THE FAMILY ALTAR
Pre-natal Influence. Early Religious Teaching. The Function of the Aged. Woman, Marriage and the
Family. Loyalty, Hospitality, Friendship.
 THE American Indian was an individualist in religion as in war. He had neither a national army nor
an organized church. There was no priest to assume responsibility for another's soul. That is, we
believed, the supreme duty of the parent, who only was permitted to claim in some degree the
priestly office and function, since it is his creative and protecting
 power which alone approaches the solemn function of Deity.
The Indian was a religious man from his mother's womb. From the moment of her recognition of the
fact of conception to the end of the second year of life, which was the ordinary duration of
lactation, it was supposed by us that the mother's spiritual influence counted for most. Her
attitude and secret meditations must be such as to instill into the receptive soul of the unborn
child the love of the "Great Mystery" and a sense of brotherhood with all creation. Silence and
isolation are the rule of life for the expectant mother. She wanders prayerful in the stillness
 of great woods, or on the bosom of the untrodden prairie, and to her poetic mind the immanent birth
of her child prefigures the advent of a master-man—a hero, or the mother of heroes—a thought
conceived in the virgin breast of primeval nature, and dreamed out in a hush that is only broken by
the sighing of the pine tree or the thrilling orchestra of a distant waterfall.
And when the day of days in her life dawns—the day in which there is to be a new life, the miracle
of whose making has been intrusted to her, she seeks no human aid. She has been trained and prepared
in body and mind for this her holiest
 duty, ever since she can remember. The ordeal is best met alone, where no curious or pitying eyes
embarrass her; where all nature says to her spirit: "'Tis love! 'tis love! the fulfilling of life!"
When a sacred voice comes to her out of the silence, and a pair of eyes open upon her in the
wilderness, she knows with joy that she has borne well her part in the great song of creation!
Presently she returns to the camp, carrying the mysterious, the holy, the dearest bundle! She feels
the endearing warmth of it and hears its soft breathing. It is still a part of herself, since both
are nourished by the same mouthful, and no look of a
 lover could be sweeter than its deep, trusting gaze.
She continues her spiritual teaching, at first silently—a mere pointing of the index finger to
nature; then in whispered songs, bird-like, at morning and evening. To her and to the child the
birds are real people, who live very close to the "Great Mystery"; the murmuring trees breathe His
presence; the falling waters chant His praise.
If the child should chance to be fretful, the mother raises her hand. "Hush! hush!" she cautions it
tenderly, "the spirits may be disturbed!" She bids it be still and listen—listen to the silver
voice of the
 aspen, or the clashing cymbals of the birch; and at night she points to the heavenly, blazed trail,
through nature's galaxy of splendor to nature's God. Silence, love, reverence,—this is the trinity
of first lessons; and to these she later adds generosity, courage, and chastity.
In the old days, our mothers were single-eyed to the trust imposed upon them; and as a noted chief
of our people was wont to say: "Men may slay one another, but they can never overcome the woman, for
in the quietude of her lap lies the child! You may destroy him once and again, but he issues as
often from that same gentle lap—a gift of the
 Great Good to the race, in which man is only an accomplice!"
This wild mother has not only the experience of her mother and grandmother, and the accepted rules
of her people for a guide, but she humbly seeks to learn a lesson from ants, bees, spiders, beavers,
and badgers. She studies the family life of the birds, so exquisite in its emotional intensity and
its patient devotion, until she seems to feel the universal mother-heart beating in her own breast.
In due time the child takes of his own accord the attitude of prayer, and speaks reverently of the
Powers. He thinks that he is a blood brother to all living creatures, and
 the storm wind is to him a messenger of the "Great Mystery."
