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Dakota Social Customs
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The Siouan Mythology





It was partly through pioneer study of the Siouan Indians that the popular
fallacy concerning the aboriginal Great Spirit gained currency; and it
was partly through the work of Dorsey among the cegiha and Dakota tribes,
first as a missionary and afterward as a linguist, that the early error
was corrected. Among these tribes the creation and control of the world
and the things thereof are ascribed to wa-kan-da (the term varying
somewhat from tribe to tribe), just as among the Algonquian tribes
omnipotence was assigned to ma-ni-do (Manito the Mighty of
Hiawatha); yet inquiry shows that wakanda assumes various forms, and is
rather a quality than a definite entity. Thus, among many of the tribes
the sun is wakanda--not the wakanda or a wakanda, but simply wakanda;
and among the same tribes the moon is wakanda, and so is thunder,
lightning, the stars, the winds, the cedar, and various other things; even
a man, especially a shaman, might be wakanda or a wakanda. In addition the
term was applied to mythic monsters of the earth, air, and waters;
according to some of the sages the ground or earth, the mythic
under-world, the ideal upper-world, darkness, etc, were wakanda or
wakandas. So, too, the fetiches and the ceremonial objects and decorations
were wakanda among different tribes. Among some of the groups various
animals and other trees besides the specially wakanda cedar were regarded
as wakandas; as already noted, the horse, among the prairie tribes, was
the wakanda dog. In like manner many natural objects and places of
striking character were considered wakanda. Thus the term was applied to
all sorts of entities and ideas, and was used (with or without
inflectional variations) indiscriminately as substantive and adjective,
and with slight modification as verb and adverb. Manifestly a term so
protean is not susceptible of translation into the more highly
differentiated language of civilization. Manifestly, too, the idea
expressed by the term is indefinite, and can not justly be rendered into
spirit, much less into Great Spirit; though it is easy to understand
stand how the superficial inquirer, dominated by definite spiritual
concept, handicapped by unfamiliarity with the Indian tongue, misled by
ignorance of the vague prescriptorial ideation, and perhaps deceived by
crafty native informants or mischievous interpreters, came to adopt and
perpetuate the erroneous interpretation. The term may be translated into
mystery perhaps more satisfactorily than into any other single English
word, yet this rendering is at the same time much too limited and much too
definite. As used by the Siouan Indian, wakanda vaguely connotes also
power, sacred, ancient, grandeur, animate, immortal, and other
words, yet does not express with any degree of fullness and clearness the
ideas conveyed by these terms singly or collectively--indeed, no English
sentence of reasonable length can do justice to the aboriginal idea
expressed by the term wakanda.

While the beliefs of many of the Siouan tribes are lost through the
extinction of the tribesmen or transformed through acculturation, it is
fortunate that a large body of information concerning the myths and
ceremonials of several prairie tribes has been collected. The records of
Carver, Lewis and Clark, Say, Catlin, and Prince Maximilian are of great
value when interpreted in the light of modern knowledge. More recent
researches by Miss Fletcher(49) and by Dorsey(50) are of especial value,
not only as direct sources of information but as a means of interpreting
the earlier writings. From these records it appears that, in so far as
they grasped the theistic concept, the Siouan Indians were polytheists;
that their mysteries or deities varied in rank and power; that some were
good but more were bad, while others combined bad and good attributes;
that they assumed various forms, actual and imaginary; and that their
dispositions and motives resembled those found among mankind.

The organization of the vague Siouan thearchy appears to have varied from
group to group. Among all of the tribes whose beliefs are known, the sun
was an important wakanda, perhaps the leading one potentially, though
usually of less immediate consideration than certain others, such as
thunder, lightning, and the cedar tree; among the Osage the sun was
invoked as grandfather, and among various tribes there were sun
ceremonials, some of which are still maintained; among the Omaha and
Ponka, according to Miss Fletcher, the mythic thunder-bird plays a
prominent, perhaps dominant role, and the cedar tree or pole is deified as
its tangible representative. The moon was wakanda among the Osage and the
stars among the Omaha and Ponka, yet they seem to have occupied
subordinate positions; the winds and the four quarters were apparently
given higher rank; and, in individual cases, the mythic water-monsters or
earth-deities seem to have occupied leading positions. On the whole, it
may be safe to consider the sun as the Siouan arch-mystery, with the
mythic thunder-bird or family of thunder-birds as a sort of mediate link
between the mysteries and men, possessing less power but displaying more
activity in human affairs than the remoter wakanda of the heavens. Under
these controlling wakandas, other members of the series were vaguely and
variably arranged. Somewhere in the lower ranks, sacred animals--especially
sports, such as the white buffalo cow--were placed, and still lower came
totems and shamans, which, according to Dorsey, were reverenced rather
than worshiped. It is noteworthy that this thearchic arrangement
corresponded in many respects with the hierarchic social organization of
the stock.

The Siouan thearchy was invoked and adored by means of forms and
ceremonies, as well as through orisons. The set observances were highly
elaborate; they comprised dancing and chanting, feasting and fasting, and
in some cases sacrifice and torture, the shocking atrocities of the Mandan
and Minitari rites being especially impressive. From these great
collective devotions the ceremonials graded down through war-dance and
hunting-feast to the terpsichorean grace extolled by Carver, and to
individual fetich worship. In general the adoration expressed fear of the
evil rather than love of the good--but this can hardly be regarded as a
distinctive feature, much less a peculiar one.

Some of the mystery places were especially distinctive and noteworthy.
Foremost among them was the sacred pipestone quarry near Big Sioux river,
whence the material for the wakanda calumet was obtained; another was the
far-famed Minne-wakan of North Dakota, not inaptly translated Devil's
lake; a third was the mystery-rock or medicine-rock of the Mandan and
Hidatsa near Yellowstone river; and there were many others of less
importance. About all of these places picturesque legends and myths
clustered.

The Siouan mythology is especially instructive, partly because so well
recorded, partly because it so clearly reflects the habits and customs of
the tribesmen and thus gives an indirect reflection of a well-marked
environment. As among so many peoples, the sun is a prominent element; the
ice-monsters of the north and the rain-myths of the arid region are
lacking, and are replaced by the frequent thunder and the trees shaken by
the storm-winds; the mythic creatures are shaped in the image of the
indigenous animals and birds; the myths center in the local rocks and
waters; the mysterious thearchy corresponds with the tribal hierarchy, and
the attributes ascribed to the deities are those characteristic of
warriors and hunters.

Considering the mythology in relation to the stages in development of
mythologic philosophy, it appears that the dominant beliefs, such as those
pertaining to the sun and the winds, represent a crude physitheism, while
vestiges of hecastotheism crop out in the object-worship and place-worship
of the leading tribes and in other features. At the same time well-marked
zootheistic features are found in the mythic thunder-birds and in the more
or less complete deification of various animals, in the exaltation of the
horse into the rank of the mythic dog father, and in the animal forms of
the water-monsters and earth-beings; and the living application of
zootheism is found in the animal fetiches and totems. On the whole, it
seems just to assign the Siouan mythology to the upper strata of
zootheism, just verging on physitheism, with vestigial traces of
hecastotheism.





Next: Somatology

Previous: The Development Of Mythology



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