Thursday, October 13, 2011

American Indian Torture Dance and Flesh Sacrifice

The Native American Human Torture Ceremony.

The torture feature, especially prominent in the ceremonies of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Dakota, was formerly given a place among the dancing lodge ceremonies of the Blackfoot. The information we have seems to indicate that this ceremony had not become thoroughly adjusted to its place in this series at the time of its prohibition by the United States and Canadian governments. The claim is made by some of the Piegan that it was borrowed from the Arapaho and was not looked upon with much favor. As one man expressed it, "None of those taking the cutting lived to reach old age." It was said that a few Blackfoot warriors once visited the Arapaho at the time of their sun dance where they were put through the cutting ceremony. According to the Blackfoot mode of thought, this means that the medicine rites (and rights) were transferred to them. When they returned, they induced others to take the cutting, to whom, of course, the rites were transferred. Whether this historical statement is accurate or mythical, we have no means of knowing, but we are inclined to give [263]it some weight as evidence. It seems, however, that warriors took the cutting because of a vow, similar to that of the medicine woman. Sometimes a man dreamed that the sun required it of him. The giving of property and the conditions of the transfer were the same as for "cutting the thong," though we have no information that "catching" was permitted. Such may, however, have been tolerated.
The men taking the cutting were nude to the belt. Sage was tied around the wrists and ankles. The hair hung down, held in place by a wreath of cedar (some informants say sage). They were painted white. Rows of spots in blue extended down the sides of the face, over the shoulders and down the arms. Wavy lines of the same color were also drawn down the arms. A circle representing the sun, was made on the breast, also upon the chin and probably on the back opposite the one over the heart. On the forehead was another circle representing the moon. Other informants say a crescent moon in black was used instead of these circles.
According to one informant, vows were made to purchase this ceremony when ill or in great danger. If the promise brought results, the vow was fulfilled at the next dance. The supplicant calls upon one having purchased the rite. They enter the booth of the weather dancers, a blanket is held up to shut out the gaze of the others. The transferrer then paints the purchaser. He cuts a hole through the skin of the right shoulder, over the scapula, and a hole over each breast. A small sharpened stick is thrust through each. A shield is hung on the back. Long cords were fastened to those on the breast, the ends of which were tied fast, high up to the center pole. The purchaser goes up to the pole, embraces it, and cries for a time. Then he backs off, and dancing, throws his weight on the ropes. The transferrer jerks the shield from his shoulders and if necessary, assists him in tearing loose. At once, the purchaser goes out into the hills and sleeps in different places to receive power.
It is said that all who take this ceremony die in a few years, because it is equivalent to giving one's self to the sun. Hence, the sun takes them for his own.
The cutting was similar to that described by Catlin and other writers as observed elsewhere. Some informants say the dancers held whistles in their mouths and gazed at the sun as they danced. When all the thongs were torn out, some of the lacerated flesh was cut off as an offering to the sun.
McLean reports the following observations upon this ceremony at a Blood sun dance:—
... The chief attraction to the pale-face is what has been ignorantly termed "making braves." I desired very much to see this ceremony once, that I might know the[264] facts from personal observation, and draw my own conclusions after conversing with the Indians.
Two young men having their whole bodies painted, wearing the loin-cloth only, and with wreaths of leaves around their heads, ankles and wrists, stepped into the center of the lodge. A blanket and a pillow were laid on the ground, and one of the young men stretched himself upon them. As he lay, an old man came forward and stood over him and then in an earnest speech told the people of the brave deeds, and noble heart of the young man. In the enumeration of his virtues and noble deeds, after each separate statement the musicians beat applause. When the aged orator ceased, the young man arose, placed his hands upon the old man's shoulders, and drew them downward, as a sign of gratitude for the favorable things said about him. He lay down, and four men held him while a fifth made the incisions in his breast and back. Two places were marked in each breast denoting the position and width of each incision. This being done, the wooden skewers being in readiness, a double edged knife was held in the hand, the point touching the flesh, a small piece of wood was placed on the under side to receive the point of the knife when it had gone through, and the flesh was drawn out the desired length for the knife to pierce. A quick pressure and the incision was made, the piece of wood was removed, and the skewer inserted from the under-side as the knife was being taken out. When the skewer was properly inserted, it was beaten down with the palm of the hand of the operator, that it might remain firmly in its place. This being done to each breast, with a single skewer for each, strong enough to tear away the flesh, and long enough to hold the lariats fastened to the top of the sacred pole, a double incision was made on the back of the left shoulder, to the skewer of which was fastened an Indian drum. The work being pronounced good by the persons engaged in the operation, the young man arose, and one of the operators fastened the lariats giving them two or three jerks to bring them into position.
The young man went up to the sacred pole, and while his countenance was exceedingly pale, and his frame trembling with emotion, threw his arms around it, and prayed earnestly for strength to pass successfully through the trying ordeal. His prayer ended he moved backward until the flesh was fully extended, and placing a small bone whistle in his mouth, he blew continuously upon it a series of short sharp sounds, while he threw himself backward, and danced until the flesh gave way and he fell. Previous to his tearing himself free from the lariats, he seized the drum with both hands and with a sudden pull tore the flesh on his back, dashing the drum to the ground amid the applause of the people. As he lay on the ground, the operators examined his wounds, cut off the flesh that was hanging loosely, and the ceremony was at an end. In former years the head of a buffalo was fastened by a rope on the back of the person undergoing the feat of self-immolation, but now a drum is used for that purpose.
