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Interesting Incidents and Customs

From the Winona County section of the 1884 book

In company with my old-time friend Maj. E. A. C. Hatch, who has quite recently gone to a higher plane of existence, I once attended a virgins' feast at Ke-ox-ah (Winona), presided over by Wah-pa-sha. The whole band was assembled, and after elaborate preparation and sanctification of the ground, by invocations and incense, and sacrificial offerings had been placed for the vestal at the foot of the altar-pole, Mock-ah-pe-ah-ket-ah-pah, the chief speaker, came forward, and in a sonorous address lauded the virtues of chastity and warned "the denouncers" against the sin of bearing false witness. He also told the young braves that is they knew of the lapse from virtue of any virgin applicant for vestal honors, it was their duty, having in keeping the honor of their tribe, to denounce her. These young men were selected as the flower of Indian chivalry, and in addition to their duties as "denouncers," if occasion required, they guarded the sacred precincts of the assembly from defilement. In this respect Indians surpass white people, as seldom, if ever, has any police regulations to be enforced.

At the conclusion of the chief speaker's address, Wah-kon-de-o-tah, the great war-chief of the band, addressed his warriors in a quiet and affectionate manner, and told his braves to maintain the truth as sacred, and not offend the spirits of their ancestors. Wah-pa-sha then called for the virgins and matrons to come forth, after the manner still in vogue in Mexico, and for some time there was the silence of expectation. Again the call was made for any virgin to come forward and receive her reward. Two maidens came partly forward, but, upon reaching the line of denunciation, faltered and turned back from modesty or fear, when, at this crisis, We-no-nah, the wife of the speaker, and eldest sister (or cousin) of Wah-pa-sha, motioned to her youngest daughter, Witch-e-ain, a maiden of perhaps fifteen summers, and then in confident tones challenged the assembled throng to say aught, if they could, against the purity of her maiden child.

No answer was given to this challenge, and, after repeated calls by the crier of the assembly, Witch-e-ain came modestly forward and was crowned goddess of the feast that immediately followed. Her head was encircled with braids of rich garniture and scented grass, and presents of colored cloths, calicoes, yarns, beads and ribbons were lavished upon her as the tribe's representative of purity. Her fame went out among the traders, and soon after that vestal feast she became the wife of a distinguished trader. Like a caged bird, she soon pined for her prairie home, and died of consumption ere the leaves of spring bloomed to welcome her coming.

Her mother, We-no-nah, is still living,* and visits me occasionally, always referring to the good old times of the past, when she was young and Wah-pa-sha in power. Her age is not known with certainty, but it is probably at this time, 1882, not less than ninety years. Cho-ne-mon-e-kah, Green-Walk, a half-blood Winnebago brother of the girl, is still living, and the most expert hunter of his band.

*Since writing the above We-no-nah has gone to her spirit-home. She died about November 1, 1882, and was buried near Trempealeau. It was she who gave the notice to my brother's wife, Matilda Bunnell, that so excited the war-spirit of the home-guard of Winona county.

Wah-pa-sha intimated, upon one occasion, his approval of any choice I might make of a wife from among his people; and finally, an unusual thing for an Indian maiden to do, Witch-e-ain herself told me of her dislike of the engagement made for her with the trader, and asked me to take her as a free-will offering, saying that as she was the niece of Wah-pa-sha she would be allowed to choose between the trader and myself. I was compelled, kindly, to decline her offer, but assured he of my high esteem and faith in the person chosen for her by her mother. Not Rachael herself, in her highest tragedy, could have thrown from her sparking orbs such burning glances of hate as were shot forth upon me by Witch-e-ain at my refusal of her love. Such withering but silent contempt can only be expressed by a woman scorned.

Years have passed, and trader and girl are both in the spirit-world, or I would not speak of the incident; but in this article I wish to show that, however different in customs, the Indians still have universal feelings of nature, that make them akin.

