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already assembled at the place mentioned.
This spot was usually chosen for its beauty,
and was generally situated on some hill or
mountain-side, with timber and water in

When all the Indians who had accepted
the invitation had arrived, the most impos
ing part of the ceremony was begun. This
was the search for and finding of a suitable
poplar tree for the centre of the dancing
lodge. A large number of the braves of the


tribe, dressed and painted in festive attire,
all mounted upon their best horses, and
carrying guns and rifles, would ride off in
search of a huge poplar tree. When a de
cision was reached as to the finest tree
found, they would fire off round after
round of ammunition, and proceed to cut
down the tree. After this was accom
plished, the Indians would fasten cords or
ropes, made of buffalo skin, around the
end and lower branches of the tree, and
again mounting, would haul it to the spot
upon which the lodge was to be built.
During the ride they would sing a special
song, and fire off numerous volleys from
their rifles and guns. This singing and fir
ing was kept up until the tree, shorn of all
its lower branches, was placed in position.
It occupied the exact centre of the lodge,
and was usually firmly planted in the
ground at a depth of three or four feet.
The rest of the lodge was also built of pop
lar poles or posts, all green, as no dry or
decayed wood was allowed to be used in its
construction. These poles, which were ten
or twelve feet in height, were planted in the


ground around the central post, forming a
large circle of about forty or fifty feet in
diameter, leaving an opening on the south
side of about thirty feet for an entrance.
The roof was also made of poles covered
over with the green branches of the trees.
In the inside fully half, or even three-quar
ters, of the north side of the lodge was
divided off into numerous small compart
ments by short posts set in the ground,
with a lattice-work of rawhide thongs
around each. All the spaces would be
filled by a basket-work of green boughs;
but in each cell or compartment was a
small opening, just large enough to permit
a person to crawl in. These openings were
at the back of the cells facing the large
space left in the lodge. Each compartment
was just large enough to hold a person
when in a sitting posture, and all were of
a uniform height of, say, four and a half
feet. Around the opening at the top of
each ran a piece of rawhide thong to give
strength to the structure, but this was
usually hidden by the green leaves and
branches forming the basket-work. This
3 33


lodge or green bower, though very large,
was built in a surprisingly short space of
time by willing hands; all the builders
being in high spirits during its construction.
WHen ready it would at once be filled by
as many of the dancers as it could accom
modate, each cell or compartment being
occupied by an Indian brave or woman
dressed in his or her best, with face painted
in all the brilliant colours of the rainbow.
As their entrance was made very quickly
and secretly from the back of the lodge, the
effect was startling to an onlooker, when
the drumming and singing began, and all
the dancers rose out of the mass of green
foliage of which the cells were made. In
the mouth of each dancer was held a small
whistle or flute, made from the leg-bone of
the crane. These little pipes were gaily
decorated with streamers of coloured deer
skin or ribbon, coloured porcupine quills
and beads, but never heavily ornamented,
as they were to be held for so long a time in
the mouth of each dancer. The dancing
consisted of an up and down movement of
the body without rising from the feet, to the


rhythm of the drumming and chanting, and
at each downward movement of the body
the piping note from the little flute was
blown by the dancer. All these soft little
notes were wonderfully sweet, and seemed
to harmonize with the chanting of the men
and women who were the musicians for the
occasion. These singers were relieved by
others at short intervals, but the Indians
taking part in the dance were expected to
dance and fast for a day and a night
(twenty- four hours) at the very least
though upon occasion some only danced for
a short time, say, ten hours.

The ceremony usually lasted three or four
days, according to the number wishing to
take part in it. The dancers were expected
to keep their eyes upon the central post
during the time they danced, and this was
done even when other Indians were going
through all kinds of torture near the lodge.

The making of braves consisted of endur
ing all manner of self-inflicted tortures.
Certain of these never varied; they were
suffered by those who had previously quali
fied in other Nee-pah-quah-see-muns. Only


a few Indians at each ceremony prepared
for these degrees of torture.

