Storms in Life and Nature
UNKTAHE AND THE THUNDER BIRD
by Mary Eastman
Legends of the Sioux
"Ever," says Checkered Cloud, "will Unktahe, the god of the waters, and
Wahkeon, (Thunder,) do battle against each other. Sometimes the thunder
birds are conquerors—often the god of the waters chases his enemies
back to the distant clouds."
Many times, too, will the daughters of the nation go into the pathless
prairies to weep; it is their custom; and while there is sickness, and
want, and death, so long will they leave the haunts of men to weep where
none but the Great Spirit may witness their tears. It is only, they
believe, in the City of spirits, that the sorrows of Dahcotah women will
cease—there, will their tears be dried forever.
Many winters have passed away since Harpstenah brought the dead body of
her husband to his native village to be buried; my authority is the
"medicine woman," whose lodge, for many years, was to be seen on the
banks of Lake Calhoun.
This village is now deserted. The remains of a few houses are to be
seen, and the broken ground in which were planted the poles of their
teepees. Silence reigns where the merry laugh of the villagers often
met in chorus. The scene of the feast and dance is now covered with long
grass, but "desolation saddens all its green."
Dark and heavy clouds hung over the village of "Sleepy Eyes," one of the
chiefs of the Sioux. The thunder birds flapped their wings angrily as
they flew along, and where they hovered over the "Father of many
waters," the waves rose up, and heaved to and fro. Unktahe was eager to
fight against his ancient enemies; for as the storm spirits shrieked
wildly, the waters tossed above each other; the large forest trees were
uptorn from their roots, and fell over into the turbid waters, where
they lay powerless amid the scene of strife; and while the vivid
lightning pierced the darkness, peal after peal was echoed by the
One human figure was seen outside the many teepees that rose side by
side in the village. Sleepy Eyes alone dared to stand and gaze upon the
tempest which was triumphing over all the powers of nature. As the
lightning fell upon the tall form of the chief, he turned his keen
glance from the swift-flying clouds to the waters, where dwelt the god
whose anger he had ever been taught to fear. He longed, though
trembling, to see the countenance of the being whose appearance is the
sure warning of calamity. His superstitious fears told him to turn, lest
the deity should rise before him; while his native courage, and love of
the marvellous, chained him to the spot.
The storm raged wilder and louder—the driving wind scattered the hail
around him, and at length the chief raised the door of his teepee, and
joined his frightened household. Trembling and crouching to the ground
were the mothers and children, as the teepee shook from the force of the
wind. The young children hid their faces close against their mothers'
breasts. Every head was covered, to avoid the streaked lightning as it
glanced over the bent and terrified forms, that seemed to cling to the
earth for protection.
At the end of the village, almost on the edge of the high bluff that
towered above the river, rose a teepee, smaller than the rest. The open
door revealed the wasted form of Harpstenah, an aged woman.
Aged, but not with years! Evil had been the days of her pilgrimage.
The fire that had burned in the wigwam was all gone out, the dead ashes
lay in the centre, ever and anon scattered by the wind over the wretched
household articles that lay around. Gone out, too, were the flames that
once lighted with happiness the heart of Harpstenah.
The sorrows of earth, more pitiless than the winds of heaven, had
scattered forever the hopes that had made her a being of light and life.
The head that lies on the earth was once pillowed on the breast of the
lover of her youth. The arm that is heavily thrown from her once clasped
his children to her heart.
What if the rain pours in upon her, or the driving wind and hail scatter
her wild locks? She feels it not. Life is there, but the consciousness
of life is gone forever.
A heavier cloud hangs about her heart than that which darkens nature.
She fears not the thunder, nor sees the angry lightning. She has laid
upon the scaffold her youngest son, the last of the many ties that bound
her to earth.
One week before, her son entered the wigwam. He was not alone; his
comrade, "The Hail that Strikes," accompanied him.
Harpstenah had been tanning deer-skin near her door. She had planted two
poles firmly in the ground, and on them she had stretched the deer-skin.
With an iron instrument she constantly scraped the skin, throwing water
upon it. She had smoked it too, and now it was ready to make into
mocassins or leggins. She had determined, while she was tanning the
deer-skin, how she would embroider them. They should be richer and
handsomer even than those of their chief's son; nay, gayer than those
worn by the chief himself. She had beads and stained porcupine quills;
all were ready for her to sew.
The venison for the evening meal was cooked and placed in a wooden bowl
before the fire, when the two young men entered.
The son hardly noticed his mother's greeting, as he invited his friend
to partake of the venison. After eating, he filled his pipe, smoked, and
offered it to the other. They seemed inclined to waste but little time
in talking, for the pipe was put by, and they were about to leave the
teepee, when the son's steps were arrested by his mother's asking him if
he were going out again on a hunt. "There is food enough," she added,
"and I thought you would remain at home and prepare to join in the dance
of the sun, which will be celebrated to-morrow. You promised me to do
so, and a Dahcotah values his word."
