Coyote and the Columbia
From the Sahaptin/Salishan Tribes
S. E. Schlosser
One day, Coyote was walking along. The sun was shining brightly, and Coyote felt very hot.
“I would like a cloud,” Coyote said.
So a cloud came and made some shade for Coyote. Coyote was not satisfied.
“I would like more clouds,” he said. More clouds came along, and the sky began to look very stormy. But Coyote was still hot.
“How about some rain,” said Coyote. The clouds began to sprinkle rain on Coyote.
“More rain,” Coyote demanded. The rain became a downpour.
“It should be deeper,” said Coyote.
The creek became a huge, swirling river. Coyote was swept over and over by the water. Finally, nearly drowned, Coyote was thrown up on the bank far away. When he woke up, the buzzards were watching him, trying to decide if he was dead.
“I’m not dead,” Coyote told them, and they flew away.
That is how the Columbia River began.
This story is about when the people ignored the directions of the Creator about caring for the salmon, the salmon disappeared. All of their attempts to bring the salmon back failed until Snake used his powers to revive the salmon. The people were not fooled by Coyote’s pretentious effort to revive the salmon.
The Creator taught the people how to care for this food which was created especially for them. He said, “Do not neglect this food. Be careful that you do not break the rules in taking care of this salmon. Do not take more than you need”. He told them if they observed these rules, the salmon would multiply several times over as long as they lived.
At first the people diligently obeyed the rules, and they lived happily without problems. All along the river there were different bands of people living in their fishing villages, busy catching and drying their supply of salmon.
But one day something strange happened. The people became careless and they neglected to follow the instructions made by the Creator. They became greedy. They did not take care of the salmon. They let them go to waste when they caught more than they needed for their families. They would not listen to the advice from those who were trying to follow the rules. Suddenly the salmon disappeared.
When the salmon were no longer coming up the stream for the people to catch everybody frantically searched the rivers, but all in vain. There was not one salmon left to be found. Soon they became hungry, their little children were crying and the old people were forced to beg for food.
One day, while they were searching the river, they found a dead salmon lying on the bank of the river. They stared down at it in disbelief when they realized what had happened. They began to cry out in shame and lament their mistakes, “If we are given one more chance, we will do better. If only we could awaken this salmon, the other salmon might come up the stream.”
The people called a council and they talked about how they could give life back to the salmon. In legendary times those with supernatural powers could revive a lifeless creature by stepping over it five times. The people tried to use their own spiritual powers to revive the salmon. One by one they each stepped over the salmon five times, but to no avail.
There was a recluse named Old Man Rattlesnake. He never went anywhere always staying off by himself. He was very ancient and all the people called him “Grandfather”. Somebody said, “let’s ask Grandfather to help us! He is a powerful man. Let him revive the salmon!.” A messenger was sent. “Oh Grandfather, would you come and help us revive the salmon. Everybody has failed.” Old Man Rattlesnake listened and said, “What makes you think I am capable of reviving this lone salmon after everyone else has failed? I am an old man, how do you expect an old man like me to possess powers to do the impossible!”. The messenger was sad. “You are our last hope. Please help us, Grandfather”. Finally Old Man Rattlesnake agreed, “I will do my best”. He was so old it was very painful for him to move fast. He moved ever so slowly and it seemed like such a long way for one so old.
While Grandfather was on his way, Coyote tried desperately, using all his wily skills to convince the people he possessed supernatural powers. He was thinking to himself, “If I revive this salmon I will be a very famous person.” He stepped over it four times, and just as he was stepping over the fifth time, he pushed the salmon with the tip of his toe to make it appear as though it moved. He announced loudly, “Oh, look, my people, I made the salmon come to life. Did you see it move?” But the people were wise to the ways of Coyote and they paid him no attention.
Finally, Old Man Rattlesnake arrived. Painfully he crawled over the salmon four times. The fifth time something magical happened! Grandfather disappeared into the salmon and the salmon woke up and came back to life and the salmon came back to the rivers. The people learned their lesson well and took care to protect their salmon from then on.
Today when you catch a salmon, and you are preparing it for eating or preserving, if you break the spine you will find a white membrane inside. That is old Man Rattlesnake who gave life back to the salmon.
We did not know all this by ourselves; we were told it by our fathers and grandfathers, who learned it from their fathers and grandfathers. No one knows when the Great Chief Above will overturn the mountains.
But we do know this: the spirits will return only to the remains of people who in life kept the beliefs of their grandfathers. Only their bones will be preserved under the mountains.
A woman was chief of all who lived in this region. That was a long time before Coyote came up the river and changed things, and the people were not yet real people. After a time Coyote, in his travels came to this place and asked the inhabitants if they were living well or ill. They sent him to their chief who lived up in the rocks, where she could look down on the village and know what was going on.
Coyote climbed up to the house on the rocks and asked, “What kind of living do you give these people? Do you treat them well or are you one of those evil women?”
“I am teaching them to live well and build good houses,” she said.
When she expressed her desire to be able to do this forever, he said, “Soon the world will change and women will no longer be chiefs.”
Being the trickster that he was, Coyote changed her into a rock with the command, “You shall stay here and watch over the people and the river forever.”
XVIII. Wah’-tee -tas
Wah’ -tee -tas was a word that Louis Mann used in 1916, when he was describing to L.V. McWhorter the: “’ancient people’, also interpreted ‘animal people’. They are described as dwarfs, not exceeding two feet in height. They were seen only during the evening twilight or in the early dawn of the morning. Death invariably followed on the heels of those who beheld the Wah’ -tee -tas, except as Talismanic, as in the case of children set forth in the (oral histories). Of course an adult can commune with his or her tahmahnawis (spirit power) with beneficial results. It is claimed that Chief We-yal-lup Wy-ya-cika obtained much of his power as a medicine man from friendly Wah’ -tee -tas. I do know that the Chief told me before he died that he could explain to me the meaning of all the Puh-tuh num, (meaning ‘pictured’ or ‘marked’) and that he would sometime do so. But unfortunately death claimed him before this was done. We-Yal-lup also had power from the great horned chief of the Wah’ k-puch, (poison-snake) which he saw in Teiton Canyon. Schop-tash and Puh-tuh num, of the preceding story, refer to the same pictographs, or rock-paintings, to be found on great cliff in the Naches Gap near Yakama. It will be noticed that there is a slight difference in interpretation, but there should be no confusion connected with the rendition of the two appellations”
Yakama Indian Tokiaken Twi-wash told L.V. McWhorter this story in 1912. “I am now old. it was before I saw the sun that my ancestors discovered the Wah’-tee -tas, the little ancient people who wore robes woven from rabbit’s hair. They dwelt in the cliff. My people saw a little short fellow, like a person. marking the rocks as you now see them. He walked from rock to rock, hunting the smooth places. You see some of the paintings high up upon the wall. We do not know how Wah-tee -tas got up there to do the work. We see it there; we know that it is true…
Sometimes the people would see the Wah’-tee-tas once or twice a year, see them in the evening dim, or in the morning before the sun, while it was yet a little dark. The Wah’-tee-tas were spirits, but not bad.”
Chief Sluskin and an Indian named Holite gave this account to McWhorter in September, 1917. “No one knows how old the Schop-tash are, nor what they mean… It was after the flood that Man came. It was then that the Schop-tash was painted. The Schop-tash was the law for the Yakamas. They came in the night and painted the hands. Then the other paintings were made, were finished completely. These were often repainted, made bright during the night. But after white man came, this ceased. No more painting was done. The people who made the Schop-tash were small, small but full grown. No one knew where they lived. They might be seen standing on top the cliff, seen after the sun had gone down, or before it was up in the morning. But anyone seeing them died soon afterwards. No one wanted to see them. It brought death.”
“The little Wah’-tee-tas watched over the paintings, the markings, and never let them grow dim. It is too bad that white man destroyed the Puh-tuh-num. It was the law of my people, painted there on the rocks by the Wah’-tee-tas, the Ancient People.”… “I, [L.V. McWhorter] asked an old Indian there who knows these pictures who made them. He answered that they were made by some other people before the Indians came.”
