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Flying with the Eagle, Racing the Great Bear
Tales from Native North America
By Joseph Bruchac
Fulcrum PublishingCopyright © 2011 Joseph Bruchac
All rights reserved.
One of the most common rites of passage found throughout most of Native North America is the vision quest. It is known among the Lakota of the western plains as hanblecheyapi, which translates into English as "crying for a vision."
This practice, however, is not limited to the Native American people of the West. As we see in the Anishinabe story "The Dream Fast," it is also present among the peoples of the northeastern woodlands. Many Native people still believe that special guidance is available from the forces of nature and that by fasting and praying in an isolated place, the spiritual senses are sharpened. Animals may come and offer themselves as guides, and a boy may, indeed, find himself flying with the eagle — as we see later on in the book.
The experience a boy has on his first vision quest often shapes the rest of his life. There are many different ways of seeking a vision, but most of them involved going to a place removed from other human beings and remaining there without food for as long as several days.
The ordeal is also a part of the experience. Going out without the protection of parents, symbolically orphaned as in the story of "White Weasel," is a common theme in these tales. When a boy does this, he may encounter dangerous, even malevolent, forces. The stories tell us he may overcome adversity by making use of the good teachings given to him by his elders.
Such recurring themes mirror or sharpen the experiences expected in "real life." Sooner or later, each of us must be like Swift Runner in the Iroquois story "Racing the Great Bear" and challenge our own monsters, with our survival in the balance. These stories tell us that if we have listened well to our elders, we can rely upon ourselves when the need arises.
Finally, "Granny Squannit and the Bad Young Man" remains one of my favorite tales in this section. It is not only a rite-of-passage story, but also a good example of the way Native children are disciplined. Beating children or even shouting loudly at them is avoided by Native American parents. Instead, telling lesson stories and speaking calmly and clearly to children to try to lead them in the right direction are common practices. As a last resort, a parent might threaten an unruly child with monsters that prey only upon disobedient children.
Native youngsters are encouraged to refer to elders, whether they are human, animal, or a force of nature, as "Grandmother" or "Grandfather." As a combination of elder and fearful being, Granny Squannit is called upon to help teach a particularly bad boy the proper way to behave.
The Dream Fast
Long ago, as it still is today, it was the custom for a boy who reached a certain age to go into the forest and wait for a dream. He would build a small lodge and go without food for many days, in the hope he would be visited by some animal or spirit of the forest that would take pity on him and give guidance and power.
There was a boy named Opichi who reached that age. Opichi's father was very respected in the village, and he was determined that his son would be given a dream of such power that no one else could compare with him. So eager was the father for his son to get power that he insisted the boy go on his dream fast before the last snow left the ground, even though most boys would wait until the time when the ground was warm and the leaves returned to the trees.
"My son is strong," said the father. "He will go now. He will gain greater strength from the cold."
Opichi was a boy who always wished to please his parents, and so he did as his father said. They went together into the forest, and the father selected a spot on top of a small hill. There Opichi made a small lean-to of saplings, covering it with hemlock boughs. He sat beneath it on the bare ground with a thin piece of deerskin wrapped about his shoulders.
"I will return each day at dawn," the father said. "You will tell me then what you have seen."
That night the north wind, the icy breath of the Great Bear, blew cold. Opichi's mother was concerned, but the father did not worry. "My son is strong," he said. "This cold wind will make his vision a better one."
When the morning came, he went to the lean-to and shook the poles.
"My son," he said, "tell me what you have seen."
Opichi crawled out and looked up at his father. "Father," the boy said, "a deer came to the lodge and spoke to me."
"That is good," said his father. "But you must continue to fast. Surely a greater vision will come to you."
"I will continue to watch and wait," Opichi said.
Opichi's father left his son and went back to his lodge. That night a light snow fell. "I am worried about our son," said Opichi's mother.
"Do not worry," said the father. "The snow will only make whatever dream comes to him more powerful."
