Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/November 1894/The Sioux Mythology



THE tendency of the uncivilized and untutored mind is to recognize the Deity through some visible medium. The soul has an inborn consciousness of the highest good or God. The aborigines of our country illustrate this truth. I wish to write of the mythology of the Sioux nation, more particularly that portion of the tribe dwelling east of the Missouri River, with which I am very familiar, although the others are not distinctively different in their religious customs.

The human mind, equipped with all its faculties, is capable even in an uncultured state of a logical process of reasoning. Freed from the burdensome theories of science and theology, it is impressed powerfully by God's omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence. Alexander Pope's worn-out lines—

"Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutored mind
Sees God in clouds and hears him in the wind"—

are true, in that the Indian recognized a power behind every natural force. He saw God, not only in the sky, but in every creation. All Nature sang his praises—birds, waterfalls, tree tops—everything whispered the name of the mysterious God.

The Indian did not trouble himself concerning the nature of the Creator. He was satisfied that there was a God, whose laws all must obey, and whom he blindly or instinctively worshiped as the "Great Mystery."

The relation between God and man he conceived from the analogy of Nature. His God is a gracious yet an exacting parent. He punishes both the disobedient and the evil-doer, and forgives and helps the penitent and the good. He hears prayers. He is called Wakantanka, or the Great Mystery. The word wakan means mystery or holy, and tanka means great, mighty, or supreme. Neither of the two words signifies spirit; however, it may imply that. The word wakan may also mean reverenced or sacred.

Before the coming of the missionaries the Sioux never prayed or gave any offering direct to God, except at a great feast once a year. It was believed that he was too great to be approached directly, but that a prayer or a gift through some of his attributes would reach him. The legend is that God occasionally descends to earth in the shape of some animal, or envelops himself in a great wind. If any person beholds his face he dies instantly, although the same person may be born again as a child and become a great "medicine man."

Before the advent of the white man these people believed that the earth was flat, with a circular form, and was suspended in a dark space, and sheltered by the heaven or sky in the shape of a hollow hemisphere. The sun was regarded as the father and the earth the mother of all things that live and grow; but as they had been married a long time and had become the parents of many generations, they were called the great-grandparents. As far as I can judge, the moon seemed to be their servant; at least, she was required to watch, together with her brothers, the stars, over the sleeping universe, while the sun came down to rest with his family.

In the thunder-bird they believed God had a warrior who presided over the most powerful elements—the storm and the fearful cyclone. This symbolic creature is depicted as an impatient and wrathy god of war, at whose appearance even the ever-smiling grandfather, the sun, hides his face. In the realms of water the whale is the symbolized chief of the finny tribes. In every great lake the Sioux imagines a huge fish as ruler of its waters.

Yet none of these possess the power of speech. The Great Mystery had shown them some truths denied to man, but he did not trust them fully, therefore he made them dumb. They can only show to man some supernatural things by signs or in dreams; as, for instance, to foretell future events or explain the use of certain powerful remedies. The savage holds that the key of heaven is vested in the visible phenomena of the universe. All creatures, save man, are assigned to a peculiar paradise, in which there is a forbidden fruit—namely, the apple of speech and reasoning. Hence the animals and inanimate things are exempted from sin. Thus it is that rocks, trees, and rivers are surrounded with an atmosphere of grandeur, beauty, and mystery. Nature is the interpreter of the Great Mystery, and through her man is convinced of truth.

The root-eating animals were believed to be intrusted with the mysteries of medicine. They were the medicine-givers. The sun and the thunder-bird also possessed efficacious treatments, but without the use of roots and herbs. On account of these beliefs the practices of no two medicine men among the Sioux are exactly the same. Each claims that his knowledge of medicine was obtained from some particular animal, of whom the bear, beaver, etc., are first in the profession. Those who found their treatment upon the power of the sun or the thunder-bird do not use any medicine. There was but one general organization among the Sioux, and this was based upon medicine and religion combined. It was called the "Holy Medicine Lodges." There were many of these lodges, each one different in its medicines and medicine songs, but alike in all other respects. They had a common form of initiation. It was effected publicly at a union meeting of all the lodges. Whenever a member of one of the lodges died, a candidate was introduced, and he was instructed by a select committee of experienced and pure men, according to the savage notion.

The novice must bear in mind that purity and feast making are the foundations of the lodge, and pleasing to the Great Mystery. "Thou shalt often make a holy feast or a lodge feast to the God. Thou shalt not spill the blood of any of thy tribe. Thou shalt not steal what belongs to another. Thou shalt always remember that the choicest part of thy provision belongs to God." These were some of their commandments. It is a peculiar fact, already mentioned, that the Great Mystery was never directly approached except upon special and extraordinary occasions, such as the union meeting and dance of the "medicine lodges" once a year. Then a chosen priest usually made a prayer to the Supreme Being. The material rewards of a godly life were looked for in the immediate future; and yet there was a feeling of satisfaction in the savage bosom that God was pleased with his efforts.

The spirits of the departed Sioux were, it was supposed, admitted at once into the mysteries of God, except those of the very wicked, who were returned to this world in the form of one of the lower animals. This was their punishment. Yet such a spirit might retrieve its misfortune by good behavior, and thus be promoted to its former shape.

In man there were believed to be three, souls. One of these, as I have said, immediately enters heaven by the "spirits' path" the milky way escorted by the stars. The second remains where the body is placed, as guardian of the grave; while the third lives and travels with its relatives. On this account the natives believe that everything said of the departed is heard by them. I do not know just how this triune conception originated. No doubt it had a reasonable explanation somewhere in the early life of the race, but the legend connected with it is lost.

There is a strong implication that the Great Mystery has made man after himself, and that he is in shape like a man, but with a few modifications. For instance, he is supposed to have horns, symbolic of command; and his eyes are like the sun no one can gaze into them. The Sioux formerly believed that every created thing can hear what is said of the Creator. Therefore, an Indian fears to take God's name in vain, and there is no profane word in their language. Whenever God's name is used it is done with reverence. In this connection I may be permitted to add that when the Indian found that his white brothers used the name of God indiscriminately and irreverently he was shocked.

It was further observed by him that, inasmuch as there are pairs or opposites in all things, there is a good and an evil spirit; yet both of these are appointed and controlled by the Great Mystery. There were no angels in the Indian's theology. As there is a spirit of antagonism among animals, so also the Indian believed that the elements do often wage war upon each other, and sometimes upon the animals. For instance, it was supposed that the thunder-bird often goes upon the warpath, traveling over vast tracts of country and chastising both animate and inanimate things.