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Historic Diaries: Marsh, 1834

A Dog Feast

Editor's Note:

Dog feast: one of the most revered ceremonies among many Indian peoples, meant to show great respect and only held on very special occasions.

For example, Father Claude Allouez noted the ritual sacrifice of dogs in 1666, the earliest Wisconsin description, [WHC 16:51], and in 1779 Charles de Langlade hosted a dog feast in Milwaukee [WHC 3: 231]. When Tecumseh came to enlist the help of the Ho-Chunk and Potawatomi in 1810, they greeted him with a dog feast [WHC 7:416], and when Black Hawk was surprised by Stillman's militia on the evening of May 13, 1832, he was preparing a dog feast for the Potawatomi [WHC 12:236].

James Lockwood, who arrived in Wisconsin in 1816, wrote this of it: "The Sioux Indians, and I believe it is true of all others, consider that the greatest compliment they can pay a stranger is to give him a dog feast and this intended compliment constitutes the burthen of the speech of the giver of the feast or the master of ceremonies. The traders are generally invited to these feasts. I have tasted dog meat; it is like pork only it has a sweeter taste. Those who can get over the prejudice against such meat become very fond of it, but my prejudice was too strong ever to be able to relish it." [WHC 2:186]

Meshaum: spelled a variety of ways by white authors, this word denoted a "medicine bundle" or collection of sacred objects believed to possess spiritual power upon which the Fox could call; these were passed down through the generations with great care [Forsyth, 1912: 195]. Marsh will have much to say about the sacred Fox medicine bundles in future entries, and in defense of their ways, his Fox hosts will liken them to the Bible among Christians.

Wiscka, often transcribed as Wisaka: in Sauk (and other Eastern Woodlands) religion, one of the four creators of the universe; associated with the north, and winter.

Interspersed with this account of a Sauk dog feast are several pages on Sauk and Fox religious beliefs, marriage customs, and other practices, as well as notes on information he gathered while at Appannoosa's village. These occupy pages 86-95 and 99-101 of the online facsimile of the diary, before the entry for August 3rd opens. These notes have not been transcribed here.

Aug. 2nd

Was informed this morn. that a dog had been slain and that they were preparing for a sacred feast or Mah-mah-to-moan, invocation, as they do not [consider?] these feasts but invocations, as they are designed for a kind of worship or calling upon the Great Spirit.

When a man intends to make one of these feasts or invocations which are often held, he sends for the Mame-spah-mah-kah or cook, belonging to that Meshaum of which he is a member (as there may be a number of them in the same town) and they are told to make the necessary preparations. Accordingly, the dog is killed, dressed and put over the fire in a kettle, at the same time other victims are put in a state of preparation. As soon as the kettle is put over the fire which contains dog's flesh, the Meshaum is opened [continued on page 96] with great ceremony by one who has the charge of it. A kind of herb is taken out of a skin and some of it burnt on some coals which have been taken out and which is considered as a kind of incense. Then they take some string which has knots in it reciting some song as they call it in which is recorded the deeds of their ancestors as delivered to their fathers by Wiscka. These songs consist of only a few words but are repeated over and over for a great length of time, then another knot is taken and another song is sung, and so they keep on until the dog is cooked. Then those and those only belonging to that Meshaum are permitted to be present. After the dog is served up, then an invitation is sent out for others to come in and partake of such other food as may have been prepared. And amongst the rest myself and the interpreter were invited; for the sake of learning their mode of proceeding on such occasions I accepted of the invitation.

As we entered all were seated around the lodge eating corn, soup and venison in a very silent and serious manner. Immediately a portion was set before us. After we had eaten, during the time previous little was said, the head man made a set invocation or rehearsed a song as they consider it to the Great Spirit, having his face covered with his hand. All listened attentively and occasionally gave consent by a loud grunt. As soon as this was over, he again approached the Meshaum in a very serious manner, took some coals from the fire and having taken some kind of an herb from a skin he laid it upon the coals and burnt it. Then it was again done up with great ceremony and information was given that the feast was closed and immediately all left in a very respectful and serious manner.
There were only one or two ancient women present although they are permitted to attend.

Notwithstanding these sacred feasts or invocations are held very frequently, as often as a bear is killed or some choice game, or they have the wherewithal to make a feast, still they do not appear to exert any moral influence over them either to restrain from sin or increase their lover or fear of the Great Spirit or God.

During the remainder of the day, as the feast closed about noon, they were very still, but in the eve they had a most noisy and jovial dance.

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