CHECKERED CLOUD, THE MEDICINE WOMAN.
by Mary Eastman
Legends of the Sioux
[Footnote: A medicine woman is a
female doctor or juggler. No man or woman can assume this office without
previous initiation by authority. The medicine dance is a sacred rite,
in honor of the souls of the dead; the mysteries of this dance are kept
inviolable; its secrets have never been divulged by its members. The
medicine men and women attend in cases of sickness. The Sioux have the
greatest faith in them. When the patient recovers, it redounds to the
honor of the doctor; if he die, they say "The time had come that he
should die," or that the "medicine of the person who cast a spell upon
the sick person was stronger than the doctor's." They can always find a
satisfactory solution of the failure of the charm.]
Within a few miles of Fort Snelling lives Checkered Cloud. Not that she
has any settled habitation; she is far too important a character for
that. Indeed she is not often two days in the same place. Her wanderings
are not, however, of any great extent, so that she can always be found
when wanted. But her wigwam is about seven miles from the fort, and she
is never much farther off. Her occupations change with the day. She has
been very busy of late, for Checkered Cloud is one of the medicine
women of the Dahcotahs; and as the Indians have had a good deal of
sickness among them, you might follow her from teepee to teepee, as she
proceeds with the sacred rattle [Footnote: Sacred rattle. This is
generally a gourd, but is sometimes made of bark. Small beads are put
into it. The Sioux suppose that this rattle, in the hands of one of
their medicine men or women, possesses a certain virtue to charm away
sickness or evil spirits. They shake it over a sick person, using a
circular motion. It is never, however, put in requisition against the
worst spirits with which the Red Man has to contend.] in her hand,
charming away the animal that has entered the body of the Dahcotah to
steal his strength.
Then, she is the great legend-teller of the Dahcotahs. If there is a
merry-making in the village, Checkered Cloud must be there, to call to
the minds of the revellers the traditions that have been handed down
from time immemorial.
Yesterday, wrapped in her blanket, she was seated on the St. Peters,
near a hole which she had cut in the ice, in order to spear the fish as
they passed through the water; and to-day—but while I am writing of
her, she approaches the house; even now, her shadow falls upon the room
as she passes the window. I need not listen to her step, for her
mocassined feet pass noiselessly through the hall. The door is slowly
opened, and she is before me!
How tall she is! and with what graceful dignity she offers her hand.
Seventy winters have passed over her, but the brightness of her eye is
undimmed by time. Her brow speaks of intellect—and the white hair that
is parted over it falls unplaited on her shoulders. She folds her
blanket round her and seats herself; she has a request to make, I know,
but Checkered Cloud is not a beggar, she never asks aught but what she
feels she has a right to claim.
"Long ago," she says, "the Dahcotah owned lands that the white man now
claims; the trees, the rivers, were all our own. But the Great Spirit
has been angry with his children; he has taken their forests and their
hunting grounds, and given them to others.
"When I was young, I feared not wind nor storm. Days have I wandered
with the hunters of my tribe, that they might bring home many buffalo
for food, and to make our wigwams. Then, I cared not for cold and
fatigue, for I was young and happy. But now I am old; my children have
gone before me to the 'House of Spirits'—the tender boughs have yielded
to the first rough wind of autumn, while the parent tree has stood and
borne the winter's storm.
"My sons have fallen by the tomahawk of their enemies; my daughter
sleeps under the foaming waters of the Falls.
"Twenty winters were added to my life on that day. We had encamped at
some distance above the Falls, and our hunters had killed many deer.
Before we left our village to go on the hunt, we sacrificed to the
Spirit of the woods, and we prayed to the Great Spirit. We lifted up our
hands and said, 'Father, Great Spirit, help us to kill deer.' The arrows
of our hunters never missed, and as we made ready for our return we were
happy, for we knew we should not want for food. My daughter's heart was
light, for Haparm was with her, and she never was sad but when he
"Just before we arrived at the Falls, she became sick; her hands were
burning hot, she refused to eat. As the canoe passed over the
Mississippi, she would fill her cup with its waters, to drink and throw
over her brow. The medicine men were always at her side, but they said
some evil spirit hated her, and prevented their spells from doing
"When we reached the Falls, she was worse; the women left their canoes,
and prepared to carry them and the rest of the baggage round the Falls.
"But what should we do with We-no-nah? the flush of fever was on her
cheek; she did not know me when I spoke to her; but she kept her eyes
fixed upon her lover.
"'We will leave her in the canoe,' said her father; 'and with a line we
can carry her gently over the Rapids.' I was afraid, but with her
brothers holding the line she must be safe. So I left my child in her
canoe, and paddled with the others to the shore.