XIX. Te-chum’ mah
L.V. McWhorter wrote: “The Te-chum’ mah, or ground people, are diminutive, invisible dwarfs, inhabiting the more heavily-timbered peaks and summit ranges of the Cascade Mountains, especially around Lake Keechelas … Also, up in the timbered region of the Wenas waterhead, there is a small lake known to the Yakamas as Wat-tum wat-tum, “Lake-lake,” where the Te-chum’ mah also reside … They also known to reside around Fish Lake … Their abode is the cavity of an upturned tree .”
A Chehalis-Yakama Indian gave this account of the Te-chum’ mah to L.V. McWhorter:
“Sometimes I hear these little people as I travel in the night. They are small. You cannot see them if you look. One time I saw them in a dream, saw them just as if I were awake. But I was not awake. I was asleep. I saw them asleep. They look nice, about this high [ eighteen inches]. They look like big people, only they were small. I heard them talking. They are afraid of strangers. When they saw anybody coming, they said to each other, ‘Doctor [medicine man] coming!’ They ran and hid somewhere. When out in the woods at night, when anywhere in a lonely place, you hear them whistling like birds. You better not answer them, better not try to follow them. If you do, they make you crazy. you do not know where you are going. you run! you run! you run! You run until you die. You will not look where you go. You do not stop for anything. Maybe you fall from high rocks and die. Maybe you get lost and are never found. Do not pay attention to them. They cannot hurt you. They call like one kind of bird at night. They call like this, “W-w-wh-hah! W-w-wh-hah!”
“You have heard them. Once called close to me in the dark. I was scared! My head felt just like baked! I did not answer! I would not follow that call. I did not want to go crazy; I did not want to die. I kept going, kept traveling to get away from that place.”
The Tenino Indians (also called the Warm Springs Sahaptin), occupied a portion of the south bank of the Columbia River in North Central Oregon and the lower watershed of its southern affluents. They spoke of the Pah-ho-ho-Klah, the “ground people” or “people of the ground”, who are described in similar terms as the Te-chum-mah. This tale was told to L.V. McWhorter by Ah-nah-chu Pick-wah-pah (“Behind the Rock”), and intelligent young man of the warm springs tribe, gave McWhorter his experience with the Pah-ho-ho-klah: “calling”, “signaling” or “answering”. No date cited.
“Hunting in Oregon, I got lost in the fog and rain. I killed one deer. I did not get crazy! I did not run like wild. I thought to stay where I was when the fog came up, wait until all cleared away again. I do this when I find I’m lost. It is not good to travel when lost. You might get killed. Their are high rocks where you fall and die. I got under a big tree, a heavy topped tree. With plenty of dry wood, I built a fire out from the tree; I took a place between the fire and tree. I was close against tree, a safe place. I roasted meat from the deer and ate.”
“Not long after this I heard calling, calling like birds in the trees about my camp. It was getting dark! Other voices like birds answered farther away. I knew the birds were not there. It was the Pah-ho-ho-klah , the little people of the mountains. I was scared! I did not answer them! I sat still! I did not move, did not make any noise. If I answered the calls, I would go crazy, be lost five days and nights. It would rain and be foggy five days and nights. I sat against the tree in the firelight, holding my gun. I watched just like a soldier! I did not sleep all day. I kept the fire burning, watching everywhere. The sun traveled behind the clouds; no light was in the woods.”
“Night came, dark, plenty of fog, wet rain. I must sleep! I made a big fire to light up all around the camp. I lay down, my feet to the fire and my head close against the tree. I slept long. I did not know how good I slept; then I awoke. There! I looked good! I looked sharp! Only a short distance from me, in the light of the fire, I saw him! I saw Pah-ho-ho-klah! He was sitting down, had an arrow! Yes! He was biting that arrow, sighting it with his eye! He was making the arrow straight.”
“I looked at him fixing his arrow. I saw him good. He had on buckskin clothes, a shirt filled with holes, a summer-shirt. I can make that shirt. He had a band of cedar band this wide (two fingers), tied around his head. His hair was braided like mine, hung to the middle of his breast, maybe a little shorter. I saw above his left shoulder the feather-ends of about ten arrows and a bow, all in a case on his back. The Pah-ho-ho-klah was an Indian all right, the same color as me. He was straightening arrows with his teeth, biting out crooked places. I was not scared now. I lay still. I was lots sleepy. I went to sleep again.”
“The next morning it was getting light; I heard the same voices! They went farther, farther away! After calling five times out in the woods, then they quit. The Pah-ho-ho-klah Chief had called his people from that place. The rain had now quit; the fog was thin, waving like wind. The sun came up, shining warm. I went up on a hill, looked everywhere. I knew that country; I knew where I was. I carried the deer, traveled to camp about three hours. I was safe! I am telling you this tonight.”
XXI. Babies and Babyfeet
Baby Rock, in Lane county Oregon, “is on the southwest shoulder of Heckletooth Mountain, above the track of the Southern Pacific Company just southeast of Oakridge. It was named by the Indians. Mrs. Line a Flock gave the compiler an unusual legend about the name. Indians who slept near the rock were believed to have been bitten by some animals that left the footprints of a baby. The wounds were fatal. Finally two Indians determined to exterminate these peculiar animals, and hiding in the rocks above, they surprised the visitors, jumping down on them with blankets in such a way that they could not escape. The animals were twisted in blankets and burned up. Indian Charli Tufti would never go near this rock. (Tufti Mt. is just south of Baby Rock) Mrs. Flock’s grandfather, Fred Warner, was of the opinion that the peculiar animals were porcupines, which make tracks not unlike a small baby. Indians asserted that the baby tracks remained about the rock for many years, hence the name.” Babyfoot Creek, and the Babyfoot Lake botanical Area, in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, Curry County OR, appears to have the same sort of Indian legend behind it.
“Between Mount Adams and Mount Rainier are many small lakes, in a region where Indians used to go late in the summer for huckleberries and game. In these dark, deep lakes surrounded by tall trees, the Indians believed, lived spirits that had control of the rain…Some of the lakes in that region were said to have strange animals living in them…At night, when all was dark and quiet, the spirits would come out and gather food on the shores. In some of the lakes were the spirits of little children who had lived in the days of the ancient people. Their cries sometimes broke the silence of the nighttime. The next morning the prints of their little naked feet were found in the wet sand along the margin of the lake.
The east side of Mt. Adams (12,307) at the top has many caves where many eagles breed and live. Near the north side of the mountain is Fish Lake. Between the two is a section of large broken up rocks.
XXII. The Dwarf Mountain People
This is an Umatilla Indian story of the Dwarf Mountain People who live in the Blue Mountains, told to L.V. McWhorter by an unknown Indian at an unknown date: The Umatillas lived by the mouth of the Umatilla river, where it joins the Columbia, due east of the Teninos.
“Three brothers Cee-wal-tis-cou-cou, Tem-mot-Cio-soota-cots, and We-yow Yets-chit-con, were hunting in the Blue Mountains where there was snow. Cee-wal-tis-cou-cou, a tribal warrior and whose widow and daughter are still living (1927), was riding alone. he saw fresh deer track and proceeded to follow it. Then he noticed a moccasin track which appeared following the deer, not larger than that of a baby’s footprint. he could not understand but though, “Maybe he is also tracking the deer”.
“After a time, looking a short distance ahead, he saw an old man, an old man not larger than a papoose, dressed in a spotted fawn-skin, standing on a log. He had a bow and arrows in a fawn-skin case. Riding up close, Cee-wal-tis-cou-cou saw that the little fellow was very old, face wrinkled, eyes set deep in the head. he thought to take IT home with him. he spoke, but there was no answer. he then motioned for IT to get on the horse behind him. IT held out a very oldish-looking hand, and when grasped by Cee-wal-tis-cou-cou, leaped to the seat on the horse. Cee-wal-tis-cou-cou gathered IT close and secure in the folds of his blanket, held fast as does the mother riding with her baby so wrapped behind her.”
