The Old North Trail, by Walter McClintock, , at sacred-texts.com
Variety of song-birds in the Blackfoot Country.—Brings-down-the-Sun tells of the habits of the birds and explains their songs.—He gives the Blackfeet names for the moons.—How to read the signs in the skies.—He tells the ancient star-legends of The Seven Brothers (Great Bear), and The Lost Children (Pleiades).
IN the morning, I was awakened by the musical song of the western lark sparrow. I lay watching him seated on the tip top of a lodge pole, enjoying himself in the bright warm rays of the rising sun. Every few minutes he raised his crown, and throwing back his head, burst into his plaintive song, "Che-che-che-wée-che," the fourth syllable with a rising, and the last with a falling inflection. The Blackfeet call him the Gros Ventre bird, because they are unable to understand his song, which they say sounds like the Gros Ventre language.
The wonderful song of the western meadow lark, with its loud clear notes, was frequently heard both in the morning and at twilight. He closely resembles the meadow lark of the eastern states, although his song is very different, resembling more that of the hermit thrush.
One of the most interesting of the song birds of the Blackfoot country, is the chestnut collared longspur, called black breast by the Indians. He sang at all times, through the heat of midday and even during the night.
[paragraph continues] When riding across the plains, I saw him along old trails and abandoned wagon roads, running swiftly ahead of my horse, or springing from the ground and mounting to a height of about fifty feet, when he extended his wings and fluttered slowly to the ground, always against the wind, and singing a cheerful, rippling
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MEDICINE WEASEL'S CAMP NEAR THE ROCKIES.
song. I do not recall hearing a longspur singing while mounting into the air, but only when descending. His song reminded me of that of the English linnet.
During hot days in early summer, I often heard over Indian camps "pallid horned larks," singing so high up in the air, as to be entirely out of sight. But, if I watched closely, they would re-appear and sing, while floating downwards. From their continuous singing, while at a
lofty height, it seemed as if they must he rejoicing in a cool breeze, discovered high above the sun-heated earth.
A few days before the formation of a large Blackfeet camp, while walking a half mile from the camp, I found a nest with five eggs, which a western lark sparrow had made in a moist meadow, where the grass and wild flowers grew luxuriantly. The grazing Indian horses soon stripped the ground of all vegetation as closely as. if cut with a scythe. Visiting the place a week later, I found three nearly fledged young larks in the nest. Their hatching and nurture had proceeded without interruption, notwithstanding the horses had tramped all around them, and had eaten away their protective covering, leaving them exposed and in plain view. Other birds that I had found on the Blackfeet plains, were the vesper sparrow, white-throated sparrow, chicadee, goldfinch, king bird, kingfisher, cat bird, raven, Brewer blackbird, long-billed curlew, Wilson snipe, herring gull, and yellow warbler.
When Brings-down-the-Sun had taken his seat on the log, and was placidly smoking his everyday pipe, I asked him to tell me the Blackfeet names for the different birds and to explain the meanings of their songs. The old chief said, "The birds that you see making so much disturbance near the camp, chattering while flying from tree to tree, and looking eagerly for scraps, are called Ma-mi-as-ich-imi (long tails or magpies). I look upon them as my friends because they always come first to my coyote bait, when I am catching eagles. They say to each other, 'Long tails fly on ahead and fasten your provision bag to another tree.' If you take notice you will see them flying ahead of each other, continually in search of food. The old
women often sing these words as a slumber song to children."
A large woodpecker with red wings lighted on a dead tree near by. He hammered diligently with his bill on the hollow trunk, making a loud noise, but suddenly stopped to give his cry. Pointing up to him, Brings-down-the-Sun said: "That fellow was saying, in the Blackfeet tongue, to the worms and bugs in the old tree, 'Stick your heads out now for I want to eat you.
