Mock-Pe-En-Dag-A-Win: or Checkered Cloud, the Medicine Woman 1
Within a few miles of Fort Snelling lives Checkered Cloud. Not that she has any settled habitation; she is far too important a character for that. Indeed she is not often two days in the same place. Her wanderings are not, however, of any great extent, so that she can always be found when wanted. But her wigwam is about seven miles from the fort, and she is never much farther off. Her occupations change with the day. She has been very busy of late, for Checkered Cloud is one of the medicine women of the Dahcotahs; and as the Indians have had a good deal of sickness among them, you might follow her from teepee to teepee, as she proceeds with the sacred rattle 2 in her hand, charming away the animal that has entered the body of the Dahcotah to steal his strength.
Then, she is the great legend-teller of the Dahcotahs. If there is a merry-making in the village, Checkered Cloud must be there, to call to the minds of the revelers the traditions that have been handed down from time immemorial.
Yesterday, wrapped in her blanket, she was seated on the St. Peters, near a hole which she had cut in the ice, in order to spear the fish as they passed through the water; and to-day but while I am writing of her, she approaches the house; even now, her shadow falls upon the room as she passes the window. I need not listen to her step, for her mocassined feet pass noiselessly through the hall. The door is slowly opened, and she is before me!
How tall she is! and with what graceful dignity she offers her hand. Seventy winters have passed over her, but the brightness of her eye is undimmed by time. Her brow speaks of intellect and the white hair that is parted over it falls unplaited on her shoulders. She folds her blanket round her and seats herself; she has a request to make, I know, but Checkered Cloud is not a beggar, she never asks aught but what she feels she has a right to claim.
“Long ago,” she says, “the Dahcotah owned lands that the white man now claims; the trees, the rivers, were all our own. But the Great Spirit has been angry with his children; he has taken their forests and their hunting grounds, and given them to others.
“When I was young, I feared not wind nor storm. Days have I wandered with the hunters of my tribe, that they might bring home many buffalo for food, and to make our wigwams. Then, I cared not for cold and fatigue, for I was young and happy. But now I am old; my children have gone before me to the ‘House of Spirits’ the tender boughs have yielded to the first rough wind of autumn, while the parent tree has stood and borne the winter’s storm.
“My sons have fallen by the tomahawk of their enemies; my daughter sleeps under the foaming waters of the Falls.
“Twenty winters were added to my life on that day. We had encamped at some distance above the Falls, and our hunters had killed many deer.
Before we left our village to go on the hunt, we sacrificed to the Spirit of the woods, and we prayed to the Great Spirit. We lifted up our hands and said, ‘Father, Great Spirit, help us to kill deer.’ The arrows of our hunters never missed, and as we made ready for our return we were happy, for we knew we should not want for food. My daughter’s heart was light, for Haparm was with her, and she never was sad but when he was away.
“Just before we arrived at the Falls, she became sick; her hands were burning hot, she refused to eat. As the canoe passed over the Mississippi, she would fill her cup with its waters, to drink and throw over her brow. The medicine men were always at her side, but they said some evil spirit hated her, and prevented their spells from doing her good.
“When we reached the Falls, she was worse; the women left their canoes, and prepared to carry them and the rest of the baggage round the Falls.
“But what should we do with We-no-nah? the flush of fever was on her cheek; she did not know me when I spoke to her; but she kept her eyes fixed upon her lover.
“‘We will leave her in the canoe,’ said her father; ‘and with a line we can carry her gently over the Rapids.’ I was afraid, but with her brothers holding the line she must be safe. So I left my child in her canoe, and paddled with the others to the shore.
“As we left her, she turned her eyes towards us, as if anxious to know what we were about to do. The men held the line steadily, and the canoe floated so gently that I began to feel less anxious but as we approached the rapids, my heart beat quickly at the sound of the waters. Carefully did her brothers hold the line, and I never moved my eyes from the canoe in which she lay. Now the roaring of the waters grew louder, and as they hastened to the rocks over which they would fall they bore with them my child I saw her raise herself in the canoe, I saw her long hair as it fell on her bosom I saw no more!
“My sons bore me in their arms to the rest of the party. The hunters had delayed their return that they might seek for the body of my child. Her lover called to her, his voice could be heard above the sound of the waters. ‘Return to me, Wenonah, I will never love maiden but you; did you not promise to light the fires in my wigwam?’ He would have thrown himself after her, had not the young men prevented him. The body rests not in the cold waters; we found it and buried it, and her spirit calls to me in the silence of the night! Her lover said he would not remain long on the earth; he turned from the Dahcotah maidens as they smiled upon him. He died as a warrior should die!
