Hidatsa Nation




Hidatsa Literature

“Our Indian life, I know, is gone forever.”



Corn Ceremony

The Corn Ceremony was held in the spring or early summer as a prayer to the spirits to grant bountiful harvests and strength to the tribe.

A man who in the preceding autumn had witnessed the ceremony in a dream, climbed to the top of his lodge. There he made a vow to the Corn Spirit, whose name, Kadhutetash means “Old Woman Who Never Dies.”

“Hear me, Old Woman Who Never Dies,” the man said in a loud voice. “I shall give a great feast in your honour for four reasons. I want to live to see another season. I want my people to become strong and prosperous. I want our harvest to be bountiful. And I want our children to become as abundant as the flowers in the spring.”

All of his people would hear him, and he would hear a murmur of approval throughout all the village. He then began to collect robes, clothing, horses, and other things of value, to be given away as presents or exchanged as medicine bundles.

When everything was in readiness, he took a gift and a pipe to a man whom, he believed, had greater supernatural strength than himself. He requested this man to act as priest in the Corn Ceremony. If the man accepted the invitation and smoked the pipe, he became the Medicine Maker, the chief medicine man of the ceremony. The Medicine Maker soon went to the lodge of the Singer, who knew all the songs and secrets of the ceremony. When the Medicine Maker offered him a robe and invited him to participate in the Corn Ceremony, the Singer gladly accepted. They then smoked the pipe together.

When the Medicine Maker had left the lodge, the Singer dressed and painted himself. Taking a piece of charcoal, he made three motions, as if he were painting his face. The fourth time, he drew a mark across his face as he sang:

“I am walking. I am walking.”

The words meant that he was still following the instructions that the Old Woman Who Never Dies gave to the first priests of the first Corn Ceremony. He then placed a necklace of corn ears about his neck as he sang, “Yellow, Yellow,” meaning “corn.” Taking an ear of corn in his hand, he chanted:

“I am standing. I am walking.”

Putting on a cap of the head-skin of his medicine animal–the kit-fox, for example–

he sang:

“Kit-fox is walking. Kit-fox is asking.”

When he was ready to depart, he addressed Old Woman Who Never Dies by singing:

“Young Woman, your fire-smoke I see;
I am coming. It is here.”

The Singer then went to the lodge of the Medicine Maker, where those who were to participate in the ceremony were seated. They had been invited because their medicines were various birds that were thought to be the children of Old Woman Who Never Dies, and were therefore particularly appropriate for this ceremony. Their medicine bundles were laid in the centre of the lodge.

The Medicine Maker burned incense, and then all started for the lodge of the man who had made the vow. He was called the votary. The Medicine Maker led the group, carrying the head of a deer. The others followed, with the Singer in the centre.

As they approached his lodge, the votary came forth with a pipe, which he offered to the Medicine Maker. He took a few whiffs and then returned the pipe. This stopping and smoking occurred four times before the group reached the votary’s lodge.

In the place of honour in his lodge, a very fine buffalo skin had been spread as an altar. Upon it the Medicine Maker placed the deer’s head he had carried. The Singer sat behind it, and at his right sat the Medicine Maker, the votary and his wife, and the other participants. Buffalo robes had been spread in front of the positions taken by the assisting medicine men. Each of them placed his medicine bundle upon his particular robe.

The Medicine Maker raised the deer’s head and touched the body of the votary’s wife with it. Then each of the medicine men touched her body with his bundle and laid it in front of the altar, on robes that had been spread out for that purpose. This part of the ceremony was to give to the woman the strength and the power contained in the medicine bundles.

The votary and his wife then seated themselves on the side of the lodge at the left of the Singer. The Singer said to the votary, “Bring a live coal from the fire in the centre of the lodge and lay it on an earthen bowl.”

Near it was a special bowl that was considered a symbol of Old Woman Who Never Dies. From it, the Singer took a handful of sage. After making a slow motion toward each of the Four Winds, the Singer lowered the sage to the hot coal, made four circles over it, and let the handful of sage fall.

The Medicine Maker waved a large bundle of sage over the smoke. Everyone was silent. The Singer took up the bowl in which the incense burned and passed it back and forth over the medicine bundles. As he passed it, he sang, again and again:

Sage is good.
Sage is good.

When he had set the bowl down, all the people stretched their hands toward it and rubbed themselves as if they were receiving its power. The votary filled a pipe and handed it to the medicine man at the end of the row. After inhaling a puff or two, he passed it to the one seated at his left.

When all had smoked, the Singer raised one of the medicine bundles, perhaps the raven, and sang as its owner came forward:

Raven is walking. Raven is walking.
Pedhifska didahuft.
Raven is walking.

