Mythologies of the indigenous peoples of the Americas

THE NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS.

 

THE  general characteristics of the North American Indians, or the Red Men, have been made familiar to us through the writings of travellers, and the picturesque romances of Fenimore Cooper, the American novelist; though of the latter it may be said, perhaps, that he has used bright colours too uniformly, and introduced into his sketches too little shadow. The name by which they are popularly known is, of course, ethnologically incorrect. Just as, in speaking of the great Western Continent, our forefathers employed the expression “the West Indies,” or the “Great Indies,” from a mistaken conception of its geographical position, so they christened by the term “Indians” all its aboriginal races; and the term has survived in our common speech owing to its convenience.

Says De Maury: From the North Pole to Tierra del Fuego almost every shade of human colouring, from black to yellow, finds its representatives. According to their tribe, the Aborigines are of a brown-olive, a dark brown, bronze, pale yellow, copper yellow, red, brown, and so on. Nor do they differ less in stature. Between the dwarf-like proportions of the Changos, and the tall stature of the Patagonians, we meet with a great number of intermediary “sizes.” The contours of the body present the same diversity. Some peoples, like those of the Pampas, are very long in the bust; others, like the inhabitants of the Peruvian Andes, are short and broad. So, too, with the shape and size of the head. Yet we recognize between the various American populations an air of kinship, or certain predominant and general features which distinguish them from the races of the old world. As, for example, the pyramidal form of the head and the narrowness of the forehead, characteristics of great antiquity among the American populations, having been found in skulls discovered by Mr. Lund in the caves of Brazil, in association with the bones of animals now extinct.

In spite of this variety of type, we may divide the Aborigines of America into two great races, of which one, at least, the Red Skins, is remarkable for its complete homogeneity. The Red Skins,—with whom alone we shall concern ourselves,—were formerly distributed over all the upper portion of the American Continent; that is, over the territory of Canada and the United States and the northern districts of Mexico. In the sixteenth century they numbered, it is said, a million and a half of souls. The “advance of civilisation,”—in other words, the greed and cruelty of the white man,—have reduced them now to a few thousand families. A few years more, and American rifles, brandy, poverty, and disease will have virtually effected the extermination of a race, which has assuredly merited the respect and recognition we are generally prone to render to courage and endurance. True it is that our estimate of the Red Skins must not be taken entirely from the imaginative pages of Chateaubriand and Fenimore Cooper. The Deerskins, the Hawkeyes, and the Leatherstockings of the novelist are ideal creations, the like of which have never been found in the wildernesses of the West. Yet we cannot deny to the Indians a character of true nobility and exceptional manliness. Their scorn of death and pain, their stoical composure under tortures, the mere description of which makes the blood of ordinary men run cold, their disdain of the allurements of civilisation, their stern refusal of foreign supremacy, their haughty pride, even their cold and calculated ferocity, are so many traits which raise them to a higher platform than that occupied by most savage races.

A hundred times in song, and romance, and drama have been portrayed the manners of this remarkable people, their subtle stratagems in war and the chase, the perseverance with which they hunt down their prey or enemy, their astuteness, their impassiveness, their brooding revenge. Who has not eagerly followed them in their unwearied wanderings across the rolling prairies, and through the interminable forests? Who has not listened eagerly, when seated round the watch-fire, with the calumet to their lips, they have meditated on the chances of peace and war,—chief after chief rising, with regal attitude and deliberate eloquence to take his part in the stern debate? Who has not watched them in their furious battle-charges, brandishing the dreadful tomahawk, and carrying off the scalps of their defeated enemies to hang up in their wigwams as the trophies of their prowess? Who has not breathlessly tracked them in their pursuit of a flying foe, or in their skilful escape through the thick brushwood from the pressure of some persistent antagonist? Assuredly this was a race well worthy of attentive study; and their history, or the narrative of their adventures, none can peruse without interest. There was a strain of poetry in their faith, in their customs, in their language at once laconic and picturesque, even in the names full of meaning which they bestowed on each tribe, and chief, and warrior. We can hardly suppress a feeling of regret that so much wild romance should have been swept off the earth, unless we bring our minds to dwell upon the deep dark shades of the picture, on their cruelty, perfidiousness, and lust. Even then our humanity revolts from the treatment they have received at the hands of the white man. Hunted from place to place like wild beasts, driven back from one hunting-ground to another, brutalised by misery or drunkenness, decimated by the diseases of civilisation, incapable of labour, the Red Skins have struggled in vain against the irresistible onward movement of a civilisation without bowels; a civilisation ill-adapted to attract and persuade them, and more anxious to destroy than to assimilate.

