by George Catlin

(First published in London in 1844)

LETTER--No. 30.


In the last letter I gave an account of many of the weapons and other manufactures of these wild folks; and as this has been a day of packing and casing a greet many of these things, which I have obtained of the Indians, to add to my Musee Indienne, I will name a feat more, which I have just been handling over; some description of which may be necessary for the reader in endeavoring: to appreciate some of their strange customs and amusements, which I am soon to unfold. - In a drawing, will he seen the quiver made of the fawn's skin, and the Sioux shield made of the skin of the buffalo's neck, hardened with the glue extracted from the hoofs and joints of the same animal. The process of "smoking tire shield" is a very curious, as well as an important one, in their estimation. For this purpose a young man about to construct him a shield; digs a hole of two feet in depth, in the ground, and as large in diameter as he designs to make his shield. In this he builds a fire, and over it, a few inches higher than the ground, he stretches the raw hide horizontally over the fire, with little pegs driven through holes made near the edges of the skin. This skin is at first, twice as large as the size of the required shield; but having got his particular and best friends (who are invited on the occasion,) into a ring, to dance and sing around it, and solicit the Great Spirit to instil into it the power to protect him harmless against his enemies, he spreads over it the glue, which is rubbed and dried in, as the skin is heated; and' a second busily drives other and other pegs, inside of those in the ground, as they are gradually giving way and being pulled up by the contraction of the skin. By this curious process, which is most dexterously done, the skin is kept tight whilst it contracts to one-half of its size, taking up the glue and increasing in thickness until it is rendered as thick and hard as required (and his friends have pleaded long enough to make it snow, and almost ball proof), when the dance ceases, and the fire is put out. When it is cooled and cut into the shape that he desires, it is often painted with his medicine or totem upon it, the figure of an eagle, an owl, a buffalo or other animal, as the case may be, which he trusts will guard and protect him from harm I it is then fringed with eagles' quills, or other ornaments he may have chosen, and slung with a broad leather strap that crosses his breast. These shields are carried by all the warriors in these regions, for their protection in battles, which are almost variably fought from their horses' backs.

Of pipes, and the custom of smoking, I have already spoken; and I then said, that the Indians use several substitutes for tobacco, which they call K'nick K'neck. For the carrying of this delicious weed or bark, and preserving its flavour, the women construct very curious pouches of otter, or beaver, or other skins (letters c, c, c,), which are ingeniously ornamented with porcupine quills and beads, and generally carried hanging across the left arm, containing a quantity of the precious narcotic, with flint and steel, and spunk, for lighting the pipe.

The musical instruments used amongst these people are few, and exceedingly rude and imperfect, consisting chiefly of rattles, drums, whistles, and lutes, all of which are used in the different tribes.

I made sketches today of the rattles (or She-she-quois) most generally used, made of rawhide, which becomes very hard when dry, and charged with Pebbles or something of the kind, which produce a shrill noise to mark the time in their dances and songs. Their drums (letters e, e,) are made in a very rude manner, oftentimes with a mere piece of rawhide stretched over a hoop, very much in the shape of a tambourine ; and at other times are made in the form of a keg, with a head of rawhide at each end;. on these they beat with a drum-stick, which oftentimes itself is a rattle, the bulb or head of it being made of rawhide and filled with pebbles. In other instances the stick has, at its end, a little hoop wound and covered with buckskin, to soften the sound; with which they beat on the drum with great violence, as the chief and heel-inspiring sound for all their dances, and also as an accompaniment for their numerous and never-ending songs of amusement, of thanksgiving, and medicine or metal. The mystery whistle, (letter f,) is another instrument of their invention, and very ingeniously made, the sound being produced on a principle entirely different from that of any wind instrument known in civilized inventions; and the notes produced on it, by the sleight or trick of an Indian boy, in so simple and successful a manner, as to baffle entirely all civilized ingenuity, even when it is seen to be played. An Indian boy would stand and blow his notes on this repeatedly, for hundreds of white men who might be lookers-on, not one of whom could make the least noise on it, even by practicing with it for hours. When I first saw this curious exhibition, I was charmed with the peculiar sweetness of its harmonic sounds, and completely perplexed, (as hundreds of white men have no doubt been before me, to the great amusement and satisfaction of the women and children,) as to the mode in which the sound was produced, even though it was repeatedly played immediately before my eyes, and handed to me for my vain and amusing endeavors. The sounds of this little simple toy are liquid and sweet beyond description; and, though here only given in harmonics, I am inclined to think, might, by some ingenious musician or musical instrument-maker, be modulated and converted into something very pleasing.