“The Chippeways had watched for us, they longed to carry the scalp of a Dahcotah home. They did so but we were avenged.
“Our young men burst in upon them when they were sleeping; they struck them with their tomahawks, they tore their scalps reeking with blood from their heads.
“We heard our warriors at the village as they returned from their war party; we knew by their joyful cries that they had avenged their friends. One by one they entered the village, bearing twenty scalps of the enemy.
“Only three of the Dahcotahs had fallen. But who were the three? My sons, and he who was as dear as a son to me, the lover of my child. I fled from their cries of triumph I longed to plunge the knife into my own heart.
“I have lived on. But sorrow and cold and hunger have bowed my spirit; and my limbs are not as strong and active as they were in my youth. Neither can I work with porcupine as I used to for age and tears have dimmed my sight. I bring you venison and fish, will you not give me clothes to protect me from the winter’s cold?”
Ah! Checkered Cloud he was a prophet who named you. Though the cloud has varied, now passing away, now returning blacker than before though the cheering light of the sun has for a moment dispelled the gloom ’twas but for a moment! for it was sure to break in terrors over your head. Your name is your history, your life has been a checkered cloud! But the storm of the day has yielded to the influence of the setting sun. The thunder has ceased to roll, the wind has died away, and the golden streaks that bound the horizon promise a brighter morning. So with Checkered Cloud, the storm and strife of the earth have ceased; the “battle of life” is fought, and she has conquered. For she hopes to meet the beloved of earth in the heaven of the Dahcotahs.
And who will say that our heaven will not be hers? The God of the Dahcotahs is ours, though they, less happy than we, have not been taught to know him. Christians! are you without blame? Have you thought of the privations, the wants of those who once owned your country, and would own it still but for the strong hand? Have you remembered that their souls are dear in His sight, who suffered for them, as well as for you? Have you given bright gold that their children might be educated and redeemed from their slavery of soul? Checkered Cloud will die as she has lived, a believer in the religion of the Dahcotahs. The traditions of her tribe are written on her heart. She worships a spirit in every forest tree, or every running stream. The features of the favored Israelite are hers; she is perchance a daughter of their lost tribe. When she was young, she would have listened to the missionary as he told her of Gethsemane and Calvary. But age yields not like youth to new impressions; the one looks to the future, the other clings to the past. See! she has put by her pipe and is going, but she is coming oft again to talk to me of her people, that I may tell to my friends the bravery of the Dahcotah warrior, and the beauty of the maiden! the legends of their rivers and sacred isles the traditions of their rocks and hills!
If I cannot, in recounting the wild stories of this prophetess of the forest, give her own striking words, I shall at least be faithful to the spirit of her recitals. I shall let Indian life speak for itself; these true pictures of its course will tell its whole simple story better than any labored exposition of mine. Here we may see, not the red man of the novel or the drama, but the red man as he appears to himself, and to those who live with him. His better characteristics will be found quite as numerous as ought to be expected under the circumstances; his faults and his sufferings should appeal to the hearts of those who hold the means of his salvation. No intelligent citizen of these United States can without blame forget the aborigines of his country. Their wrongs cry to heaven; their souls will be required of us. To view them as brutes is an insult to Him who made them and us. May this little work do something towards exciting an interest in a single tribe out of the many whose only hope is in the mercy of the white man!
- A medicine woman is a female doctor or juggler. No man or woman can assume this office without previous initiation by authority. The medicine dance is a sacred rite, in honor of the souls of the dead; the mysteries of this dance are kept inviolable; its secrets have never been divulged by its members. The medicine men and women attend in cases of sickness. The Sioux have the greatest faith in them. When the patient recovers, it redounds to the honor of the doctor; if he die, they say “The time had come that he should die,” or that the “medicine of the person who cast a spell upon the sick person was stronger than the doctor’s.” They can always find a satisfactory solution of the failure of the charm.
- Sacred rattle. This is generally a gourd, but is sometimes made of bark. Small beads are put into it. The Sioux suppose that this rattle, in the hands of one of their medicine men or women, possesses a certain virtue to charm away sickness or evil spirits. They shake it over a sick person, using a circular motion. It is never, however, put in requisition against the worst spirits with which the Red Man has to contend.