The Dance to the Giant, by Mary
Legends of the Sioux
The dance to the Giant is now rarely celebrated among the Dahcotahs. So
severe is the sacrifice to this deity, that there are few who have
courage to attempt it; and yet Haokah is universally reverenced and
feared among the Sioux.
They believe in the existence of many Giants, but Haokah is one of the
principal. He is styled the anti-natural god. In summer he feels cold,
in winter he suffers from the heat; hot water is cold to him, and
The Dahcotah warrior, however brave he may be, believes that when he
dreams of Haokah, calamity is impending and can only be avoided by some
sort of sacrifice to this god.
The incident on which this story is founded, occurred while I resided
among the Sioux. I allude to the desertion of Wenona by her lover. It
serves to show the blind and ignorant devotion of the Dahcotah to
And as man is ever alike in every country, and under every circumstance
of life—as he often from selfish motives tramples upon the heart that
trusts him—so does woman utterly condemn a sister, feeling no sympathy
for her sorrow, but only hatred of her fault.
Jealous for the honor of the long-reverenced feasts of the
Dahcotahs—the "Deer Killer" thought not for a moment of the sorrow and
disgrace he would bring upon Wenona, while Wauska loved the warrior more
than ever, triumphing in his preference of her, above her companion.
A cloud came o'er the prospect of her life,
And evening did set in
Early, and dark and deadly.
But she loved too truly to be jealous, and departed without the revenge
that most Indian women would have sought, and accomplished too. Her
silence on the subject of her early trial induced her friends to believe
that her mind was affected, a situation caused by long and intense
suffering, and followed by neglect; in such cases the invalid is said to
have no heart.
The girl from whom I have attempted to draw the character of Wauska, I
Good looking, with teeth like pearls, her laugh was perfect music. Often
have I been roused from my sewing or reading, by hearing the ringing
notes, as they were answered by the children. She generally announced
herself by a laugh, and was welcomed by one in return.
She was pettish withal, and easily offended, and if refused calico for
an okendokenda, or beads, or ribbon to ornament some part of her dress,
she would sullenly rest her chin on her hand, until pacified with a
present, or the promise of one.
It is in Indian life as in ours—youth believes and trusts, and
advancing years bring the consciousness of the trials of life; the
necessity of enduring, and in some cases the power to overcome them. Who
but she who suffers it, can conceive the Sioux woman's greatest
trial—to feel that the love that is her right, is gone! to see another
take the place by the household fire, that was hers; to be last where
she was first.
It may require some apology that Wauska should have vowed destruction
upon herself if the Deer Killer took another wife, and yet should have
lived on and become that most unromantic of all characters—a virago.
She was reconciled in time to what was inevitable, and as there are many
wives among the Sioux, there must be the proportion of scolding ones. So
I plead guilty to the charge of wanting sentiment, choosing rather to be
true to nature. And there is this consideration: if there be among the
Dahcotahs some Catharines, there are many Petruchios.
* * * * *
A group of Indian girls were seated on the grass, Wauska in the centre,
her merry musical laugh echoed back by all but Wenona. The leaves of the
large forest tree under which they were sheltered seemed to vibrate to
the joyous sounds, stirred as they were by a light breeze that blew from
the St. Peter's. Hark! they laugh again, and "old John" wakes up from
his noon-day nap and turns a curious, reproving look to the noisy party,
and Shah-co-pee, the orator of the Sioux, moves towards them, anxious to
find out the cause of their mirth.
"Old John," after a hearty stretch, joins them too, and now the fumes
of the pipe ascend, and mix with the odor of the sweet-scented prairie
grass that the young girls are braiding.
But neither Shah-co-pee the chief, nor old John the medicine man, could
find out the secret; they coaxed and threatened in turns—but all in
vain, for their curiosity was not gratified. They might have noticed,
however, that Wenona's face was pale, and her eyes red with weeping. She
was idle too, while the others plaited busily, and there was a subdued
look of sadness about her countenance, contrasting strangely with the
merry faces of the others.