When morning came, the father went into the forest again, climbed the hill, and shook the poles, calling his son out.
"Father," Opichi said as he emerged, shaking from the cold, "last night a beaver came to me. It taught me a song."
"That is good," said the father. "You are doing well. You will gain ever more power if you stay longer."
"I will watch and wait," said the boy.
So it went for four more days. Each morning his father asked Opichi what he had seen. Each time the boy told of his experiences from the night before. Now hawk and wolf, bear and eagle had visited the boy. Each day Opichi looked thinner and weaker, but he agreed to stay and wait for an ever-greater vision to please his father.
At last, on the morning of the seventh day, Opichi's mother spoke to her husband. "Our son has waited long enough in the forest. I will go with you this morning, and we will bring him home."
Opichi's mother and father went together into the forest. The gentle breath of the Fawn, the warm south wind of spring, had blown during the night, and all the snow had melted away. As they climbed the hill, they heard a birdsong coming from above them. It was a song they had never heard before. It sounded almost like the name of their son.
Opi chi chi Opi chi chi
When they reached the lodge, Opichi's father shook the poles. "My son," he said, "it is time to end your fast. It is time to come home."
There was no answer. Opichi's mother and father bent down to look into the small lean-to of hemlock boughs and saplings. As they did so, a bird came flying out. It was gray and black with a red chest.
Opi chi chi Opi chi chi
So it sang as it perched on a branch above them. Then it spoke.
"My parents," said the bird, "you see me as I am now. The one who was your son is gone. You sent him out too early and asked him to wait for power too long. Now I will return each spring when the gentle breath of the Fawn comes to our land. My song will let people know it is the time for a boy to go on his dream fast. But your words must help to remind his parents not to make their son stay out too long."
Then, singing that song which was the name of their son, the robin flew off into the forest.
One day, as a hunter was walking through the forest, he heard the sound of a dog howling.
"Someone is in trouble," said the hunter, whose name was Wolverine. He followed the pitiful howling to an abandoned village and found the dog sitting in front of a small wigwam. As soon as it saw Wolverine, it wagged its tail and came over. Then the dog led the hunter inside the wigwam, where a little baby was tied to a cradleboard. The baby was thin and hungry, and his face was covered with scabs.
"Little one," Wolverine said, picking up the child, "I will take pity on you." Then, followed by the dog, he went back to his lodge and handed the baby to his wife, Fisher.
"I give you a child," Wolverine said. "He is starved and sick. He was abandoned to die."
"I am glad to have him," Fisher said. "I will cure him, and he will grow strong. Tomorrow I will go out and name him after the first animal I see."
In the morning, Fisher went out into the forest. She had not walked far when a small animal came out of the bushes. It was a little weasel, the color of the newly fallen snow. It was quick in its movements and looked up at her without fear. "You have given my grandson his name," said Fisher. So the boy was named White Weasel.
Wolverine and Fisher cared well for their adopted grandson. They taught him all they knew of hunting and medicine and told him how he was found abandoned.
Many seasons passed, and White Weasel became wiry and strong. He was a good hunter and knew how to use the healing plants of the forest. Finally the day came when he knew he had to leave his foster grandparents.
"Grandfather," he asked Wolverine, "are there other people in the world?"
"Yes," said Wolverine, "but they are far away to the north near the great water."
"I will go there," said White Weasel. "I must find my parents."
"Listen well," Fisher said. "Your parents left you to die. Only your dog, Bad Dog, stayed to watch over you and save your life. You will not know your parents, but your dog will know them. Follow him, and he will guide you to them."
"Grandmother," White Weasel said, "I will do as you say. Now I need snowshoes, for I must go to the north."
So Grandmother Fisher made snowshoes from rawhide and ash wood, and White Weasel set out, following his dog.
The boy and his dog traveled north for many days. Then one morning as they were starting out, White Weasel heard the sound of weeping. He looked down to the left of the trail and saw a small man who sat crying. He was one of the little people, the Mikumwesuk.