“Riding thus, Cee-wal-tis-cou-cou met his two brothers. They all counseled and thought to take IT home with them, to see what IT would do, what would come of IT, letting people see the little old man. They rode on and, although it was daylight and the sun was shining, soon they missed IT from the blanket held fast and close by Cee-wal-tis-cou-cou. None knew when IT disappeared, or how gone. Nothing was seen of the little old man. Nobody knew where these people live but suppose it is in caves in the rocks. They may have fire. No one knows.”
“If you are lost in the woods, and hear a calling, do not answer. It is the Little People , and they will take you wrong. It is dangerous to answer unknown callings when in the mountain forests.”
The Makah Indians of the Straight of Juan De Fuca tell a story about the cause of the northern lights.
“The northern lights come from the fires of a tribe of dwarf Indians who live many moons’ journey to the north. These dwarfs are no taller than half the length of a canoe paddle. They live on the ice, and they eat seals and whales. Although they are small, they are so strong and hardy that they can dive into cold water and catch whales with their hands. Then they boil out the blubber in fires built on the ice. The lights we sometimes see, are from the fires of those little people boiling whale blubber. The dwarfs are evil spirits, or skookums, and so we dare not speak their names”.
‘Thomas C. Pitka related his finding of many strange bare footprints of a child 7-9 years (old?) around the Green Point Upper Reservoir, SW of Hood River Or. The tracks were about 6” long, and he thought it odd that there were no other tracks about.’
‘Bud Darcor asked Ray Crowe if he wanted to “hear something strange?” It was way back in 1944 he said, and he was spending the weekend deer hunting with a younger brother near the Bly Mountain Lookout, OR., where he had a friend that worked, and had invited them up. As they were looking over the forest from the lookout tower, there appeared a bright ball that flew towards a nearby tableland. It looked like the bright ball landed on east end mountain about two miles away. The next day he and his brother hiked over to the site and were surprised to find next to a water hole, in a small clearing by the edge of a creek, a burnt patch. It was about 30 feet across, he said.
Still scratching their heads, they were hiking back to the L.O. when they had a weird feeling… then they saw “baby” footprints in the pumice dust of the road. The footprints crossed the road and went up the roadcut bank, and “sat down”. The butt print was about 6 inches across he said, and the prints were about 4 1/2 inches long. We put a board across the footprints to preserve them, and went to talk to the local Forest Service boss, and another government guy. The government guy suggested that a monkey had fallen out of an airplane, while the F.S. fellow said, “we didn’t see nothin’, and don’t know nothin’.”
They sat on the edge of this polluted bay.
Watching Seagulls & Crows fight for leftover sky.
They watched the sun set.
Glowing with a red they created.
With their own ignorance.
With their own stupidity.
The feeling there-
On the shores of a thousand lovers-
They drink to the past-
They drink to the present-
Or they drink to the future.
As the moon rises conversation prevails-
so many things to forsee,
so many things to foretell.
We have stories,
We all share stories.
Her eyes grow dim
as the passing of night produces shadows.
Her eyes glisten-
glisten oil across this universe.
I once saw a man die from a broken heart-
It broke and could not be replaced by good intent.
I saw it split-
blood and guts and memories-
across the floor it lay-
and all the kings horses and all the kings men can not put it
back together again.
She took his bones and made a flute so his memory could sing-
She made tents from his flesh so his ghosts could sleep.
And on her altar she laid his memory.
I know you hold such memories buried deep inside,
yet your flesh does hide
and holds captive your dreams
as morbid shadows scream.
Poetic is as poetic does.
We shared our times,
We shared our blood,
We shared our dreams-
We are scarred.
She took his blood and made ink
tattooed across her eyelids-
so she could remember hope.
And all the kings horses and all the kings men-
Can never put us back together again.
The freedom to breathe
is ours to take.
As we become engulfed in shadow.
COYOTE AND THE DRAGON: (from Myths and Legends from the Pacific Northwest)
LONG ago, in the Willamette Valley, there lived a monster who made all the people afraid. It lived in a cave. At night it would come from its cave, seize and eat people, and return to the cave in the morning. All night it would eat
the people. Coyote heard of this monster and decided to help the people. Coyote was the cunningest and shrewdest of all the animals.
Now the monster could not endure daylight. It lived always in the dark. So one day when the sun was very bright and high up in the heavens, Coyote took his bow and arrows and went to a mountain top. He shot one of the arrows into the sun. Then he shot another into the lower end of the first one, and then another into the lower end of the second.
At last Coyote had a chain of arrows that reached from the sun to the earth. Then he pulled the sun down. He pulled hard until it came down. Then he hid it in the Willamette River.
Now the monster thought night had come. Everything was dark because the sun was hid in the river. So the monster came out from his cave and attacked the people. Then Coyote broke the chain which held the sun down, and it sprang up in the sky again. The monster was blinded because the light was so bright. Then Coyote killed it.
When the pale-faces found the big bones of the monster and carried them away, Indians said evil
would come of it.
Chinook – Many Swans: Sun Myth of the North American Indians
Lowell, Amy (1920)
[NOTE. -- "Many Swans" is based upon a Kathlamet legend, the main theme and many of the episodes of which I have retained, while at the same time augmenting and freely departing from it in order to gain a wider symbolism. Four of the songs in my poem are real Indian songs, one is an adaptation, the others are merely in the Indian idiom. In the interest of atmospheric truth, I have felt at liberty to make occasional use of Indian expressions and turns of thought, and I here wish to record my gratitude to that small body of indefatigable workers in that field of Indian folk-lore and tradition whose careful and exact translations of Indian texts have made them accessible to those who, like myself, have not the Indian tongues. -- A. L.]
When the Goose Moon rose and walked upon a pale sky, and water made a noise once more beneath the ice on the river, his heart was sick with longing for the great good of the sun. One Winter again had passed, one Winter like the last. A long sea with waves biting each other under grey clouds, a shroud of snow from ocean to forest, snow mumbling stories of bones and driftwood beyond his red fire. He desired space, light; he cried to himself about himself, he made songs of sorrow and wept in the corner of his house. He gave his children toys to keep them away from him. His eyes were dim following the thin sun. He said to his wife: “I want that sun. Some day I shall go to see it.” And she said: “Peace, be still. You will wake the children.”
So he waited, and the Whirlwind Moon came, a crescent — mounted, and marched down beyond the morning, and was gone. Then the Extreme Cold Moon came and shone, it mounted, moved night by night into morning and faded through day to darkness. He watched the Old Moon pass, he saw the Eagle Moon come and go. Slowly the moons wound across the snow, and many nights he could not see them, he could only hear the waves raving foam and fury until dawn.
Now the Goose Moon told him things, but his blood lay sluggish within him until the moon stood full and apart in the sky. His wife asked why he was silent. “I have wept my eyes dry,” he answered. “Give me my cedar bow and my two-winged arrows with the copper points. I will go into the forest and kill a moose, and bring fresh meat for the children.”
All day he stalked the forest. He saw the marks of bears’ claws on the trees. He saw the wide tracks of a lynx, and the little slot-slot-of a jumping rabbit, but nothing came along. Then he made a melancholy song for himself: “My name is Many Swans, but I have seen neither sparrow nor rabbit, neither duck nor crane. I will go home and sit by the fire like a woman and spin cedar bark for fish-lines.”
Then silver rain ran upon him through the branches from the moon, and he stepped upon open grass and laughed at the touch of it under his foot.” I will shoot the moon,” he thought, “and cut it into cakes for the children.”
He laid an arrow on his bow and shot, and the copper tip made it shine like a star flying. He watched to see it fall, but it did not. He shot again, and his arrow was a bright star until he lost it in the brilliance of the moon. Soon he had shot all his arrows, and he stood gaping up at the moonshine wishing he had not lost them.
Then Many Swans laughed again because his feet touched grass, not snow. And he gathered twigs and stuck them in his hair, and saw his shadow like a tree walking there. But something tapped the twigs, he stood tangled in something. With his hand he felt it, it was the feather head of an arrow. It dangled from the sky, and the copper tip jangled upon wood and twinkled brightly. This — that — and other twinkles, pricking against the soft flow of the moon, and the wind crooned in the arrow-feathers and tinkled the bushes in his hair.