"Why did you not tell Shah-co-pee what we were laughing at, Wenona?"
said Wanska. "Your secret is known now. The Deer-killer told all at the
Virgin's feast. Why did you not make him promise not to come? If I had
been you, I would have lain sick the day of the feast, I would have
struck my foot, so that I could not walk, or, I would have died before I
entered the ring.
"The Deer-killer promised to marry me," replied Wenona. "He said that
when he returned from his hunt I should be his wife. But I know well why
he has disgraced me; you have tried to make him love you, and now he is
waiting to take you to his lodge. He is not a great warrior, or he would
have kept his word."
"Wenona!" said Wanska, interrupting her, "you have not minded the advice
of your grandmother. She told you never to trust the promises of the
bravest warriors. You should not have believed his words, until he took
you to his wigwam. But do not be afraid that I will marry the
Deer-killer. There was never but one woman among the Dahcotahs who did
not marry, and I am going to be the second."
"You had better hush, Wanska," said the Bright Star. "You know she had
her nose cut off because she refused to be a wife, and somebody may cut
yours off too. It is better to be the mother of warriors than to have
every one laughing at you."
"Enah! then I will be married, rather than have my nose cut off, but I
will not be the Deer-killer's wife. So Wenona may stop crying."
"He says he will never marry me," said Wenona; "and it will do me no
good for you to refuse to be his wife. But you are a liar, like him; for
you know you love him. I am going far away, and the man who has broken
his faith to the maiden who trusted him, will never be a good husband."
"If I were Wenona, and you married the Deer-killer," said the Bright
Star to Wanska, "you should not live long after it. She is a coward or
she would not let you laugh at her as you did. I believe she has no
heart since the Virgin's feast; sometimes she laughs so loud that we
can hear her from our teepee, and then she bends her head and weeps.
When her mother places food before her she says, 'Will he bring the meat
of the young deer for me to dress for him, and will my lodge be ever
full of food, that I may offer it to the hungry and weary stranger who
stops to rest himself?' If I were in her place, Wanska," added the
Bright Star, "I would try and be a medicine woman, and I would throw a
spell upon the Deer-killer, and upon you too, if you married him."
"The Deer-killer is coming," said another of the girls. "He has been
watching us; and now that he sees Wenona has gone away, he is coming to
talk to Wanska. He wears many eagle feathers: Wenona may well weep that
she cannot be his wife, for there is not a warrior in the village who
steps so proudly as he."
But he advanced and passed them indifferently. By and by they separated,
when he followed Wanska to her father's teepee.
Her mother and father had gone to dispose of game in exchange for bread
and flour, and the Deer-killer seated himself uninvited on the floor of
"The teepee of the warrior is lonely when he returns from hunting," said
he to the maiden. "Wanska must come to the lodge of the Deer-killer. She
shall ever have the tender flesh of the deer and buffalo to refresh her,
and no other wife shall be there to make her unhappy."
"Wanska is very happy now," she replied. "Her father is a good hunter.
He has gone to-day to carry ducks and pigeons to the Fort. The promises
of the Deer-killer are like the branch that breaks in my hand. Wenona's
face is pale, and her eyes are red like blood from weeping. The
Deer-killer promised to make her his wife, and now that he has broken
his word to her, he tells Wanska that he will never take another wife,
but she cannot trust him."
"Wanska was well named the Merry Heart," the warrior replied; "she
laughs at Wenona and calls her a fool, and then she wishes me to marry
her. Who would listen to a woman's words? And yet the voice of the Merry
Heart is sweeter than a bird's—her laugh makes my spirit glad. When she
sits in my lodge and sings to the children who will call me father, I
shall be happy. Many women have loved the Deer-killer, but never has he
cared to sit beside one, till he heard the voice of Wanska as she sang
in the scalp-dance, and saw her bear the scalp of her enemy upon her
Wanska's face was pale while she listened to him. She approached him,
and laid her small hand upon his arm—"I have heard your words, and my
heart says they are good. I have loved you ever since we were children.
