Never did the sun shine brighter than on a cold day in December, when the Indians at “Little Crow’s” village were preparing to go on a deer hunt. The Mississippi was frozen, and the girls of the village had the day before enjoyed one of their favorite amusements a ball-play on the ice. Those who owned the bright cloths and calicoes which were hung up before their eyes, as an incentive to win the game, were still rejoicing over their treasures; while the disappointed ones were looking sullen, and muttering of partiality being shown to this one because she was beautiful, and to that, because she was the sister of the chief.
“Look at my head!” said Harpstenah; “Wenona knew that I was the swiftest runner in the band, and as I stooped to catch the ball she struck me a blow that stunned me, so that I could not run again.”
But the head was so ugly, and the face too, that there was no pity felt for her; those dirty, wrinkled features bore witness to her contempt for the cleansing qualities of water. Her uncombed hair was hanging in masses about her ears and face, and her countenance expressed cruelty and passion. But Harpstenah had nothing to avenge; when she was young she was passed by, as there was nothing in her face or disposition that could attract; and now in the winter of life she was so ugly and so desolate, so cross and so forlorn, that no one deemed her worthy even of a slight. But for all that, Harpstenah could hate, and with all the intensity of her evil heart did she hate Wenona, the beautiful sister of the chief.
Yesterday had been as bright as to-day, and Grey Eagle, the medicine man, had hung on a pole the prizes that were to be given to the party that succeeded in throwing the ball into a space marked off.
The maidens of the village were all dressed in their gayest clothing, with ornaments of beads, bracelets, rings, and ribbons in profusion. They cared not half so much for the prizes, as they rejoiced at the opportunity of displaying their graceful persons. The old women were eager to commence the game, for they longed to possess the cloth for their leggings, and the calico for their “okendokendas.” 1
The women, young and old, were divided into two parties; but as one party threw the ball towards the space marked off, the others threw it back again far over their heads, and then all ran back, each party
endeavoring to reach it first, that they might succeed in placing the ball in the position which was to decide the game.
But the ball is not thrown by the hand, each woman has a long stick with a circular frame at the end of it; this they call a bat stick, and, simple as it looks, it requires great skill to manage it.
Wenona was the swiftest runner of one party, and Harpstenah, old and ugly as she was, the best of the other. How excited they are! the snow-covered hills, majestic and silent, look coldly enough upon their sport; but what care they? the prize will soon be won.
The old medicine man cheered them on. “Run fast, Wenona! take care that Harpstenah does not win the game. Ho, Harpstenah! if you and your leggings are old, you may have the cloth yet.”
Now Wenona’s party is getting on bravely, but the ball has been caught and thrown back by the other party. But at last it is decided. In the struggle for the ball, Harpstenah received a blow from an old squaw as dismal looking as herself, and Wenona catches the ball and throws it into the appointed place. The game is ended, and the medicine man comes forward to distribute the prizes.
The warriors have looked on, admiring those who were beautiful and graceful, and laughing at the ugly and awkward.
But Wenona cared little for the prizes. She was a chief’s sister, and she was young and beautiful. The handsomest presents were given her, and she hardly looked at the portion of the prizes which fell to her lot.
Smarting with pain from the blow she had received, (and she spoke falsely when she said Wenona had struck her,) stung with jealousy at the other party having won the game, Harpstenah determined on revenge, “If I am old,” she said, “I will live long enough to bring misery on her; ugly as I may be, I will humble the proud beauty. What do I eat? The worthless heads of birds are given to the old woman for whom nobody cares, but my food will be to see the eye of Wenona fall beneath the laugh of scorn. I will revenge the wrongs of my life on her.”
Commend me to a Dahcotah woman’s revenge! Has she been slighted in love? Blood must be shed; and if she is not able to accomplish the death of her rival, her own life will probably pay the forfeit. Has disgrace or insult been heaped upon her? a life of eighty years is not long enough to bring down vengeance on the offender. So with Harpstenah. Her life had not been a blessing to herself she would make it a curse to others.
In the preparations for the deer hunt, the ball-play has been forgotten. The women are putting together what will be necessary for their comfort during their absence, and the men are examining their guns and bows and arrows. The young girls anticipate amusement and happiness, for they will assist their lovers to bring in the deer to the camp; and the jest and merry laugh, and the words of love are spoken too. The ball-play has been forgotten by all but Harpstenah.
But it is late in the afternoon; and as they do not start till the morning, something must be done to pass the long evening. “If this were full,” said a young hunter, kicking at the same time an empty keg that had once contained whiskey, “if this were full, we would have a merry night of it.”
“Yes,” said Grey Iron, whose age seemed to have brought him wisdom, “the night would be merry, but where would you be the day after. Did you not, after drinking that very whiskey, strike a white woman, for which you were taken to the fort by the soldiers, and kept as a prisoner?”
