The Old North Trail, by Walter McClintock, , at sacred-texts.com
Preparations for a storm.—Tying down our lodge.—A fierce wind and a wild night.—Siksikakoan's stories beside the lodge fire.—Legends of the Home of the Wind Maker and the Origin and Destruction of the Grizzly Bear Clan—Winter scenes in Cutbank Canyon.—Stories told in the snow by the tracks of wild animals.
I WAS wakened on the following morning by mournful howls from a band of coyotes at the edge of the forest near the lodge. Lifting the door-skin and looking out the sky was heavily overcast and a huge bank of clouds hung over the entrance to the canyon. After an early breakfast, we lost no time in beginning preparations for the approaching storm. We constructed an outdoor kitchen, without a roof, under the shelter of a thick grove of pines. It was made of forked poles supporting cross-pieces with green branches laid against it to form a wind-break. We placed inside of this enclosure our cooking utensils and the tripod with its heavy camp kettle.
Almost before we were in readiness, a heavy east wind, with a drenching rain, set in, but we made safe against it by anchoring the tipi on its eastern side in true Indian fashion. This was done by driving two strong stakes firmly into the ground, throwing the noose of a lariat over the tops of the tipi poles, taking a hitch around the stakes and then drawing it taut, until the
ropes sang in the gale. We reset the ears for the change of wind, crossing the earpoles in front to protect the smoke-hole and to prevent the ears from being torn, and laying stones and logs around the bottom of the canvas, so that the pegs could not be loosened by the wind-strain.
The storm which Siksikakoan predicted from nature's
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LODGE WITH EAR POLES CROSSED IN FRONT FOR STORM.
signs, began with snow and a high wind from the west, continuing three days and three nights. Dense masses of clouds hung low upon the mountains, but moved uncertainly about the high peaks, sometimes lifting, as if to disappear, only to lower again more dense and threatening than before. The temperature fell rapidly, and by evening, the rain had changed to snow. The horses, which we had left unpicketed, feeding in the
meadow, were driven by the storm into the thick underbrush for protection. We could hear them whinnying to each other for encouragement, while trying to keep together. When the sky cleared at sunset of the third day, it seemed as if the storm was over, but Siksikakoan shook his head dubiously, saying, "When a storm breaks at sunset, the weather is still unsettled, but, if the sky clears during the night, or in the early morning, we will have settled weather."
After nightfall the wind increased. The snow and sleet beat violently against the canvas. The furious blasts rushed through the tops of the pines and firs, with a sound like that of escaping steam, and swept the exposed slopes above timber-line, with a confused and distant roar. It was a wild nigh t and sleep was impossible. But it was just the night for story-telling while lying secure and comfortable by our small inside-fire. Siksikakoan whiled the hours away with Blackfeet legends and tales of his adventures as an army scout, during the Indian wars of the north-west. I will only take space to repeat two of his legends.
"Many years ago, when a heavy wind swept across the plains, a chief of the Blackfeet faced the storm and made a vow to find its origin. He crossed the plains and entered the mountains. His way led through dark canyons and dense forests, where the wind rushed and roared. The terrible wind and the dark and gloomy surroundings filled him with dread, but, because of his vow, he pressed forward until, at last, he saw in the distance, close to one of the highest peaks, the shining water of a lake. During a lull in the storm, he crept
close to the shore and watched. Suddenly from the middle of the lake, arose the huge antlers of an enormous bull elk. His eyes were red and flames
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THE SNOW-COVERED FOREST.
darted from his nostrils. When he waved his huge ears, a wind arose, so fierce and terrible, that the waters of the lake were whisked up into the air. When the elk sank again beneath the waves, the wind event down.
The chief hurried back to his tribe to tell them of his wonderful discovery of the home of Medicine Elk, the Wind Maker."
"Weasel Tail was a man noted for his skill in catching eagles. He lived close to the mountains with his wife and six children, far from the main camp, in a place where eagles were plentiful. He dug a pit for trapping them, covering it ingeniously with green branches, grass and stones. He sat in it every day from sunrise to sunset, watching his bait of buffalo meat, lying overhead on the covering of branches. Whenever an eagle came to the bait, he seized it firmly by the legs and; drawing it between the branches into the pit, wrung its neck.
"Weasel Tail had been having bad luck for many days. The eagles would not come to his bait, although he prayed all night in his lodge, chanting Eagle songs and rubbing himself with the smoke of sweet grass, that his body might be free from scent. He then fasted for many days and took a human skull with him into the pit, that it might make him invisible like a ghost. But it was all in vain, for the eagles continued flying high above him and avoided his bait.
