Hi everybody. My apologies for the late post. I've been incredibly busy with a move, work, and with editing the final print version of The Age of Myths and Legends: Book One.
Still, I feel obliged to make it up to you guys with something special this month. Typically, I write a short excerpt from a story that I've either heard or have come across in my readings. But this month I thought that I would "tell" you a favorite story of mine from my childhood. My grandmother used to share Sainday stories with us when we were young. These stories are among my most cherished memories.
Sainday was the Kiowa Trickster and there are so many wonderful stories about him such as Sainday and The Coyote, Sainday and The Prairie Dogs, Sainday and The Soldier, Sainday and The Bobcat, Sainday and The Giant Meatball, etc. Most Sainday tales are humorous and I think that these stories serve as perfect examples of old school Native American humor.
I wish that I could capture the magic of my grandmother's voice when she told these tales but I can't. Still, I hope you enjoy this short Sainday story.
Sainday and The Horse That Didn't Look So Good
Last week I was fortunate enough to be interviewed by tribal radio hosts Gary Fife and Darren Delaune on their awesome program Muscogee Radio. During our one hour discussion we covered a lot of ground and we spoke a little bit about the importance and meaning behind some of the old Native American myths and legends. I mentioned that many of the old tales held special meaning in their telling and at times could provide valuable lessons to the listeners.
In the old days, stories were sometimes used to correct some untoward behavior that a tribal member might be engaged in. Instead of directly confronting the wrong-doer and embarrassing them in front of the entire community, tribal elders might instead gather a large group of people (including the offending party) and impart valuable lessons while telling their stories. The old Lakota story of The Mouse Sisters is one such tale that will no doubt impart wisdom to those who procrastinate (myself included) and those who somehow never find the time to do the important and sometimes boring tasks that need to be finished in a timely fashion.
The Two Mouse Sisters
Once there were two mice sisters, an elder mouse and a younger mouse. The elder sister was both wise and fastidious. She often spent her time engaged in those activities that proved both practical and beneficial in the long run. Now the younger sister was a carefree soul who often spent her time in leisure or in play. She rarely spent any time at all on the important things in life.
As Spring gave way to Summer, the elder mouse sister knew that all snakes would begin to cast off their old skins. She left her burrow and spent most of the day gathering many fine snake skins. She then used these skins as bags and she began to fill them with acorns, seeds, pecans, and wild corn.
But the younger mouse sister spent her time singing and dancing with her friends. She spent no time at all gathering stores for the winter.
At last the days began to grow shorter and the morning air cooler. The once emerald leaves began to turn bright yellow and fiery red. Only then did the younger mouse sister realize that she did not have food stored away for the winter. She frantically went to her elder sister and said, "Sister, I have no stores for the winter as I had no snake skins with which to gather goods. Will you not share your food with me?"
The elder mouse sister replied, "Sister, what were you doing when the snakes shed their skins?"
The younger mouse sister answered quietly, "I was singing and dancing in the wide fields."
"Well", said the elder mouse, "It seems that you made poor use of your time."
The elder sister then gave her younger sister an empty snake skin and said, "Here is your very own snake skin. You had better get to work on finding you own food for the winter."
For the past three weeks I've had several people message me on Facebook to learn more about the Little People of Native American folklore and mythology. I've also had quite a few people ask to read excerpts from my new book The Age of Myths and Legends as well. Today I kill two birds with one stone by including a small excerpt of Chapter 3. in this month's Fireside Chat.
Hope you guys enjoy.
Chapter three: Masters of Wood & Water
“For know by lot from Jove I am the power
Of this fair wood and live in oaken bower,
To nurse the saplings tall, and curl the grove
With ringlets quaint and wanton windings wove;
And all my plants I save from nightly ill
Of noisome winds and Blasting vapors chill;”
-Arcades - John Milton
According to the old tales, a race of mysterious yet powerful spirits once haunted the windswept plains, lonely forest and snow enshrouded peaks. These beings were akin to the mighty race of giants in that they too were living, breathing embodiments of the Earth’s power. But where the Giants came to embody all that was chaotic and destructive in Nature’s Mosaic, these little beings came to represent the constructive purpose and order of the very Earth itself.
The Little People, as their name implies, were small, diminutive beings who varied in height from six inches to three feet. Many tales describe them as being perfectly formed men and women with long, silky black hair and possessed of a cold, unearthly beauty. Like their giant brethren, these beings were old; old enough to remember the birth of the Earth itself.
