The Old North Trail, by Walter McClintock, , at sacred-texts.com
The camp of Spotted Eagle, a noted medicine man.—His jovial disposition and reputation for wit and humour.—He relates mythical adventures of Old Man.—Old Man plays with the ground squirrels.—Punishes the lynx and the birch tree.—Takes part in an elk dance.—Joins in the mouse dance and gets into trouble.—Travels with a fox and punishes a rock.—His adventures with coyotes.—He flies with the cranes and falls to the earth.—He is tricked by a small bird.—He dives after berries reflected in the water.—Starts the custom of scalping dead enemies.—Induces men and women to mate.—Steals the magical fire leggings.—Spotted Eagle's morning bath.—His remarkable weather prediction followed by a violent electrical storm.
WE found Spotted Eagle reclining on his bed of robes and blankets, fanning himself with a large eagle wing. He was a noted medicine man, who made a speciality of the Sun-dance ceremonial. He was generally chosen to sit in the sacred booth of the Sun-lodge, to pray for those who came before him. If the man and his wife, who gave the Sun-dance, were not competent to lead in the ceremonial, Spotted Eagle was their paid adviser, to guide them through the long and intricate rites. Commanding in person, and with a face indicating much force and strength of character, he had an imposing presence—a most valuable qualification for a medicine man. His hair, now streaked with grey over his temples, was separated into braids by bands of otter skin.
Because of its supernatural power, the use of otter-skin
for all sorts of ornamentation of their tipis, war dresses and articles used in the ceremonials was very general among the plains-tribes. It was also prized as a handsome article of personal adornment, especially in wrapping their hair braids, and twisting it into their hair and scalp locks. "Otter-skin twists" were fashionable among the young men and were generally admired.
Spotted Eagle was accustomed to give special
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He complained to Big Smoke of the extortion of white traders, when he tried to barter some of his horses for provisions. But he had such a jovial disposition that he soon forgot the white traders and began telling
stories. Spotted Eagle had quite a reputation as a wit, and was widely known as a joker. When startled by a sudden noise, such as the barking of a dog, or the whinney of a horse, he had a comical way of giving an odd cry, made more ridiculous by the peculiar intonation of his voice and the expression of his face. After each of his jokes, he would turn towards me, winking vigorously, and was greatly pleased if I laughed at them, which I did at every opportunity.
He was specially fond of telling stories about the marvellous adventures of Old Man (Napi), a mythical character of the Blackfeet, whose contradictory qualities are difficult to understand, or reconcile. Old Man was also known to other plains-tribes and by different names.
Some of these myths are fragmentary and incomplete, but all bear an unmistakable stamp of the primitive and childhood period of Blackfeet history.
Others are samples of Indian humour, told as we tell fairy tales and using Old Man for their central figure.
Many of them were vulgar and even obscene, which have an ethnological value, but cannot appear in a book for general circulation. Spotted Engle had a fondness for them because they had been handed down from the ancients, and he also had that common trait, which finds enjoyment in hearing and telling such stories, because of a keen sense of the humour in them.
The character of Old Man as revealed, even in the more serious of these myths, is a strange composite of opposing attributes, of power and weakness, of wisdom and passion, of benevolence and malevolence. He associated intimately with the birds and animals. He
conversed with them and understood their thoughts and language, and they understood him. Although believed to be the creator of all things, and as having omnipotent power, he was often helpless and in trouble, and compelled to seek the aid of his animal friends. He was, in fact, like an animal in his instincts and desires, which, strange to say, were exercised in conjunction with his supernatural power.
Old Man, like Hercules of Greek and Roman legend, and Thor of the ancient Scandinavians, was the personification, in human form, of strength and supernatural power. But it was a power uncontrolled by reason, and wanton in its exercise. He was a deceiver and a trickster and his name was a synonym among the Blackfeet, at least in later years, for mischievous and immoral adventure.
Spotted Eagle said of him: "Old Man first came to the Blackfeet from the south. The last we heard of him, he was among the Crees, and disappeared towards the east, whence he is not likely to ever return."
