The Old North Trail, by Walter McClintock, , at sacred-texts.com
Religious beliefs.—Origin and meaning of "medicine" and "medicine-man."—The reasonableness of Sun Worship in the light of nature.—Religious significance of the Sun-dance.—Mad Wolf's letter inviting his white son to the Sun-dance.—Reason for the vow to give the Sun-dance by Mad Wolf's wife.—My return to attend Sun-dance.—First-night impressions in Mad Wolf's camp.
THE Blackfeet are firm believers in the Supernatural and in the control of human affairs by both Good and Evil Powers in the invisible world. The Great Spirit, or Great Mystery, or Good Power, is everywhere and in everything—mountains, plains, winds, waters, trees, birds, and animals. Whether animals have mind and the reasoning faculty admits of no doubt with the Blackfeet, for they believe that all animals receive their endowment of power from the Sun, differing in degree, but the same in kind as that received by man and all things animate and inanimate. Some birds and animals, such as the grizzly bear, buffalo, beaver, wolf, eagle, and raven, are worshipped, because they possess a larger amount of the Good Power than the others and so, when a Blackfoot is in trouble or peril, he naturally prays to them for assistance.
His ideas of the Evil Power are vague and undefined. That problem of all time, the origin of evil, its continuance, and the suffering in the world because of it,
are mysteries to the Indian, as well as to the greatest minds of the Christian races. Without knowing why, he believes that bad luck or misfortune, such as accident and loss of property, sickness or death, is inflicted upon him as a punishment by the Evil Power because of his violations of the laws of the "medicines." A Blackfoot has no fear of the Good Power, because it is his friend; but he is an abject slave to his constant dread of the Evil Power, or Evil Spirits, who are ever ready to pursue and punish him. Death, like the fabled "sword of Damocles," is always suspended over his head, ready to drop in punishment for any one of the multitude of offences against the sacred medicines, which he is liable to commit.
It is impossible for the Christian races to understand, or estimate the powerful influence, which the "medicine" beliefs have for ages exerted upon the Indian character and tribal life. It being their universal belief that illness of the body signified possession by an evil spirit, their methods of healing, in common with those of all savage tribes, naturally took the form of incantation and occult ceremonies for exorcising it. No doubt the title of "medicine," by which their doctors were known in our early chronicles of the Indians, had its origin in this manner with the early French colonists. By a natural transition it passed into that of "medicine men," with English speaking people. A "medicine man" is believed to control the weather, to heal the sick and exorcise evil spirits by means of incantations and magic arts. He is really more of a magician than a medical doctor, although he constantly assumes the functions of the latter. His vocation is to instruct and guide in the avoidance of acts that are "bad medicine" and therefore unlucky, and in the use of the best means for propitiating the
[paragraph continues] Evil Power, because of unlucky acts already committed. When an Indian is "making medicine," he is performing mysterious ceremonies, or using other approved means for controlling the supernatural powers and averting the malevolence of the evil spirits. Some authorities have understood the word as meaning "mystery," and the medicine man as "mystery man." But this is not an adequate expression. While there is no corresponding word in the English language to express the equivalent of the Indian idea, the phrase "supernatural power" is probably the nearest equivalent to the word "medicine," in its common Indian use.
Without the medium of a divine revelation, through which the Christian races received knowledge of the true God, and with only their senses and reason, and the light of nature to guide them, the Blackfeet evolved a very reasonable form of pagan religion in their Sun-worship. Unaided, so far as we know, and circumscribed by the horizon of their own experiences, they determined the phenomena of nature, and connected causes and effects into a system of natural religion, which did credit to their reasoning powers, their piety and their imagination. Whether they derived any of it from the South, through the Aztecs, or from Asia via the Behring Straits, or otherwise, is, as yet, one of the unsolved problems of ethnology.
The Sun, as the great centre of power and the upholder of all things, was the Blackfeet's supreme object of worship. He saw that every bud and leaf and blossom turned its face towards the Sun as the source of its life and growth; that the berries he ate reddened and ripened under its warmth; that men and animals thrived under its sustaining light, but all perished
when it was withdrawn. He saw that in the darkness and cold of winter, nature retired into silence and sleep; that when the sunlight and warmth of spring returned, all nature awakened and put on its robe of green; the bears left their hibernating dens and the beavers their winter lodges. The Sun made the grass to grow and the trees to be covered with foliage for the subsistence of birds and animals, upon which he himself in turn depended for food. The devout Blackfoot therefore called upon men, women and children and everything that had breath to worship the all-glorious, all-powerful, Sun-God who fills the heavens with brightness and the earth with life and beauty. To them, he is the supreme source of light, of life, and of power.