The young man hesitated, for he loved his mother, and he knew it would
grieve her to be told the expedition upon which he was going.
The eyes of his comrade flashed fire, and his lip curled scornfully, as
he turned towards the son of Harpstenah. "Are you afraid to tell your
mother the truth," he said, "or do you fear the 'long knives' [Footnote:
Officers and soldiers are called long knives among the Sioux, from their
wearing swords.] will carry you a prisoner to their fort? I will tell
you where we are going," he added. "The Dahcotahs have bought us
whiskey, and we are going to meet them and help bring it up. And now
cry—you are a woman—but it is time for us to be gone."
The son lingered—he could not bear to see his mother's tears. He knew
the sorrows she had endured, he knew too (for she had often assured him)
that should harm come to him she would not survive it. The knife she
carried in her belt was ready to do its deadly work. She implored him to
stay, calling to his mind the deaths of his father and of his murdered
brothers; she bade him remember the tears they had shed together, and
the promises he had often made, never to add to the trials she
It was all in vain; for his friend, impatient to be gone, laughed at him
for listening to the words of his mother. "Is not a woman a dog?" he
said. "Do you intend to stay all night to hear your mother talk? If so,
tell me, that I may seek another comrade—one who fears neither a white
man nor a woman."
This appeal had its effect, for the young men left the teepee together.
They were soon out of sight, while Harpstenah sat weeping, and swaying
her body to and fro, lamenting the hour she was born. "There is no
sorrow in the land of spirits," she cried; "oh! that I were dead!"
The party left the village that night to procure the whiskey. They were
careful to keep watch for the Chippeways, so easy would it be for their
enemies to spring up from behind a tree, or to be concealed among the
bushes and long grass that skirted the open prairies. Day and night they
were on their guard; the chirping of the small bird by day, as well as
the hooting of an owl by night—either might be the feigned voice of a
tomahawked enemy. And as they approached St. Anthony's Falls, they had
still another cause for caution. Here their friends were to meet them
with the fire water. Here, too, they might see the soldiers from Fort
Snelling, who would snatch the untasted prize from their lips, and carry
them prisoners to the fort—a disgrace that would cling to them forever.
Concealed under a rock, they found the kegs of liquor, and, while
placing them in their canoes, they were joined by the Indians who had
been keeping guard over it, and at the same time watching for
In a few hours they were relieved of their fears. The flag that waved
from the tower at Fort Snelling, had been long out of sight. They kept
their canoes side by side, passing away the time in conversation.
The women who were paddling felt no fatigue. They knew that at night
they were to have a feast. Already the fires of the maddening drink had
made the blood in their dull veins course quickly. They anticipated the
excitement that would make them forget they had ever been cold or
hungry; and bring to them bright dreams of that world where sorrow
"We must be far on our journey to-night," said the Rattler; "the long
knives are ever on the watch for Dahcotahs with whiskey."
"The laws of the white people are very just," said an old man of the
party; "they let their people live near us and sell us whiskey, they
take our furs from us, and get much money. They have the right to
bring their liquor near us, and sell it, but if we buy it we are
punished. When I was young," he added, bitterly, "the Dahcotahs were
free; they went and came as they chose. There were no soldiers sent to
our villages to frighten our women and children, and to take our young
men prisoners. The Dahcotahs are all women now—there are no warriors
among them, or they would not submit to the power of the long knives."
"We must submit to them," said the Rattler; "it would be in vain to
attempt to contend with them. We have learned that the long knives can
work in the night. A few nights ago, some young men belonging to the
village of Marpuah Wechastah, had been drinking. They knew that the
Chippeway interpreter was away, and that his wife was alone. They went,
like cowards as they were, to frighten a woman. They yelled and sung,
they beat against her door, shouting and laughing when they found she
was afraid to come out. When they returned home it was just day; they
drank and slept till night, and then they assembled, four young men in
one teepee, to pass the night in drinking.
"The father of White Deer came to the teepee. 'My son,' said he, 'it is
better for you to stop drinking and go away. You have an uncle among the
Tetons, go and visit him. You brought the fire water here, you
frightened the wife of the Interpreter, and for this trouble you will be
punished. Your father is old, save him the disgrace of seeing his son a
prisoner at the Fort.'
"'Fear not, my father,' said the young man, 'your Son will never be a
prisoner. I wear a charm over my heart, which will ever make me free as
the wind. The white men cannot work in the night; they are sleeping
even now. We will have a merry night, and when the sun is high, and the
long knives come to seek me, you may laugh at them, and tell them to
follow me to the country of the Tetons.' The father left the teepee, and
White Deer struck the keg with his tomahawk. The fire water dulled their
senses, for they heard not their enemies until they were upon them.
"It was in the dead of night—all but the revellers slept—when the
soldiers from the fort surrounded the village.
"The mother of White Deer heard the barking of her dog. She looked out
of the door of her teepee. She saw nothing, for it was dark; but she
knew there was danger near.
