Reports of the Peabody Museum

Date: 1887

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ByALICE C.n/aFLETCHERn/an/an/an/a

Among the Siouan family of Indians there are societies, religious in character, which are distinguished by the name of some animal. Each society has a ritual composed of chants and songs to be sung during different parts of the ceremonies, having words describing in simple and direct terms the act which accompanies the music. These musical rituals, it is often claimed, have been received in a mysterious or supernatural manner, and are therefore regarded as possessing a religious power. Every member is taught these songs after his reception into the society, and the music is thus handed down from generation to generation. Other songs are sometimes sung which have been composed by members and thus belong to the society. Some societies admit women to membership, through their own visions, or occasionally by those of their husbands, but more generally by means of the visions of male relatives. The women sit in a place assigned them, and those possessing clear soprano voices are instructed in the music, and accompany in high tenor voices the men who sing in unison. The songs of a society are rarely sung, except during the ceremonies to which they belong or on some occasion of danger or quest for property. The ritual chants and songs belonging to the great tribal religious ceremonies are strictly guarded and never sounded at any other time. Those belonging to minor societies it is permissible to use occasionally.

All the societies have certain articles or symbols which are always used or at least present during a ceremony or festival, as, the pipe, the sacred dish, the fire, the sweet grass or aromatic shrub, the prepared space of earth, the symbols formed upon it, or marked upon some reflecting surface, or on the skin of an animal. The rites peculiar to each society vary and there arc generally articles used characteristic of the animal whose name the mystery bears. Each festival of the same society may differ in minor points, as an assembly only takes place in accordance with a vision, the details of which must be scrupulously fulfilled. A vision, I was frequently told, comes of God, and a man who does not act it all out faithfully commits a sin, and evil fortune will befall him or his parents in consequence of the dereliction.

Membership in these societies is not confined to any particular gens or grouping of genres, but depends upon supernatural indications over which the individual has no control. The animal which appears to a man in a vision during his religious fasting determines to which society he must belong.

The maturity of the sexes is a period of serious and religious experiences which are preparatory by their character for the entrance of the youth or maiden into the religious and secular responsibilities of life, both individual and tribal. Among the tribes which hold especial public ceremonies announcing the maturity of a girl, these rites are held not far from the actual time of puberty, and indicate the close of childhood and entrance of the person into the social status of womanhood. The public festival has, however, been preceded by private religious rites. With young men, the religious training precedes and follows puberty, and the entrance upon manhood is publicly announced by the youth joining in the dangers and duties of tribal life. According to the old customs, a young man did not take a wife until he had proved his prowess, and thus become enrolled among the manly element, or braves as they are sometimes spoken of. The initial fasts of warriors have been mistaken sometimes for ceremonials of puberty.

Among pious families the male children are taught by their parents to look forward to the seeking of personal religious experiences in visions, and the boys are encouraged to go forth as early as the eleventh year of their age. The father makes a small bow and arrows and presents them to his son; these are for protection during the lonely vigil and are not to be used to secure food. With prayerful hearts the parents smear the boy’s head and face with moistened earth, in token of humility, and the child is dismissed to seek a secluded spot where he is to remain, calling upon the god by using the ritual chant of the petition for such occasions, until the vision appears, or exhaustion drives him home. Visions are sometimes difficult to secure, many tests being needful, and I have learned of a few Indians who never could obtain one. These fastings are repeated after the vision has been seen, as they belong to the religious rites proper to youth. They are believed to be strengthening to the man, by laying up a store of experiences which are drawn upon for succor in the day of battle, or of trouble. At such times, or when on missions of importance, the man recalls his vision and sings its songs thus appealing to his god. After the youth has entered the roll of manhood, he seldom seeks through fasting a return of the vision, except in cases of unusual anxiety or responsibility when supernatural aid is thus invoked. Only men, known as holy-men, continue in later life these religions exercises of their youth.

No coercion is brought directly to bear upon a lad to perform these rites, but should he unduly defer their performance he would be apt to lose social caste. Boys frequently go off of their own accord for the first experience, and always voluntarily, except when as children their parents suggest the act.

When a youth has made up his mind to submit himself to the ordeal of facing the supernatural and receiving the sign which will be sacred to him all his life, he takes his bow and arrows and quietly withdraws from his father’s lodge, retiring to a lonely place distant from the camp. No one accosts him or notices his departure, no one gives him counsel or direction, entirely alone he goes out to meet through physical privation the form which will be to him a sort of patron saint, or mediator. He seats himself upon the ground, puts moistened earth upon his head and face, draws his robe about him, and awaits the coming of the vision, chanting continuously . . .: "O, mysterious one (or God) have compassion, for I am poor indeed."

