CEREMONIAL AND SYMBOLIC WORSHIP
public religious rites of the Plains Indians are few, and in large part of modern origin,
belonging properly to the so-called "transition period." That period must be held to begin with the
first insidious effect upon their manners and customs of contact with the dominant race, and many of
the tribes were so
in-  fluenced long before they ceased to lead the nomadic life.
Modern Perversions of Early Religious Rites. The Sun Dance. The Great Medicine Lodge. Totems and
Charms. The Vapor-Bath and the Ceremonial of the Pipe.
The fur-traders, the "Black Robe" priests, the military, and finally the Protestant missionaries,
were the men who began the disintegration of the Indian nations and the overthrow of their religion,
seventy-five to a hundred years before they were forced to enter upon reservation life. We have no
authentic study of them until well along in the transition period, when whiskey and trade had
already debauched their native ideals.
During the era of reconstruction they modified their customs and beliefs continually, creating a
singular admixture of Christian with pagan
 superstitions, and an addition to the old folk-lore of disguised Bible stories under an Indian
aspect. Even their music shows the influence of the Catholic chants. Most of the material collected
by modern observers is necessarily of this promiscuous character.
It is noteworthy that the first effect of contact with the whites was an increase of cruelty and
barbarity, an intensifying of the dark shadows in the picture! In this manner the "Sun Dance" of the
Plains Indians, the most important of their public ceremonials, was abused and perverted until it
became a horrible exhibition of barbarism, and was
 eventually prohibited by the Government.
In the old days, when a Sioux warrior found himself in the very jaws of destruction, he might offer
a prayer to his father, the Sun, to prolong his life. If rescued from imminent danger, he must
acknowledge the divine favor by making a Sun Dance, according to the vow embraced in his prayer, in
which he declared that he did not fear torture or death, but asked life only for the sake of those
who loved him. Thus the physical ordeal was the fulfillment of a vow, and a sort of atonement for
what might otherwise appear to be reprehensible weakness in the face of
 death. It was in the nature of confession and thank-offering to the "Great Mystery," through the
physical parent, the Sun, and did not embrace a prayer for future favors.
The ceremonies usually took place from six months to a year after the making of the vow, in order to
admit of suitable preparation; always in midsummer and before a large and imposing gathering. They
naturally included the making of a feast, and the giving away of much savage wealth in honor of the
occasion, although these were no essential part of the religious rite.
When the day came to procure the pole, it was brought in by a
 party of warriors, headed by some man of distinction. The tree selected was six to eight inches in
diameter at the base, and twenty to twenty-five feet high. It was chosen and felled with some
solemnity, including the ceremony of the "filled pipe," and was carried in the fashion of a litter,
symbolizing the body of the man who made the dance. A solitary teepee was pitched on a level spot at
some distance from the village, and the pole raised near at hand with the same ceremony, in the
centre of a circular enclosure of fresh-cut boughs.
Meanwhile, one of the most noted of our old men had carved out of
raw-  hide, or later of wood, two figures, usually those of a man and a buffalo. Sometimes the figure of a
bird, supposed to represent the Thunder, was substituted for the buffalo. It was customary to paint
the man red and the animal black, and each was suspended from one end of the crossbar which was
securely tied some two feet from the top of the pole. I have never been able to determine that this
cross had any significance; it was probably nothing more than a dramatic coincidence that surmounted
the Sun-Dance pole with the symbol of Christianity.
The paint indicated that the man who was about to give thanks
pub-  licly had been potentially dead, but was allowed to live by the mysterious favor and interference of
the Giver of Life. The buffalo hung opposite the image of his own body in death, because it was the
support of his physical self, and a leading figure in legendary lore. Following the same line of
thought, when he emerged from the solitary lodge of preparation, and approached the pole to dance,
nude save for his breechclout and moccasins, his hair loosened and daubed with clay, he must drag
after him a buffalo skull, representing the grave from which he had escaped.
