The Beaver Medicine, by George Bird Grinnell
This story goes back many years, to a time before the Indians went to war
against each other. Then there was peace among all the tribes. They met,
and did not kill each other. They had no guns and they had no horses. When
two tribes met, the head chiefs would take each a stick and touch each
other. Each had counted a coup on the other, and they then went back to
their camps. It was more a friendly than a hostile ceremony.
Oftentimes, when a party of young men had gone to a strange camp, and had
done this to those whom they had visited, they would come back to their
homes and would tell the girls whom they loved that they had counted a
coup on this certain tribe of people. After the return of such a party,
the young women would have a dance. Each one would wear clothing like that
of the man she loved, and as she danced, she would count a coup, saying
that she herself had done the deed which her young lover had really done.
Such was the custom of the people.
There was a chief in a camp who had three wives, all very pretty women. He
used to say to these women, whenever a dance was called: "Why do not you go
out and dance too? Perhaps you have some one in the camp that you love, and
for whom you would like to count a coup" Then the women would say, "No,
we do not wish to join the dance; we have no lovers."
There was in the camp a poor young man, whose name was Įpi-kunni. He had no
relations, and no one to tan robes or furs for him, and he was always badly
clad and in rags. Whenever he got some clothing, he wore it as long as it
would hold together. This young man loved the youngest wife of the chief,
and she loved him. But her parents were not rich, and they could not give
her to Įpi-k[)u]nni, and when the chief wanted her for a wife, they gave
her to him. Sometimes Įpi-k[)u]nni and this girl used to meet and talk
together, and he used to caution her, saying, "Now be careful that you do
not tell any one that you see me." She would say, "No, there is no danger;
I will not let it be known."
One evening, a dance was called for the young women to dance, and the chief
said to his wives: "Now, women, you had better go to this dance. If any of
you have persons whom you love, you might as well go and dance for them."
Two of them said: "No, we will not go. There is no one that we love." But
the third said, "Well, I think I will go and dance." The chief said to her,
"Well, go then; your lover will surely dress you up for the dance."
The girl went to where Įpi-k[)u]nni as living in an old woman's lodge, very
poorly furnished, and told him what she was going to do, and asked him to
dress her for the dance. He said to her: "Oh, you have wronged me by coming
here, and by going to the dance. I told you to keep it a secret." The girl
said: "Well, never mind; no one will know your dress. Fix me up, and I will
go and join the dance anyway." "Why," said Api-k[)u]nni, "I never have been
to war. I have never counted any coups. You will go and dance and will
have nothing to say. The people will laugh at you." But when he found that
the girl wanted to go, he painted her forehead with red clay, and tied a
goose skin, which he had, about her head, and lent her his badly tanned
robe, which in spots was hard like a parfleche. He said to her, "If you
will go to the dance, say, when it comes your turn to speak, that when the
water in the creeks gets warm, you are going to war, and are going to count
a coup on some people."
The woman went to the dance, and joined in it. All the people were laughing
at her on account of her strange dress,a goose skin around her head, and
a badly tanned robe about her. The people in the dance asked her: "Well,
what are you dancing for? What can you tell?" The woman said, "I am dancing
here to-day, and when the water in the streams gets warm next spring, I am
going to war; and then I will tell you what I have done to any people." The
chief was standing present, and when he learned who it was that his young
wife loved, he was much ashamed and went to his lodge.
When the dance was over, this young woman went to the lodge of the poor
young man to give back his dress to him. Now, while she had been gone,
Įpi-k[)u]nni had been thinking over all these things, and he was very much
ashamed. He took his robe and his goose skin and went away. He was so
ashamed that he went away at once, travelling off over the prairie, not
caring where he went, and crying all the time. As he wandered away, he came
to a lake, and at the foot of this lake was a beaver dam, and by the dam a
beaver house. He walked out on the dam and on to the beaver house. There he
stopped and sat down, and in his shame cried the rest of the day, and at
last he fell asleep on the beaver house.
While he slept, he dreamed that a beaver came to hima very large
beaverand said: "My poor young man, come into my house. I pity you, and
will give you something that will help you." So Įpi-k[)u]nni got up, and
followed the beaver into the house. When he was in the house, he awoke, and
saw sitting opposite him a large white beaver, almost as big as a man. He
thought to himself, "This must be the chief of all the beavers, white
because very old." The beaver was singing a song. It was a very strange
song, and he sang it a long time. Then he said to Įpi-k[)u]nni, "My son,
why are you mourning?" and the young man told him everything that had
happened, and how he had been shamed. Then the beaver said: "My son, stay
here this winter with me. I will provide for you. When the time comes, and
you have learned our songs and our ways, I will let you go. For a time make
this your home." So Įpi-k)u]nni stayed there with the beaver, and the
beaver taught him many strange things. All this happened in the fall.
Now the chief in the camp missed this poor young man, and he asked the
people where he had gone. No one knew. They said that the last that had
been seen of him he was travelling toward the lake where the beaver dam
Įpi-k[)u]nni had a friend, another poor young man named Wolf Tail, and
after a while, Wolf Tail started out to look for his friend. He went toward
this lake, looking everywhere, and calling out his name. When he came to
the beaver house, he kicked on the top and called, "Oh, my brother, are you
here?" Įpi-k[)u]nni answered him, and said: "Yes, I am here. I was brought
in while I was asleep, and I cannot give you the secret of the door, for I
do not know it myself." Wolf Tail said to him, "Brother, when the weather
gets warm a party is going to start from camp to war." Įpi-k[)u]nni said:
"Go home and try to get together all the moccasins you can, but do not tell
them that I am here. I am ashamed to go back to the camp. When the party
starts, come this way and bring me the moccasins, and we two will start
from here." He also said: "I am very thin. The beaver food here does not
agree with me. We are living on the bark of willows." Wolf Tail went back
to the camp and gathered together all the moccasins that he could, as he
had been asked to do.