At another feast Tom Holmes was so enchanted that he decided at once to make the damsel his wife. His offers were accepted, and, so far as I was able to trace his career, she appeared to have made him a good wife.

Upon another occasion Major Hatch and myself visited Wah-pa-sha's village in Indian disguise, and if our presence was recognized it was not noticed.

Major Hatch was a man of the finest perceptions and most practical judgment. To a stranger he was polite, though taciturn, but to his friends he was open and generous to a fault. The major's descriptive power was quite remarkable. As early as 1859 he gave me a description of the Yellowstone country, that I urged him to have published, as well as some of his experiences among the Wah-pa-sha, Sioux and Blackfeet Indians, with whom he had been intimately associated, as trader and agent, for a number of years. The major was not indifferent to his literary attainments, for he was a close student, but his reply was to the effect that no description could do the Yellowstone valley justice, and that any one who deviated from Cooper's or Ned Forrest's model of the American savage would be laughed to scorn in the great republic of letters. In speaking of the true interpretation of the word Minnesota, the major said, "In that word you have a fair example of the extravagant taste for romance of Americans. The word is compounded from Min-ne, water, and Sota, smoke, and means literally smoky or clouded water, because of the clouded or smoky appearance the water of the river assumes in its course to the Mississippi." "Sky-tinted water," said the major, "is entirely fanciful, as any one may see by looking at the river at Mendotah."

Major Hatch served the Federal government long and well. He was postmaster at La Crosse in 1846; aided in the removal of the Winnebagoes in 1848; was appointed agent of the Blackfeet Indians in 1855, and served in that extremely dangerous position in the Yellowstone and Big Horn country for two years. At the time none but those well versed in Indian character, could by any possibility preserve their scalps among those war-like people. Major Hatch became almost an idol among them, and performed his duties to the entire satisfaction of the government.

On his return to St. Paul he was appointed, in 1860, deputy collector for that port, and in 1863, after again aiding in the removal of the Winnebagoes to the Missouri, he was commissioned major by the war department, and was authorized to raise an independent battalion to serve upon the Indian and British frontier. I was offered a commission by the major in his battalion. While in command of his battalion, he devised a scheme in which Little Six and Medicine Bottle were finally brought to the gallows. Thomas Le Blanc and an associate in daring crossed the British frontier, and while those Sioux murderers were boasting of their crimes, they were captured and brought into Minnesota, bound on a dog train, and turned over to justice and to death.

Major Hatch died in St. Paul of cholera morbus, September 14, last, aged fifty-seven years, loved and honored by his wife and six children, and esteemed by all who had the privilege of his acquaintance. As for myself, I regret his departure as a long-tried friend. I was one year his senior in age and strength of body, but not of mind, and in our youth had the good fortune twice to save him from assault where his life was endangered, once by a vicious son of Decorah, and at another time by a no less vicious white man, who had assaulted him unawares, and who afterward committed a murder. Those early experiences were remembered as a tie between us, that time nor distance could wholly sever, and now that he has left us, I wish to record my esteem and friendship for one of the noblest Romans of them all.

There are but few of the earliest pioneers left; James Reed died June 2, 1873, aged about seventy-five.

It would be useless to attempt the destruction of a popular idol, for there is too little of romance in this matter-of-fact age, but it is well to state here that the Indians laugh when the legend of the "Lover's Leap" is repeated to them.

A very casual survey of the ground at the foot of "The Leap" will show what a prodigious jumper the girl must have been, to have jumped into the lake, as many believe she did. If the legend had any foundation at all, it was most probably based upon the rebellion of some strong-minded We-no-nah (meaning the first-born girl) to a sale of her precious self to a gray-bearded French trader, as James Reed supposed, from a tradition said to exist concerning such an event. As there was an old trading-post, fort and mission established in 1727 on the north shore near the Lovers' Leap, it is more probably that some trader of that post made the purchase, than any at the foot of the lake, as Reed supposed from the Indian account of the affair.

