The Dahcotah Convert, by Mary Eastman
Legends of the Sioux
"Tell me," said, Hiatu-we-noken-chah, or 'woman of the night,' "the
Great Spirit whom you have taught me to fear, why has he made the white
woman rich and happy, and the Dahcotah poor and miserable?" She spoke
with bitterness when she remembered the years of sorrow that had made up
the sum of her existence.
But how with the missionary's wife? had her life been one bright
dream—had her days been always full of gladness—her nights quiet and
free from care? Had she never longed for the time of repose, that
darkness might cover her as with a mantle—and when 'sleep forsook the
wretched,' did she not pray for the breaking of the day, that she might
again forget all in the performance of the duties of her station? Could
it be that the Creator had balanced the happiness of one portion of his
children against the wretchedness of the rest? Let her story answer.
Her home is now among the forests of the west. As a child she would
tremble when she heard of the savage whose only happiness was in
shedding the blood of his fellow creatures. The name of an "Indian" when
uttered by her nurse would check the boisterous gayety of the day or the
tedious restlessness of the night.
As she gathered flowers on the pleasant banks of the Sciota, would it
not have brought paleness to her cheek to have whispered her that not
many years would pass over her, before she would be far away from the
scenes of her youth?
And as she uttered the marriage vow, how little did she think that soon
would her broken spirit devote time, energies, life, to the good of
others; as an act of duty and, but for the faith of the Christian, of
despair. For several years she only wept with others when they sorrowed;
fair children followed her footsteps, and it was happiness to guide
their voices, as they, like the morning stars, sang together; or to
listen to their evening prayer as they folded their hands in childlike
devotion ere they slept.
And when the father returned from beside the bed of death, where his
skill could no longer alleviate the parting agonies of the sufferer: how
would he hasten to look upon the happy faces of his children, in order
to forget the scene he had just witnessed. But, man of God as he was,
there was not always peace in his soul; yet none could see that he had
cause for care. He was followed by the blessings of those who were ready
to perish. He essayed to make the sinner repent, and to turn the
thoughts of the dying to Him who suffered death on the cross.
But for months the voice of the Spirit spake to his heart; he could not
forget the words—"Go to the wretched Dahcotahs, their bodies are
suffering, and their souls, immortal like thine, are perishing. Soothe
their temporal cares, and more, tell them the triumphs of the
But it was hard to give up friends, and all the comforts with which he
was surrounded: to subject his wife to the hardships of a life in the
wilderness, to deprive his children of the advantages of education and
good influences, and instead—to show them life as it is with those who
know not God. But the voice said, "Remember the Dahcotahs." Vainly did
he struggle with the conflict of duty against inclination.
The time has come when the parents must weep for themselves. No longer
do the feet of their children tread among the flowers; fever has
paralyzed their strength, and vainly does the mother call upon the
child, whose eyes wander in delirium, who knows not her voice from a
stranger's. Nor does the Destroyer depart when one has sunk into a sleep
from which there is no awakening until the morn of the resurrection. He
claims another, and who shall resist that claim!
As the father looks upon the still forms of his children, as he sees the
compressed lips, the closed eyes of the beings who were but a few days
ago full of life and happiness, the iron enters his soul; but as the
Christian remembers who has afflicted him, his spirit rises above his
sorrow. Nor is there now any obstacle between him and the path of duty.
The one child that remains must be put in charge of those who will care
for her, and he will go where God directs.
But will the mother give up the last of her children? it matters not now
where she lives, but she must part with husband or child! Self has no
part in her schemes; secure in her trust in God she yields up her child
to her friend, and listens not to the suggestions of those who would
induce her to remain where she would still enjoy the comforts of life.
Nothing should separate her from her husband. "Entreat me not to leave
thee; where thou goest I will go, where thou diest I will die, and
there will I be buried."
And as the Dahcotah woman inquires of the justice of God, the faces of
her children rise up before her—first in health, with bright eyes and
lips parted with smiles, and then as she last saw them—their hands
white to transparency, the hue of death upon their features; the
shrouds, the little coffins, the cold lips, as she pressed them for the
The Dahcotah looked in astonishment at the grief which for a few moments
overcame the usual calmness of her kind friend; and as she wondered why,
like her, she should shed bitter tears, she heard herself thus
"Do not think that you alone have been unhappy. God afflicts all his
children. There is not a spot on the earth which is secure from sorrow.
