Great Plains: The Sacred Pole

You can read more about the tradition of the Sacred Pole of the Omaha, made from a cottonwood tree, at Wikipedia, and also in this article online: Reclaiming the Sacred Pole of the Omaha Tribe.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Great Plains unit. Story source: Myths and Legends of the Great Plains by Katharine Berry Judson (1913).




The Sacred Pole
Omaha

A young man who had been wandering came back to his village. When he reached his home he said, “Father, I have seen a wonderful tree.” Then he told his father about it. The old man was silent because all was not yet settled between the tribes. The Cheyenne, the Arikara, the Omaha, Ponca, and Iowa were having a great council, so as to adopt rules concerning the hunting of game, and of peace, and war.

After a while, the young man went to visit the tree. When he reached home, he told his father again of it. The old man was silent, for the chiefs were still holding their council.

At last, when the council was over and the rules decided upon, the old man sent for the chiefs. He said, “My son has seen a wonderful tree. The Thunder Birds come and go upon this tree. They make a trail of fire which leaves four paths on the burnt grass that stretch towards the Four Winds. When the Thunder Birds alight upon the tree, it bursts into flame. The fire mounts to the top. The  tree stands burning, but no one can see the fire except at night.”

When the chiefs heard this tale, they sent runners to see what this tree might be. The runners came back and told the same story. In the night they had seen the tree burning as it stood. Then all the people held a council as to what this might mean. The chiefs said, “We shall run for it. Put on your ornaments and prepare as if for battle.”

The warriors painted themselves as if for war. They put on their ornaments. They set out for the tree, which stood near a lake. They ran as if it were a race to attack the enemy. All the men ran. A Ponca was the first to reach the tree and he struck it as if it were an enemy.

Then they cut the tree down. Four men, walking in a straight line, carried it on their shoulders to the village. The chiefs for four nights sang the songs made in honor of the tree. They held a council about the tree. A tent was made for it, and it was set up in the circle of lodges. The chiefs worked upon it; they trimmed it and called it a human being. They made a basket of twigs and feathers and tied it half way up the tree. Then they said, “It has no hair!” So they sent out to get a large scalp lock and they put it on top of Pole for hair. Afterwards the chiefs told the criers  to tell the people that when Pole was completed they should see it.

Then they painted Pole and set it up before the tent. They leaned it on a crotched stick. Then they called all the people and all the people came. Men, women, and children came.

When they were all together, the chiefs said, “This is a mystery. Whenever we meet with trouble, we shall bring all our prayers to Pole. We shall make offerings to him. We shall ask him for what we need. When we ask anything, we must make gifts. If anyone desires to become a chief, he shall make presents to the Keepers of the Pole, and they shall give him authority to be a chief.”

When all was finished the people said, “Let us appoint a time when we shall again paint Pole, when we shall act before him the battles we have fought.” So they fixed the time in the moon when the buffaloes bellow.





(600 words)



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