Sacred Texts  Native American  Plains  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

The Old North Trail, by Walter McClintock, [1910], at

p. 312



Three medicine men have charge of ceremonies.—Bull Child's famous medicine robe.—Sacred booth of the medicine men.—Great crowd of people at Sun-lodge.—People are painted by medicine men.—Society dances and "counting of coups."—Big Beaver tells of his vow.—Kit-sta-ka's song to her dead lover and suicide from a high cliff.—Self-torture by warriors at the Sun-dance in former days.—Story of the fulfilment of a vow by Two Bears.—An approaching storm.—Interesting contest between two medicine men as weather-makers.—Mad Wolf's farewell speech.—The tribe breaks camp.—Death of Mad Wolf.

SPOTTED EAGLE, Mas-te-pe-ne and Bull Child, prominent medicine men, were chosen by the chiefs to take charge of the ceremonies to be given inside the Sun-lodge. On the morning of the fifth day they walked slowly through camp, dancing and blowing their medicine whistles as a signal to the tribe that they were proceeding to the Sun-lodge.

Bull Child wore a robe, 1 famous among the Blackfeet, and purchased by him from "Brings-down-the-Sun," a celebrated medicine man of the north. Many bird and animal tails were attached, including those of the eagle, owl, weasel, mink and gopher. It had also a small bell, two shields and several pieces of fragrant punk from the cottonwood tree. There were paint marks on the back of the robe to represent stars. One group of seven, across the shoulders, to represent the

Click to enlarge


p. 313

[paragraph continues] Great Bear, and, under the right shoulder, a cluster of six to represent the Pleiades. In the centre of the back, the Sun was represented by a double circle in black and red, and there was also a small Maltese cross for the Morning Star. Before entering the Sun-lodge, Bull Child gave a long dance outside. In one hand he held owl and crow tails, which belonged to the medicine of his robe; and, in the other, an eagle wing that went with his medicine bag.

The symbolic designs
Click to enlarge


painted upon his face and body had been revealed to him by the Sun in a dream, while sleeping in the medicine booth of a former Sun-dance. The marks upon his arms represented the rainbow, those upon his cheeks stars. Across his mouth was a red cross, the sign of fasting. Upon the centre of his forehead was a red disc for the Sun and upon either temple two yellow streaks for sun dogs. Upon the front of his otter-medicine-hat was fastened a white shell representing the sun, and above it was painted a crescent for the Moon. At the back of the hat were two spotted eagle feathers, and in his hair a single red eagle plume.

When he danced, he faced first towards the rising sun, blowing his medicine whistle and making mysterious

p. 314

motions with both arms extended towards the sky. Then he danced facing the west and waving the eagle wing in the direction of the setting sun.

The door of the Sun-lodge faced towards the east. Opposite the entrance upon the inside, was a small booth for the exclusive use of the medicine men. It was closely interwoven at the sides and back with ground-pine to bar inquisitive eyes from the outside. The

Click to enlarge


floor was made of earth taken from the foot of the Centre Pole. It was hardened by wetting and then covered with white clay. Pine boughs were spread within upon which they slept. When the medicine men entered the booth they announced that they would fast four days, which meant to the tribe that the Sun-dance would continue four days longer. During this time the medicine men ate but four bites of dried meat before sunrise and four more after sunset, with an

p. 315

allowance of but one small shell of water. They might eat gooseberries and sweet cottonwood pulp, provided they were brought to them. They could not gather them, nor leave the booth during their fast.

