Sacred Texts  Native American  Plains  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

The Old North Trail, by Walter McClintock, [1910], at

p. 139



Superstitious fears of my companions during the blizzard.—Story of Running Rabbit's ghost.—Old Person ghost story.—Strange story of Kattana's death.—Methods used by different medicine men during his last illness.—His visions and death-dream.—Startling apparitions after Kattana's death.—Story of Crow Eagle and the ghost.—Blackfeet beliefs as to the future life.—Disposition of the dead.—Burial customs.—Mourning customs.

WHEN Mad Wolf had finished the legend of the Winter Tipi, the beating of snow and sleet against the lodge signified the presence of the mysterious Cold Maker and filled everyone with awe and dread of His power. Mysterious sounds were in the air. The singing of the wood on the fire seemed like voices from the spirit world. The distant bellowing of the cattle and the barking of the dogs sounded weird and ghostly. Suddenly a furious gust of wind roared through the poles overhead, shaking the lodge violently, throwing the door-flap wide open and swirling the smoke. Mistina said, in awe-struck tones, that a spirit had entered because she had just heard the dogs giving the ghost-bark, a peculiar snuffling bark, which the Blackfeet say they use when spirits are about. Mistina was in a state of mind favourable for both hearing and seeing ghosts. She, like many others, had been deeply impressed by the fact that many well-known Indians had died during the summer and their spirits had been

p. 140

appearing to the living, bringing fear and sometimes even death. Itomina, the old deaf woman, however, was not disturbed by any of these fears. She sat near the door holding the baby in her arms, swaying slowly

Click to enlarge


backwards and forwards and singing to it softly an old slumber song.

Ika-sta-pina then told of Running Rabbit's spirit which had been harassing the Indians who crossed Two Medicine River at night, by frightening their horses.

p. 141

[paragraph continues] Mistina interrupted to say, "It is strange Running Rabbit should have become so mean after death, he was such a kind, and good old man while alive. Not long ago we saw his ghost, when we were crossing the Two Medicine River. He was lying on the ground, but, as we drew near, he raised himself and stood in front of our horses. He came so near, we were frightened lest he might touch us (sure death). Not long ago while Two Strikes and her daughter, Soft Woman, were going to visit Bull Calf, they heard a voice from behind. Soft Woman told me that her mother turned to see who it might be. She fell instantly upon the ground and lay as if dead. When she came to herself, she explained to her daughter that, when she turned, she beheld the spirit of her father, Running Rabbit, who had touched her. Not long afterwards Two Strikes died very suddenly and her family believe that Running Rabbit took her with him to the spirit world."

Strikes-on-both-sides said: "There have been many ghosts this summer bothering people, who travel near the Two Medicine River at night. Old Person was recently riding down the river to Little Plume's. When he was passing the cottonwood trees, where the dead bodies lie in the branches, his horse suddenly reared and plunged, as if frightened by an apparition. Then Old Person heard a voice speaking from the trees, saying, 'Old Person! what has delayed your coming to the spirit world so long? I have been waiting for you a very long time.' He was so badly frightened he rode away at a gallop. Next day he was taken sick and in a few days he died. I also heard of another case. When Big Wolf Medicine and Buffalo Hide were recently camped on the Two Medicine with their wives, a ghost harassed them all night, so that they could not sleep.

p. 142

[paragraph continues] They first heard something approaching their lodge from the north-west where there was a grove of cottonwoods. It awakened the dogs that were sleeping outside. They gave the ghost-bark and were badly frightened, snuffing the air and growling fiercely. The ghost moved around the lodge to the door, which it threw open. Then it went to the north-east side and hooted like an owl." The Blackfeet have a superstitious fear of owls, believing that the spirits of the dead often appear in that form. "Next morning, they discovered a death lodge in the cottonwood grove and recognised the body of a young man that had been murdered by his jealous brother. It is probably because he was murdered that he annoys the living."