It is difficult for one of our own race to enter fully into the mental condition of an Indian youth so placed; one may easily fancy too much, and on the other hand err by accepting too little. The simplicity of Indian life as compared with the complexity of our own is markedly contrasted by these peculiarities. From our birth we are hedged about with questions of law, cause and effect, philosophies, coördinated obligations, all of which force us from too tense a subjectivity, while in Indian life there is little either social or religious adverse to natural instincts, and therefore as this youth sits there, with the tide of life setting in strongly upon him, his thoughts, if one may properly call them such, become blended with the silence and objects about him. All night he must face the chance of hearing ghosts whistle and cry, but these sounds will only tend to make him sink deeper into fancies of natural things, of the animals which furnish food and the chase, of the birds which soar high and escape harm, for these sounds he hears come from uneasy souls who in their earthly life failed to practice carefully the rites of their religious society. If in the midst of his chant he falls asleep, he wakes to another day of watching and fasting. Two, three, four, and even five days may pass while the youth waits for the mental picture to come to him with such vividness and strength, as to bring him the inward conviction that it is indeed a vision. When at last the vision comes, it is the one thing that the Indian holds as his own, incapable of loss. He never in all his life tells it to any one in its minutest details. The most that others may know of it is, when he acts it out on entering the society named for the animal he has seen, or, when on going out to battle or being embarked on some important enterprise, he recalls the vision and sings its song. There is occasionally an Indian who keeps so close counsel that he will not even join the society, and treasures secretly the sign of the animal in the personal bag, a sort of amulet which each one possesses.

When the ordeal is over, the youth weakened and exhausted returns to his father’s lodge, partakes of food and rests. No one asks him of his days of absence, no one even mentions the fact that he has been gone. Four days he speaks little. After that period he may, if he choose, select an old and worthy man, who is known to have seen in a vision the same kind of animal, and after eating and smoking with the man, when they are quite alone the youth may tell that he has had a vision of an elk or hawk or whatever animal he saw in his vision. Should he seek to tell this before the appointed time, four days, had elapsed, his vision would be the same as lost to him. After he has spoken to the old man belonging to the proper society, it becomes the duty of the youth to travel until he shall meet the animal he saw, when he must slay it, and preserve either the whole or a portion. This trophy becomes the visible sign of his vision and is the most sacred thing he can ever possess, He may wear it upon his scalp lock or on his person during sacred festivals, when going to war, or at other important times.

If the youth determines to join the society named from the animal of his vision, he will have to wait until he shall have accumulated sufficient property to meet the demands of the occasion. It will be needful for him to provide a feast and to give away ponies, blankets or robes and ornamented articles; these latter are contributed by his wife or female relatives.

In 1882 I witnessed the acting out of a vision of an elk by an Ogallala Indian. The man was apparently about 22 or 23 years old and was very much in earnest. The day was bright and balmy, with here and there a patch of light clouds to break the deep blue of the sky. Early in the morning the members of the elk society gathered at the invitation of the neophyte. A new tent had been expressly prepared and was set up to the west of the camp, on an open space quite apart from the village. The door of the tent faced the east. The duty of setting the tent belongs to the women who are members of the society. Around the top part of the tent were painted four blue bands; across the entrance an elk was drawn in red in such a manner that whoever entered the lodge passed through the body of the animal.

The interior of the tent was prepared, as represented in the following diagram, by the elk members, among whom were a few who were leaders and performed especial acts. A pole which had been cut by a relative of the young man (and for the honor of doing this act valuable articles had been given away by him) was brought and the youth hung upon it offerings of calico and tied on a few reeds, each one having fastened to it small knot-like bunches of tobacco rolled in cloth. The pole (fig. 1, a) was set up in the tent about five feet back, in line with the door. A few feet behind the centre of the tent an oval (fig. 1, b) was cleared of sods and the earth made mellow or fine; in the midst of this, "u-ma-ne," as the Dakotas name it, the symbol for the four winds and the earth (fig. 1, c) was hollowed out and a coal dropped in the centre of the figure over which sweet grass was laid to smoulder. Over the place in the tent usually occupied by the fire, sprays of Artemisia ludoviciana were spread like a mat (fig. 1, d) upon which was placed a square looking-glass (fig. 1, e) on which lines made of fine dark earth extended from corner to corner, making a cross. Between this and the pole was set the sacred dish containing water (fig. 1, f) and a few leaves having a medicinal property. Two pipes (fig. 1, g) were passed through the smoke, then lit and ceremoniously used and laid beside the "u-man-ne," the stems toward the east, and offerings of food (fig. 1, h) put near the bowls. Four young women (fig. 1, i) dressed in green were seated on the right a little within the entrance. They were to assist in singing and carrying the pipes in the long out-door dance.

The acts of preparation, including the painting and masking of the male members, were accompanied by the ritual songs.