The dancer was cut or scarified
 on the chest, sufficient to draw blood and cause pain, the natural accompaniments of his figurative
death. He took his position opposite the singers, facing the pole, and dragging the skull by leather
thongs which were merely fastened about his shoulders. During a later period, incisions were made in
the breast or back, sometimes both, through which wooden skewers were drawn, and secured by lariats
to the pole or to the skulls. Thus he danced without intermission for a day and a night, or even
longer, ever gazing at the sun in the daytime, and blowing from time to time a sacred whistle made
from the bone of a goose's wing.
 In recent times, this rite was exaggerated and distorted into a mere ghastly display of physical
strength and endurance under torture, almost on a level with the Caucasian institution of the
bull-fight, or the yet more modern prize-ring. Moreover, instead of an atonement or thank-offering,
it became the accompaniment of a prayer for success in war, or in a raid upon the horses of the
enemy. The number of dancers was increased, and they were made to hang suspended from the pole by
their own flesh, which they must break loose before being released. I well remember the comments in
our own home upon the passing of
 this simple but impressive ceremony, and its loss of all meaning and propriety under the
demoralizing additions which were some of the fruits of early contact with the white man.
Perhaps the most remarkable organization ever known among American Indians, that of the "Grand
Medicine Lodge," was apparently an indirect result of the labors of the early Jesuit missionaries.
In it Caucasian ideas are easily recognizable, and it seems reasonable to suppose that its founders
desired to establish an order that would successfully resist the encroachments of the "Black Robes."
However that may be, it is
 an unquestionable fact that the only religious leaders of any note who have arisen among the native
tribes since the advent of the white man, the "Shawnee Prophet" in 1762, and the half-breed prophet
of the "Ghost Dance" in 1890, both founded their claims or prophecies upon the Gospel story. Thus in
each case an Indian religious revival or craze, though more or less threatening to the invader, was
of distinctively alien origin.
The Medicine Lodge originated among the Algonquin tribe, and extended gradually throughout its
branches, finally affecting the Sioux of the Mississippi Valley, and
form-  ing a strong bulwark
against the work of the pioneer missionaries, who secured, indeed, scarcely any converts until after
the outbreak of 1862, when subjection, starvation, and imprisonment turned our broken-hearted people
to accept Christianity, which seemed to offer them the only gleam of kindness or hope.
The order was a secret one, and in some respects not unlike the Free Masons, being a union or
affiliation of a number of lodges, each with its distinctive songs and medicines. Leadership was in
order of seniority in degrees, which could only be obtained by merit, and women were admitted to
upon equal terms, with the possibility of attaining to the highest honors. No person might become a
member unless his moral standing was excellent, all candidates remained on probation for one or two
years, and murderers and adulterers were expelled. The commandments promulgated by this order were
essentially the same as the Mosaic Ten, so that it exerted a distinct moral influence, in addition
to its ostensible object, which was instruction in the secrets of legitimate medicine.
In this society the uses of all curative roots and herbs known to us were taught exhaustively and
prac-  ticed mainly by the old, the younger members being in training to fill the places of those who
passed away. My grandmother was a well-known and successful practitioner, and both my mother and
father were members, but did not practice.
A medicine or "mystery feast" was not a public affair, as members only were eligible, and upon these
occasions all the "medicine bags" and totems of the various lodges were displayed and their peculiar
"medicine songs" were sung. The food was only partaken of by invited guests, and not by the hosts,
or lodge making the feast.
The "Grand Medicine Dance"
 was given on the occasion of initiating those candidates who had finished their probation, a
sufficient number of whom were designated to take the places of those who had died since the last
meeting. Invitations were sent out in the form of small bundles of tobacco. Two very large teepees
were pitched facing one another, a hundred feet apart, half open, and connected by a roofless hall
or colonnade of fresh-cut boughs. One of these lodges was for the society giving the dance and the
novices, the other was occupied by the "soldiers," whose duty it was to distribute the refreshments,
and to keep order among the spectators. They
 were selected from among the best and bravest warriors of the tribe.