Mistina then told some incidents of the last sickness and death of Kattana. "Many medicine men were present during his last illness. Ketopio, Ominamo, Imo-yis-ocasim, and Paks-ak-ikin. The women doctors were Nits-tos-ape, First Strike, and Snake Woman. The medicine men chanted and prayed night and day. When one was exhausted another took his place. Ketopio's power in doctoring came from the otter; Paks-ak-ikin's from the grizzly bear; Imo-yis-ocasim's from the mink and Nits-tos-ape's from the buffalo. Each drummed and danced in turn, imitating the movements of the animal he represented. Ominamo prayed to the Thunder. He wore a necklace of many coloured beads representing the rainbow which endowed him with supernatural power and wisdom. He blew water from his mouth in imitation of rain falling during a thunder storm. The drumming worried Kattana exceedingly, because he feared its effect on his Wing Medicine—a sacred bundle containing the feathers of many kinds of birds. Unfortunately, he had not taken

p. 143

the precaution to perform the ceremonial required by the Wings before any drumming would be permitted in their presence and he knew, if it were continued, his death would be the penalty. He begged the medicine men to cease, but they explained that their power was secured through the drums and disaster would surely come if they were stopped.

"Akoan, his wife, brought him back to life three times by rubbing his body with the sacred paint and holding the Medicine Pipe before his face. A Black Robe (Catholic Priest) came to the lodge and anointed his body with oil. He also baptised him and made prayers over him. The medicine men were very angry, declaring that the Black Robe was interfering with their supernatural power. But Kattana liked the priest's treatment. He fell asleep and dreamed that his dead grandmother came to him and, taking his hand, as she used to do, when he was a little child, led him away, but, suddenly realising that she was drawing him to the spirit world, he left her and turned back. At dawn a messenger from the Sun appeared to him in a dream, promising that his health would be restored, if one of his female relatives, who was pure, would make the vow to give the Sun-dance. Kattana besought his brothers to bear the message to Natoke, or Mist-chin-awake, either of whom could make the vow. But the brothers said it would be useless, because white men had told them that such a belief was foolish. Kattana replied, 'If my good old grandmother were only alive, she would be willing to make a vow which would save my life.' He then gave up all hope of living. He requested that after death his body might be placed on the summit of the high butte, where he had been accustomed to go to have his dreams. He

p. 144

again fell asleep and dreamed that the Black Robe was leading him to the white man's heaven in the sky. Looking back he beheld the watchers seated around his dead body. When he awoke and told his wife she exclaimed, 'It is your death dream!' and hastening to the doctors besought them to save her man. They again began their drumming, but before the sun had set Kattana was dead.

"One of the last requests Kattana made was that his old saddle horse and a mule which had ranged together for many years should not be separated. The day after he died they came into the camp. It seemed as if they must have known that Kattana was dead for they could not be driven away. They remained standing day and night close to his lodge. One night they disappeared and could not be found, but a rider discovered their dead bodies at the foot of a cliff. Some people believe Kattana's ghost drove them over the cliff that he might take them with him to the Sand Hills, but Akoan thinks they killed themselves in order to follow their master to the spirit world."

The Blackfeet believe that, when people die, their spirits do not start at once for the other world. They feel lonely and are unwilling to leave home and friends. They wander near their old haunts for about two months, when they seem to grow accustomed to the new conditions, and then start for the spirit world. Some spirits are never contented there, but keep returning to their old haunts and are often seen. The night Kattana died, Mistina declared that spirits were hovering near. "When A-koch-pisso, one of the women watchers, was seated near the body, she was alarmed by a cold blast of air. A spirit had entered the door and stood close to her. Later Nits-tos-ape,

p. 145

also a woman watcher, looked into the death lodge and beheld a person standing beside the body. She spoke and it quickly vanished. She knew it was her dead husband, and that he had remained near to protect and give her power, because she wore a lock of his hair in a buckskin sack attached to a necklace. When Akoan (wife of Kattana) came from the death lodge before daybreak, she beheld a ball of fire moving away from Ketopio's lodge. Ketopio declared that it belonged to the spirit world, denying that it could have been caused by his supernatural power, because his power was given to him by the animals. Kattana's body was placed on the high ridge as he had requested. The people who lived near objected because it was so close to their homes that Kattana's ghost would harass them at night."

Bull Plume, the visiting chief from the North Piegans, said that he had heard Crow Eagle, their head chief, relate the following story of his experience with a ghost.