Because of this intimacy with the world, all of the Earth’s secrets were laid bare to them. They knew the tongues of all living things whether they be bird, beast, tree or man. They were also great wonderworkers, able to cast enchanting illusion or horrifying nightmares. At times they were able to walk unclad and unseen to mortal eyes or they were able to change their shape and form into that of an animal. Their potent songs of power and enchantment were without equal, differing greatly from the songs of the Wise. The hierophant, through years of discipline, learned to attune himself to Nature and was thus able to hear and mimic the distant song of the Earth. In essence, the medicine-person derived his or her strength and power from the natural world. However, the power of the Little People was rooted in the essence of their very beings rather than extracted from the Earth. Besides, if mortal men could vaguely hear the Earth’s distant chant, the Little People could, without a medium, speak directly to the Earth itself. For this reason, North American tribes honored and respected the Little People and at times made offerings and effigies to placate these mighty beings.
The Little People were known by many names across the vast North American continent. To the Quinault, they were known as Stick Indians. The overall character of these Stick Indians could be described as ambiguous at best. While not particularly evil, these Little People did enjoy playing
mean-spirited pranks upon solitary hunters. At times these Little People could be so bothersome that it became common practice for hunters and fishermen to leave shiny objects while in their domain as the Little People were fascinated and mesmerized by sparkling objects.
To the Kickapoo, the Little People served as protectors to sacred places and to the very young. They were also enforcers of cultural taboos and morals. These powerful beings were called the Muchee-Muna-Toe, and so respected were these Little People that it was taboo even to speak of them except during the winter months.
The Comanche knew the Little People by the name Nuna-Pee. It was said that on certain moonlit nights that the drums of these Little People could be heard echoing in the distant hills. But it was perilous to seek the Nuna-Pee out because they possessed invisible arrows capable of killing any mortal that trespassed too near their abode.
The Northern Ute named their Little People Mookich. These shy spirits lived in cliff dwellings well off the beaten path. Hunters were wise to leave offerings of tobacco, coins, small pieces of rope, or food whenever traveling through the Mookich domain. To do so ensured that these Little People would not be so inclined to harass the hunters or cause mischief around the camp.
Ponca and Omaha tales speak of the Gada’zhe and Ni’Kashinga Man’tanaha, the Wild Ones. These dangerous Little People were able to injure mortals internally without even piercing the flesh or spilling blood. They also had the disturbing habit of kidnapping young children.
Among the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy existed tales of the mighty Jogah. These Little People were the protective spirits of nature who kept the natural order of the world in total balance. Without them, it was believed all life on the Earth would die. These nature spirits were divided into three groups, the Gandayak, the Ohdowas, and the Gahongas. The Gandayak held all forest and rivers under their protection. The Ohdowas lived underground and held almost all poisonous creatures and monsters in check, while the Gahongas warded the mountains and hills.
The Canotila or Tree Dwellers were a solitary Little People who were both feared and honored by both the Lakota and Dakota peoples. These powerful beings served as messengers between the world of the living and the world of spirits. However, some of the Canotila enjoyed causing sickness and injury to humans, usually solitary hunters or fishermen. The Sioux dreaded even to see this creature, for doing so meant that a close relative would soon die.
The Creek tribe called the Little People I’sti Lupu’ski and often times had to employ the services of powerful medicine-men to counteract these Little Peoples’ dangerous magic. Adept shape-shifters, it was not unheard of for hunters to be lead astray deep into the dim forest by the wily I’sti Lupu’ski. On a darker note, they were also known to cause madness in even the hale and strong.
The Miwok feared the volatile nature spirit Nenakatu, who had not only power over the waters but also had the ability to mesmerize her victims. This powerful being sometimes wore the appearance of a small, wizened woman with long black hair that swept the ground. Like the Canotila of Sioux lore, to even see the Nenakatu was an omen of ill portent.
The Catawba people of South Carolina avoided certain vales and deep forests because they were the known haunts of the Yehasu'rie, the Wild People. These mysterious Little People lived deep underground and subsisted on turtles, roots, tadpoles, and acorns. Private beings, the Wild People shunned mortals unless they were on raids to steal items from tribal campgrounds such as knives, whetstones, jewelry, or feathers. However, should a man or woman accidentally stumble into their domain, then would the Yehasu'rie make their presence abundantly known. Out of spite, these creatures would tangle a horse’s hair, kidnap children, and frighten hunters with their discerning child-like cries. They also possessed magically charged arrows that could maim or kill their intended victims without the victim even realizing the damage until it was too late.
