The Old North Trail, by Walter McClintock, , at sacred-texts.com
A trip to the mountains for winter wood.—Nature's signs of an early winter.—Narrow escape from death in the forest.—My struggle with a blizzard.—Snow bound.—Legend of the Snow Tipi.—Na-toia-mon's vision.—Power over a blizzard granted him by the Cold Maker.—Supernatural power of the Snow Tipi.
WHEN Mad Wolf said the time had come to secure our winter firewood, Ah-see-tuck (his son-in-law) and I went together to the mountains. We left the camp at sunrise with four powerful bronchos, harnessed to a timber wagon without a bed. Ah-see-tuck was a skilled but reckless driver. He drove standing on the axle between the front wheels, while I sat back upon the reach. It required both strength and agility to hold my uncertain seat, while the bronchos were running at a mad gallop over the plains, the wagon swinging and tilting at times upon two wheels. The bronchos, frightened by the rattling wheels, ran away, but there was no need to hold them, for our course lay across the broad plains, without fences, or obstacles of any kind, and with a constant upgrade towards the mountains. When we reached the foothills and Ah-see-tuck wished to slacken the speed, he put the brakes on hard and skillfully headed them up the steep slope of a butte and brought them to a standstill. He then guided them into a canyon and finally to the edge of a thick forest
of pine, spruce and fir. We felled only dead trees, thoroughly seasoned and, having trimmed them free from branches, we had the horses snake them out from the standing timber to be loaded upon the wagon. At midday we rested from our exhausting work, on the bank of a small mountain brook, and were refreshed by the fragrance of the firs and balsams. While reclining upon a thick carpet of moss and pine-needles, we watched
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DRAWING OUT TIMBER WITH HORSES.
a golden eagle flying high over the mountains and a flock of white swans passing near the summit of Mount Rising Wolf. Many flocks of ducks skimmed the treetops overhead, in their swift and level flight, while far away was heard the faint honking of migrating geese.
Ah-see-tuck then imparted some of his weather wisdom by remarking, "Geese are endowed with great wisdom and foreknowledge of the weather. When they
fly high, it is the sign of an early winter. The movements of other birds and the thickened skins of fur bearing animals, have already given us warning. The curlew stopped it's singing in the early summer. The song birds have gathered into flocks and the yellow breasts (prairie larks) have disappeared before the sarvis berries were ripe. The skins of the otter, mink and beaver are heavier than usual, and the jack rabbits have turned white earlier than is their custom."
Our work in the forest was brought to an abrupt close by my narrow escape from death. We were working together on a large spruce tree, Ah-see-tuck chopping on one side, while I was standing on the other. When the tree began to topple, and I saw it coming in my direction, I jumped for a position of safety. The top unexpectedly struck a leaning tree, which caused the butt to be thrown into the air and then to come rolling towards us. It narrowly missed Ah-see-tuck, but, notwithstanding his mighty yell, there was no escape for me. At the same instant I was struck and hurled to one side. When I came back to consciousness, I thought my end had come, for I was unable to breathe, or move. My breath slowly returned and I sat up. A glancing blow from the jagged butt of the tree had torn a ragged wound in my side six inches long, whose scar I shall always carry. If I had been one foot nearer, I would have been crushed to death. I carefully bound up the wound, using antiseptics and other remedies from my small medicine case. It healed with remarkable rapidity, because of the bracing atmosphere and my excellent physical condition.
