In this edition of Century Illustrated Magazine, author Frederick Schwatka describes the sights and sounds of his encounter with the Sundance of the Sioux Tribe in 1890. Schwatka was an American explorer who ventured to the frontier, the Arctic, the Yukon, and Alaska on his expeditions discovering skeletal artifacts and attempting to immerse in the local culture.1
According to his account, the particular Sundance he attended took place on a plain near a fork in the Chadron creek in Nebraska and the estimated attendance was at least 15,000 people who reported traveling varying distances in caravans.2 The Sundance was certainly a significant ritual for the members of the Sioux tribe.
Schwatka’s portrayal of the event aims for an objective detailed description of the celebration involving music, dance, and self-torture. Although some elements of the ritual, especially self-inflicted mutilation, are rather gruesome, Schwatka’s writing furthers a sense of disgust towards the tribe by using words like “savage” and “barbarous.”3 It is evident that he sees himself as superior to the tribe and traditions. He even points out his point of privilege saying, “it is almost impossible for a white man to gain permission to view this ceremony in all its details.”4
The content that stuck out most to me pertains to the sounds of the Sundance. Schwatka’s language allows the reader’s imagination to recreate the scene: “they jumped up and down in measured leaps to the monotonous beating of the tom-toms and the accompanying yi-yi-yi-yis of the assembled throng.”5 Later he depicts the horror of the self-torture being dramatized by the persistence of “the beating of the tom-toms and the wild, weird chanting of the singers.”6 Notably, these descriptions carry a tone of distaste. He considers the drumming as beating rather than playing and the singing as weird and wild. But then again, it is possible that the drumming was meant to be rough and the singing to be unusual. Our Western perspective expects the music to have some form of inherent beauty to it, but it is possible this music serves a different purpose.
What good does such a description do?
Well, first of all, this descriptive telling of a famous ritual, no matter how biased, paints a picture in our head. Whether or not the images are accurate or representative of the actual happenings, we cannot know. However, we can glean from this a better knowledge of perspective. We can better understand how whites perceived Native Americans in the late 1800s and how this perception influences the way we know and understand Native American music today.
This article’s focus is not on music, but we can profit from understanding the culture and the context behind the music. By approaching such writings with caution and awareness, we can still gain a sense of a cultural artifact.
1 Rodger, Liam and Bakewell, Joan, “Schwatka, Frederick,” Chambers Biographical Dictionary, July 2011.
2 Schwatka, Frederick, “The Sun-Dance of the Sioux,” Century Illustrated Magazine (1881-1906), Mar 1890, 754.
5 Ibid, 756.
6 Ibid, 758.
Rodger, Liam and Bakewell, Joan. “Schwatka, Frederick.” Chambers Biographical Dictionary, July 2011. http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/chambbd/schwatka_frederick/0
Schwatka, Frederick. “The Sun-Dance of the Sioux.” Century Illustrated Magazine (1881-1906), Mar 1890. https://search.proquest.com/docview/125509656/fulltextPDF/F0EB8385CFE644D1PQ/1?accountid=351
Great analysis of this text! Given that you’re dealing with an “illustrated” magazine, you should definitely include some sense of the images they presented. The combination of the details of Schwatka’s text that you highlight and the (I think painted? it’s true that the quality is terrible) images help put the text in perspective; he’s not really trying to give a dispassionate, scientific profile. Rather, he’s trying to sell magazine copies, and that matters for our evaluation of the primary source.
Kudos to you for getting through such a gruesome, quasi-sadistic account, and kudos on your clear, evocative, critically-minded writing. Can’t wait to read the next post!