"Our warriors, roused from their sleep, determined to find out the cause
of the alarm; they were thrust back into their teepees by the bayonets
of the long knives, and the voice of the Interpreter was heard, crying,
'The first Dahcotah that leaves his lodge shall be shot.'
"The soldiers found out from the old chief the teepee of the revellers.
The young men did not hear them as they approached; they were drinking
and shouting. White Deer had raised the cup to his lips, when the
soldier's grasp was upon him. It was too late for him to fly.
"There was an unopened keg of liquor in the teepee. The soldiers struck
it to pieces, and the fire water covered the ground.
"The hands of White Deer were bound with an iron chain; he threw from
him his clothes and his blanket. He was a prisoner, and needed not the
clothing of a Dahcotah, born free.
"The grey morning dawned as they entered the large door of the fort. His
old father soon followed him; he offered to stay, himself, as a
prisoner, if his young son could be set free.
"It is in vain, then, that we would contend with the white man; they
keep a watch over all our actions. They work in the night."
"The long knives will ever triumph, when the medicine men of our nation
speak as you do," said Two Stars. "I have lived near them always, and
have never been their prisoner. I have suffered from cold in the winter,
and have never asked clothing, and from hunger, and have never asked
food. My wife has never stood at the gate to ask bread, nor have my
daughters adorned themselves to attract the eyes of their young men. I
will live and die on the land of my forefathers, without asking a favor
of an enemy. They call themselves the friends of the Dahcotahs. They are
our friends when they want our lands or our furs.
"They are our worst enemies; they have trampled us under foot. We do not
chase the deer on the prairies as eagerly as they have hunted us down.
They steal from us our rights, and then gain us over by fair words. I
hate them; and had not our warriors turned women, and learned to fear
them, I would gladly climb their walls, and shout the war-cry in their
ears. The Great Spirit has indeed forsaken his children, when their
warriors and wise men talk of submission to their foes."
Well might Harpstenah sit in her lodge and weep. The sorrows of her life
passed in review before her. Yet she was once the belle of an Indian
village; no step so light, no laugh so merry as hers. She possessed too,
a spirit and a firmness not often found among women.
She was by birth the third daughter, who is always called Harpstenah
among the Sioux. Her sisters were married, and she had seen but fourteen
summers when old Cloudy Sky, the medicine man, came to her parents to
buy her for his wife.
They dared not refuse him, for they were afraid to offend a medicine
man, and a war chief besides. Cloudy Sky was willing to pay them well
for their child. So she was told that her fate for life was determined
upon. Her promised bridegroom had seen the snows of eighty winters.
It was a bright night in the "moon for strawberries." [Footnote: The
month of June.] Harpstenah had wept herself to sleep, and she had reason
too, for her young companions had laughed at her, and told her that she
was to have for a husband an old man without a nose. And it was true,
though Cloudy Sky could once have boasted of a fine aquiline. He had
been drinking freely, and picked a quarrel with one of his sworn
friends. After some preliminary blows, Cloudy Sky seized his antagonist
and cut his ear sadly, but in return he had his nose bitten off.
She had wept the more when her mother told her that in four days she was
to go to the teepee of her husband. It was in vain to contend. She lay
down beside the fire; deep sleep came upon her; she forgot the events of
the past day; for a time she ceased to think of the young man she loved,
and the old one she hated. In her dreams she had travelled a long
journey, and was seated on the river shore, to rest her tired limbs. The
red light of the dying sun illumined the prairies, she could not have
endured its scorching rays, were it not for the sheltering branches of
the tree under which she had found a resting-place.
The waters of the river beat against her feet. She would fain move, but
something chained her to the spot. She tried to call her mother, but her
lips were sealed, and her voice powerless. She would have turned her
face from the waters, but even this was impossible. Stronger and
stronger beat the waves, and then parted, revealing the dreaded form of
the fairy of the waters.
Harpstenah looked upon death as inevitable; she had ever feared that
terrible race of beings whose home was in the waters. And now the fairy
stood before her!
"Why do you tremble maiden? Only the wicked need fear the anger of the
gods You have never offended us, nor the spirits of the dead. You have
danced in the scalp-dance, and have reverenced the customs of the Sioux.
You have shed many tears. You love Red Deer, and your father has sold
you to Cloudy Sky, the medicine man. It is with you to marry the man you
love, or the one you hate."
"If you know everything," sighed the girl, "then you must know that in
four days I am to take my seat beside Cloudy Sky in his wigwam. He has
twice brought calico and cloth, and laid them at the door of my
"You shall not marry Cloudy Sky, if you have a strong heart, and fear
nothing," replied the fairy. The spirits of the water have determined on
the death of Cloudy Sky. He has already lived three times on earth. For
many years he wandered through the air with the sons of the thunder
bird; like them he was ever fighting against the friends of Unktahe.