The most trying of all these was the
leading of a spirited horse right up to the
central post of the lodge. The Indian going
through this degree required any amount of
courage and endurance, as the horse was
led by a leather line or thong attached to
two small sticks or skewers which had been
stuck through the fleshy part of the In
dian s body just over the shoulder-blades.
These skewers were about five or six inches
long, and fully two inches of the centre of
each stick was imbedded in the flesh.
Around the ends of each would be fastened
a noose of the leather thong, and to these
the longer or leading line was attached.
The task of passing the sharp skewers
through the flesh of the would-be brave was
always performed by the medicine man.

The Indian leading the horse usually
began the ordeal by making a wide circle
around the encampment, and gradually
lessening the distance as the horse became
accustomed to the noises of the drumming
and singing, until at last he would walk


into the opening of the lodge or bower and
right up to the central post. This was not
an easy matter, as the horse would often
refuse to go into the lodge, and even
attempt to run away sometimes. At other
times an Indian would be fortunate enough
to have a spirited animal who would follow
his master into any place, and not give him
any unnecessary torture.

When once the Indian had walked up to
the central post of the lodge, he was re
leased from his torture by the medicine
man, who pulled the sticks out of his back,
at the same time remarking that his " heart
was strong."

Another form of taking this degree of
courage was by trailing upon the ground
an old buffalo head by means of a leather
thong fastened to the skewers or sticks
through an Indian s back. This was also a
very painful performance, as the horns of
the buffalo head would often become en
tangled in brush or heavy grass, necessitat
ing many painful stops and round-about
ways in order to extricate the horns. The
Indian would haul this head around the


whole encampment, gradually working his
way to the lodge, and after reaching the
large post would be released. The Indians
would sometimes faint while undergoing
these peculiar ordeals to attain the envied
degree of bravery. Those who got through
without losing consciousness would very
soon be seen in the cells dancing as if they
had not undergone anything out of the ordi
nary. If they were pale from the effects of
the torture the pallor was hidden by the
extra amount of paint used on their faces
when dressing for the dance.

Anyone not familiar with the features of
the Indians taking part in the dance might
not recognize them after each interval of
dancing, as during the intermissions be
tween the singing and dancing, in the
seclusion of their cells, they would paint
their faces in an entirely different style and

The re-appearance of an Indian in the
dance always created a flutter of excitement,
and caused many flattering remarks as to his
bravery and powers of endurance. But an
Indian never boasted of these feats; and if


he ever did refer to them, did so in a very
casual and modest way. In any case it
was most unlikely that any of the Indians
who had seen him undergoing the torture
would or could forget his courage and
they would speak of it for years after.

The women also underwent certain forms
of torture, and these, too, required a great
deal of courage. These self-sacrifices on the
part of the women were, properly speak
ing, memorial offerings for their departed
loved ones. The woman who wished to
undergo this suffering had her arms from
the elbow down slashed with cuts from a
sharp knife ; this was also done by the medi
cine man. In the case of the women the
torture was inflicted after they had taken
part in the dance. Some women, and men
also, would have their hair cut short, as a
memorial for their dead. As every Indian
was proud of his hair, these offerings,
though painless, required great self-sacri

During the time the Sun Dance was in
progress, any Indian taking part gave to
the spirits of his departed friends, according


to his means, offerings which were hung
upon the trees or poles for three or more
days, after which lapse of time they were
taken away by friends of the donors if they
wished to appropriate them. It was a real
gift, as they never resumed them. In this
interval of three or four days, it was held
that the spirits had used them fully, and
after that time they might be fairly taken
and utilized by the living. These offerings
are supposed to be required by the souls
of the Indians in the Happy Hunting
Grounds, and they were various anything,
in fact, from wearing apparel to cooking
utensils, even steel traps, being offered.
But these offerings were really unneces
sary, as every Indian taking part in the
ceremony could do so as a memorial service
or as a thank-offering for the return of sum
mer, or by way of petition to his Pow-wah-