The War-whistle is a well known and valued little instrument, of six or nine inches in length, invariably made of the bone of the deer or turkey's leg, and generally ornamented. with porcupine quills of different colors which are wound around it. A chief or leader carries this to battle with him, suspended generally from his neck, and worn under his dress. This little instrument has but two notes, which are produced by blowing in the ends of it. The note produced in one end, being much more shrill than the other, gives the signal for battle, whilst the other sounds a retreat; a thing that is distinctly heard and understood by every man, even in the heat and noise of battle, where all are barking and yelling as loud as possible, and of course unable to hear the commands of their leader.

There is yet another wind instrument which I have added to my Collection, and from its appearance would seem to have been borrowed, in part, from the civilized world. This is what is often on the frontier called a "deer-skin flute," a Winnebago courting flute, "tsal-eet-quash-to"; it is perforated with holes for the fingers, sometimes for six, at others for four, and in some instances for three only, having only so many notes with their octaves. These notes are very irregularly graduated, showing clearly that they have very little-taste or ear for melody. These instruments are blow in the end, and the sound produced much on the principle of a whistle. In the vicinity of the Upper Mississippi, I often and familiarly heard this instrument, called the Winnebago courting flute; and was credibly informed by traders and others in those regions, that the young men of that tribe meet with signal success, oftentimes, in wooing their sweethearts with its simple notes, which they blow for hours together, and from day to day, from the bank of some stream -- some favorite rock or log on which they are seated, near to the wigwam which contains the object of their tender passion; until her soul is touched, and she responds by some welcome signal, that she is ready to repay the young Orpheus for his pains, with the gift of her hand and her heart. How true these representations may have been made, I cannot say, but there certainly must have been some ground for the present cognomen by which it is known in that country.

From these rude and exceedingly defective instruments, it will at once be seen, that music has made but little progress with these people; and the same fact will be still more clearly proved, to those who have an opportunity to hear their vocal exhibitions, which are daily and almost hourly serenading the ears of the traveller through their country.

Dancing is one of the principal and most frequent amusements of all the tribes of Indians in America; and, in all of these, both vocal and instrumental music are introduced. These dances consist in about four different steps, which constitute all the different varieties: but the figures and forms of these scenes are very numerous, and produced by the most violent jumps and contortions, accompanied with the song and beats of the drum, which are given in exact time with their motions. It has beer said by some travellers, that the Indian has neither harmony or melody in his music, but I am unwilling to subscribe to such an assertion; although I grant, that for the most part of their vocal exercises, there is a total absence of what the musical world would call melody ; their songs being made up chiefly of a sort of violent chant of harsh and jarring gutturals, of yelps and barks, and screams, which are given out in perfect time, not only with ''method (but with harmony) in their madness." There are times too, as every traveller of the Indian country will attest, if he will recall them to his recollection, when the Indian lays down by his tire-side with his drum in his hand, which he lightly and almost imperceptibly touches over, as he accompanies it with his stifled voice of dulcet sounds that might come from the most tender and delicate female.

These quiet and tender songs are very different from those which are sung at their dances, in full chorus and violent gesticulation ; and many of them seem to be quite rich in plaintive expression and melody, though barren of change and variety.

Dancing, I have before said, is one of the principal and moat valued amusements of the Indians, and much more frequently practiced by them than by any civilized society; inasmuch as it enters into their forms of worship, and is often their made of appealing to the Great Spirit -- of paying their usual devotions to their medicine -- and of honouring and entertaining strangers of distinction in their country.

Instead of the "giddy maze" of the quadrille or the country dance, enlivened by the cheering smiles and graces of silkened beauty, the Indian performs his rounds with jumps, and starts, and yells, much to the satisfaction of his own exclusive self, and infinite amusement of the gentler sex, who are always lookers on, but seldom allowed so great a pleasure, or so signal an honour, as that of joining with their lords in this or any other entertainment. Whilst staying with these people on my say up the river, I was repeatedly honoured with the dance, and I as often hired them to give them, or went to overlook where they were performing them at their own pleasure, in pursuance of their peculiar customs, or for their own amusement, that I might study and correctly herald them to future ages. I saw so many of their different varieties of dances amongst the Sioux, that I should almost be disposed to denominate them the "dancing Indians". It would actually seem as if they had dances for every thing. And in so large a village, there was scarcely an hour in any day or night, but what the beat of the drum could somewhere be heard. These dances are almost as various and different in their character as they are numerous -- some of them so exceedingly grotesque and laughable, as to keep the bystanders in an irresistible roar of laughter -- others are calculated to excite his pity, and forcibly appeal to his sympathies, whilst others disgust, and yet others terrify and alarm him with their frightful threats and contortions.