When I was told that you were always by the side of Wenona, the laugh of
my companions was hateful to me—the light of the sun was darkness to my
eyes. When Wenona returned to her village with her parents, I said in
the presence of the Great Spirit that she should not live after you had
made her your wife. But her looks told me that there was sadness in her
heart, and then I knew you could not love her.
"You promise me you will never bring another wife to your wigwam.
Deer-killer! the wife of the white man is happy, for her husband loves
her alone. The children of the second wife do not mock the woman who is
no longer beloved, nor strike her children before her eyes. When I am
your wife I shall be happy while you love me; there will be no night in
my teepee while I know your heart is faithful and true; but should you
break your word to me, and bring to your lodge another wife, you shall
see me no more, and the voice whose sound is music to your ears you will
never hear again."
Promises come as readily to the lips of an Indian lover as trustfulness
does to the heart of the woman who listens to them; and the Deer-killer
Wanska had been often at the Fort, and she had seen the difference
between the life of a white and that of an Indian woman. She had thought
that the Great Spirit was unmindful of the cares of his children.
And who would have thought that care was known to Wanska, with her merry
laugh, and her never-ceasing jokes, whether played upon her young
companions, or on the old medicine man who kept everybody but her in
awe of him.
She seemed to be everywhere too, at the same time. Her canoe dances
lightly over the St. Peter's, and her companions try in vain to keep up
with her. Soon her clear voice is heard as she sings, keeping time with
the strokes of the axe she uses so skilfully. A peal of laughter rouses
the old woman, her mother, who goes to bring the truant home, but she is
gone, and when she returns, in time to see the red sun fade away in the
bright horizon, she tells her mother that she went out with two or three
other girls, to assist the hunters in bringing in the deer they had
killed. And her mother for once does not scold, for she remembers how
she used to love to wander on the prairies, when her heart was as light
and happy as her child's.
When Wanska was told that the Deer-killer loved Wenona, no one heard her
sighs, and for tears, she was too proud to shed any. Wenona's fault had
met with ridicule and contempt; there was neither sympathy nor excuse
found for her. And now that the Deer-killer had slighted Wenona, and had
promised to love her alone, there was nothing wanting to her happiness.
Bright tears of joy fell from her eyes when her lover said there was a
spell over him when he loved Wenona, but now his spirit was free; that
he would ever love her truly, and that when her parents returned he
would bring rich presents and lay them at the door of the lodge.
Wanska was indeed "the Merry Heart," for she loved the Deer-killer more
than life itself, and life was to her a long perspective of brightness.
She would lightly tread the journey of existence by his side, and when
wearied with the joys of this world, they would together travel the road
that leads to the Heaven of the Dahcotahs.
She sat dreaming of the future after the Deer-killer had left her, nor
knew of her parents' return until she heard her mother's sharp voice as
she asked her "if the corn would boil when the fire was out, and where
was the bread that she was told to have ready on their return?"
Bread and corn! when Wanska had forgot all but that she was beloved. She
arose quickly, and her light laugh drowned her mother's scolding. Soon
her good humor was infectious, for her mother told her that she had
needles and thread in plenty, besides more flour and sugar, and that her
father was going out early in the morning to kill more game for the Long
Knives who loved it so well.
A few months ago, the Deer-killer had told Wenona that Wanska was noisy
and tiresome, and that her soft dark eyes were far more beautiful than
Wanska's laughing ones. They were not at home then, for Wenona had
accompanied her parents on a visit to some relations who lived far above
the village of Shah-co-pee.
While there the Deer-killer came in with some warriors who had been on a
war party; there Wenona was assured that her rival, the Merry Heart, was
And well might the Deer-killer and Wenona have loved each other. "Youth
turns to youth as the flower to the sun," and he was brave and noble in
his pride and power; and she, gentle and loving, though an Indian woman;
so quiet too, and all unlike Wanska, who was the noisiest little gossip
in the village.
Often had they wandered together through the "solemn temples of the
earth," nor did she ever fear, with the warrior child for a protector.
