Indian Boyhood - Charles Eastman

The End of the Bear Dance

[Illustration] from Indian Boyhood by Charles Eastman

It was one of the superstitions of the Santee Sioux to treat disease from the standpoint of some animal or inanimate thing. That person who, according to their belief, had been commissioned to become a medicine man or a war chief, must not disobey the bear or other creature or thing which gave him his commission. If he ever ventured to do so, the offender must pay for his insubordination with his life, or that of his own child or dearest friend. It was supposed to be necessary that the supernatural orders be carried into effect at a particular age and a certain season of the year. Occasionally a very young man, who excused himself on the ground of youth and modesty, might be forgiven.

One of my intimate friends had been a sufferer from what, I suppose, must have been consumption. He, like myself, had a grandmother in whom he had unlimited faith. But she was a very ambitious and pretentious woman. Among her many claims was that of being a great "medicine woman," and many were deceived by it; but really she was a fraud, for she did not give any medicine, but "conjured" the sick exclusively.

At this time my little friend was fast losing ground, in spite of his grandmother's great pretensions. At last I hinted to him that my grand-mother was a herbalist, and a skilful one. But he hinted back to me that "most any old woman who could dig roots could be a herbalist, and that without a supernatural commission there was no power that could cope with disease. I defended my ideal on the ground that there are supernatural powers in the herbs themselves; hence those who understand them have these powers at their command.

"But," insisted my friend, "one must get his knowledge from the Great Mystery!"

This completely silenced my argument, but did not shake my faith in my grandmother's ability.

Redhorn was a good boy, and I loved him. I visited him often, and found him growing weaker day by day.

"Ohiyesa," he said to me one day, "my grand-mother has discovered the cause of my sickness."

I eagerly interrupted him by shouting: "And can she cure you now, Redhorn?"

"Of course," he replied, "she cannot until I have fulfilled the commandment. I have confessed to her that two years ago I received my commission, and I should have made a Bear Dance and proclaimed myself a medicine man last spring, when I had seen thirteen winters. You see, I was ashamed to proclaim myself a medicine man, being so young; and for this I am punished. However, my grandmother says it is not yet too late. But, Ohiyesa, I am as weak now as a rheumatic old man. I can scarcely stand up. They say that I can appoint some one else to act for me. He will be the active bear—I shall have to remain in the hole. Would you, Ohiyesa, be willing to act the bear for me? You know he has to chase the dancers away from his den."

"Redhorn," I replied with much embarrassment," I should be happy to do anything that I could for you, but I cannot be a bear. I feel that I am not fit. I am not large enough; I am not strong enough; and I don't understand the habits of the animal well enough. I do not think you would be pleased with me as your substitute."

Redhorn finally decided that he would engage a larger boy to perform for him. A few days later, it was announced by the herald that my friend would give a Bear Dance, at which he was to be publicly proclaimed a medicine man. It would be the great event of his short existence, for the disease had already exhausted his strength and vitality. Of course, we all understood that there would be an active youth to exhibit the ferocious nature of the beast after which the dance is named.

The Bear Dance was an entertainment, a religious rite, a method of treating disease—all in one. A strange thing about it was that no woman was allowed to participate in the orgies, unless she was herself the bear.

The den was usually dug about two hundred yards from the camp, on some conspicuous plain. It was about two feet deep and six feet square and over it was constructed an arbor of boughs with four openings. When the bear man sang, all the men and boys would gather and dance about the den; and when he came out and pursued them there was a hasty retreat. It was supposed that whoever touched the bear without being touched by him would overcome a foe in the field. If one was touched, the reverse was to be expected. The thing which caused most anxiety among the dancers was the superstition that if one of them should accidentally trip and fall while pursued by the bear, a sudden death would visit him or his nearest relative.

Boys of my age were disposed to run some risk in this dance; they would take every opportunity to strike at the bear man with a short switch, while the older men shot him with powder. It may as well be admitted that one reason for my declining the honor offered me by my friend Redhorn was that I was afraid of powder, and I much preferred to be one of the dancers and take my chances of touching the bear man without being touched.

