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Cultural Overview - Sahnish Culture - Sahnish Creation Stories - Part 2

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Sahnish Creation Stories - Part 2

“They knew not how to shelter themselves from the
pitiless storms. A Voice was heard which told them
that the Rock (kanits) would be their help. So they
looked to the rocks for aid, and took shelter in
the caves. The mysterious Voice that was heard
promised that the Rock would give the people
strength.

“The people were ill and in need and buffeted by
the strong winds. The Voice again was heard speaking
to them, telling them to lay hold on the Cedar and
that it would help them. They heeded the counsel of
the Voice and resorted to the Cedar. The Cedar
comforted them and promised to help them and
protect them. So they had rest and quiet from
the storm in the shelter of the cedar trees, for
the Cedar was very strong and able to withstand all
the angry gusts of stormy wind. And a cedar’s leaves
and twigs were used for incense and for medicines
also. As a mark of gratitude and respect the Cedar
is called “grandmother” (atika).

“Now we shall hear the meanings of the other groups
of sticks. First we consider the group at the southeast.
There you see two sticks besides the one that was laid
to represent the Sun. It has also another significance.
Not only does this stick betoken the potent and
wholesome power of the light of the Sun, but it also
signifies vegetation. It represents all vegetation in
general. The People were ignorant, poor and needy,
naked, barefoot and hungry. They rested in the caves
of the rocks and on the grass in the open, wherever
they happened to be when they become weary.

“And then a voice was heard which encouraged
the people and gave them hope for better things. It
was the voice of Vegetation speaking to them, making
the people welcome into the world of living things,
offering friendship and companionship and promising
that mankind should grow and increase as they saw
all vegetation growing and prospering on earth. And
Vegetation thus offered the people aid and comfort.
So the people were gladdened and encouraged, for all
the wonderful variety of vegetation was very beautiful
to the eye and in its many shades of restful green,
and in they joyous and delightful coloring of the
multitude of bright flowers.

“And then a voice was heard which
encouraged the people and gave them
hope for better things.”

“Of the two other sticks laid down here the one is
to represent all the trees and wild fruits and other
friendly, useful wild plants which promised to give
help to the people. So the people found many fruits
very pleasant to the taste and wholesome and
nourishing to their bodies. Some trees gave sap
from which they could make sugar; many kinds of
trees gave wood useful for various purposes. And
there were plants that gave roots good for food,
and others gave seeds, and still others gave other
parts good for food.

“The other stick in this group is laid a little apart
from the one next to it. This stick separate from the
one before it is to represent the promise that
was spoken by the Voice which was heard. A
promise foretelling that a time would come when
the people would not be dependent upon wild plants
only, but that certain useful plants would be
protected and propagated by mankind and their
quality would be improved by cultivation. By this
means the people would have a better quality and
more certain quantity of plant producers than they
had before. That was the promise given by the
beans, squashes, pumpkins and sunflowers. So the
people found vegetation helpful and friendly in
many ways. And so smoke offerings are made toward
the southeast in grateful recognition of the
blessings of the sunlight and for the friendship
and good gifts of vegetation.

“In the southwest is another of the aids of the
Chief Above, the one which brings to us the
wonderful gift of the water of life. That is the
Thunder (waaruxti’). So the southwest stick is to
represent the Thunder. But it also represents our
animal friends, the chief of which is the buffalo
(tanaha’). It was promised that the flesh of the
buffalo should be our main supply of meat; and
that its bones, its sinew, its horns, its skin and
other parts should be useful to us for many varied
purposes. That is why a beef must be slaughtered
and given for a public feast, and the choice parts
offered as a sacrifice to the Chief Above when a
Sacred Bundle is opened to have a thanksgiving
ceremony in honor of Mother Corn. This requirement
is strictly prescribed. This honor is paid to the
Buffalo (tanaha’) because it has contributed more
to our benefit than any other of our animal friends.

“By this stick at the south west quarter a group of
four other sticks is laid. The first of these four is
a represent the water of life, That element so
necessary to all life in the world. This stick
represents the rivers and creeks and all streams
of water which flow through the land, the lakes
and all bodies of water which supply the needs of
the living creatures, the rains which descend from
the clouds wafted by the winds of the sky over the
land, and the refreshing dews which revive the
dropping vegetation in the cool of the evening and
the night, when the restful dusk has come after the
blazing rays of the sun are withdrawn. It was
promised that water would be given to supply the
needs of all living creatures.