"One day exhausted by his efforts and weary waiting, he fell asleep in the pit, when an eagle appeared to him in a dream and said, 'If you will kill one of your children as an offering, you will have the power to catch many eagles.' When Weasel Tail awoke, he decided to offer his dog as a substitute, which he loved next to his children. He dressed the dead body of the dog to resemble a child and, placing it on the roof of
the pit, returned to his lodge. At night the Eagle again appeared to him in a dream saying, 'I did not like the dog you offered me for food and could not eat it. I told you I wanted one of your children.' Weasel Tail then went on a hunt and killed an antelope. Returning he directed his wife to bring in the meat. While she was gone he killed his youngest child. He then felt so badly that he killed all of his children. He did not offer any of their bodies to the eagle, but buried them together, and sat in his lodge, waiting for his wife to come back. When she returned, he said, 'I have killed all of our children, but we shall all be together soon in the Spirit World, for I will now kill you and then myself.' She replied, 'Be it as you say, only wait until I go to the stream for water to wash the antelope meat.' She did not return, but ran away into the mountains. Worn out and famished, she wandered into a bear's den. A large grizzly was seated inside with her family of four children. When the bears saw that the woman was starving, they took pity on her. They were so kind and hospitable, that she lived with them for many years, and became the wife of a big grizzly.
"One day, her grizzly husband asked her if she wanted to return to her own people. She replied, 'Yes! if you can change yourself and our children into people, and can also get another family of bears to go with us, so that we can protect ourselves.' He said: 'I have a relative with four children. He lives farther up on this mountain. I will get him to come down here and live with us. I can then change all of us into people.' When the big grizzly had brought the other family of bears down, he said to his relative: 'We two will go together to the Indian camp on the prairie and
kill a man. We must get his heart, for with it I can doctor and change all of us into people.' The two grizzlies went to the camp and returned with the heart.
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THE FROZEN STREAM.
When the big grizzly had driven the others from his den, he began his incantations. He divided the heart, cutting a portion for each bear. Calling them together, after sundown, he distributed the pieces, and said, if
they would go at once to bed they would arise as people. In the morning the woman arose first. After cooking the meal, she told all the bears to get up, and when they stood upon their feet they became people.
"The two families intermarried, the big grizzly becoming the chief of the band and taking the name Red Bear. The men hunted buffalo upon the prairies, making six lodges from their hides. They joined the Blackfeet camp, where the woman was recognised. She told the story of her murdered children, and said that the people with her had come from a long distance. They dressed in bear skins and wore grizzly claws around their necks, arms, wrists, and ankles. Their arrows were wrapped with bear skin, and they also carried daggers and spears for weapons. They painted themselves with red clay mixed with bear fur and flint, which they rubbed in so hard that their faces and bodies were covered with blood. They also painted black streaks across their eyes and mouths. For robes they used the smoked tops of lodges. This band of strangers soon became so insolent and dangerous, that if any of the Blackfeet objected to their actions they were killed. Whenever one of their own number was killed, the old mother was said to be able to doctor him and bring him back to life. The people were compelled to do whatever the bears wanted. They increased in number rapidly, for their children, according to the nature of bears, grew up and became mature in one year. The strangers acted like bears in so many ways, that the Blackfeet called them the clan of Grizzly Bears.
"A young man named Owl went on the war path against the Snake Indians. He came back unsuccessful.
[paragraph continues] Disheartened and worn out from travel, he wandered aimlessly over the prairies, for he was ashamed to return to camp. One night a small underground animal came to him in his sleep, saying, 'Near the high rocky cliff the Chief Bear wishes to see you.' He awoke, and from the top of a butte examined the surrounding country. Seeing near the mountains a rocky and precipitous ridge, he went towards it. At the foot of the cliff, he found a bear's den, and lay down to sleep in front of the door. During the night, he was awakened by a large bear dragging him into the cave. When it became light, he saw at the back of the den a huge grizzly with his family on either side of him. Finally the big bear spoke to Owl, saying: 'I am the head chief over all the bears. My medicine is strong, and I cannot be killed. I have brought you here for I have taken pity on you and your people. I will give you power so that, like me, you cannot be killed.' The Chief Bear then sang a medicine song, and burned sweet grass as incense, rubbing the smoke over Owl's body. He arose and danced around the den, grunting, blowing, and snorting. He shot an arrow at Owl; it struck him between the shoulders, but fell harmlessly to the ground. He thrust a spear at his side, but the point broke off. He struck him with a tomahawk which did him no injury. For the fourth trial the Chief Bear stabbed him in the side, but when he pulled out the dagger, there was no wound. The Chief Bear then directed Owl to return to his people, saying: 'You cannot be hurt as long as you stand your ground and fight. You can only be killed when you flee from an enemy.'