The young man’s look of mortification at this reproof did not save him from the contemptuous sneer of his companions, for all despise the Dahcotah who has thus been punished. No act of bravery can wipe away his disgrace.
But Wenona sat pale and sad in her brother’s wigwam. The bright and happy looks of yesterday were all gone. Her sister-in-law has hushed her child to sleep, and she is resting from the fatigues of the day. Several old men, friends of Little Crow’s father, are sitting round the fire; one has fallen asleep, while the others talk of the wonderful powers of their sacred medicine.
“Why are you sad, Wenona,” said the chief, turning to her; “why should the eyes of a chief’s sister be filled with tears, and her looks bent on the ground?”
“You need not ask why I am not happy,” said Wenona: “Red Cloud brought presents to you yesterday; he laid them at the door of your wigwam. He wants to buy me, and you have received his gifts; why do you not return them? you know I do not love him.”
“Red Cloud is a great warrior,” replied the chief; “he wears many feathers of honor; you must marry him.”
The girl wrapped herself in her blanket and lay down. For a time her sighs were heard but at length sleep came to her relief, and her grief was forgotten in dreams. But morn has come and they are to make an early start. Was ever such confusion? Look at that old hag knocking the very senses out of her daughter’s head because she is not ready! and the girl, in order to avoid the blows, stumbles over an unfortunate dog, who commences a horrible barking and whining, tempting all the dogs of the village to out bark and out whine him.
There goes “White Buffalo” with his two wives, the first wife with the teepee on her back and her child on the top of it. No wonder she looks so cross, for the second wife walks leisurely on. Now is her time, but let her beware! for White Buffalo is thinking seriously of taking a third.
But they are all off at last. Mothers with children, and corn, and teepees, and children with dogs on their backs. They are all gone, and the village looks desolate and forsaken.
The party encamped about twenty miles from the village. The women plant the poles of their teepees firmly in the ground and cover them with a buffalo skin. A fire is soon made in the centre and the corn put on to boil. Their bread is kneaded and put in the ashes to bake, but flour is not very plenty among them.
The next day parties were out in every direction; tracks of deer were seen in the snow, and the hunters followed them up. The beautiful animal flies in terror from the death which comes surer and swifter than her own light footsteps. The hunter’s knife is soon upon her, and while warmth and even life are left, the skin is drawn off.
After the fatigues of the day comes the long and pleasant evening. A bright fire burned in the wigwam of the chief, and many of the Indians were smoking around it, but Wenona was sad, and she took but little part in the laughter and merriment of the others.
Red Cloud boasted of his bravery and his deeds of valor; even the old men listened to him with respect, for they knew that his name was a terror to his enemies. But Wenona turned from him! she hated to hear the sound of his voice.
The old men talked of the mighty giant of the Dahcotahs, he who needed not to take his gun to kill the game he wanted; the glance of his eye would strike with death the deer, the buffalo, or even the bear.
The song, the jest, the legend, by turns occupied them until they separated to sleep. But as the warriors stepped into the open air, why does the light of the moon fall upon faces pale with terror? “See!” said the chief, “how flash the mysterious lights! there is danger near, some dreadful calamity is threatening us.”
“We will shoot at them,” said Red Cloud; “we will destroy their power.” And the Indians discharged their guns in quick succession towards the northern horizon, which was brilliantly illuminated with the Aurora Borealis; thus hoping to ward off coming danger.
The brother and sister were left alone at the door of the teepee. The stern warrior’s looks expressed superstitious terror, while the maiden’s face was calm and fearless. “Do you not fear the power of the woman who sits in the north, Wenona? she shows those flashes of light to tell us of coming evil.”
“What should I fear,” said Wenona; “I, who will soon join my mother, my father, my sisters, in the land of spirits? Listen to my words, my brother: there are but two of us; strife and disease have laid low the brave, the good, the beautiful; we are the last of our family; you will soon be alone.
“Before the leaves fell from the trees, as I sat on the banks of the Mississippi, I saw the fairy of the water. The moon was rising, but it was not yet bright enough for me to see her figure distinctly. But I knew her voice; I had often heard it in my dreams. ‘Wenona,’ she said, (and the waves were still that they might hear her words), ‘Wenona, the lands of the Dahcotah are green and beautiful but there are fairer prairies than those on earth. In that bright country the forest trees are ever green, and the waves of the river flow on unchilled by the breath of winter. You will not long be with the children of the earth.
Even now your sisters are calling you, and your mother is telling them that a few more months will bring you to their side!
“The words were true, my brother, but I knew not that your harshness would hasten my going. You say that I shall marry Red Cloud; sooner will I plunge my knife into my heart; sooner shall the waves of the Mississippi roll over me. Brother, you will soon be alone!”