She had followed him when he ascended the cliffs where the tracks of the
eagle were seen; and with him she felt safe when the wind was tossing
their canoe on the Mississippi, when the storm spirits had arisen in
their power. They were still children when Wenona would know his step
among many others, but they were no longer children when Wenona left
Shah-co-pee's village, for she loved with a woman's devotion—and more
than loved. She had trembled when she saw the Deer-killer watch Wanska
as she tripped merrily about the village. Sleeping or waking, his image
was ever before her; he was the idol to which her spirit bowed, the sun
of her little world.
The dance to the giant was to be celebrated at the village where they
were visiting; the father of Wenona and "Old John" the medicine man,
were to join in it. The maiden had been nothing loth to undertake the
journey, for the Deer-killer had gone on a war party against the
Chippeways, and she thought that in the course of their journey they
might meet him—and when away from Wanska, he would return to her side.
He could not despise the love she had given him. Hope, that bright star
of youth, hovered over her, and its light was reflected on her heart.
When they arrived at the village of the chief Markeda, or "Burning
Earth," the haughty brow of the chief was subdued with care. He had
dreamed of Haokah the giant, and he knew there was sorrow or danger
threatening him. He had sinned against the giant, and what might be the
consequence of offending him? Was his powerful arm to be laid low, and
the strong pulse to cease its beatings? Did his dream portend the loss
of his young wife? She was almost as dear to him as the fleet hunter
that bore him to the chase.
It might be that the angry god would send their enemies among them, and
his tall sons would gladden his sight no more. Sickness and hunger,
phantom-like, haunted his waking and sleeping hours.
There was one hope; he might yet ward off the danger, for the uplifted
arm of the god had not fallen. He hoped to appease the anger of the
giant by dancing in his honor.
"We have travelled far," said old John the medicine man, to Markeda,
"and are tired. When we have slept we will dance with you, for we are of
the giant's party."
"Great is Haokah, the giant of the Dahcotahs," the chief replied; "it is
a long time since we have danced to him."
"I had been hunting with my warriors, we chased the buffalo, and our
arrows pierced their sides; they turned upon us, bellowing, their heads
beating the ground; their terrible eyes glared upon us even in death;
they rolled in the dust, for their strength was gone. We brought them to
the village for our women to prepare for us when we should need them. I
had eaten and was refreshed; and, tired as my limbs were, I could not
sleep at first, but at last the fire grew dim before my eyes, and
"I stood on the prairie alone, in my dream, and the giant appeared
before me. So tall was he that the clouds seemed to float about his
head. I trembled at the sound of his voice, it was as if the angry winds
were loosed upon the earth.
"'The warriors of the Dahcotahs are turned women,' said he; 'that they
no longer dance in honor of the giant, nor sing his songs. Markeda is
not a coward, but let him tremble; he is not a child, but he may shed
tears if the anger of the giant comes upon him.'
"Glad was I when I woke from my dream—and now, lest I am punished for
my sins, I will make a sacrifice to the giant. Should I not fear him who
is so powerful? Can he not take the thunder in his hand and cast it to
"The heart of the warrior should be brave when he dances to the giant.
My wigwam is ready, and the friends of the giant are ready also."
"Give me your mocassins," said the young wife of Markeda to old John;
"they are torn, and I will mend them. You have come from afar, and are
welcome. Sleep, and when you awake, you will find them beside you." As
she assisted him to take them off, the medicine man looked admiringly
into her face. "The young wife of Markeda is as beautiful as the white
flowers that spring up on the prairies. Her husband would mourn for her
if the giant should close her eyes. They are bright now, as the stars,
but death would dim them, should not the anger of the giant be
The "Bounding Fawn" turned pale at the mention of the angry giant; she
sat down, without replying, to her work; wondering the while, if the
soul of her early love thought of her, now that it wandered in the
Spirit's land. It might be that he would love her again when they should
meet there. The sound of her child's voice, awakening out of sleep,
aroused her, and called to her mind who was its father.
