Passionate and intoxicating, THE SONGS OF THE TETON SIOUX will astound and fascinate scholar and casual reader alike. The voice of their people may be fading but the powerful songs of the Sioux will live on forever.
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Songs of the Teton Sioux
By Harry W. Paige
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1970 Harry W. Paige, PhD
All rights reserved.
MODERN SCHOLARSHIP now contends that it is almost certain that the ancestors of the American Indian, robed in furs and carrying stone-tipped spears, came originally from Asia, across the Bering Strait and into North America, and thence to begin their migrations over two continents. According to the evidence of early archaeological discoveries, this probably happened over ten thousand years ago, during the period of the Pleistocene glaciations, and the people probably followed the protective valleys of the Wisconsin glacier which covered most of North America. Finally, these survivors of what must have been unimaginable hardships, stumbled upon a virgin land that, although not flowing with milk and honey, must have been full of the warmth of the sun and the coolness of water and the plenty of wild game. It may well be that at the journey's end a surge of victory, inarticulate yet full of a wild power, shook at least one breast to song.
From their northern point of entry into the new world these people must have been drawn in their incredible march by the sun's warmth and the relative security of the valleys, for they kept to a southerly course. Some of these bands settled in what is now the southern part of the United States, while others continued southward and into the present territories of Mexico and Central and South America, there to establish the civilizations that would become the great empires of the Inca and the Aztec.
The Sioux were among the people who came originally from the southern part of the United States, referring to themselves at this time as the Ocheti Sakowin or Seven Council Fires, and they were the most aggressive of all the Siouan tribes.
By the sixteenth century the Sioux had migrated to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, moving always northward, fighting as they went against the agricultural societies with whom they came in contact and against whom they had the usual intense prejudice of an agricultural-hunting society for a farming community. When first seen by the whites, then, in the seventeenth century, the Sioux were a forest people. Early in the same century the Sioux fought a long series of wars with the Algonquins who, because they had obtained firearms from the French and English, were able to drive the Sioux into what is now southern Minnesota. During these early migrations, of which no extensive account is available, the Sioux divided into the Eastern, Middle and Western groups. The Eastern Sioux settled permanently in the wooded country west of Lake Superior while the Tetons or Western division became the Plains Sioux and were destined to settle across the Missouri River. Warfare, migrations and tribal feuds did much to promote further divisions of the Sioux so that the cultures of the Eastern, Middle and Western divisions of the Sioux became more disparate.
About the year 1760 the Teton Sioux invaded the territory of the Great Bend of the Missouri River and found themselves thwarted in their westward march by the Arikara, who were mounted and armed by the Spanish. Lewis and Clark reported that in 1804 the Arikara were successful in preventing the Sioux from crossing the Missouri until sometime between 1772 and 1780 the Arikaras were all but wiped out by three widespread epidemics of smallpox.
During their contact with the Arikaras or Rees the Sioux probably obtained a few horses through trade or plunder, but could not be called a nation of horsemen until the last decade of the eighteenth century. In about 1775 the war parties of the Sioux, led in their westward march by the Oglala division of the tribe, crossed the Missouri and, in 1775 or 1776, Standing Bull, an Oglala war chief, discovered Paha Sapa or the Black Hills, later regarded as the sacred lands of the Sioux. The Brules soon followed their kinsmen across the Missouri and into the territory of the powerful and then hostile Cheyennes, who claimed the Black Hills region as their own.
Although the Tetons at this time still considered the eastern woodlands as their home, their semiannual hunting expeditions across the Missouri introduced them to a land full of buffalo herds, abundant grass and water supplies, natural protection and all the elements that were attractive to a semi-nomadic, adventurous people. Just as the thought and way of life of the ancient Greeks was influenced by the geography of mountains and sea, so the Tetons were shaped by the wild exhilaration of the vast, sweeping plains and the limitless expanse of horizon. They came to love the freedom of almost pure democracy and the mystical religion of visions and dreams induced by the solitude, the painfully blue sky, the bright sun and the wealth of WakaNtaNka's plenty. During these excursions across the Missouri, the Tetons acquired more horses, and later drove the Cheyennes (Shahiyela or People of Alien Speech) from the Black Hills.
The crossing of the Missouri and the acquisition of more horses were events of the greatest significance in the early history of the Sioux. Their kinsmen east of the Missouri traveled on foot, with only dogs to pull the travois which carried their possessions for hunting, warfare and homemaking. After the Tetons became mounted, however, about the year 1796, a revolution was wrought in their way of life. Their mobility, and therefore their striking power, were greatly increased. They could chase down and kill the pte or buffalo, building their economy on the hunting of this shaggy beast that roamed the prairie in herds of thousands. They could take the initiative and attack their new enemies of the plains—the Crow, the Pawnee and the Shoshone. They could develop their young men into expert horse warriors so that less than a century later one of the most respected of Indian fighters, General George Crook, would pay tribute to them as "the finest light cavalry in the world."