The treatment of the Indians is a dark chapter in the history of the United States. The great nations which were formerly the valued allies or dreaded enemies of the European settlers, the Hurons, the Algonquins, the Iroquois, the Natchez, the Leni-Lenapes, have entirely disappeared. The wrecks of other but less important tribes still linger on the shores of the great Northern lakes, in the woods and wildernesses of the Far West, at the base of the Rocky Mountains, in Texas, in Arkansas, in California, and in the northern provinces and deserts of Mexico. Such are the Sioux, the Dacotahs, the Flatheads, the Big-Bellies, the Blackfoot, the Apaches, the Comanches. The two latter people have been the most successful in preserving their vitality. Their characteristics however are very diverse. The Comanches are of a mild gentle nature, and eager to live on peaceable terms with the whites. The Apaches, on the other hand, have vowed a relentless hatred against the Pale Faces; they are the terror of the hacienderos  (or farm proprietors) and gold seekers of Upper Mexico, and the American journals to this day are full of their incursions, and their acts of cruelty and brigandage.

Physiologically, the distinctive features of the Red Men are, in addition to the colour of their skin and the pyramidal form of the head, the prominency and arched outline of the nose, the width of the nasal apertures, corresponding to a remarkable development of the olfactory nerve, and the absence of beard.

The superstitions, or religious customs, of the Red Men are in themselves a sufficiently interesting subject of study. We begin with an account of the ceremony through which every one of their youths has to pass before he is acknowledged to have entered upon manhood. Our knowledge of it is due to Mr. Catlin, who, as a reputed “medicine-man,” lived for some time with the Mandan tribe, and became acquainted with their most secret customs.

The object of this rite, which for savage cruelty seems unparalleled, is, first, to propitiate the Great Spirit on behalf of the neophyte who undergoes it, so that he may become a successful hunter and a valiant warrior; and, second, to enable the leader and chief of the tribe, to watch his behaviour, and determine whether he will be likely to maintain its character and renown.

The Mandans, we must premise, cherish a legend of a flood which in times long past inundated the earth, and of which only one man, who escaped in a large canoe, was the survivor. In a large open space in the centre of the village a representation of this canoe, a kind of tub, bound with wooden hoops, and set up on one end, is carefully preserved.

The ceremony of initiation occurs once a year, at the season when the willow-leaves under the river-bank burst from their shade, and bloom in all their greenness. Early in the morning of the great day, a figure is seen on the distant ridge of hills, slowly approaching the village. Immediately the whole village is alive! The dogs are caught and muzzled; the horses are brought in from the meadows; the bravos paint their faces as if for battle, string their bows, feather their arrows, and grasp their pointed spears. Then into the central area strides the visitor, his body painted white, a plume of raven's feathers waving on his head, a white wolf's skin flung across his stalwart shoulders, and in his hand a mystery-pipe. The chief and his leading warriors immediately greet the new comer, Nu-mohk-muck-a-nah, or the First Man, as he is called,—and conduct him to the great medicine-lodge, which is open only on this occasion, and now reeks with the fragrant odours of various aromatic herbs. The skulls of men and bisons are solemnly laid on the floor; over the beams of the timber roof are hung several new ropes, with a heap of strong wooden skewers underneath them; and in the centre is raised a small daïs or altar, on which the First Man deposits the medicine or mystery of the tribe,—a profound, a sacred secret, known to none but himself.

To every hut in the village next stalks the First Man, pausing at the door of each to weep aloud, and when the owner comes out, relating to him the old, old story of the Flood, and of his own escape from it, and requiring axe or knife as an offering to the Great Spirit. The demand is never refused; and loaded with edged tools of various kinds, he returns to the medicine-lodge. There they remain until the conclusion of the ceremonies, when they are thrown into the river's deepest pool.

Thus passes the first day, during which, as during the whole period of the ceremony, an absolute silence prevails in the village. None know the place where he sleeps, but on the second morning he re-enters the village, and marches to the medicine-lodge, followed by a long train of neophytes, and carrying his bow and arrows, shield, and medicine-bag, and each painted in the most fantastic fashion. Hanging his weapons over his head, each man silently seats himself in front of the lodge, and for four days maintains his position, speaking to none, and neither eating, drinking, nor sleeping. At the outset, the First Man kindles his pipe at the fire that burns in the centre of the lodge, and harangues the neophytes, exhorting them to be brave and patient, and praying the Great Spirit to grant them strength to endure their trial.