In early November, after returning from the mountains, I rode alone from the camp many miles to the north, in search of missing horses. The sky was clear and the
air as mild as a day in early summer. At midday, while stopping for rest in a thicket of willows and quaking asps, I was alarmed to see, in the north, a heavy bank of clouds, which spread rapidly, until the high ridge of the Hudson's Bay Divide was completely obscured. Quickly saddling my horse, I started for the camp at a gallop. The thermometer dropped seventy degrees in a few moments and a driving snow storm, with a cold wind from the north, set in. The surrounding plains were shrouded in a white mist and the ground was soon covered with a fine drifting snow. I took a southerly course with the storm at my back. My horse having been purchased from the Kutenai Indians, on the western side of the Rockies, and therefore a stranger to the range, was constantly inclined to turn westward towards the mountains. Finding that he lacked endurance, I changed from a gallop to a slow trot, in order to save his strength in the deepening snow. I followed a small stream, until I recognised the land marks of my former crossing, and then pushed on towards the Milk River Ridge, the most dangerous part of my ride. Having climbed to its summit, I was upon a broad table-land many miles in width. To hunt for a distant camp on the plains, in such a storm, was taking desperate chances, but there was no alternative. The air was bitterly cold, while a fierce gale was driving the snow in blinding clouds. My horse presented a droll appearance with a heavy coat of frost covering him from head to foot, leaving only holes for his eyes. The dripping water from fording the streams formed icicles along his sides and matted his long tail, which rattled like a bunch of bones at every step. Darkness fell, while I was crossing the plateau. The snow grew deeper and deeper, and my horse moved more and more
slowly, losing both spirit and strength. When my spurs failed of effect, I dismounted and tried leading. Then he wanted to lie down, so I remounted and by freely using both whip and spurs, again moved slowly forward. The storm increased in violence. Everything was enveloped in a dense white pall and I lost all sense of direction. I felt as if I were becoming blind and losing my senses, so I gripped myself and shouted, that I might hear the sound of my own voice. I knew when we descended into a coulee by the feeling that we were going down, down, down, I could not tell how far. But, when we reached the bottom, my horse was stuck fast in a deep drift, helplessly groaning without even trying to move. It was now a desperate question of life or death, with the latter staring me hard in the face. Nerved with the energy of despair, I seized him by the bridle, struck him with my whip, and by pulling with all my strength upon his tail, slowly worked him loose. Just then the moon broke through the low driving clouds for a moment, enabling me to correct my course. I struggled on, until I came at last to the edge of the plateau and then descended to the lower level of the plain. I was still far from the camp, having struck the river valley, too high up through the tendency of my horse to veer westward towards the mountains. But, it was not difficult to follow the trail down the valley, sheltered from the full force of the storm by the big cottonwoods and dense thickets of willows. At last, the cheerful lights of the lodge fires appeared, and my hard struggle with the blizzard was ended. Mad Wolf was rejoiced at my safe return, having believed that I had been claimed by the "Cold Maker." Completely exhausted and chilled to the bone, the warmth and shelter of my own lodge, on that stormy night, was to me the most
delightful haven of rest and comfort I had ever enjoyed. After finishing my supper, I lay on my blanket-bed listening to the wind whistling through the ropes and poles overhead. Above the roar of the storm, I heard faintly the bawling of frightened cattle, as they drifted helplessly before the driving wind and snow and bitter cold.
When I first wakened on the following morning the
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MY LODGE DURING THE BLIZZARD.
terrible blizzard was still raging. Drawing the warm blankets more closely around me I slept soundly until I was aroused at midday by Strikes-on-both-sides calling me to Mad Wolf's lodge to eat. When I looked outside it seemed as if a white sheet had been let down before me. Huge drifts were piled up on the north and south sides of the lodge. Bull Plume, a visiting chief from the North Piegans, appeared on
horseback, struggling through the drifts. He held Nokoa (a young child) in his arms, completely wrapped in blankets. Mesamax (Takes-a-long-time-to-fly—a name derived from the habit of the swans which are slow in starting to fly)—a boy of eight years, rode behind holding tightly to his father, while his little daughter, six years old, Natoya-niskim (Sacred Buffalo Stone), sat in front. Three women were following on
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BULL PLUME AND FAMILY COMING THROUGH THE BLIZZARD.
foot, Ika-sta-pina (Bull Plume's wife), a very pretty young woman, carrying a baby on her back, Mistina, her mother, and Itomina, her old and deaf aunt. Bull Plume explained that his fire-wood was gone and his travelling lodge was a poor shelter for women and children during the blizzard.
