The Old Ways

A noted man has said “Men show by what they worship what they are.”  

The old time Plains Indian was a person of great intensity of religious ideas. The Sioux worshipped Wakantonka, which is well interpreted “The Great Mystery.”

His prayers and songs for good hunting and long life, for bodily strength and mental and moral courage, not only for himself but for his friends and relatives, or the tribe in general, and his invocations for favorable weather and success in the chase, or raids against his enemies, were all addressed to Wakantonka.

His vows were always taken in His name and his thanks were made to Him in every case; previously promised sacrifices were tendered to Wakantonka, in answer to prayer or supplication and, even in the Sun Dance, of which no more barbaric or painful sacrifice was ever made by aboriginals – the Great Mystery was addressed in song and prayer by the principal.

His call to God was a personal one, distressingly abrupt, brutally direct, even as he would address a friend for a favor of assistance.  A vow of sacrifice generally followed, the greatest of which was a promise to take part in the Sun Dance and to “bleed for Wakantonka.”  Vows were declared publicly. 

Failure to perform the promises, made in connection therewith, subjected the maker of the vow to personal ridicule and, instances are known, even to the loss of influential tribal position and honor.

Generally the principal was given the right to proclaim the execution of a vow by a drawing upon his lodge or by the wearing of a feather or other heraldic device, and these were readily known and read by the people.

For one to wear such an article of heraldry or to paint upon his tipi or horse or robe or shield a pictographic history of such vow, not actually performed or fulfilled, subjected the owner to sneers and, sometimes, even to severe penalty, which might be extended to the loss of his property or expulsion from the camp in the case of more serious lapses of honor, into the wilderness for a certain period of time.

During this time no one would call him friend or notice him in any manner, although his relatives might be permitted to carry food to a place where the exile might find it.

So we find that the Indian was a religious person and, quite naturally then, to these children of the plains and bad lands and wooded valleys of the Mighty Missouri, the forces of nature became the visible agencies of the power and work of Wakantonka. The elements were his servants, yes, even a part of him.

Around these visible elements and forces of nature he fabricated his mythological history.  The sun became the mother of the earth which, in turn, was the mother of men, through the power of her radiating kindness and displeasure.

In certain ceremonies a spot in the earth was dug up and the ground was pulverized and cleared of all foreign substances, such as roots and rough stones. This spot was a square with the sides corresponding to the principal points of the compass and the four angles were sharply extended toward the intermediate points.  Two forked sticks were set into this soft earth and a cross-piece rested in the forks.

Upon this “Holy Earth Place” fresh wild sage and sweet grass were scattered.  A buffalo skull, denoting plenty, was placed upon the sweet-scented sage and, against the cross-piece, leaned the stem of the ceremonial red stone pipe, with its significance, when used as a pledge, in conferences, of peace or war, or as between two or more individuals, of harmony or discord.

Thus was the bosom of Mother Earth prepared as a shrine in order that the primal vibrations and influences of the Earth might permeate the buffalo head, the source of their supplies, and the pipe, which was the visible and ceremonial agency of their peace and happiness, without disturbance or interference from any impure earthly agencies or unkindly spiritual mischief makers.

In the vicinity of this shrine no discordant subject was broached.  The people rested in harmonious accord with each other and calm, dignified demeanor was manifested, even as with ‘more enlightened’ peoples in other sacred places in the presence of Deity.

The souls of some of our most highly respected men and women have been profoundly moved when alone upon the mountain summit, as that of Moses of old; in the dark depths of the forests, as the naturalist, Muir; or when standing alone upon the plain, as did Father De Smidt, beyond the treacherous Missouri.

These men, and countless others, have received inspiration and spiritual strength when confronted by savage nature in her most terrible needs and awful grandeur; the sublimity of the “Force” gripped them and their souls as they, with downcast eyes, whispered the words of the ancient poet, “What is Man, that Thou are mindful of him?” These words find a corresponding echo in the heart of the Indian.

He who was not enlightened, but with the soul of a psalmist, sought solitude upon the summit of the western butte where, after much preparation and with fasting and prayer, he struggled to understand the Infinite, the “Mystery” of the Indian.

At these times of prayer, his soul was moved with wonder and spiritual yearning, even as more favored souls of this earth have been when in the same receptive mood.  As the pleading tones of a cathedral organ influence the waiting worshippers, so did the roar of the storm when the world was held in the icy fingers of the frost, or the scarcely heard, but audible, voices of nature in the  hush of a soft summer’s night, gripped the recipient soul of the Indian, and he cried out to Wakantonka, “I am weak and Thou art mighty.  Make me strong and let me live.”

~ Col. A.B. Welch (“Charging Bear”), The First White Man Adoped by the Sioux Nation.

[Photo: Mandan Eagle Catcher, 1908. Edwin Curtis.]

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