“Speak not such words, my sister,” said the chief; “it shall be as you will. I have not promised Red Cloud. I thought you would be happy if you were his wife, and you shall not be forced to marry him. But why should you think of death? you saw our braves as they shot at the lights in the north. They have frightened them away. Look! they flash no more. Go in, and sleep, and to-morrow I will tell Red Cloud that you love him not.”
And the cloudless moon shone on a happy face, and the bright stars, seemed more bright as Wenona gazed upon them; but as she turned to enter the wigwam, one star was seen falling in the heavens, and the light that followed it was lost in the brightness of the others. And her dreams were not happy, for the fairy of the water haunted them. “Even as that star, Wenona, thou shalt pass from all that thou lovest on earth; but weep not, thy course is upward!”
The hunters were so successful that they returned to their village soon. The friends of Wenona rejoiced in her happy looks, but to Harpstenah they were bitterness and gall. The angry countenance of Red Cloud found an answering chord in her own heart.
“Ha!” said she to him, as he watched Wenona and her lover talking together, “what has happened? Did you not say you would marry the chief’s sister why then are you not with her? Red Cloud is a great warrior, why should he be sad because Wenona loves him not? Are there not maidens among the Dahcotahs more beautiful than she? She never loved you; her brother, too, has treated you with contempt. Listen to my words, Red Cloud; the Virgin’s Feast is soon to be celebrated, and she will enter the ring for the last time. When she comes forward, tell her she is unworthy. Is she not a disgrace to the band? Has she not shamed a brave warrior? Will you not be despised when another is preferred to you?”
The words of the tempter are in his ear madness and hatred are in his heart.
“I said I would take her life, but my revenge will be deeper. Wenona would die rather than be disgraced.” And as he spoke Harpstenah turned to leave him, for she saw that the poison had entered his soul.
Among the Dahcotahs, women are not excluded from joining in their feasts or dances; they dance the scalp dance while the men sit round and sing, and they join in celebrating many of the customs of their tribe. But the Virgin’s Feast has reference to the women alone; its object is not to celebrate the deeds of the warrior, but rather to put to the test the virtue of the maiden.
Notice was given among the Indians that the Virgin’s Feast was to be celebrated at Little Crow’s village; the time was mentioned, and all who chose to attend were welcome to do so.
The feast was prepared in the neighborhood of the village. The boiled corn and venison were put in wooden bowls, and the Indians sat round, forming a ring. Those who were to partake of the feast were dressed in their gayest apparel; their long hair plaited and falling over their shoulders. Those who are conscious of error dare not approach the feast, for it is a part of the ceremony that they shall be exposed by any one present. Neither rank nor beauty must interpose to prevent the punishment. Nay, sometimes the power of innocence and virtue itself is not sufficient to guard the Dahcotah maiden from disgrace.
And was Wenona unworthy? The white snow that covered the hills was not more pure than she. But Red Cloud cared not for that. She had refused to be the light of his wigwam, and thus was he avenged.
Wenona advanced with the maidens of the village. Who can describe her terror and dismay when Red Cloud advances and leads her from the sacred ring? To whom shall the maiden turn for help? To her brother? his angry countenance speaks not of comfort. Her friends? the smile of scorn is on their lips. Her lover? he has left the feast.
Her determination is soon made; her form is seen as she flies to the woods. Death is the refuge of the friendless and the wronged.
But as night came on the relatives of Wenona wondered that she did not return. They sought her, and they found her lifeless body; the knife was deep in her heart. She knew she was innocent, but what did that avail her? She was accused by a warrior, and who would believe her if she denied the charge?
And why condemn her that she deprived herself of life, which she deemed worthless, when embittered by unmerited contempt. She knew not that God has said, “Thou shall do no murder.” The command had never sounded in her ears.
She trusted to find a home in the House of Spirits she may have found a heaven in the mercy of God.
The fever of the following summer spared neither age nor youth, and Red Cloud was its first victim. As the dying Harpstenah saw his body carried out to be placed upon the scaffold “He is dead,” she cried, “and Wenona was innocent! He hated her because she slighted him; I hated her because she was happy. He had his revenge, and I mine; but Wenona was falsely accused, and I told him to do it!” and the eyes were closed the voice was hushed in death.
Wenona was innocent; and when the Virgin’s Feast shall be celebrated in her native village again, how will the maidens tremble as they approach the sacred ring! Can they forget the fate of their beautiful companion?
And when the breath of summer warms to life the prairie flowers when the long grass shall wave under the scaffold where repose the mortal remains of the chief’s sister how often will the Dahcotah maidens draw near to contrast the meanness, the treachery, the falsehood of Red Cloud, with the constancy, devotion, and firmness of Wenona!
- “Okendokendas.” This is the Sioux word for calico. It is used as the name for a kind of short gown, which is worn by the Sioux women, made generally of calico, sometimes of cloth.[↩]