The Sun-dance was not, as has been commonly believed, "merely an occasion for the self torture of youths, who are candidates for admission to the full standing of warriors." It was, on the contrary, their great annual religious festival, their holy sacrament, the supreme expression of their religion. It must always have its beginning in a woman's vow, made to the Sun-God for the recovery of the sick. The entire tribe were accustomed to come together every summer for the Sun lodge, some to fulfil vows made for the recovery of the sick, some to fast and pray, others seeking diversion, while warriors came to inflict self torture in fulfilment of vows made to the Sun for deliverance from peril.
It was my good fortune to witness several Sun-dances and to have had exceptional facilities for their study and observation, especially in the one given by Mad Wolf and his wife, my Indian parents by adoption. I have been surprised that so little has been known as to the remarkable symbolism of the ritual and the elevated religious ideas and teachings contained in the ceremonial
of the Sun-dance. Much stress has been mistakenly laid upon its demoralising tendencies, chiefly because of the self torture, which was formerly practised under an intense religious fanaticism, but now entirely suppressed and overlooking entirely the high morality it inculcated. The silence of literature as to its true religious significance and its highly developed symbolism, is doubtless owing to the barriers with which all explorers have found it surrounded. These have been a difficult and unwritten language; the Indian's natural reserve, especially concerning religion, and the impenetrable secretiveness of the medicine men, who were the custodians of the religious rites and mysteries. Their very livelihood depended upon a strict and jealous maintenance of that secrecy.
Early in the spring, I received the following letter from Mad Wolf, written through an interpreter:—
"MY DEAR SON:—
"I am now feeling good in my heart because I received a letter from my white son and read in it so much that I wanted to know. We are glad to hear that Ka-ach-sino (great grandfather, President) is a good man, that he cares for his red children and will protect them. We all feel good in our hearts, when you write telling us so many things from the outside that we do not know. After you left us, at the time of the first snowfall, some white men tried to take away our lands, but my people refused to allow it. We want to move away from civilisation, but there is no longer a place to which we can go. We have been continually driven westward, until the Rocky Mountains now face us like a wall and we can go no farther. We have made many mistakes, but I consider the greatest was when we allowed white men to live with us upon our lands. We were not satisfied with one trading store. There are now two stores, but the prices are even higher.
[paragraph continues] Why is it that the Great Father does not send us a good man for agent? He is wise and should know what his red children need. We have never had one whole-agent, they have all been half-agents. I have come to feel now, as if there was no one to trust except you, my son. I ask that you continue writing to me, even if you should not hear in reply. I am experiencing great difficulty in getting my letters written because there are so few white men, upon whom I can depend. Last winter, my youngest son was taken sick with a fever. When the Indian doctors said Little Crane must die, my heart was heavy. I went alone to the mountains and entering the forest, I fell asleep and had a dream. I saw you coming through the trees and walking towards me carrying two large birds. You came to my side, and said 'My father, you are in distress, but I have come to help you. These two birds I have killed are your troubles and they will no longer grieve you.' I awoke feeling relieved. You are far away towards the rising sun, but I know you have influence among the white men and can help us. When I returned from the mountain, my wife met me, saying, 'Little Crane will now recover because I have made a vow to give the festival sacred to the Sun God. I know it will cost us many horses and I must fast and suffer, but it was necessary to make the vow to save the life of our son.' Little Crane is well again, and in the coming summer, when the grass is green, we will give the Sun ceremonial. I ask that you come again soon to visit your brothers and sisters and Indian parents. Tell your white father that no harm will come to you in the Blackfeet camp, because you will be safe and at home with your Indian parents. I now feel good in my heart towards you, my son, and shake hands with you and with all your friends.
YOUR INDIAN FATHER,
SIYEH (MAD WOLF)."
Early in the moon of flowers (June), I rode across the plains towards Mad Wolf's home on Cutbank River.