All the world have heard of the "bear-dance", though I doubt whether more than a very small proportion have ever seen it.

The Sioux, like all the others of these western tribes, are fond of bear's meat, and must have good stores of the "bear's-grease" laid in, to oil their long and glossy locks, as well as the surface of their bodies. And they all like the fine pleasure of a bear hunt, and also a participation in the bear dance, which is given several days in succession, previous to their starting out, and in which they all join in a song to the Bear Spirit; which they think holds somewhere an invisible existence, and must be consulted and conciliated before they can enter upon their excursion with any prospect of success. For this grotesque and amusing scene, one of the chief medicine-men, placed over his body the entire skin of a bear, with a war-eagle's quill on his head, taking the lead in the dance, and looking through the skin which formed a masque"that hung over his face. Many others in the dance wore masques on their faces, made of the skin from; the beat's head; and all, with the motions of their hands, closely imitated the movements of that animal; some representing its motion in running, and others the peculiar attitude and hanging of the paws, when it is sitting up on its hind feet, and looking out for the approach of an enemy. This grotesque and amusing masquerade oftentimes is continued at intervals, for several days previous to the starting of a party on the ·bear hunt, who would scarcely count upon a tolerable prospect of success, without a strict adherence to this most important and indispensable form.

Dancing is done here too, as it is oftentimes done in the enlightened world, to get favours -- to buy the world's goods; and in both countries danced with about equal merit, except that the Indian has surpassed us in honesty by christening it in his own country, the "beggar's dance". This spirited dance was given, not by a set of beggars though, literally speaking, but by the first and most independent young men in the tribe beautifully dressed, (i.e. not dressed at all, except with their breech clouts or kelts, made of eagles' and ravens' quills,) with their lances, and pipes, and rattles in their hands, and a medicine-man beating the drum, and joining in the song at the highest key of his voice. In this dance every one sings as loud as he can halloo; uniting his voice with the others, in an appeal to the Great Spirit, to open the hearts of the bystanders to give to the poor, and not to themselves; assuring them that the Great Spirit will be kind to those who are kind to the helpless and poor.

Of scalps, and of the modes and objects of scalping, I have before spoken; and I therein stated, " that most of the scalps were stretched on little hoops for the purpose of being used in the scalp-dance, of which I shall say more at a future time."

The Scalp dance is a celebration of a victory; and amongst this tribe, as I learned whilst residing with them, danced in the night, by the light of their torches, and just before retiring to bed. When a war party returns from a war excursion, bringing home with them the scalps of their enemies, they generally " dance them" for fifteen nights succession ranting forth the meet extravagant boasts of their wonderful prowess in war, whilst they brandish their war weapons in their hands. A number of young women are selected to aid (though they do not actually join in the lance), by stepping into the centre of the ring, and holding up the scalps that have been recently taken, whilst the warriors dance (or rather jump), around in a circle, brandishing their weapons, and barking and yelping in the most frightful manner, all jumping on both feet at a time, with a simultaneous stamp, and blow, and thrust of their weapons; with which it would seem as if they were actually cutting and carving each other to pieces. During these frantic leaps, and yelps, and thrusts, every man distorts his face to the utmost of his muscles, darting about his glaring eye-balls and snapping his teeth, as if he were in the heat (and actually breathing through his inflated nostrils the very hissing death) of battle I No description that can be written, could ever convey more than a feeble outline of the frightful effects of these scenes enacted in the dead and darkness f night, under the glaring light of their Mazing flambeaux; nor could all the years allotted to mortal man, in the least obliterate or deface the vivid impress that one scene of this kind would leave upon his memory.

The precise object for which the scalp is taken, is one which is definitely understood, and has already been explained; but the motive (or motives), for which this strict ceremony is so scrupulously held by all the American tribes, over the scalp of an enemy, is a subject, as yet not satisfactorily settled in my mind. There is no doubt, but one great object in these exhibitions is public exultation; yet there are several conclusive evidences, that there are other and essential motives for thus formally and strictly displaying the scalp. Amongst some of the tribes, it is the custom to bury the scalps after they have gone through this series of public exhibitions; which may in a measure have been held for the purpose of giving them notoriety, and of awarding public credit to the persons who obtained them, and now, from a custom of the tribe, are obliged to part with them. The great respect which seems to be paid to them whilst they use them, as well as the pitying and mournful song which they howl to the manes of their unfortunate victims;as well as the precise care and solemnity with which they afterwards bury the scalps, sufficiently convince me that they have a superstitious dread of the spirits of their slain enemies, and many conciliatory offices to perform, to ensure their own peace; one of which is the ceremony above described.

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