"As soon as Owl returned to the Blackfeet camp, he
dressed and painted himself like the tribe of Grizzly Bears who had been ruling the people.
"The old mother of the bears had an instinctive fear of Owl. She warned all of her children to make a friend of him, and said: 'I fear him, for I know his supernatural power is greater than ours.' But Red Bear, the chief, was scornful towards Owl, saying: 'There is no reason why we should fear that fellow.' He commanded that no one of the tribe should sit on top of the butte north of the camp. When Owl heard of the command, he immediately went up and sat there in sight of the people. The Grizzly Bears then went out together and shot at Owl, but could do him no harm. They next said they would kill anyone leaving camp for a hunt. To show his contempt for this order, Owl announced to his people that he was going away for a buffalo hunt. When the Grizzly Bears tried in vain to kill him, the old mother again warned her children, saying, 'I advised you to make friends with Owl; now behold, he is stronger than you. If he prevails over us, we will all be killed.'
"Owl selected for his comrade a poor boy, named Little Robe, saying to him: 'To-morrow night when the moon rises, I will doctor you so that you cannot be killed.' On the following evening, taking the boy into his lodge, he painted and dressed him after the manner of the Grizzly Bears. He said: 'When I have finished doctoring you, we will have a game of "hide the bones" with the Bear tribe.' Owl rubbed sweet grass smoke over Little Robe's body, as the Chief Bear had done. He took the tooth and claw of a grizzly bear and directed him to hide the claw, either in his mouth, or in one of his hands. He then started a
song, 1 while Little Robe, swaying his body in time with the singing, hid the claw. Taking his bow and arrow, Owl shot Little Robe between the shoulders. The arrow did him no harm, for the shaft was splintered, and Little Robe said, 'You guessed wrong, for I have the tooth and not the claw in my mouth.' 2 'I will try again,' said Owl. Grasping his spear, he thrust it at the boy's side. But the point was broken off, and the spear did not penetrate the flesh. Little Robe said: 'I have the claw in my left hand, it is not in the right.' He next plunged his dagger into the boy's side, but it left no wound. Then Owl said: 'Go now to the Grizzly Bears and tell them that Owl wants to gamble with them.' Word was sent back by Little Robe that they were willing to have the game if it could be played in their own camp. When the Blackfeet heard the news, they crowded into Owl's lodge, saying, 'Why do you want to gamble with this terrible people? They will only kill you, and probably the rest of us also.' Owl said, to Little Robe before they started for the camp: 'When we enter their lodge, pull down the buffalo robe fastened over the door, and take it in with you. We will both sit on it' (to secure power from the buffalo).
"They found the Grizzly Bears gathered together in one big lodge. The men were painted and armed with spears and bows and arrows. Before the game started, the mother of the Bears made a talk, warning them not to gamble with Owl and his friend, but they did not heed her. Red Bear, the chief, asked: 'Who will hide the bones first?' Owl replied: 'My little brother here.'
[paragraph continues] The youngest of the Bears said he would do the guessing. Owl started a gambling song, beating time with arrows on his bow. Little Robe took two bones, one marked and the other plain. He swayed his body and arms in time with the song, while quickly moving his hands and hiding the marked bone from the youngest of the bear warriors. The song grew louder, and the movements of Little Robe quickened. The Bear tribe
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CLOUDS LIFTING FROM MOUNTAINS AFTER BLIZZARD.
grasped their weapons with excitement, and fiercely watched the two players. While they gazed at Little Robe, he seemed to them to resemble a bear. Suddenly the youngest Bear shot an arrow at Little Robe. The shaft struck him between the shoulders, but fell harmlessly to the ground. Little Robe said: 'you guessed wrong.' The second Bear then tried, spearing Little Robe in the side, but the spear broke in two.