In the following myths about Old Man, related by Spotted Eagle, the reader will observe the striking contrast between their crude character, and the beauty of conception, dignity of imagery and vividness of description, characterising the star-legends as told by Brings-down-the-Sun. 1
Old Man Plays with the Ground Squirrels and Punishes the Lynx and the Birch Tree.
"Old Man came to a place, where many ground squirrels were seated around a fire, playing a game.
[paragraph continues] They would bury one of their number in the ashes, until he squealed, when they pulled him out. Old Man said that he would like to learn the game. The squirrels explained that it was very easy, and invited him to take part. He asked them to bury him first, but, as soon as he was covered over, he yelled, and they quickly pulled him out. Old Man then said that it was the squirrels’ turn, but since there were so many of them, it would save time to bury them all at once. They agreed, so he covered them all over with hot ashes, excepting one mother squirrel, who was afraid. He warned her to run away, so that there might be other squirrels, but left the others in the ashes, until they were well roasted. He ate so many of the roasted squirrels that he fell asleep, when a lynx came along and ate up the others. Old Man followed the lynx, until he came upon him fast asleep. He was so angry, that he seized him by the ears and shortened his head by hammering it against a stone. He pulled out his long tail and, breaking it in two, stuck the brush part on his rump, making a bob-tail. He stretched his legs and body, making them long and slender, and then cast him upon the ground saying, 'You bob-cats will always look like this, and you will always be so short-winded, that you will never be able to run far.'
"Old Man having been burned by the fire called upon the wind to blow. The cool air made him feel better, so he continued calling upon it to blow harder and harder, until there came such a fierce wind that he was blown away. Every tree that he caught hold of was torn up by the roots, and he could not stop himself, until he lay hold of a birch tree. When the wind went down and he was rested, he denounced the birch saying, 'Why have you
such strong roots, that you cannot be pulled up like other trees? I was having a good time being blown around by the wind, until you spoiled my fun.' He was so angry that he drew his stone knife and gashed the birch all over.
"This is the reason why the bark of a birch tree always has such a nicked appearance."
Old Man Takes Part in an Elk Dance.
"Old Man come to a herd of elk having a dance. They were following their leader in single file. Old Man persuaded the chief elk to allow him to be the leader. When they became tired, and it was so dark that they could not see where they were going, Old Man led them to a precipice, and throwing his rattle over, to make it sound as if he himself had jumped, he hastened to the bottom. The elk were at first suspicious but when Old Man called to them to follow him, they jumped over one after the other and were all killed, excepting one, which was a cow. Old Man told her to go away, in order that there might be more elk. Old Man then ate his fill of elk meat, keeping the tongues to the last by placing them upon poles to be safe from the animals. When a lame coyote came along and whined for some meat, Old Man refused, but finally promised to give him some, if he would beat him in a long foot race. The coyote, at first, said he was too lame. When Old Man insisted he agreed, but first went to the top of a neighbouring butte, and barked to the north, south, east and west, summoning all of the animals to come together to witness the race. At the start the coyote pretended to be so lame, that he could scarcely walk, but when they were far out on the
plains, he let down his lame leg and quickly passed Old Man. Old Man seeing that he was beaten, called after the coyote to leave some of the meat for him. When the coyote arrived at the finish, he found the animals waiting. They had a great feast together and finished eating all the elk meat, excepting the tongues, which they could not reach. But the mice crawled up the poles, and ate the insides out of the tongues.
"When Old Man arrived there was nothing left."
Old Man joins in the Mouse Dance and gets into Trouble.
"Old Man found large a elk-skull lying upon the ground. He looked inside and saw some mice having a dance. The Chief Mouse always started the dance by singing Ka-wa-skiau ap-a-nok-se = 'Mice-winking-their-eyes.' Then all stood up and joined in the singing, taking hold of each other's paws and dancing in a circle. Old Man asked if he could join them. The Chief Mouse replied, that his body was too large to get inside the skull, but he might stick his head in and keep shaking it up and down, which would be almost the same thing as dancing. He told him however, that the dance would last all night, and advised him not to fall asleep. In spite of the warning Old Man soon fell asleep, and the mice ate off all his hair. When he awoke in the morning, the mice had gone, and he was unable to pull his head from the skull. He could not see, because the skull covered his eyes. Losing his way, he walked over a steep hank into a river. He swam down stream with the elk-antlers sticking out of the water, until he drew near an Indian camp, where his appearance caused great excitement.