In visions there are four colors which appear. One of these the youth must see, and afterward paint himself with the color when performing the rites connected with his vision. The four colors are spoken of as, "the white cloud," "the red cloud," "the blue cloud," "the yellow cloud." On the occasion when I was present, the young man who was acting out his vision had seen the "yellow cloud" and his body was therefore painted yellow. He (fig. 1, j), and all the other men members of the Elk Society (fig. 1, k) seated on either side of him were naked, except a close breech cloth, and decorated according to the colors seen in their respective visions. They wore masks resembling the heads of elk. These masks were made by bending willow branches so as to form a framework, with a straight bar across the top of the head, two side pieces passing down by the ears and fastened to withes which circled both forehead and neck. Antlers, resembling those of the elk, were ingeniously shaped from boughs and covered with rolled bands of cloth; these were fastened to the side pieces. Over the frame a thin cloth was stretched, having holes to let the antlers through and enclosing the head of the man like a bag. The cloth masks were variously painted and decorated. One had a small circular looking glass like a single eye fastened on the forehead, others had two glasses in place of eyes; nearly all had something fastened on them which would catch and reflect the light.

When the members were masked and painted they presented a strangely grotesque appearance, but there was nothing ludicrous. Upon the back of one man a circle was drawn in blue paint, in the centre of which a splinter of wood was passed through a stitch of cuticle: from the wood dangled an eagle feather fastened by winding a loop of sinew like the figure 8 about the splinter. This I was told represented a special prayer that any wounds the man might receive should not bring death. Friends and spectators were seated just within the entrance, on the left (fig. 1, l).

The morning was consumed with these ceremonies. About 2 P.M. the pipes were handed to two of the young women, and they and the other two passed out of the tent and began walking slowly up the valley toward the north, the two with the pipes preceding and holding the stem forward and upward.

Fig. 1. Arrangement within the tent in the Elk Mystery.

The women had not gone far when the men one by one emerged from the tent, each one taking attitudes indicating caution, as the elk might step forth from cover and look about him. In this manner imitating the elk, the men followed at a distance the girls who were carrying the pipes. Sometimes the elks would leap, crouch, trample the dirt, or glide noiselessly along. Two or three of the men carried a hoop in their hands, one hoop containing a square from which depended a fringe of rattling deer hoofs. The neophyte held one having a circular mirror, fastened by four cords from which he cast a reflection of the sun from time to time upon the ground, or held up the hoop and flashed the mirror.

This singular company made their way slowly, often doubling on their tracks until they had gone three or four miles up the valley, following in a general way a prettily wooded creek. The girls were always in the advance, their black hair and long braids shining in the sun. I did not once see them turn to look at the dancers who were following with wild, yet not unseemly antics.

As the dancers passed on, the men, women and children from the village flocked after the "elks," but never approached within fifty feet of them. The silence and intentness of the actors and spectators added a seemingly incongruous element which arrested the attention of the looker-on, and brought the conviction that the spectacle was not in sport but of a serious character. The ground passed over in going and returning, taken in a direct line, could not have been far from six or seven miles, though this represents but a small part of the distance travelled. Over four hours were passed in this tortuous dance, if it can be so called. As the company neared the tent from which they had started, a venerable Indian drew my attention to the east, and there I saw pencilled against the sky a portion of a rainbow. Every one was soon looking at the favoring sign and all faces were bright at the promised blessing. While I expressed my sympathy with the people, I could not help glancing about to find the signs of rain, for there had been none all day, and now the buttes were golden in the setting sun, and the fleecy clouds which floated here and there were pearly and light. Without stopping to think, it was easy to share the popular feeling that it was a miraclous indication as an Indian friend said to me: "That rainbow has come directly from the god to show that our friend has faithfully acted his vision, and that his vision was true and his prayers accepted. Our friend has done right! The god has seen it and has told us so!"

When the girls reached the tent the pipes were returned to their places beside the "u-ma-ne." The elk members entered one at a time and resumed their former places. Last of all the youth passed in, acting to the end as an elk retiring to a place of quiet safety. The man took his seat in the middle of the group of his associates. After a silence all the men unmasked and gathered their blankets about their dripping bodies. Friends looked in, and in the course of half an hour the company moved off to enjoy the well-earned feast. The tent was soon lowered, and night closing over the scene left it in the past.


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Chicago: Reports of the Peabody Museum in Source Book in Anthropology, ed. Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1920), Original Sources, accessed September 22, 2023,

MLA: . Reports of the Peabody Museum, Vol. 3, in Source Book in Anthropology, edited by Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T., Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1920, Original Sources. 22 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , Reports of the Peabody Museum. cited in 1920, Source Book in Anthropology, ed. , University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. Original Sources, retrieved 22 September 2023, from