The storm of wind and snow from the north continued for ten days. In the meantime the close companionship round the lodge fire dissolved all reserve and facilitated,
what I most desired, the unbosoming of their experiences, legends and religious beliefs. I heard many thrilling stories of war and adventure, also of strange and unearthly experiences with disembodied spirits. The story-telling generally began in the evening, continuing far into the night, for the Blackfeet, when they feel in the mood, are great talkers, going into minute details
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SETTING THE EAR POLES FOR A CHANGE OF WIND.
and giving vivid descriptions of their experiences for which their language is well adapted. They are superstitiously opposed to relating legends in daylight and insist that they should be told after dark and in the winter time.
We were all gathered one night around the lodge fire. There had been a long silence, which Mad Wolf broke by telling
"The Blackfeet have a Winter or Snow Tipi. It was given to us by Es-to-nea-pesta, Maker of Storms and Blizzards. Whenever it is pitched, cold weather and winds are sure to come because of its great power. For this reason the Bad Weather Tipi is rarely seen in our midsummer camps, when the people are most anxious for warm and pleasant weather. That, which
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SUNSET AFTER THE CHINOOK (WARM WIND).
[paragraph continues] I will now tell, happened many years ago during this same autumn moon.
"The ducks and geese had flown south, the last of their flocks having disappeared many days before. It was past the time for the beginning of winter, but the air was warm and the sky cloudless. One morning a band of hunters were running buffalo on a broad plain. Na-toia-mon (Sacred Otter—father of Morning Plume) and his young son had been very successful.
[paragraph continues] When the hunt was over they began at once to skin their buffalo. While busy on the carcass of a large bull, they did not notice the coming storm. When they had finished, Na-toia-mon saw a heavy black cloud hanging low in the northern horizon and extending high up in the sky. As he watched the cloud it began spreading out and rolling over and over. Soon he saw
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a low, seething, flying mass of clouds advancing rapidly over the plain. He then realised that a terrible Ma-kai-peye (charge- storm or blizzard)) was coming, and there would be no chance for escape. They lay behind the dead buffalo bull for shelter, but the cold became so intense he knew they would soon be frozen. With the fresh buffalo hide he made a low shelter behind the bull's carcass and both crawled inside. The
snow soon covered the frozen hide with a deep drift making them warm and comfortable.
"Na-toia-mon then fell asleep and dreamed that he was travelling alone on the plains. He discovered a large tipi in the distance and, as he drew nearer, saw that it was decorated. Its top was yellow like the sunlight, with clusters of the seven stars painted on both sides, representing the North, from whence the blizzards come. At the back was a red disc for the sun, to the centre of which was attached the tail of the sacred buffalo. At the bottom were the rolling ridges of the prairies, with their rounded tops, and a broad yellow band, with green discs to represent the colour of holes in ice, or frozen drifts. Beneath the yellow top and on four sides, where stood the four main lodge poles, were painted four green claws with yellow legs representing the Thunder Bird. Above the door, which was made of spotted buffalo calf-skin, was a buffalo head in red, with black horns and eyes in green,—the ice colour. Horse tails were tied at either side over the door, and bunches of crow feathers, with small bells attached, that tinkled whenever the wind blew, were fastened to the ends of both ear poles.
"While Na-toia-mon was contemplating these picture paintings, he heard a voice saying, 'Who is it that walks around my tipi? Why do you not enter?' So, lifting the door flap and entering, he beheld at the back a large and handsome man smoking alone in the lodge. His hair was white and he was clothed in a long white robe. Taking a seat near the door, Na-toia-mon gazed anxiously around, the stranger continuing to smoke in silence. He was seated behind an altar of fresh earth with juniper laid on the top, similar to the one used in the Sun ceremonial. Smoke was rising like incense
from a hot coal close to the altar. His face was painted yellow with a red line across his mouth and another across the eyes to his ears. His medicine stick was also yellow. In his back hair he wore a black feather and around his waist strips of otter skin with small bells attached. Across his breast was a beaded mink skin, with small bells fastened to its paws and one also to its mouth. Beside him lay a tobacco sack made also of mink skin. He smoked a black stone pipe, the stem of which had been blackened in the fire. The stranger still smoked in silence for a long time and then finally spoke:
"'I am Es-tonea-pesta, the maker of cold weather and this is the Snow Tipi or Yellow Paint Lodge. It is I who bring the cold storms, the whirling snow, and the biting winds from the north, and I control them at my will. I have called you to my lodge because I have taken pity on you. I am going to help you for the sake of your son who was caught in the blizzard with you. I now give you the Snow Tipi with its decorations and medicines. With it I also give you the mink-skin tobacco pouch, the black stone pipe, and my supernatural power. You and your son will not perish in this storm. Your lives will be spared. When you return to camp make a tipi just as you see this one is made.'