"Uncle," said White Weasel, "what is wrong?"
"My wife is sick," the little man said. "I know that she will die."
"My grandmother taught me medicine," said White Weasel. "I will help your wife."
Mikumwesu led him through the forest along a twisting path until they came to what looked like a pile of brush. As soon as they went inside, White Weasel saw it was a beautiful lodge. On a pile of rabbit skins was a little woman with a thin, pale face.
"I can cure your sickness," White Weasel said. He gathered herbs and made them into a tea. Mikumwesu's wife drank the tea, and by the morning she was well and strong.
"Ktsi nidoba, great friend," said Mikumwesu, "you saved my wife. I will go help you find what you seek."
Then White Weasel and Mikumwesu set out together, following the dog. But when the sun was two hands high at midmorning, Mikumwesu stopped near a clearing.
"I must gather spruce gum," he said. He pulled gum from the trees around them, rolled it between his hands, and made six plugs. "Now," Mikumwesu said, "we must put these plugs into our ears. Soon we will need them."
The boy put the plugs into his ears and the ears of his dog. Then he followed Mikumwesu up a cliff. When they looked back toward the path they had left, they saw the trees shaking. Two huge Kiwakwes, the fierce giants of the North, came into the clearing, one from the east and one from the west. As White Weasel watched, the giant from the east threw a stone larger than a wigwam. It shattered when it struck the other giant's chest. Then the giant from the west pulled up a tall pine tree and swung it like a club. It splintered like a twig over the first giant's head. Their mouths were open as they fought, but White Weasel could hear nothing.
The Kiwakwes fought back and forth till the sun was in the middle of the sky. Finally the giant from the east threw the other to the ground and killed him. As White Weasel and Mikumwesu watched, the Kiwakwe drank the blood of his defeated enemy, then went back into the woods to the east.
Mikumwesu waited a long time before he took the plugs of spruce gum from his ears. White Weasel did the same.
"Look around in the forest below," the little man said.
White Weasel looked. At first he saw nothing. Then he saw many animals — deer, bears, and others — lying dead.
"They were killed by the howling of the giants as they fought," Mikumwesu said. "If we had heard their terrible howls, we also would have died."
Once more they started north, following the little dog. After traveling for four days, Mikumwesu stopped them again.
"We are near the great water," Mikumwesu said. "Tomorrow you must send your small dog ahead to clear the path."
When the morning came, White Weasel said to his dog, "Bad Dog, danger is ahead of us. Go and clear our path so we can travel safely."
Wagging his tail, Bad Dog set out. He had not gone far when he came to two hemlock trees on either side of the trail. Beneath each tree, a huge snake was hidden. Bad Dog breathed in one, two, three, four times. With each breath, he became bigger. When he was taller than the trees, he grabbed one snake then the other and shook them till they were dead. Then he breathed out one, two, three, four times and was small again.
Wagging his tail, Bad Dog set forth once more. Soon he came to two large stones, one on each side of the trail. Behind each stone, a great bear was hiding. Again Bad Dog breathed in four times and grew larger with each breath. With a growl, he leaped on the bears and killed each one with a single bite. Then, just as before, he breathed out four times and was small again.
When White Weasel's dog returned to him, the sun was four hands high.
"Bad Dog has done well," said Mikumwesu. "Now the trail is clear. Tomorrow you will reach the village of the people who killed your parents. All of the people in that village are bad. They have killed all the other people here in the North. They killed your parents and pretended to be your father and mother, but your dog would not let them enter your wigwam. So they left you there to die."
White Weasel and his dog went along the trail. They passed between two tall hemlock trees, and White Weasel saw many crows and jays eating something dead. They passed between two great stones, and White Weasel saw many ravens and foxes eating something dead. At last they came to a hill. Below them were the great water and a village on the shore. White Weasel followed his dog to the first wigwam in the village, where the dog stopped and growled.
"Wife," said a harsh voice from within, "hear me. Bad Dog has come."
White Weasel went to the door of the lodge. "Kwe," he called. "Hello."