It may be that the girl threatened to jump from the cliff, so near to the old post, but if she did, like Reed, I will venture the prediction that she was cuffed into submission to the will of her dear mother.

I have known of but few instances of rebellion of daughters to the wills of their parents, when sold into matrimony; hence submission may be said to be almost universal. Extremes will sometimes meet, and here we see the untutored savage, and the belles of Saratoga and of Paris join hands in sympathy.

The American Indians have distinctive customs and traits of character, but none perhaps more peculiar than belong to other barbarous peoples. The language of the Algonquin race may be regarded as the most manly in expression and in poetic beauty, but the character of the Dah-ko-tahs should be deemed the type of all that is possible in human endurance, craft and ferocity. Their sun-dance, or We-wan-yag-wa-ci-pi can only be endured by men of the most determined will, and that, too, sustained by the fanaticism of a heathen devotion. Their sacred dance, Wah-kon-wa-ci-pi, like the Winnebagoes' medicine dance, Mah-cah-wash-she-rah, is as close and exclusive a communion of men of high degree, as one given by Knights Templars. None but the invited and initiated are ever allowed to be present during some of the ceremonies, but after the ground has been prepared and the dance has been inaugurated by its leader, the less favored barbarians are allowed to witness the splendor of the dresses worn on the occasion, and hear some of the laudations of valor, and the monotonous Hy-yi-yah that forms the burden of their songs.

The poetic element is not absolutely wanting in an Indian, but it requires a good degree of imagination in a white man to comprehend their efforts in song, and considerable ingenuity to connect their disjointed rhythms into rhyme.

For some days previous to any sacred dance the chief medicine-men, or priests, and their neophites fast, or eat sparingly. If a dog is to be eaten at the conclusion of their fast, or if a beaver has been secured for the feast that will follow, they are both lauded for their respective qualities; the dog for his faithfulness, and the beaver for his wisdom. The dog is well fed and told not to be offended because of the intention of sending him to the spirit-world, as there he will find all that a good dog can desire, and that his bones shall be preserved in the medicine lodges of the band.

Upon one occasion I witnessed what might be termed the agonized regret of a medicine-chief at the loss of one. While intoxicated his canoe and its cargo of household goods had escaped him, and was picked up by a wood-chopper named Johnson, who robbed the canoe of its contents and then set it adrift. I recovered for the learned priest all but his sacred pouch, which had been cast into the fire as a thing of no value whatever, containing, as Johnson said, nothing but a bear's claw, an eagles's beak, a filthy rag, and some bones that he supposed to have belonged to a human hand. The medicine-man was a half Sioux and half Winnebago, named Ke-ra-choose-sep-kah whom Black Hawk surrendered after his defeat at Bad-axe, and who, in company with Nee-no-hump-e-cah, delivered him to the military authorities at Prairie du Chien. Big-nose, as the Indian was more generally known, after vainly searching for the medicine-bag. Offered me, if I would find it, all I had recovered for him, which k including coin, was of at least the value of three hundred dollars. I never told the chief that the bag was burned up, and advised the thief, after compelling restitution of all except the bag, to leave the country, which the rascal did at once. The son of the great chief Big-nose stayed at my house two nights recently, and referring to the loss of his father's medicine-bag, he regretted it, he said, because it contained powerfully-charmed relics of both tribes, besides a piece of cloth given him by Black Hawk as a memento of his friendship for having saved him from butchery. I thought it best to tell him the bag was burned, and he seemed relieved when told the truth, as now he knew that the bag had not fallen into the hands of an enemy to work his destruction, thus showing that he had faith in "his own medicine."