"They tore me away from my lover, and made me come to the teepee of the
chief," was her bitter reflection. "Enah! that I cannot love the father
of my child."
She rose and left the teepee. "Where is the heaven of the Dahcotahs,"
she murmured, as she looked up to the silent stars. "It may be that I
shall see him again. He will love my child too, and I will forget the
many tears I have shed."
The dance to the Giant is always performed inside the wigwam. Early in
the morning the dancers were assembled in the chief's lodge. Their dress
was such as is appointed for the occasion. Their hats were made of the
bark of trees, such as tradition says the Giant wears. They were large,
and made forked like the lightning. Their leggins were made of skins.
Their ear-rings were of the bark of trees, and were about one foot long.
The chief rose ere the dawn of day, and stood before the fire. As the
flames flickered, and the shadows of the dancers played fantastically
about the wigwam, they looked more like Lucifer and a party of attendant
spirits, than like human beings worshipping their God.
Markeda stood by the fire without noticing his guests, who awaited his
motions in silence. At last, moving slowly, he placed a kettle of water
on the fire, and then threw into it a large piece of buffalo meat.
Lighting his pipe, he seated himself, and then the dancers advanced to
the fire and lit theirs; and soon they were enveloped in a cloud
When the water began to boil, the Indians arose, and, dancing round the
fire, imitated the voice of the Giant.
"Hah-hah! hah hah!" they sung, and each endeavored to drown the voice of
the other. Now they crouch as they dance, looking diminutive and
contemptible, as those who are degrading themselves in their most sacred
duties. Then they rise up, and show their full height. Stalwart warriors
as they are, their keen eyes flash as they glance from the fire to each
others' faces, distorted with the effort of uttering such discordant
sounds. Now their broad chests heave with the exertion, and their breath
They seat themselves, to rest and smoke. Again the hellish sounds are
heard, and the wife of the chief trembles for fear of the Giant, and her
child clings closer to her breast. The water boils, and, hissing, falls
over into the fire, the flames are darkened for a moment, and then burst
up brighter than before.
Markeda addresses the dancers—"Warriors! the Giant is powerful—the
water which boils before us will be cold when touched by a friend of the
Giant. Haokah will not that his friends should suffer when offering him
The warriors then advanced together, and each one puts his hand into the
kettle and takes the meat from the boiling water; and although suffering
from the scalds produced, yet their calmness in enduring the pain, would
induce the belief that the water really felt to them cool and pleasant.
The meat is then taken out, and put into a wooden dish, and the water
left boiling on the fire. The dancers eat the meat while hot, and again
they arrange themselves to dance. And now, the mighty power of the Giant
is shown, for Markeda advances to the kettle, and taking some water out
of it he throws it upon his bare back, singing all the while, "The
water is cold."
"Old John" advances and does the same, followed by the next in turn,
until the water is exhausted from the kettle, and then the warriors
exclaim, "How great is the power of Haokah! we have thrown boiling water
upon ourselves and we have not been scalded."
The dance is over—the sacrifice is made. Markeda seeks his young wife
and fears not. He had fancied that her cheeks were pale of late, but now
they are flushed brilliantly, his heart is at rest.
The warriors disperse, all but the medicine man, and the chief's store
of buffalo meat diminishes rapidly under the magic touch of the epicure.
Yes! an epicure thou wert old John! for I mind me well when thou camest
at dinner time, and how thou saidst thou couldst eat the food of the
Indian when thou wert hungry, but the food of the white man was better
far. And thou! a Dahcotah warrior, a famous hunter, and a medicine man.
Shame! that thou shouldst have loved venison dressed with wine more than
when the tender meat was cooked according to the taste of the women of
thy nation. I have forgotten thy Indian name, renegade as thou wert! but
thou answerest as well to "old John!"
Thou art now forgotten clay, though strong and vigorous when in wisdom
the Sioux were punished for a fault they did not commit. Their money was
not paid them—their provisions were withheld. Many were laid low, and
thou hast found before now that God is the Great Spirit, and the Giant
Haokah is not.
