The Message the Fireballs Brought
by Ella McCauley
(93) In one of the beautiful valleys along the Missouri lived the tribe of Indians called the Winnebago. Among these Indians years ago there was a brave and handsome young man. He had just married a beautiful young maiden and they thought a great deal of each other. One day there was a great battle with another tribe that was always at war with this tribe. All the men were gathered together to get ready for battle. This young man joined the war party. When the men were starting away all their wives, sisters and mothers cried and felt very sad because they thought they would never see the men again.
Before the men started they told the women that on the evening of the fourth day after they had left to all sit (94) outside the tents and that they must have some of the clothes that belonged to the men near them and at a certain time they would know whether their husbands were killed or not. Anyway they must all do as they were told to do and there would come to them some little round balls of fire, which were the spirits of these men. If one of the balls of fire passed over a man’s clothes then they would know that he was killed, but if these little fireballs came and lit on the clothes then they were not killed. And that evening at the time appointed by the men, as the women were all sitting outside their tents with some of the clothes that belonged to their men they saw the fireballs coming a long distance off. They came very fast and when they got to the clothes they stopped. So the women were all glad for they knew that their husbands were all living. But no fireball came to this young woman’s bundle of clothes, so she began to feel uneasy about it. At last they saw it coming very slowly all by itself, and it came nearer and nearer, and then it passed right over its clothes and went on beyond the tent into the darkness and was lost to sight. Then she knew that her husband was dead and when the other men came back they told her he had been killed that very evening. She began to weep and did not care for anything.1
Commentary. "along the Missouri" — The town of Winnebago is located only 6 miles from the Missouri River, so it might seem likely that this is set at the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska. They had removed there from Crow Creek, South Dakota, after having been evicted from Long Prairie, Minnesota, during an anti-Indian hysteria following the Dakota War in 1864. When at Long Prairie, the Hočągara had indeed been in the territory of the hostile Sioux, but Long Prairie is not near the Missouri, being 24 miles west of the Mississippi River, and cannot be the site referenced. Crow Creek, on the other hand, is 5.5 miles from the Missouri River and lies squarely in Sioux territory. By exclusion, the story could only be set at Crow Creek in 1864.
"another tribe" — in the XVIIIᵀᴴ and XIXᵀᴴ centuries, the Sioux were the main enemy of the Hočągara. They were especially strong in the Crow Creek region.
"the fourth day" — four is the number of totality and completeness.
"round balls of fire" — this form of soul-manifestation has not been encountered before. However, it is not a surprising concept. The soul is thought to often sojourn into other worlds when a person sleeps. The sleeper experiences this as a dream. Also, life is identified with light. The word for "light," hąp, is used in the Medicine Rite to denote the physical embodiment of life, and in that context is usually translated, "Light-and-Life." A sphere among the Hočągara, as among the Greeks, was viewed as a perfect geometric object, since a circle has neither beginning nor end, and is in some sense infinite. A sphere is the three-dimensional projection of a circle, and therefore partakes in augmented form in the perfection of the circle. A spiritual entity could well be expected to manifests itself in a spherical form. So the traveling, spherical, ball of fire, although not a standard concept of a life-soul among the Hočągara, is a conjecture consistent with basic ideas pertaining to the realm of the spiritual.
This story may be Hočąk fiction. However, even in fiction, a culture expresses itself usually without leaving its orbit of beliefs completely. The usual Hočąk concept of the nature and actions of the dead man's soul, is that the person who has died, most especially in battle, has no idea that he is dead, and returns to his village thinking that he will resume his life where he left off. He soon discovers that he is invisible and inaudible to the living. He then experiences the Ghost Lighting, or wake, in which he is informed of what is to happen to him now that he is dead, and how to negotiate the trek to the Otherworld. This is not consistent with the round balls of fire concept, since these may be seen, and the departed soul does not hang around long enough to experience his own wake.
Comparative Material. ...
Stories: mentioning ghosts: The Journey to Spiritland, The Four Slumbers Origin Myth, The Resurrection of the Chief's Daughter, Holy One and His Brother, Worúxega, Little Human Head, Little Fox and the Ghost, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts, The Lame Friend, Ghost Dance Origin Myth I, Ghost Dance Origin Myth II, Hare Steals the Fish, The Difficult Blessing, A Man's Revenge, Thunder Cloud is Blessed, Two Roads to Spiritland, Sunset Point; in which fire plays a role: The Creation Council, Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth, The Warbundle of the Eight Generations, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, The Four Steps of the Cougar, East Shakes the Messenger, East Enters the Medicine Lodge, North Shakes His Gourd, The Descent of the Drum (v. 2), The Man Whose Wife was Captured (v. 2), Red Cloud's Death, see Young Man Gambles Often (Commentary); set at Crow Creek, South Dakota: James’ Horse.
Themes: someone is disconsolate over the death of a relative: White Flower, Ghost Dance Origin Myth II, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth, The Blessing of Kerexųsaka, The Lost Child, The Shaggy Man, Holy One and His Brother, Sunset Point; frustrated love: White Flower, The Resurrection of the Chief's Daughter, The Twin Sisters, The Phantom Woman, The Woman who Loved her Half-Brother, Old Man and Wears White Feather, Partridge's Older Brother, The Stone Heart, Snowshoe Strings, Heną́ga and Star Girl, Trickster Soils the Princess, Sunset Point, Rainbow and Stone Arch; a young man follows the detailed instructions of a wise woman and as a result succeeds in a difficult mission: Waruǧábᵉra, Sunset Point, Rainbow and Stone Arch, (in our story the sex roles are reversed).
1 Ella McCauley, "The Message the Fireballs Brought," in Indian Legends and Superstitions. By Pupils of Haskell Institute, U. S. Indian Training School (Lawrence, Kansas: Haskell Printing Department, 1914) 93-94.