By William Jones



The Harvard Monthly, 28 May 1899




ABOUT ten years ago the Indian of the Plains began to realize the little joy there was in being shut up on a reservation like a wild steer in a corral; he was daily growing sick at seeing the agreements, made with great solemnity between him and certain good men sent out from Washington, broken at will by Agency officials; it pained him to see his land slip away piece by piece; he became struck with a mysterious dread as he stood beside kinsmen dying with strange new diseases; the scorching of his crops by the winds of the south disheartened him and it stung his pride to have to endure petty agents who strutted with puffed-up arrogance in asserting their authority over him; with all these thoughts inflaming him, he veered from the “white man’s road” and turned with all his soul and body to Gisha Munetoa, the Master of Life, who, he believed, was now his only source of help and consolation.  In the visions of his simple imagination, he thought he saw Him, and communed with Him.  This consoled his heart.  He told his joy to his friends, these in turn told it to others, until in time large revivals, to which came great numbers of Indians from various tribes, began to be held to invoke the favor of Gisha Munetoa.  Then a great wave of religious enthusiasm began to sweep across the Plains and over the Rocky Mountains.  It grew and it spread with astonishing rapidity.  It did not begin to subside till the winter of 1890; and not yet has it spent its force.

            In the middle of one of the summers when this religious fervor was at its height, bands of Kiowas, Comanches, Caddoes, Shawnees, Delawares, and Kickapoos came on a friendly visit to a village of the Osakies on the Canadian, in the Indian Territory.  One evening while the sun was yet a quarter of an hour high, men, women, and children may of them on ponies, clustered beside their wigwams; and holding their hands to shade their eyes, they gazed at the glow of the setting sun.  The moment the sun dropped wholly from view, they turned, and streamed from all the lodges toward the centre of the village, where the low, muffled boom of a drum, just beginning, was summoning them into a circular space enclosed by an embankment knee-high.  An Osakie chieftain led the way in from the west.  Boys with beaming faces, and men with sober mien, filed in behind and seated themselves in a circle against the embankment.  Then, shyly and with their eyes on the ground, came the girls and the women, and sat near the drummers and singers in the middle of the gathering place.  A vast throng stood without.

            Presently the beating of the drum ceased, and the prattle of voices hushed.  There was absolute silence when the Osakie chieftain rose and began slowly and calmly:

            “My Osakie brothers and sisters, let us, with our hearts, shake the hands of the Comanches, the Kiowas and the Caddoes.  They are no longer our foes.  Let us, with our hearts, shake the hands of our kinsmen, the Shawnees, the Delawares, and the Kickapoos.  And may the friendship which has held us together so many moons, so many winters, help us to stand together in the moons and the winters to come.”

            Then, lowering his voice, while the heads of all were bowed, he prayed, “Our Father, Gisha Munetoa, pity us thy children.  As thou didst show to the young woman who once brought the spirit of peace upon earth, so wilt thou fill now with the same spirit the hearts of our girls, our women, our wives and our mothers.  Then they can show us men how to live, and then there shall be no more war among the nations.”

            After this, the chief sat down; and softly and low, in accompaniment to the big drum, the singers began their song.  Gradually the booming of the drum increased, the singing grew louder and more spirited, till all of a sudden a whoop of the singers in chorus sent the men and boys to their feet.  Then Caddo, Comanche, Kiowa danced together with Shawnee, Delaware, Kickapoo, and Osakie.  And whenever a dancer sat down in his place to rest, there stepped before him an Osakie young man with a long peace-pipe in his hand.  After the Osakie had invoked the spirit of Gisha Munetoa by pointing the stem of the pipe to the north, to the south, to the east, and then to the west, the dancer received to his lips and held for a moment the stem of the pipe, in the red-stone bowl of which was lit, with a live coal, the sacred tobacco.

            This is the ceremony which some have scoffed at and have branded with such scornful epithets as the “Ghost Dance,” and the “Messiah Craze.”  But to the Osakies and those who join with them in singing its songs, in dancing its dance, and in praying its prayers, it is the Anoska Nimiwina, a dance of peace.  And the Osakies explain the magic of its songs, the thrill of its dance, and the comfort of its prayers, in the story of Shaskasi, the young woman who once brought from Gish Munetoa the spirit of peace into the lodges of men.  Here is the myth[1] as it was told me by the Osakie chieftain on the day when the bands of the different nations came on their friendly visit to his village.

            Many winters ago two nations of the North were fighting, fighting like buffalo bulls when huge herds meet on the prairies.  It was a cruel war, and for a long time it seemed as if neither side would win.  But one morning, in a fierce battle, the warriors of one nation overcame the warriors of the other.  Then the old men, women, and children of the nation that was beaten fled in all haste from their lodges and their village.  Among the fugitives was a young woman who, seeing the enemy press had upon them, separated herself from the throng she was in. She was young, tall, and slender; she was loved by all her nation; old men and old women seeing her pass among the lodges used to whisper good reports of her; and many a young man used to sit of an evening in the warm summer moons near the lodge where she slept, and play to her on his flute in the hope that she would cough gently to let him come near and whisper the cause of his coming.