Many Swans laid his hand on the arrow and began to climb — up — up — a long time. The earth lay beneath him wide and blue, he climbed through white moonlight and purple air until he fell asleep from weariness.
Sunlight struck sidewise on a chain of arrows, below were cold clouds above a sky blooming like an open flower and he aiming to the heart of it. Many Swans saw that up was far, and down was also far, but he cried to himself that he had begun his journey to the sun. Then he pulled a bush from his hair, and the twigs had leaved and fruited, and there were salmon-berries dancing beneath the leaves. “My father, the sun, is good,” said Many Swans, and he eat the berries and went on climbing the arrows into the heart of the sky.
He climbed till the sun set and the moon rose, and at midmost moon he fell asleep to the sweeping of the arrow-ladder like a cradle in the wind.
When dawn struck gold across the ladder, he awoke. “It is Summer,” said Many Swans, “I cannot go back, it must be more days down than I have travelled. I should be ashamed to see my children, for I have no meat for them. “Then he remembered the bushes, and pulled another from his hair, and there were blue huckleberries shining like polished wood in the midst of leaves. “The sun weaves the seasons,” thought Many Swans, “I have been under and over the warp of the world, now I am above the world,” and he went on climbing into the white heart of the sky.
Another night and day he climbed, and he eat red huckleberries from his last bush, and went on — up and up — his feet scratching on the ladder with a great noise because of the hush all round him. When he reached an edge he stepped over it carefully, for edges are thin and he did not wish to fall. He found a tall pine-tree by a pond. “Beyond can wait,” reasoned Many Swans, “this is surely a far country.” And he lay down to sleep under the pine-tree, and it was the fourth sleep he had had since he went hunting moose to bring meat to his family.
The shadow crept away from him, and the sun came and sat upon his eyelids, so that by and by he opened them and rubbed his eyes because a woman stared at him, and she was beautiful as a salmon leaping in Spring. Her skirt was woven of red and white cedar bark, she had carved silver bracelets and copper bracelets set with haliotis shell, and earrings of sharks’ teeth. She sparkled like a river salmon, and her smile was water tipping to a light South breeze. She pleased the heart of Many Swans so that fear was not in him, only longing to take her for himself as a man does a woman, and he asked her name. “Grass-Bush-and-Blossom is my name,” she answered, “I am come after you. My grandmother has sent me to bring you to her house.” “And who is your grand-mother?” asked Many Swans. But the girl shook her head, and took a pinch of earth from the ground and threw it toward the sun. “She has many names. The grass knows her, and the trees, and the fishes in the sea. I call her ‘grandmother,’ but they speak of her as ‘The-One-Who-Walks-All-Over-the-Sky.’” Many Swans marvelled and said nothing, for things are different in a far country.
They walked together, and the man hungered for the woman and could not wait. But he said no word, and he eat up her beauty as though it were a ripe foam-berry and still went fasting until his knees trembled, and his heart was like hot dust, and his hands ached to thrust upon her and turn her toward him. So they went, and Many Swans forgot his wife and children and the earth hanging below the sharp edge of the sky.
* * *
The South wind sat on a rock and never ceased to blow, locking the branches of the trees together; a flock of swans rose out of the South-East, one and seven, making strange, changing lines across a smooth sky. Wild flax-blossoms ran blue over the bases of black and red totem poles. The colours were strong as blood and death, they rattled like painted drums against the eyesight. “Many Swans!” said the girl and smiled. “Blood and death,” drummed the totem poles. “Alas!” nodded the flax. The man heeded nothing but the woman and the soles of his feet beating on new ground.
The houses were carved with the figures of the Spring Salmon. They were carved in the form of a rainbow. Hooked noses stood out above doorways; crooked wooden men crouched, frog-shaped, gazing under low eaves. It was a beautiful town, ringing with colours, singing brightly, terribly, in the smooth light. All the way was sombre and gay, and the man walked and said nothing.
They came to a house painted black and carved with stars. In the centre was a round moon with a door in it. So they entered and sat beside the fire, and the woman gave the man fish-roes and gooseberries, but his desire burnt him and he could not eat.
Grass-Bush-and-Blossom saw his trouble, and she led him to a corner and showed him many things. There were willow arrows and quivers for them. There were mountain-goat blankets and painted blankets of two elkskins, there were buffalo skins, and dressed buckskins, and deerskins with young, soft hair. But Many Swans cared for nothing but the swing of the woman’s bark skirt, and the sting of her loveliness which gave him no peace.
Grass-Bush-and-Blossom led him to another corner, and showed him crest helmets, and wooden armour; she showed him coppers like red rhododendron blooms, and plumes of eagles’ wings. She gave him clubs of whalebone to handle, and cedar trumpets which blow a sound cool and sweet as the noise of bees. But Many Swans found no ease in looking save at her arms between the bracelets, and his trouble grew and pressed upon him until he felt strangled.
She led him farther and showed him a canoe painted silver and vermilion with white figures of fish upon it, and the gunwales fore and aft were set with the teeth of the sea-otter. She lifted out the paddles, the blades were shaped like hearts and striped with fire-hues. She said, “Choose. These are mine and my grand-mother’s. Take what you will.” But Many Swans was filled with the glory of her standing as a young tree about to blossom, and he took her and felt her sway and: fold about him with the tightness of new leaves. “This” — said Many Swans, “this — for am I not a man!” So they abode and the day ran gently past them, slipping as river water, and evening came, and someone entered, darkening the door.
Then Grass-Bush-and-Blossom wrapped her cedar-bark skirt about her and sprang up, and her silver and copper ornaments rang sweetly with her moving. The-One-Who-Walks-All-Over-the-Sky looked at Many Swans. “You have not waited,” she said. “Alas! It is an evil beginning. My son, my son, I wished to love you.” But he was glad and thought: “It is a querulous old woman, I shall heed her no more than the snapping of a fire of dead twigs.”
The old woman went behind the door and hung up something. It pleased him. It was shining. When he woke in the night, he saw it in the glow of the fire. He liked it, and he liked the skins he lay on and the woman who lay with him. He thought only of these things.
In the morning, the old woman unhooked the shining object and went out, and he turned about to his wife and said sharp, glad words to her and she to him, and the sun shone into the house until evening, and in the night again he was happy, because of the thing that glittered and flashed and moved to and fro, clashing softly on the wall.
The days were many. He did not count them. Every morning the old woman took out the shining thing, and every evening she brought it home, and all night it shone and cried “Ching-a-ling” as it dangled against the wall.
Moons and moons went by, no doubt. Many Swans did not reckon them out. Was there an earth? Was there a sky? He remembered nothing. He did not try. And then one day, wandering along the street of carved houses, he heard a song. He heard the beat of rattles and drums, and the shrill humming of trumpets blown to a broken rhythm:
Many salmon are coming ashore,
They are coming ashore to you, the post of our heaven,
They are dancing from the salmon’s country to the shore.
I come to dance before you at the right-hand side of the world, overtowering, outshining, surpassing all. I, the Salmon!
And the drums rumbled like the first thunder of a year, and the rattles pattered like rain on flower petals, and the trumpets hummed as wind hums in round-leafed trees; and people ran, jumping, out of the Spring Salmon house and leapt to the edge of the sky and disappeared, falling quickly, calling the song to one another as they fell so that the sound of it continued rising up for a long time.
Many Swans listened, and he recollected that when the Spring Salmon jump, the children say: “Ayuu! Do it again!” He thought of his children and his wife whom he had left on the earth, and wondered who had brought them meat, who had caught fish for them, and he was sad at his thoughts and wept, saying: “I want to shoot birds for my children. I want to spear trout for my children.” So he went back to his house, and his feet dragged behind him like nets drawn across sand.
He lay down upon his bed and grieved, because he had no children in the sky, and because the wife of his youth was lost to him. He would not eat, but lay with his head covered and made no sound.
