Wabashaw or the Leaf

Wabashaw, (or The Leaf,) is the name of one of the Dahcotah Chiefs. His village is on the Mississippi river, 1,800 miles from its mouth.

The teepees are pitched quite near the shore, and the many bluffs that rise behind them seem to be their perpetual guards.

The present chief is about thirty-five years old as yet he has done not much to give him a reputation above the Dahcotahs about him. But his father was a man whose life and character were such as to influence his people to a great degree.

Wabashaw the elder, (for the son inherits his father’s name,) is said by the Dahcotahs to have been the first chief in their tribe.

Many years ago the English claimed authority over the Dahcotahs, and an English traveler having been murdered by some Dahcotahs of the band of which Wabashaw was a warrior, the English claimed hostages to be given up until the murderer could be found.

The affairs of the nation were settled then by men who, having more mind than the others, naturally influenced their inferiors. Their bravest men, their war chief too, no doubt exercised a control over the rest.

Wabashaw was one of the hostages given up in consequence of the murder, and the Governor of Canada required that these Dahcotahs should leave the forests of the west, and remain for a time as prisoners in Canada. Little as is the regard for the feelings of the savage now, there was still less then.

Wabashaw often spoke of the ill treatment he received on his journey. It was bad enough to be a prisoner, and to be leaving home; it was far worse to be struck, for the amusement of idle men and children to have the war eagle’s feather rudely torn from his head to be trampled upon to have the ornaments, even the pipes of the nation, taken away, and destroyed before his eyes.

But such insults often occurred during their journey, and the prisoners were even fettered when at last they reached Quebec.

Here for a long time they sighed to breathe the invigorating air of the prairies; to chase the buffalo; to celebrate the war dance. But when should they join again in the ceremonies of their tribe? When? Alas! they could not even ask their jailer when; or if they had, he would only have laughed at the strange dialect that he could not comprehend. But the Dahcotahs bore with patience their unmerited confinement, and Wabashaw excelled them all. His eye was not as bright as when he left home, and there was an unusual weakness in his limbs but never should his enemies know that he suffered. And when those high in authority visited the prisoners, the haughty dignity of Wabashaw made them feel that the Dahcotah warrior was a man to be respected.

But freedom came at last. The murderers were given up; and an interpreter in the prison told Wabashaw that he was no longer a prisoner; that he would soon again see the Father of many waters; and that more, he had been made by the English a chief, the first chief of the Dahcotahs.

It was well nigh too late for Wabashaw. His limbs were thin, and his strength had failed for want of the fresh air of his native hills.

Little did the prisoners care to look around as they retraced their steps. They knew they were going home. But when the waters of the Mississippi again shone before them, when the well-known bluffs met their eager gaze; when the bending river gave to view their native village, then, indeed, did the new-made chief cast around him the “quiet of a loving eye.” Then, too, did he realize what he had suffered.

He strained his sight for perhaps his wife might have wearied of waiting for him perhaps she had gone to the Land of spirits, hoping to meet him there.

His children too the young warriors, who were wont to follow him and listen to his voice, would they welcome him home?

As he approached the village a cloud had come between him and the sun. He could see many upon the shore, but who were they? The canoe swept over the waters, keeping time to the thoughts of those who were wanderers no longer.

As they neared the shore, the cloud passed away and the brightness of the setting sun revealed the faces of their friends; their cries of joy rent the air to the husband, the son, the brother, they spoke a welcome home!

Wabashaw, by the command of the English Governor, was acknowledged by the Dahcotahs their first chief; and his influence was unbounded. Every band has a chief, and the honor descends from father to son; but there has never been one more honored and respected than Wabashaw.

Wabashaw’s village is sometimes called Keusca. This word signifies to break through, or set aside; it was given in consequence of an incident which occurred some time ago, in the village.

“Sacred Wind” was a daughter of one of the most powerful families among the Dahcotahs; for although a chief lives as the meanest of his band, still there is a great difference among the families. The number of a family constitutes its importance; where a family is small, a member of it can be injured with little fear of retaliation; but in a large family there are sure to be found some who will not let an insult pass without revenge. Sacred Wind’s father was living; a stalwart old warrior, slightly bent with the weight of years. Though his face was literally seamed with wrinkles, he could endure fatigue, or face danger, with the youngest and hardiest of the band.