            The young woman ran at the top of her speed, crashing aimlessly this way and that through the tall grass and reeds of the hollows, and frightening the birds that were whistling there.  By and by she made her way out upon a high prairie, and stood still for a moment to catch her breath.  Her clothing hung in shreds, her moccasins were torn and spattered with mud, and her hair was all dishevelled.  And as she scanned swiftly the prairies far and near, her eyes flashed like the eyes of a wild-cat at bay.  There was no sign of the enemy anywhere, not even of any of her people in flight; and so glancing now and then over her shoulder, she fell to waking slowly, very slowly, through the tall nodding grass.  As she walked on in silence, she began to think of the battle, and the whooping of the warriors as they rode from the village to meet the enemy; then came the defeat, and the wild flight of the old men, the women and children.  She felt as if she saw her lodge in ashes, her mother led away a captive; and, worst of all, came the thought that the scalps of her brother and her father were either hanging in a lodge or the foe or dangling from the scalp pole about which her enemies were dancing with joy.  Then her heart grew sick, her knees trembled, and the strength within her began to fail.  She knelt, and with her cheeks in the palms of her hands, began to sob and to wail.

            Suddenly, in this great despair, she caught the faint sound of a voice calling from afar,--“O my daughter!”  Instantly she raised her head, and, pressing her clasped hands between her knees, she listened, doubting all the while whether the call were but a ringing of the imagination.  And while she listened she heard again, nearer and more distinctly, --“O my daughter!”  She leaped at once to her feet, and as her eyes swept the prairies round about to find whence the sound came, she heard even yet nearer the same voice and the same call.  Still she saw no one.  Then her heart thumped hard and fast; but just as she turned to flee, she heard for the fourth time, directly above her, --“O my daughter!”  She stopped and looked into the sky; and lo! as she stood there motionless, she beheld in the clouds Gisha Munetoa, the Master of Life, who spoke to her thus:

            “Wipe away the tears from thine eyes, my daughter, and listen to the message which I shall tell thee; for I shall entrust many things upon thee, because I have seen thee loved above all the young women of thy nation.  I wish thee to return to thy lodge and to they village, which thou shall find standing s in the days of peach.

            “Now do these things which I tell thee as thou hearest them, and all shall come out well.  First, pluck four stems from the tall grass waving at they side, and then return the way whence thou hast come.  On that way is the camp of the foe.  Be not afraid, but enter straight into the camp as thou wouldst into thine own.  Thou shalt find the chiefs and the warriors feasting.  I shall direct thy footsteps to the place where the two head chiefs are eating.  There sit thyself down and eat till thine hunger is gone.  Warriors shall place food before thee, and thou shalt see everything that passes before thine eyes; but no one shall see thee, nor shall anyone know that thou art there.  After thou art done eating, rise; and as thou turnest thy back upon the chiefs and the warriors, and startest on thy way home, thou shalt see at thy feet a large wooden vessel.  Lift up the vessel and bear it upon thy shoulders, for thou shalt find it light.  And when thou hast come into the village of thy people, go and sit by thy lodge.  There play upon a drum which thou shalt have, and intime to the measure, sing the songs which I shall cause thee to sing.  And while thy people sing with thee, show them how to dance to the new songs.  Then tell them that there shall be no more war.  Be brave in thine heart, my daughter; for I shall be with thee in all that I have asked thee to do.”

            Then Gisha Munetoa disappeared behind the clouds and left the young woman alone there on the high prairie.  While thinking over the strange things which she had just heard, she slowly plucked a stem of the tall grass at her side.  She looked at it a moment, and then plucked another and another, until she held four of them in the hollow of her hand.  As she was wondering in her heart what they could mean behold! They changed from four stems of blue-jointed grass into four Anoska drum-sticks.  The young woman’s grief left her and she seemed buoyed up by the strength of the mysterious power.  Then she began to retrace her way through the trail of the bent grass, the trail which she alone had made in her flight.  She followed it in all its windings until almost sunset, when she came into the camp of the enemy.  Enveloped in a cloud of faint blue mist, she walked boldly up to the place where the chiefs and the warriors were feasting, and sat down in a vacant place between the two head chiefs.  She watched the warriors stalking to and fro; and some of them, as they came near to place food before her and the chiefs, she felt almost touching her; but no one saw her or felt her presence.   When her hunger was gone, and she had risen to go, she beheld at her feet the wooden vessel which, she instantly remembered she was to take up.  And lo! the moment her finger touched the vessel, it changed into a big Anoska drum beautifully colored and decorated with porcupine quills, beads, and eagle feathers.  The young woman stood for a while in a daze as she looked upon this sudden wonder.  But with the words of Gisha Munetoa ringing in her ears, she was mindful of his command, and so lifted the drum upon her shoulders and bore it with ease on her way home.

