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Observations placeholder

Cicero Newell - Indian Stories – How the Holy Men were tested with Winchester rifles



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

Indian Stories – Cicero Newell

I called the interpreter and questioned him concerning the affair. He told me that the Indians were about to "try" two Holy Men, one of whom I had seen tested on the preceding Sunday.

He said that the people always wanted to see the Holy Men tried before they accepted them for teachers. If the men were frauds they would be killed; but if they were really Holy Men they would come out of the test alive and unharmed. The interpreter said that in the olden times their people always made this test with poisoned arrows, but now they preferred Winchester rifles.

I called my wife and with the interpreter and several others went to see the trial. I found over one thousand men, with their families, gathered in a semi-circle behind the warehouse to witness the test.

It was in the summer. The grass was all burned from the ground and the region was dusty. The ground where the Indians were assembled was level.

Opposite the semicircle was a gently sloping hill. The semicircle of the Indians was about two hundred feet in diameter.

In the center, between the Indians and the hill, stood an old warrior who was widely known for his skill in marksmanship. On his arm at this time he had a Winchester rifle of the best pattern. Around his waist was a belt which was filled with Winchester rifle cartridges of the most approved kind. He loaded his gun, filled the chamber, and stood ready to shoot.

When everything was ready I saw two Indians come out of a tepee just outside the circle. I was told by the interpreter that these men had not tasted food for nearly forty-eight hours. They had been praying to the Great Spirit night and day, asking to be protected from all harm.

They wore no clothing except the breechcloth which all Indians then wore around their loins. Each had one eagle feather in his hair. Their bodies were painted red. In their right hands they carried a short spear which was painted black. On the left arm was a small shield made of very thin antelope skin, so thin that the sun shone through it.

As they entered the circle of Indians the two men began to run at a slow " dog trot," one running behind the other. As they passed between the hill and the old warrior who was holding the gun the latter raised his rifle and fired a shot at the leading Indian. I watched very carefully to see if the ball missed its mark. If the ball passed the Indian, it would surely strike the hillside, and I would see the dust which it raised. I was certain that it did not strike the hillside or the ground. It could not pass over the hill, it was aimed too low. I had served in the army four years where I had often head the ping of rifle balls, and I was convinced that I heard that same unpleasant sound on this occasion.

Each time, after the Indians had passed him, and he had fired the shot, the old warrior advanced, picked up something from the ground, and placed what he had found in a leather pocket he had on his belt.

The old warrior fired six shots at each Indian, reloading his gun after the chamber was emptied, I noticed that the Indians all watched the shooting with as much interest as I did. They were good judges of the work, better in fact than I, for they had a special interest in knowing whether the man was a Holy Man or only an impostor. It would have been hard to deceive their sharp eyes. I was satisfied that no imposition had been practiced. Death would have been the certain penalty for that. Indians will not be trifled with in matters of that nature.

After the shooting was ended, the two Indians went to their tepee, where food was ready for them. The crowd of Indians mounted their ponies and quietly wended their way to their homes. I called the old warrior to me and asked him to let me see what he had in his pouch. He handed me five of the rifle balls that he took from the pocket. They all showed the marks of the groove of the gun and the points were slightly flattened. I saw paint on some of the balls.

The interpreter informed me that the balls hit the sides of the Indians and fell harmless to the ground, taking with them some of the paint which was on the skin of the Indians. I did not doubt the honesty of the Indians in their public test, but I asked the old warrior how the trick was done. I shall never forget the look he gave me. It was not a look of contempt, but one of pity that I could be so ignorant as to believe that he would practice fraud.

The source of the experience

Native American Indians

Concepts, symbols and science items


Science Items

Activities and commonsteps