[paragraph continues] When Old Man heard the people shouting, 'Here comes an elk,' he made a noise like an elk, and kept on swimming. The Indians roped him with lariats, and pulled him ashore, but they did not discover that it was Old Man; until an old woman broke open the skull with a stone-hammer."
Old Man Travels with a Fox and Punishes a Rock.
"While Old Man was travelling with a Fox, they came to a large rock, where they stopped to rest. It was a very hot day and Old Man was very tired of carrying his robe. As they were leaving, he said, 'Poor Rock! You have been living here uncovered so many years, that you are turning black. I am so sorry for you that I will give you my robe for a cover.' He and the Fox then continued their journey. A big black cloud soon came up, and he decided to send the Fox back for the robe. But the Rock refused to give it up saying, 'Whenever anything is given to me, I never part with it.' Old Man asked the Fox to try to borrow the robe, but it was in vain. Old Man then ran back himself and said, 'Rock you have stood here many years without a cover and now you have become too particular.' He angrily pulled the rohe from the Rock, and continued his journey with the Fox. They had not gone far, when they heard a mighty roar, and saw the Rock coming after them. Although they ran their fastest, the Pock gained on them so rapidly that Old Man called upon the night hawks for help To rescue him they kept swooping down upon the Rock and each time a piece fell, until finally it broke into pieces.
"The remains of the Rock can he seen to-day scattered over the plains."
Old Man's Adventures with the Coyotes.
"After leaving the camp, he saw a coyote on the shore of a lake, eating a piece of fat. When Old Man inquired where he got it, the coyote explained that he made it from the lake foam. He said that Old Man could easily make it, if he would first cover his hands with mud and, after skimming the foam from the lake, put it in his mouth, when it would turn into delicious fat. Old Man did as the coyote said, but, when he put the mixture in his mouth, it made him very sick.
"Farther on, he saw two coyotes on a frozen lake jumping up and down on the ice, and at the same time, singing, 'Pokoto kima ho! hoi!' Whenever the ice crackled, they barked and yelped with excitement. Old Man came near, and asked what they were doing. They explained that, where the ice broke, juicy meat and rich fat came through. Old Man said he would like to try, but, when he jumped on the thin ice, he broke through into the cold water and had a hard time getting out."
Old Mau Flies with the Cranes.
"During Old Man's travels, he came to a lake, where he saw many ducks, geese and cranes gathered into flocks and ready to fly south. He begged them to allow him to go along. The Chief Crane said, that he might join them, if he would wear feathers just as they did. When Old Man agreed, the Chief Crane directed each one of his flock to give him a feather until he was covered with a complete outfit of feathers. Before starting, the Chief Crane warned Old Man saying,
[paragraph continues] 'When we fly over the Indian camps, you must not look down, no matter how much you may want to see what is going on.' The cranes then mounted high into the air and started towards the south, Old Man flying along with them. When they passed over an Indian camp, Old Man remembered the advice of the Chief Crane and looked straight ahead. When they came to a camp, where there was much noise and shouting, he could not help looking down to see what was happening. He quickly lost his balance and fell headlong into the Blackfeet camp, striking the ground so hard that he was stunned.
"When he came to himself there was a large crowd of people gathered around and they recognised him."
Old Man Tricked by a Small Bird.
"While travelling through the forest, Old Man saw a small yellow bird sitting on a long elk horn. When he stopped to ask what the horn was used for, the bird said that it was his bow. There was a long log lying near by and Old Man asked if it also belonged to him. The bird replied that it was his arrow. Old Man said, 'You cannot shoot me with it.' The bird answered, 'Yes, I can shoot you with it." Old Man then tried to lift the log, but it was too heavy, so he sat down on one end and laughed loudly, because the bird was so very small. The bird asked Old Man to move to the other end of the log saying, 'I will then shoot you with it.' The bird kept urging him to move over and he obeyed until the bird suddenly cried, 'Look out brother, I am going to shoot!'