“The next stick represents the springs of water
which issue in the hills and flow down through
the joyous whispering brooks, finally reaching
and adding their waters to the rivers forever
flowing on down to the mysterious sea. But these
sweet water springs first supply the grasses and
violets and other shy and gentle little people
which dwell by them.

rain

“The next stick represents the worms and other
humble forms of animal life dwelling in and under
the ground. We are taught to consider and to
remember that the most lowly creatures have their
proper place and work, and the world would not be
perfect without them;

The next and last stick in this group represents
those flying creatures which first issue from the egg
in a larval form, then pass through a quiescent stage
in the pupal form, and then finally come forth in a
very different form, winged and flying freely in the
sunshine of daytime or the twilight of evening time.
This class of flying creatures includes butterflies
(sawiitakaa’), dragon-flies (piisuusaaha) and wasps
(was) which fly in the daytime, and various kinds of
moths which flit about among the flowers in the
twilight.

Now we come to the group of sticks laid at the
northwest quarter of the circle. The stick which was
first laid at this quarter we said was to represent
the Wind, that aid of the Chief Above which gives
action and movement to all things. Without the air,
the breath of life, mankind and animals and all
vegetation would die very quickly.

The stick which was first laid at this quarter
we said was to represent the Wind, that aid
of the Chief Above which gives action
and movement to all things.

Of the four other sticks laid down alongside the
one which first was laid to represent the Wind the
first of the group represents all those forms of insect
life which emerge from the egg in the form of adults,
without first passing through the larval stage. This
class of insects includes grasshoppers (kaapis),
crickets (taciRUt) and fireflies (piiRUx kahik). All
these have their proper place in the world.

“The next stick of this group represents all kinds of
birds (nikUs). Some kinds of birds are helpful to
vegetation by keeping a check on those insects
which might destroy it if they become too numerous.
Other kinds of birds, such as owls (WAhuru’) and
hawks (nikutawikusu’), are natural checks against
some other kinds of birds which might be destructive
if they increased out of bounds, such as blackbirds
(kaaxIt); and the owls and hawks also check the
inordinate increase of rodents; such as rabbits
(waRUx), ground squirrels (ciskarani), and mice
(saakAx), which might do damage if they became to
numerous. Then there are other kinds of birds which
are helpful to us by giving us their flesh and eggs
for food and their feathers for use and beauty.

“The next stick represents Echo (sahkaWIhaanu’),
which is said to have life, though it does not exist
in bodily form which we can see. And because the
echo is mysterious and wonderful we pay it
reverence and give it the respectful title of
grandmother. A grandmother is wise, the teacher
of the family. Her words carry to the younger
generation the wisdom of experience. And Echo is
the word-carrier in the world. It is by words that
the fruits of one person’s experience can benefit
many other person even the whole people. In this
way improvement in methods and manners may
come to be and thus conditions of life become
better. So in the cultivation of plants, improvement
has come by the results of observation and
experience being passed from one person to another,
and thus the quality of cultivated crops has been
conserved and increased.

“Next and last stick in this group represents the
ants (pitaru’), those small but very wonderful
creatures whose works we see everywhere in the
land. There are various kinds of ants; some dig
out chambers and passages below the surface of
the earth. There they live in underground villages,
carrying out the soil and laying it in circular
embankments about the entrances to their
underground dwellings. Other species build mounds
of gravel, and still others of sticks, which they
lay up in dome-like form similar to the form of
the earth-covered houses of our people. And in
these ant villages the ant people are always busy.
They are careful of their young, they lay up stores
of food, and all about their mounds they keep the
ground clean and neat, cleared of all rubbish and
all weeds. They work together each for all. And thus
by cooperation their condition is improved. The ants
are an example for human beings (sahNIstaape). Mother
Corn has taught that human beings should cooperate
and help one another as the ants do. When a house is
to be built the neighbors should come together and
help. The slaughtering of buffalo and other kinds of
work also require the cooperation of many persons for
success.