The only way in which a white man can fully understand an Indian and secure his full confidence is to join the tribe and be initiated into their medicine-lodges, like Frank H. Cushing, commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution to investigate the history of the Pueblo Indians as it may be traced in their present life and customs. Few men would be found fitted for such an office, and if a similar attempt were to be made among the Sioux, it would probably involve the taking part in a sun-dance, an ordeal that a white man, however brave, would not have fortitude enough to go through. A sun-dance is sometimes given by an individual who has made a vow to the sun, and in such cases, after having gone through the tortures of the ordeal, he gives away all his property and commences life anew. As a general rule the dance is given as a test of courage and faith in the religious belief of the Dah-ko-tah, that the sun is the all-powerful deity of the universe, who controls their destiny and deserves their worship.

The high ground near the present residence of Mayor Lamberton was the dancing-ground of the Wah-pa-sha band, and, strange as it may appear, the scaffoldings for the dead were in the immediate vicinity. The dance or altar pole was erected on a level place, and various devices and totems were then cut upon it and figured in yellow ochre and vermilion. Conspicuous among the hieroglyphs was a central circle, with rays to represent the sun, and above all were flags and gay streaming ribbons. The ground was sanctified, after the usual Indian method, by incense, down, and evergreens of cedar or juniper, though the white cedar was preferred and distance marks set up to indicate which portion of the ground was to be regarded as sacred.

Sometimes young dogs were slaughtered and left at the base of the pole, with head a little raised and their legs stretched out as if to climb up. The blood of those innocent victims was sanctified by the great high priest of the band, and, soaking into the sacred earth, it was supposed to be a sweet savor in the nostrils of the spirits whom it was believed were present at the dance. To show the high estimation in which Christianity is held by the Indians, I will state that I was patronizingly told by one of them that the puppies were placed on the altar to call good spirits to the dance, "just like Jesus."

The final ceremonies, from all I could learn, were regarded as too sacred for the unanointed to witness, but I gleaned, from conversations at various times, that for the most part they consist of cabalistic utterances in dead or extinct languages, or perhaps that of some living but foreign tribes held to be more potent than their own. As morning approaches the camp is aroused, and the whole village moves en masse to the altar-pole. Here quick preparation is made to greet the rising sun with the dance of his votaries and the shouts of his red children. Incisions are quickly made in the skin in various parts of the body of those who are to be tested, and thongs of rawhide are passed through and tied securely to the pole, from which the victim is expected to tear loose during the dance.

As the sun appears a universal shout is given as an all-hail, and the dance begins. Drums are beaten by relays of vigorous drummers, while each dancer pipes a shrill whistle held in his mouth while dancing. At intervals chosen bands of singers shout their approval of the tortures endured, while the dancer is stimulated to frenzy by his family and friends to tear loose from his fastenings and join in the honored circle of the dance. After many plunges the brave neophyte breaks loose and dances until exhausted, when he is taken to the tepee of his family and cared for as a hero.

Should one of the poor martyrs to his faith fail to free himself, his friends reproach him, or throw themselves upon him, until their added weight tears loose the thongs, when, without a murmur of pain, he will join in the dance, and, without sustenance of any kind, continue to dance until exhausted. Should it happen that the terrors of the ordeal should overcome the courage and endurance of any who have aspired to the roll of honor, he is at once cast out from among the braves and told to fish or work, but never to bear arms. One Sioux of the Wah-pa-sha band was degraded to the rank of a woman, and made to wear the apparel of a female. He left for a time and joined a western band, but his reputation for cowardice followed him, and he was driven back by the contempt of the squaws, with whom he was agin made to associate. He finally settled down to his fate, and learned some of the industries of Sioux womanhood. The festival of the sun is held in midsummer, and lasts several days. During its continuance the whole band join in merriment and games, and the orators and the medicine-men receive large donations as a reward for their most important services. The young graduates of the dance have medicine-bags presented them, made up, for the most part, of old relics of battles fought by their sires, together with anything most horribly disgusting that may appeal to the credulity of ignorance. With these sacks the medicine-men pretend to work spells that will cause the death of an enemy or chase sickness from their friends.

