Tonwa-Yah-Pe-Kin, the Spies

It was in the spring of 1848, that several Dahcotahs were carefully making their way along the forests near the borders of the Chippeway country. There had recently been a fight near the spot where they were, and the Dahcotahs were seeking the bodies of their friends who had been slain, that they might take them home to bury them.

They moved noiselessly along, for their enemies were near. Occasionally, one of them would imitate the cry of a bird or of some animal, so that if the attention of their enemies should be drawn to the spot, the slight noise they made in moving might be attributed to any but the right cause.

They had almost given up the hope of finding their friends, and this was the close of their last day’s efforts to that intent. In the morning they intended to return to their village.

It was a bright clear evening, and the rays of the setting sun fell upon some objects further on. For a time the Dahcotahs gazed in silence; but no movement gave sign of what it was that excited their curiosity. All at once there was a fearful foreboding; they remembered why they were there, and they determined to venture near enough to find out what was the nature of the object on which the rays of the sun seemed to rest as if to attract their notice.

A few more steps and they were relieved from their terrible suspense, but their worst fears were realized.

The Dahcotahs recently killed had been skinned by the Chippeways, while their bodies were yet warm with life, and the skins were stretched upon poles; while on separate poles the hands were placed, with one finger of each hand pointing to the Dahcotah country. The savages were in a fearful rage. They had to endure a twofold insult.

There were the bodies of their friends, treated as if they were but beasts, and evidently put there to be seen by the Dahcotahs. And besides, the hands pointing to the country of the Dahcotahs did it not plainly say to the spies, go back to your country and say to your warriors, that the Chippeways despise them, that they are not worthy to be treated as men?

The spies returned as cautiously as they had ventured near the fatal spot, and it was not until they were out of reach of danger from their foes, that they gave vent to their indignation. Then their smothered rage burst forth. They hastened to return and tell the event of their journey. They forgot how grieved the wives and sisters of the dead would be at being deprived of the solace of burying the remains of their friends they only thought of revenge for the insult they had received.

When they arrived at their village, they called together their chiefs and braves, and related to them what they had seen. A council of war was held, which resulted in immediate preparations being made to resent the indignity offered to their friends, and the insult to the whole tribe.

The war-dance is always celebrated before a war party goes out to find an enemy, and there is in every village a war chief, who conducts the party. The war dance is performed inside of a wigwam, and not out of door, as is usually represented.

The “Owl” felt himself qualified in every respect to conduct the present party. He was a great warrior, and a juggler besides; and he had a reputation acquired from an act performed when he was a very young man, which showed as much cunning as bravery; for one of these qualities is as necessary to a Dahcotah war chief as the other.

He was one of a party of Dahcotahs who went to war against the Chippeways, but without success. On their way back “the Owl” got separated from the rest of the party, and he climbed a tree to see if he could discover his comrades. While in the tree a war party of the Chippeways came in sight and stopped quite near the tree to make their camp.

The Owl was in a sad predicament; he knew not what to do to effect his escape. As he knew he had not the power to contend with his enemies, he determined to have recourse to stratagem. When it was quite dark he commenced hooting like an owl, having previously transformed himself into one. The Chippeways looked up towards the tree and asked the owl what he was doing there. The owl replied that he had come to see a large war party of Dahcotahs who would soon pass by. The Chippeways took the hint, and took to their heels too, and ran home. The Owl then resumed his form, got down from the tree and returned home.

This wonderful incident, which he related of himself, gave him a great reputation and a name besides; for until now he had been called Chaske, a name always given to the oldest son; but the Indians after this gave him the name of the Owl.

It being decided that the war party should leave as soon as their preparations could be made, the war chief sent for those who were to dance. The dance was performed every third or, fourth night until the party left. For each dance the war chief had a hew set of performers; only so many were asked at a time as could conveniently dance inside the wigwam. While some were dancing, others were preparing for the expedition, getting extra moccasins made, drying meat, or parching corn.

When all was ready, the party set out, with every confidence in their war chief. He was to direct them where to find the enemy, and at the same time to protect them from being killed themselves.

For a few days they hunted as they went along, and they would build large fires at night, and tell long stories, to make the time pass pleasantly.