The preparations being complete, and the members of each lodge garbed and painted according to their
rituals, they entered the hall separately, in single file, led by their oldest man or "Great Chief."
Standing before the "Soldiers' Lodge," facing the setting sun, their chief addressed the "Great
Mystery" directly in a few words, after which all extending the right arm horizontally from the
shoulder with open palm, sang a short invocation in unison, ending with a deep: "E-ho-ho-ho!" This
performance, which was really impressive, was repeated in front of
 the headquarters lodge, facing the rising sun, after which each lodge took its assigned place, and
the songs and dances followed in regular order.
The closing ceremony, which was intensely dramatic in its character, was the initiation of the
novices, who had received their final preparation on the night before. They were now led out in
front of the headquarters lodge and placed in a kneeling position upon a carpet of rich robes and
furs, the men upon the right hand, stripped and painted black, with a round spot of red just over
the heart, while the women, dressed in their best, were arranged upon the left. Both sexes wore the
 hair loose, as if in mourning or expectation of death. An equal number of grand medicine-men, each
of whom was especially appointed to one of the novices, faced them at a distance of half the length
of the hall, or perhaps fifty feet.
After silent prayer, each medicine-man in turn addressed himself to his charge, exhorting him to
observe all the rules of the order under the eye of the Mysterious One, and instructing him in his
duty toward his fellow-man and toward the Ruler of Life. All then assumed an attitude of superb
power and dignity, crouching slightly as if about to spring forward in a foot-race, and grasping
 their medicine bags firmly in both hands. Swinging their arms forward at the same moment, they
uttered their guttural "Yo-ho-ho-ho!" in perfect unison and with startling effect. In the midst of a
breathless silence, they took a step forward, then another and another, ending a rod or so from the
row of kneeling victims, with a mighty swing of the sacred bags that would seem to project all their
mystic power into the bodies of the initiates. Instantly they all fell forward, apparently lifeless.
With this thrilling climax, the drums were vigorously pounded and the dance began again with energy.
After a few turns had been taken
 about the prostrate bodies of the new members, covering them with fine robes and other garments
which were later to be distributed as gifts, they were permitted to come to life and to join in the
final dance. The whole performance was clearly symbolic of death and resurrection.
While I cannot suppose that this elaborate ritual, with its use of public and audible prayer, of
public exhortation or sermon, and other Caucasian features, was practiced before comparatively
modern times, there is no doubt that it was conscientiously believed in by its members, and for a
time regarded with reverence by the people. But at a later period it
be-  came still further demoralized and fell under suspicion of witchcraft.
There is no doubt that the Indian held medicine close to spiritual things, but in this also he has
been much misunderstood; in fact everything that he held sacred is indiscriminately called
"medicine," in the sense of mystery or magic. As a doctor he was originally very adroit and often
successful. He employed only healing bark, roots, and leaves with whose properties he was familiar,
using them in the form of a distillation or tea and always singly. The stomach or internal bath was
a valuable discovery of his, and the vapor or Turkish bath was in general
 use. He could set a broken bone with fair success, but never practiced surgery in any form. In
addition to all this, the medicine-man possessed much personal magnetism and authority, and in his
treatment often sought to reestablish the equilibrium of the patient through mental or spiritual
influences—a sort of primitive psychotherapy.
The Sioux word for the healing art is "wah-pee-yah," which literally means readjusting or making
anew. "Pay-jee-hoo-tah," literally root, means medicine, and "wakan" signifies spirit or mystery.
Thus the three ideas, while sometimes associated, were carefully distinguished.
 It is important to remember that in the old days the "medicine-man" received no payment for his
services, which were of the nature of an honorable function or office. When the idea of payment and
barter was introduced among us, and valuable presents or fees began to be demanded for treating the
sick, the ensuing greed and rivalry led to many demoralizing practices, and in time to the rise of
the modern "conjurer," who is generally a fraud and trickster of the grossest kind. It is fortunate
that his day is practically over.