Summoning an old medicine-man, he then appoints him to the charge of the ceremonies, and as a symbol of office hands him the mystery-pipe. After which he takes leave of the chiefs and their people, promising that he will return next year to re-open the lodge, and with slow and stately step passes out of the village, and disappears beyond the hills.

The master of the ceremonies hastens to put himself in the centre of the lodge, where he re-lights the pipe, and with every whiff of smoke utters a petition to the Great Spirit in behalf of the candidates.

During the three days' silence of the neophytes, the tribe indulge in a variety of pastimes.


First and foremost is the buffalo dance, in which eight persons are engaged, each wearing the skin of a bison, and carrying on his back a large bundle of faggots. In one hand they hold a mystery-rattle, in the other a small staff. In four couples they place themselves round the Big Canoe, each couple facing one of the cardinal points of the compass, and between them dances a young man,—two being got up in black, dotted with white stars, to represent day, and two in red, to represent night.

A couple of medicine-men, dressed in the hides of grizzly bears, sit beside the Big Canoe, and profess their intention of devouring the whole village. To satiate their voracity, the women convey to them abundant supplies of meat, which men, painted black all over, except their heads, which are white, in imitation of the bald-headed eagle, carry off immediately to the prairie, pursued by a number of little boys, painted yellow, with white heads, who are called antelopes. After a swift chase they overtake the eagle-men, seize the food, and devour it.

This rude frolic is repeated several times a day, the performers being summoned by the master of the ceremonies, who, followed by his assistants, issues from the medicine-lodge, and takes up his post against the Big Canoe, pouring forth many tears.

On the first day the dance is four times repeated, on the second eight times, on the third twelve times, and on the fourth sixteen; the dancers issuing from the hut in which they attire themselves immediately that the old man lifts up his head, and weeps.

During each performance, the old medicine-men keep up a rattle of drums, except when they pause to announce to the crowd that the Great Spirit is pleased with their offerings, and has given them peace; that even their women and children can hold the mouths of grizzly bears, and the Evil One does not appear to disturb them.

This bold declaration is repeated thirty-two times during the four days, and repeated without challenge; but at the thirty-third, the Evil Spirit makes his appearance, threads his way through the village, and breaks into the circle,—an uncanny creature, entirely naked, his body painted black, but with white rings, and his mouth blotched with white indentations like so many tusks. Carrying in his hand a long magic staff tipped with a red ball, which he slides before him on the ground, this Evil Spirit makes a rush at each group of females in the excited crowd. They shriek for assistance.

The master of the ceremonies straightway abandons his station by the Big Canoe, and presents his magic pipe to the intruder, who stands immediately as if petrified into stone, each limb quiescent, each muscle rigid,—a statue, rather than a man.

The women take advantage of this sudden pause to escape from the Evil Spirit's clutch; and as soon as they are out of danger, though their hearts still beat with excitement, they resume their ordinary quietude, only laughing loudly and gleefully at the sudden discomfiture of their antagonist, and at the awkward and ridiculous attitude in which he was surprised.

The old man stands upright by his side, with his eyeballs glaring him in the face, while the medicine-pipe holds under its mystic spell his Satanic Majesty, neutralises all the powers of his magic wand, and deprives him of the power of locomotion.

No two human beings, says Mr. Catlin, can ever present a more striking group than is presented by those two individuals, with their fierce eyes fixed in well-simulated hatred on each other; both contending for the supremacy, both relying on the potency of their mystery or medicine; the one, with dismal black body, pretending to be O-ku-hu-de, the Evil Spirit, and pouring everlasting vengeance on the other, who sternly gazes back with a look of contemptuous exultation, as he holds him bound by the influence of his sacred mystery-pipe. Truly, these Red-skinned Mandans are accomplished actors and pantomimists.

A repetition of this performance takes place until the power of the mystery-pipe has been sufficiently proved; and the women, gaining confidence in it, proceed to turn the tables on their persecutor, jeering him, and overwhelming him with shrieks of laughter. At last, one of the boldest dashes a handful of sand in his face; an insult which completely overwhelms him, so that he begins to weep abundantly. Another woman takes courage to seize his magic staff, and snaps it across her knee. Other women pick up the broken halves and break them into fragments, which they fling at O-ku-hu-de's head. Bereft of all his power, he incontinently turns tail, and dashes across the prairie, followed for half a mile or so by volleys of mud and stones and slates.