The Raven man took the bundle from the Singer’s hands and danced backward and forward between the altar and the fireplace. He held the bundle in his hands and swung it back and forth and from side to side. As he danced, he and the Singer chanted:

Raven is dancing back and forth.
Raven is dancing back and forth.

The Medicine Maker brought choice bits of meat and pretended to feed the Raven bundle! The votary then gave it back to him, and he returned to his seat. His wife gathered up the presents offered to his medicine by the votary.

The Singer thus called, in the correct order, each of the medicine men, and learned the songs as he had learned the Raven songs. When all these songs had been repeated, the votary and his wife brought food and placed it before the altar. The Singer chanted the prayer to The One Who First Made All Things:

Madhidift, Ifdihkawahidith.
I am walking in your path.

The votary brought a dish of choice parts of meat and laid it before the Singer. He sang:

“Old Woman Who Never Dies, I am walking in your path.”

Lifting the dish, he extended it to the Four Winds and then threw the meat among the medicine men while he sang:

I take; I offer; it is done.

This was allegorical of the feeding of her birds by Old Woman Who Never Dies. The people scrambled for the food, chirping like blackbirds, ravens, and chickadees. The votary and his wife distributed the remainder of the food among the participants and the spectators. When the feast was finished, the owners of the medicine bundles advanced to receive them, while the Singer chanted:

I am walking; I have finished.
The land is green,
The land is yellow,
The land is gray.

The Medicine Maker took a bundle of sage and waved it toward the Four Winds and toward the door, as if to rid the lodge of evil spirits. The Singer brushed himself with sage, removed his cap and his necklace of corn ears, and then washed his face with water brought by the votary. His last song was this:

Kadhakowift; huft–
It is done; come–.

This song meant that the vow had been fulfilled and asked the Corn Spirit to answer the prayers for a bountiful harvest.

Sun Dance

The Hidatsa Tribe are a part of the Siouan family, also related to the Crow Indians, who lived in Montana on the Missouri River. The Sun Dance of the Hidatsa is similar to that of other tribes. Primarily, it is a prayer to the Sun-God for a Dancer’s secret wishes: for his deliverance from his troubles, for supernatural aid, and for beneficent blessings upon all of his people.

For many moons this particular Dancer had dreamed of the Chief’s daughter becoming his wife. He had a vision of himself performing the Sun Dance in supplication for his secret wish. The vision prompted him to call his tribe together for a Sun Dance. Then the Dancer went to a high place alone, declaring to the Sun-God:

“In the coming summer, I shall build your lodge. I shall stand in the holy place. I shall kill buffalo and take the hides for you. I shall dance for you to be worthy of my beloved that I may have her for my wife. I shall dance for you so that I may have visions to help protect me from my enemies, so that my people may grow strong, so that no disease may come, so that the buffalo may be plentiful, so there will be an abundance of rain throughout the year.”

The young Dancer called upon his Mother and his Grandmother saying, “Please tell all of your relatives that I shall perform the Sun Dance.” They spread the news and the tribal men gathered buffalo hides. These they brought to the tribal women for curing. The Dancer provided the feasts for all who came to the celebration of his Sun Dance.

When everything was in readiness, the Dancer took a buffalo robe to the Priest, one of his Father’s clansman who was experienced in presiding over the Sun Dance Ceremony. The Priest represented the Sun-God. Before him the Dancer placed his buffalo robe and offered his pipe, saying, “Wise One, I have come to you for guidance. I wish to obtain the blessings of the Sun-God.”

The Priest accepted the pipe and replied, “I am glad, my son, that you have come to me. I will aid you in this ceremony.”

When the public announcement was made that the Sun Dance was to be given, the clansmen of the Dancer’s Father asked for a scalp and left hand taken from an enemy. Sometimes both of these items were offered freely by a relative or purchased for a high price.

Before raising the sun-pole, a fresh buffalo head with a broad centre strip of the back hide and tail were fastened with strong thongs to the top crotch of the sun-pole. Then the pole was raised and set firmly in the ground, with the buffalo head facing toward the setting-sun.

The sacred lodge was built by the Dancer and his clansmen. Men who owned medicine bundles brought them into the lodge of the Priest. The Dancer furnished each man with a buffalo robe upon which to lay his sacred bundle. The Dancer selected a favorite bundle that might be a red fox skin, for example, and for which the owner might ask the Dancer for a token.

The tribal Singer took the red fox skin and held it toward the burning incense. Then he touched it to the body of the Dancer and to that of his mother and Grandmother. Then he replaced it in front of its former owner. In this manner, the Dancer bought many of the medicine bundles and paid what the owners asked, in addition to his gifts of buffalo robes upon which rests each medicine bundle.