"Red Bear, the chief, said: 'I will take the last two
guesses.' The song was again started, and as Little Robe waved his hands, the chief struck at him with a tomahawk, which did him no harm and then stabbed him under the arm, but the dagger left no wound. Owl said: 'None of you have guessed right. It is now our turn. My little brother will do the guessing, while you hide the bones.' He arose, and stood beside the door. Red Bear the chief, threw the bones, singing 'Try your best to guess right.' Little Robe shot an arrow into the chief's head and he fell to the ground dead. Owl, standing by the door, allowed no one to go out. He felt glad when he saw the chief of the Grizzly Bears fall dead. He and Little Robe then killed everyone in the lodge. When the Blackfeet knew that their terrible enemies were overpowered, they destroyed all the Grizzly Bears in the other lodges. They feared to let one of them live. Owl became head chief of the Blackfeet and Little Robe a great medicine man. They lived for many years, until they fled from an enemy when both were killed."
Siksikakoan continued his story telling far into the night. After midnight the wind began to subside, and, by morning, had entirely ceased. The light of sunrise in the eastern sky indicated that the clouds were breaking. The horses had left the sheltering willows and were contentedly feeding in the meadow, uncovering the snow from the grass, by pawing with their forefeet. This trait, which is called "rustling," has been so long inbred in the cattle and horses of the great plains of the north-west, that it has become a universal instinct. In mid-winter, while the snows are deep, and the grass is beyond their reach, they are compelled to resort to other shifts for food, and, if none are available, they perish. One food substitute in winter is the bark of
the cottonwood tree, which is very nourishing and palatable. If an Indian camp is near a growth of these trees, and they have no summer-cured hay, the squaws will fell large trees for their Indian ponies, from which they will strip the bark completely. Although their horses are very hardy, their winter lot is at the best a hard one, and they are apt to come out of it in the
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“HORSE UNCOVERING SNOW FROM GRASS BY PAWING.”
spring in a reduced and weak condition. But, they fatten very rapidly, when the prairies grow green with the early-spring grasses. A broncho becomes accustomed to hardship and a precarious living, while a city-bred horse would starve to death under similar conditions.
The clouds lifted slowly from the mountains, unveiling in the clear air the canyons and forests and finally the high peaks. In spite of Siksikakoan's friendly remonstrances, I started off on foot with my camera, over the
old Indian war-trail and towards the head of the canyon. He said "it is unwise to go alone and unarmed in the Rockies, especially after a heavy snowfall, when the
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THE OLD TRAIL AFTER SNOWSTORM.
wild animals come forth to hunt and are apt to follow any fresh tracks in the snow, seeking for prey." Cut-bank Canyon was filled with winter scenes of wonderful beauty. The outlines of every stone and log were
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CUTBANK CANYON AFTER SNOWSTORM.
beautifully rounded with a white mantle of snow and the branches of firs and pines bent under the heavy burdens they had received during the night.
In the early morning, after a snowstorm, one can read by their tracks in the snow, as if recorded in an open book, all the night movements of wild animals. I saw many coyote and wolf tracks crossing and recrossing the trail, and the peculiar footprints of the Lepus americanus, or snow-shoe rabbit, so called because the fur grows long on their feet, making the footprint to resemble a snow-shoe. A pair of mountain lions with large round tracks, resembling those of a large mastiff, were travelling close together towards the head of the canyon, their long tails occasionally leaving their marks behind. The snow told a sad story (whose sequel was probably a tragedy) of two large gray wolves running down a buck-deer. I came to a much trampled place, red with his blood, where he had stood at bay to fight them off, and then they all left the trail together in the direction of Mount Rising Wolf. Because of the ravages by numerous gray wolves, moose, wapiti and deer now show a marked decrease in this part of the Rocky Mountains. The large footprints of a grizzly bear emerged from a rocky ravine and crossed the trail, overturning stones and logs, while on his way down the mountain to drink at the river. While absorbed in taking a picture, with my head under a focussing cloth, I heard behind me several dull thuds, quickly following each other. They sounded so like the heavy footsteps of a large animal, that I quickly withdrew my head, fully expecting to find myself face to face with a grizzly. But, to my great relief, it was only the falling of heavy masses of snow from the fir trees.
When I emerged from the forest on my return to camp, the western sky was aglow with colour. The sun was sinking below the horizon line of the Continental Divide. For a brief moment, the last rays suffused the winter landscape of forest and mountain with a soft and rosy light. The silvery crescent of the new moon and the evening star crowned all with their celestial beauty.
Siksikakoan was waiting, with the lodge fire brightly burning and the horses picketed near for safety, in accordance with an old Blackfoot custom.
68:1 Songs were sung in gambling to distract the attention of the opponents.
68:2 Shooting an arrow at his opponent represented a guess, both in this test game and in the real game to follow. 1f a failure it was counted a wrong guess.