“Mother Corn taught us that all animals, even
such small and seemingly insignificant creatures as
the ants, are endowed with the sacred and wonderful
quality of life, even as we ourselves are, and that all
the different kinds of animals are to be our friends
and companions. Though they may be small and
humble, and we may think them of no account,
we should remember that they have the dignity
which belongs to mystery of life, and all have
their own special gifts of power. If we sit down
by an ant hill we may observe them all working,
performing their own tasks, brings material for
their dwelling, feeding and caring for their young,
all doing their part in the world. We should treat
them with respect. We should think of them as our
relatives, part of our family.

“Mother Corn taught us that all animals,
even such small and seemingly insignificant
creatures as the ants, are endowed with the
sacred and wonderful quality of life.”

“Now we have finished the round of the circle and
have considered the meaning of all the groups of
sticks, and each stick in each group severally, in
their symbolism of elements and powers in the world,
and of the progress made from the crudity of the
first to the completeness of the last stick as it has
been promised by the mysterious Voice.

Mother Corn has taught us that these four quarters
are her guards and helpers on earth; and she has
taught us that we should always remember when we
have a feast, to make offerings to all these four in
acknowledgment of the good gifts we have received
and so to show our gratitude and pray for
continuance of her favor. She taught us that, when
we have ceremonies in her honor, we should lay two
crossed sticks at the west side of the circle by
the altar. These crossed sticks are to represent
her, for the cornstalk in its growth appears as a
stem with a foot and a growing point, and with a
leaf at each side; so we see it in the form of a
cross, as we show by the two sticks.”

When the old man had finished his lecture he
brought a piece of dried meat on a plate and placed
it as a reverent offering before the ear of corn which
had been reposing near the two crossed sticks at the
west side of the circle. This ear of corn was a symbol
of Mother Corn and so was to be treated with becoming
reverence. Then he gathered up again the thirty-four
sticks and tied them together in a bundle once more.

Then he said a prayer to some considerable length,
commending me to Mother Corn, since I had been
given her teachings and was about to assume the
custody of the bundle of sticks and the authority
and responsibility 6f the teachings. In his prayer
he mentioned me not by my legal name, but by my
Pawnee name Paa’xu.

Seating Arrangement in Sahnish Council/Medicine Lodge
Sahnish Council/Medicine Lodge. The seating arrangement of a Sahnish
Council/Medicine Lodge. This arrangement was also used for the layout of the
villages. (Graphic by Cassie Theurer, adapted from a drawing from the State
Historical Society of North Dakota)

In his prayer he made allusion to the ancient Sahnish prophecy that in future time a strange people would come into the land, a people of different color, and of strange habits and customs, who would interfere with the ancient customs of the Sahnish (Arikara). He prayed that through the work of Paa’xu the holy teachings of Mother Corn might be put on record and perpetuated for all time so that the sahNIstaaka’ (“White-people”) might come to a knowledge of these holy teachings, and also that they might be preserved for future generations of the children of the Sahnish when the old people all should be gone and the ancient teachings and customs would otherwise be lost and forgotten. His prayer commended Paa’xu to Mother Corn and to the Chief Above. Even though he be sahNIstaaka’ (“Whiteman”), yet he had proved to be united in mind and heart with the Sahnish.

Then he had me kneel down by him and receive
from him in ceremonial manner the sheaf of sticks.
This ceremonial act of transmitting the bundle of
sticks signified the granting of authority to
promulgate the teachings of the doctrinal symbolized
by the sticks. This ceremonial of formal transfer
was made thus. The old priest, grasping the bundle
in my right hand with a clasp linked to his. Three
times we gripped and relaxed, and the fourth time
we gripped I retained my grasp and he relinquished
his, leaving the bundle of sticks in my hand. At
the time of the fourth gripping and his final
relinquishment my left hand was extended along his
right arm, I drawing my left hand downward to the
bundle of sticks just as he relinquished his grasp
leaving the sticks in my right hand thus signifying
my assumption of custody, authority and responsibility.

The ceremony was then concluded by a prayer of
the old priest commending Paa’xu to the care of the
Neesaanu Natchitak through Mother Corn, Praying
that Paa’xu might have a safe return home, that he
might meet his relatives and friends again in
health, and that he might prosper in all his
undertakings. (What is outlined in this text for
the Sahnish was taken from journals of people who
had contact with them during the late 1700s
through the 1800s.)

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