"With his own hand he killed the son of that god, and for that was he
sent to earth to be a medicine man. But long ago we have said that the
time should come, when we would destroy him from the earth. It is for
you to take his life when he sleeps. Can a Dahcotah woman want courage
when she is to be forced to marry a man she hates?"
The waters closed over the fairy as he disappeared, and the waves beat
harder against Harpstenah's feet. She awoke with the words echoing in
her heart, "Can a Sioux woman want courage when she is to be forced to
marry a man she hates?" "The words of the fairy were wise and true,"
thought the maiden. "Our medicine-men say that the fairies of the water
are all wicked; that they are ever seeking to do harm to the Dahcotahs.
My dream has made my heart light. I will take the life of the war chief.
At the worst they can but take mine."
As she looked round the teepee, her eye rested upon the faces of her
parents. The bright moonlight had found its way into the teepee. There
lay her father, his haughty countenance calm and subdued, for the "image
of death" had chased away the impression left on his features of a
fierce struggle with a hard life. How often had he warned her of the
danger of offending Cloudy Sky, that sickness, famine, death itself,
might be the result. Her mother too, had wearied her with warnings. But
she remembered her dream, and with all a Sioux woman's faith in
revelations, she determined to let it influence her course.
Red Deer had often vowed to take the life of his rival, though he knew
it would have assuredly cost him his own. The family of Cloudy Sky was a
large one; there were many who would esteem it a sacred duty to avenge
his death. Besides he would gain nothing by it, for the parents of
Harpstenah would never consent to her marriage with the murderer of the
How often had Red Deer tried to induce the young girl to leave the
village, and return with him as his wife. "Have we not always loved each
other," he said. "When we were children, you made me mocassins, and
paddled the canoe for me, and I brought the wild duck, which I shot
while it was flying, to you. You promised me to be my wife, when I
should be a great hunter, and had brought to you the scalp of an enemy.
I have kept my promise, but you have broken yours."
"I know it," she replied; "but I fear to keep my word. They would kill
you, and the spirits of my dead brothers would haunt me for disobeying
my parents. Cloudy Sky says that if I do not marry him he will cast a
spell upon me; he says that the brightness would leave my eye, and the
color my cheek; that my step should be slow and weary, and soon would I
be laid in the earth beside my brothers. The spirit that should watch
beside my body would be offended for my sin in disobeying the counsel of
the aged. You, too, should die, he says, not by the tomahawk, as a
warrior should die, but by a lingering disease—fever should enter your
veins, your strength would soon be gone, you would no longer be able to
defend yourself from your enemies. Let me die, rather than bring such
trouble upon you."
Red Deer could not reply, for he believed that Cloudy Sky could do all
that he threatened. Nerved, then, by her devotion to her lover, her
hatred of Cloudy Sky, and her faith in her dream, Harpstenah determined
her heart should not fail her; she would obey the mandate of the water
god; she would bury her knife in the heart of the medicine man.
In their hours for eating, the Sioux accommodate themselves to
circumstances. If food be plenty, they eat three or four times a day; if
scarce, they eat but once. Sometimes they go without food for several
days, and often they are obliged to live for weeks on the bark of
trees, skins, or anything that will save them from dying of famine.
When game and corn are plenty, the kettle is always boiling, and they
are invariably hospitable and generous, always offering to a visitor
such as they have it in their power to give.
The stars were still keeping watch, when Harpstenah was called by her
mother to assist her. The father's morning meal was prepared early, for
he was going out to hunt. Wild duck, pigeons, and snipe, could be had in
abundance; the timid grouse, too, could be roused up on the prairies.
Larger game was there, too, for the deer flew swiftly past, and had even
stopped to drink on the opposite shore of the "Spirit Lake."
When they assembled to eat, the old man lifted up his hands—"May the
Great Spirit have mercy upon us, and give me good luck in hunting."
Meat and boiled corn were eaten from wooden bowls, and the father went
his way, leaving his wife and daughter to attend to their
Harpstenah was cutting wood near the lodge, when Cloudy Sky presented
himself. He went into the teepee and lighted his pipe, and then, seating
himself outside, began to smoke. He was, in truth, a sorry figure for a
bridegroom. Always repulsive in his looks, his present dress was not
calculated to improve him. He wore mourning for his enemy, whom he
His face was painted perfectly black; nothing but the whites of his eyes
relieved the universal darkness. His blanket was torn and old—his hair
unbraided, and on the top of his head he wore a knot of swan's down.
Every mark of grief or respect he could have shown a dead brother, he
now assumed in honor of the man whom he had hated—whose life he had
destroyed—who had belonged to the hateful tribe which had ever been the
enemy of his nation.
He looked very important as he puffed away, now watching Harpstenah, who
appeared to be unconscious of his presence, now fixing his eyes on her
mother, who was busily employed mending mocassins.
Having finished smoking; he used a fan which was attached to the other
end of his pipe-stem. It was a very warm day, and the perspiration that
was bursting from his forehead mingled with the black paint and slowly
found its way down his face.