The party was composed of about twenty warriors, and they all obeyed implicitly the orders of their war chief, who appointed some warriors to see that his directions were carried out by the whole party. Wo to him who violates a single regulation! his gun is broken, his blanket cut to pieces, and he is told to return home. Such was the fate of Iron Eyes, who wandered from the party to shoot a bird on the wing, contrary to the orders of their chief. But although disgraced and forbidden to join in the attempt to punish the Chippeways for the outrage they had committed, he did not return to his village; he followed the tracks of the war party, determining to see the fun if he could not partake of it.

On the fourth night after they left home, the warriors were all assembled to hear the war song of their chief. They were yet in their own country, seated on the edge of a prairie, and back of them as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing to be seen but the half melted snow; no rocks, no trees, relieved the sameness of the view. On the opposite side of the Mississippi, high bluffs, with their worn sides and broken rocks, hung over the river; and in the centre of its waters lay the sacred isles, whose many trees and bushes wanted only the warm breath of summer to display their luxuriance. The war chief commenced. He prophesied that they would see deer on the next day, but that they must begin to be careful, for they would then have entered their enemies’ country. He told them how brave they were, and that he was braver still. He told them the Chippeways were worse than prairie dogs. To all of which the warriors responded, Ho!

When they found themselves near their enemies, the chief forbade a gun being fired off; no straggling was allowed; none but the spies were to go beyond a certain distance from the party.

But after they entered the Chippeway country the duties of the war chief were still more important. He had to prophesy where the enemy, was to be found, and about their number; and besides, he had to charm the spirits of their enemies, that they might be unable to contend with the Dahcotahs. The spirits on this occasion took the form of a bear.

About nine o’clock at night this ceremony commences. The warriors all lie down as if asleep, when the war chief signifies the approach of the spirits to his men, by the earnestness of his exertions in singing.

The song continues, and increases in energy as the spirit gets nearer to the hole in the ground, which the chief dug and filled with water, previous to commencing his song. Near this hole he placed a hoop, against which are laid all the war implements of the chief. Before the song commences the warriors sit and look steadfastly at their leader. But when the spirit approaches this hole, the warriors hardly dare breathe, for fear of frightening it away.

At last the spirit gets close to the hole. The war chief strikes it with his rattle and kills it; this ensures to the Dahcotahs success in battle. And most solemnly did the Owl assert to his soldiers, the fact that he had thus dealt with the bear spirit, while they as earnestly believed it.

The next morning, four of the warriors went in advance as spies; one of them carried a pipe, presented as an offering to deceive the spirits of their enemies. About noon they sat down to rest, and waited until the remainder of the party came up. When they were all together again, they rested and smoked; and other spies were appointed, who took the pipe and went forward again.

They had not proceeded far when they perceived signs of their enemies. In the sand near the borders of a prairie were the footprints of Chippeways, and fresh too. They, congratulated each other by looks, too cautious even to whisper. In a few moments a hundred Chippeways could be called up, but still the Dahcotahs plunge into the thick forest that skirts the edge of the prairie, in order to find out what prospect they have for delighting themselves with the long wished for revenge.

It was not long before a group of Chippeways was discovered, all inapprehensive of evil. At their camp the Chippeways had made pickets, for they knew they might expect retaliation; but those who fell a sacrifice were not expecting their foes. The spies were not far ahead they returned to the party, and then

retraced their steps. The low cries of animals were imitated to prevent any alarm being given by the breaking of a twig or the rustling of the leaves. They were very near the Chippeways, when the war chief gave the signal on a bone whistle, and the Dahcotahs fired. Every one of the Chippeways fell two men, three women, and two children.

Then came the tomahawk and scalping knife the former to finish the work of death, the latter to bear a trophy to their country, to say, Our comrades are avenged. Nor was that all. The bodies were cut to pieces, and then the warriors commenced their homeward journey.

They allowed themselves but little rest until they were out of their enemies’ country. But when they were out of the reach of attack, when their feet trod again upon Dahcotah soil, then they stopped to stretch each scalp on a hoop, which was attached to a slender pole. This is always the work of the war chief.

They look eagerly for the welcome sight of home. The cone-shaped teepees rise before their view. They know that their young wives will rejoice to see the scalps, as much as to know that the wanderers have returned.

When they are near their village the war chief raises the song of victory; the other warriors join their voices to his. The welcome sound rouses the inhabitants of the village from their duties or amusements. The warriors enter the village in triumph, one by one, each bearing the scalp he took; and the stout warrior, the aged woman, and the feeble child, all press forward to feast their eyes with the sight of the scalps.

