A North Star Dakotan Interview with Maxidiwiac
Waheenee Explains Hidatsa Ways
Waheenee is known in her own Hidatsa language as Maxidiwiac (Ma-hee-dee-WEE-ah), Buffalo Bird Woman. She was born in 1839 in an earthlodge village along the Knife River in present-day North Dakota. Six years after she was born, her village moved to Like-a-Fishhook Village, which became known as the Old Fort Berthold site. Her father was Small Ankle and her mother was Weahtee. Waheenee was a member of her mother’s clan, the Prairie Chicken Clan. Within this clan system, all sisters become mothers to their sisters’ children. Waheenee’s mother had three sisters: Strikes Many Woman, Red Blossom, and Stalk of Corn. They were all mother to Waheenee. When her mother Weahtee died in 1845 of smallpox, Waheenee still had three mothers. Within this system there are no orphans and no women without children.
Would you explain why you moved to Like-a-Fishhook Village?
Enemies gave our people much trouble after the smallpox year. So my people decided to move our village north, up the Missouri River. You see, we were told by the spirit people that we must always move north on the Missouri River.
What was the move like?
Our new village site was to be at Like-a-Fishhook point. So we got ready for our move. We used our skin tipis when we moved. My grandmother made sure that she had her bag of seed for the new garden. When we marched, we were led by the older chiefs and medicine men. The young men who owned ponies were sent ahead to hunt for food. Others rode up and down the line to make sure that no children strayed away into the hands of our enemies, the Sioux.
What did you do when you got to the new village?
When we got to our new site, the first thing my grandmother did was to pick a garden. Even before building the new earthlodge, she planted the seeds she had brought with her. My grandmother always made sure that near her garden was a tree. You see, she would build a platform either in the tree or right next to the tree. And from that platform the young women would sing the “watch garden” songs. These are songs that we sing, much like you might sing to a baby to make it feel good and strong. So it is that we sing to our gardens.
Would you tell us about your sacred symbols?
Everywhere in nature are sacred symbols that show how we as a people are connected with nature. One of our most sacred symbols is the circle. The circle is everywhere if you look for it. The sun and moon are in the shape of circles. Birds build their nests in circles. Our earthlodges are circular in shape. Our life moves in a circular pattern. One goes from a baby to a teenager to an adult then to old age. When we are old, we act like babies again. Seasons are circular. We go from fall to winter to spring to summer back to fall again.
Are certain numbers of special importance?
There are sacred numbers in the world around us. The number four is sacred and can be found everywhere if you look for it. There are four seasons: fall, winter, summer and spring. There are four cycles of life: babyhood, teens, old adulthood and old age. There are the four cardinal directions: North, South, East and West. The number four is everywhere if you look for it.
Seven is also a sacred number. It is found by adding the four cardinal directions: North, South, East and West, with the Sky father and the Earth mother. The seventh direction is yourself. You are the center of your universe. Seven fours is twenty-eight. Twenty-eight is the length of a lunar cycle and the length of the woman’s cycle. So this too makes the role of women sacred.
Because your grandmother taught lessons through storytelling, would you tell us a special story that your grandmother taught you?
One evening in the corn planting moon, Grandmother was making ready her seed for the morrow’s planting. She had a string of braided ears lying beside her. Of these ears she chose the best, broke off the tip and butt of each, and shelled the perfect grain of the mid-cob into a wooden bowl. Baby-like, I ran my fingers through the shiny grain, spilling a few kernels on the floor.
“Do not do that,” cried my grandmother. “Corn is sacred; if you waste it, the gods will be angry.”
I still drew my fingers through the smooth grain, and my grandmother continued: “Once a Ree woman went out to gather her corn. She tied her robe about her with a big fold in the front, like a pocket. Into this she dropped the ears that she plucked, and bore them off to the husking pile. All over the field she went, row by row, leaving not an ear.
“She was starting off with her last load when she heard a weak voice, like a babe’s, calling ‘Please, please do not go. Do not leave me.’
“The woman stopped, astonished. She put down her load. ‘Can there be a babe hidden in the corn?’ she thought. She then carefully searched the field, hill by hill, but found nothing.
“She was taking up her load, when again she heard the voice” ‘Oh, please do not go. Do not leave me!’ Again, she searched, but found nothing.
“She was lifting her load when the voice came the third time: ‘Please, please, do not go! Please, do not leave me!’
“This time the woman searched every corn hill, lifting every leaf. And lo, in one corner of the field, hidden under a leaf, she found a tiny nubbin of yellow corn. It was the nubbin that had been calling to her. For so the gods would teach us not to be wasteful of their gifts.”
Were there any games that you especially enjoyed?
“We had a game of ball much like shinny. It was a woman’s game, but we little girls played it with hooked sticks. We also had a big, soft ball, stuffed with antelope hair, which we would bounce in the air with the foot. The game was to see how long a girl could bounce the ball without letting it touch the ground. Some girls could bounce it more than a hundred times. It was lots of fun.”
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.