"The other end, being overbalanced, flew into the air. Old Man was thrown off, but was not badly hurt."
Old Man dives after Berries reflected in the Water.
"Old Man came to a river, where he saw in the water, the reflection of a bush covered with ripe berries. He jumped into the river but could not get them. He tried again several times, but in vain. He then tied stones around his neck, arms and waist with willow bark, to make him sink deeper. This time he reached the bottom, but was unable to rise again to the surface. While tearing the stones loose, he became so filled with water, that he was almost drowned. He crawled out upon the shore and lay upon his back, feeling very weak. He then looked up and saw the berries hanging from a bush above him, and, for the first time, realised that he had been diving after the reflection. He was so angry, that he seized a stick and beat the bush, knocking off all the berries, and said to it, 'Old bush, from this time forward, the people will gather berries from you in this way.'
"This accounts for the custom, which Indian women have of knocking the berries from bushes with sticks."
Old Man starts the Custom of Taking Scalps.
"The Old Man, who made us, and all things, gambled with another Old Man, who created the people on the other side of the mountains. We have seen the great stones, which they used in their games. The Old Man from over the mountains won all the mountain sheep and elk, leaving the antelope and buffalo. After all the game had been lost, our Old Man wagered his head against the head of the other Old Man, and won, but, in consideration of a return of part of the game, he only took his scalp. In doing this,
he said: 'When any of your young men kill mine, they shall take their scalps, and when any of mine kill yours, they will do the same and will thus become chiefs. '"
The Blackfeet believe, in common with all Indians, that one, killed and scalped in battle, goes to the happy hunting grounds, with all the glory and honour given to a successful war party returning with the scalps of their enemies, while one, who dies from old age, or sickness, departs in a much less honourable manner.
Old Man induces Men and Women to Mate.
"Men and women formerly did not live together as they do now, they were in separate bands like animals. Old Man was the means of bringing them together. The women were then camped on Crow Lodge River, beside a piskun, 1 and secured their game by driving them over a high cliff. They were skilled in the art of tanning, and knew how to make good clothes and lodges from skins. The men, on the other hand, killed their game with bows and arrows. They did not know how to tan skins, or sew. Their lodges were made of green hides and their clothes of rough skins, roughly fastened together. When Old Man came to the women's camp, he met the Chief Woman and told her about the condition of the men. She asked him to bring the men to their camp, that they might each choose a mate. Old Man led the men to a hill outside of the women's camp, where they all stood in line. The Chief Woman, who had first choice, came out very shabbily dressed. She walked along the line of men and selected Old Man for her mate. But he did not recognise her in her poor clothes and refused to go with her. The Chief Woman
was very angry. She returned to camp and instructed the other women to pass by Old Man in their choosing. She dressed in her best clothes and returned again to the men. This time Old Man liked her appearance so much, that he kept getting in her way, seeking to be chosen. But she selected another mate. When the other women selected their mates, Old Man was left out. The Chief Woman then changed him into a pine tree.
"There were formerly three pine trees beside the Women's Piskun. There is now a fourth, which we call Old Man."
Old Man Steals the Magical Fire-leggings.
"Old Man came to the lodge of a man who owned a wonderful pair of leggings. Wherever he went they set fire to the grass. If he wished to kill buffalo, he had only to walk around them when they would be caught in a circle of fire. Old Man wanted these leggings very much. He said that he had come a long journey to get them, but the owner refused to give them up. Old Man then decided to remain all night in the lodge. When the owner and his wife were sound asleep, Old Man stole the leggings. After running a long distance he became tired and lay down to sleep in a thicket with the leggings under his head. But, when he awoke in the morning he found, to his surprise, that he was back again in the lodge. When the owner asked him how it happened that he had his leggings under his head, Old Man told him a lie, saying, 'I had nothing else, so I used them for a pillow.'
