The memories of Thunder-Cloud, a well-known Winnebago shaman, go back to his first human lifetime. He shared his past life and inter-life memories with Canadian ethnologist Paul Radin in 1908.
Thunder-Cloud considered himself a spiritual being having human experiences.
His brother-in-law, Crashing Thunder, describes him as a virtuous man, disliking no one, never stealing and never fighting, and he adhered strictly to all the precepts of the Medicine Rite.
I came from above, and I am holy. It is I, Thunder-Cloud, who speak, I who am now on earth for the third time, I who am now repeating experiences that I well remember from my previous existences.
First Lifetime on Earth
Many years before my present life, I lived on Earth in a party that numbered about twenty camps. Everyone seemed to be on the warpath. As a young lad, an enemy war party attacked my tribe. Innocent lives were lost. Due to my sudden death, I thought I still had a physical body. I even returned home to my wife.
“What can be the matter,” I thought, “that they pay no attention to me.” All at once it occurred to me that I might, in reality, be dead. So I immediately started out for the place where I had presumably been killed. There I saw a heap of bodies on the ground and mine among them. No one was there to bury us, so there we lay and rotted.
My spirit was taken to the place where the Sun sets (the West). I lived with an elderly couple in an excellent place where people have the best of times. Whenever I desired to go anywhere, all I had to do was wish and I was instantly there at the speed of thought.
Second Human Lifetime on Earth
If individuals do not fulfill their desires in one life, they feel them after death and wish to express them through another material body. Like that, Thunder-Cloud’s thoughts turned to unfinished business.
The old man with whom I was staying said, “My son, did you not speak about wanting to go to the earth again?” I had, as a matter of fact, only thought of it, yet he knew what I wanted. Then he said, “You can go, but you must ask the chief first.”
The chief responded to my desire, “Go and obtain your revenge upon the people who killed you and your relatives.” I was brought down to Earth, even though I did not enter my mother’s womb right away.
I was taken into a room. There I remained, conscious at all times.
One day I heard the noise of little children … I thought I would go outside. Then … I went through a door, but I was really being born again from a woman’s womb. As I walked out I was struck with the sudden rush of cold air and I began to cry.
In my second life, I learned how to fast as a preparation for warfare. I took full revenge for the innocent lives lost in the earlier life. Near the end of my long life, my bones became unjointed, my ribs caved in, but death came without pain. Loved ones wrapped my body in a blanket and set it upon sticks positioned over a grave. My spirit lingered near the burial site until a voice said, “Come, we must leave now!”
A guide escorted me in the direction of the Sun to a village where we met the ancestors. My guide instructed me, “Stop here for four nights.” In reality, I stayed four years. I enjoyed myself. There are lively dances all the time. From that place I ascended to the place where Earthmaker lived and there I saw him and talked to him, face to face, even as I am taking to you now. I saw the spirits too, and, indeed, I was like one of them.
Dancing in Nature
Strange as it seems, Thunder-Cloud recalls lifetimes as a fish, bird, and a buffalo – apparently between the second and third human lifetimes.
I recall being transformed into a fish. They are happy beings and have many dances. Nevertheless, I often lacked food and that made my life worse than humans.
In another life, I became a tiny bird. Bird life was pleasant so long as the weather was good. However, I underwent many hardships when it became cold and was compelled to steal meat from the racks at the camp of some people. A young boy stood near the racks. We were afraid of him because he shot at us with a bow and arrow. It made a dreadful noise and we flew away. I slept in a hollow tree at night. If I entered the tree first, I would be nearly squeezed to death by the other birds who came behind me. If I waited until the last, there was no room and I slept outside.
At another time I became a buffalo. The cold weather and food did not worry me much then, but we would always have to be on the alert for hunters.
Third Human Lifetime
I was permitted to go to my higher spirit-home, from which I originally came subsequent to my buffalo existence. I asked Grandfather, the ruler of that spirit-home, for permission to return to Earth. He refused three times. But after the fourth request, he replied, “Grandson, you had better fast before you go and if any of the spirits bless you, you may go and live in peace upon earth.”
The spirits above, even to the fourth heaven, approved and blessed my rebirth after I fasted for four years. I extended the fast thirty days and all the spirits whom Earth-Maker had created blessed my cosmic contract. Finally Earthmaker granted me a boon – to select my earthly mission. I joined the Medicine Rite again.
A council of spirit teachers gathered in a lodge and advised me about my cosmic contract: “You will never fail in anything you wish to do. But before you go, we must test your powers.”
All the spirits that lived up in the clouds taught me in a shaman’s village everything that I was to do on Earth. There in the middle of the lodge lay a dead, rotting log, covered with many weeds, representing a sick person. They asked me to treat the log, “Human, try it.”
I breathed four times upon the log and spat water upon it. “As a young man he, the dead log, arose and walked away. ‘Human, very holy he is,’ they said to me.”
In a subsequent trial, the spirit teachers taught me sacred chants to sing on Earth and placed an invulnerable spirit-grizzly bear at one end of the lodge. I walked around the lodge holding a live coal in the palm of my hand and danced around the fireplace saying wahi-! and striking the hand containing the coal with my other hand.
The spirit-grizzly bear fell forward prone upon the ground. I circumambulated the bear and breathed upon it four times and all the spirit teachers breathed with me. I restored the bear’s life. The spirit- bear walked away in the shape of a human being. The teachers said, “This is good. Surely you are holy. Just as you have done here, will you always do on Earth.”
In another test, I breathed on a black stone four times and blew a hole through it. The teachers said, “Good. If anyone asks you to heal pain, you can blow [heal] it away.” The spirits made my breath holy.
The spirit teachers from the middle of the ocean even blessed me. They tested my powers at a shamans’ village. I blew upon the waves, all of them as large as the ocean. The waves became as quiet as water in a tiny saucer. I passed that test three times. In the fourth test, the teachers made the ocean choppy, and piled the waves one upon the other. I blew and the mighty ocean became silent.
The dancing grizzly-bears at Blue-Clay-Bank (St. Paul, Minnesota) blessed my sojourn to Earth. They promised to assist me on Earth if I ever met with trouble. They blessed me with songs, holy claws, and “the power of beholding them” whenever I call for help. The grizzly-bears danced, performed and showed me how to heal. They wounded themselves and were badly choking with blood. They showed me how they cured themselves and made themselves holy again. They told me, “All of this, human, we bless you with; and if you do what we desire, you will obtain what you desire.”
The spirit teachers gave me a final message: “This, Human, is the way you will have to do. Not anything will there be that you can’t accomplish. Whatever illness the people may have, you will be able to cure it.”
I descended to Earth for the third time. I thought I had entered a lodge. In fact, I had penetrated my mother’s womb.