Thus ends the battle of Armageddon. The Evil Spirit has come, and fought, and been conquered. The next step is to remove the little altar and its mysterious deposit from the centre of the great medicine-lodge, and pass the hide ropes through openings in the roof to men stationed without. Then the master of the ceremonies and his assistants, together with the chiefs and bravos of the tribe, re-enter the lodge, and take up their positions.

Worn and wasted by four days of abstinence from food, drink, and sleep, the first neophyte enters the lodge, when called, and takes his stand in front of two of the executioners. One of them, with a blunt and jagged double-edged knife, pinches up an inch or so of the flesh of the breast or shoulder, inserts the knife, and through the incision thus accomplished, forces a wooden skewer; repeating the process on the other shoulder or breast, on each arm just below the shoulder and below the elbow, upon each thigh, and upon each leg just below the knee.

Painful as the operation must be, the neophyte bears it unflinchingly; not a sigh escapes him; his countenance remains as calm and unruffled as if he were wrapped in a pleasant dream.

Two of the hide ropes are now let down from the roof, and twisted round the skewers on the breast or shoulders. To the others are hung the neophyte's weapons, while the skulls of bisons depend from those of the lower arm or leg. At a given signal the neophyte is hauled aloft, and allowed to swing, at a height of six or eight feet from the ground, suspended only by the two skewers, while he sustains, not only his own weight, but that of the heavy skulls. With almost incredible fortitude, he endures this protracted agony, until exhausted nature gives way, and he falls into a swoon.

The bystanders seem no longer men, but demons intent on increasing his tortures. They surround him, a dozen or more at a time, and consider what new inventions can be adopted. At length, one advances towards the poor wretch, and begins to turn him round with a pole, which he has brought for the purpose. This is done very gently at first, but by degrees with more rapidity and increasing violence, until the neophyte breaks down in his self-control, and bursts forth into “the most lamentable and heart-rending cries that the human voice is capable of producing,” imploring the Great Spirit to support and protect him in his agony, and repeatedly expressing his belief in that protection.

In this condition he revolves faster and faster, without the least hope of escape or relief, until he again falls into a swoon; his voice falters, his strugglings cease; he hangs a still and apparently lifeless thing. “When he is by turning gradually brought to this condition, which is generally done within ten or fifteen minutes, there is a close scrutiny passed upon him among his tormentors, who are checking and holding each other back as long as the least struggling or tremor can be discovered; lest he should be removed, before he is, as they term it, dead.”

Having satisfied themselves that their victim is not feigning, they give a signal; he is lowered to the ground; the skewers which passed through his breast are removed, and the ropes attached to another candidate. He is allowed to lie where he fell; none dare to touch him; to do so would be a sacrilege, because he has placed himself under the protection of the Great Spirit.

After awhile he partially recovers, and crawls to another part of the lodge, where, with gleaming axe in hand and a bison's skull before him, sits a medicine-man. Holding up the little finger of his left hand as a sacrifice to the Great Spirit, the neophyte lays it upon the skull, and, in a moment, the medicine-man's axe severs it. Sometimes the fore-finger of the same hand is also offered, and only the thumb and two middle fingers, which are necessary in holding the bow, are left.

Then comes the last scene of this strange, eventful history, bringing the neophyte's sufferings to a climax. The skewers by which he is suspended to the roof are removed when he is lowered, but eight still remain; two in each arm, and two in each leg. To each is attached a heavy weight, such as a bison's skull, and they must not be drawn  out, but must be torn  out by sheer force. With this view he is required to run the last race,—which takes place in the open air, and in the presence of a concourse of excited spectators. Leaving the medicine-lodge, the master of the ceremonies leans his head against the Big Canoe, and fills the air with a loud long wail. Immediately a score or so of young men, all matched in height, wearing beautiful dresses of eagle-quills, and carrying in one hand a wreath of willow-boughs, issue from the dressing-hut. On arriving at the Big Canoe they assemble round it in a circle, holding on to each other's willow-wreath, and then race around it at their utmost speed, screaming and shouting until the air is filled with their uproar.

The candidates then come out of the medicine-lodge, dragging the heavy weights attached to their limbs, and are stationed at equal intervals outside the ring of runners. As each takes his place, two powerful young men take charge of him, who pass round each of his wrists a broad leathern strap, which they grasp very firmly, but without tying it.