It was a beautiful summer's day. The forest behind our camp was sweet with the breath of blossoming flowers. The teepees faced a large lake, which we called Bedatanka. Its gentle waves cooled the atmosphere. The water-fowl disported themselves over its surface, and the birds of passage overhead noisily expressed their surprise at the excitement and confusion in our midst.

The herald, with his brassy voice, again went the rounds, announcing the day's event and the tardy fulfillment of the boy's commission. Then came the bustle of preparation. The outdoor toilet of the people was performed with care. I cannot describe just how I was attired or painted, but I am under the impression that there was but little of my brown skin that was not uncovered. The others were similarly dressed in feathers, paint and tinkling ornaments.

I soon heard the tom-tom's doleful sound from the direction of the bear's den, and a few war-whoops from the throats of the youthful warriors. As I joined the motley assembly, I noticed that the bear man's drum was going in earnest, and soon after he began to sing. This was the invitation to the dance.

An old warrior gave the signal and we all started for the den, very much like a group of dogs attacking a stranger. Frantically we yelled and whooped, running around the sheltering arbor in a hop, skip and jump fashion. In spite of the apparent confusion, however, every participant was on the alert for the slightest movement of the bear man.

All of a sudden, a brave gave the warning, and we scattered in an instant over the little plain between the den and our village. Everybody seemed to be running for dear life, and I soon found myself some yards behind the rest. I had gone in boldly, partly because of conversations with certain boys who proposed to participate, and whom I usually outdistanced in foot races. But it seemed that they had not carried out their intentions and I was left alone. I looked back once or twice, although I was pretty busy with my legs, and I imagined that my pursuer, the bear man, looked twice as fearful as a real bear. He was dressed and painted up with a view to terrify the crowd. I did not want the others to guess that I was at all dismayed, so I tried to give the war-whoop; but my throat was so dry at the moment that I am sure I must have given it very poorly.

Just as it seemed that I was about to be overtaken, the dancers who had deserted me suddenly slackened their speed, and entered upon the amusement of tormenting the bear man with gun-powder and switches, with which they touched him far from gently upon his naked body. They now chased him in turn, and he again retreated to his den.

We rested until we heard the tom-tom and the song once more, and then we rushed forth with fresh eagerness to the mimic attack. This time I observed all necessary precautions for my own safety. I started in my flight even before the warning was given, for I saw the bear man gathering himself up to spring upon the dancers. Thus I had plenty of leeway to observe what occurred. The bear man again pursued the yelling and retreating mob, and was dealt with unmercifully by the swift-footed. He became much excited as he desperately chased a middle-aged man, who occasionally turned and fired off his gun, but was suddenly tripped by an ant-hill and fell to the ground, with the other on top of him. The excitement was intense. The bear man returned to his companion, and the dancers gathered in little knots to exchange whispers.

"Is it not a misfortune?" "The most sure-footed of us all!" "Will he die?" "Must his beautiful daughter be sacrificed?"

The man who was the subject of all this comment did not speak a word. His head hung down. Finally he raised it and said in a resolute voice:

"We all have our time to go, and when the Great Mystery calls us we must answer as cheerfully as at the call of one of our own war-chiefs here on earth. I am not sad for myself, but my heart is not willing that my Winona (first-born daughter) should be called."

No one replied. Presently the last tom-tom was heard and the dancers rallied once more. The man who had fallen did not join them, but turned to the council lodge, where the wise old men were leisurely enjoying the calumet. They beheld him enter with some surprise; but he threw himself upon a buffalo robe, and resting his head upon his right hand, related what had happened to him. Thereupon the aged men exclaimed as with one voice: "It never fails!" After this, he spoke no more.

Meanwhile, we were hilariously engaged in our last dance, and when the bear man finally retired, we gathered about the arbor to congratulate the sick bear man. But, to our surprise, his companion did not reenter the den. "He is dead! Redhorn, the bear man, is dead!" We all rushed to the spot. My poor friend, Redhorn, lay dead in the den.

At this instant there was another commotion in the camp. Everybody was running toward the council lodge. A well-known medicine man was loudly summoned thither. But, alas! the man who fell in the dance had suddenly dropped dead.

To the people, another Indian superstition had been verified.