"As we left her, she turned her eyes towards us, as if anxious to know
what we were about to do. The men held the line steadily, and the canoe
floated so gently that I began to feel less anxious—but as we
approached the rapids, my heart beat quickly at the sound of the waters.
Carefully did her brothers hold the line, and I never moved my eyes from
the canoe in which she lay. Now the roaring of the waters grew louder,
and as they hastened to the rocks over which they would fall they bore
with them my child—I saw her raise herself in the canoe, I saw her
long hair as it fell on her bosom—I saw no more!
"My sons bore me in their arms to the rest of the party. The hunters had
delayed their return that they might seek for the body of my child. Her
lover called to her, his voice could be heard above the sound of the
waters. 'Return to me, Wenonah, I will never love maiden but you; did
you not promise to light the fires in my wigwam?' He would have thrown
himself after her, had not the young men prevented him. The body rests
not in the cold waters; we found it and buried it, and her spirit calls
to me in the silence of the night! Her lover said he would not remain
long on the earth; he turned from the Dahcotah maidens as they smiled
upon him. He died as a warrior should die!
"The Chippeways had watched for us, they longed to carry the scalp of a
Dahcotah home. They did so—but we were avenged.
"Our young men burst in upon them when they were sleeping; they struck
them with their tomahawks, they tore their scalps reeking with blood
from their heads.
"We heard our warriors at the village as they returned from their war
party; we knew by their joyful cries that they had avenged their
friends. One by one they entered the village, bearing twenty scalps of
"Only three of the Dahcotahs had fallen. But who were the three? My
sons, and he who was as dear as a son to me, the lover of my child. I
fled from their cries of triumph—I longed to plunge the knife into my
"I have lived on. But sorrow and cold and hunger have bowed my spirit;
and my limbs are not as strong and active as they were in my youth.
Neither can I work with porcupine as I used to—for age and tears have
dimmed my sight. I bring you venison and fish, will you not give me
clothes to protect me from the winter's cold?"
Ah! Checkered Cloud—he was a prophet who named you. Though the cloud
has varied, now passing away, now returning blacker than before—though
the cheering light of the sun has for a moment dispelled the gloom—
'twas but for a moment! for it was sure to break in terrors over your
head. Your name is your history, your life has been a checkered cloud!
But the storm of the day has yielded to the influence of the setting
sun. The thunder has ceased to roll, the wind has died away, and the
golden streaks that bound the horizon promise a brighter morning. So
with Checkered Cloud, the storm and strife of the earth have ceased; the
"battle of life" is fought, and she has conquered. For she hopes to meet
the beloved of earth in the heaven of the Dahcotahs.
And who will say that our heaven will not be hers? The God of the
Dahcotahs is ours, though they, less happy than we, have not been taught
to know him. Christians! are you without blame? Have you thought of the
privations, the wants of those who once owned your country, and would
own it still but for the strong hand? Have you remembered that their
souls are dear in His sight, who suffered for them, as well as for you?
Have you given bright gold that their children might be educated and
redeemed from their slavery of soul? Checkered Cloud will die as she has
lived, a believer in the religion of the Dahcotahs. The traditions of
her tribe are written on her heart. She worships a spirit in every
forest tree, or every running stream. The features of the favored
Israelite are hers; she is perchance a daughter of their lost tribe.
When she was young, she would have listened to the missionary as he told
her of Gethsemane and Calvary. But age yields not like youth to new
impressions; the one looks to the future, the other clings to the past.
See! she has put by her pipe and is going, but she is coming oft again
to talk to me of her people, that I may tell to my friends the bravery
of the Dahcotah warrior, and the beauty of the maiden! the legends of
their rivers and sacred isles—the traditions of their rocks and hills!
If I cannot, in recounting the wild stories of this prophetess of the
forest, give her own striking words, I shall at least be faithful to the
spirit of her recitals. I shall let Indian life speak for itself; these
true pictures of its course will tell its whole simple story better than
any labored exposition of mine. Here we may see, not the red man of the
novel or the drama, but the red man as he appears to himself, and to
those who live with him. His better characteristics will be found quite
as numerous as ought to be expected under the circumstances; his faults
and his sufferings should appeal to the hearts of those who hold the
means of his salvation. No intelligent citizen of these United States
can without blame forget the aborigines of his country. Their wrongs cry
to heaven; their souls will be required of us. To view them as brutes is
an insult to Him who made them and us. May this little work do something
towards exciting an interest in a single tribe out of the many whose
only hope is in the mercy of the white man!