It is important to note that not all groups of Little People were so perilous to mankind. Some groups of Little People were simply watchful and uneasy when in the company of mortals. One such group was the May-may-gway-shi of Algonquin folklore. These small hairy beings were believed to have carved the ancient petroglyphs among the various caves and cliffs in the regions of the north. The May-may-gway-shi were also known for their love of fish. In that long ago age it was not so uncommon to see small canals dug along the river banks that teemed with life. These canals were supposedly the workings of the May-may-gway-shi, which they used to stock with their favorite fish. At other times, when they were in need and bold enough, they would make stealthy incursions into tribal camps to steal from the fishermen’s nets. Easily frightened, the May-may-gway-shi could travel at tremendous speeds either on foot or in their small stone canoes. Upon entering a stony outcrop or cliff, they would enter the rock face and vanish.
About two years ago I went to the Anadarko Public Library (in Anadarko, Oklahoma) to see if I could find any books about the Star Priesthood of the Pawnee. I didn't find anything useful but on my way out I saw a pile of old dusty books that the library was giving away. In this pile I found a really cool book filled with articles from The Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology. In this book there were legends from the Zia, the Tsimshian, and the Iroquios Confederacy.
The Haudenosaunee tale of The Old Beggar and the Giant was a really interesting story that I came across in this book. Unfortunately I wasn't able to place this story in my own written work as I had already created the chapter formats and I was more than three quarters of the way finished with my manuscript. I had also decided to include only two stories per chapter. Adding this tale to the chapter about giants would have totally thrown off the balance of the entire book. Still I had a hard time leaving this tale out so I decided to share this story with you guys here.
The Old Beggar and the giant
Once, in the days of the grandfathers, there lived an ancient beggar who dwelt near the outskirts of a large Cayuga village. This old man always carried a large leather bag over his shoulder which contained his few earthly belongings. Fortunately for the old beggar, most of the villagers were kind enough to gift the old man with their castoffs so he wanted for very little.
One day the old beggar decided that he needed many shoes so he traveled from house to house and asked the villagers if they could spare any old moccasins. What the old beggar had planned for the moccasins none could fathom, for many of the moccasins were worn down. Some moccasins even sported large, gaping holes and broken seams. Still the old man collected many and soon his leather bag was filled to the top with the worn down shoes.
The old beggar then left the Cayuga village and traveled west deep into the forest. After walking for some time he grew tired and decided to rest for a bit. As the old man sat on a fallen tree he felt the ground rumble beneath him. Startled birds burst from the underbrush and woodland animals took to the high tree tops. The stench of death and decay filled the air. The old beggar knew what was coming but he patiently waited.
Out of the shadows stepped forth a mighty giant girded for war. His face and body were painted red and in each hand he wielded fell weapons. With a voice that rumbled like thunder the giant roared, "Old man, do you know the way to the Cayuga village?"
The old man carefully answered, "Why yes, I do know the way to the Cayuga village. Why do you wish to go there?"
The brawny giant laughed, "I go so that I might destroy this village and all its inhabitants."
"Oh my", replied the old beggar, "I feel sorry for them, for there is no way that they could hope to overcome your formidable might."
Now the old beggar knew that as powerful as giants were, they were none too bright and the old man hatched a plan on the spot.
"Just so you know," continued the old man, "The Cayuga village is many leagues away. I know this because I left this village many months ago. Look at how many moccasins I have gone through on my way from that place."
With that the old man emptied his sack of worn moccasins at the giant's feet.
The giant looked down at the mocassins with a furrowed brow. While he had truly intended to wreak as much havok and bloodshed upon the Cayuga as he possibly could, the giant was far too lazy to make such a long trek.
The giant slumped his shoulders in defeat. He then thanked the old beggar for saving him the trouble of making such a long journey and he departed to parts unknown.
The old beggar returned to the Cayuga village and lived out the rest of his days in peace.
A few years ago I was invited to Grand Ronde, Oregon for a speaking engagement with Chance Rush and his organization Cloud Boy Consulting. I had never been to that part of Oregon before and I was totally enchanted by the beauty of the countryside and the people. But I was even more impressed with the organization of the Grand Ronde tribe itself. I had never seen a tribal executive committee govern their tribe like a Fortune 500 company.