At the age of about eight years, if he is a boy, she turns him over to his father for more Spartan
training. If a girl, she is from this time much under the guardianship of her grandmother, who is
considered the most dignified protector for the maiden. Indeed, the distinctive work of both
grandparents is that of acquainting the youth with the national traditions and beliefs. It is
reserved for them to repeat the time-hallowed tales with dignity and authority, so as to lead him
into his inheritance in the stored-up wisdom and experience of the race. The old are
ded-  icated to the service of the young, as their teachers and advisers, and the young in turn regard
them with love and reverence.
Our old age was in some respects the happiest period of life. Advancing years brought with them much
freedom, not only from the burden of laborious and dangerous tasks, but from those restrictions of
custom and etiquette which were religiously observed by all others. No one who is at all acquainted
with the Indian in his home can deny that we are a polite people. As a rule, the warrior who
inspired the greatest terror in the hearts of his enemies was a man of the most exemplary
 almost feminine refinement, among his family and friends. A soft, low voice was considered an
excellent thing in man, as well as in woman! Indeed, the enforced intimacy of tent life would soon
become intolerable, were it not for these instinctive reserves and delicacies, this unfailing
respect for the established place and possessions of every other member of the family circle, this
habitual quiet, order, and decorum.
Our people, though capable of strong and durable feeling, were not demonstrative in their affection
at any time, least of all in the presence of guests or strangers. Only to the aged, who have
journeyed far, and
 are in a manner exempt from ordinary rules, are permitted some playful familiarities with children
and grandchildren, some plain speaking, even to harshness and objurgation, from which the others
must rigidly refrain. In short, the old men and women are privileged to say what they please and how
they please, without contradiction, while the hardships and bodily infirmities that of necessity
fall to their lot are softened so far as may be by universal consideration and attention.
There was no religious ceremony connected with marriage among us, while on the other hand the
relation between man and woman was
 regarded as in itself mysterious and holy. It appears that where marriage is solemnized by the
church and blessed by the priest, it may at the same time be surrounded with customs and ideas of a
frivolous, superficial, and even prurient character. We believed that two who love should be united
in secret, before the public acknowledgment of their union, and should taste their apotheosis alone
with nature. The betrothal might or might not be discussed and approved by the parents, but in
either case it was customary for the young pair to disappear into the wilderness, there to pass some
days or weeks in perfect seclusion
 and dual solitude, afterward returning to the village as man and wife. An exchange of presents and
entertainments between the two families usually followed, but the nuptial blessing was given by the
High Priest of God, the most reverend and holy Nature.
The family was not only the social unit, but also the unit of government. The clan is nothing more
than a larger family, with its patriarchal chief as the natural head, and the union of several clans
by intermarriage and voluntary connection constitutes the tribe. The very name of our tribe, Dakota,
means Allied People. The remoter degrees of
kin-  ship were fully recognized, and that not as a matter of form only: first cousins were known as
brothers and sisters; the name of "cousin" constituted a binding claim, and our rigid morality
forbade marriage between cousins in any known degree, or in other words within the clan.
The household proper consisted of a man with one or more wives and their children, all of whom dwelt
amicably together, often under one roof, although some men of rank and position provided a separate
lodge for each wife. There were, indeed, few plural marriages except among the older and leading
men, and plural wives were usually, though
 not necessarily, sisters. A marriage might honorably be dissolved for cause, but there was very
little infidelity or immorality, either open or secret.
It has been said that the position of woman is the test of civilization, and that of our women was
secure. In them was vested our standard of morals and the purity of our blood. The wife did not take
the name of her husband nor enter his clan, and the children belonged to the clan of the mother. All
of the family property was held by her, descent was traced in the maternal line, and the honor of
the house was in her hands. Modesty was her chief adornment;
 hence the younger women were usually silent and retiring: but a woman who had attained to ripeness
of years and wisdom, or who had displayed notable courage in some emergency, was sometimes invited
to a seat in the council.
Thus she ruled undisputed within her own domain, and was to us a tower of moral and spiritual
strength, until the coming of the border white man, the soldier and trader, who with strong drink
overthrew the honor of the man, and through his power over a worthless husband purchased the virtue
of his wife or his daughter. When she fell, the whole race fell with her.
