Black Hawk's Narrative of the Yearly Cycle of the Sauk and Mesquakie Tribes
As told to Antoine Le Claire,
Translator and Writer
(Section titles are not part of the original manuscript)
The Village of Saukenuk
Our village was situated on the north side of Rock River at the foot
of its rapids, and on the point of land between Rock River and the Mississippi.
In its front, a prairie extended to the bank of the Mississippi; and in
our rear, a continued bluff, gently ascending from the prairie.
On the side of this bluff we had our cornfields, extending about
two miles up, running parallel with the Mississippi; where we joined those
of the Foxes, whose village was on the bank of the Mississippi, opposite
the lower end of Rock Island, and three miles distant from ours. We had
about eight hundred acres in cultivation, including what we had on the
islands of Rock river.
The land around our village, uncultivated, was covered with blue-grass,
which made excellent pasture for our horses. Several fine springs broke
out of the bluff, near by, from which we were supplied with good water.
The rapids of Rock River furnished us with an abundance of excellent fish,
and the land, being good, never failed to produce good crops of corn,
beans, pumpkins, and squashes.
We always had plenty - our children never cried with hunger, nor our
people were never in want. Here our village had stood for more than a
hundred years, during all which time we were the undisputed possessors
of the valley of the Mississippi, from the Ouisconsin to the Portage des
Sioux, near the mouth of the Missouri, being about seven hundred miles
Returning in the Spring
When we returned to our village in the spring, from our wintering grounds,
we would finish trading with our traders, who always followed us to our
village. We purposely kept some of our fine furs for this trade; and,
as there was great opposition among them, who should get these skins,
we always got our goods cheap. After this trade was over, the traders
would give us a few kegs of rum, which was generally promised in the fall,
to encourage us to make a good hunt, and not go to war.
They would then start with their furs and peltries for their homes. Our
old men would take a frolic, (at this time our young men never drank.)
When this was ended, the next thing to be done was to bury our dead, (such
that had died during the year.) This is a great medicine feast. The relations
of those who have died give all the goods they have purchased, as presents
to their friends ? thereby reducing themselves to poverty, to show the
Great Spirit that they are humble, so that he will take pity on them.
We would next open the caches and take out corn and other provisions,
which had been put up in the fall, and then commence repairing our lodges.
As soon as this is accomplished, we repair the fences around our fields,
and clean them off, ready for planting corn. This work is done
by our women. The men, during this time, are feasting on dried venison,
bear's meat, wild fowl, and corn, prepared in different ways; and
recounting to each other what took place during the winter. Our women
plant the corn, and as soon as they get done, we make a feast,
and dance the crane dance, in which they join us, dressed in their best,
and decorated with feathers.
The Crane Dance
At this feast our young braves select the young woman they wish to have
for a wife. He then informs his mother, who calls on the mother of the
girl. When the arrangement is made, and the time appointed for him to
come, he goes to the lodge when all are asleep, (or pretend to be,) lights
his matches, which have been provided for the purpose, and soon finds
where his intended sleeps.
He then awakens her, and holds the light to his face that she may know
him?after which he places the light close to her. If she blows it out,
the ceremony is ended, and he appears in the lodge next morning, as one
of the family. If she does not blow out the light, but leaves it to burn
out, he retires from the lodge.
The next day he places himself in full view of it, and plays his flute.
The young women go out, one by one, to see who he is playing for. The
tune changes, to let them know that he is not playing for them. When his
intended makes her appearance at the door, he continues his courting tune,
until she returns to the lodge. He then gives over playing, and makes
another trial at night, which generally turns out favorable.
During the first year they ascertain whether they can agree with each
other, and can be happy-if not, they part and each looks out again. If
we were to live together and disagree, we should be foolish as the whites!
No indiscretion can banish a woman from her parental lodge-no difference
how many children she may bring home, she is always welcome-the kettle
is over the fire to feed them.
The National Dance
The crane dance often lasts two or three days. When this is over, we
feast again, and have our national dance. The large square in the village
is swept and prepared for the purpose. The chiefs and old warriors take
seats on mats which have been spread at the upper end of the square -
the drummers and singers come next, and the braves and women form the
sides, leaving a large space in the middle. The drums beat, and the singers
A warrior enters the square, keeping time with the music. He shows the
manner he started on a war party-how he approached the enemy-he strikes,
and describes the way he killed him. All join in applause. He then leaves
the square, and another enters and takes his place. Such of our young
men have not been out in war parties, and killed an enemy, stand back
ashamed-not being able to enter the square.
I remember that I was ashamed to look where our young women stood, before
I could take my stand in the square as a warrior. What pleasure it is
to an old warrior, to see his son come forward and relate his exploits
- it makes him feel young, and induces him to enter the square, and "fight
his battles o'er again." This national dance makes our warriors.
When I was traveling last summer, on a steam-boat, on a large river,
going from New York to Albany, I was shown the place where the American
dance their national dance [West Point] ; where the old warriors recount
to their young men, what they have done, to stimulate them to go and do
likewise. This surprised me, as I did not think the whites understood
our way of making braves.
The Summer Hunt and Return
When our national dance is over - our corn-fields hoed, and every
weed dug up, and our corn about knee-high, all our young men would
start in a direction toward sun-down, to hunt deer and buffalo - being
prepared, also, to kill Sioux, if any are found on our hunting grounds.