When all the preliminaries are completed, a signal is given, and the neophytes begin to race round the Big Canoe, outside the inner circle, each man being dragged along by his custodians, until the skulls and other weights drag out the skewers to which they are fastened. The bystanders scream and yell and shout in a frenzy of excitement; eager, moreover, to drown the groans of the sufferers, should the instincts of nature prevail over their self-control, and desirous of encouraging them in their final trial.

Sometimes the neophyte's flesh proves to be so tough that the skewers cannot be dragged out, and in such cases their friends jump on the skulls as they rattle along the ground, so as to increase their weight.

Humanity cannot long endure a torture so horrible: the sufferers quickly faint, though they are still hauled round in the barbarous race, nor set free until the last weight is dragged from the quivering, bleeding body. Then the unconscious wretch is released, and left, for the second time, in the care and protection of the Great Spirit. In due time he recovers his senses, struggles to his feet, totters through the crowd, is received by his friends, and conducted to his own hut.

Mr. Catlin supplies two illustrations of the rigorous tenacity with which the Indians adhere to the rule that the skewers must be dragged, not removed, from the sufferer's flesh.

In one case the skewer had chanced to pass under a sinew, and the neophyte was dragged round and round the ring in vain. In vain his friends added their weight to that of the bison's skulls. The scene became so horrible that even the spectators could no longer endure it, and in sympathy with their cries the master of the ceremonies stopped the race, leaving the youth, unconscious, on the ground. As soon as he regained his senses, he crawled away to the prairie on his hands and knees, and there remained, without food or drink, for three hours longer, until suppuration took place, and he was enabled to get rid of the skewer. Then he crawled home, and strange to say, notwithstanding the agony he had undergone, and his loss of strength, recovered in a few days.

In the second case, two of the weights attached to the arms refused to yield, and the hapless neophyte crept as best he could to the steep bluff overhanging the river, where he drove a stake into the ground. Fastening the weights to this stake by a couple of ropes, he lowered himself about midway down the cliff, and so hung suspended for more than two days, until the obstinate flesh gave way, and allowed him to drop into the water. He swam to the side, crawled up the acclivity, and returned to his village. It gives one a vivid idea of the remarkable vitality and physical force of the Indian race, when one reads that this man, too, recovered!


The Indian has a vague idea of God and immortality. He believes in a Great Spirit, who, after death, admits the brave to his happy hunting-grounds, where game is inexhaustible, and the pleasure of the chase is ever open to the hunter. Beyond this dim and dubious conception, his imagination never carries him.

He is prone, as might be supposed, for such proneness is the cause of ignorance, and ignorance is the Red Man's bane, to the wildest and coarsest superstitions, and he is always at the mercy of the medicine-man of his tribe. One of his most potent superstitions is that connected with the “medicine-bag,” which he firmly believes to be his sole “secret of success,” his all-powerful charm and talisman, without which he would fail in every undertaking and be defeated and disgraced in battle.

At the age of fourteen or fifteen, the young Indian goes forth into the woods in search of his medicine. On a litter of leaves and twigs he lies for some days—as long, in fact, as his physical powers hold out—neither eating nor drinking; for in proportion to the duration of his fast will be the potency of his “medicine.” His endurance at length gives way, and he goes to sleep. The bird, beast, or reptile of which he dreams becomes his “medicine.” He returns home, and as soon as he has recovered his strength, he sallies forth in quest of the charm; having found and killed the animal, he preserves the skin in such shape as his fancy suggests,—usually in the form of pouch or bag. If small, he slings it round his neck, and wears it concealed. In other cases, it hangs from his waist or shoulder.

However he may wear it, the Indian never parts from it. He would be disgraced and defeated in battle—he would fail in his undertakings—if it were absent from his person. Should he be deprived of it in battle, he is overwhelmed with shame, until he can kill an enemy, and take his  medicine-bag to replace his own. If, without losing his own, he captures that of an enemy, he is entitled to assume a “double medicine,” and with two medicine-bags about him he stalks to and fro, the observed of all observers. To take a medicine-bag is not less honourable than to take a scalp, and the successful bearer has all the advantage of the double protection afforded by the double charm.