Ever seeking to establish spiritual comradeship with the animal
crea-  tion, the Indian adopted this or that animal as his "totem," the emblematic device of his society,
family, or clan. It is probable that the creature chosen was the traditional ancestress, as we are
told that the First Man had many wives among the animal people. The sacred beast, bird, or reptile,
represented by its stuffed skin, or by a rude painting, was treated with reverence and carried into
battle to insure the guardianship of the spirits. The symbolic attribute of beaver, bear, or
tortoise, such as wisdom, cunning, courage, and the like, was supposed to be mysteriously conferred
upon the wearer of the badge. The totem or charm used
 in medicine was ordinarily that of the
medicine lodge to which the practitioner belonged, though there were some great men who boasted a
There are two ceremonial usages which, so far as I have been able to ascertain, were universal among
American Indians, and apparently fundamental. These have already been referred to as the "eneepee,"
or vapor-bath, and the "chan-du-hu-pah-yu-za-pee," or ceremonial of the pipe. In our Siouan legends
and traditions these two are preeminent, as handed down from the most ancient time and persisting to
 In our Creation myth or story of the First Man, the vapor-bath was the magic used by
The-one-who-was-First-Created, to give life to the dead bones of his younger brother, who had been
slain by the monsters of the deep. Upon the shore of the Great Water he dug two round holes, over
one of which he built a low enclosure of fragrant cedar boughs, and here he gathered together the
bones of his brother. In the other pit he made a fire and heated four round stones, which he rolled
one by one into the lodge of boughs. Having closed every aperture save one, he sang a mystic chant
while he thrust in his arm and
 sprinkled water upon the stones with a bunch of sage. Immediately steam arose, and as the legend
says, "there was an appearance of life." A second time he sprinkled water, and the dry bones rattled
together. The third time he seemed to hear soft singing from within the lodge; and the fourth time a
voice exclaimed: "Brother, let me out!" (It should be noted that the number four is the magic or
sacred number of the Indian.)
This story gives the traditional origin of the "eneepee," which has ever since been deemed essential
to the Indian's effort to purify and recreate his spirit. It is used both by
 the doctor and by his patient. Every man must enter the cleansing bath and take the cold plunge
which follows, when preparing for any spiritual crisis, for possible death, or imminent danger.
Not only the "eneepee" itself, but everything used in connection with the mysterious event, the
aromatic cedar and sage, the water, and especially the water-worn boulders, are regarded as sacred,
or at the least adapted to a spiritual use. For the rock we have a special reverent name—"Tunkan,"
a contraction of the Sioux word for Grandfather.
The natural boulder enters into many of our solemn ceremonials,
 such as the "Rain Dance," and the "Feast of Virgins." The lone hunter and warrior reverently holds
up his filled pipe to "Tunkan," in solitary commemoration of a miracle which to him is as authentic
and holy as the raising of Lazarus to the devout Christian.
There is a legend that the First Man fell sick, and was taught by his Elder Brother the ceremonial
use of the pipe, in a prayer to the spirits for ease and relief. This simple ceremony is the
commonest daily expression of thanks or "grace," as well as an oath of loyalty and good faith when
the warrior goes forth upon some perilous enterprise, and it
 enters even into his "hambeday," or solitary prayer, ascending as a rising vapor or incense to the
Father of Spirits.
In all the war ceremonies and in medicine a special pipe is used, but at home or on the hunt the
warrior employs his own. The pulverized weed is mixed with aromatic bark of the red willow, and
pressed lightly into the bowl of the long stone pipe. The worshiper lights it gravely and takes a
whiff or two; then, standing erect, he holds it silently toward the Sun, our father, and toward the
earth, our mother. There are modern variations, as holding the pipe to the Four Winds, the Fire,
 and other elements or objects of reverence.
There are many religious festivals which are local and special in character, embodying a prayer for
success in hunting or warfare, or for rain and bountiful harvests, but these two are the sacraments
of our religion. For baptism we substitute the "eneepee," the purification by vapor, and in our holy
communion we partake of the soothing incense of tobacco in the stead of bread and wine.
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