Death and Funeral Customs. The Sacred Lock of Hair.
Reincarnation and the Converse of Spirits. Occult and
Psychic Powers. The Gift of Prophecy.
The attitude of the Indian toward death, the test and background of life,
is entirely consistent with his character and philosophy. Death has no
terrors for him; he meets it with simplicity and perfect calm, seeking
only an honorable end as his last gift to his family and descendants.
Therefore he courts death in battle; on the other hand, he would regard it
as disgraceful to be killed in a private quarrel. If one be dying at home,
it is customary to carry his bed out of doors as the end approaches, that
his spirit may pass under the open sky.
Next to this, the matter that concerns him most is the parting with his
dear ones, especially if he have any little children who must be left
behind to suffer want. His family affections are strong, and he grieves
intensely for the lost, even though he has unbounded faith in a spiritual
The outward signs of mourning for the dead are far more spontaneous and
convincing than is the correct and well-ordered black of civilization.
Both men and women among us loosen their hair and cut it according to the
degree of relationship or of devotion. Consistent with the idea of
sacrificing all personal beauty and adornment, they trim off likewise from
the dress its fringes and ornaments, perhaps cut it short, or cut the robe
or blanket in two. The men blacken their faces, and widows or bereaved
parents sometimes gash their arms and legs till they are covered with
blood. Giving themselves up wholly to their grief, they are no longer
concerned about any earthly possession, and often give away all that they
have to the first comers, even to their beds and their home. Finally, the
wailing for the dead is continued night and day to the point of utter
voicelessness; a musical, weird, and heart-piercing sound, which has been
compared to the "keening" of the Celtic mourner.
The old-time burial of the Plains Indians was upon a scaffold of poles, or
a platform among the boughs of a tree—their only means of placing
the body out of reach of wild beasts, as they had no implements with which
to dig a suitable grave. It was prepared by dressing in the finest
clothes, together with some personal possessions and ornaments, wrapped in
several robes, and finally in a secure covering of raw-hide. As a special
mark of respect, the body of a young woman or a warrior was sometimes laid
out in state in a new teepee, with the usual household articles and even
with a dish of food left beside it, not that they supposed the spirit
could use the implements or eat the food but merely as a last tribute.
Then the whole people would break camp and depart to a distance, leaving
the dead alone in an honorable solitude.
There was no prescribed ceremony of burial, though the body was carried
out with more or less solemnity by selected young men, and sometimes noted
warriors were the pall-bearers of a man of distinction. It was usual to
choose a prominent hill with a commanding outlook for the last
resting-place of our dead. If a man were slain in battle, it was an old
custom to place his body against a tree or rock in a sitting position,
always facing the enemy, to indicate his undaunted defiance and bravery,
even in death.
I recall a touching custom among us, which was designed to keep the memory
of the departed near and warm in the bereaved household. A lock of hair of
the beloved dead was wrapped in pretty clothing, such as it was supposed
that he or she would like to wear if living. This "spirit bundle," as it
was called, was suspended from a tripod, and occupied a certain place in
the lodge which was the place of honor. At every meal time, a dish of food
was placed under it, and some person of the same sex and age as the one
who was gone must afterward be invited in to partake of the food. At the
end of a year from the time of death, the relatives made a public feast
and gave away the clothing and other gifts, while the lock of hair was
interred with appropriate ceremonies.
Certainly the Indian never doubted the immortal nature of the spirit or
soul of man, but neither did he care to speculate upon its probable state
or condition in a future life. The idea of a "happy hunting-ground" is
modern and probably borrowed, or invented by the white man. The primitive
Indian was content to believe that the spirit which the "Great Mystery"
breathed into man returns to Him who gave it, and that after it is freed
from the body, it is everywhere and pervades all nature, yet often lingers
near the grave or "spirit bundle" for the consolation of friends, and is
able to hear prayers. So much of reverence was due the disembodied spirit,
that it was not customary with us even to name the dead aloud.
It is well known that the American Indian had somehow developed occult
power, and although in the latter days there have been many impostors,
and, allowing for the vanity and weakness of human nature, it is fair to
assume that there must have been some even in the old days, yet there are
well-attested instances of remarkable prophecies and other mystic
A Sioux prophet predicted the coming of the white man fully fifty years
before the event, and even described accurately his garments and weapons.
Before the steamboat was invented, another prophet of our race described
the "Fire Boat" that would swim upon their mighty river, the Mississippi,
and the date of this prophecy is attested by the term used, which is long
since obsolete. No doubt, many predictions have been colored to suit the
new age, and unquestionably false prophets, fakirs, and conjurers have
become the pest of the tribes during the transition period. Nevertheless,
even during this period there was here and there a man of the old type who
was implicitly believed in to the last.
Notable among these was Ta-chank-pee Ho-tank-a, or His War Club Speaks
Loud, who foretold a year in advance the details of a great war-party
against the Ojibways. There were to be seven battles, all successful
except the last, in which the Sioux were to be taken at a disadvantage and
suffer crushing defeat. This was carried out to the letter. Our people
surprised and slew many of the Ojibways in their villages, but in turn
were followed and cunningly led into an ambush whence but few came out
alive. This was only one of his remarkable prophecies.
