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Pathfinding on Plain and Prairie
Chapter VIII
The "Thirst Dance" - "Tobacco messages"—The head conjurer—"Dancing lodges"— The rendezvous— The "idol tree"—Meeting of the head conjurer and the chief of the warriors—An anxious moment —Building the "temple "—Self-torture, dancing and sacrifices—The festival concluded—Romantic situation for our camp.

WE now were drawing close to the spot which had been indicated by the chief priest of the season as a desirable place for the annual religious festival. Couriers came and went from the several camps. The excitement intensified, and our camp was all astir in anticipation of meeting with the multitudes who, like us, were making for this common ground of appointment. I will here give my readers a brief description of this great festival, known as


This religious gathering has been for ages an annual occurrence. It is an occasion for the fulfilment of vows, and an opportunity for the more religious of this pagan people to make sacrifices and to endure self-inflicted torture and hardship in meeting the requirements of the traditional faith of their fathers.

As the season for this approached some leading men sent "tobacco messages" to different camps near and far, intimating that the time had come for the annual festival, and suggesting the most desirable locality. This latter was determined largely by the proximity of buffalo and the conditions of tribal war.

These tobacco messages were carefully worded and wrapped in the presence of trusty couriers, who would make all haste in reaching their several destinations, often travelling night and day, and generally on foot. When they reached the camps to which they were sent their message was received with solemn dignity and themselves treated with hospitable respect.

Then in quiet council the tobacco was unwrapped and the proposition discussed. If assented to the tobacco was smoked and the head man commissioned to send a return message signifying assent and willingness to come to the appointed place. And now from long distances these camps would move steadily towards the location indicated. The big meeting, the rites to be observed, the blessings that would ensue, the character and prestige and the temporal and supernatural ability of those leaders expected to attend to all these things, were the constant topics of conversation of all these converging camps.

The conjurer rehearsed his medicine hymns, sorted over his medicine bag, fixed his rattles and bells, and retouched his ghastly costume. The warrior went over in memory his bravest deeds and most notable exploits, and carefully arranged his war dress, mending here and fixing there, and generally burnishing up for this grand chance for glorious display. And the women and belles of the camp, notwithstanding all the work of constant moving and making extra provisions to be used during the festival, missed no opportunity to make ready their finery for special use on this great occasion, though all they might have would be contained in a small bag made of calfskin, and would consist mainly of beaded leggings and shoulder straps and a much-brassed leathern girdle.

In the meantime the originator of this concentrative movement was having a hard time of it. The responsibility of the whole gathering rested heavily upon him, and to prepare himself for his duties he fasted and thirsted, left his home and camp, and stayed nights and days alone in cold and wet with little or no covering for his naked body. He petitioned and prayed to "the Spirits," and seemed to commune with them. He grew wan and wasted physically; but he developed spiritually, and there seemed to come to his very appearance that which was supernatural. As the time drew near this intensified. There was a weird mystery about this man, which was felt through all the camp.

The conjurers prepared their medicines, and night and morning before camp moved the drums beat furiously, "dancing lodges "were erected at every encampment, and the four orders of dancers took their turns. The "wood partridges," the "prairie chickens," medicine rattlers," and the "kid foxes," each in turn to vocal and drum music went through their evolutions of movement. Sacrifices were got ready and consecrated, and amidst night and day alarms from the enemy, and all the necessary hunting for the maintenance of these camps, this work of preparation went on for days and sometimes weeks. And now the chosen spot is reached, which is accomplished almost at the same time, for the scouts and couriers have kept the different camps in touch, and the movement of each has been governed for the purpose of reaching the rendezvous about the same day. But this strange crowd is gathered for a specific purpose, and no time is lost. The conjurers and medicine-men convene in one part of the camp, the warriors in another; and while the priests and medicine- men intensify their petitions and incantations, the warriors go out to scout the country and search for a suitable tree to be used as the centre or "idol tree."

A sharp watch is kept for the scouts, and when these are seen returning to camp the medicine- men form in procession with their chief (pro tent.), the originator of this whole movement, at their head, and march through camp singing and incanting and speaking in unknown tongues. The chief medicine-man holds a big pipe with a sacred stem in his hands, and with this he points heavenward and earthward and all around, following the sun, and thus in solemn aspect and with dignified movement these high priests of an old faith march out of camp to meet the warriors. Now comes the crucial time for this chief medicine-man. If these warriors accept the pipe from him then the success of his venture is assured. But if they do not take the pipe as he offers it to them the whole scheme is a failure, and a new chief priest and a new location will have to be sought. No wonder it is a tense moment for the would-be high priest of this great gathering.