"The O-toch-koki (yellow breast, meadow lark, or prairie robin) is called big-stern bird, because he is so broad across the back. He is one of the first birds to come in the spring. We are always glad to see him, because we know that summer is near. He has many songs and sings in different tongues. All of the Indian tribes understand the songs of the yellow breast. He sings in Blackfoot, 'Nat-sia-ke-oa-se-kim-aki,' 'Good Whistler (his wife) is a selfish woman,' also 'Kit-o-kin-tsit-o-tsin-aicht,' 'The fat is part of his liver,' and another one, which we consider very impudent, 'Kitaki-ma-sik-sa-stoki,' 'Your sister has a black skin.'
"When the Isik-o-ka-e (black breast, or chestnut collared longspur) is flying, he sings, 'Kiowa-kinix-apis-is-tsis-ta-kits-itope,' 'Spread out your blanket and I will light upon it.'
"The Nepe-e, Summer bringers (white-throated sparrows), sing, 'The leaves are budding and summer is coming.' They also sing, 'It-sis-oks-is-taki,' 'Crushed inside.' Goldfinches are called grease birds, because they have the yellow colour of grease, or tallow. The cat bird is 'Pokaup' (the baby), because he cries so like a baby." When a king bird alighted among some berry bushes and began a loud chattering, Brings
down-the-Sun said, "There is the Si-kim-e-newan (stingy-with-his-berries). The Blackfeet women gave him this name, for the reason that, when they are gathering berries and disturb him, he flies about, fussing and chattering, as if angry, because they are gathering his berries. There are some small dark coloured birds, which live in winter close to the springs that never freeze. Whenever we call 'Meat! Meat!' they begin to dance. The swallows are called fire birds, because there is a legend that they brought the first fire to the Indians.
"The Raven is very wise. He knows more than any of the birds. We have found that he always tells the truth, so we watch his actions very closely, that we may be able to look into the future. If we see a raven circling high in the air over camp, we know that a messenger will soon come from a distance bearing news. In former days, when we were on a buffalo hunt and found no game, if we saw ravens playing together on a ridge, we took our course in that direction, knowing we should soon secure meat. If we were on a war expedition, and saw ravens light in the trail ahead of us and two of them had their heads close together, as if whispering, we hurried to get into ambush, because the ravens knew an enemy was approaching, and were giving us warning.
"The kildeer is called Kit-se-pit-se-koye. They say that, if its nest is robbed of the eggs, or young birds, it grieves so deeply, and cries so hard, it will fall upon the ground. The Ma-pit-so-to-e, Brings-something from-the-water, is a little smaller than the kildeer, but of nearly the same colour.
"Snipe are called So-otak-skan, Shadow in the water, because they stand in shallow water, where they can see
their own shadow. There is a bird a little larger than a snipe, with long legs and a black breast. The Stony Indians understand him and say he sings in their language, 'Buffalo! Buffalo!'
"The Rooster sings when he wakens in the morning, 'Nepó-akà. Get up!' The curlew is our Ma-ken-ima. If anyone kills a curlew, or steals its young, we believe a storm will arise. The Peta is the golden eagle. Se-ka-kin-eoa is the white headed eagle. Pekoke is the buzzard.
"The fish hawk is called Pa-tse-ksis-acom (Mistake Thunder), because he is so dangerous. It is said that an Indian once climbed to a fish hawk's nest, on a high cliff to secure the young birds. When he came to a dangerous place on the cliff, the old birds swooped down on him with such force, that he was thrown over the cliff and killed. Ever since that time, we have called them Mistake Thunder, meaning that they are as powerful and as dangerous as the Thunder (or lightning) "When a night hawk flew overhead, Brings-down-the-Sun, looking up, called out, "Pisto (Short face), shoot down now." I followed his gaze in time to see the night hawk fall like a flash, making the peculiar, rushing noise with his wings, which we call "booming," but the Blackfeet call it "tearing his wings off."
It was a very hot day, and the chiefs head evidently pained him, for he placed his hand upon his forehead, saying, "I have a long scar here, just over the temple, where a wild horse kicked me, when I was a young man. Ever since that time, whenever the sun is hot, or the wind blows hard, the old scar becomes quite painful. You have heard the old saying, 'My dogs are scattered, and I must gather them together and go away, but,
when the sun is set, my dogs will come together again.'" This was a Blackfoot figure of speech, by which he meant that he was tired and must stop, but would continue his talk in the cool of the evening.