From two to five persons undergo this torture every Sun-Dance. Its object is military and religious. It admits the young man into the noble band of warriors, whereby he gains the esteem of his fellows, and opens up the path to fortune and fame. But it is chiefly a religious rite. In a time of sickness, or danger, or in starting upon some dangerous expedition, the young man prays to Natos for help, and promises to give himself to Natos if his prayers are answered. Upon his return, when the Annual Sun-Dance is held, he fulfills his vow, gives himself to his god, and thus performs a twofold duty. Of course the applause of the people and the exhibition of courage are important factors in this rite, but its chief feature is a religious one.[265] Instead of being a time of feasting and pleasure, the Sun-Dance is a military and religious festival, in connection with which there are occasions for joy, and the feast enhances the pleasure.[16]
It may be well to note that the offering of bits of flesh to the sun was a general practice not necessarily associated with the sun dance. Many comparatively young men now living (1904) bear numerous scars testifying to such offerings. When in perilous situations a finger would sometimes be struck off with a call upon the sun for help. Among the Blood, such sacrifice of a finger by women as well as men was common at the sun dance.[17] These facts concerning the more general practice of mutilating the body to win the approval of the sun suggest that if the cutting ceremony is intrusive, it either found on hand a series of analogous customs or brought with it a concept that afterwards gave birth to them. It may be observed that the form of costume and dance is strikingly like that employed by the present weather dancers.
Since there seems to be no good published data on the sacrificing of skin and fingers we append the narrative of Split-ears:—
Sometimes, when warriors are on an expedition and come in sight of the enemy they will sit in a circle while the leader, or the oldest member of the party, offers prayers that they may succeed in their undertaking. Then they proceed to offer bits of their own skin to the sun. The one who prayed sits down by one of the party, takes up a needle or bodkin and a knife, thrusts the former under a small section of skin and raising it, cuts off a small slice with a knife. This leaves a circular wound a quarter of an inch or less in diameter. It is understood that the operator pulls the skin up with the needle and slices off a small section underneath that instrument. He then takes up some black paint and dips the bit of skin into it. Then he holds it up to the sun and prays for the success of his victim. The bit of skin is then placed upon a piece of cloth and another is removed from the victim in the same manner and so the operator goes to each of the party in turn, each time removing a piece of skin, dipping it in black paint, and holding it up in a prayer to the sun. While each person is expected to give two pieces, they are not limited to the maximum number, some men giving four and some still more. The bits of skin thus collected are tied up in one corner of the cloth which is mounted upon a stick wrapped with wild sage, the whole being fastened in a tree or set up on the top of a high hill as the[266] sun's offering. This sacrifice is always spoken of as feeding the sun with flesh from one's own body. The cloth is fastened to the stick in the form of a flag or banner so that it waves in the wind with the flesh offerings tied in one corner. This sacrifice is considered one of the greatest a man can make.
Now, as I have said, some men only give two small pieces of skin, while others give a great many more, but as they do this each time they go on an expedition, it so happens that a man who made many war expeditions has many small scars on his arms and legs. Thus, we can still tell those of our old men who went upon the warpath many times in their youth. We can tell by the scars made from feeding the sun their own flesh. But, again, it so happens that men while at home may have dreams in which they are commanded to feed the sun. Now it is believed that unless a man heeds such a command, he is certain to be visited by misfortune or even death, so he always makes haste to comply with the command. After such a dream he makes a sweathouse and invites in an old man who prays and makes the offering. The procedure here is the same as previously described and the offering is made into a banner and placed in a tree or upon a hill. Then again, the men who are at home in the camp but who have relatives in a war party may so wish for the safety of these that they themselves offer bits of skin in their behalf. Thus, you see, there are many times when people will offer bits of skin, so that it was not uncommon for a man to have one hundred or more scars upon his body. These are generally arranged in rows up and down the arms, down the legs, down the breasts and the back. I have even heard of cases where a man is said to have offered one hundred pieces of skin at one time. This, however, was unusual.
See caption
Fig. 1. The Offering of Human Flesh. The bits of flesh are tied in the corner of the banner. Drawn from a native sketch.
Sometimes, instead of offering skin, the warrior would offer a finger. Thus, if beset by very great danger on the warpath a man may make a vow to the sun[267] stating that if brought home safely he will sacrifice a finger. This sacrifice can be made at any time; either when on the warpath or when at home in camp or at the sun dance. In such cases, the finger is offered to the sun in the precise manner as the pieces of skin described above.
There are, however, occasions upon which fingers are cut off that are not offerings to the sun. Thus, people who are in mourning sometimes sacrifice a finger. In those cases it is usual to call upon some old woman who is skilled in the amputation. She cuts off the finger, usually reciting a kind of ritual, but it is not offered to the sun. It is simply thrown away. Then again babies' fingers are sometimes cut off to give the child good luck. Thus, if a woman lost many children she would call upon an old woman to make the sacrifice for her newly born. In this case, the tip end of a finger is cut off and wrapped up in a piece of meat which the mother is required to swallow. This is supposed to insure the child's living to maturity. It had no connection with the sun.
I have told you how men are called upon to cut off pieces of skin and how certain old women were selected to amputate fingers. You should also know that in olden times there were some women and men who might be called upon to cut open dead persons for various reasons. Sometimes they did this on their own account in order to get information as to the cause of death.
These accounts show for one thing that the cutting ceremony in the sun dance is but one of a type of blood and flesh offerings made to the sun, in fulfillment of a vow. The sacrifice of a finger is more frequent and less specialized, though frequently done at the sun dance. Then comes the very frequent offering of bits of skin, a sacrifice common in war raids at all times. The offering of bits of skin in the precise manner described here is found elsewhere in the Plains. The writer has observed men so scarred among several divisions of the Dakota. The method of removing the skin was here the same as followed by the Blackfoot. The thrusting in of the awl has a curious similarity to the cutting and skewering in the sun dance; one may even be pardoned for wondering if it did not so arise.