"I was once leader of a war expedition that went south into the Yellowstone country. We were successful in securing many horses from the enemy and were on our way home when I was taken sick, and realising that I must die, I summoned my followers, and when they stood beside me said to them:

"'My children! I am very ill and know that my spirit will soon leave my body. It is now evening, but before the sun rises my body will be dead. I know that it is not yet time for my spirit to leave this world for ever. It will be gone for only a short time and I will come back again. I request, my children, that

p. 146

you will not leave my body here alone, but picket my horse near by and place my knife, bow and arrows, and some meat by my side. When I return again to this body, I will need all of these things, because my body is now thin and weak.' It was nearly daylight when I died and they left my body there, just as I had requested. They thought my prediction might come true. The sun was again setting when my spirit returned to my body. I was very weak, but I raised my head to look around, for I heard the sound of strange voices singing. I saw a flock of ravens standing in a circle, and also another circle of magpies. They carried small sticks in their bills, and seemed to be trying to raise me from the ground. They helped me to sit up, and when I was able to look about me I saw that my horse and weapons were missing. Having lighted a fire, I cooked and ate some meat. Then I lay down before the fire and, while I slept, the ravens appeared to me in a dream and gave me a dance (ceremonial), showing me the movements and the manner of dressing, and teaching me the songs to be used. They told me that if any sick person would make a vow to join the Raven society he would recover. Before the ravens left, they endowed me with their supernatural power. I then started north to look for the camp of my people. I travelled in the forest along the edge of the mountains that I might not be seen by an enemy.

"One evening, when a storm was gathering, I came to a fallen tree. The trunk, however, had not separated from the stump, which stood high from the ground. I built a shelter from the storm by placing poles against the tree and covering them with green branches. I made a bed of boughs and built a fire at the end of my shelter towards the top of the tree. Soon after lying

p. 147

down to sleep, I heard something moving through the branches and coming toward my bed. I thought it might be an enemy left behind, just as I had been, so I lay motionless. I did not move, nor turn my head. I thought if I were going to be killed, it would be better not to see my enemy. But this 'Thing' did not act like an enemy. It was making too much noise and sounded as if it had something dragging behind. I heard it creep slowly over to my fire, where it stopped, but when I did not move, it became restless, getting up, moving around, and then seating itself. I finally decided that I might as well take a look at this 'Thing,' whatever it might be. Turning my head, without moving my body, I saw what looked to be a ghost seated on the far side of the fire. It was clothed entirely in white, with white blanket—coat and leggings. There was a hood over its head, which completely hid its face. It was very tall, with long bony legs, which it kept stretching towards the fire, as if it were cold. It was very restless and kept pushing out its long legs, as if trying to touch me. I did not like this and besought it to go away and let me rest. When it paid no attention to my request, I said, 'Pity me for I am weak and sick. If you are still a living person, tell me your name, and we can travel together and be a help to each other.' It acted, as if it had not heard, so I said, 'If you are not a living person, but a ghost, I pray you go away and let me rest in peace, for I am sick.' It paid no heed whatever to my requests, but kept poking out its long bony legs, as if trying to touch me with its toes. They finally came so near, and it was acting so meanly, that I became angry. There was a long heavy stick lying by my side, which I used for a fire poker. Grasping it, I brought it down with all my

p. 148

strength across his shin bones. There was no sound following, for it was a ghost. He vanished so quickly, I could not see him go. I lay down and tried to sleep, but the ghost kept me awake the rest of the night, by sitting in a tree near my bed, complaining, crying like a screech-owl, and saying over and over again, 'You hurt me so badly, You hurt me so badly, You hurt me so badly.' He did not go away until day dawned. In the morning, when I was walking around, gathering sticks to make a fire, I discovered the skeleton of a man lying on the ground near the fallen tree. I understood, then, why the ghost was so restless and acted so strangely. His body had been buried in the branches, and when the tree fell, it had been thrown to the ground and his spirit could no longer rest in peace. I at once hurried away and started North to return to my people."

Crow Eagle died while I was among the Blackfeet, in the summer of 1903. They told me that his spirit left his body, just before daybreak, following the course of the Crow Lodge River eastward toward the Sand Hills. They heard his familiar voice from above, saying, "My children, do not quarrel among yourselves. Live at peace with all people."

The Blackfeet do not have a cheerful or hopeful conception of the future life. They believe that, after death, the spirit goes eastward to the Sand Hills, a very dreary alkali country on the plains. It is inhabited by the ghosts of people and of animals, which exist together, very much the same as in life. It is surrounded by quicksands, so that the living cannot enter. Departed spirits sometimes visit the Sand Hills and return again to remain among the living. Flat Tail once described to me his strange experience, after a

p. 149

severe illness. He felt his spirit starting for the Sand Hills. While departing, he turned and saw his friends and relatives mourning over his dead body. He did not remain long in the spirit world, but returned again to his body. Old Person also said that his spirit had once left his body for the Sand Hills, but had returned to

Click to enlarge


it, having been turned back because his arrival was premature.