"Where is your husband?" at length he asked of the mother.
"He saw a deer fly past this morning," she replied, "and he has gone to
seek it, that I may dry it."
"Does he come back to-night?"
"He does; he said you were to give a medicine feast to-morrow, and that
he would be here."
Harpstenah knew well why the medicine feast was to be given. Cloudy Sky
could not, according to the laws of the Sioux, throw off his mourning,
until he had killed an enemy or given a medicine dance. She knew that he
wanted to wear a new blanket, and plait his hair, and paint his face a
more becoming color. But she knew his looks could not be improved, and
she went on cutting wood, as unconcernedly as if the old war chief were
her grandfather, instead of her affianced husband. He might gain the
good will of her parents, he might even propitiate the spirits of the
dead: She would take his life, surely as the senseless wood yielded to
the strength of the arm that was cleaving it.
"You will be at the feast too," said Cloudy Sky to the mother; "you have
always foretold truly. There is not a woman in the band who can tell
what is going to happen as well as you. There is no nation so great as
the Dahcotah," continued the medicine man, as he saw several idlers
approach, and stretch themselves on the grass to listen to him. "There
is no nation so great as the Dahcotah—but our people are not so great
now as they were formerly. When our forefathers killed buffaloes on
these prairies, that the white people now ride across as if they were
their own, mighty giants lived among them; they strode over the widest
rivers, and the tallest trees; they could lay their hands upon the
highest hills, as they walked the earth. But they were not men of war.
They did not fight great battles, as do the Thunder Bird and
There were large animals, too, in those days; so large that the stoutest
of our warriors were but as children beside them. Their bones have been
preserved through many generations. They are sacred to us, and we keep
them because they will cure us when we are sick, and will save us
I have lived three times on earth. When my body was first laid upon the
scaffold, my spirit wandered through the air. I followed the Thunder
Birds as they darted among the clouds. When the heavens were black, and
the rain fell in big drops, and the streaked lightning frightened our
women and children, I was a warrior, fighting beside the sons of the
Unktahe rose up before us; sixty of his friends were with him: the
waters heaved and pitched, as the spirits left them to seek vengeance
against the Thunder Birds. They showed us their terrible horns, but they
tried to frighten us in vain. We were but forty; we flew towards them,
holding our shields before our breasts; the wind tore up the trees, and
threw down the teepees, as we passed along.
All day we fought; when we were tired we rested awhile, and then the
winds were still, and the sun showed himself from behind the dark
clouds. But soon our anger rose. The winds flew along swifter than the
eagle, as the Thunder Birds clapped their wings, and again we fought
against our foes.
The son of Unktahe came towards me; his eyes shone like fire, but I was
not afraid. I remembered I had been a Sioux warrior. He held his shield
before him, as he tried to strike me with his spear. I turned his shield
aside, and struck him to the heart.
He fell, and the waters whirled round as they received his body. The
sons of Unktahe shouted fearful cries of rage, but our yells of triumph
The water spirits shrank to their home, while we returned to the clouds.
The large rain drops fell slowly, and the bow of bright colors rested
between the heavens and the earth. The strife was over, and we were
conquerors. I know that Unktahe hates me—that he would kill me if he
could—but the Thunder bird has greater power than he; the friend of the
'Man of the West' [Footnote: Thunder is sometimes called the Man of the
West.] is safe from harm.
Harpstenah had ceased her work, and was listening to the boaster. "It
was all true," she said to herself; "the fairy of the water told me that
he had offended her race. I will do their bidding. Cloudy Sky may boast
of his power, but ere two nights have passed away, he will find he
cannot despise the anger of the water spirits, nor the courage of a
The approach of night brought with it but little inclination to sleep to
the excited girl. Her father slept, tired with the day's hunt; and her
mother dreamed of seeing her daughter the wife of a war chief and a
The village was built on the shores of the lake now known as Lake
Calhoun. By the light of the moon the teepees were reflected in its
waters. It was bright as day; so clear was the lake, that the agates
near the shore sparkled in its waters. The cry of the whippoorwill alone
disturbed the repose of nature, except when the wild scream of the loon
was heard as she gracefully swept the waters.
Seated on the shore, Harpstenah waited to hear the low whistle of her
lover. The villagers were almost all asleep, now and then the laugh of
some rioters was heard breaking in upon the stillness of night. She had
not seen her lover for many days; from the time that her marriage was
determined upon, the young warrior had kept aloof from her. She had
seized her opportunity to tell him that he must meet her where they had
often met, where none should know of their meeting. She told him to
come when the moon rose, as her father would be tired, and her mother
wished to sleep well before the medicine feast.
