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The International Folk-Lore Congress of the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, July, 1893/Sioux Mythology

< The International Folk-Lore Congress of the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, July, 1893



The tendency of the uncivilized and untutored mind is to recognize the Deity through some definite medium. The mind has an inborn recognition of the highest good or God. The aborigines of this country illustrate this truth. But the province of this paper is to deal, in the brief time allowed, with the mythology of the Sioux Nation, and more especially that portion of the tribe 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 its uncultured state, of a distinct process of reasoning. Free from the burdensome theories of science and of 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, or hears Him in the wind,"

is true as far as that the Indian recognized the power behind every natural force. His thought instantly goes back to the God who made the wind to blow, the sun to shine, the fire to burn, and so forth. Thus he not only sees God in the sky, but in every creation. All nature sings his praises: birds, waterfalls, tree-tops, everything whispers the name of the mysterious God.

The Indian does not trouble himself concerning the nature of creation. He is satisfied that there is a Supreme God, to whom all nature bows her head; whose laws all must obey. Beyond this he does not dare to go. He looks to Him for help.

The relation between God and man he conceived from the analogy of nature, that God is a gracious and exacting friend. He both punishes the disobedient and evil-doers, and forgives and helps the good. He hears prayers. He is called Wakantanha or Great Mystery. The first half of the word, viz., wakan, means mystery or holy; and tanka means great, mighty or supreme. Neither of the two words which compose the Wakantanka signifies spirit, however it may imply that. The wakan may also mean reverenced or sacred.

Before the coming of the missionaries the Sioux never prayed or gave any offering direct to the Great Mystery. It was then believed he was too great to be approached directly. But a prayer or gift through his attributes will reach him. The legend is that God occasionally visits the earth, in the shape of some animal, or envelopes himself in a great wind. If any person sees the Great Mystery's 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 round and flat, and was suspended in a dark space, and sheltered by the heaven or sky, in the shape of a hollowed hemisphere. The sun was made by the Great Mystery, the father, and the earth, the mother, of all the things that live and grow. But they have been married long, and had become the parents of many generations of races, therefore they were called Tunkan'sida and Uncida, or great grandfather and grandmother. As far as I can make out the moon seems to be their servant, or at least she is required to watch, together with the stars, the sleeping world below; while the Sun comes down to sleep with his wife. Earth, and his children. The moon is considered a man and the stars are his brothers. In the sense that the Sun and Earth constitute the parents of the world, they believed that the Great Mystery holds them responsible. Therefore it was natural for them to appeal to these two, who will in turn appeal to the Supreme Being.

In the thunder they believed that God has a warrior who presided over the more powerful elements, such as the storms, rains, etc. Also he was appointed to act as soldier (in the sense of police) keeping order here below. He is held as a large bird, and is called the thunder-bird, and depicted as the impatient and wrathy god of war, at whose presence even the ever-smiling and kind great grandfather, the Sun, hides his face. In the sea dwells a great chief, too, whom they called Unktehé. The whale is called by this name now, but it is my belief that the name had applied to an imaginary one at first. The latter has many snb-chiefs in each of the great lakes and rivers.

Yet all these cannot possess the power of speech. The Great Mystery had shown them some great truths, which he denied to man, but he could not trust them, for some reason or other, so he made them dumb. Even then they often show to man by sign some supernatural power.

Thus the savages hold that the key of heaven is vested in the visible phenomena of the universe. Each animal, each thing has just so much purity and holiness, and it is dumb and helpless. The rocks, the trees, etc., are all imprisoned for life; yet they hold some of the mysteries of their maker. The mighty river and the little brook, in proportion to their strength and wonderfulness, show the power of the god.

The root-eating animals were considered the leading medicine-givers, such as the bear, the badger, the beaver and the like. The sun and the thunder-bird both have some claims on the medical profession, and none of the animals are entirely exempted from it.

The spirits of the departed having once left this sinful world are immediately admitted into the mysteries of the Great Mystery, except the very wicked, who are transformed into some lower animal and are returned to earth and allowed to know only one or two things of the mysteries of the Great God. This was their punishment. Yet such a spirit may retrieve its misfortunes by good behavior. Then it is promoted to a higher grade of animal life, until it is returned to man again. But if it grows opposite of this it is changed to a lower and lower grade successively from animal to the vegetable and finally to the inorganic kingdom. This is his last punishment.