It is seldom that an Indian will voluntarily part with his medicine-bag, and if he does, he forfeits his reputation almost irretrievably. Now and then he is persuaded by the white man to bury it, but its place of interment immediately assumes an air of sanctity in his eyes. He frequents the spot as if drawn thither by an irresistible influence, will throw himself on the sod, and talk to the buried treasure as if it were alive. Sometimes he will offer sacrifices to it, and if he be a rich man, will even offer a horse. On the latter occasion, the whole tribe take part in the ceremony, and march forth to the prairie in picturesque procession, led by the owner of the medicine-bag, who drives before him his most valued and valuable steed, decked with coloured devices. At the appointed spot, he delivers a long prayer or oration to the Great Spirit, and sets free the horse, which thenceforth enjoys the free life of the wild horses of the prairie, and if at any time recaptured is immediately released.

The position which in most savage tribes is held by the priest, among the American Indians is held by the “medicine-man.” His influence is considerable, and his powers are supposed to be vast. He is called upon to heal the sick and save the dying, and, above all, to bring down the genial rain from heaven when it is needed for the growth of the crops.

We owe to Mr. Catlin an interesting description of the rain-making ceremony. A drought had withered the maize-fields for some weeks, and application for help having been made to the medicine-men they duly set to work. On the first day one Wah-ku, or the Shield, came to the front; but failed—that day an equally unsuccessful experiment was made by Om-pah, or the Elk. The third day was devoted to Wa-rah-pa, or the Beaver, and on the fourth recourse was had to Wak-a-dah-ha-ku, the White Buffalo Hair, who was strong in the possession of a shield coloured with red lightnings, and in the arrow which he carried in his hand.

Taking his station by the medicine-lodge, he harangued the people, protesting that for the good of his tribe he was willing to sacrifice himself, and that if he did not bring the much-desired rain, he was content to live for the rest of his life with the old women and the dogs. He asserted that the first medicine-man had failed, because his shield warded off the rain-clouds; the second, who wore a head-dress made of a raven's skin, because the raven was a bird that soared above the storm, and cared not whether the rain came or stayed; and the third, because the beaver was always wet, and required no rain. But as for him, Wak-a-dah-ha-ku, the red lightnings on his shield would attract the rain-clouds, and his arrow would pierce them, and pour the water over the thirsty fields.

It chanced that, as he ended his oration, a steamer, the first that had ever ploughed the Missouri river, fired a salute from a twelve-pounder gun, as she passed the Mandan village. To the Indians the roar of the cannon was like the voice of thunder, and their joy knew no bounds. The successful medicine-man was loaded with valuable gifts; mothers hastened to offer their daughters to him in marriage; and the elder medicine-men issued from the lodge, eager to enrol him in their order. But, from the roof of the lodge, where he had taken his stand, Wak-a-dah-ha-ku discovered the steamer, as she dashed up the river, and discharged her gun again and yet again. He hastened to address the chiefs and people, explaining that the sounds they heard were not those of thunder, but that his potent medicine had brought a thunder-boat to the village. To the river-bank rushed the wondering population, and the rest of the day was spent in a fever of excitement, in which the rain-maker was forgotten. Just before sunset his quick eyes discovered a black cloud, which, unobserved by the noisy multitude, swiftly came up from the horizon. At once he assumed his station on the roof of the lodge; strung his bow and made ready his arrow; arrested the attention of his fellows by his loud and exultant speech; and as the cloud impended over the village, shot his arrow into the sky. Lo, the rain immediately descended in torrents, wetting the rain-maker to the skin, but establishing in everybody's mind a firm and deep conviction of his power.

All night raged the storm; but unhappily a flash of lightning penetrated one of the wigwams, and killed a young girl. The newly-made medicine-man was sorely terrified by this catastrophe, which he feared the chiefs would impute to him, making him responsible for the girl's death, and punishing him accordingly.

But he was a man of much astuteness, and early in the morning, collecting three of his best horses, he mounted the lodge-roof again, and for a third time addressed the people of his tribe.

“Friends,” he said, “my medicine was too strong, I am young, and I did not know where to stop. I did not regulate its power. And now the wigwam of Mah-sish is laid low, and many are the eyes that weep for Ko-ka, the antelope. Wak-a-dah-ha-ku gives three horses to rejoice the hearts of those who sorrow for Ko-ka. His medicine is great. His arrow pierced the black cloud, and the lightning came, and with it the thunder-boat. Who says that the medicine of Wak-a-dah-ha-ku is not strong?”

This artful address was received with much favour, and thenceforward Wak-a-dah-ha-ku was known as the “Big Double Medicine.”

Of the medical practices of these medicine-men Mr. Kane, in his “Wanderings of an Artist,” furnishes a striking illustration.

