To Dance Around, Sioux Thunder Dance,
by Mary Eastman
Life and Legends of
I have noticed the many singular notions of the Sioux concerning
thunder, and especially the fact that they believe it to be a large
bird. They represent it thus. [Illustration:] This figure is often seen
worked with porcupine quills on their ornaments. Ke-on means to fly.
Thunder is called Wah-ke-on or All-flier. U-mi-ne-wah-chippe is a dance
given by some one who fears thunder and thus endeavors to propitiate the
god and save his own life.
A ring is made, of about sixty feet in circumference, by sticking
saplings in the ground, and bending their tops down, fastening them
together. In the centre of this ring a pole is placed. The pole is about
fifteen feet in height and painted red. From this swings a piece of
birch bark, cut so as to represent thunder. At the foot of the pole
stand two boys and two girls.
The two boys represent war: they are painted red, and hold war-clubs in
their hands. The girls have their faces painted with blue clay: they
On one side of the circle a kind of booth is erected, and about twenty
feet from it a wigwam. There are four entrances to this circle.
When all the arrangements for the dance are concluded, the man who
gives the dance emerges from his wigwam dressed up as hideously as
possible, crawling on all fours towards the booth. He must sing four
tunes before reaching it.
In the meantime the medicine men, who are seated in the wigwam, beat
time on the drum, and the young men and squaws keep time to the music by
first hopping on one foot, and then on the other—moving around inside
the ring as fast as they can. This is continued for about five minutes,
until the music stops. After resting a few moments, the second tune
commences, and lasts the same length of time, then the third, and the
fourth; the Indian meanwhile making his way towards the booth. At the
end of each tune, a whoop is raised by the men dancers.
After the Indian has reached his booth inside the ring, he must sing
four more tunes as before. At the end of the fourth tune the squaws all
run out of the ring as fast as possible, and must leave by the same way
that they entered, the other three entrances being reserved for the men,
who, carrying their war implements, might be accidentally touched by one
of the squaws—and the war implements of the Sioux warrior have from
time immemorial been held sacred from the touch of woman. For the same
reason the men form the inner ring in dancing round the pole, their war
implements being placed at the foot of the pole.
When the last tune is ended, the young men shoot at the image of thunder
which is hanging to the pole, and when it falls a general rush is made
by the warriors to get hold of it. There is placed at the foot of the
pole a bowl of water colored with blue clay. While the men are trying
to seize the parts of the bark representation of their god, they at the
same time are eagerly endeavoring to drink the water in the bowl, every
drop of which must be drank.
The warriors then seize on the two boys and girls—the representations
of war and peace—and use them as roughly as possible—taking their
pipes and war-clubs from them, and rolling them in the dirt until the
paint is entirely rubbed off from their faces. Much as they dislike this
part of the dance, they submit to it through fear, believing that after
this performance the power of thunder is destroyed.
Now that the water is drank up and the guardians of the Thunder bird are
deprived of their war-clubs and pipes, a terrible wailing commences. No
description could convey an idea of the noise made by their crying and
lamentation. All join in, exerting to the utmost the strength of
Before the men shoot at thunder, the squaws must leave the ring. No one
sings at this dance but the warrior who gives it; and while the
visitors, the dancers, and the medicine men, women and children, all are
arrayed in their gayest clothing, the host must be dressed in
In the dance Ahahkah Koyah, or to make the Elk a figure of thunder, is
also made and fought against. The Sioux have a great deference for the
majesty of thunder, and, consequently for their own skill in prevailing
or seeming to prevail against it.
A Sioux is always alarmed after dreaming of an elk, and soon prevails
upon some of his friends to assist him in dancing, to prevent any evil
consequences resulting from his dream. Those willing to join in must lay
aside all clothing, painting their bodies with a reddish gray color,
like the elk's. Each Indian must procure two long saplings, leaving the
boughs upon them. These are to aid the Indians in running. The saplings
must be about twelve feet in length. With them they tear down the bark
image of thunder, which is hung with a string to the top of the pole.
All being ready, the elks run off at a gallop, assisted by their
saplings, to within about two hundred yards of the pole, when they stop
for a while, and then start again for the pole, to which is attached the
figure of thunder.
They continue running round and round this pole, constantly striking the
figure of thunder with their saplings, endeavoring to knock it down,
which after a while they succeed in accomplishing.
The ceremony is now ended, and the dreamer has nothing to fear from elks
until he dreams again.
