An Indian Shrine

By: Geo. H. Pepper

Originally Published in 1913

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An Hidatsa shrine has been added to the Heye Collection. It represents one of the most interesting phases of the religious ceremonial life of the Plains Indians and adds materially to the large collection of ceremonial objects in the Museum.

The Hidatsa form a Siouan tribe whose largest village is situated at Point Independence, For Berthold Reservation, North Dakota. They are now officially known as Gros Ventros, name applied also to the Atsina, a detached tribe of the Arapaho. The typical dwelling of these people in the earlier days was the earth lodge. But seven of these lodges remained in 1908 at Fort Berthold, whereas in 1872 seventy-eight were occupied by the Arickara, Hidatsa and Mandan at this agency; but even then there were ninety-seven log cabins occupied by Indians.

The shrine was in one of these old earth lodges and was procured for the Heye Collection by Rev. Gilbert L. Wilson. It was obtained from Wolf Chief, who inherited it from his father, Small Ankle, a prominent medicine man of the tribe.

The shrine proper consisted of a framework of four posts thrust into the ground and two platforms a lower and upper one. The earth lodge in which it was installed is about forty feet in diameter. The shrine stood in the rear, back of the fireplace, close to the sloping roof.

A Hidatsa Shrine
Fig. 86.—The Indian Shrine.

On the upper platform there is a medicine bundle composed of a parfleche bag containing two human skulls and a large wooden pipe. It rests on a layer of mint which covers a pad made of strips of calico. The lower platform contains a buffalo skull with eagle-feather attachment; a turtle shell, such as was used by the first Eagle-man in divinations to bring rain; an eagle-wing fan, and a felt hat, the latter an offering made years ago by a young Indian. These articles constitute the shrine and the sacred things. Besides these, however, there are two made of buffalo calf skins and a number of strips of calico which are offerings made from time to time in honor of the spirits of the shrine.

In the “Myth of the Medicine-skulls” as told by Wolf Chief the skulls are those of the original Eagle-men. Formerly they were eagles but, wishing to help the Indians. they chose each a human mother and as babes were born into the tribes of their naming, one of them becoming an Hidatsa. When the latter was old enough to fight he led the Hidatsa against their enemies who were fighting under the leadership of the other Eagle-man. The Hidatsa triumphed and their Eagle-man cut off the head of his former friend and, removing the lower part of the skull, used the major part as a receptacle in which to prepare his medicine. When he became an old man he longed to join his friend. He told his people that he would leave them and instructed them concerning the preparation of his skull. He said, “When I dead I want you to take my skull, take out the brains, wrap the skull neatly in a skin, and keep it hanging beside the skull of my friend in a place of honor. Now I die here, but before I die I make you a promise. My skull and my friend’s skull shall be the medicine of my band.” Thus it is that the Hidatsa have looked upon these skulls as most potent medicine.

A mound shaped lodge of earth
Fig. 87.—The earth lodge in which the shrine stood.

The medicine pipe was used in connection with the skulls. In explaining the shrine objects Noll Chief said: “Now these are the mysteries which the keeper shall perform before the skulls for the members of the band. If enemies shall come against you let the keeper take my medicine pipe and roll it on the ground toward them, singing the while this holy song which I now teach you. If he will do this, the enemy will be overcome and will flee.” The pipe was also used in ceremonies for calling the buffalo herds to the vicinity of the village.

The buffalo-skull played an important part. “When the people starved and brought presents to the Eagle-man to induce him to bring buffalo, he would take down the buffalo-skull, place it before the shrine, sing a mystery song, and then lay the pipe before the nose of the skull.” This ceremony in connection with others was usually effective.

The turtle shell that lies on the lower platform of the shrine is medicine and the eagle-wing fan was used in the Hidatsa rain ceremonies. The Hidatsa believed in the thunder birds, which brought rain; their scream or the roaring of their wings was thunder, and the flashing of their eyes the lightning. It will be noted that most of the shrine objects have to do with rain—mint grows in wet places, and the turtle lives in the water. The eagle-wing represents the original Eagle-men, who, although not definitely so stated, were doubtless thunder birds. The skulls are those of the original Eagle-men. The buffalo-skull was used in prayers for the appearance of the buffalo herds. It will thus be seen that, with the exception of its use with the medicine pipe for driving away enemies, and in the treatment of the sick, the shrine is a food-and-drink shrine, and was thus principally used. Rain was prayed for to save the growing crops and the herds were prayed for that the tribe might have meat.

The medicine hag supported by the cedar post, at the left of the shrine, contains three classes of medicines and sacred objects. The first belongs to the Bear Group and pertains to eagle hunting; the second to the Wolf Group and pertains to war, and the third is composed of personal medicines only. There is a myth pertaining to each group which describes the uses of the various objects and how they were obtained.

The shrine with the information concerning its use, as obtained by Mr. Wilson, presents a most valuable addition to our knowledge of the primitive rites and ceremonies of the American Indian.


Cite This Article

Pepper, Geo. H.. "An Indian Shrine." The Museum Journal IV, no. 3 (September, 1913): 104-. Accessed February 21, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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