Like a handful of tribes, they owned a successful casino. But the casino wasn't the end all be all for the tribe. They used portions of their casino money to invest in the infrastructure of the town. (At that time they were busy with several road construction projects.) And instead of giving tribal members a monetary per cap, the tribe instead created college endowments. When a tribal member reached 18 years of age they had the opportunity to attend the college of their own choice. The tribe also had their own tribal college and were able to support tribal members with continuing adult education programs and vocational training. They even had an after school center for their tribal youth complete with several computers and an after school tutor. As I walked around the Grand Ronde tribal headquarters I felt a mixture of pride and maybe a little bit of jealousy.
I spent a decent amount of time in the Grand Ronde tribal library when I was free. The tribal library was easily on par with some of the public libraries that I've visited in the past. The librarians were always nice and they pointed me in the direction of some old books on tribal lore and mythology. It was here that I came across a book published in 1907 that contained several stories from the tribes of central California. There was a short story from the Tachi Yokuts that I liked called The Deer and the Antelope Race.
The deer & antelope race
In olden days the antelope and the deer once walked the wide grasslands together. But in time they began to contend against each other in all things. Eventually the antelope said: "I bet that I can beat you in a race." The deer laughed, "I think not." The antelope responded, "Let us see then." The deer replied,
"Fine, we shall run for six days straight," and the antelope agreed. The deer said, "We will go south and run to the north."
The two then traveled together far to the south even crossing the great western ocean in order to run northward to the ends of the Earth. The antelope said, "This will be my path on the west. You will take the path on the east." The deer agreed. Their path was the milky way. On the side where the antelope was set to run was a wide clear path; on the other side where the deer was set to run was a narrow path fraught with dark patches of nothingness. Too late did the deer realize that he would have to jump over these patches of darkness in order to win the race. The antelope said, "If I win this race, all of the wide open fields will be my country and you will have to abide in the brush." The deer confidently replied, "So be it, and if I win it will be the same for me." The two contestants then raced to the north for six days straight. For five days the Deer and the Antelope were even but on the six and final day the Deer grew weary from all of the leaping and the Antelope won the race.
So now he has the plains to live in, but the deer abides in the brush.
In many of the ancient myths and legends from the West (Rome, Greece, etc.), the main protagonists of the myths are often presented with a daunting task. These protagonists are then forced to travel deep into the underworld or to some other magical realm in order to seek out a boon or gift. This gift can be almost anything. Sometimes the gift is special wisdom or knowledge. At other times this gift can take on the form of magical abilities or powerful weapons. But perhaps the greatest of boons to be attained was the gift of self discovery. The heroes then return home to remedy the adversity and live happily ever after. If you've ever read Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces you will immediately recognize this particular narrative formula.
However most Native American myths and legends don't fall so neatly into Campbell's work of comparative mythology. In my opinion, Indigenous myths do not mesh so well with myths from the West because they do not follow the traditional Three-act structure. So many Indigenous tales have no true beginning, middle, or end. The Kiowa trickster Sain-Day for example has always existed and there is no true chronological order to the many tales about him. He is always "Coming Along 1".
Some of the earliest of Native American tales present themselves as dreams. These particular stories always possess a certain esoteric quality to them and it was very hard for non-tribal members to categorize them. However, that didn't stop most 18th and 19th century Ethnologist from trying to classify and catalog these ancient myths of North America. Their efforts resulted in rather dry, unimaginative interpretations that were ultimately dismissed as mere explanations of natural phenomena. At other times these same Ethnologist often wrote that these old stories were created as a form of entertainment.
While the stories like Sain-Day and the Prairie Dogs are comical they weren't created solely for the purpose of entertainment. Instead these stories were meant to teach lessons much like biblical parables. The stories were also created to ensure that tribal members adhered to the social mores and honor codes of the tribe itself. Most importantly though these stories also served to connect members to the past in ways that are hard to express sometimes.
I always think of my grandmother whenever I come across a Sain-Day story in my readings. She told me many of these tales when I was very young. My grandmother in turn remembered hearing these stories from her own grandmother Thot-Sau-Nah when she was young. Her grandmother also learned these tales as a child. So when I hear or read a story that I've known as a child I can sometimes feel that deep connection to my people stretching all the way back into the ether. And to me that is the true meaning and purpose of storytelling, connection. If the "drum" is the heartbeat of the American Indian then the "story" is the blood flow that courses through the American Indian's veins.