            It was now dusk when she reached the top of the butte overlooking the valley in which her village stood.  The whistling of the birds of day had hushed; and, in the gloom of the silence on the prairies, she thought of the village in the valley, the village which she could not see for the darkness, but from which now and then she caught a faint halloo, or the spent sound of the bark of dogs.  Slowly she started down the slope; but she had not gone many steps when, near by, went up the laughing, cackling yelp that a coyote makes as he spins on his haaaaaunches.  Straightway howl after howl of other coyotes followed in rapid succession down the slope, and continued until there went up in the distance, near the village, the prolonged moan which the deep-throated gray wolf makes when prowling forth from his lair on the way to a killing.  Then she heard the screeching of rattle-snake owls from the scattered prairie-dog towns in the valley; and with that she stopped and listened.  She began to think of the days before the cruel war; how she had often lain awake of nights in her wigwam listening to the signals which the sentinels threw to each other from butte to valley and from valley to butte.  And never had she dreamed that these same watchers would some night signal her home-coming as a danger to the village.  To her loneliness in the strange night was added a sense of pain, at the thought that her approach should bring a new fear to her people in their defeat.  And again she would have gorgotten her mission if she had not kept hearing the words of Gisha Munetoa. 

            She listened till the signals of warning died away, and then, taking courage once more, she continued her way down the slope.  No one was moving about when she entered the village.  The wigwams were standing just as they had stood in the days of peace.  She wandered softly from lodge to lodge, but every one she entered she found silent and deserted.  Again it was not by her own will that, with a sick heart, she sat down before the entrance of her lodge, and began beating a slow and a low muffled measure upon the drum.  Presently, without any power of her own, she found herself singing a song to the time of the drum; and the song reminded her of an old war song which she had often heard sung by the warriors of her nation at the time of the scalp and the war dance.  And all the while she sang it, and many others like it, her voice was yet the voice of a woman; and the sound of her voice in the stillness of the night floated far away over the prairies to the ears of the people who had led. When the people caught the sound of the strange song, they stopped.  They turned about, and faced their village.  But in spite of the alluring power of that voice, they whispered words of mistrust to one another.  “Who can this stranger be,” they asked, “this stranger who, the sentinels signalled, was coming from the camp of the foe?  Only danger can come from that direction!”  But the longer they listened—for they were held from doing anything else—the more they seemed to forget their fear.  Then one by one the warriors began to sneak stealthily through the grass towards the place of the lone singing voice.  They slipped softly from lodge to lodge, now on their hands and knees, and now on their feet with their backs bent far forward. Finding the woman alone, the men straightened up, grouped together, and drew near.  When they saw the well-known face and form of the young woman loved by all the nation, they yelled signals of joy back to the old men, women, and children waiting out on the prairie. 

            Then over the prairies, down the buttes, and across the valley came the people streaming back into their dark village; and as fast as they came, they hurriedly thronged around the young woman, and looked with wonder upon her sitting there alone and singing in time with the drum.  By and by three men, to whom she had handed the other three drum-sticks, sat down by the drum with her.  They followed the time she had set to the beating of the drum, and presently joined in the song she was singing.  After she had found that the men could play the drum and sing alone, she slowly lowered her voice till it was hushed.  Then handing her own drum-stick to a man standing by, she rose and gave him her place at the drum.  After she had formed an open circular space in the middle of the wondering crowd, she beckoned to the boys and the men to join with her in dancing to the music of the song and the drum; and while the boys and the men fell to dancing the step she taught them, the girls and the women went and sat down beside the drummers and singers.

            Now the booming of the drum, the singing of the great chorus of men who had joined with the four singers at the drum, and the whoops and the yells of the dancers were all heard in the distant camp of the foe.  Quickly, in the firelight, the warriors of the enemy sprang to their sacred war bags, and rubbed a pinch of magic paint over their cheeks and upon their weapons.  Then, leaping upon their bare-back ponies, they disappeared in the darkness with the war-chiefs in the lead.  On reaching the top of the butte above the wigwams of the village, they stopped and listened; but only long enough to locate the place where the dancing and the singing were going on.  Then the chiefs yelled the war whoop, the warriors gave it back, and all, bending far over on the backs of their ponies, rode at full speed down the slope.

            Meantime, in the village below, the dance went on.  Nearer and nearer pounded the heavy tramp of many horses, and louder and fiercer grew the yells and the whoops of the enemy.  But all the while the boom of the drum increased, the singing grew more spirited, and the number of dancers swelled.  Like a big, black cloud suddenly rising, the enemy loomed up out of the darkness.  But at the very moment when the ponies were about to dash into the throng to scatter it, at the very moment when the noses of the ponies struck the backs and the shoulders of the people who were looking on at the dance, that very moment the ponies halted—stopped stiff in their tracks.  Their riders in anger lashed, clubbed, and kicked them, but the only movement the ponies would make was to turn their heads and their necks to one side or the other.  Finding their ponies would budge no further, the men leaped to the ground.  But the moment they alighted, that very moment the spirit of hatred left their hearts.  They flung aside their shields, their war clubs, their bows and their quivers of arrows, and joined in the dancing and in the singing with the men whom they had come to slay.  And the warriors of the two nations, while smoking together the pipes of peace, listened to the words of Shaskasi, the young woman, telling them that war between them was over.



[1] [Jones’s Note] This version of the myth—the version brought to the Sauks and Foxes by Pottawatomie messengers from the North—has probably never before appeared in print.