Another famous "medicine-man" was born on the Rum River about one hundred
and fifty years ago, and lived to be over a century old. He was born
during a desperate battle with the Ojibways, at a moment when, as it
seemed, the band of Sioux engaged were to be annihilated. Therefore the
child's grandmother exclaimed: "Since we are all to perish, let him die a
warrior's death in the field!" and she placed his cradle under fire, near
the spot where his uncle and grandfathers were fighting, for he had no
father. But when an old man discovered the new-born child, he commanded
the women to take care of him, "for," said he, "we know not how precious
the strength of even one warrior may some day become to his nation!"
This child lived to become great among us, as was intimated to the
superstitious by the circumstances of his birth. At the age of about
seventy-five years, he saved his band from utter destruction at the hands
of their ancestral enemies, by suddenly giving warning received in a dream
of the approach of a large war-party. The men immediately sent out scouts,
and felled trees for a stockade, barely in time to meet and repel the
predicted attack. Five years later, he repeated the service, and again
saved his people from awful slaughter. There was no confusion of figures
or omens, as with lesser medicine-men, but in every incident that is told
of him his interpretation of the sign, whatever it was, proved singularly
The father of Little Crow, the chief who led the "Minnesota massacre" of
1862, was another prophet of some note. One of his characteristic
prophecies was made only a few years before he died, when he had declared
that, although already an old man, he would go once more upon the
war-path. At the final war-feast, he declared that three of the enemy
would be slain, but he showed great distress and reluctance in foretelling
that he would lose two of his own men. Three of the Ojibways were indeed
slain as he had said, but in the battle the old war prophet lost both of
his two sons.
There are many trustworthy men, and men of Christian faith, to vouch for
these and similar events occurring as foretold. I cannot pretend to
explain them, but I know that our people possessed remarkable powers of
concentration and abstraction, and I sometimes fancy that such nearness to
nature as I have described keeps the spirit sensitive to impressions not
commonly felt, and in touch with the unseen powers. Some of us seemed to
have a peculiar intuition for the locality of a grave, which they
explained by saying that they had received a communication from the spirit
of the departed. My own grandmother was one of these, and as far back as I
can remember, when camping in a strange country, my brother and I would
search for and find human bones at the spot she had indicated to us as an
ancient burial-place or the spot where a lone warrior had fallen. Of
course, the outward signs of burial had been long since obliterated.
The Scotch would certainly have declared that she had the "second sight,"
for she had other remarkable premonitions or intuitions within my own
recollection. I have heard her speak of a peculiar sensation in the
breast, by which, as she said, she was advised of anything of importance
concerning her absent children. Other native women have claimed a similar
monitor, but I never heard of one who could interpret it with such
accuracy. We were once camping on Lake Manitoba when we received news that
my uncle and his family had been murdered several weeks before, at a fort
some two hundred miles distant. While all our clan were wailing and
mourning their loss, my grandmother calmly bade them cease, saying that
her son was approaching, and that they would see him shortly. Although we
had no other reason to doubt the ill tidings, it is a fact that my uncle
came into camp two days after his reported death.
At another time, when I was fourteen years old, we had just left Fort
Ellis on the Assiniboine River, and my youngest uncle had selected a fine
spot for our night camp. It was already after sundown, but my grandmother
became unaccountably nervous, and positively refused to pitch her tent. So
we reluctantly went on down the river, and camped after dark at a secluded
place. The next day we learned that a family who were following close
behind had stopped at the place first selected by my uncle, but were
surprised in the night by a roving war-party, and massacred to a man. This
incident made a great impression upon our people.
Many of the Indians believed that one may be born more than once, and
there were some who claimed to have full knowledge of a former
incarnation. There were also those who held converse with a "twin spirit,"
who had been born into another tribe or race. There was a well-known Sioux
war-prophet who lived in the middle of the last century, so that he is
still remembered by the old men of his band. After he had reached middle
age, he declared that he had a spirit brother among the Ojibways, the
ancestral enemies of the Sioux. He even named the band to which his
brother belonged, and said that he also was a war-prophet among his
Upon one of their hunts along the border between the two tribes, the Sioux
leader one evening called his warriors together, and solemnly declared to
them that they were about to meet a like band of Ojibway hunters, led by
his spirit twin. Since this was to be their first meeting since they were
born as strangers, he earnestly begged the young men to resist the
temptation to join battle with their tribal foes.
"You will know him at once," the prophet said to them, "for he will not
only look like me in face and form, but he will display the same totem,
and even sing my war songs!"
They sent out scouts, who soon returned with news of the approaching
party. Then the leading men started with their peace-pipe for the Ojibway
camp, and when they were near at hand they fired three distinct volleys, a
signal of their desire for a peaceful meeting.
The response came in like manner, and they entered the camp, with the
peace-pipe in the hands of the prophet.
Lo, the stranger prophet advanced to meet them, and the people were
greatly struck with the resemblance between the two men, who met and
embraced one another with unusual fervor.
It was quickly agreed by both parties that they should camp together for
several days, and one evening the Sioux made a "warriors' feast" to which
they invited many of the Ojibways. The prophet asked his twin brother to
sing one of his sacred songs, and behold! it was the very song that he
himself was wont to sing. This proved to the warriors beyond doubt or
cavil the claims of their seer.