 Before this calamity came upon us, you could not find anywhere a happier home than that created by
the Indian woman. There was nothing of the artificial about her person, and very little
disingenuousness in her character. Her early and consistent training, the definiteness of her
vocation, and, above all, her profoundly religious attitude gave her a strength and poise that could
not be overcome by any ordinary misfortune.
Indian names were either characteristic nicknames given in a playful spirit, deed names, birth
names, or such as have a religious and symbolic meaning. It has been said that when a child is born,
 or unusual appearance determines his name. This is sometimes the case, but is not the rule. A man of
forcible character, with a fine war record, usually bears the name of the buffalo or bear, lightning
or some dread natural force. Another of more peaceful nature may be called Swift Bird or Blue Sky. A
woman's name usually suggested something about the home, often with the adjective "pretty" or
"good," and a feminine termination. Names of any dignity or importance must be conferred by the old
men, and especially so if they have any spiritual significance; as Sacred Cloud, Mysterious Night,
Spirit Woman, and the like. Such a
 name was sometimes borne by three generations, but each individual must prove that he is worthy of
In the life of the Indian there was only one inevitable duty,—the duty of prayer—the daily
recognition of the Unseen and Eternal. His daily devotions were more necessary to him than daily
food. He wakes at daybreak, puts on his moccasins and steps down to the water's edge. Here he throws
handfuls of clear, cold water into his face, or plunges in bodily. After the bath, he stands erect
before the advancing dawn, facing the sun as it dances upon the horizon, and offers his unspoken
orison. His mate may precede
 or follow him in his devotions, but never accompanies him. Each soul must meet the morning sun, the
new, sweet earth, and the Great Silence alone!
Whenever, in the course of the daily hunt, the red hunter comes upon a scene that is strikingly
beautiful or sublime—a black thundercloud with the rainbow's glowing arch above the mountain; a
white waterfall in the heart of a green gorge; a vast prairie tinged with the blood-red of
sunset—he pauses for an instant in the attitude of worship. He sees no need for setting apart one
day in seven as a holy day, since to him all days are God's.
 Every act of his life is, in a very real sense, a religious act. He recognizes the spirit in all
creation, and believes that he draws from it spiritual power. His respect for the immortal part of
the animal, his brother, often leads him so far as to lay out the body of his game in state and
decorate the head with symbolic paint or feathers. Then he stands before it in the prayer attitude,
holding up the filled pipe, in token that he has freed with honor the spirit of his brother, whose
body his need compelled him to take to sustain his own life.
When food is taken, the woman murmurs a "grace" as she lowers
 the kettle; an act so softly and unobtrusively performed that one who does not know the custom
usually fails to catch the whisper: "Spirit, partake!" As her husband receives the bowl or plate, he
likewise murmurs his invocation to the spirit. When he becomes an old man, he loves to make a
notable effort to prove his gratitude. He cuts off the choicest morsel of the meat and casts it into
the fire—the purest and most ethereal element.
The hospitality of the wigwam is only limited by the institution of war. Yet, if an enemy should
honor us with a call, his trust will not be misplaced, and he will go away
con-  vinced that he has met with a royal host! Our honor is the guarantee for his safety, so long as he
is within the camp.
Friendship is held to be the severest test of character. It is easy, we think, to be loyal to family
and clan, whose blood is in our own veins. Love between man and woman is founded on the mating
instinct and is not free from desire and self-seeking. But to have a friend, and to be true under
any and all trials, is the mark of a man!
The highest type of friendship is the relation of "brother-friend" or "life-and-death friend." This
bond is between man and man, is usually
 formed in early youth, and can only be broken by death. It is the essence of comradeship and
fraternal love, without thought of pleasure or gain, but rather for moral support and inspiration.
Each is vowed to die for the other, if need be, and nothing is denied the brother-friend, but
neither is anything required that is not in accord with the highest conceptions of the Indian mind.
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