Sometimes these Nee-pah-quah-see-mun
ceremonies were disturbed by the approach
of enemies. At such a time they might
easily be stolen upon, as all entered into the
spirit of the performance so heartily that



they were apt to forget the existence of any
hostile tribes. They looked upon such sur
prises as an ouien of misfortune and loss.
The last instance of such an unwelcome
visit happened early in June, 1885, during
the North-West Rebellion. The Indians
had only just begun the ceremonies when
they were surprised by General Strange s



The Medicine Dance, or Dog Feast Gifts to the Pow-
wah-kun Smoke Dance War Dance Buffalo
Dance The Lodge Dance The Giving-away

THE feast second in importance was the
Medicine Dance, or Dog Feast, called by the
Indians the Mee-tah-win. This, also, took
place during the summer season, as the
lodge was made of green trees and branches.
It was built in the shape of a long " A "
tent, with an opening at either end. There
were also several openings in the roof of
the lodge to allow the escape of smoke from
the fire which they built in the middle.
The lodge was generally very large, fully
thirty or forty feet in length, and high
enough to permit the Indians to dance
around the fire in its centre.

This feast was for the medicine men, and

very few other Indians took part in it.

Those who did so signified their intention

of becoming medicine men, and were taught



many of the arts of healing by the older
members of the cult. For this tuition they
had to pay very liberally. Women also
were allowed to take part in this dance, and
joined in learning the medicinal properties
of herbs and roots.

The Indians, both men and women, who
furnished the singing and drumming for
the festival sat at one side of the fire,
usually near one of the entrances, the drum
ming being always done by the men.
The shrill voices of the women, pitched
in a minor key, blended very effective
ly with the deeper tones of the men, and
from a distance the sounds were very har

Each dancer would carry around small
stuffed animals, such as the mink and
weasel, fastened to long, slender sticks.
During the dance around the fire they
would thrust these little medicine-charms
into the faces of the onlookers. If the
dancer pointed the little token at one of the
spectators (who gave every attention to the
dance) that one immediately bowed the
head, thus ensuring himself against any


evil which might have emanated from the
charm. It was supposed by the Indians
that a hard substance would soon be felt in
the throat, if the head was not bowed im
mediately. This substance would even
tually cause death if allowed to remain in
the body, and therefore it is easy to under
stand the attention given to every dancer.

Some of the dancers, who were known to
be kind and friendly, very seldom indulged
in this practice, but the older medicine men,
and those who were stricter in their obser
vances of the rules of the Mee-tah-win, fol
lowed closely this part of the ritual which
might be attended by such fatal results.

At this ceremony or rite the medicine men
would serve dog-flesh to any of the Indians
who wished to partake of the dish. The
dog was killed by being hanged, and after it
was quite dead would be singed, not skinned,
and cooked over the fire in the medicine
lodge. After it was cooked the medicine
men would be served first, then the other
Indians. It was considered a very great
honour to eat dog with the medicine men at
this feast, and every Indian who could be



present would be served with a small

After the feast, or Mee-tah-win, was over
(it usually lasted four or five days), the
Indians would give away or throw away all
manner of things to their Pow-wah-kunah
(dreams). These offerings would be hung
from poles, trees, etc., and generally on
some hill or elevation. They would consist
of buffalo robes, red and blue cloth,
blankets, prints or calicoes, moccasins and
other wearing apparel, fire-arms, cooking
utensils, etc. For days and even months
these offerings would attract the eye
of the traveller passing by the place where
the Mee-tah-win had been held. If any one
were curious enough to make a careful
examination of the land in the vicinity they
would find many offerings of Indian medi
cine hidden away in holes and under
shrubs. This medicine was offered to the
Great Spirit so that He would give to the
person offering it more skill in the treat
ment of all ailments and greater knowledge
of roots and herbs.