There are many descriptions of the Sioux and their way of life from those who lived among them or traded with them, or attempted with varying degrees of success to convert them to the Christian faith. There are the reports of the "squaw men" who married Sioux women and were often accepted into the Indian society as brothers. Most accounts agree that they were a superior people physically, mentally and morally. Many of the men were over six feet tall, with strong disciplined bodies and classical features. The women, who were well treated by the Sioux, were tall, graceful and slender, presenting a marked contrast to the women of the desert tribes, who were short and heavy set.
The period from the acquisition of horses to about 1860 was the Golden Age of the Teton Sioux, as their Winter Counts testify. During this time they were the lords of the plains, each warrior a paladin who found no dearth of opportunity to count coup on his enemies and steal their horses and women. It was not only the Sioux economy that depended on the buffalo hunt and warfare, but the social systems as well. Unless he distinguished himself in hunting or warfare the Sioux walked an alien path. Glory, honor and wealth were all to be won on the warpath. The rewards of tribal society and sacred institutions were contingent upon a warrior's success in battle and on the hunt. The rights of manhood, courtship and marriage all depended on this system of courage and honor in war, as the song of this Indian maiden testifies:
zuya ya ye go on the warpath.
caze your name
I hear (announced among the victors)
hingna ciyin kte.
I will marry you.
Even a young man's name could be considered a gain of war, as formal name-taking ceremonies usually took place after the young warrior had earned distinction on the field of battle. It was a society that allowed few alternatives, among them glory or death.
Warfare was not only a means of acquiring horses—it was a glorious adventure, a game to the Plains Indians, and the Sioux were its champions. Theirs was a quixotic approach to warfare, for its ultimate end was not so much victory as it was individual distinction. In many ways warfare on the plains resembled that of the feudal system in the middle ages and the spirit resembled the comitatus spirit of the Anglo-Saxon period. Many times a warrior returning from an engagement in which many of the enemy had been killed and many horses stolen reported that "nothing had happened," which simply meant that he had counted no coup, taken no scalp, rescued no fallen comrade. It may have been a magnificent victory for the war party, but if the individual warrior had nothing to sing of, then it was at best a hollow victory for him. During these years the Sioux had few guns and long range encounters were not their idea of warfare. They called the white man's version of war "just shooting" as it permitted no truly heroic deeds as the Sioux counted them.
Even during the Golden Age of the Sioux, however, there was a handwriting on the wall for those "far-seeing" ones among them. The nineteenth century brought with it a host of French traders from St. Louis, who began large-scale trading operations among the Tetons. During this period of cultural proximity, the influence of traders representing rival companies could be used as an index to the actions of large groups of the Sioux. They moved their hunting grounds, attacked neighboring tribes and fought the whites according to the particular influence they were under at the time. Most of the Tetons had by this time developed a fondness for the white man's articles of trade and many considered them a necessity, especially guns and ammunition, cloth, metal utensils and objects of adornment. The French, using all their business acumen and years of experience with the Indians, attempted to get the chiefs to trade exclusively with their company and thereby gain a monopoly on this lucrative industry. Sometimes, as a business expedient, these traders married Sioux women and so increased their influence among the Indian people. But the Frenchman's greatest trade item was bad liquor.
The introduction of mniwakaN or "mysterious water" to the Plains Indians marked the beginning of a gradual deterioration of the moral code under which they lived. Liquor demoralized the wild Indian: its effects robbed him not only of his senses but of pride and self-respect and served to weaken his resistance to the many diseases of the whites. Tribal killings, extremely rare among the Sioux who considered killing a brother Sioux the worst of all crimes, became all too frequent. Sioux women were sold to the whites for liquor. The chiefs, unable to control their young warriors and their thirst for liquor, lost their tribal authority. The notorious Wagluhe or Followers, a sizable faction of Indians weak in will and spirit who preferred the soft ways and whiskey of the WasicuN (whites), increased in number and influence. Detribalized, these Indians touched both societies yet belonged to neither. The father of Red Cloud, tragic Oglala chieftain, died a drunkard's death. Many others followed the WasicuN road to degradation and despair until the mystical "sacred hoop," which bound the Sioux Nation in spiritual unity under WakaNtaNka, threatened to break. It was only then, from the darkness of despair, that giants arose from Mother Earth, spilling whiskey rather than a brother's blood.
In 1822 a comet, recorded by white men of science, blazed in the western sky, describing an arc of fire over an Oglala village where a woman had just given birth to a son. The wise men of the tribe considered this a powerful omen, a sign from WakaNtaNka, this fire-in-the-sky, and so the infant was appropriately named Mahpiya Luta. The whites were to translate his name as Red Cloud, a name destined to assume a major role in the history of the Sioux. As if in answer to a people's supplications other leaders arose: Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Spotted Tail, Two Strike, and Gall. The list reads like a roll call of Sioux culture heroes.
