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The Gods Of The Elements

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

The typical dwelling of the Plains folk, whether tipi or earth lodge, is circular in ground-plan, and, similarly, tribal encampments, especially for religious or ceremonial purposes, were round in form. On such occasions the entrance to the lodge faced the east, which was always the theoretic orientation of the camp. A cross, with arms directed toward the four cardinal points, and circumscribed by a circle, symbolizes the Plains Indian's conception of the physical world, and at the same time represents his analysis of the elemental powers of Nature, and hence of his analysis of the organization of human society, which is so directly dependent upon these potencies.

The circle of the horizon, the floor of the lodge of heaven; the circle of the tribal encampment; and the circular floor of the lodge, the home of the family these might be said to typify so many concentrics, each a symbol of the universe, in the Indian's thought. In the Hako, the priest draws a circle with his toe, within which circle he places featherdown. "The circle represents a nest, and is drawn by the toe, because the eagle builds its nest with its claws. Although we are imitating the bird making its nest, there is another meaning to the action; we are thinking of Tirawa making the world for the people to live in. If you go on a high hill and look around, you will see the sky touching the earth on every side, and within this circular inclosure the people live. So the circles we have made are not only nests, but they also represent the circle Tirawa-atius has made for the dwelling place of all the people. The circles also stand for the kinship group, the clan, and the tribe."

The tribal circle of the Omaha was divided into two groups, the Sky-People occupying the northern, and the Earth-People the southern, semi-circle. The Sky represented the masculine, the Earth the feminine, element in nature; the human race was supposed to be born of the union of Earth-People and Sky-People; and in the tribe marriage was not customary within either of these two groups, but only between members of Earth clans and members of Sky clans. Each group also had its own chieftain and ceremonial, so that the whole tribe possessed a dual organization, corresponding to the great dualism of nature.

J. O. Dorsey found a similar scheme prevalent throughout the Siouan stock, and this scheme he generalized by the figure of a quartered circle. The quarters of one half, which was the side of peace, were devoted respectively to Earth and Water; the quarters of the masculine, or Sky half, which was the side of war, were sacred to the spirits of Fire and Air. Powers of Earth, Water, Fire, and Air formed the great groups of the elemental gods. The Dakota name for the Earth-Power is Tunkan, "Boulder," 27 and it should be remembered that stones were not only the materials for the most important of aboriginal implements, but that they played an almost magical part in the venerated medicine rite of the sweat-bath lodge. The priests of the Pebble Society of the Omaha relate the following myth in this connexion: "At the beginning all things were in the mind of Wakonda. All creatures, including man, were spirits. They moved about in space between the earth and the stars. They were seeking a place where they could come into a bodily existence. They ascended to the sun, but the sun was not fitted for their abode. They moved on to the moon and found that it also was not fitted for their abode. Then they descended to the earth. They saw it was covered with water. They floated through the air to the north, the east, the south, and the west, and found no dry land. They were sorely grieved. Suddenly from the midst of the water up-rose a great rock. It burst into flames and the waters floated into the air in clouds. Dry land appeared; the grasses and the trees grew. The hosts of spirits descended and became flesh and blood, fed on the seeds of the grasses and the fruits of the trees, and the land vibrated with their expressions of joy and gratitude to Wakonda, the maker of all things."

The Water-Powers were divided into two classes, those of the streams, which were masculine, and those of the subterranean waters, which were feminine. According to the Winnebago, the earth is upheld by the latter, which are some-times represented as many-headed monsters veritable leviathans. The Wind-Makers, occupying half the space devoted to the Sky-Powers, were especially associated with the four quarters whence the winds came, and with the animal gods or Elders, who came from the quarters. An Omaha cosmogony tells how, when the earth was covered with water and the souls were seeking their dwelling, an Elk came, and with a loud voice shouted to the four quarters, whereupon the four winds, in response, blew aside the waters, and exposed the rock which was the kernel of Earth. The tale of the diving of the different animals for mud, to expand the earth, is added to this legend.

Of the Fire-Powers, the Sun and the Thunderers or Thunder-birds were of first importance. The position of the Sun in the Prairie Indian's lore has been stated. The Thunders 32 were even more important among the aborigines of the central west than with their eastern cousins, perhaps because the electric storms of the Plains are so much more terrible and conspicuous. The Assiniboin regard the Thunder as "the voice of the Great Spirit speaking from the clouds," says De Smet; and the Dakota, he adds, "pretend that Thunder is an enormous bird, and that the muffled sound of the distant thunder is caused by countless numbers of young birds! The great bird, they say, gives the first sound, and the young ones re-peat it: this is the cause of the reverberations. The Sioux declare that the young thunders do all the mischief, like giddy youth, who will not listen to good advice; but the old thunder, or big bird, is wise and excellent, he never kills or injures any-one.

The Thunder was pre-eminently the power of destruction, and, therefore, a tutelary of war. When the boy was initiated into manhood, a lock of hair was cut from his crown by the priest, and dedicated to the Thunder. The hair, it must be borne in mind, was in many ways regarded by the Indian as a man's strength and life. Frequently a lock of the hair of a dead relative was preserved, and if carried by a pregnant woman it was thought to ensure the rebirth of the dead. When the hair on the boy's crown grew out once more, a special lock was parted in a circle from the rest, and braided by itself. Upon this lock war-honours were worn, and it was this that was taken when the dead enemy was scalped. It was more than a symbol; it was the magic vehicle of the vital strength of the slain man.

In few Indian rites is the relation of the elemental powers to human society more impressively symbolized than in the Omaha ceremony of the sacred pole." According to the legend, the tribe was threatened with disruption and was holding a council to determine by what means it could be kept intact. During this conference, a young hunter lost his way in the forest, and in the night he came upon a luminous tree. He made his way home and told his father, a chief of the tribe, of his discovery, whereupon the old man said to the Council: "My son has seen a wonderful tree. The Thunder birds come and go upon this tree, making a trail of fire that leaves four paths on the burnt grass that stretch toward the four Winds. When the Thunder birds alight upon the tree it bursts into flame and the fire mounts to the top. The tree stands burning, but no one can see the fire except at night." It was agreed that this marvel was sent from Wakanda. The warriors, stripped and painted, ran for the tree, and struck it as if it were an enemy; and after it had been felled and brought back to the camp, for four nights the chiefs sang the songs that had been composed for it. A sacred tent, decked with symbols of the sun, was made for the tree, which was trimmed and adorned. They called it a human being, and fastened a scalp-lock to it for hair. The tree, or pole, had keepers appointed for it, and it became the symbol of tribal unity and authority a true palladium, which was carried on important excursions, and for which an annual rite was instituted, commemorating the manner of its discovery.

Perhaps the feeling of the Plains Indian for that great world of nature which surrounds him may best be summed up in the Blackfoot prayer to the Quarters, which is recorded by McClintock." First, to the West: "Over there are the mountains. May you see them as long as you live, for from them you must receive your sweet pine as incense." To the North: "Strength will come from the North. May you look for many years upon `the Star that never moves.' To the East: "Old age will come from below where lies the light of the Sun." To the South: "May the warm winds of the South bring you success in securing food."

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