Her mother, a fearfully ugly old creature, still mended moccasins and scolded; bidding fair to keep up both trades for years to come. Then there were tall brothers, braving hardships and danger, as if a Dahcotah was only born to be scalped, or to scalp; uncles, cousins, too, there were, in abundance, so that Sacred Wind did belong to a powerful family.

Now, among the Dahcotahs, a cousin is looked upon as a brother; a girl would as soon think of marrying her grandfather, as a cousin. I mean an ordinary girl, but Sacred Wind was not of that stamp; she was destined to be a heroine. She had many lovers, who wore themselves out playing the flute, to as little purpose as they braided their hair, and painted their faces. Sacred Wind did not love one of them.

Her mother, was always trying to induce her to accept some one of her lovers, urging the advantages of each match; but it would not do. The girl was eighteen years old, and not yet a wife; though most of the Dahcotah women are mothers long before that.

Her friends could not imagine why she did not marry. They were wearied with arguing with her; but not one of them ever suspected the cause of her seeming coldness of heart.

Her grandmother was particularly officious. She could not do as Sacred Wind wished her, attend to her own affairs, for she had none to attend to; and grandmothers, among the Sioux, are as loving and devoted as they are among white people; consequently, the old lady beset the unfortunate girl, day and night, about her obstinacy.

“Why are you not now the mother of warriors,” she said, “and besides, who will kill game for you when you are old? The ‘Bear,’ has been to the traders; he has bought many things, which he offers your parents for you; marry him and then you will make your old grandmother happy.”

“I will kill myself,” she replied, “if you ask me to marry the Bear. Have you forgotten the Maiden’s rock? I There are more high rocks than one on the banks of the Mississippi, and my heart is as strong as Wenona’s. If you torment me so, to marry the Bear, I will do as she did in the house of spirits I shall have no more trouble.”

This threat silenced the grandmother for the time. But a young girl who had been sitting with them, and listening to the conversation, rose to go out; and as she passed Sacred Wind, she whispered in her ear, “Tell her why you will not marry the Bear; tell her that Sacred Wind loves her cousin; and that last night she promised him she never would marry any one but him.”

Had she been struck to the earth she could not have been paler. She thought her secret was hid in her own heart. She had tried to cease thinking of “The Shield;” keeping away from him, dreading to find true what she only suspected. She did not dare acknowledge even to herself that she loved a cousin.

But when the Shield gave her his handsomest trinkets; when he followed her when she left her laughing and noisy companions to sit beside the still waters when he told her that she was the most beautiful girl among the Dahcotahs when he whispered her that he loved her dearly; and would marry her in spite of mothers, grandmothers, customs and religion too then she found that her cousin was dearer to her than all the world that she would gladly die with him she could never live without him.

But still, she would not promise to marry him. What would her friends say? and the spirits of the dead would torment her, for infringing upon the sacred customs of her tribe. The Shield used many arguments, but all in vain. She told him she was afraid to marry him, but that she would never marry any one else. Sooner should the waves cease to beat against the shores of the spirit lakes, than she forget to think of him.

But this did not satisfy her cousin. He was determined she should be his wife; he trusted to time and his irresistible person to overcome her fears.

The Shield’s name was given to him by his father’s friends. Shields were formerly used by the Sioux; and the Eyanktons and Sissetons still use them. They are made of buffalo skin, of a circular form; and are used as a protection against the arrows of their enemies.

“You need not fear your family, Sacred Wind,” said her cousin, “nor the medicine men, nor the spirits of the dead. We will go to one of the villages, and when we are married, we will come back. Let them be angry, I will stand between you and them, even as my father’s shield did between him and the foe that sought his life.”

But she was firm, and promised nothing more than that she would not marry the Bear, or any one else; and they returned to her father’s teepee, little thinking that any one had overheard their conversation.

But the “Swan” had heard every word of it.

She loved the Shield, and she had seen him follow his cousin. After hearing enough to know that her case was a hopeless one, she made up her mind to make Sacred Wind pay dearly for the love which she herself could not obtain.

She did not at once tell the news. She wanted to amuse herself with her victim before she destroyed her; and she had hardly yet made up her mind as to the way which she would take to inform the family of Sacred Wind of the secret she had found out.