Even giants were not enough to save the Sioux, however. They could only win a brief reprieve against the inevitable fate of the primitive in conflict with the forces of "progress" and the interests of those people who had glimpsed their manifest destiny, symbolized by the enormous potential of the virgin lands beyond the Missouri. Between this emerging nation and its vision stood the implacable Red Man, the Stone Age savage defying the industrial might of a growing society. Progress, like nature, it would seem, abhors a vacuum, or what is considered as such by its advocates.
The final period of Sioux history, from the 1860s to 1891, then, is the tragic record of a people's death song, interrupted by moments of triumph made more bitter by their brevity. The destruction of the Sioux was one of a tragic, relentless gradualism. As the Greek gods played with Oedipus, permitting him his illusory victories over Fate, so the unseen powers played with the Sioux, permitting them their glory on the Rosebud and at the Little Big Horn before the final tragedy at Wounded Knee. But even as the Sioux celebrated their triumphs by victory dances, kill talks and songs there were those among them who looked ahead and saw the ashen specter of ultimate defeat, and their hearts became heavy with the burden they knew they must carry, not only for themselves, but for their people as well. Sick at heart, Red Cloud, once the very spirit of Sioux resistance, who had forced the closing of the Bozeman Trail and the abandonment of Fort Phil Kearny, capitulated to the inevitable and made peace with the whites who promised in the Treaty of 1868 that the Sioux should hold their sacred lands and hunting grounds. Spotted Tail, famous Brule rival of Red Cloud, also saw that the future of the Sioux, if indeed they had a future, lay in their willingness to follow the "black road" of the white man. Later, Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, as well as other agency Indians, were regarded as traitors by the non-progressives who were still "out" and who followed Crazy Horse to the Powder River country, home of most of the hostiles. Both Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, irreconcilable to the ways of the whites, preferred freedom and possible death as an alternative to captivity and imitation of the whites.
There were those among the whites who protested vehemently against what they considered to be a shameful treatment of the Indian. Most of these well-intentioned people were Eastern "do- gooders" who were as unrealistic in their aspirations for the Indian as their opponents were barbaric. Many of these whites, inspired by Christian idealism, actually believed that they could drag the Indian from the Stone Age into modernity in a few short years, although it had never been done before in the history of the world. The leash which was to be used to lead them was to be agriculture.
From their earliest days on the plains the Sioux had been the bitter foe of all farming societies. The Sioux were warriors and hunters by long tradition and looked with contempt on those who would "scratch the earth" for food. The Sioux would not even permit their women to engage in such a lowly pursuit. Another reason for their deep-rooted antipathy for agriculture was a religious one: they considered WakaNtaNka as their spiritual Father and Mother Earth as their Mother. They believed that farming was an outrage against Mother Earth, that to scar her bosom with hoe or plow was to violate her and so bring bad times to their people by making them out of touch with the higher powers. There were other considerations that the "friends" of the Sioux overlooked in their desire to promote agriculture and force the Indian to imitate the alien ways of the whites. Even if the Sioux could have been converted to agriculture, the land could not. Poor, flinty soil, prolonged periods of drought, grasshoppers and locusts—all conspired against this grand design. Had these "friends" of the Sioux had knowledge and understanding as well as sympathy, they might have had a far greater effect on Indian policy, perhaps to the benefit of all concerned.
Another obstacle to progress in Indian affairs was the constant feuding between the War Department and the Indian Bureau, which moved under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior in 1849. The military was anxious to maintain a strict and consistent policy of control, while the "friends" and the Indian Bureau wanted to accomplish the same ends by gradual methods. The split was disastrous. Peaceful Indians were destroyed by the military, who often could not tell a friendly band from hostiles, and the strong among the reservation Indians intimidated the weak, often corrupt agents of the Indian Bureau. From the President of the United States down to the lowest Indian Bureau clerk there was no consistent policy in dealing with the Indians. In addition to the existing confusion, there was a change of administration every four years and often a radical change in policy which accompanied the process. To the Sioux this inconsistency was to be interpreted as weakness on the part of the whites. Dishonest agents, who sometimes retired for life after a few short years of diverting Indian funds and goods into their own pockets, and sadistic military leaders who murdered women and children in "battle," confirmed the Indian conviction that the whites were never to be trusted. The Northern Cheyenne, long time allies of the Sioux, in eloquent testimony to the duplicity of the whites, called them veho, which means spider in their tongue.
Excerpted from Songs of the Teton Sioux by Harry W. Paige. Copyright © 1970 Harry W. Paige, PhD. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One The People,
Chapter Two The Primitive Imagination and the Purpose of Song,
Chapter Three The Nature of Primitive Song,
Chapter Four Individual Songs,
Chapter Five Ceremonial Songs,
Chapter Six Modern Songs of Cultural Change,
Alphabet and Pronunciation Key,