And it may be that thou wouldst fain have those thou hast left on earth
know of His power, who is above all spirits, and of His goodness who
would have all come unto Him.
Wenona had not hoped in vain, for her lover was with her, and Wanska
seemed to be forgotten. The warrior's flute would draw her out from her
uncle's lodge while the moon rose o'er the cold waters. Wrapped in her
blanket, she would hasten to meet him, and listen to his assurances of
affection, wondering the while that she had ever feared he
She had been some months at the village of Markeda, and she went to meet
her lover with a heavy heart. Her mother had noticed that her looks were
sad and heavy, and Wenona knew that it would not be long ere she should
be a happy wife, or a mark for the bitter scorn of her companions.
The Deer-killer had promised, day after day, that he would make her his
wife, but he ever found a ready excuse; and now he was going on a long
hunt, and she and her parents were to return to their village. His
quiver was full of arrows, and his leggins were tightly girded upon him.
Wenona's full heart was nigh bursting as she heard that the party were
to leave to-morrow. Should he desert her, her parents would kill her for
disgracing them; and her rival, Wanska, how would she triumph over
"You say that you love me," said she to the Deer-killer, "and yet you
treat me cruelly. Why should you leave me without saying that I am your
wife? Who would watch for your coming as I would? and you will disgrace
me when I have loved you so truly. Stay—tell them you have made me your
wife, and then will I wait for you at the door of my teepee."
The warrior could not stay from the chase, but he promised her that he
would soon return to their village, and then she should be his wife.
Wenona wept when he left her; shadows had fallen upon her heart, and yet
she hoped on. Turning her weary steps homeward, she arrived there when
the maidens of the village were preparing to celebrate the
There was no time to deliberate—should she absent herself, she would be
suspected, and yet a little while ere the Deer-killer would return, and
her anxious heart would be at rest.
The feast was prepared, and the crier called for all virgins to enter
the sacred ring.
Wenona went forward with a beating heart; she was not a wife, and soon
must be a mother. Wanska, the Merry Heart, was there, and many others
who wondered at the pale looks of Wenona—she who had been on a journey,
and who ought to have returned with color bright as the dying sun, whose
light illumined earth, sky and water.
As they entered the ring a party of warriors approached the circle.
Wenona does not look towards them, and yet the throbbings of her heart
were not to be endured. Her trembling limbs refused to sustain her, as
the Deer-killer, stalking towards the ring, calls aloud—"Take her from
the sacred feast; should she eat with the maidens?—she, under whose
bosom lies a warrior's child? She is unworthy."
And as the unhappy girl, with features of stone and glaring eyes, gazed
upon him bewildered, he rudely led her from the ring.
Wenona bowed her head and went—even as night came on when the sun went
down. Nor did the heart of the Deer-killer reproach him, for how dare
she offend the Great Spirit! Were not the customs of his race holy
Little to Wenona were her father's reproaches, or her mother's curse;
that she was no more beloved was all she remembered.
Again was the Deer-killer by the side of Wanska, and she paid the
penalty. Her husband brought other wives to his wigwam, though Wanska
was ever the favorite one.
With her own hand would she put the others out of the wigwam, laughing
when they threatened to tell their lord when he returned, for Wanska
managed to tell her own story first; and, termagant as she was, she
always had her own way.
Wenona has ceased to weep, and far away in the country of the Sissetons
she toils and watches as all Indian women toil and watch. Her young son
follows her as she seeks the suffering Dahcotah, and charms the disease
to leave his feeble frame.
She tells to the child and the aged woman her dreams; she warns the
warrior what he shall meet with when he goes to battle; and ever, as the
young girls assemble to pass away the idle hours, she stops and
whispers to them.
In vain do they ask of her husband: she only points to her son and says,
"My hair, which is now like snow, was once black and braided like his,
and my eyes as bright. They have wept until tears come no more. Listen
not to the warrior who says he loves." And she passes from their sight
as the morning mists.