the graceful and unstudied folds of his mantle.”

Another interview with this chief is thus described: ” As we appeared upon the brow of the hill, which commands the company’s fort, a salute was fired from a number of Indian tents, which were pitched in the vicinity, from the largest of which the American colors were flying; and as soon as we dismounted from our horses, we received an invitation to a feast, which Wanata had prepared for us. The gentlemen of the company informed us that, as soon as the Indians had heard of our contemplated visit, they had commenced their preparations for a festival, and that they had killed three of their dogs. We repaired to a sort of pavilion which they had erected, by the union of several skin lodges. Fine buffalo robes were spread all around, and the air was perfumed by the odor of sweet-scented grass which had been burned in it. On entering the lodge, we saw the chief seated near the further end of it, and one of his principal men pointed out to us the place which was destined for our accommodation. It was at the upper end of the lodge; the Indians who were in it taking no further notice of us. These consisted of the chief, his son, a lad about eight years old, and eight or ten of the principal warriors. The chief’s dress presented a mixture of the European and aboriginal costume; he wore moccasins and leggings of splendid scarlet cloth, a fine shirt of printed muslin, over this a frock coat of fine blue cloth, with scarlet facings, some what similar to the undress uniform coat of a Prussian officer; this was buttoned and secured round the waist by a belt. Upon his head he wore a blue cloth cap, made like a German fatigue cap. A very handsome Mackinaw blanket, slightly ornamented with paint, was thrown over his person.”

The writer describes the countenance of Wanata as prepossessing. The portrait before us indicates a thoughtful and resolute, if not a generous, disposition. He is, however, a very magnificent savage, and has an air of command which is sufficiently regal.

The Dacotas are the Arabs of western America, Inhabiting the vast prairies which lie between the Mississippi and the Missouri, they wander extensively over those beautiful plains in search of game, or in pursuit of their enemies, roaming often beyond their proper limits, to the shores of the northern lakes, and to the banks of the Arkansas and Red rivers. The topography of their country makes them horsemen, the vast extent and even surface of the prairies rendering the service of the horse particularly desirable. Upon this noble animal they perform their long journeys, charge their enemies in battle, or chase the buffalo. They are expert and fearless riders, managing their horses with a surprising degree of dexterity, and using them with equal success in the chase, and in war.

Wanata is a chief of the Yanktona, a tribe of the Sioux, or Dacota Indians, whose proper residence is on the waters of the River St. Peter, which empties into the Mississippi, a short distance below the falls of St. Anthony. They are divided into six bands, and have altogether about our hundred and fifty lodges, which contain a population of between five and six thousand, of whom thirteen hundred are warriors. Few chiefs can lead so many followers to battle. The whole Dacota nation is estimated to comprise sixty thousand souls. The Yanktona, or, as it is otherwise written, Yanktoanan, is one of the most important of the tribes, and may now be ranked as the first, in consequence of the influence of Wanata. The word Yanktona signifies fern leaf. They do not dwell in permanent houses, but in fine skin lodges, made of the hide of the buffalo, neatly dressed and decorated, and which they move with facility from place to place.

At the early age of eighteen Wanata was distinguished as a warrior, and fought against the Americans under the command of his father, who was then chief of the tribe, and who cherished a mortal hatred against the American people. During the last war between Great Britain and the United States, he joined the former, and was one of a murderous band of savages collected by Colonel Dixon, under whom he fought at Sandusky, where he was wounded. He has since professed friendship towards the United States, but he is well known to be a crafty leader, who would favor or plunder any party, as his interest might dictate. His position, however, is now such as to place him in our power, and offers him little inducement to incur the displeasure of our government. On the other hand, he continues to cultivate a good understanding with his former friends. Ranging through all the country, from the tributary streams of the St. Peter’s to Lake Winnipeg, he often comes in contact with the inhabitants of the British colony in that isolated region, who have endeavored to conciliate this powerful and wily savage by valuable presents, which he receives as the tribute due to his high reputation.

He has had the sagacity to render this intercourse a source of regular profit, by practicing successfully on the fears of these colonists.

There is an incident in the life of this chief which is highly illustrative of the superstition as well as the fortitude of the Indian character. On the eve of a journey which he made in 1822, in which he was likely to be exposed to great danger from the Chippewas, he made a vow to the sun that, if he should return safe, he would abstain from food and drink for four days and nights, and would distribute among his people all his property of every description. Returning, without accident, his first care was to celebrate the dance of the sun a ceremony so shockingly painful and revolting, that we can scarcely imagine a sufficiently strong inducement for its voluntary performance. Deep incisions were made in the . breast and arms, so as to separate the skin from the flesh, in the form of loops, through which a rope was passed, and the ends fastened to a tall vertical pole, erected for the purpose in front of his lodge. He began the horrid exercise at the commencement of his fast, and continued it throughout the four days, sometimes dancing, and frequently throwing his whole weight upon the cord which was passed through his skin, and swinging to and fro in this painful position. At the conclusion he sunk exhausted, and was relieved by his friends. After the ceremony was over, he distributed among his people all his property, consisting of his lodges, dogs, guns, trinkets, robes, and several fine horses; and he and his two wives, abandoning their tent, with its furniture, took up their lodging in the open air.

When the Ricara villages, on the Missouri, were burned in 1823, by the troops under Colonel Leavenworth, in retaliation for some acts of depredation committed by them, that tribe retired from the place, but returned in 1824. Wanata seized this occasion to strengthen his power; and, encouraged by traders who had been ill treated by the Ricara, he made war upon that tribe, which, weakened and dispirited by the chastisement recently inflicted on them, made but a feeble resistance. He burned their villages again, aid drove them from the country. Here he established himself, between the Ricara and Mandans; and he has ever since retained his conquest.

Wanata was only twenty-eight years old when visited by the party under Colonel Long, whose description of him we have copied. Our portrait was taken some years later. He is a tall and finely formed man, more than six feet in height. His manners are dignified and reserved, and his attitudes, though studied, are graceful. He is now about forty-five years of age, and commands more influence than any other Indian chief on the continent. His rule over his own tribe is absolute. He has no rival or compeer. He resorts neither to presents nor to persuasion to secure obedience, but issues his peremptory mandates, which are never disputed.

The traders speak of him as one who may be trusted, because it is policy to be at peace with the whites; but they place no confidence in his friendship, and have little faith in his integrity. Brave, skilful, and sagacious, he is grasping, artful, and overbearing; it is safer to secure his interest than to trust to his generosity or mercy.

Biography, Sioux,

McKenny, Thomas & Hall, James & Todd, Hatherly & Todd, Joseph. History of the Indian tribes of North America: with biographical sketches and anecdotes of the principal chiefs. Embellished with one hundred portraits from the Indian Gallery in the War Department at Washington. Philadelphia: D. Rice & Co. 1872.

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