By this time, the Singer had learned the sacred songs and the manner of painting that each medicine required. The Singer taught the Dancer the secrets of each medicine that the Dancer bought. Some protect against enemies, some are good luck in contests, and some are for success in love and in hunting. When the Dancer had bought what he desired, the men went out, carrying his gift of the buffalo robe.

After construction of the Sun-Lodge, the Priest took the enemy scalp and left hand and raised them to the North Wind, South Wind, East Wind, and West Wind, saying, “I have often taken these in combat. May you have protection against your enemy always,” giving them to the Dancer.

Young men, who are the Fasters and have their flesh pierced, arrived and went into the Sun-Lodge. Each carried his medicine bundle and an armful of sage. They crossed to the south side of the lodge, and each chose a place for his sage. They hung their medicine bundles on short sticks stuck in the ground in front of their sage.

The Dancer took the bundles that he brought and piled them on a buffalo skull. The Singer began the chants of mystery in a slow measured rhythm. The incense was then burned. The Dancer trembled from excitement. The Priest took white paint, holding it in the incense smoke for a moment and smeared it over the body of the Dancer and drew a white circle around his face.

To complete dressing the Dancer, the Priest hung a medicine hoop on his back, held by a cord around his neck. On his head, the Priest placed a band of jackrabbit skin, with the head dropping over his left ear. An eagle-down feather was tied to the Dancer’s scalplock, pointing backward. A whistle made of eagle-bone was hung around the Dancer’s neck.

Meanwhile, the Fasters opened their medicine bundles, burned incense, painted themselves, and adorned themselves as they were taught by their elders and Guardian Spirits. Those having no medicine smeared themselves completely with white paint. Each Faster had an eagle-bone whistle hung from his neck and carried a shield and a lance.

The Singer painted himself and placed raven feathers in his hair. He arranged himself in front of the buffalo skin suspended from the sun-pole. He extended his arms toward it, rubbing his body as if receiving some special power from the buffalo.

Medicine-men arranged themselves south of the entrance to the Sun-Lodge. The old women of the tribe who prepared the spot for the Sun Dance, together with the medicine-women, sat on the north side. All come to pray and to fast. The relatives of the young male Fasters entered, carrying food. Each Faster took a bowlful of the food to a clansman of his father.

Then came the challenge to the Fasters’ bravery. They approached the Priest and the Singer. Two small slits were cut in the shoulder skin of each young man presenting himself. Through the slotted skin, a leather thong was threaded with a wooden pin attached to the end preventing the thong from pulling out of the slotted skin.

The other ends of these thongs were attached to the top of the sun-pole (similar to a Maypole). The Priest and Singer twirled each Faster four times, his feet barely touching the ground. Then the Faster swung free twisting and circling around the sun-pole. But he dared not touch the thong with his hands. Any attempt to break the taboos was frowned upon by all his people as a lack of courage and endurance.

When the Faster finally broke loose from the sun-pole, he fell to the ground. Priest and Singer placed him gently on his bed of healing sage. There he remained and fasted from two to four days.

Any Dancer must first have been a Faster in an earlier Sun Dance. The Dancer danced back and forth continuously toward the sun-pole in the circle as long as a Faster was attached to the sun-pole. The Dancer sprang from the ground with his legs rigid and his feet together, his eyes fixed upon the buffalo head, and blew his eagle-bone whistle in rhythm with the beating drum.

The Dancer’s mind was intent upon his desire to win his secret wish, the Chief’s daughter, and to become a strong leader of his tribe. During his dance he prayed silently for those visions. He continued his dance until he fell from exhaustion. There he stayed until his visions appeared, or until the fourth day of the fast, if necessary.

The young Fasters lay upon their beds of sage. They have dreams and visions, which they related to the Priest. If they were sufficient, the Faster left the Sun-Lodge, because his supplications were answered by the Sun-God.

Near the doorway, the medicine-men still fasted and sought visions. Some of the younger boys of the tribe dragged buffalo heads through the village for fun.

If it was seen that a Faster cannot break away from the sun-pole and might be in danger, he was cut loose honourably. At the end of the fourth day, only a few Fasters still seeking visions remained.

The exhausted Dancer was taken to his lodge. If he or any Fasters wished to continue the Sun Dance, the Sun-Lodge was permitted to stand for them. Otherwise, it was torn down. Only the sun-pole with the buffalo head on top was left to mark the spot of the traditional Sun Dance.

The Dancer and all of the Fasters recovered honourably from their sacred experience.

In due time, the Chief of the Hidatsa tribe declared that the Dancer had won his daughter in marriage.

The Dancer went to the high ground, and in gratitude prayed and praised the Sun-God for the many blessings bestowed upon him and his beloved wife, and upon his tribe.

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