None of the Indians ever disturbed these


gifts of medicine, as they were supposed to
bring bad luck and misfortune to the per
son touching them. Sometimes this medi
cine was poison, and it was for the Bad
Spirit, who in return for the offering was
supposed to work all imaginable harm to
the enemies of the medicine man or woman
who left the poison as an offering.

The fact that these caches of medicine
consisted sometimes of poisons may have
been one reason why they were never dis
turbed ; the Indians being terrified of " bad
medicine," as its effect was usually most
disfiguring, and all Indians (especially the
men) are most vain of their personal ap

These two ceremonies had more signifi
cance for them than any other of their
dances. Every one of the dances had a
peculiar and special importance, and
though all were to a certain extent a
thanksgiving to the Great Spirit, none were
so solemn and impressive as the Nee-pah-
quah-see-mun (Sun Dance) and Mee-tah-
win (Medicine Dance).

The Indians in the years long past had


another ceremony which they called the
" Smoke Dance." This was a festival in
connection with the pipe of peace, the con
secrating ceremony of a new pipe. It is
many years now since such a dance was
celebrated among our Indians, and very
little is known of it.

The Indians taking part in it gave thanks
to the Great Spirit for giving them the red
sandstone for the making of their pipes,
and for the red willow, of which the pipe
stems were made. The dance was given by
an Indian (or two or three Indians) who
had been given the pipe of peace, generally
in recognition of some act which called for
an extra amount of bravery, or by those
who had finished the tedious task of making
the pipe. During the ceremony the pipes
would be taken out of their wrappings of
soft deerskin and fine furs, and after being
filled with the dried inner bark of the red
willow (which the Indians used when they
had no tobacco, and which they still use
with tobacco), they would light it with a
live ember from the fire, and before placing
it near the mouth, would point to the four


principal points of the compass and to the
heavens above and the earth underneath,
then they would each inhale once from the
pipe as it was passed around. After the
pipe had been smoked by every Indian
present the musicians would start their
singing and drumming, and the dancing
would begin; the owners of the pipe danc
ing around and pointing with the pipe and
stem in the directions above-mentioned.
Considering the significance to them of the
pipe of peace, it would seem possible that
this dance was looked upon by the Indians
as being quite as important as the Medicine
Dance or Dog Feast.

Many of their dances were indulged in
after a battle, and these were in every way
a thanksgiving to the Great Spirit for their
deliverance from the hands of their ene
mies, but were of a joyful character. The
War Dance was performed before a con
templated battle, the Scalp Dance after it
had been fought and won.

The Buffalo Dance was a very peculiar
one, and was indulged in by very few of the
Indians. Those taking part in it would



paint or colour all their bodies with red
clay, and would wear a buffalo head or
mask, which had been skinned and dried,
with the horns complete, and which looked
wonderfully natural ; into their belts at the
back they would stick the tail of a buffalo,
and around their ankles they wore strips of
buffalo hide. The very heaviest part of the
fur, taken from the boss or hump, was used
for these anklets. In their hands the
dancers carried long spears, decorated with
buffalo tails, and coloured strips of dressed
buffalo-skin. The dancers were formed in
a very large circle, but not confined to it, in
the centre of which stood a young boy and
girl, holding in their hands a small vessel
containing some kind of medicine. These
children would be kept standing for hours
at a time while the Indians danced around
them ; and as the dancers could sit down and
rest between intervals of singing and drum
ming, they never seemed to realize how very
tired the two youngsters could become, or
if the day was very hot, how harmful it was
for them. Upon the last celebration of this
4 49


dance at Fort Qu Appelle, the little girl
fainted before the ceremony was finished.

The Indians taking part in it would
jump up as soon as the musicians started
their singing and drumming, and after
running around all or part of the circle,
would dance about as long as the music
lasted ; as soon as it stopped they would sit
down and rest. This was the most ani
mated and interesting of all the dances.
The Indians, daubed with the rusty-red clay,
bearing their grotesque and hideous masks,
and armed with long spears from which
flaunted coloured streamers, rushed hither
and thither, charging the spectator as
if an infuriated buffalo were about to im
pale him upon his horns, and, with the
cessation of the drumming, sank exhausted
to the ground. The airs the musicians sang
for this dance were really very tuneful, and
were an inspiration to the dancers.