“About ten o'clock at night,” he says, “I strolled into the village, and on hearing a great noise in one of the lodges, I entered it, and found an old woman supporting one of the handsomest Indian girls I had ever seen. She was in a state of nudity. Cross-legged and naked, in the middle of the room, sat the medicine-man, with a wooden dish of water before him; twelve or fifteen other men were sitting round the lodge. The object in view was to cure the girl of a disease affecting her side. As soon as my presence was noticed, a space was cleared for me to sit down.

“The officiating medicine-man appeared in a state of profuse perspiration, from the exertions he had used, and soon took his seat among the rest, as if quite exhausted; a younger medicine-man then took his place in front of the bowl, and close beside the patient.

“Throwing off his blanket, he commenced singing and gesticulating in the most violent manner, whilst the others kept time by beating with little sticks in hollow wooden bowls and drums, singing continually. After exercising himself in this manner for about half an hour, until the perspiration ran down his body, he darted suddenly upon the young woman, catching hold of her side with his teeth, and shaking her for a few minutes, while the patient seemed to suffer great agony. He then relinquished his hold, and cried out he had got it, at the same time holding his hands to his mouth; after which he plunged them in the water and pretended to hold down with great difficulty the disease which he had extracted, lest it might spring out and return to its victim.

“At length, having obtained the mastery over it, he turned round to me in an exulting manner, and held up something between the finger and thumb of each hand, which had the appearance of a piece of cartilage; whereupon one of the Indians sharpened his knife, and divided it in two, having one in each hand. One of the pieces he threw into the water and the other into the fire, accompanying the action with a diabolical noise which none but a medicine-man can make. After which he got up perfectly satisfied with himself, although the poor patient seemed to me anything but relieved by the violent treatment she had undergone.”


A considerable amount of superstition attaches to the calumet, or medicine-pipe, by which all the great questions of peace and war are settled. This pipe is borne by an individual specially selected for the honour, who, during his term of office, is not less sacred than the pipe he carries. His seat is always on the right side of the lodge, and no one is suffered to interpose between him and the fire. He is not even allowed to cut his own food, but his wives cut it for him, and place it in an official food-bowl, specially reserved for his use. As for the calumet, it is hung outside the lodge in a large bag, which is picturesquely and gaily embroidered. Much ceremony attends its uncovering. Whatever the weather, or the time of year, the bearer begins by stripping off all his garments except his cloth, and he then pours upon a red-hot coal some fragrant gum, which fills the air with perfumed smoke. Removing the different wrappers, he fills the bowl with tobacco, and blows the smoke to the four points of the compass, to the earth, and to the sky, with each breath uttering a prayer to the Great Spirit for assistance in war against all enemies, and for bison and corn from all parts. With equal ceremony the pipe, which no woman is allowed to see, is restored to its bag. The whole proceeding takes place in the deepest silence.

The bowl of the calumet is made of a peculiar stone, found in the Red Pipe-stone Quarry, on the Citeau des Prairies, a place to which the following tradition attaches. We give it as related by Mr. Catlin:

Here, he says, according to the Indian traditions, happened the mysterious birth of the red pipe, which has blown its fumes of peace and war to the remotest corners of the continent, which has visited every warrior, and passed through its reddened stem the irrevocable oath of war and desolation. And here, also, the peace-breathing calumet was born, and fringed with the eagle's quills, which has shed its thrilling fumes over the land, and soothed the fury of the relentless savage.

At a remote period the Great Spirit here called the Indian nations together, and, standing on the precipice of the red pipe-stone rock, broke from its wall a piece, and made a huge pipe by turning it in his hand, which he smoked over them, to the north, the south, the east, and the west, and told that this stone was red,—that it was their flesh,—that they must use it for their pipes of peace,—that it belonged to them all,—and that the war-club and scalping-knife must not be raised on its ground. At the last whiff of his pipe his head went into a great cloud, and the whole surface of the rock for several miles was melted and glazed. Two great ovens were opened beneath, and two women (guardian spirits of the place) entered them in a blaze of fire; and they are heard there yet, (Tso-mec-cos-tu and Tso-me-cos-te-won-du,) answering to invocations of the high priests or medicine-men, who consult them when they are visitors to this sacred place.