There was a jubilee in the village for weeks. Day and night did the savages dance round the scalps. But how soon may their rejoicings be lost in cries of terror! Even now they tremble at the sound of their own voices when evening draws near for it is their turn to suffer. They expect their foes, but they do not dread them the less.

Many of the customs of the Dahcotahs are to be attributed to their superstitions. Their teepees are always made of buffalo-skins; nothing would induce them to use deer-skin for that purpose. Many years ago a woman made a teepee of deer-skin; and was taken suddenly ill, and died immediately after. Some reason must be found for the cause of her death, and as no other was known, the Indians concluded that she brought her death upon herself by using deer-skin for her teepee. They have always, since, used buffalo-skin for that purpose.

Nothing would induce a Dahcotah woman to look into a looking-glass; for the medicine men say that death will be the consequence. But there is no superstition which influences them more than their belief in Haokah, or the Giant. They say this being is possessed of superhuman powers: indeed he is deemed so powerful, as to be able to take the thunder in his hand and cast it to the ground. He dresses in many colors, and wears a forked hat. One side of his face is red, the other blue, his eyes are also of different colors. He always carries a bow and arrow in his hand, but never has occasion to use it, as one look will kill the animal he wants.

They sing songs to this giant, and once in a long time dance in honor of him; but so severe is the latter custom, that it is rarely performed. The following incident will show how great is their reverence for this singular being. An Indian made a vapor bath, and placed inside of it a rude image of the giant, made of birch bark. This he intended to pray to while bathing.

After the hot stone was placed inside of the wigwam, several Indians went in to assist in giving the bath to their sick friend. One of them commenced pouring the water on the hot stone, and the water flew on the others, and scalded them badly; the image of the giant was also displaced; the Indians never dreamed of attributing their burns to the natural cause, but concluded that the giant was displeased at their placing his image there, and they considered it as an instance of his mercy that they were not scalded to death.

However defective may be the religion of the Dahcotahs, they are faithful in acting up to all its requirements. Every feast and custom among them is celebrated as a part of their religion.

After the scalp-dance had been performed long enough, the Dahcotahs of the villages turned their attention to making sugar. Many groves of sugar trees were in sight of their village, and on this occasion the generous sap rewarded their labors.

Nor were they ungrateful; for when the medicine men announced that they must keep the sugar-feast, all left their occupation, anxious to celebrate it. Neither need it be concluded that this occasioned them no loss of time; for they were all occupied with the construction of their summer wigwams, which are made of the bark of trees, which must be peeled off in the spring.

But every villager assembled to keep the feast. A certain quantity of sugar was dealt out to each individual, and any one of them who could not eat all that was given him was obliged to pay leggings, or a blanket, or something valuable, to the medicine man. On this occasion, indeed on most occasions, the Dahcotahs have no difficulty in disposing of any quantity of food.

When the feast was over, however, the skill of their doctors was in requisition; for almost all of them were made quite ill by excess, and were seen at evening lying at full length on the ground, groaning and writhing with pain.

The day after the sugar feast, the Owl told his wife to get ready her canoe, as he wanted to spear some fish. She would rather have staid at home, as she was not fully recovered from her last night’s indisposition. But there was no hesitating when the war chief spoke; so she placed her child upon her back, and seated herself in the stern of the canoe, paddling gently along the shore where the fish usually lie.

Her husband stood in the bow of the canoe with a spear about six feet in length. As he saw the fish lying in the water, he threw the spear into them, still keeping hold of it.

When the war chief was tired, his wife would stop paddling, and nurse her child while he smoked. If the Owl were loquaciously inclined, he would point out to his wife the place where he shot a deer, or where he killed the man who had threatened his life. Indeed, if you took his word for it, there was not a foot of ground in the country which had not been a scene of some exploit.

The woman believed them all; for, like a good wife, she shone by the reflected light of her husband’s fame.

When they returned home, she made her fire and put the fish to cook, and towards evening many of the Indians were assembled in the wigwam of the war-chief, and partook of the fish he had caught in the morning.