The dead were placed upon scaffolds built in trees, upon the summit of a high hill, or laid in a lodge pitched in a thicket. They were dressed according to their station when in this life, because they were believed to go to the Sand Hills in the clothes with which they were buried. All articles needed for the journey were placed beside the grave. A man would need his pipe, saddle, weapons and blankets and the personal articles

p. 150

he valued most. Often a number of his best horses would be sacrificed beside the grave of a prominent chief, so that they might serve him in the spirit land. Mad Wolf's wife told me that in accordance with his request, my letters and presents were buried with him. Strangely enough, this intention was announced to me by Mad Wolf several years before his death, while he was leading a ceremonial.

When No Chief's brother was killed in battle by the Crows, he ascertained from the war-party the location of the body. After making a journey of several hundred miles, he found it and brought it home. He carried the skeleton about with him in a raw hide case for many years and had it buried beside him when he died. No Chief's touching devotion to his brother was in keeping with the Blackfeets’ high regard and care for the remains of dead relatives and friends, but such extreme manifestations of it were only shown by men towards men and not towards women.

When the Blackfeet went into mourning, they denied and tortured themselves to excite the pity of the Great Spirit, to display to the tribe their indifference to pain and to show their high regard for the departed. During this period which often lasted for several months, they withdrew daily at sunrise and sunset to the summit of a hill, where they wept and gashed themselves with arrow points and knives, until a relative, a man, or a woman, according to the sex of the mourner, went to urge their return to camp. They sometimes cut off a finger, generally the first joint of the small finger. As a special act of deep mourning, the men cut off a few inches of their hair, but the women made a much greater sacrifice by cutting theirs on a level with the eyes. Another act of mourning was to make their lodges smaller by

p. 151

Click to enlarge


p. 152

cutting off a strip around the bottom, which would cause much inconvenience and discomfort to all of the occupants. When a prominent chief died, his family placed their lodge at a distance from the tribal camp for the sake of seclusion. If parents lost an adolescent son, they led his saddle-horse through the camp, loudly lamenting as they went. Those in mourning refrained from all personal adornment. They wore old clothes, gave up painting themselves, braiding their hair and all ornaments. They withdrew from social dances, and ceremonials. They went barefooted, wearing neither moccasins nor leggings. They also cut off the manes and tails of their saddle horses as a mourning sign, although they had a superstition against cutting off horses’ tails.

When Wakes-up-last 1 murdered all his children in October, 1903, their grandmother, who had made a vow in their behalf at the Sun-dance, sacrificed her ornaments to the Sun. She hung them in the trees close to our camp on Badger Creek.

New Breast mourned so deeply over the death of his daughter, that he decided to burn his Medicine Pipe, but was restrained by one of his friends, who warned him that such an act would be sure to cause the death of other members of his family. I once saw an elderly chief enter the sweat lodge at the Sun-dance to pray for his son, who was in mourning for one of his children.

Mad Wolf told me that, when his grandchild died, he found relief from his sorrow by withdrawing into the mountains, where he lay in the forest and fasted for several days.

When a man and his wife went into mourning it was customary to give their medicine bundles into the care

p. 153

of another couple, with the request, "We ask you to cleanse us." These friends must then make new clothes for the mourners, paint them, give certain ceremonials, and provide a sweat lodge for the man and a medicine smoke fog the woman. They were suitably remunerated for all these services. The friends of the mourners kept coming to see them until they finally forgot their trouble and returned to their ordinary life.

It was customary for a woman, who had lost a child, to come before the leader of a ceremonial to be purified with sage, or in the sacred smoke, as a sign that her sorrow was ended and she had begun life anew.

Ceremonials were sometimes postponed, on the death of a distant relative of the owner. On various occasions my work was hindered and I had many disappointments because of the interference of mourning customs. Wolf Plume, one of the Blackfeet judges, with whom I have had a strong friendship for many years, deliberated a long while before deciding that it was proper to allow me to take photographs of his Beaver Medicine ceremonial. After he gave his consent, the ceremonial had to be postponed so many times, that I waited two years before I finally secured the pictures. The deaths of relatives interfered on several occasions, or the weather was not favourable on others, and, at another time, there happened to be ill feeling among his relatives, who were to take part in the ceremonial, and it was not desirable to have them come together.


152:1 See Appendix.

Next: Chapter X. Reminiscences of Father De Smet