Then Grass-Bush-and-Blossom asked him: “Why do you grieve?” But he was silent. And again she said: “Why do you grieve?” But he answered nothing. And she asked him many times, until at last he told her of his children, of his other wife whom he had left, and she was pitiful because she loved him.
When the old woman came, she also said: “What ails your husband that he lies there saying nothing?” And Grass-Bush-and-Blossom answered: “He is homesick. We must let him depart.”
Many Swans heard what she said, and he got up and made himself ready. Now the old woman looked sadly at him. “My son,” she said, “I told you it was a bad beginning. But I wish to love you. Choose among these things what you will have and return to your people.”
Many Swans pointed to the shining thing behind the door and said, “I will have that.” But the old woman would not give it to him. She offered him spears of bone, and yew bows, and arrows winged with ducks’ feathers. But he would not have them. She offered him strings of blue and white shells, and a copper canoe with a stern-board of copper and a copper bailer. He would not take them. He wanted the thing that glittered and cried “Ching-a-ling” as it dangled against the wall. She offered him all that was in the house. But he liked that great thing that was shining there. When that thing turned round it was shining so that one had to close one’s eyes. He said: “That only will I have.” Then she gave it to him saying: “You wanted it. I wished to love you, and I do love you.” She hung it on him. “Now go home.”
Many Swans ran swiftly, he ran to the edge of the sky, there he found the land of the rainbow. He put his foot on it and went down, and he felt strong and able to do anything. He forgot the sky and thought only of the earth.
Many Swans made a song as he went down the rainbow ladder. He sang with a loud voice:
“I will go and tear to pieces Mount Stevens, I will use it for stones for my fire.
I will go and break Mount Qa-tsta-is, I will use it for stones for my fire.
All day and all night he went down, and he was so strong he did not need to sleep. The next day he made a new song. He shouted it with a great noise:
“I am going all round the world,
I am at the centre of the world,
I am the post of the world,
On account of what I am carrying in my hand.”
This pleased him, and he sang it all day and was not tired at all.
Four nights and days he was going down the ladder, and every day he made a song, and the last was the best. This was it!
“Oh wonder! He is making a turmoil on the earth.
Oh wonder! He makes the noise of falling objects on the earth.
Oh wonder! He makes the noise of breaking objects on the earth.”
He did not mean this at all, but it was a good song. That is the way with people who think themselves clever. Many Swans sang this song a great many times, and on the fourth day, when the dawn was red, he touched the earth and walked off upon it.
* * *
When Many Swans arrived on the earth, he was not very near his village. He stood beneath a sea-cliff, and the rocks of the cliff were sprinkled with scarlet moss as it might have been a fall of red snow, and lilac moss shouldered between boulders of pink granite. Far out, the sea sparkled all colours like an abalone shell, and red fish sprang from it — one and another, over its surface. As he gazed, a shadow slipped upon the water, and, looking up, he saw a raven flying and overturning as it flew. Red fish, black raven — blood and death — but Many Swans called “Haioho-ho!” and danced a long time on the sea-sand because he felt happy in his heart.
He heard a robin singing, and as it sang he walked along the shore and counted his fingers for the headlands he must pass to reach home. He saw the canoes come out to fish, he said the names of his friends who should be in them. He thought of his house and the hearth strewn with white shells and sand. When the canoes of twelve rowers passed, he tried to signal them, but they went by too far from land. The way seemed short, for all day he told himself stories of what people would say to him. “I shall be famous, my fame will reach to the ends of the world. People will try to imitate me. Every one will desire to possess my power.” So Many Swans said foolish things to himself, and the day seemed short until the evening when he came in sight of his village.
At the dusky time of night, he came to it, and he heard singing, so he knew his people were having a festival. He could hear the dance-sticks clattering on the cedar boards and the moon-rattles whirling, and he could see the smoke curling out of the smoke-holes. Then he shouted very much and ran fast, but as he ran, the thing which he carried in his hands shook and cried: “We shall strike your town.” Then Many Swans went mad; he turned, swirling like a great cloud, he rose as a pillar of smoke and bent in the wind as smoke bends, he streamed as bands of black smoke, and out of him darted flames, red-mouthed flames, so that they scorched his hair. His hands were full of blood, and he yelled “Break! Break! Break! Break!” and did not know whose voice it was shouting.
There was a tree, and a branch standing out from it, and fire came down and hung on the end of the branch. He thought it was copper which swung on the tree, because it twirled and had a hard edge. Then it split as though a wedge had riven it, and burst into purple flame. The tree was consumed, and the fire leapt laughing upon the houses and poured down through the roofs upon the people. The flame-mouths stuck themselves to the houses and sucked the life from all the people, the flames swallowed themselves and brought forth little flames which ran a thousand ways like young serpents just out of their eggs, till the fire girdled the village and the water in front curdled and burned like oil.
Then Many Swans knew what he had done, and he tried to throw away his power which was killing everybody. But he could not do it. The people lay there dead, and his wife and children among the dead people. His heart was sick, and he cried: “The weapon flew into my hands with which I am murdering,” and he tried to throw it away, but it stuck to his flesh. He tried to cut it apart with his knife, but the blade turned and blunted. He cried bitterly: “Ka! Ka! Ka! Ka!” and tried to break what he wore on a stone, but it did not break. Then he cut off his hair and blackened his face, and turned inland to the spaces of the forest, for his heart was dead with his people. And the moon followed him over the tops of the trees, but he hated the moon because it reminded him of the sky.
* * *
A long time Many Swans wandered in the forest. White-headed eagles flew over the trees and called down to him: “There is the man who killed everybody.” By night the owls hooted to each other: “The man who sleeps has blood on him, his mouth is full of blood, he let loose his power on his own people.” Many Swans beat upon his breast and pleaded with the owls: “You with ears far apart who hear everything, you the owls, it was not I who killed but this evil thing I carry and which I cannot put down.” But the owls laughed, shrill, mournful, broken laughs, repeating the words they had said, so that Many Swans could not sleep and in the morning he was so weak he shook when he walked.
He walked among pines which flowed before him in straight, opening lines like water, and the wind in the pine-branches wearied his soul as he heard it all day long. At first he eat nothing, but when he stumbled and fell for faintness he gathered currants and partridge-berries and so made his feet carry him on.
He came to a wood of red firs where fire had been before him. The heartwood of the firs was all burnt out, but the trees stood on stilts of sapwood and mocked the man who slew with fire.
He passed through woods of spear-leaf trees, with sharp vines head-high all about them. He thrust the thing he carried into the vines and tried to let go of it, but it would not stay tangled and came away in his hand.
He heard beavers drumming with their tails on water, and saw musk-rats building burrows with the stalks of wild rice in shoal water but they scattered as he came near. The little animals fled before him in fear, chattering to each other. Even the bears deserted the huckleberry bushes when they heard the fall of his foot, so that he walked alone. Above him, the waxwings were catching flies in the spruce-tops, they were happy because it was Summer and warm, they were the only creatures too busy to look down at the man who moved on as one who never stops, making his feet go always because there was nothing else to do.
By and by the trees thinned, and Many Swans saw beyond them to a country of tall grass. He rested here some time eating fox-grapes and blackberries, for indeed he was almost famished, and weary with the sickness of solitude. He thought of the ways of men, and hungered after speech and comforting. But he saw no man, and the prairie frightened him, rolling endlessly to the sky.
At last his blood quickened again, and the longing for people beat a hard pulse in his throat so that he rose and went on, seeking where he might find men. For days he sought, following the trails of wild horses and buffalo, tripping among the crawling pea-vines, bruised and baffled, blind with the sharp shimmer of the grass.
Then suddenly they came, riding out of the distance on both sides of him. These men wore eagle-plume bonnets, and their horses went so fast he could not see their legs. They ran glittering toward one another, whooping and screaming, and the horses’ tails streamed out behind them stiffly like bunches of bones. Each man lay prone on his horse and shot arrows, hawk-feathered arrows, owl-feathered arrows, and they were terrible in swiftness because the feathers had not been cut or burned to make them low.