In man there are believed to be three spirits. After death one of these at once travels through the Milky Way, escorted by the heavenly servants, the stars, who were crowded on the spirit-path, and it is at once received into the mysteries of the Great God. The second remains as guardian over the grave, and it is usually called the ghost. The third travels about with his relatives. All three become supernatural and are capable of doing anything with the consent of the Great Mystery. Therefore prayers are offered through them. I do not know just how this trinity of soul was originally conceived.

There is a strong implication that the Great Mystery has made man after himself; therefore, whatever the latter enjoys he also appreciates. He is in form like man, with a few exceptions or modifications. He has horns, and his eyes are like the sun; in fact all his senses are unlimited in their sphere of usefulness. A model of dignity, honor, sacredness, power and mystery—all these together create the atmosphere of awfulness to their mind.

Inasmuch as they conceived that there is good and bad—the opposites—they seem to think that the Great Mystery created everything in pairs, with a few exceptions. Therefore there is an evil spirit, as well as the good spirit.

Their strong belief was that the trees, rocks, etc., hear what they say, in other words the Great Mystery is "all ears," "all eyes," etc. Every one of his creation is his ears, eyes, etc., except man, but he, too, becomes as such, as soon as his spirit enters the spirit-land. It is my belief that on this account the natives had no word for swearing and never blasphemed, for the spirit of the Great Mystery is everywhere.

In the old régime the Indian's idea of nobility and strength of character was based on bravery and success in warfare, in hunting, in feast-making, etc., but these are not possible unless the Great Mystery is obeyed and first considered in everything. Therefore all well brought up and ambitious youths usually sought for God's good-will in solitary seasons of prayer and fasting, and gave feasts to the more experienced "medicine-men" for advice. As one of these savage sages once remarked to an ambitious youth," "Without the help of the Great Mystery you need not expect to be a great warrior or a great hunter, and you never could be a feast-maker unless you are a hunter."

And so the Indian youth seeks some manifestation of the blessing of his God through some one of his attributes. He usually selects a most impressive and conspicuous yet lonely spot for his hope for a communion with one of the Great Mystery's mediators. Here he pours out from his simple heart the most devout prayer, then sings, and finally weeps that his God may hear that one of his children is seeking him in tears. Thus he sojourns for two or three days, until all his physical forces are exhausted, for he fasts all the time, then when he is delirious he imagines that he had heard his voice. While there have been remarkable coincidences in regard to what such a young man predicts and prophecies after one of these fastings, I am inclined to believe that in most cases a delusion resulted from exhaustion of the body and mind. Much faith is wasted in dreams.

Occasionally an Indian without seeking hears a voice, either disclosed to him some mysteries of life, by means of which he becomes a great "medicine-man" or a great "war-chief," or a great prophet. But human nature is so prone to deceive that it was hard to believe all such claims, unless they were verified.

There are certain implements of war and the "medicine-man's" pouch, rattles, etc., which may be considered as idols. Yet they are not purely so. For they are only considered as the gift of the Great Mystery effected through one of his attributes, therefore they must be respected and reverenced in the remembrance of the giver. It is in fear of him that the implement is kept and observed as sacred.

The savage belief is that the more powerful elements often contended for the exhibition of strength. The thunder-bird, the war-chief, is supposed to have often waged war against the "people of the deep," or the "water demons"—more definitely the fishes, in which, of course, their chief, the Unktehé, leads them. Very often the thunder-bird punishes some animal here on earth. The more peaceful Sun, the great father, even occasionally displays his wrath by sending down from heaven a fiery missile—such as a falling star or a comet.

These few hurriedly collected facts concerning the mythology of the Sioux Nation will tend to show that the American Indian, before the coming of the whites, had a great faith in hie "unknown God," whose colossal power, physical, moral, and mental, was so impressed upon his untutored mind and made him so conscious of his own sinful life, that he felt he was not warranted to approach Him direct, but through some mediator, who will intercede for him with his Great Mystery.