But she could not resist the temptation of whispering to Sacred Wind her knowledge of the true reason why she would not marry the Bear. This was the first blow, and it struck to the heart; it made a wound which was long kept open by the watchful eye of jealousy.

The grandmother, however, did not hear the remark; if she had she would not have sat still smoking not she! she would have trembled with rage that a Dahcotah maiden, and her grandchild, should be guilty of the enormous crime of loving a cousin. An eruption of Vesuvius would have given but a faint idea of her fury.

Most fortunately for herself, the venerable old medicine woman died a few days after. Had she lived to know of the fatal passion of her granddaughter, she would have longed to seize the thunderbolts of Jupiter (if she had been aware of their existence) to hurl at the offenders; or like Niobe, have wept herself to stone.

Indeed the cause of her death showed that she could not bear contradiction.

There was a war party formed to attack the Chippeways, and the “Eagle that Screams as she Flies,” (for that was the name of Sacred Wind’s grandmother) wanted to go along.

She wished to mutilate the bodies after they were scalped. Yes, though near ninety years old, she would go through all the fatigues of a march of three hundred miles, and think it nothing, if she could be repaid by tearing the heart from one Chippeway child.

There were, however, two old squaws who had applied first, and the Screaming Eagle was rejected.

There were no bounds to her passion. She attempted to hang herself and was cut down; she made the village resound with her lamentations; she called upon all the spirits of the lakes, rivers, and prairies, to torment the war party; nothing would pacify her. Two days after the war party left, the Eagle that Screams as she Flies expired, in a fit of rage!

When the war-party returned, the Shield was the observed of all observers; he had taken two scalps.

Sacred Wind sighed to think he was her cousin. How could she help loving the warrior who had returned the bravest in the battle?

The Swan saw that she loved in vain. She knew that she loved the Shield more in absence; why then hope that he would forget Sacred Wind when he saw her no more?

When she saw him enter the village, her heart beat fast with emotion; she pressed her hand upon it, but could not still its tumult. “He has come,” she said to herself, “but will his eye seek mine? will he tell me that the time has been long since he saw me woman he loved?”

She follows his footsteps she watches his every glance, as he meets his relations. Alas! for the Swan, the wounded bird feels not so acutely the arrow that pierces, as she that look of recognition between the cousins!

But the unhappy girl was roused from a sense of her griefs, to a recollection of her wrongs. With all the impetuosity of a loving heart, she thought she had a right to the affections of the Shield. As the water reflected her features, so should his heart give back the devoted love of hers.

But while she lived, she was determined to bring sorrow upon her rival; she would not “sing in dying.” That very evening did she repeat to the family of Sacred Wind the conversation she had overheard, adding that the love of the cousins was the true cause of Sacred Wind’s refusing to marry.

Time would fail me to tell of the consequent sufferings of Sacred Wind. She was scolded and watched, shamed, and even beaten. The medicine men threatened her with all their powers; no punishment was severe enough for the Dahcotah who would thus transgress the laws of their nation.

The Shield was proof against the machinations of his enemies, for he was a medicine man, and could counteract all the spells that were exerted against him. Sacred Wind bore everything in patience but the sight of the Bear. She had been bought and sold, over and over again; and the fear of her killing herself was the only reason why her friends did not force her to marry.

One evening she was missing, and the cries of her mother broke upon the silence of night; canoes were flying across the water; friends were wandering in the woods, all seeking the body of the girl.

But she was not to be found in the river, or in the woods. Sacred Wind was not dead, she was only married.

She was safe in the next village, telling the Shield how much she loved him, and how cordially she hated the Bear; and although she trembled when she spoke of the medicine men, her husband only laughed at her fears, telling her, that now that she was his wife, she need fear nothing.

But where was the Swan? Her friends were assisting, in the search for Sacred Wind. The father had forgotten his child, the brother his sister. And the mother, who would have first missed her, had gone long ago, to the land of spirits.

The Swan had known of the flight of the lovers she watched them as their canoe passed away, until it became a speck in the distance, and in another moment the waters closed over her.

Thus were strangely blended marriage and death. The Swan feared not to take her own life. Sacred Wind, with a nobler courage, a more devoted love, broke through the customs of her nation, laid aside the superstitions of the tribe, and has thus identified her courage with the name of her native village.

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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