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


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