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Tahan
Chapter XIII What Prayer Meant To Us


PRAYER was important in the life of every Indian. Every act of his life was an act of prayer.

Song was one of the most habitual methods of appeal. An Indian never sang for the purpose of entertaining an audience. He sang to give voice to his feelings and to convey his hopes and desires to that invisible power permeating all things. He chose the unseen voice as the best means of communication with the unseen Mystery. Whether in a religious ceremony or while gambling, before starting on the warpath or while dying, he supplicated the Invisible in song. His death-song was a call to the Mysterious One for strength to meet the unknown, unflinching and unafraid. It was also an appeal to The Above-Ones to witness his dying like a man.

Often when the men were on the war-path, the women gathered about the tepee of the chief, fixed their minds on the absent ones, and sang heart-cheer. They believed this would fill the warriors with renewed strength and courage.

Some of these songs were individual, and no one ever thought of using one of them unless it was given him by the owner. The gift of a song to a visitor from another tribe was not an infrequent occurrence.

To us God was everywhere. The life in a tree, the beauty in a flower, the curative properties in an herb, the gorgeous-hued cloud, each was the Great Mysterious One. We worshipped Life.

There was a messenger of the storm, of calamity, of prosperity. Every mountain and valley and plain had its guardian spirit. And frequently, moved by a sense of gratitude, a warrior would leave beside a spring or upon some spot where he had been successful in war or the chase, a votive offering.

Often have I known my father to rise before the sun walked up and go down to the stream to worship. He would dip up a handful of water and present it to Him, face turned to the east until the sun looked over the shoulder of the hill. After a prayer of gratitude to the Spirit of Light, he would return to the tepee and Mother would go alone to worship.

As we children grew up under the example of our parents, our minds and hearts were open to the Four Winds. When we drank from a clear bubbling spring, we could not help thinking of its mother and of the Spirit which watched over it.

When I was thirteen or fourteen years of age and I knew that it was about time for me to stop thinking of myself as a child, there came into my heart a yearning for something—I knew not what. So I went away into a place of silence where only the sighing of the breeze and the songs of the birds could be heard. There my soul answered to the mysterious calling of God as the flower sleeping in the earth answers to the voice of the sun in the springtime.

I became so exalted in spirit that I lost all sense of place and time, and in my ecstasy fell into a kind of dream.

I saw in my vision a rattlesnake. The snake glided near and coiled as though to strike its fangs into me. Then it turned from me, still coiled, and struck at some object invisible to me.

I heard a voice.

“The rattlesnake is your friend,” it said. “He will be your defender.”

Afterwards I had a medicine man put the figure of the rattlesnake on my left breast with unfading dye. I did not tell him why I wished it. He seemed to know. While engaged in the work he remarked that the rattlesnake is the fairest enemy in the world; that before it strikes it always gives warning with its rattles; that henceforth I must be like it

So the rattlesnake became my “medicine.” Later I acquired an additional medicine—a bear’s tooth.

When I awoke from my trance I found myself physically weak. I returned to camp and learned to my surprise that I had been gone three days and nights.

One of the older men who must have been through a like experience, quietly said that I had come to myself.

The place of my spiritual ecstasy became my sanctuary. Often I stole away to it to pour out my soul in gratitude to the Mysterious One for His goodness.

This experience, or something like it, was that of every Indian youth, I believe. We never talked much of such occurrences. They seemed too holy. But what any man did say of them was listened to with deep respect.

We never mentioned the name of God except with reverence. Indeed there were no words in which blasphemy could be expressed; and this is true of every Indian language of which I have any knowledge. “The fire bum you; the water drown you; the cold freeze you,” were our curse words. Before the Indian could blaspheme he had to learn the white man’s tongue.

He had to learn of the white man, too, of a devil and a hell. In the old Kiowa belief there was no devil and no hell. The white man brought the Indian the devil and has given him hell—I might add ever since—to-day the aborigine’s religious belief is greatly modified by contact with the white race.

We believed in evil spirits, but we also believed they could be propitiated. We did not locate them in a single place of origin, nor give power to a chief bad spirit. Indeed, heaven and hell were together on The Other Side of Darkness. Thither, with the righteous and respected went the coward and the liar— these latter to become eventually brave and truthful.

The Kiowas had their unwritten scriptures which gripped their minds and hearts and influenced their lives more strongly, I believe, than do the sacred writings of any other people. Because of a lack of knowledge of this in detail, many earnest folk who have sought to enlighten them, have made most woful mistakes. It is folly to attempt to change a people’s ideas suddenly, and the Indian’s religion is strongly interwoven with every fibre of his being.


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