A part of our old men and women go to the lead mines to make lead and
the remainder of our people start to fish and get mat stuff.
Every one leaves the village, and remains about forty days. They then
return: the hunting party bringing in dried buffalo and deer meat, and
sometimes Sioux scalps, when they are found trespassing on our hunting
grounds. At other times they are met by a party of Sioux too strong for
them, and are driven in. If the Sioux have killed the Sacs last, they
expect to be retaliated upon, and will fly before them, and vice versa.
Each party knows that the other has a right to retaliate, which induces
those who have killed last, to give way before their enemy as neither
wish to strike, except to avenge the death of their relatives. All our
wars are predicated by the relatives of those killed or by aggressions
upon our hunting grounds.
The party from the lead mines brings lead, and the others dried fish, and
mats for our winter lodges. Presents are now made by each party the first,
giving to the others dried buffalo and deer, and they, in exchange, presenting
them with lead, dried fish and mats. This is a happy season of the year
having plenty of provisions, such as beans, squashes, and other produce,
with our dried meat and fish, we continue to make feasts and visit each
other, until our corn is ripe.
Some lodge in the village makes a feast daily, to the Great Spirit. I
cannot explain this so that the white people would comprehend me, as we
have no regular standard among us. Every one makes his feast as he thinks
best, to please the Great Spirit, who has the care of all beings created.
Others believe in two Spirits; one good and one bad, and make feasts for
the Bad Spirit, to keep him quiet! If they can make peace with him, the
Good Spirit will not hurt them.
For my part, I am of opinion, that so far as we have reason, we have
a right to use it, in determining what is right or wrong and should pursue
that path which we believe to be right believing that, "whatever
is, is right." If the Great and Good Spirit wished us to believe
and do as the whites, he could easily change our opinions, so that we
would see, and think, and act as they do. We are nothing compared to His
power, and we feel and know it.
We have men among us, like the whites, who pretend to know the right
path, but will not consent to show it without pay! I have no faith in
their paths - but believe that every man must make his own path!
How Corn First Came to Be
When our corn is getting ripe, our young people watch with anxiety
for the first signal to pull roasting ears as none dare touch them until
the proper time. When the corn is fit to use, another great ceremony
takes place, with feasting, and returning thanks to the Great Spirit for
giving us corn.
I will here relate the manner in which corn first came. According
to tradition, handed down to our people, a beautiful woman was seen to
descend from the clouds, and alight upon the earth, by two of our ancestors,
who had killed a deer, and were sitting by a fire, roasting a part of
it to eat. They were astonished at seeing her, and concluded that she
must be hungry, and had smelt the meat - and immediately went to her,
taking with them a piece of the roasted venison.
They presented it to her, and she eat - and told them to return to the
spot where she was sitting, at the end of one year, and they would find
a reward for their kindness and generosity. She then ascended to the clouds,
and disappeared. The two men returned to their village, and explained
to the nation what they had seen, done, and heard but were laughed at
by their people.
When the period arrived, for them to visit this consecrated ground, where
they were to find a reward for their attention to the beautiful woman
of the clouds, they went with a large party, and found, where her right
hand had rested on the ground, corn growing - and where the left
hand had rested, beans - and immediately where she had been seated, tobacco.
The two first have, ever since, been cultivated by our people, as our
principal provisions and the last used for smoking. The white people have
since found out the latter, and seem to relish it as much as we do as
they use it in different ways such as smoking, snuffing and eating!
We thank the Great Spirit for all the benefits he has conferred upon
us. For myself, I never take a drink of water from a spring, without being
mindful of his goodness.
The Fall Harvest and Hunt
We next have our great ball play. From three to five hundred on a side
play this game. We play for horses, guns, blankets, or any other kind
of property we have. The successful party takes the stakes, and all retire
to our lodges in peace and friendship. We next commence horse-racing,
and continue our sport and feasting, until the corn is all secured.
We then prepare to leave our village for our hunting grounds. The traders
arrive, and give us credit for such articles as we want to clothe our
families, and enable us to hunt. We first, however, hold a council with
them, to ascertain the price they will give us for our skins, and what
they will charge us for goods. We inform them where we intend hunting
and tell them where to build their houses.
At this place, we deposit part of our corn, and leave our old
people. The traders have always been kind to them, and relieved them when
in want. They were always much respected by our people and never since
we have been a nation, has one of them been killed by any of our people.
We disperse, in small parties, to make our hunt.
As soon as it is over, we return to our traders' establishment, with
our skins, and remain feasting, playing cards and other pastimes, until
near the close of the winter. Our young men then start on the beaver hunt;
others to hunt raccoons and muskrats - and the remainder of our people
go to the sugar camps to make sugar. All leave our encampment, and appoint
a place to meet on the Mississippi, so that we may return to our village
together, in the spring.
We always spent our time pleasantly at the sugar camp. It being the season
for wild fowl, we lived well, and always had plenty, when the hunters
came in, that we might make a feast for them. After this is over, we return
to our village, accompanied, sometimes, by our traders. In this way, the
year rolled round happily. But these are times that were!
Used by permission: Special Collections, State Historical
Society of Iowa, Iowa City.