Have I not told you why? This world is not your home or mine. Soon will
our bodies lie down in the earth—and we would forget this, if we were
"And you should not complain though your sorrows have been great. Do not
forget the crown of thorns which pressed the brow of the Saviour, the
cruel nails that pierced his hands and feet, the desertion of his
friends, his fear that God his Father had forsaken him. And remember
that after death the power of those who hated him ceased; the grave
received but could not keep his body. He rose from the dead, and went to
Heaven, where he has prepared a place for all who love him; for me and
mine, I trust, and for you too, if you are careful to please him by
serving him yourself, and by endeavoring to induce your friends to give
up their foolish and wicked superstitions, and to worship the true God
who made all things."
The Dahcotahs believe in the existence of a Great Spirit, but they have
very confused ideas of his attributes. Those who have lived near the
missionaries, say that the Great Spirit lived forever, but their own
minds would never have conceived such an idea. Some say that the Great
Spirit has a wife.
They say that this being created all things but thunder and wild rice;
and that he gave the earth and all animals to them, and that their
feasts and customs were the laws by which they are to be governed. But
they do not fear the anger of this deity after death.
Thunder is said to be a large bird; the name that they give to thunder
is the generic term for all animals that fly. Near the source of the St.
Peters is a place called Thunder-tracks—where the footprints of the
thunder-bird are seen in the rocks, twenty-five miles apart.
The Dahcotahs believe in an evil spirit as well as a good, but they do
not consider these spirits as opposed to each other; they do not think
that they are tempted to do wrong by this evil spirit; their own hearts
are bad. It would be impossible to put any limit to the number of
spirits in whom the Dahcotahs believe; every object in nature is full of
them. They attribute death as much to the power of these subordinate
spirits as to the Great Spirit; but most frequently they suppose death
to have been occasioned by a spell having been cast upon them by
The sun and moon are worshipped as emblems of their deity.
Sacrifice is a religious ceremony among them; but no missionary has yet
been able to find any reference to the one great Atonement made for sin;
none of their customs or traditions authorize any such connection. They
sacrifice to all the spirits; but they have a stone, painted red, which
they call Grandfather, and on or near this, they place their most
valuable articles, their buffalo robes, dogs, and even horses; and on
one occasion a father killed a child as a kind of sacrifice. They
frequently inflict severe bruises or cuts upon their bodies, thinking
thus to propitiate their gods.
The belief in an evil spirit is said by some not to be a part of the
religion of the Dahcotahs. They perhaps obtained this idea from the
whites. They have a far greater fear of the spirits of the dead,
especially those whom they have offended, than of Wahkon-tun-kah, the
* * * * *
One of the punishments they most dread is that of the body of an animal
entering theirs to make them sick. Some of the medicine men, the
priests, and the doctors of the Dahcotahs, seem to have an idea of the
immortality of the soul but intercourse with the whites may have
originated this. They know nothing of the resurrection.
They have no custom among them that indicates the belief that man's
heart should be holy. The faith in spirits, dreams, and charms, the fear
that some enemy, earthly or spiritual, may be secretly working their
destruction by a spell, is as much a part of their creed, as the
existence of the Great Spirit.
A good dream will raise their hopes of success in whatever they may be
undertaking to the highest pitch; a bad one will make them despair of
accomplishing it. Their religion is a superstition, including as few
elements of truth and reason as perhaps any other of which the
particulars are known. They worship they "know not what," and this from
the lowest motives.
When they go out to hunt, or on a war party, they pray to the Great
Spirit—"Father, help us to kill the buffalo." "Let us soon see
deer"—or, "Great Spirit help us to kill our enemies."
They have no hymns of praise to their Deity; they fast occasionally at
the time of their dances. When they dance in honor of the sun, they
refrain from eating for two days.
The Dahcotahs do not worship the work of their hands; but they consider
every object that the Great Spirit has made, from the highest mountain
to the smallest stone, as worthy of their idolatry.