The Indians surrounded and crowded into the Sun-lodge in such numbers that it was almost impossible for more to enter, or for those that were within to withdraw. Seats were reserved for the lodge-giver with

Click to enlarge


his wife and their assistants. Gives-to-the-Sun was indeed highly exalted among Indian women, when she entered the Sun-lodge with Mad Wolf, O-mis-tai-po-kah and Natokema, for she was the object of honour and veneration from the entire tribe. Robes were spread, and they took their seats near the Centre Pole, on the north side of the medicine booth. The people brought offerings, which they presented with a filled pipe to one of the medicine men. After smoking he painted the faces of the givers and blessed them with "long life and

p. 316

good luck." Many women carried young children to Bull Child to receive his blessing. He took them in his arms, and, holding a bunch of eagle feathers in one hand and a buffalo tail in the other, gazed intently at the bright sun and prayed, that "they might be endowed with power, and have an abundance to eat throughout their lives."

The space in the centre was kept open for the different societies. They were recognised, as they entered, by their characteristic dress and the painting of their bodies. Hanging their shields and weapons upon the Centre Pole, they sat down in rows to the north and south of the fire and later gave their different dances. Warriors also "counted coups," narrating their deeds of bravery and illustrating them by their sham battles.

The Blackfeet believe that men, who have been brave in battle, have acquired extra merit and, by recounting their deeds publicly in the Sun-lodge will thereby help their sick relatives and friends. One of these was Mukoi-sa-po who arose and prayed,

"O Sun take pity on my sick mother and restore her to health."

[paragraph continues] He built a miniature lodge of branches to make more realistic his description of his attacking alone a Sioux lodge, and securing two scalps.

Big Beaver, dressed in a buckskin suit, decorated with weasel skins and holding a piece of the sacred food, stood before the people saying:

"Hear me! my brothers and sisters. During the moon, when snows are deep (February), I went with Esto-ko-atto to visit the Crows. On our way home, at the time of the big Chinook (Warm Wind), we were crossing the Yellowstone River. The water was high and carried us against an ice-jam. Esto-ko-atto went under and was drowned, but I crawled out upon the ice, which floated down the river. I then vowed to the Sun that, if I escaped alive, my sister would partake of a tongue for me at the time of the

p. 317

next Sun-dance. I jumped from one ice-cake to another and escaped to shore, reaching my home in safety."

He handed the tongue to his sister, who held it up, praying to the Sun Power for all of the people. Breaking a small piece from the tongue, she buried it in the

Click to enlarge


earth, praying to the Underground Spirits that all might have plenty to eat. Big Beaver then said to his sister, "Here is my horse and the clothing I wear. Give them to the medicine man, Spotted Eagle, and ask him to pray for us."

The entire assembly became hushed, when Kit-sta-ka

p. 318

arose from a group of squaws and, with trembling voice, sang to her dead lover,

"This is the sacred place where I was last with my lover. Now I am left alone, for he has gone to the Spirit World where I hope to join him soon."

[paragraph continues] After the Sun-dance, Kit-sta-ka was camped with the clan of Lone Eaters on Two Medicine River. One evening she was seen standing on the edge of a high cliff in full view of the camp. The Indians heard her singing this same song to her dead lover, and then saw her jump to her death.

Many years ago, when the Indian tribes were at war, it was customary for warriors, who had made vows, to fulfil them at the time of the Sun-dance. These acts were not performed, as is sometimes asserted, for the making of warriors, nor were they regarded as deeds of bravado, but as religious expiations to the Sun, in return for favours granted. The vows were made under various conditions. For instance, a man, starting upon an important war expedition, would pray to the Sun, promising self-torture, if he could be successful and return home safely. Sometimes a warrior, hard pressed in battle, or a hunter in a desperate conflict with a wild animal, vowed that, if his life were saved, he would cut himself at the next Sun-dance. The devotee, in fulfilling such a vow, would choose a friend to do the cutting and have charge of him during the ordeal. Having made the incisions and thrust wooden skewers under the muscles, on both sides of his breast, he made them fast to the loose ends of one of the half dozen raw-hide ropes suspended from the top of the Centre Pole. He then danced around the pole until the skewers were torn loose. The spectators spurred him on by loud and continual singing, shouts of encouragement and admiration,

p. 319

and violent beating of the tom-toms. Weakened by previous fasting, he would often fall senseless to the ground, to be revived and started again, until his flesh was torn loose, when he would withdraw within the tipi of a relative for healing treatment and a feast. In their frenzy greater tortures were often voluntarily undertaken. Extra incisions would be made in their shoulders and back, from which buffalo skulls, guns, saddles and other heavy articles were suspended. The dancers would run about, dragging these heavy objects after them, until torn off by the violent strain.

