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Cultural Overview - Sahnish Culture - Ceremonies and Societies

Mandan Culture | Hidatsa Culture | Sahnish Culture

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Ceremonies and Societies

The Sahnish relate that the Supreme Deity (Nesaanu ti naacitakUx), speaking to the Sahnish said “three things will keep you right: Corn, the Office of the Chief, and the secrets that were revealed in the lodge. These three things you must preserve always.” From time immemorial, the history of the Sahnish has been described through their sacred bundles. The bundles are ancient containers for sacred objects that are necessary to recall and explain the most important events in this nation’s history. There were twelve bundles, one for each of the bands represented among the Sahnish people.

Brackenridge relates in the early 1800s that each Sahnish village had one lodge in the center of the village, larger than the others, with a cedar tree and a large stone before it. This was the holy house or medicine lodge. During this time, the spiritual power of the Sahnish ceremonies was well known among other tribes. The white people who witnessed ceremonies, called it “slight of hand” or magic. Explorers and traders who witnessed sacred ceremonies were unable to explain them any other way. The white men testified they saw a Sahnish man’s head severed then returned to his body and life restored during a ceremony. They talked of Sahnish men who were transformed into bears, buffalo, or wolves. In his journal, Brackenridge tells of the cantankerous and poisonous rattlesnake that was tamed by the medicine man of the tribe. He wrote that skill with the “rattler” was common to this tribe. Even as recent as the early 1900s, men watched as Sahnish priests placed a dead branch of the wild chokecherry or plum bush in the middle of the medicine lodge and it bore fruit during a sacred ceremony. These examples were recorded in journals of white explorers and traders, and verified by the tribe.

Historically, the Sahnish practiced a highly developed, complex, religious, and ceremonial culture of which the priesthood was one of the most important and natural segments. The members of this priesthood were entrusted with the tribal history and law. The priests were an alliance known as the “Medicine Lodge,” consisting of nine powerful and distinct societies. In addition to the Medicine Lodge, there were several sweat lodges or baths used for cleansing before ceremonies.

The Medicine Lodge consisted of four principal priests, and nine priests who knew all the ceremonies and could perform them. The other priests knew the ceremonies of their societies only. By the 1900s there were only two priests who knew the ceremonies. They were Crow Ghost and Pat Star.

The most important ceremony is the “Mother Corn” held in the spring, summer, and fall. Another ceremony is called the setting up of the Holy Cedar Tree followed by a performance known as the “Medicine Lodge.” The Cedar Tree is called Grandmother of all things. She is renewed each summer season and is a symbol of life, bringing vegetation to life, annually renewing, and dying. There were also ceremonies for baptism and naming for people who had not yet received a name.

The Sacred Rock is considered the grandfather of all things, “an emblem of the unchanging.” It is always painted red in ceremonies and covered with red cloth. Red is the color of life or the heart.

Brackenridge, Gilmore, and others agreed that the Sahnish were experts in the use of herbs. The most important use was for the treatment of diseases. The knowledge of herbs has been passed down from generation to generation. Today, only select groups of spiritual people have the knowledge of the healing herbs.

Tobacco, a trade commodity cultivated by the Sahnish, was used on all occasions from infancy to death. It was used with seriousness and dignity by the people. When an infant was named, an important part of the ceremony was making smoke offerings. When a man entered into any undertaking, the Powers were invoked by making tobacco offerings. When a plant of medicinal use was dug from the ground, it was first reverently addressed, begged to have mercy on the person, and asked to give of its virtue for healing. The Sahnish grew a special kind of tobacco which was an herb. This tobacco was not used as cigarettes are today. It was only used for ceremonial purposes with the pipe and with prayers.

Late in the 1800s and early into the 1900s, the Sahnish people were known among other tribes and the white people for their ability to successfully treat and heal wounds. They were sought out as healers by other tribes. White people were amazed at their talents for healing. As an example, the Buffalo Society members were experts at setting bones. If a wound became difficult to heal, they resorted to actually cauterizing it, after which the wound healed easily, the elders reported.

Societies held certain powers and abilities such as healing. The societies of the Sahnish people were explained according to Bear’s Teeth who was interviewed by historian, Robert Lowie. Bear’s Teeth identified Sahnish men’s societies as follows:

THE YOUNG DOGS SOCIETY gives instructions to young men on how they should live and how to become a warrior. It was associated with or helped by the Goose Women’s Society.

THE STRAIGHT-HEAD SOCIETY invited the remaining members of the Young Dog society to join them. They celebrated the warrior’s bravery and aided the poor of the tribe.

BUFFALO-CALLING CEREMONY was for calling the buffalo. They imitated the buffalo and their purpose was to insure a good hunt or to indicate that the buffalo was near. A similar society was the buffalo society who celebrated the bravest man.

THE YOUNG BUFFALO SOCIETY was replaced by a more popular and active society. Then it was called the Big Grass Society. Today that society is called the Dead Grass Society. This society takes a lead role in the dances or celebrations at the White Shield community.

THE BLACK MOUTHS SOCIETY was distinguishable because of the way the members were painted. The top part of their faces was painted red and the lower portion was painted black. They were the guards and policemen of the village.

TARO SOCIETY received its name because members cut a small section of hair on both sides in the shape of a half moon.

THE FOX SOCIETY had elaborate dress and a ceremony. Young women are selected into the society.

THE HOT DANCE SOCIETY’S most distinguishing characteristic is that the members put their arms into kettles of boiling water, take meat out, and carry it on their shoulders and the hot water never burns them. This phenomenon was recorded in other ceremonies and societies.

THE CUT THROAT SOCIETY was a society for young men with no social affiliation.

FOOLISH PEOPLE SOCIETY always did the opposite of what was asked of them. These were the known societies of the men and warriors.

WOMEN’S SOCIETIES: Little is known of the women’s societies because there were rarely informants. Generally, interviews and recordings were done with the men.

RIVER SNAKE SOCIETY imitates the snake. It was a secret women society.

GOOSE SOCIETY membership is inherited through the mother.

It is difficult to understand societies among the Sahnish because they were generally practiced in secret or for the Sahnish people only. When the Sahnish were decimated by diseases and warfare, many of the ceremonies and songs for the societies were lost.

Today, many Sahnish people practice these ceremonies. Among the Sahnish, seven sacred bundles exist and are tended by “keepers.” There are ceremonies for “Mother Corn” held regularly by women keepers in the communities of White Shield and Parshall. The ceremony for the Arikara Bundle is held annually and it is a time when all bundle keepers are invited to participate.

Burial Rites

The rites of death are one of the most sacred ceremonies of the Sahnish people. It is a ceremony that has changed little from the early days and continues to be used by the people.

In the early 1800s, it is said by elders and confirmed by journals that the dead were dressed and painted by the parents and other close relatives. Relatives placed the body on a buffalo robe and carried it to the grave, where the person was wrapped in a robe laid on his/her back, with the head facing the east and resting on a pillow. A special song, carried down from generation to generation, was sung at the gravesite, for the spiritual journey of the deceased. The body was said to be returned to the earth because we come from the earth and are returned to Earth.

The death ceremony has changed little with the introduction of white ways. It remains one of the oldest ceremonies practiced by the people today. The ceremony begins with the death and extends to four days or until the body is buried. A death feast is given by the grieving family. Only elders and the family are invited. The death ceremony ends late at night and the family prepares food for the deceased to send with him or her on their spiritual journey.

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