The arrows flew across one another like a swarm of grasshoppers leaping, and the men foamed forward as waves foam at a double tide.
They came near, bright men, fine as whips, striding lithe cat horses. One rode a spotted horse, and on his head was an upright plume of the tail-feathers of the black eagle. One rode a buckskin horse, long-winded and chary as a panther. One rode a sorrel horse painted with zigzag lightnings. One rode a clay-coloured horse, and the figure of a kingfisher was stamped in blue on its shoulder. Wildcat running horses, and their hoofs rang like thunder-drums on the ground, and the men yelled with brass voices:
“We who live are coming.
We are coming to kill.
We are coming with the snake arrows,
We are coming with the tomahawks
Which swallow their faces.
We will hack our enemies.
We will take many scalps.
We will kill — kill — kill — till every one is dead.
Many Swans lay in a buffalo wallow and hid, and a white fog slid down from the North and covered the prairie. For a little time he heard the war-whoops and the pit-pit of hitting arrows, and then he heard nothing, and he lay beneath the cold fog hurting his ears with listening. When the sky was red in the evening and the fog was lifted, he shifted himself and looked above the grass. “Alas!” Alas!” wept Many Swans, “the teeth of their arrows were like dogs’ teeth. They have devoured their enemies.” For nobody was there, but the arrows were sticking up straight in the ground. Then Many Swans went a long way round that place for he thought that the stomachs of the arrows must be full of blood. And so he went on alone over the prairie, and his heart was black with what he had seen.
* * *
A stream flowed in a sunwise turn across the prairie, and the name of the stream was “Burnt Water,” because it tasted dark like smoke. The prairie ran out tongues of raw colors — blue of camass, red of geranium, yellow of parsley — at the young green grass. The prairie flung up its larks on a string of sunshine, it lay like a catching-sheet beneath the black breasts balancing down on a wind, calling “See it! See it! See it!” in little round voices.
Antelope and buffalo,
Threading the tall green grass they go,
To and fro, to and fro.
And painted Indians ride in a row,
With arrow and bow, arrow and bow,
Hunting the antelope, the buffalo.
Truly they made a gallant show
Across the prairie’s bright green flow,
Warriors painted indigo,
Brown antelope, black buffalo,
* * *
Now when he heard the barking of dogs, and saw the bundles of the dead lashed to the cottonwood trees, Many Swans knew that he was near a village. He stood still, for he dared not go on because of the thing which he had with him. He said to himself, “My mind is not strong enough to manage it. My mind is afraid of it.” But he longed to speak with men, and so he crept a little nearer until he could see the painted tepees standing in the edge of the sunshine, and smell the smoke of dried sweet grass. Many Swans heard the tinkling of small bells from the buffalo tails hung on the tepees, he saw the lodge ears move gently in the breeze. He heard talk, the voices of men, and he cried aloud and wept, holding his hands out toward the village.
Then the thing which he was carrying shook, and said: “We shall strike that town.” Many Swans heard it, and he tried to keep quiet. He tried to throw the thing down, but his hands closed. He could not keep his mind, and his senses flew away so that he was crazy. He heard a great voice shouting: “Break! Break! Break! Break!” but he did not know that it was his own voice.
Back over the prairie sprang up a round cloud, and fire rose out of the heart of the grass. The reds and yellows of the flowers exploded into flame, showers of sparks rattled on the metal sky, which turned purple and hurtled itself down upon the earth. Winds charged the fire, lashing it with long thongs of green lightning, herding the flames over the high grass; and the fire screamed and danced and blew blood whistles, and the scarlet feet of the fire clinked a tune of ghost-bells on the shells of the dry cane brakes. Animals ran — ran — ran — and were overtaken, shaken grass glittered up with a roar and spilled its birds like burnt paper into the red air. The eagle’s wing melted where it flew, the hills of the prairie grew mountain-high, amazed with light, and were obscured. The people in the village ran — ran — and the fire shot them down with its red and gold arrows and whirled on, crumpling the tepees so that the skins of them popped like corn. Then the bodies of the dead in the trees took fire with a hard smoke, and the burning of the cottonwoods choked Many Swans as he fled. His nostrils smelt the dead, and he was very sick and could not move. Then the fire made a ring round him, and he stood in the midst by the Burnt River and wrung his hands until the skin tore. He took the thing he wore and tried to strip it off in the fork of a tree, but it did not come off at all. He cried: “Ka! Ka! Ka! Ka!” and leapt into the river and tried to drown the thing, but when he rose it rose with him and came out of the water gleaming so that its wake rippled red and silver a long way down the stream.
Then Many Swans lamented bitterly and cried: “The thing I wanted is bad,” but he had the thing and he could not part from it. He rolled in the stones and the bushes to scrape it off, but it clung to him and grew in his flesh like hair. Therefore Many Swans dragged himself up to go on, although the heat of the burnt grass scorched his feet and everything was dead about him. He heard nothing, for there was nobody to mock any more.
* * *
Mist rises along the river bottoms, and ghost-voices hiss an old death-song to a false, faint tune. The branches of willows beat on the moon, pound, pound, with a thin, far sound, shaking and shrilling the wonder tale, the thunder tale, of a nation’s killing:
The Nation’s drum has fallen down.
Beat — beat — and a double beat!
Ashes are the grass of a lodge-pole town.
Rattle — rattle — on a moon that is sinking.
Out of the North come drift winds wailing.
Beat — beat — and a double beat!
In the frost-blue West, a crow is ailing.
The streams, the water streams, are shrinking!
He gave an acre and we gave him brass.
Beat — beat — and a double beat!
Beautiful and bitter are the roses in the grass.
Rattle — rattle — on a moon that is sinking.
A knife painted red and a knife painted black.
Beat — beat — and a double beat!
Green mounds under a hackmatack.
The streams, the water streams, are shrinking!
Is there Summer in the Spring? Who will bring the South?
Beat — beat — and a double beat!
Shall honey drop from the green snake’s mouth?
Rattle — rattle — on a moon that is sinking.
A red-necked buzzard in an incense tree.
Beat — beat — and a double beat!
And a poison leaf from Gethsemane.
The streams, the water streams, are shrinking.
* * *
Now Many Swans walked over cinders, and there was no sprig or root that the fire had left. Therefore he grew weaker day by day, and at night he lay awake tortured for food, and he prayed to the Earth, saying: “Mother Earth have pity on me and give me to eat,” but the ears of the Earth were stopped with cinders. Then, after five sleeps, suddenly before him grew a bush of service-berries which the fire had not taken. Many Swans gathered the berries and appeased his hunger. He said: “The berries that grow are blessed, for now I shall live.” Yet he knew that he did not want to live, only his hunger raged fiercely within him and he could not stand against it. He took cinders and powdered them, and mixed them with river water, and made his body black, and so he set his back to the river and his face to the mountains and journeyed on.
Up and over the Backbone-of-the-World went Many Swans. Above the peaks of solitude hang the winds of all directions, and because there are a multitude of winds they can hold fire and turn it. Therefore Many Swans felt leaves once more about his face, and the place was kind to his eyes with laurels, and quaking aspens, and honeysuckle trees. All the bushes and flowers were talking, but it was not about Many Swans. The oaks boasted of their iron sinews: “Fire is a plaything, a ball to be tossed and flung away,” and they rustled their leaves and struck their roots farther into the moist soil. The red firs stirred at the challenge: “In Winter your leaves are dry,” they called to the oaks, “then the fire-bear can eat you. But our leaves are never dry. They are whips to sting the lips of all fires.” But the cedars and the pines said nothing, for they knew that nobody would believe them if they spoke.
Now when the hemlocks ran away from him, and the cold rocks glittered with snow, Many Swans knew that he stood at the Peak of the World, and again the longing for men came upon him. “I will descend into a new country,” he said. “I will be very careful not to swing the sacred implement, truly it kills people so that they have no time to escape.” He thought he could do it, he believed himself, and he knew no rest because of his quest for men.