A golden sunset was fading over the Rocky Mountains, when Brings-down-the-Sun returned to our camp. With the night came a cool breeze from the mountains, which made us draw closely together around the outside fire. It was our last night in camp, and many of the North Piegans came for a farewell visit. At sunrise we were to start for the south. The camp fire lighted up the tops of the green cottonwoods, the swarthy faces of the Indians, with their brightly coloured blankets and clothes decorated with beads and porcupine quills, and the lodges, with their picturesque tops and crowns of tapering poles. Beyond the circle of the firelight was the black line of the forest. Menake, Long Hair and Nitana were roasting meat on long sticks. They also roasted over the hot coals peeled stalks of Po-kint-somo (wild rhubarb). The roasted stalk was sprinkled with salt and eaten hot. In early summer wild rhubarb, prepared in this way, has a delicious and delicate flavour. Menake also brewed from roots a refreshing drink, tasting like root beer. It was made by boiling, in a kettle, a mixture of the poch-coi-as-sukas (smell mouth, Western sweet cicely) and siksocasim (Indian horehound).
Brings-down-the-Sun, as was his custom, sat apart. He was quietly smoking, gazing dreamily into the fire. Knowing that he would soon begin his talk, I was busy preparing my writing materials and notebooks. The old chief had noticed my movements, for he said to Menake, "My white son over there reminds me of a
gopher (ground squirrel). He runs in one direction, as if about to steal something, and then he quickly jumps up again and darts in another. He never sits still for a moment." When he finally came into the circle of the camp fire, and took his customary seat on the big log, the Indians knew he was ready to talk and became silent. Knocking the ashes from his pipe, he laid it beside him on the log, and began to speak.
"My father used to lie beside the fire on long winter evenings, giving me instructions, and recounting the interesting events that happened during his life. He taught me how to look into the future, by observing the warnings of the animals, and how to know the different moons, which enabled him to keep his records, by watching the changes in the seasons, and by studying the habits of birds and wild animals."
"We call the moon of early winter,—'After the first snowfall' (November), or 'Time of the first Chinook' 1 (last of Dec. and early January).
"Midwinter,—'When the buffalo calves are black,' or, 'When the heavy snows come,' or, 'The time, when the jackrabbit whistles at night' (January).
"When we see the first signs of spring, we say, 'The home days are coming.'
"Early spring,—'The time for sore eyes' (snow blindness) (March), or, 'When the ice breaks up in the rivers' (April).
"We call spring,—'When the geese come,' or, 'The time when the leaves are budding,' or, 'When the buffalo plant is in flower,' or, 'When the buffalo calves are yellow,' or, 'When the grass becomes green.'
"Late spring,—'Time of high water' (June).
"Early summer,—'The moon of flowers' (late June and early July).
"Summer is,—'Home days' (July and August).
"Autumn is,—'When the leaves are yellow' (September), 'Time of the first frost.'
"Late autumn,—'After the leaves fall off' (October), or, 'When the geese fly south' (last of Oct. and first of Nov.)."
"My father taught me to read the signs in the heavens: 'When the Akatsis (Lariat or Rain-Roper, i.e. Rainbow) appears in the sky I know the Thunder Chief is roping the rain and the storm will slow up. When the fires of the Northmen (Aurora) 1 flash in the winter sky, it is a sign that a violent wind will arise. When the Sun paints both his cheeks, that is, when two Sun Dogs 1 (Ick-ski) appear on both sides of the Sun, it is a warning that fierce storms, with violent winds and severe cold, are coming. When the Sun paints his face on the forehead, chin and both cheeks (four Sun Dogs), it is a warning that a chief will soon die.