Many fears oppressed her heart, for he had not answered her when she
spoke to him, and he might not intend to come. Long she waited in vain,
and she now arose to return to the teepee, when the low signal met
She did not wait to hear it a second time, but made her way along the
shore: now her steps were printed in the wet sand, now planted on the
rocks near the shore; not a sound followed her movements until she stood
on the appointed place. The bright moonlight fell upon her features, and
her rich dress, as she waited with folded arms for her lover to address
her. Her okendokenda of bright colors was slightly open at the neck, and
revealed brooches of brass and silver that covered her bosom; a heavy
necklace of crimson beads hung around her throat; bracelets of brass
clasped her wrists, and her long plaited hair was ornamented at the end
of the braids with trinkets of silver.
Her cloth petticoat was richly decorated with ribbons, and her leggins
and mocassins proved that she had spent much time and labor on the
adorning of a person naturally well formed, and graceful.
"Why have you wished to meet me, Harpstenah?" said the young man,
gloomily. "Have you come to tell me of the presents Cloudy Sky has made
you, or do you wish to say that you are ashamed to break the promise you
made me to be my wife?"
"I have come to say again that I will be your wife," she replied: "and
for the presents Cloudy Sky left for me, I have trampled them under my
feet. See, I wear near my heart the brooches you have given me."
"Women are ever dogs and liars," said Red Deer, "but why do you speak
such words to me, when you know you have agreed to marry Cloudy Sky?
Your cousin told me your father had chosen him to carry you into the
teepee of the old man. Your father beat you, and you agreed to marry
him. You are a coward to mind a little pain. Go, marry the old medicine
man; he will beat you as he has his other wives; he may strike you with
his tomahawk and kill you, as he did his first wife; or he will sell you
to the traders, as he did the other; he will tell you to steal pork and
whiskey for him, and then when it is found out, he will take you and say
you are a thief, and that he has beaten you for it. Go, the young should
ever mate with the young, but you will soon lie on the scaffold, and by
his hand too."
"The proud eagle seeks to frighten the timid bird that follows it," said
the maiden; "but Red Deer should not speak such angry words to the woman
that will venture her life for him. Cloudy Sky boasts that he is the
friend of the thunder bird; in my dreams, I have seen the fairy of the
waters, and he told me that Cloudy Sky should die by my hand. My words
are true. Cloudy Sky was once with the sons of the thunder birds when
they fought against Unktahe. He killed a son of the water god, and the
spirits of the water have determined on his death.
"Red Deer, my heart is strong. I do not fear the medicine man, for the
power of Unktahe is greater than his. But you must go far away and visit
the Tetons; if you are here, they will accuse you of his death, and will
kill you. But as I have promised to marry him, no one will think that I
have murdered him. It will be long ere I see you again, but in the moon
that we gather wild rice, [Footnote: September] return, and I will be
your wife. Go, now," she added, "say to your mother that you are going
to visit your friends, and before the day comes be far away. To-morrow
Cloudy Sky gives a medicine feast, and to-morrow night Haokah will make
my heart strong, and I will kill the medicine man. His soul will travel
a long journey to the land of spirits. There let him drink, and boast,
and frighten women."
Red Deer heard her, mute with astonishment. The color mantled in her
cheek, and her determined countenance assured him that she was in
earnest. He charged her to remember the secret spells of the medicine
man. If she loved him it was far better to go with him now; they would
soon be out of the reach of her family. To this she would not listen,
and repeating to him her intention of executing all she had told him of,
she left him.
He watched her as she returned to her teepee; sometimes her form was
lost in the thick bushes, he could see her again as she made her way
along the pebbled shore, and when she had entered her teepee he
He collected his implements of war and hunting, and, telling his mother
he was going on a long journey, he left the village.
The feast given in honor of their medicine was celebrated the next day,
and Cloudy Sky was thus relieved of the necessity of wearing mourning
for his enemy.
His face was carefully washed of the black paint that disfigured it; his
hair, plentifully greased, was braided and ornamented. His leggins were
new, and his white blanket was marked according to Indian custom. On it
was painted a black hand, that all might know that he had killed his
enemy. But for all he did not look either young or handsome, and
Harpstenah's young friends were astonished that she witnessed the
preparations for her marriage with so much indifference.
But she was unconscious alike of their sympathy and ridicule; her soul
was occupied with the reflection that upon her energy depended her
future fate. Never did her spirit shrink from its appointed task. Nor
was she entirely governed by selfish motives; she believed herself an
instrument in the hand of the gods.
Mechanically she performed her ordinary duties. The wood was cut and the
evening meal was, cooked; afterwards she cut down branches of trees, and
swept the wigwam. In the evening, the villagers had assembled on the
shores of the lake to enjoy the cool air after the heat of the day.
Hours passed away as gossipping and amusement engaged them all. At
length they entered their teepees to seek rest, and Harpstenah and her
mother were the last at the door of their teepee, where a group had been
seated on the ground, discussing their own and others' affairs. "No harm
can come to you, my daughter, when you are the wife of so great a
medicine man. If any one hate you and wish to do you an injury, Cloudy
Sky will destroy their power. Has he not lived with the Thunder Birds,
did he not learn from them to cure the sick, and to destroy his enemies?