The sun-dance is one of the many evidences of the Dah-ko-tahs' southwestern origin, as the same torture is submitted to by the Indians of New Mexico, who are also sun-worshipers. The Winnebagoes are also sun-worshipers, and usually bury their dead at sunrise, with head to the west. As far as I know, no northern or eastern tribe submits to the torturing pain of a sun-dance, except in a few instances, when it was imposed upon the credulity of one tribe by fanatical emissaries of the Sioux.

The Dah-ko-tahs have many legends, and may be regarded as greatly given to romance. They believe themselves to be the very salt of earth, and that Minnesota was the center of creation. How else can it be, say they, when the water runs off from our land, are we not above all others? This idea gave them self-importance and arrogance in their dealings with other nations. The Sioux, though generous and hospitable, are yet quarrelsome, and the establishment of the Wah-pa-sha band was the result of a long continued traditional quarrel, first of the Isanti, and then of the Wah-pe-ton, or New Leaf bands of Sioux. According to this tradition, given me by LeBlanc, the chiefs of the Isanti, or knife band, quarreled about the jurisdiction of the chert, or knifestone quarries in the Mille Lac country, and to avoid bloodshed, the ancestors of Wah-pa-sha established themselves upon the Me-day-wah-kon, or Good Spirit lake. There they remained for a number of generations, until by magic the spirits of malignant chiefs entered into the medicine lodges of the tribe, and again the band was torn asunder; the peaceful portion emigrating from their pine forests and rice swamps to a country of earlier and different foliage, and the band then took the name of Wah-pe-tou, or the new leaf band. It is somewhat remarkable that the Chippewas call the country and river immediately below the falls of St. Anthony, including the site of St. Paul, Ish-ke-bug-ge-see-bee, or the New Leaf river, because in the early spring-time the leaves shoot out earlier than above the falls. The Sioux tradition goes on to relate that there they established themselves in comfort, some going up the Minnesota, where buffaloes were plenty, others, as their numbers increased at the Wah-coo-tay village, spread themselves along down to the Cannon river and to Rem-ne-cha, or the Red Wing village, where for many, many years they fattened on the game and wild rice of the region about them.

Again they tell that in this paradise of hunters dissensions once more arose among them, and, disregarding the warnings of previous counsels to avoid strife, the great Red Wing and the noble Wah-pa-sha became involved in that quarrel. The friends and adherents of both were equally strenuous in the support of their respective chief and after a prolonged council of the entire band, ending in an outburst of angry passion, the respective partisans seized their war-clubs and quivers and were about to fight, but before the war-whoop was given for battle Wah-pa-sha commanded silence by a wave of his red cap, and telling the assembled multitude to cease their strife, threw his totem or badge of authority, the red cap, into air. A whirlwind took it up and it instantly disappeared. At the same moment a convulsion of the earth was felt, darkness fell upon them, and in the morning, when all was once again serene, they found that a portion of the bluff containing the bones of their dead, had disappeared. A party of their principal braves were dispatched in search of the lost mountain, and as they descended in canoes they recognized what is now known as the "Sugar Loaf," as the red cap of their chief, transformed into stone.

The distant peak of Trempealeau mountain was soon discovered to be a part of their lost inheritance, and hastening on, the moving or moved mountain, of Pah-ha-dah, as it is called in the Dah-ko-tah tongue, was overtaken just as it made a vain effort to plunge into the lake of Me-day Pah-ha-dah. The other peaks of the Red Wing range had already caught upon the sandy point of the prairie, and therefore, claiming their truant possessions, they made those peaks the dividing line between themselves and the Winnebagoes.

It only remains for me to say, in proof of the entire authenticity of this tradition, that until defaced by the growing wants of a city, the bluff resembled in shape a voyageur cap of ancient date, and the red appearance of the face of the cliff justified its Sioux name of Wah-pa-ha-sha, or the cap of Wah-pa-sha.