"When a heavy storm is raging, I can foretell whether the weather will clear up by a certain cloud formation in the south west, at the time of sunset. When I see 'a star-feeding' (the Blackfeet name for Comet 1), it is a sign of famine and sickness, and when the Sun hides his face (Eclipse 1), I know that a great chief is about to die.' That bright star (pointing overhead), we call the Day Star. 1 Sometimes, if you look carefully, even while the Sun is in the sky, you can see the Day Star shining almost overhead. My father
told me many stories about the stars of the night sky, explaining how they came there. There is one family of stars in the northern sky, which we call 'The Seven Brothers.' 1 When we wish to know the time at night, we say, 'How does the Last Brother point?' 1 I will tell you the story of
"There was once a camp of ten lodges. In one of them there lived a family of nine children, seven boys and two girls. While the six older brothers were away on the war-path, the eldest girl, Bear-Skin-Woman, married a grizzly bear. Her father was so angered that, with the help of the others, he surrounded the grizzly's cave and killed him. When Bear-Skin-Woman knew of her husband's death, she took a piece of his skin and wore it for her medicine. One night, by means of her husband's supernatural power, she was changed into a huge grizzly bear, and attacked the camp, killing everyone, including her father and mother. She spared her youngest brother and sister, Okinai (Body Chief) and Sinopa (Kit-Fox). Bear-Skin-Woman then changed herself into her former shape and returned to the lodge, occupied by her brother and sister. Okinai and Sinopa were greatly frightened when they overheard her talking to herself, planning how she might kill them. One day, when Sinopa went to the river for water, she met her six brothers returning from the war-path. Having explained to them the danger, they planned to rescue her. Gathering many prickly pears, they directed Sinopa to place them
in front of the lodge in such a way, that the safe approach would be by a narrow path. At midnight the children quietly left the lodge, carefully avoiding the prickly pears, and safely passed out to their waiting brothers. But Bear-Skin-Woman, hearing them leave the lodge, followed, only to step on the prickly pears. Roaring with pain, she immediately changed herself into a bear and ran after her brothers. Okinai proved to be a medicine man, with supernatural power, even greater than his sister's. When Bear-Skin-Woman overtook them, he shot an arrow into the air. Immediately the brothers found themselves just as far in advance of their terrible sister as the arrow flew. When she again drew near, Okinai waved his Medicine Feather, which brought thick underbrush in her way. Then he made a lake to come between. Finally, for the fourth and last effort to escape, he made a large tree, into which the seven brothers and their little sister climbed. But the grizzly knocked the four lowest from the tree, and was about to kill them, when Okinai waved his Medicine Feather, and singing the song,
shot an arrow into the air. Immediately the little sister arose to the sky. He shot six arrows, and each time a brother went up. Finally, Okinai himself followed, and all of them together formed the family of the 'Seven Brothers.' They took the same position in the sky they had in the tree. The small star at one side (of the handle) is Sinopa, 'the little sister,' 1 while the four at the bottom are the brothers who had been knocked from the tree by their terrible sister 'The Grizzly.'"
"There is also a family of six small stars we call the 'Lost Children' (Pleiades). 1 These children were lost a great many years ago from a large camp of Blackfeet, during the moon, when the buffalo calves are yellow (spring). The Indians had been running buffalo over a piskun and had secured a large number, among them many buffalo calves. The little yellow hides were given to the children, who played with them a game of buffalo. There was a poor family of six children who were unable to secure any of the yellow skins and went naked. One day, when many of the children were on the prairie, playing buffalo together, putting the skins over their heads and running after each other, they made fun of the poor children, calling them 'scabby old bulls,' and shouting derisively that 'their hair was old and black and coming out.' The six children did not go home with the rest. They were ashamed because their parents gave them no yellow skins. They wandered off on the plains and were taken up to the sky. They are not seen during the moon, when the buffalo calves are yellow (spring, the time of their shame), but, every year, when the calves turn brown (autumn), the lost children can be seen in the sky every night."
486:1 A warm wind from the Pacific Ocean.
487:1 See Appendix.
488:1 See Appendix.
489:1 See Appendix.
490:1 See Appendix.