1. All true Sain-Day stories always begin with "One day Sain-Day was coming along."
I once had the opportunity to travel to Macy Nebraska, way back in 2005, for a speaking engagement and basketball exhibition. Councilmember and native basketball legend Barry Webster brought us in and it was a wonderful experience. I believe that our group's message of staying drug and alcohol free reached many of the students that filled the basketball gymnasium that day. But for me the highlight of that entire trip was sitting down and speaking with a few of the Omaha tribal elders who were also in attendance.
In the high school cafeteria an older gentleman told me a great story about pride and arrogance. Why he shared this particular story with me? I don't know, maybe I came off as a little arrogant on the basketball court. But the story struck home and its one that I wish that I had recorded. Sometimes the written word can surpass the spoken, except when those words are spoken by a tribal elder.
How the Wren Became Chief of the Birds
Once in olden days, the mighty birds of the land held a great council to decide whom amongst their number would be their chief.
Humming bird with his shimmering coat of green and ruby was there. He dazzled all with his blinding speed as he darted to and fro. But he tired quickly and was deemed far too small to ever be the leader of the avian clans.
Crane was there with his shiny coat of white feathers. He amazed the gathering with his great stamina and superb fishing skills. But in the end he was deemed not fierce enough to lead the great host of birds.
Horned Owl was there with his mysterious, luminous eyes. He impressed the great gathering with his fierce hunting skills and ability to see even into the blackest of nights. But the bright sun made his head hurt and most of the other birds feared his sinister reputation. He was deemed unworthy to lead the bird nation.
Eagle was there with his sharp eyes and majestic bearing. He impressed the great council with his ferocity and impressive hunting skills. He stunned the gathering with his great speed and powerful wings. Almost all in attendance believed that he should be the leader of the great bird clans.
However Wren, with his dull colored coat of feathers and small stature, spoke in objection. He suggested a contest to determine who should be the leader of the great bird nations. Eventually it was decided that the bird who could fly the highest above the clouds would be elected as the chief of the avian race. Eagle laughed at Wren for his temerity and unmitigated gall. Of all the birds in attendance only Hawk could compete with Eagle in this particular contest. What hope did Wren have?
The next day the bird council sat on a great cedar tree and prepared themselves for the contest. Eagle and Hawk eyed each other warily and most of the other competitors believed that it was a forgone conclusion as to who the winner would be. None noticed the little Wren quietly hide in the Eagle's thick feathers.
At last all of the contestants were ready. With a loud scream from Screech Owl the contest began. The great host of birds rose up as a great black cloud. The mighty gathering flew higher and higher until at last the ephemeral clouds were within sight. Hummingbird grew tired and could go no further so he returned to the earth. Next Sparrow grew fatigued and he withdrew from the contest. Cardinal and Robbin also grew weary and had to return the ground below.
The remaining host reached the misty clouds. But once there Crane and Stork grew extremely tired and decided to return to the earth below. Soon after, Horned Owl and Sea Gull both withdrew from the contest as neither could fly any further. In the end it became a contest of wills between Eagle and Hawk. Both struggled to fly higher and higher above the clouds yet they continued upward. The air grew very cold and soon the stars could be seen twinkling in the darkening sky above. At last hawk could go no further and he slowly circled back down to the earth. With a triumphant cry Eagle proclaimed himself the winner. Just then Wren burst free from beneath Eagle's feathers. Wren flew high above the clouds and Eagle vainly tried to catch up with the audacious small bird. But Eagle was totally spent and he at last made his way back to earth.
The other birds were surprised to see Eagle return so reticent and angry and they could not understand his distress. It was then that they noticed that Wren was not among their number. They looked up amongst the clouds and saw a tiny speck making its way back down to the earth. In shock the gathering realized that it was the little Wren.
For his cleverness Wren was elected as the leader of the bird nation. And that is how Wren became chief of the birds.
What Reviewers are saying...
"The Age of Myths and Legends will take you on an exciting journey through Native American folklore. T.D. Hill artfully draws together characters from many indigenous traditions including his own, exposing both the uniqueness of each story and the commonalities across them. Hill’s beautiful paintings also give these fearsome creatures full visual effect. A valuable and thorough collection of the earliest folktales and teachings of Native American elders."
"Hill takes you on a mesmerizing journey through the tales of monsters and evil beings in Native American folklore. The similarities among the tales across peoples fascinated me and gave me goose bumps, especially when great distances separated the peoples! Hill's art masterfully adds a visual chill to the image his words paint, eliciting an extra shiver of delighted terror."
"Perfect for those who love mythology, and especially mythology of the First Americans. I’m definitely looking forward to the next in the series."