P H I L A D E L P H I A :
L I P P 1 N C O T T,  G R A M B O  &  C O.



Entered, according to Act of Congress, in the year 1853,
In the Clerk's Office of the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.


Mrs. Mary H. Eastman



(37) The wigwams of the Winnebagoes are made of strips of birch bark and grass mats. Saplings are stuck in the ground, with the tops bent over and tied with withes. This forms a sort of oven-shaped structure, about seven feet in height. The fire is made in the centre, and a hole left in the top of the wigwam for a chimney.

The usual size of these wigwams is not more than eight or ten feet in diameter; sometimes they are made from fifteen to twenty feet in length, and eight feet broad. The wigwam in which is celebrated their famous medicine-dance is made large, (from forty to fifty feet in diameter,) as shown in the plate.

This plate represents the medicine-dance of the Winnebagoes. It is a sort of celebration in honor of their sacred medicine, and is given to propitiate the souls of the dead; for the Winnebagoes, like other Indians, believe that the souls of the dead can injure them if they do not secure their good-will. Shortly after the death of an individual, the nearest relative gives a medicine-feast, after which he is privileged to take off his mourning.

The Dacotas dance in honor of their medicine in the open air; the Winnebagoes keep their medicine-feast in a large wigwam. Each tribe considers this feast of the greatest solemnity and importance.

The medicine may be anything that possesses a mysterious or supernatural power. A piece of skin, the tooth of an animal, a stone, a shell, a root,—these, placed in the bag of a medicine-man, immediately acquire miraculous influence.

Some of their medicine is very old, and has been carefully kept. If an Indian lose his medicine-bag, he is despised; he is nobody; he cannot look a friend in the face until he finds or replaces it. To do this it takes a long time.

The medicine-bag is made of an otter, or the skin of any small animal. This sacred bag hangs outside, near the lodge. Children are taught to respect it; it is never injured, never stolen. It is considered the guardian spirit of the family, and all regard it with the greatest reverence.

Those who partake of the medicine-feast must be solemnly initiated into its secret, by certain ceremonies. Women are sometimes allowed communion, but all (38) must be prepared for it by the forms that have endured for ages. No member of this society has ever betrayed its secret.

This cannot be a mere imposition, to have stood the test of time and constant change of circumstance. Mesmerism is undoubtedly connected with it, but in what way it is impossible to tell.

The bower wigwam, in which the Winnebagoes celebrate their medicine-feast, is made according to the number of invited guests, for even the members of the society cannot come without a special invitation from the master of the feast.

When new members are to be initiated, they are conducted by a medicine-man into the retirement of the woods, where they fast while receiving instruction from their priest. He talks to them of the power and sacred nature of their medicine, and of other things connected with their religion. They are then required to make handsome presents to the society; they must give what they most value.

On the mats that lie in the centre of the bower are seated the candidates during the process of initiation. Their sensibilities, rendered acute by the preparatory fast, are easily excited. They appear to be wholly at the will of the medicine-man, and frequently, during his incantations, become insensible. They fall on their faces, as the otter-skin containing the medicine is held up before them by the medicine-man, who is all the while singing in low, guttural tones.

The ceremony over, the new members revive, and are admitted at once into all the honors and privileges of membership. They follow the jugglers as they go round; they imitate his motions, throwing the mysterious medicine-bag into the faces of the spectators, who become so agitated as to fall to the earth as if deprived of life. This part of the ceremony the picture represents.

When a member is summoned to a medicine-feast, he may not avail himself of any excuse. Neither occupation nor distance can be offered as an apology: the summons is obeyed, if possible. There is always an entertainment, and dog's flesh is a favorite dish at a medicine-feast. The music is the invariable drum and rattle.

Order and solemnity always prevail. The horrid noise of the musicians, the contortions of the priests, the mesmeric influence they appear to exert over their people, and the strange wildness of the scene, are calculated to oppress a spectator with feelings of awe. ...

(82) The father of this chief, also called Wabashaw, was truly a great man. In 1812, a village of French people was quite unprotected, surrounded by contending parties, and in the midst of different tribes of Indians. The Winnebagoes took their property, and threatened their lives. In despair, the frightened villagers appealed to Wabashaw, who was a Sioux, and the Sioux were then friendly with the Winnebagoes. They asked his protection, knowing his influence with his own and the neighboring tribes of Indians. He went to the French village, attended only by one person. They earnestly besought his favor and protection, but he gave them no reply. He sent his attendant to the Winnebagoes, demanding a council, and appointing the time and place. He remained alone at the village, but held no conversation with the excited and distressed inhabitants. The chiefs of the Winnebagoes assembled, and formed a circle of their most powerful men. Wabashaw took his seat, the only Sioux in council. There was a solemn form attending the scene; they waited until Wabashaw chose to inform them the cause of their convening.

"He arose and looked upon the chiefs with a menacing look. His countenance was fierce and terrible; and cold and stern were the faces upon which his piercing eye was bent. He plucked a single hair from his head, held it up before them, and then spoke in a grave and resolute tone, 'Winnebagoes, do you see this hair? look at it. You threaten to massacre the white people at the prairie. They are your friends and mine. You wish to drink their blood. Is that your purpose? Dare to lay a finger upon one of them, and I will blow you from the face of the earth, as I now,' suiting the action to the word, 'blow this hair with my breath where none can find it.' Not a word was uttered, not a look expressed an intention of differing from him, and Wabashaw, with a look of proud defiance, left the council, and returned home with his comrade, while the timid French villagers were undisturbed."

Commentary. "Wabashaw" — Wapasha (Wáȟpe Šá), the second of that name, was born in 1768 in the Mdewakanton Dakota band. His father had been chief of the band, and upon his death on 5 Jan 1806, the young Wapasha succeeded him in that capacity. When war broke out in 1812, he allied with the British and participated in their unsuccessful siege of Ft. Meigs in 1813. When the British held a council to announce the end of the war in 1815, the Dakota felt acutely betrayed, as they had not been consulted in the peace process. The British wished to show their appreciation by giving out gifts, but all these were angrily rejected, and Wapasha returned home with the conviction that he had better make peace with the settlers. Despite having to cede some Dakota land east of the Mississippi in 1830, Wapasha remained at peace with the whites and led Dakota auxiliaries in the Black Hawk War. They played a bloody role at the decisive Battle of Bad Axe. After the battle, Wapasha's band took revenge upon their traditional enemies, the Sauk, by instigating a massacre of their retreating column of mainly women and children.1 Wapasha died during a smallpox epidemic in 1836.

Wapasha II

"piercing eye" — the use of the singular here reflects the fact that Wapasha II had lost an eye while playing lacrosse. He typically covered it by a comb-over of his head hair.

Notes to the Commentary

1 Steve Kerns, "Explorers Found Hills, Valleys Alive with Indians," Winona Sunday News, November 14, 1976.  


Mary H. Eastman, The American Aboriginal Portfolio (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co. [c1853]).