There is no end to the superstitions and fancies entertained by the
Sioux concerning thunder. On the cradle of the Indian child we
frequently see the figure of thunder represented. It is generally carved
on the wood by the father of the child, with representations of the Elk,
accompanied with hieroglyphic looking figures, but thunder is regarded
as the type of all animals that fly.
There are many medicine feasts—and I saw one celebrated near the Oak
Grove mission, and near, also, to the villages of Good Road, and the
chief Man in the Clouds. It was on a dark cold day about the first of
March. We left the fort at about nine o'clock and followed the road on
the St. Peter's river, which had been used for many months, but which,
though still strong, was beginning to look unsafe. As we advanced
towards the scene of the feast, many Indians from every direction were
collecting, and hurrying forward, either to join in the ceremony about
to be celebrated, or to be spectators. We ascended quite a high hill,
and were then at the spot where all the arrangements were made to
celebrate one of the most sacred forms of their religion. Many of the
Indians to be engaged in the performance were entirely without
protection from the severe cold—their bodies being painted and their
heads adorned with their choicest ornaments, but throwing aside even
their blankets, according to the laws of the ceremony. The Indians
continued to assemble. At eleven o'clock, the dance commenced. Although
I could not faithfully describe, yet I never can forget the scene. The
dark lowering sky—the mantle of snow and ice thrown over all the
objects that surrounded us, except the fierce human beings who were
thus, under Heaven's arch for a roof, about to offer to their deities a
Then the music commenced, and the horrid sounds increased the wildness
of the scene; and the contortions of the medicine man, as he went round
and round, made his countenance horrible beyond expression. The devoted
attention of the savages, given to every part of the ceremony, made it
in a measure interesting. There were hundreds of human beings believing
in a Great Spirit, and anxious to offer him acceptable service; but how
degraded in that service! How fallen from its high estate was the soul
that God had made, when it stooped to worship the bones of animals, the
senseless rock, the very earth that we stood upon! The aged man,
trembling with feebleness, ready to depart to the spirit's land, weary
with the weight of his infirmities—the warrior treading the earth
with the pride of middle age—the young with nothing to regret and
everything to look forward to,—all uniting in a worship which they
ignorantly believe to be religion, but which we know to be idolatry.
I was glad to leave the scene, and turn towards the house of the Rev.
Mr. Pond, who lives near the spot where the feast was celebrated. Here,
pursuing his duties and studies, does this excellent man improve every
moment of his time to the advantage of the Sioux. Always ready to
converse kindly with them in order to gain their confidence—giving
medicine to the sick, and food to the hungry; doing all that lies in his
power to administer to their temporal comfort, he labors to improve
their condition as a people. How can it better be done than by
introducing the Christian religion among them? This the missionaries are
gradually doing; and did they receive proper assistance from government,
and from religious societies, they would indeed go on their way
Placed under the government of the United States, these helpless,
unhappy beings are dependent upon us for the means of subsistence, in a
measure, and how much more for the knowledge of the true God? Churches
will soon rise where the odious feast and medicine dance are celebrated,
but will the Indians worship there? When the foundations of these
churches are laid, the bones of the original owners of the country will
be thrown out—but where will be the souls of those who were thrust out
of their country and their rights to make way for us?
I have seen where literally two or three were met together—where in a
distant country the few who celebrated the death of the Redeemer were
assembled—where the beautiful service of our church was read, and the
hearts that heard it responded to its animating truths. We rejoiced that
the religion which was our comfort was not confined to places; here were
no altars, nor marble tablets—but here in this humble house we knew God
would meet and be with us.
An Indian silently opened the church door and entered. As strange to him
was the solemn decorum of this scene, as to us were the useless
ceremonies we every day witnessed. He watched the countenance of the
clergyman, but he knew not that he was preaching the doctrine of a
universal religion. He saw the sacred book upon the desk, but he could
not read the glorious doctrine of a world redeemed by a Saviour's blood.
He heard the voice of prayer, but how could his soul like ours rise as
on eagle's wings, and ascend to the throne of God! Who was he, this
intruder? It may be a descendant of those who guarded the oracles of
God, who for a time preserved them for us.
No wonder he tired and turned away. Not his the fault that he did not
join in the solemn service, but ours. If we disregard the temporal wants
of the Dahcotah, can we shut our ears against their cry, that rises up
day after day, and year after year,—Show us the path to happiness