Lesson 11 – Dakota Beliefs, An Outsiders Look

Lesson 11 – Dakota Beliefs, An Outsiders Look

When reading the journal of Frank Blackwell Mayer, an artist from Baltimore who witnessed the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux in 1851, it is impossible to ignore his observations of Dakota beliefs.  One belief Mayer discovered while drawing sketches of the Dakota people.  It was Mayer’s practice to draw portraits while his sitters were unaware, but in doing so he met with varying success.  While some, as he noted, “laughed immoderately at the result” and showed no objection, others “observed with stoical indifference and coldly declined being sitters.”  According to Mayer, some of the Dakota believed that by acquiring their portrait, he would obtain some influence over them, while others had no such superstition, but considered it an honor.

The Thunder or Round Dance by Frank Blackwell Mayer
The Thunder or Round Dance by Frank Blackwell Mayer

In another observation of Dakota beliefs, Mayer described the Thunder Dance.  In the summer of 1851, southern Minnesota received much rain.  So much in fact, that the treaty negotiations had to be delayed several weeks while the farthest reaching bands of Dakota struggled to travel over the wet terrain to the Traverse des Sioux.  In an attempt to appease the thunder bird or destroy his influence, the Dakota held the Thunder Dance.  The dance took place in a large circle and included nearly all the Dakota in camp.  Loud and invigorating music propelled the Dakota around the circle in a continuous and wild fashion.  This went on for many minutes until the music stopped and a marksmen shot down the so-called Thunder Bird that had been constructed out of bark and placed in the center.  At the end of the dance Mayer remarked, “as to the efficacy of this festival time will show.”

The Dakota missionary Gideon Pond described Dakota beliefs as Taku-Wakan.  As he described it, everything that is beyond comprehension is Taku-Wakan.  This, he argued, was the starting point of all Dakota beliefs.  It was the divine essence of God that the Dakota saw in all things that were strange and mysterious.  Over time this became known as the Great Spirit.  However, as Pond argued, the Great Spirit was not a part of Dakota feasts, fasts, or rituals, but was imparted on them by white men.  If the Great Spirit was referred to in council, it was merely because they supposed him to be a part of white man’s worship, or because the interpreter mistranslated their words.  In Dakota spirituality there was no supreme being, rather there was nothing they did not revere as God.

Excerpt from Ceding Contempt

The site for the dance was about a half-mile in back of the river on the open plains.  All in camp were in attendance including the commissioners and near a thousand Indians.  The spot for the dance was a large circle, probably large enough for a circus.  At each of the four points of the compass was constructed an arbor made out of birch branches.  The arbors were rudely constructed arches tall enough only for a man to sit, with the exception of the entrance.  At the center was a sapling and from it hung the image of a large bird which had been cut out of a piece of bark.  This image was meant to represent the Thunder Bird.  In the same way there hung a smaller representation of the Thunder Bird from each of the four arbors.  Also at the center, and in front of the sapling, sat the medicine man.  His face was blackened and his head was covered with tufts of interwoven grass.  Between his legs sat the Indian drum and at his side was the Indian flute.  He was to act as sorcerer, uttering incantations and regulating the dance though music and song.

The dance commenced as the sorcerer beat his drum.  Scores of finely dressed dancers rushed through the gate and into the circle.  They moved in a circular procession, bouncing up and down to the beat of the drum.  As they danced excitedly they hooted and hollered and made all kinds of frantic noises while their faces had the liveliest expressions.  This carried on for fifteen or twenty minutes, the only respite being when the sorcerer played his flute.

The dancers exited for a brief interlude and upon returning they were accompanied by many horsemen.  Like the dancers, the horsemen were gaily dressed in a fantastic array of blankets, sashes, feathers, and beads.  The cavalcade of dancing continued as the sorcerer beat his drum and sang his high pitched, shrieking tune.  The horsemen raced around the dancers at incredible speeds as their blankets and hair streamed behind them, whipping through the air.  The music quickened and so too did the dancers, who continued round and round like a whirlpool.

Next there entered into the circle the Indian boys and girls.  Just as their adult counterparts, they danced excitedly, waving their arms and raising their voices.  The entire scene became an indistinguishable melee of bodies and movement and sound.  It was a virtual feast for the eyes, a gala for the senses.

Suddenly the dance halted.  All participants froze as if directed by a switch.  The music stopped.  Only the heavy breathing of the once-active dancers could now be heard.  But within moments the silence was broken and the audience was startled by the discharge of several rifles.  The Thunder Birds, all five, had been cut down instantly.  A cheer arose.  Not a happy cheer, but an eager one.  So ended the round dance and with it, perhaps, the rain.  It was a thrilling exhibition, possibly the most stunning I had ever witnessed.

Read more about Dakota superstition and spirituality (page 32-62).

Learn more about Taku-Wakan.

See this blog post on YouTube.  


Bertha L. Heilbron, With Pen and Pencil on the Frontier in 1851:  The Diary and Sketches of Frank Blackwell Mayer, (St. Paul:  Minnesota Historical Society, 1986).

Gideon Pond, “Dakota Superstitions,” in Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, Vol. 2, Part 1, (St. Paul:  Minnesota Historical Society, 1889), p. 32-62.

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