There was no way to find, but Many Swans went down through the firs, and the yellow pines, and the maples, to a white plain which ran right, and left, and forward, with only a steep sky stopping it very far off; and the sun on the plain was like molten lead pressing him down and his tongue rattled with thirst. So he lifted himself against the weight of the sun and wished a great wish for men and went on with his desire sobbing in his heart.
To the North was sand, to the East was sand, to the West was sand, to the South was sand, and standing up out of the sand the great flutes of the cactus-trees beckoned him, and flung their flowers out to tempt him — their wax-white flowers, their magenta flowers, their golden-yellow flowers perking through a glass-glitter of spines; all along the ridges of the desert they called to him and he knew not which way to turn. He asked a humming-bird in a scarlet trumpet-flower, and the humming-bird answered: “Across the sunset to the Red Hills.” The sun rose and set three times, and again he knew not where to go, so he asked a gilded flicker who was clicking in a giant cactus. And the flicker told him: “Across the sunset to the Red Hills.” But when, after many days, he saw no hills, he thought “The birds deceived me,” and he asked a desert lily: “Where shall I find men?” And the lily opened her green-and-blue-veined blossom, and discovered the pure whiteness of her heart. “Across the desert to the Red Hills,” she told him, and he believed her, and, on the ninth morning after, he saw the hills, and they were heliotrope and salmon, and as the sun lifted, they were red, and when the sun was in the top of the sky, they were blood scarlet. Then Many Swans lay and slept, for he did not wish to reach the hills at nightfall lest the people should take him for an enemy and kill him.
* * *
In the morning, Many Swans got up and made haste forward to the hills, and soon he was among cornfields, and the rows of the cornfields were newly plowed and from them there came a sound of singing. Then Many Swans felt the fear come upon him because of the thing he loathed and yet carried, and he thought: “If it should kill these people!” The music of the song was so beautiful that he shed tears, but his fears overcame his longing, for already he loved these people who sang in cornfields at dawn. Many Swans hid in a tuft of mesquite bushes and listened, and the words the people were singing were these, but the tune was like a sun wind in the tree-of-green-sticks:
The white corn I am planting,
The white seed of the white corn.
The roots I am planting,
The leaves I am planting,
The ear of many seeds I am planting,
All in one white seed.
Be kind! Be kind!
The blue corn I am planting,
The blue ear of the good blue corn.
I am planting tall rows of corn.
The bluebirds will fly among my rows,
The blackbirds will fly up and down my rows,
The humming-birds will be there between my rows,
Between the rows of blue corn I am planting.
Beans I am planting.
The pod of the bean is in the seed.
I tie my beans with white lightning to bring the thunder,
The long thunder which herds the rain.
I plant beans.
Be kind! Be kind!
Squash-seeds I am planting
So that the ground may be striped with yellow,
Horizontal yellow of squash-flowers,
Horizontal white of squash-flowers,
Great squashes of all colours.
I tie the squash-plants with the rainbow
Which carries the sun on its back.
I am planting squash-seeds.
Be kind! Be kind!
Out of the South, rain will come whirling;
And from the North I shall see it standing and approaching.
I shall hear itdropping on my seeds,
Lapping along the stems of my plants,
Splashing from the high leaves,
Tumbling from the little leaves.
I hear it like a river, running — running —
Among my rows of white corn, running — running —
I hear it like a leaping spring among my blue corn rows,
I hear it foaming past the bean sprouts,
I hear water gurgling among my squashes.
Descend, great cloud-water,
Spout from the mouth of the lightning,
Fall down with the overturning thunder.
For the rainbow is the morning
When the sun shall raise us corn,
When the bees shall hum to the corn-blossom,
To the bean blossom,
To the straight, low blossoms of the squashes.
Hear me sing to the rain,
To the sun,
To the corn when I am planting it,
To the corn when I am gathering it,
To the squashes when I load them on my back.
I sing and the god people hear,
They are kind.
When the song was finished, Many Swans knew that he must not hurt this people. He swore, and even upon the sacred and terrible thing itself, to make them his safe keeping. Therefore when they returned up the trail to the Mesa, he wandered in the desert below among yellow rabbit-grass and grey iceplants, and visited the springs, and the shrines full of prayer-sticks, and his heart distracted him with love so that he could not stay still.
That night he heard an elf owl calling from a pinyon-tree, and he went to the owl and sought to know the name of this people who sang in the fields at dawn. The owl answered: “Do not disturb me, I am singing a love-song. Who are you that you do not know that this is the land of Tusayan.” And Many Swans considered in himself: “Truly I have come a long way.”
Four moons Many Swans abode on the plain, eating mesquite pods and old dried nopals, but he kept away from the Mesa lest the thing he had with him should be beyond his strength to hold.
* * *
Twixt this side, twixt that side,
Twixt rock-stones and sage-brush,
Twixt bushes and sand,
Go the snakes a smooth way,
Sliding faster than the flash of water on a bluebird’s wing.
Twixt corn and twixt cactus,
Twixt springside and barren,
Along a cold trail
Slip the snake-people.
Black-tip-tongued Garter Snakes,
Olive-blue Racer Snakes,
Whip Snakes and Rat Snakes,
Great orange Bull Snakes,
And the King of the Snakes,
With his high rings of scarlet,
His high rings of yellow,
His double high black rings,
Detesting his fellows,
The Killer of Rattlers.
Rattle — rattle — rattle —
Rattle — rattle — rattle —
Barred like tigers,
Soft as panthers.
Six feet long
With tails of snow-shine.
And most awful,
Rattlesnakes upon the desert
Coiling in a clump of greasewood,
Winding up the Mesa footpath.
Who dares meet them?
Who dares stroke them?
Who dares seize them?
Rattle — rattle — hiss-s-s!
They dare, the men of Tusayan. With their eagle-whips they stroke them. With their sharp bronze hands they seize them. Run — run — -up the Mesa path, dive into the kiva. The jars are ready, drop in the rattlers — Tigers, Diamonds, Sidewinders, drop in Bull Snakes, Whip Snakes, Garters, but hang the King Snake in a basket on the wall, he must not see all these Rattlesnakes, he would die of an apoplexy.
They have hunted them toward the four directions. Toward the yellow North, the blue West, the red South, the white East. Now they sit by the sand altar and smoke, chanting of the clouds and the four-coloured lightning-snakes who bring rain. They have made green prayer-sticks with black points and left them at the shrines to tell the snake people that their festival is here. Bang! Bang! Drums! And whirl the thunder-whizzers!
“Ho! Ho! Ho! Hear us!
Carry our words to your Mother.
We wash you clean, Snake Brothers.
We sing to you.
We shall dance for you.
Plead with your Mother
That she send the white and green rain,
That she look at us with the black eyes of the lightning,
So our corn-ears may be double and long,
So our melons may swell as thunder-clouds
In a ripe wind.
Strip our trees with blue-rain arrows.
Over the floor of the kiva squirm the snakes, fresh from washing. Twixt this side, twixt that side, twixt toes and twixt ankles, go the snakes a smooth way, and the priests coax them with their eagle-feather whips and turn them always backward. Rattle — rattle — rattle — snake-tails threshing a hot air. Whizz! Clatter! Clap! Clap! Corn-gourds shaking in hard hands. A band of light down the ladder, cutting upon a mad darkness.
Cottonwood kisi flickering in a breeze, little sprigs of cotton-leaves clapping hands at Hopi people, crowds of Hopi people waiting in the Plaza to see a monstrous thing. Houses make a shadow, desert is in sunshine, priests step out of kiva.
Antelope priests in front of the kisi, making slow leg-motions to a slow time. Turtle-shell knee-rattles spill a double rhythm, arms shake gourd-rattles, goat-toes; necklaces — turquoise and sea-shell — swing a round of clashing. Striped lightning antelopes waiting for the Snake Priests. Red-kilted Snake Priests facing them, going forward and back, coming back and over, waving the snake-whips, chanting a hundred ask-songs. Go on, go back — white — black — red blood-feather, white breath-feather, little cotton-leaf hands clap — clap — He is at the flap of the kisi, they have given him a spotted rattlesnake. Put him in the mouth, kiss the Snake Brother, fondle him with the tongue.