Another dance was called the Lodge
Dance, so named because it was always car
ried on in a large lodge made of many wig
wam coverings and their poles. This was
for the young men and women of the tribes,


the only old Indians taking part in it being
the musicians and drummers.

There were other dances of no real im
portance, Avhich any Indian could begin
for instance, the " Giving-away Dance/
which would be started by some Indian who
happened to have something he wished to
give to some friend of his. He would take a
small flat drum, and with his hand beat an
accompaniment to a song, the words of
which would mean that the present he was
giving was the very best of its kind to be
had, was new and was very useful. The
recipient would have to give something in
exchange, and in a little while almost every
Indian in the camp would be seen bobbing
up and down to the time of the beating of
the drum and the song of the " Giving-
aw^ay Dance."

The Indians have a keen sense of
humour, and many of them would make up
the most ridiculous words in praise of some
article they were giving away, and thus
cause no end of amusement to the onlookers.
To such an extreme was this dance carried
at times, that some of the Indians would



give away almost everything they possessed,
so that it was a positive blessing when rain
came and put a stop to it.

Then there was another dance called
the Bound Dance, which was for the women
of the tribe only. They danced in a small
circle to their own singing and drumming.
This was a very pretty dance, as the women
and girls were always dressed in their very
best, with faces painted and hair smoothly
brushed and plaited; they were very pic
turesque and graceful in their movements.

Then there was the " Cannibal Dance,"
taken part in altogether by the old men.
They would try to make themselves as hide
ous as possible (and that was not much of
an effort) and would hop and limp around
to their own " singing," which consisted of
groans and other peculiar noises. They
took great pleasure in this dance, and
caused much merriment to the rest of the


The medicine man Primitive medicines Methods
of curing the sick The Ween-de-go Love phil
ters Bad medicine Medical fees The vapour
bath Food and sanitary measures.

The Indians who were known as " Medi
cine Men" were looked upon as possessing
all sorts of peculiar gifts and powers. First
of all came their knowledge of the curative
properties of many different roots and
herbs. In many cases these medicine men
did understand their medicinal qualities,
but others again worked upon the faith of
their patients to a great extent. It is to be
feared many Indians were not entitled to
the amount of honour they received by vir
tue of their title of " Muskick-kee-wee-ni-
nee" (Medicine Man).

The real medicine man began early in
life to make a study of curing the sick by
the use of roots and herbs, and seldom
made use of the unnecessary amount of
noise from drums and rattles (see-see-


quans) which so many of them used in try
ing to cure their patients. In the prescrip
tions of roots and herbs the old women of
the band were very often more to be trusted
than the men. The cures these old women
effected were in many cases wonderful.

It often happened that an Indian and his
wife worked together in the healing of the
sick, and it was usually expected that the
best results would be achieved by these com
panions in the healing art. These two In
dians would keep very much to themselves,
and could be seen at any hour of the day,
from sunrise to sunset, digging and search
ing for their roots and herbs. After finding
them they would dry them, either in the
sun or by the camp fire, and, after they
were dry, they would tie them up in little
round parcels. The wrappings were
usually made of soft deerskin, tied with
strings of the same material. The outside
of each bundle was always coloured in
different hues, and they could, therefore,
be easily distinguished one from another.
For example, all the medicine for headache
was parcelled up in little red bundles, that


for colds in yellow bundles; the colour
on the outside of each was as good
as a label. All these parcels were kept
in a large medicine bag, also made of
leather and decorated with all manner of
crude drawings, but principally by the out
line of the medicine man s " Pow-wah-kun,"

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Online LibraryAmelia M. PagetThe people of the plains → online text (page 2 of 9)