They have a vague idea of a future state; many have dreamed of it. Some
of their medicine men pretend to have had revelations from bears and
other animals; and they thus learned that their future existence would
be but a continuation of this. They will go on long hunts and kill many
buffalo; bright fires will burn in their wigwams as they talk through
the long winter's night of the traditions of their ancients; their women
are to tan deer-skin for their mocassins, while their young children
learn to be brave warriors by attacking and destroying wasps' or
hornets' nests; they will celebrate the dog feast to show how brave they
are, and sing in triumph as they dance round the scalps of their
enemies. Such is the Heaven of the Dahcotahs! Almost every Indian has
the image of an animal or bird tattooed on his breast or arm, which can
charm away an evil spirit, or prevent his enemy from bringing trouble or
death upon him by a secret shot. The power of life rests with mortals,
especially with their medicine men; they believe that if an enemy be
shooting secretly at them, a spell or charm must be put in requisition
to counteract their power.
The medicine men or women, who are initiated into the secrets of their
wonderful medicines, (which secret is as sacred with them as
free-masonry is to its members) give the feast which they call the
Their medicine men, who profess to administer to the affairs of soul and
body are nothing more than jugglers, and are the worst men of the tribe:
yet from fear alone they claim the entire respect of the community.
There are numerous clans among the Dahcotahs each using a different
medicine, and no one knows what this medicine is but those who are
initiated into the mysteries of the medicine dance, whose celebration is
attended with the utmost ceremony.
A Dahcotah would die before he would divulge the secret of his clan. All
the different clans unite at the great medicine feast.
And from such errors as these must the Dahcotah turn if he would be a
Christian! And the heart of the missionary would faint within him at the
work which is before him, did he not remember who has said "Lo, I am
with you always!"
And it was long before the Indian woman could give up the creed of her
nation. The marks of the wounds in her face and arms will to the grave
bear witness of her belief in the faith of her fathers, which influenced
her in youth. Yet the subduing of her passions, the quiet performance of
her duties, the neatness of her person, and the order of her house, tell
of the influence of a better faith, which sanctifies the sorrows of this
life, and rejoices her with the hope of another and a better state of
But such instances are rare. These people have resisted as encroachments
upon their rights the efforts that have been made for their instruction.
Kindness and patience, however, have accomplished much, and during the
last year they have, in several instances, expressed a desire for the
aid and instructions of missionaries. They seem to wish them to live
among them; though formerly the lives of those who felt it their duty to
remain were in constant peril.
They depend more, too, upon what the ground yields them for food, and
have sought for assistance in ploughing it.
There are four schools sustained by the Dahcotah mission; in all there
are about one hundred and seventy children; the average attendance
The missionaries feel that they have accomplished something, and they
are encouraged to hope for still more. They have induced many of the
Dahcotahs to be more temperate; and although few, comparatively, attend
worship at the several stations, yet of those few some exhibit hopeful
signs of conversion.
There are five mission stations among the Dahcotahs; at "Lac qui parle,"
on the St. Peter's river, in sight of the beautiful lake from which the
station takes its name; at "Travers des Sioux" about eighty miles from
Fort Snelling; at Xapedun, Oak-grove, and Kapoja, the last three being
within a few miles of Fort Snelling.
There are many who think that the efforts of those engaged in
instructing the Dahcotahs are thrown away. They cannot conceive why men
of education, talent, and piety, should waste their time and attainments
upon a people who cannot appreciate their efforts. If the missionaries
reasoned on worldly principles, they would doubtless think so too; but
they devote the energies of soul and body to Him who made them for His
They are pioneers in religion; they show the path that others will walk
in far more easily at some future day; they undertake what others will
carry on,—what God himself will accomplish. They have willingly given
up the advantages of this life, to preach the gospel to the degraded
Dahcotahs. They are translating the Bible into Sioux; many of the books
are translated, and to their exertions it is owing that the praise of
God has been sung by the children of the forest in their own language.
However absurd may be the religion of the Dahcotahs, they are zealous in
their devotion to it. Nothing is allowed to interfere with it. Are their
women planting corn, which is to be in a great measure depended upon for
food during the next winter? whatever be the consequences, they stop to
celebrate a dance or a feast, either of which is a part of their
religion. How many Christians satisfy their consciences by devoting one
day of the week to God, feeling themselves thus justified in devoting
the other six entirely to the world! But it is altogether different with
the Dahcotahs, every act of their life is influenced by their religion,
such as it is.