“Unk-ta-he,” 1 said one of the oldest men in the tribe (and reverenced as a medicine man of extraordinary powers), “Unk-ta-he is as powerful as the thunder-bird. Each wants to be the greatest god of the Dahcotahs, and they have had many battles. My father was a great medicine man; he was killed many years ago, and his spirit wandered about the earth. The Thunder-bird wanted him, and Unk-ta-he wanted him, for they said he would make a wonderful medicine man. Some of the sons of Unk-ta-he fought against the sons of the Thunder, and the young thunder-birds were killed, and then Unk-ta-he took the spirit of my father, to teach him many mysterious things.

“When my father had lived a long time with Unk-ta-he in the waters under the earth, he took the form of a Dahcotah again, and lived in this village. He taught me all that I know, and when I go to the land of spirits, my son must dance alone all night, and he will learn from me the secret of the medicine of our clan.”

“All listened attentively to the old man, for not an Indian there but believed that he could by a spell cause their instant death; and many wonderful miracles had the “Elk” wrought in his day. In the corner of the wigwam sat the Bound Spirit, whose vacant look told the sad tale of her want of reason. Generally she sat quiet, but if the cry of an infant fell upon her ear, she would start, and her shriek could be heard throughout the village. The Bound Spirit was a Sisseton. In the depth of winter, she had left her village to seek her friends in some of the neighboring bands. She was a widow, and there was no one to provide her food. Accompanied by several other Indians, she left her home, which was made wretched by her desolate condition that home where she had been very happy while her husband lived. It had since been the scene of her want and misery. The small portion of food they had taken for their journey was exhausted. Rejoiced would they have been to have had the bark of trees for food; but they were on the open prairie. There was nothing to satisfy the wretched cravings of hunger, and her child the very child that clung to her bosom was killed by the unhappy mother, and its tender limbs supplied to her the means of life.

“She reached the place of destination, but it was through instinct, for forgetting and forgotten by all was the wretched maniac who entered her native village. The Indians feared her; they longed to kill her, but were afraid to do so. They said she had no heart. Sometimes she would go in the morning to the shore, and there, with only her head out of water, would she lie all day. Now, she has been weeping over the infant who sleeps by her. She is perfectly harmless, and the wife of the war chief kindly gives her food and shelter whenever she wishes it. But it is not often she eats only when desperate from long fasting and when her appetite is satisfied, she seems to live over the scene, the memory of which has made her what she is.

“After all but she had eaten of the fish, the Elk related to them the story of the large fish that obstructed the passage of the St. Croix river. The scene of this tradition was far from them, but the Dahcotahs tell each other over and over again the stories which have been handed down from their fathers, and these incidents are known throughout the tribe. “Two Dahcotahs went to war against their enemies. On returning home, they stopped at the Lake St. Croix, hungry and much fatigued.

“One of them caught a fish, cooked it, and asked his comrade to eat, but he refused. The other argued with him, and begged of him to eat, but still he declined.

“The owner of the fish continued to invite his friend to partake of it, until he, wearied by his importunities, consented to eat, but added with a mysterious look, ‘My friend, I hope you will not get out of patience with me.’ After saying this, he ate heartily of the fish.

“He then seemed to be very thirsty, and asked his companion to bring him some water out of the lake; he did so, but very soon the thirst, which was quenched for a time only, returned; more was given him, but the terrible thirst continued, and at last the Indian, who had begged his companion to eat, began to be tired of bringing him water to drink. He therefore told him he would bring him no more, and requested him to go down to the water and drink. He did so, and after drinking a great quantity, while his friend was asleep, he turned himself into a large fish and stretched himself full length across the St. Croix.

“This fish for a long time obstructed the passage of the St. Croix; so much so that the Indians were obliged to go round it by land.

“Some time ago the Indians were on a hunting excursion up the river, and when they got near the fish a woman of the party darted ahead in her canoe.

“She made a dish of bark, worked the edges of it very handsomely, filled it with water, and placed some red down in it. She then placed the dish near the fish in the river, and entreated the fish to go to its own elements, and not to obstruct the passage of the river and give them so much trouble.

“The fish obeyed, and settled down in the water, and has never since been seen.

“The woman who made this request of the fish, was loved by him when he was a Dahcotah, and for that reason he obeyed her wishes.”

Nor was this the only legend with which he amused his listeners. The night was half spent when they separated to rest, with as firm a faith in the stories of the old medicine man, as we have in the annals of the Revolution.

Dakota, Legends, Sioux,

Fort Snelling,

Eastman, Mary H. Dahcotah, Or Life and Legends of the Sioux around Ft. Snelling. New York: John Wiley. 1849.

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