He is a great warrior too."
"I know it, my mother," replied the girl, "but we have sat long in the
moonlight, the wind that stirred the waters of the spirit lake is gone.
I must sleep, that I may be ready to dress myself when you call me. My
hair must be braided in many braids, and the strings are not yet sewed
to my mocassins. You too are tired; let us go in and sleep."
Sleep came to the mother—to the daughter courage and energy. Not in
vain had she prayed to Haokah the Giant, to give her power to perform a
great deed. Assured that her parents were sleeping heavily, she rose and
sought the lodge of the medicine man.
When she reached the teepee, she stopped involuntarily before the door,
near which hung, on a pole, the medicine bag of the old man. The
medicine known only to the clan had been preserved for ages. Sacred had
it ever been from the touch of woman. It was placed there to guard the
medicine man from evil, and to bring punishment on those who sought to
do him harm. Harpstenah's strength failed her. What was she about to do?
Could she provoke with impunity the anger of the spirits of the dead?
Would not the Great Spirit bring terrible vengeance upon her head. Ready
to sink to the earth with terror, the words of the fairy of the waters
reassured her. "Can a Dahcotah woman want courage when she is to be
forced to marry a man she hates?"
The tumult within is stilled—the strong beating of her heart has
ceased—her hand is upon the handle of her knife, as the moonlight falls
upon its glittering blade.
Too glorious a night for so dark a deed! See! they are confronted, the
old man and the maiden! The tyrant and his victim; the slave dealer and
the noble soul he had trafficked for!
Pale, but firm with high resolve, the girl looked for one moment at the
man she had feared—whose looks had checked her childish mirth, whose
anger she had been taught to dread, even to the sacrificing of her
heart's best hopes.
Restlessly the old man slept; perchance he saw the piercing eyes that
were, fixed upon him, for he muttered of the road to the land of
spirits. Listen to him, as he boasts of the warrior's work.
"Many brave men have made this road. The friend of the Thunder Birds was
worthy. Strike the woman who would dare assist a warrior. Strike—"
"Deep in his heart she plunged the ready steel," and she drew it out,
the life blood came quickly. She alone heard his dying groan.
She left the teepee—her work was done. It was easy to wash the stains
on her knife in the waters of the lake.
When her mother arose, she looked at the pale countenance of her
daughter. In vain she sought to understand her muttered words.
Harpstenah, as she tried to sleep, fancied she heard the wild laugh of
the water spirits. Clouds had obscured the moon, and distant thunder
rolled along the sky; and, roused by the clamorous grief of the many
women assembled in the lodge, she heard from them of the dark tragedy in
which she had been the principal actor.
The murderer was not to be found. Red Deer was known to be far away. It
only remained to bury Cloudy Sky, with all the honors due to a
Harpstenah joined in the weeping of the mourners—the fountains of a
Sioux woman's tears are easily unlocked. She threw her blanket upon the
Many were the rich presents made to the inanimate clay which yesterday
influenced those who still trembled lest the spirit of the dead
war-chief would haunt them. The richest cloth enrobed his body, and, a
short distance from the village, he was placed upon a scaffold.
Food was placed beside him; it would be long before his soul would reach
the city of spirits; his strength would fail him, were it not for the
refreshment of the tender flesh of the wild deer he had loved to chase,
and the cooling waters he had drank on earth, for many, many winters.
But after the death of Cloudy Sky, the heart of Harpstenah grew light.
She joined again in the ball plays on the prairies. It needed no
vermilion on her cheek to show the brightness of her eye, for the flush
of hope and happiness was there.
The dark deed was forgotten; and when, in the time that the leaves began
to fall, they prepared the wild rice for winter's use, Red Deer was
at her side.
He was a good hunter, and the parents were old. Red Deer ever kept them
supplied with game—and winter found her a wife, and a happy one too;
for Red Deer loved her in very truth—and the secret of the death of the
medicine man was buried in their hearts.
Ten years had passed away since their marriage, and Red Deer had never
brought another wife to his teepee. Harpstenah was without a rival in
his affections, if we except the three strong boys who were growing up
Chaskè (the oldest son) could hunt for his mother, and it was well that
he could, for his father's strength was gone. Consumption wasted his
limbs, and the once powerful arm could not now support his
The father and mother had followed Cloudy Sky to the world of spirits;
they were both anxious to depart from earth, for age had made them
feeble, and the hardships of ninety years made them eager to have their
strength renewed, in the country where their ancestors were still in the
vigor of early youth. The band at Lake Calhoun were going on a hunt for
porcupines; a long hunt, and Harpstenah tried to deter her husband from
attempting the journey; but he thought the animating exercise of the
chase would be a restorative to his feeble frame, and they set out
with the rest.
When the hunters had obtained a large number of those valued animals,
the women struck their teepees and prepared for their return.