Once, Two Bears, a young chief in a desperate battle with the Sioux, was surrounded and cut off from his comrades. When death seemed certain, he made a vow to the Sun and escaped. The next summer, he rode through the Sun-dance camp, telling the story of his deliverance and announcing that he was ready to fulfil his vow. He presented himself before a medicine man, who covered his body with white clay, painted black streaks on his cheeks, representing tears, and a black shield on his back,—the emblem of war. A wreath of juniper was placed upon his head and sage leaves tied around his wrists and ankles. He chose a noted warrior, who had done great deeds in battle, to cut the incisions in his back and breast. In these slits skewers were inserted, to which lariats were attached. During the ordeal Two Bears displayed no sign of pain. He directed that a herd of his own horses be sent for; that the lariats be fastened to them, and that they be stampeded by the waving of blankets. He announced also, that he gave these horses as an offering to the Sun. The young chief was dragged a long distance before the last skewer was pulled through his flesh and he lay as if dead upon the plain. He was carried on a litter to his

p. 320

tipi, and root medicine was applied to his wounds. Next day he returned to the Sun-lodge, bringing a present and a filled pipe for the medicine man, who smoked and prayed for him. It is said that those who underwent self-torture generally seemed to recover, but not many of them lived long afterwards, because of the severe nervous shock sustained.

The medicine men were believed to have power over the weather, and at the time of the Sun-dance were expected to drive away all storms. The following incident illustrates the extraordinary skill with which they acquire and maintain a reputation with the tribe for supernatural power.

A dark cloud, with its eastern side extending far out over the plains, was seen slowly advancing along the main range of the Rockies towards the encampment. The people anxiously watched the medicine men, who were quick to realise that the occasion had great possibilities of success, or failure for their office. Spotted Eagle and Mastepene standing in front of their people, entered into a sort of competition as weather-makers, but with much better success than the competing prophets of Baal. Mastepene, blowing his whistle and facing the black cloud, called in a loud voice,

"Behold! A storm comes from the mountains, and you people would get wet, but I am powerful and my medicine is strong. I will now dance to keep the weather clear."

He left the booth, and stepping forth into the circle danced alone. He was short, but sinewy, and as he danced, circling around with agile step, he held an otter skin towards the north, south, east and west which, with a final gesture, as if driving back the clouds, he waved over his head. A sudden change in

p. 321

the wind averted its course and it divided, as Mastepene predicted. Spotted Eagle, jealous of the success of his rival, then left the booth. He wore the powerful medicine handed down to him by Four Bears. On his head was an otter-skin cap to make him strong and active; in his hair an eagle feather to preserve him in battle; while around his waist was a medicine belt to keep his body free from sickness. In one hand he

Click to enlarge


carried a magpie and in the other a mink skin. Standing before the waiting people, he said,

"Mastepene, you are wrong, for my supernatural power over the weather comes from the Sun, and is therefore stronger than yours. The storm has indeed separated, but it will again unite and return to wet the people."

Again the eyes of the Indians eagerly watched the divided clouds, which actually came together and

p. 322

continued to spread until they passed over the encampment with a heavy rain.