The two companies draw near to each other, and while the priests are chanting in doleful notes petitionary and sacrificial hymns, and the warriors are lustily singing songs of victory, the whole camp is hushed in silent expectation as to the outcome. The warriors know the issue lies with them, and carry themselves accordingly. In all the pride and pomp of martial dignity and costume they sit their picked steeds and await the priest's action. This personage is now almost unnerved. The long vigils and fastings and hardships have emaciated his body, and this is weak; but his communings with the spiritual have made him feel that he has a mission, and that he is essential to the well-being of his people. He has grown within the last few days to believe he is an apostle and a bringer of good, and in his mind he feels these warriors must in their own interest accept him. Nevertheless there is the possibility of their not doing so. No messenger has reached him from the secret conclave held yonder behind the hills. Soon he will know. And now he pulls himself together, and, at first with quavering voice and trembling limbs, he holds the sacred pipe aloft and prays. Immediately in front of him is the chosen chief of the warriors, who gives no indication of what he is going to do in this matter. In silence he and the entire assemblage listen as the aspirant for priestly honors seems to forget himself in the intenseness of his purpose. His voice gathers strength, his limbs cease to tremble, and with native and pure eloquence he calls upon the Deity to bless this gathering, to pity his children, to accept their sacrifices, to smile upon their effort. His metaphors are beautiful, his similes are fine; the range of his thought reaches the heavens above and covers the earth beneath. There is a spell that accompanies the prayer. His whole soul is in it. If you and I had been there, my reader friend, we would have seen the countenance of the warrior chief undergo a change. Fence as he will, he is caught, and as we look we say to ourselves, "He will accept the sacred pipe." And presently as the priest stops he steps forward, and with a majestic wave upward and downward and all around, he hands the sacred emblem to the warrior. While the crowd watch him in breathless expectancy the latter takes it from him, also lifts it heavenward and then earthward, and then all around the complete circle, and the air rings with joyous acclamations. The feast is to take place, and the time is now.

This being settled the warriors parade around the camp in full review. Others go and cut down the "idol tree," and now the warriors break ranks, and dashing into the camp open the lodges and take from them the young women of the camp and hurry these along with them to haul home the idol tree. Many long lines are fastened to this tree, and the women on foot and the warriors on horseback take hold of these lines and pull together, and thus proceed homeward. Others act as drivers and shout and fire off their guns to urge on the men and women. As the camp is neared immense crowds of the old and infirm and of women and children join in the march, and thus the idol tree is brought to the spot where the temple is to stand.

Meanwhile others are cutting and hauling home the posts and pillars and beams required for the "big lodge." Not a nail or pin is used in this structure. Each joint and splice is firmly secured with green hide, which as it dries becomes very tight and strong. All work with alacrity. Everything about the erection of the temple is done on the principle that "the king's business requires haste."

When the idol tree is raised in place the conjurers make a special effort with medicine-rattles and religious singing. Some make the "nest" in the idol tree, or, as it might be called, the sacrificial table, and fasten in and on this the sacrifices which had been purchased long before at the trading-posts for this purpose. All the timbers in place, the whole is covered with the lodges of the principal men of the camp, it being thought an honor to have these used in this way. And now the high priest approaches. He has a big buffalo head mask, both himself and the head well covered with earth. Stepping slowly, and wailing as he walks, he enters the temple. Immediately on his entrance is made the inner circle for those who have vows and will dance through the long hours. Then a spot in the temple is selected for the drummers and singers, and these come in turns, so that the choir is continuous day and night during the festival. Fire is placed in four places, and on these fires are put sweet smelling herbs, which as they burn create incense. Then the high priest takes a whole parchment and speaks to the Great Spirit, and to all the lesser powers; then swings the parchment four times, while all the dancers blow their horn whistles. The high priest now throws the parchment into the centre, all the drummers and singers start up, and the entire company join in the chorus. In the inner circle, and immediately around the "idol tree," the real dancers who are to undergo torture are arranging themselves.

Some of these attach long lines to the "idol tree," and then passing the end through the muscles of their arms thus (lance and swing around the circle. Others hang guns to the tendons of their back, and dance with these swinging and jerking about them. Others go from out the camp, and finding a bull's skull with horns attached, pass a line through the eyelets, and then hitch themselves to the other end of the line through the tendons of the back, and drag the head to the temple, entering amongst the dancers for the rest of the festival.

One man, at the time I am writing of, thus hitched himself to a big skull, and dragged this around the big encampment seven times, wailing as he pulled and tugged, and thus sought for forgiveness and salvation.

The self-tortured and the dancers do not eat or drink until the afternoon of the third day. At that time the warriors in costume come in a body to the temple, the bravest ten in the lead, all singing as they march, either on foot or on horseback, and forming a circle just outside the "thirst lodge." Then come those who make gifts; and horses, guns, blankets, etc., are placed in the ring as a general offering, being afterwards distributed to the needy and the infirm. Then the bravest warriors are led out into the centre, and made to recite their exploits and escapades, and between these recitals the various orders of dancers alternate in exhibition of their peculiar skill. Inside the temple torture and thirst and exhaustion; outside, declamation and glory and joyous celebration. And as the sun draws near to the earth on the evening of the third day the annual festival is finished. A day or two later the big camp divides into several smaller camps, each going its own way, leaving only the bare poles around the "idol tree," from the tops of which flutter in the breeze the various-colored sacrificial cloths to remind of this great religious gathering of the wood and plain Crees.

Our camp, having in it the high priest or chief conjurer for this year, might fittingly be called the "Convenor," and therefore it was in place for us to reach the rendezvous before the others. This we did one lovely afternoon, and I could not but admire the selection made by the high priest as the scene of this year's festival.

We camped on the crest of a plateau or tableland, where to the south and west from our feet the country sloped gently to the valley of the Iron Creek, which wound its way from the west and then with a majestic sweep turned southward to the Battle River, its terraced banks with their beautifully timbered heights giving grace to the scene. Where we stood was a fine large plain, with very little, if any, cover for the wily enemy to approach from behind. But within a few miles, and thence on as far as the eye could reach, were ranges of hills, in the valleys of which, as also on their stately summits, prairie and timber were struggling for supremacy, each alternately being beaten, but the whole making a lovely picture.

To-day we have the wild nomadic heathen life, but doubtless in the near to-morrow this will give way to permanent settlement, and the church and school will bring in the clearer light of a larger and fuller revelation.


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