"Kwe," the harsh voice called back from within. "Come inside."
White Weasel and his dog entered the lodge. A man and woman in beautiful clothing sat by the fire. They were very attractive, but the boy did not trust what he saw in their eyes.
"You have found our dog," said the woman. "Give him to us."
"Bad Dog is mine," said White Weasel. "He has protected me since I was a small, sick baby."
The two people looked long and hard at White Weasel. "You are our son," said the man. "Bad Dog carried you off into the forest a long time ago. We are glad to see you. Come and meet the people of our village."
The man who pretended to be White Weasel's father led them out of the lodge. There, by the door, stood Mikumwesu.
"Who is this ugly little man?" said the woman who pretended to be White Weasel's mother.
"You should not insult me," said Mikumwesu. "Soon your village will be covered with sumac trees." The sumacs were the first trees to grow in a deserted village, and Mikumwesu's words were a warning to these people that they would be destroyed.
Many other people began to come out of their lodges. They made fun of White Weasel and Mikumwesu, but the boy and the little man ignored their words.
"My dear son," said the man, "we are glad you have returned. Now we want to play with you. Do you like to wrestle?"
"Yes," said White Weasel, "I am a good wrestler."
"Great friend," said Mikumwesu, reaching into his pouch and drawing the boy aside, "put on these white moccasins. Then you will always land on your feet."
White Weasel put on the moccasins and followed the one who pretended to be his father until they arrived at a big wigwam on a stone ledge near the water. A huge man came out of that wigwam.
"You will wrestle with me," said the big man.
"Grab hold and try to throw me," said White Weasel.
The big man grabbed the boy, lifted him high, and threw him down to break his bones on the rocks. But White Weasel landed lightly on his feet.
"This is fun," said the boy. "Throw me again."
The big man became very angry and threw White Weasel a second time, trying to break his head. Just as before, the boy landed on his feet. Four times the big man tried to kill White Weasel and four times he failed. Then White Weasel held up his hands.
"Now it is my turn," he said. He lifted the big man up and threw him down so hard that the big man could not move.
"This game is good," said White Weasel. "Who will wrestle me next?" But no one came forward.
The two who pretended to be his parents stood to one side, talking.
"My son," said the man, "it is late. Tomorrow we will play a better game. We will go out to the little island at dawn and play ball with you."
"Come and spend the night in our lodge," said the woman.
"No," said the boy, "I am used to sleeping in the forest."
As White Weasel and Mikumwesu walked toward the forest, the man who pretended to be White Weasel's father called to the dog. "Bad Dog," he said, "come to me." But White Weasel's dog only growled and followed his master into the forest, where White Weasel and Mikumwesu built a fire and made camp.
That night there were many strange sounds in the forest around them. Four times the noises came very close. Each time, Bad Dog ran growling into the darkness and returned with blood on his teeth.
At dawn White Weasel and Mikumwesu went back to the village. The people of the village were waiting. Many of them were limping and had wounds on their arms and legs.
"My son," said the man who pretended to be White Weasel's father, "ride with me in our canoe."
Mikumwesu took White Weasel aside. "They will drown you if you ride with them. I will make a better canoe." The little man went down to the shore to a big white stone. He turned it over and shaped it into a canoe, then pushed it out onto the water. When he got inside, there was a paddle in his hands. White Weasel and Bad Dog climbed in with him, and the people of the village followed in their canoes of birch bark. Soon they reached the little island.
"Our ball field is on the other side of this island," said the one who pretended to be White Weasel's father. "Leave your dog here. No dogs can come to our ball field."
Again Mikumwesu spoke softly to White Weasel. "Great friend, these bad people will kill you when you reach the other side. Follow them till you reach the middle of the island, then turn around and run back here as quick as you can."
Excerpted from Flying with the Eagle, Racing the Great Bear by Joseph Bruchac. Copyright © 2011 Joseph Bruchac. Excerpted by permission of Fulcrum Publishing.
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