The reader will remember, perhaps, the allusion to the Peace-pipe in Longfellow's “Hiawatha,”—

“On the mountains of the Prairie,
On the great Red Pipe-stone quarry,
Gitche Manito, the Mighty,
He the Master of Life, descending,
On the red crags of the quarry
Stood erect, and called the nations,
Called the tribes of men together.
From his footprints flowed a river,
Leaped into the light of morning,
O'er the precipice plunging downward,
Gleamed like Ishkoodah, the comet.
And the Spirit, stooping earthward,
With his finger on the meadows,
Traced a winding pathway for it,
Saying to it, ‘Run in this way!'
From the red stone of the quarry
With his hand he broke a fragment,
Moulded it into a pipe-head,
Shaped and fashioned it with figures;
From the margin of the river
Took a long reed for a pipe-stem,
With its dark green leaves upon it;
Filled the pipe with bark of willow;
With the bark of the red willow;
Breathed upon the neighbouring forest,
Made its great boughs chafe together,
Till in flame they burst and kindled;
And erect upon the mountains,
Gitche Manito, the mighty,
Smoked the calumet, the Peace-pipe,
As a signal to the nations.”

Some of the legends of the Indian tribes are of a very picturesque, and even poetical character, as may be seen in Mr. Schoolcraft's “Algic Researches.” Take, as an example, the graceful tradition of the Red Swan.

Three brothers went out to the chase, excited by a wager to see who would carry home the first game. But the binding and limiting condition was, that each was to shoot no other animal than those he was in the habit of killing.

They set out in different directions. Odjebwa, the youngest, had not gone far before he saw a bear, an animal which by the agreement he had no right to kill. He followed him close, however, and drove an arrow through him, which brought him to the ground. Although contrary to the bet, he immediately began to skin him, when suddenly something red tinged all the air around him. He rubbed his eyes, thinking he was perhaps deceived, but without effect, for the red hue continued. At length he heard a strange noise in the distance. It first resembled a human voice; but after following it up for some time, he reached the shores of a lake, and then discovered the object he was in search of. Far out on the shining waters sat a most beautiful Red Swan, whose plumage glittered in the sunshine; and ever and anon he made the noise which had before attracted Odjebwa's attention. He was within longbow range, and pulling the arrow from the bow-string up to his ear, he took deliberate aim, and shot. The arrow took no effect, and he shot again and again until his quiver was empty. Still the swan remained statelily circling round and round, stretching its long neck, and dipping its bill into the water, indifferent to the missiles aimed at it. Odjebwa ran home, secured all his own and his brother's arrows, and these too, ineffectually shot away: then stood and gazed at the beautiful bird.

While thus standing, he remembered a saying of his brother's, that in their deceased father's medicine-bag were three magic arrows. Off he started, his anxiety to kill the swan overcoming every scruple. At any other time he would have deemed it a sacrilege to open his father's medicine-bag, but now he hastily violated it, seized the three magic arrows and ran back. The swan was still floating on the lake. He shot the first arrow with great precision, and came very near his mark. The second flew still nearer; and as he took the third and last arrow, he felt his arm strengthen, and drawing it up with vigour, sent the shaft right through the neck of the swan, a little above the breast. Still even this death-stroke did not prevent the bird from flying off,—which it did very slowly, flapping its wings, and rising gradually into the air, until it passed far away into the sunset.

Quoting again from Longfellow, we place before the reader his allusion to this pretty legend:—

“Can it be the sun descending
O'er the level plain of water?
Or the Red Swan, floating, flying,
Wounded by the magic arrow,
Staining all the waves with crimson,
With the crimson of its life-blood,
Filling all the air with splendour,
With the splendour of its plumage?
Yes; it is the sun descending,
Sinking down into the water;
No; it is the Red Swan floating,
Diving down beneath the water;
To the sky its wings are lifted,
With its blood the waves are reddened!”

The Indians regard the maize, or Indian corn, with almost superstitious veneration,—which is not wonderful, perhaps, when its immense importance to them is taken into consideration. They esteem it, says Schoolcraft, so important and divine a grain, that their story-tellers invented various tales, in which this idea is symbolised under the form of a special gift from the Great Spirit. The Odjebwa-Algonquins, who call it Mon-da-min, or the Spirit's grain or berry, cherish a legend, in which the stalk in full tassel is represented as descending from the sky, under the guise of a handsome youth; in response to the prayers of a young man offered at his fast of virility, or coming to manhood.

“All around the happy village
Stood the maize-fields, green and shining,
Waved the green plumes of Mondamin,
Waved his soft and sunny tresses,
Filling all the land with plenty.”