"On the following night, Old Man made another attempt to carry off the leggings, but morning found
him back again in the lodge where the leggings belonged. The owner then told Old Man that, if he wanted the leggings so badly he would give them to him. He warned him, however, not to make use of them more than three times. Old Man was so proud of the fire-leggings, that he put them on to show off in every camp he entered and paid no heed to the warning of the owner. He used them three times successfully, but the fourth time he put them on he set fire to the grass, wherever he stepped. The grass burned so fiercely that Old Man became frightened and started to run. The fire followed him, wherever he went, burning his clothes and his hair, until he was compelled to jump into a river. But the magical leggings were burned up."
An incident happened in Spotted Eagle's Camp that illustrates the remarkable control, which the mind has over the pain and ailments of civilised and savage alike, when the will is directed by an implicit faith in the means prescribed. Kionama had been complaining of severe pains in his side, resulting from an old injury of a horse. I suspected from the frequency of his complaints, that his pains were more or less imaginary. I accordingly doctored him with harmless pills of a pronounced taste, which I took impressively from my medicine case in his presence. During the night I was aroused by groans from Kionama who was sleeping beside me. Suspecting that they were intended to waken me, I asked him if he was ill. He replied that he had those terrible pains again. When I suggested more pills, he said that he regretted giving me so much trouble, but he was confident that, if I could give him more, he would quickly recover. I soon found and administered the magic pills, with the wonderful result that, in a few moments, he was fast asleep.
Next morning while we were packing for an early start, Spotted Eagle came to bid us farewell. He was on his way from a bath in the river and was clothed only in a blanket and moccasins. In one hand he held a red stone pipe, and in the other his eagle-wing fan. Remembering, that it was required of the Blackfeet, to perform certain incantations before
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SON RIDING A DOG.
When we rode away, Spotted Eagle was superintending the packing of his outfit. Turning in my saddle for a last look, I saw him seated very grandly,
watching his wife and daughter taking down the tipi, while his youngest son was trying to ride one of the dogs.
While climbing the long ridge beyond the St. Mary's River, I was mindful of Spotted Eagle's prediction, and my curiosity kept me on the look-out for any sign of a storm. The sky was cloudless, but the sun was very hot and a warm breeze blew from the east. When we gained the summit of the ridge, and had a distant view of the mountains and plains, I saw clouds forming over the high peaks of the Rockies. To my surprise, they spread with astonishing rapidity, and, dividing, a heavy rain passed to the south, while dense black clouds moved rapidly northward along the main range. I suggested that Spotted Eagle would probably be gratified with the apparent results of his prediction. But Kionama was non-committal, while Onesta only shook his head ominously. The clouds continued to spread rapidly, throwing a black pall over plains and mountains. Sheets of brilliant lightning darted from the clouds in the north and heavy rains were falling in many directions. An angry looking cloud, from which extended curving black lines, advanced rapidly towards us—the infallible sign of a dangerous hail storm. When we felt a sudden drop in the temperature, we halted. The horses were quickly loosened and secured with ropes, so that they could not stampede, while we all crawled beneath the wagons to escape the pelting of the hail, which soon covered the ground. When we were again on our way, another storm burst over us with vivid flashes of lightning and a rain so heavy that my slicker afforded but little protection, the water running down my neck and into my shoes. We had just passed through a herd of cattle, all huddled
together, when there came a vivid flash, and, almost simultaneously, a deafening crash of thunder. The bolt entered the plain in the midst of the herd, killing four steers. I was riding in advance, and did not feel the electrical shock, but the others were stunned. Kionama complained of Spotted Eagle's use of his supernatural power, as if he had directed the storm in pursuit of us, and said: "I do not see why he could not have sent the storm in some other direction." The day's events brought forcibly to mind the reason of the Blackfeet's frequent prayers for protection from "sudden storms." My own experience and observation have convinced me that the remarkable success of medicine men in predicting weather is the natural result of long training and their habit of constant and expert observation of weather signs.
338:1 The ancient Indian traditions of Old Man have left their impress in many geographical names of this region, as Old Man's River, Old Man Mountains, Old Man's Slide, and Old-Man-on-His-Back Plateau.
346:1 See Appendix.