[paragraph continues] The prairies were brilliant with wild roses in various shades of colour, and on all sides larks and Savanna sparrows were singing. I crossed a long and irregular procession of hills, sweeping northward to join their mighty leader the Hudson Bay Divide. Far to the north, as if rising from the plains, and separated from the main range of the Rockies, stood the sharp peak of Chief Mountain, a perpetual landmark of the Indians. I recognised the familiar scenes, the streams, the lakes, and the cut-banks, the piles of stones used for guidance and safety during storm and blizzard, and the lonely graves upon the ridges. I found Mad Wolf camped on the South Fork of Cutbank River. When I entered the lodge, he was seated at the back with Gives-to-the-Sun, his wife, their heads bowed in prayer. It was Gives-to-the-Sun who had made the vow, and around her, as the sacred woman, all the ceremonies would centre. Mad Wolf exclaimed, "It is my white son!" He gave me a warm hand-shake, and bidding me be seated looked me over searchingly. I was deeply touched by the evidence of his warm friendship for me, when he took a package from an old medicine bag, and unrolling the outside cover, which was decorated with sacred red paint, produced a number of my letters, the envelopes soiled and worn. He first passed them around the circle for examination, and then, after gazing at them for a moment in silence, returned them to the bundle, saying he would always preserve them carefully and they would be buried with him when he died. Sweet grass was burning on a hot coal, and as Mad Wolf saw me watching the smoke, he explained that it was incense rising to the sky, and said: "Ever since you went away, I have been praying to the Sun that you might return in safety, and now you are here. We are
glad to have you present, and I will reveal many things in order that you may know there is nothing harmful in our worship. You can then explain our religion to the white people, for we know you are straight and will speak the truth.
"Last winter when Little Crane was sick and about to
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A WOMAN'S VOW TO THE SUN.
die, it was very cold. For many days the sun did not shine and the snow lay deep over the plains. The medicine men, White Grass, and Bull Child danced and beat upon their drums, but the evil spirits could not be driven out. In vain Ear Rings sang his strongest songs and administered root medicine by means of hot stones. Our son only became weaker. One evening at sunset
the clouds broke, and my wife seeing the bright rays coming into the lodge went outside, and prayed to the Sun:
"'Pity me, Great Sun God! for you know that I am a pure woman. Give back health and strength to my boy, and I promise to build a sacred Sun lodge for you before all the people.'
[paragraph continues] "She then stood beside Little Crane and said, 'Rise up, my son, for I am a pure woman and have vowed to give the Sun-dance that your health may be restored.' She then went to Bull Child, the medicine man and was painted by him. Next morning at daybreak they stood together facing the east. As the sun rose from the plains, Bull Child prayed,
"'Great Spirit in the Sun! I know that this is a pure woman. If her sick boy recovers, I promise you that she will give a Sun-dance and will eat of the sacred food with you and with the Underground Spirits.'
[paragraph continues] "Before the snow melted Little Crane was restored to health, and when the warm winds of spring began to blow and the grass was green, we began preparations for the Sun-dance in fulfilment of our vow. We are now waiting for Flat Tail to bring tongues from the south. When he arrives, we will hold a ceremonial, and will consecrate them as the sacred food."
There is always so much uncertainty in the movements of Indians, that, in order to be present without fail and miss nothing, I determined to stay night and day beside Mad Wolf's lodge. He gave me every facility for accomplishing my purpose. He even stopped the ceremonies that I might photograph the dances, write down the words of the chants and prayers and secure graphophone records of their sacred songs. He also made a speech into the graphophone, asking that it be sent as his message to the Great Father at
[paragraph continues] Washington. My lodge was pitched by Strikes-on-both sides, my Indian sister. She was the Chief's favourite child, and with good reason, for she was skilled in the Indian arts and always thoughtful and considerate of others. It was she who gathered my firewood, called me whenever my horses strayed from camp, and showed where a cool spring lay just over the ridge.
When night fell, and a cold breeze blew from the
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WHEN NIGHT FELL.
snow-covered Rockies, it was delightful to lie once more upon my comfortable bed of robes and blankets, watching the flickering light of my small inside fire, and to hear again all the well known sounds of lodge life. The gentle flapping of the lodge ears, when the wind changed, causing the smoke to swirl and even the mournful singing of wet wood on the hot embers were familiar sounds. It was interesting to distinguish the different odours of burning firewood, the sweet fragrance of birch and cottonwood, the resinous scent of pine, and
the disagreeable odour of alder, called mic-cisa-misoi (stink-wood) by the Blackfeet, because of the offensive smell of its smoke. I went to sleep listening to the musical flow of the river upon its rocky bed, and it was the first sound to greet my ears when I wakened in the morning.