When the spring came, and the grass began to start, the war party set
out. At this time the beaver talked to Įpikunni a long time, and told him
many things. He dived down into the water, and brought up a long stick of
aspen wood, cut off from it a piece as long as a man's arm, trimmed the
twigs off it, and gave it to the young man. "Keep this," the beaver said,
"and when you go to war take it with you." The beaver also gave him a
little sack of medicine, and told him what he must do.
When the party started out, Wolf Tail came to the beaver house, bringing
the moccasins, and his friend came out of the house. They started in the
direction the party had taken and travelled with them, but off to one
side. When they stopped at night, the two young men camped by themselves.
They travelled for many days, until they came to Bow River, and found that
it was very high. On the other side of the river, they saw the lodges of a
camp. In this camp a man was making a speech, and Api-k[)u]nni said to his
friend, "Oh, my brother, I am going to kill that man to-day, so that my
sweetheart may count coup on him." These two were at a little distance
from the main party, above them on the river. The people in the camp had
seen the Blackfeet, and some had come down to the river. When Api-kunni had
said this to Wolf Tail, he took his clothes off and began to sing the song
the beaver had taught him. This was the song:
I am like an island,
For on an island I got my power.
In battle I live
While people fall away from me.
While he sang this, he had in his hand the stick which the beaver had given
him. This was his only weapon.
He ran to the bank, jumped in and dived, and came up in the middle of the
river, and started to swim across. The rest of the Blackfeet saw one of
their number swimming across the river, and they said to each other: "Who
is that? Why did not some one stop him?" While he was swimming across, the
man who had been making the speech saw him and went down to meet him. He
said: "Who can this man be, swimming across the river? He is a stranger. I
will go down and meet him, and kill him." As the boy was getting close to
the shore, the man waded out in the stream up to his waist, and raised his
knife to stab the swimmer. When Įpi-k[)u]nni got near him, he dived under
the water and came up close to the man, and thrust the beaver stick through
his body, and the man fell down in the water and died. Įpi-k[)u]nni caught
the body, and dived under the water with it, and came up on the other side
where he had left his friend. Then all the Blackfeet set up the war whoop,
for they were glad, and they could hear a great crying in the camp. The
people there were sorry for the man who was killed.
People in those days never killed one another, and this was the first man
ever killed in war.
They dragged the man up on the bank, and Įpi-k[)u]nni said to his brother,
"Cut off those long hairs on the head." The young man did as he was
told. He scalped him and counted coup on him; and from that time forth,
people, when they went to war, killed one another and scalped the dead
enemy, as this poor young man had done. Two others of the main party came
to the place, and counted coup on the dead body, making four who had
counted coup. From there, the whole party turned about and went back to
the village whence they had come.
When they came in sight of the lodges, they sat down in a row facing the
camp. The man who had killed the enemy was sitting far in front of the
others. Behind him sat his friend, and behind Wolf Tail, sat the two who
had counted coup on the body. So these four were strung out in front of
the others. The chief of the camp was told that some people were sitting on
a hill near by, and when he had gone out and looked, he said: "There is
some one sitting way in front. Let somebody go out and see about it." A
young man ran out to where he could see, and when he had looked, he ran
back and said to the chief, "Why, that man in front is the poor young man."
The old chief looked around, and said: "Where is that young woman, my wife?
Go and find her." They went to look for her, and found her out gathering
rosebuds, for while the young man whom she loved was away, she used to go
out and gather rosebuds and dry them for him. When they found her, she had
her bosom full of them. When she came to the lodge, the chief said to her:
"There is the man you love, who has come. Go and meet him." She made ready
quickly and ran out and met him. He said: "Give her that hair of the dead
man. Here is his knife. There is the coat he had on, when I killed
him. Take these things back to the camp, and tell the people who made fun
of you that this is what you promised them at the time of that dance."
The whole party then got up and walked to the camp. The woman took the
scalp, knife and coat to the lodge, and gave them to her husband. The chief
invited Įpi-kūnni to come to his lodge to visit him. He said: "I see that
you have been to war, and that you have done more than any of us have ever
done. This is a reason why you should be a chief. Now take my lodge and
this woman, and live here. Take my place and rule these people. My two
wives will be your servants." When Įpi-kūnni heard this, and saw the young
woman sitting there in the lodge, he could not speak. Something seemed to
rise up in his throat and choke him.
So this young man lived in the camp and was known as their chief.
After a time, he called his people together in council and told them of the
strange things the beaver had taught him, and the power that the beaver had
given him. He said: "This will be a benefit to us while we are a people
now, and afterward it will be handed down to our children, and if we follow
the words of the beaver we will be lucky. This seed the beaver gave me, and
told me to plant it every year. When we ask help from the beaver, we will
smoke this plant."
This plant was the Indian tobacco, and it is from the beaver that the
Blackfeet got it. Many strange things were taught this man by the beaver,
which were handed down and are followed till to-day.