Harpstenah's lodge alone remained, for in it lay the dying man—by his
side his patient wife. The play of the children had ceased—they watched
with silent awe the pale face and bright eye of their father—they heard
him charge their mother to place food that his soul might be refreshed
on its long journey. Not a tear dimmed her eye as she promised all
"There is one thing, my wife," he said, "which still keeps my spirit on
earth. My soul cannot travel the road to the city of spirits—that long
road made by the bravest of our warriors—while it remembers the body
which it has so long inhabited shall be buried far from its native
village. Your words were wise when you told me I had not strength to
travel so far, and now my body must lie far from my home—far from the
place of my birth—from the village where I have danced the dog feast,
and from the shores of the 'spirit lakes' where my father taught me to
use my bow and arrow."
"Your body shall lie on the scaffold near your native village," his wife
replied. "When I turn from this place, I will take with me my husband;
and my young children shall walk by my side. My heart is as brave now as
it was when I took the life of the medicine man. The love that gave me
courage then, will give me strength now. Fear not for me; my limbs will
not be weary, and when the Great Spirit calls me, I will hear his voice,
and follow you to the land of spirits, where there will be no more
sickness nor trouble."
Many stars shone out that night; they assisted in the solemn and the
sacred watch. The mother looked at the faces of her sleeping sons, and
listened to their heavy breathing; they had but started on the
journey of life.
She turned to her husband: it was but the wreck of a deserted house, the
tenant had departed.
The warrior was already far on his journey; ere this, he had reached the
lodge where the freed spirit adorns itself ere entering upon its
Some days after, Harpstenah entered her native village, bearing a
precious burden. Strapped to her back was the body of her husband. By
day, she had borne it all the weary way; at night, she had stopped to
rest and to weep. Nor did her strength fail her, until she reached her
home; then, insensible to sorrow and fatigue, she sunk to the earth.
The women relieved her from the burden, and afterwards helped her to
bury her dead.
Many waters could not quench her love, nor could the floods drown it. It
was strong as death.
Well might she sit in her lodge and weep! The village where she passed
her childhood and youth was deserted. Her husband forgotten by all but
herself. Her two sons were murdered by the Chippeways, while defending
their mother and their young brother.
Well might she weep! and tremble too, for death among the Dahcotahs
comes as often by the fire water purchased from the white people, as
from the murderous tomahawk and scalping-knife of the Chippeways.
Nor were her fears useless; she never again saw her son, until his body
was brought to her, his dark features stiff in death. The death blow was
given, too, by the friend who had shamed him from listening to his
* * * * *
What wonder that she should not heed the noise of the tempest! The
storms of her life had been fiercer than the warring of the elements.
But while the fountains of heaven were unsealed, those of her heart were
closed forever. Never more should tears relieve her, who had shed so
many. Often had she gone into the prairies to weep, far from the sight
of her companions. Her voice was heard from a distance. The wind would
waft the melancholy sound back to the village.
"It is only Harpstenah," said the women. "She has gone to the prairies
to weep for her husband and her children."
The storm raged during the night, but ceased with the coming of day. The
widowed wife and childless mother was found dead under the scaffold
where lay the body of her son.
The Thunder Bird was avenged for the death of his friend. The strength
of Red Deer had wasted under a lingering disease; his children were
dead; their mother lay beside her youngest son.
The spirit of the waters had not appeared in vain. When the countenance
of Unktahe rests upon a Dahcotah, it is the sure prognostic of coming
evil. The fury of the storm spirits was spent when the soul of
Harpstenah followed her lost ones.
* * * * *
Dimly, as the lengthened shadows of evening fall around them, are seen
the outstretched arms of the suffering Dahcotah women, as they appeal
to us for assistance—and not to proud man!
He, in the halls of legislation, decides when the lands of the red man
are needed—one party makes a bargain which the other is forced
But in a woman's heart God has placed sympathies to which the sorrows of
the Dahcotah women appeal. Listen! for they tell you they would fain
know of a balm for the many griefs they endure; they would be taught to
avoid the many sins they commit; and, oh! how gladly would many of them
have their young children accustomed to shudder at the sight of a fellow
creature's blood. Like us, they pour out the best affections of early
youth on a beloved object. Like us, they have clasped their children to
their hearts in devoted love. Like us, too, they have wept as they laid
them in the quiet earth.
But they must fiercely grapple with trials which we have never
conceived. Winter after winter passes, and they perish from disease, and
murder, and famine.
There is a way to relieve them—would you know it? Assist the
missionaries who are giving their lives to them and God. Send them
money, that they may clothe the feeble infant, and feed its
Send them money, that they may supply the wants of those who are sent to
school, and thus encourage others to attend.
As the day of these forgotten ones is passing away, so is ours. They
were born to suffer, we to relieve. Let their deathless souls be taught
the way of life, that they and we, after the harsh discords of earth
shall have ceased, may listen together to the "harmonies of Heaven."