Tripping on a quick tune, they trot round the square. Rattle — rattle — goat-toes, turtle-shells, snake-tails. Hiss oily snake-mouths, drip wide priest-mouths over the snake-skins, wet slimy snake-skins. “Aye-ya-ha! Ay-ye-he! Ha-ha-wa-ha! Oway-ha!” The red snake-whips tremble and purr. Blur, Plaza, with running priests, with streaks of snake-bodies. The Rain-Mother’s children are being honoured. They must travel before the setting of the sun.
* * *
When the town was on a roar with dancing, Many Swans heard it far down in the plain, and he could not contain his hunger for his own kind. He felt very strong because the cool of sundown was spreading over the desert. He said, “I need fear nothing. My arms are grown tough in this place, my hands are hard as a sheep’s skull. I can surely control this thing,” and he set off up the path to ease his sight only, for he had sworn not to discover himself to the people. But when he turned the last point in the road, the thing in his hands shook, and said: “We shall strike that town.”
Many Swans was strong, he turned and ran down the Mesa, but, as he was running, a priest passed him carrying a handful of snakes home. As the priest went by him, the thing in Many Swan’s hand leapt up, and it was the King Snake. It was all ringed with red and yellow and black flames. It hissed, and looped, and darted its head at the priest and killed him. Now when the priest was dead, all the snakes he was holding burst up with a great noise and went every which way, twixt this side, twixt that side, twixt upwards, twixt downwards, twixt rock-stone and bunch-grass.
And they were little slipping flames of hot fire. They went up the hill in fourteen red and black strings, and they were the strings of blood and death. The snakes went up a swift, smooth way and Many Swans went up with them, for he was mad. He beat his hands together to make a drum, and shouted “Break! Break! Break! Break!” And he thought it was the priests above singing a new song.
Many Swans reached the town, but the fire-snakes were running down all the streets. They struck the people so that they died, and the bodies took fire and were consumed. The house windows were hung with snakes who were caught by their tails and swung down vomiting golden stars into the rain-gutters. In one of the gutters was a blue salvia plant, and, as Many Swans passed, it nodded and said “Alas! Alas!” It reminded Many Swans of the flax-flowers in the sky, and his senses came back to him and he tore his clothes and his hair and cried “Ka! Ka! Ka! Ka!” a great many times. Then he beat himself on the sharp rocks and tried to crush the thing he had, but he could not; he tried to split it, but it did not split.
Many Swans saw that he was alone in the world. He lifted his eyes to the thing and cursed it, then he ran to hurl himself over the cliff. Now a boulder curled into the path and, as he turned its edge, The-One-Who-Walks-All-Over-the-Sky stood before him. Her eyes were moons for sadness, and her voice was like the coiling of the sea. She said to him: “I tried to love you; I tried to be kind to your people; why do you cry? You wished for it.” She took it off him and left him.
Many Swans looked at the desert. He looked at the dead town. He wept.
Many years ago the head chief of the Multnomah people had a beautiful young daughter. She was especially dear to her father because he had lost all his sons in fighting, and he was now a old man. He chose her husband with great care, a young chief from his neighbors, the Clatsop people. To the wedding feast came many people from tribes along the lower Columbia and south of it.
The wedding feast was to last for several days. There were swimming races and canoe races on the river. There would be bow-and-arrow contests, horse racing, dancing, and feasting. The whole crowd was merry, for both the maiden and the young warrior were loved by their people.
But without warning the happiness changed to sorrow. A sickness came over the village. Children and young people were the first victims, then strong men became ill and died in only one day. The wailing of the women was heard throughout the Multnomah village and the camps of the guests.
“The Great Spirit is angry with us,” the people said to each other. The head chief called together his old men and his warriors for counsel and asked gravely,” What can we do to soften the Great Spirits wrath?”
Only silence followed his question. At last one of the old medicine men arose.” There is nothing we can do. If it is the will of the Great Spirit that we die, then we must meet our death like brave men. The Multnomah have ever been a brave people.”
The other members of the council nodded in agreement, all except one, the oldest medicine man. He had not attended the wedding feast and games, but he had come in from the mountains when he was called by the chief. He rose and, leaning on his stick, spoke to the council. His voice was low and feeble.
“I am a very old man, my friends, I have lived a long, long time. Now you will know why. I will tell you a secret my father told me. He was a great medicine man of the Multnomah, many summers and many snows in the past.
When he was an old man, he told me that when I became old, the Great Spirit would send a sickness upon our people. All would die, he said, unless a sacrifice was made to the Great Spirit. Some pure and innocent maiden of the tribe, the daughter of a chief, must willingly give her life for her people. Alone, she must go to a high cliff above Big River and throw herself upon the rocks below. If she does this, the sickness will leave us at once.”
Then the old man said,”I have finished, my fathers secret is told. Now I can die in peace.”
Not a word was spoken as the medicine man sat down. At last the chief lifted his head. “Let us call in all the maidens whose fathers or grandfathers have been headmen.”
Soon a dozen girls stood before him, among them his own loved daughter. The chief told them what the old medicine man had said. “I think his words are words of truth,” he added.
Then he turned to his medicine men and his warriors, “Tell our people to meet death bravely. No maiden shall be asked to sacrifice herself. The meeting has ended.”
The sickness stayed in the village, and many more people died. The daughter of the head chief sometimes wondered if she should be the one to give her life to the Great Spirit. But she loved the young warrior, she wanted to live.
A few days later she saw the sickness on the face of her lover. Now she knew what she must do. She cooled his hot face, cared for him tenderly, and left a bowl of water by his bedside. Then she slipped away alone, without a word to anyone.
All night and all the next day she followed the trail to the great river. At sunset she reached the edge of a cliff overlooking the water. She stood there in silence for a few moments, looking at the jagged rocks far below. Then she turned her face toward the sky and lifted up her arms. She spoke aloud to the Great Spirit.
“You are angry with my people. Will you make the sickness pass away if I give you my life? Only love and peace and purity are in my heart. If you will accept me as a sacrifice for my people, let some token hang in the sky. Let me know that my death will not be in vain and that the sickness will quickly pass.”
Just then she saw the moon coming up over the trees across the river. It was the token. She closed her eyes and jumped from the cliff.
Next morning, all the people who had expected to die that day arose from their beds well and strong. They were full of joy. Once more there was laughter in the village and in the camps of the guest.
Suddenly someone asked, “What caused the sickness to pass away? Did one of the maidens…?”
Once more the chief called the daughters and granddaughters of the headmen to come before him. This time one was missing.
The young Clatsop warrior hurried along the trail which leads to Big River. Other people followed. On the rocks below the high cliff they found the girl they all loved. There they buried her.
Then her father prayed to the Great Spirit, “Show us some token that my daughters spirit has been welcomed into the land of the spirits.”Almost at once they heard the sound of water above. All the people looked up to the cliff. A stream of water, silvery white, was coming over the edge of the rock. It broke into floating mist and then fell at their feet. The stream continued to float down in a high and beautiful waterfall.
For many summers the white water has dropped from the cliff into the pool below. Sometimes in winter the spirit of the brave and beautiful maiden comes back to see the waterfall. Dressed in white, she stands among the trees at one side of Multnomah Falls. There she looks upon the place where she made her great sacrifice and thus saved her lover and her people from death.
Grandmother was born on the threshold of a new age.
Assuming the role of a Father’s neglect
and a savior of a generation left with no shrine
So I build this altar of memory.
I remember her smell
Of prime rib and perfume-
Chasing me around with sinister dentures
And telling Skookum stories-
Scaring me from flesh
And finding my heart.
She dreamt and had visions
But kept them to herself-
Yet I could see them
In her eyes.
Her wrinkles ran like Gorges-
Where the tears would
And the struggle
Was her life
That she would
Rites of passage transformed
In cigarettes and Patsy Cline
And looking for love
In all the wrong places.
We are all children
I lay a feather on this altar
And hear the wind sing-
“Fall to pieces.”