"The Cold Maker explained to Na-toia-mon the decorations to be used in painting, advising him to remember them very carefully, also the songs and the ceremonial to be used in transferring the tipi to anyone who might make the vow. He told him that the mink skin should be worn as a charm, whenever he went to war and that the horse tails, hanging over the door, would bring him good luck, both in keeping his own horses and in securing others from the enemy.
"Na-toia-mon then awoke from his sleep. He saw that the storm was abating and knew that the North Man would keep his promise. As soon as he returned to camp, he made a model of the Snow Tipi, painting it just as the Cold Maker directed. He gathered together
the medicines necessary for the ceremonial and in the spring, the time when the Blackfeet make their new lodges, Na-toia-mon made and painted the Bad Weather, or Snow Tipi.
"During the following winter, the Blackfeet found out that the power, given to Na-toia-mon by the Cold Maker, was very great. When the snows lay deep (February), they were camped near the mouth of the Cutbank Canyon. Meat was very scarce, so a party crossed the high plateau to hunt on the North Fork of Milk River. They killed some buffalo but, while skinning them, were caught in a blizzard. They were upon an exposed plain, where there was no shelter. Finding a few small willows they built a fire to thaw out the frozen hides. Part of the expedition started for camp, but lost their way. After wandering around in a circle they came back to the place they started from. When the wood gave out they held a council. It seemed useless to attempt to cross the high plateau in such a storm, but, if they remained, all would be frozen to death. Then, Morning Plume turning to Na-toia-mon said: 'Brother! will you not try the power given you by the Cold Maker? If his medicine is strong, now is the time to use it. For the sake of your wife and children, drive back this storm.' Na-toia-mon replied, 'I came not from the Sun! How can I drive back the Ma-kai-peye?' 'Try it!' said Morning Plume. 'For the sake of our wives and children I now call upon you for help.' Na-toia-mon had with him the mink-skin tobacco pouch and the black pipe given him by the North Man. When he was ready to open the pipe, he gave directions to wrap up the women and children as warmly as possible, and to place them upon the travois, 1 and told the men to go in advance, and break a trail through the
deep snow for the horses. When they were ready to start he called out, 'As soon as I begin to pray for power to break this storm, start at once. Travel as fast as you can for camp, for I can only hold back the storm for a short time. When it sets in again, it will come more fiercely than before.' Na-toia-mon filled the black pipe and when he began smoking he gave the signal to start. He blew the smoke first towards the north-east,—the direction the storm came from. Then he held up the sacred pipe and prayed:
"'Maker of Storms! listen and have pity! Maker of Storms! hear us and take pity on our women and children as you once took pity upon my youngest son! Pity us now and hold back this storm! May we survive! Listen, Oh Maker of Storms!'
"When he blew the smoke towards the south-east, the sun shone through a rift in the clouds. Na-toia-mon called after the people, 'Hurry now as fast as you can across the high ridge, for the storm will soon come upon you again.' He smoked towards the south-west and the clouds began to break up. When he made his final smoke and prayed towards the north-west, the clouds drew back and the blue sky was seen in all directions. Then Na-toia-mon himself hurried towards camp. He knew the Cold Maker was only holding the blizzard back. They crossed the plateau in safety and were descending towards the river, when the blizzard again enveloped them, and they could not see their way. But, the camp was not far distant, and they finally reached their lodges in safety.
"From that time the Blackfeet have always believed in Na-toia-mon's dream. But he could never again be prevailed upon to try his supernatural power. He always replied, that he knew the power to control the storms would not be given to him a second time."
137:1 See Appendix.