The Sun had set on the last day of his Sun-dance, when Mad Wolf, the greatest orator of the Blackfeet, arose to make a farewell talk. A deep stillness fell over the assembled people as the venerable chief, with hand upraised to command attention, stood before them. He spoke with a strong full voice, saying:

"Hear! my children, for I speak to you with a good heart. It does us all good to assemble every summer around the Sun-lodge. We have smoked the Medicine Pipe, and the rising smoke has carried away all of our bad feelings. Many have given presents to the Sun, and some have fulfilled their vows. The old people have fasted and prayed, and now feel better in their hearts. The young men have listened to the wise counsels of the chiefs, and the young girls have seen the medicine women, chosen to fast and pray, because their lives are pure and their hearts are kindly disposed towards everyone. The Great Sun God is our father. He is kind, for he makes the trees to bud and the grass to become green in the spring-time. He gave the people good hearts, that they also might be kind and help each other. The grass is now long, and the sun is bright and warns upon the prairies, but the cold and frost of winter, with its deep snows and biting winds, will soon come, and I know not where our women and children will get their food. We are not moving; we are just standing still. The buffalo are all gone, the antelope and the rest of the game also. The white men have continued driving us westward, until now the Rocky Mountains face us like a wall and we can go no farther. I care not for myself, for I will soon go to the Great Spirit. I am anxious for the little children, for I know not what will become of them.

"You have all heard of our Ka-ach-sino (Great Grandfather, President), who calls us his red children. He is the only one upon whom we can depend, and we must now look to him, as in the past we have prayed to the Sun God. All of you my children should obey his laws and give heed to his advice. He lives far away towards the rising sun, but I shake hands with him now, for our hearts feel good toward him. Prepare to return to your ranches and look well after your cattle, for, with diligence and perseverance, you can make a good living. Let everyone keep away from fire water, and send your children to school. If they can learn the talk of the white men, they will be a great help to us, for the white man's way is now on top. I shake hands with all of you, my

p. 323

children. I wish that you may feel the sunshine of joy in your hearts and that you may have no trouble. What I speak with my mouth I feel in my heart. Farewell!"

Early on the following morning, Running Crane, followed by his band, departed for the south, and on the next day Mad Wolf also departed, followed by the rest of the tribe. I remained alone in the midst of the recent encampment, watching them as they slowly

Click to enlarge


made their way northward. When they disappeared over a distant ridge, I turned for a last look at the Surf-lodge, which was now the one conspicuous and solitary object in the midst of a broad and desolate plain, surrounded on all sides by the smoking embers of the deserted lodge fires.

Mad Wolf died, May 28, 1902, during the moon, when the grass is green. Just before his death, four large crosses of light appeared about the moon, the sign a great chief is about to die. He was ill but three days. Ear Rings and White Grass, skilled

p. 324

doctors of the Blackfeet, were called without avail. Mad Wolf grew steadily worse. It was the second night of his illness, when Ear Rings said, "Mad Wolf, you should make your farewell talk, for your sickness is hard to cure and it is doubtful if you will recover." The chief would not think of death. He directed that Snake Woman, a celebrated herb doctor and medicine woman, be consulted, but her remedies brought no relief. At early dawn of the fourth day, Mad Wolf suddenly raised himself. He said, "I want to go alone into the open, that I may see the blue sky and breathe again the fresh air."

He walked slowly to the door, and when outside, the watchers heard him speaking. Gives-to-the-Sun, hastening to him, found him kneeling, his face towards the rising sun, with arms outstretched and praying to the Morning Star, which had already risen and was shining upon the face of the dying chief. She heard him exclaim, "Wait!" and when she hurried to his side, he said, "Do you not see, standing there, the ghost of my old friend Double Runner? He says he is waiting for me, and it is now time for me to go with him."

Morning Plume ran out and caught the dying chief in his arms. Mad Wolf sank back as if tired. Reaching out, he took the hands of his wife in his own, and looking up tried to speak. She leaned close to his face and heard him whisper, "I love you and I love Morning Plume also." With these last words, Mad Wolf passed to the Spirit World over the "Wolf Trail" (Milky Way), the path worn across the heavens by the travelling spirits of many generations of the Blackfeet dead.


312:1 See Appendix.

Next: Chapter XXIV. Along the Old North Trail