They believe they are a great people, that their country is unrivalled
in beauty, their religion without fault. Many of the Dahcotahs, now
living near Fort Snelling, say that they have lived on the earth before
in some region far distant, that they died, and for a time their spirits
wandered through the world seeking the most beautiful and delightful
country to live in, and that after examining all parts of, the earth
they fixed upon the country of the Dahcotahs.
In fact, dreams, spells and superstitious fears, constitute a large part
of the belief of the Dahcotahs. But of all their superstitious notions
the most curious is the one which occasions the dance called
Ho-saw-kah-u-tap-pe, or Fish dance, where the fish is eaten raw.
Some days since, an Indian who lives at Shah-co-pee's village dreamed of
seeing a cormorant, a bird which feeds on fish. He was very much
alarmed, and directed his friend to go out and catch a fish, and to
bring the first one he caught to him.
The Indian did so, and the fish, which was a large pike, was painted
with blue clay. Preparations were immediately made to celebrate the Fish
dance, in order to ward off any danger of which the dream might have
been the omen.
A circle was formed of brush, on one side of which the Indians pitched
a wigwam. The war implements were then brought inside the ring, and a
pole stuck up in the centre, with the raw fish, painted blue, hung
The men then enter the ring, almost naked; their bodies painted black,
excepting the breast and arms, which are varied in color according to
the fancy of each individual.
Inside the ring is a bush for each dancer; in each bush a nest, made to
resemble a cormorant's nest; and outside the ring is an Indian
metamorphosed for the occasion into a wolf—that is, he has the skin of
a wolf drawn over him, and hoops fixed to his hands to enable him to run
easier on all fours; and in order to sustain the character which he has
assumed, he remains outside, lurking about for food.
All being ready, the medicine men inside the wigwam commence beating a
drum and singing. This is the signal for all the cormorants (Indians),
inside the ring, to commence quacking and dancing and using their arms
in imitation of wings, keeping up a continual flapping. Thus for some
time they dance up to and around the fish—when the bravest among them
will snap at the fish, and if he have good teeth will probably bite off
a piece, if not, he will slip his hold and flap off again.
Another will try his luck at this delicious food, and so they continue,
until they have made a beginning in the way of eating the fish. Then
each cormorant flaps up and takes a bite, and then flaps off to his
nest, in which the piece of fish is concealed, for fear the wolves
may get it.
After a while, the wolf is seen emerging from his retreat, painted so
hideously as to frighten away the Indian children. The cormorants
perceive the approach of the wolf, and a general quacking and flapping
takes place, each one rushing to his nest to secure his food.
This food each cormorant seizes and tries to swallow, flapping his wings
and stretching out his neck as a young bird will when fed by its mother.
After the most strenuous exertions they succeed in swallowing the raw
fish. While this is going on, the wolf seizes the opportunity to make a
snap at the remainder of the fish, seizes it with his teeth, and makes
his way out of the ring, as fast as he can, on all fours. The whole of
the fish, bones and all, must be swallowed; not the smallest portion of
it can be left, and the fish must only be touched by the mouth—never
with the hands. This dance is performed by the men alone—their war
implements must be sacred from the touch of women.
Such scenes are witnessed every day at the Dahcotah villages. The
missionary sighs as he sees how determined is their belief in such a
religion. Is it not a source of rejoicing to be the means of turning one
fellow-creature from a faith like this?
A few years ago and every Dahcotah woman reverenced the fish-dance as
holy and sacred—even too sacred for her to take a part in it. She
believed the medicine women could foretell future events; and, with an
injustice hardly to be accounted for, she would tell you it was lawful
to beat a girl as much as you chose, but a sin to strike a boy!
She gloried in dancing the scalp dance—aye, even exulted at the idea of
taking the life of an enemy herself.
But there are instances in which these things are all laid aside beneath
the light of Christianity; instances in which the poor Dahcotah woman
sees the folly, the wickedness of her former faith; blesses God who
inclined the missionary to leave his home and take up his abode in the
country of the savage; and sings to the praise of God in her own tongue
as she sits by the door of her wigwam. She smiles as she tells you that
her "face is dark, but that she hopes her heart has been changed; and
that she will one day sing in heaven, where the voices of the white
people and of the converted Dahcotahs, will mingle in a song of love to
Him 'who died for the whole world.'"