These stories are taken from The Last Best Place,an anthology edited by William Kittredge and Annick Smith, Montana Historical Press, 1988.
Pete and josephine Beaverhead told these four myths to Leslie B. Davis, a professor of anthropology at Montana State University in Bozeman. Davis acknowledges the Beaverheads' foresight and patience in sharing their knowledge of traditional Pend d'Oreille oral narratives and also the assistance of Patrick Adams, whose own interest and recorded tales were useful in providing comparative perspective. Davis published these stories in 1965 as part of the University of Montana's Anthropology and Sociology Papers.
#4: Mountain Sheep Boy
Long ago, a man and his family lived high in mountain sheep country. Every day the man hunted mountain sheep and his wife gathered wild roots. Their son played around in the rocks. After several weeks there the man had to hunt and hunt to find any game. The sheep weren't coming down the nearby trail they had always followed from place to place. His wife was finding fewer and fewer roots. They were eating less and less and they were becoming very hungry. One evening their son stopped playing earlier than usual. He came back to the tipi, sat before his parents, and asked, "Why is it that you can kill no sheep and can get no roots? I'm getting very hungry." His father told him that the sheep were still there. He saw fresh sign each morning, but he was never waiting for them at the right time. His mother told the same thing about the roots. The boy said, "I know the time when the sheep pass and I know the time when the roots come up. The sheep pass at exactly midnight, but not before or after. That's when the roots grow, but toward morning they work themselves back underground. Only the sick ones stay above the ground." He went on, "My father, tonight you will be waiting just before midnight along the sheep trail. You will soon see a large herd of sheep coming. You will kill only one. Bring it back without letting it touch the ground. Bring it through the rear of the tipi. If I'm asleep wake me." Then he turned to his mother and said, "Mother, tonight at exactly midnight you will go to where you dig roots. Build a fire and you will see many roots there. Now I am going to bed." So then the parents waited as they had been told. At midnight they went out. The boy's mother built a fire and was surprised to see the ground covered with roots. She began digging them up. The boy's father waited until he heard the sound of horns hitting stone. He saw many sheep coming up the trail out of their hiding place. He picked a fat one, killed it, and carried it on his back, not letting it touch the ground anywhere. When he got home his wife had already raised the back side of the tipi for him. He woke his son. The boy got up and directed his father to cut the sheep open down the middle. Then he was to remove all the tripe and was told to cut out all the fat along the backbone. He was to separate out the meat there from the backbone fat and give it to his son to eat. Then he told his parents to go ahead and eat their fill. The next evening he told his father, "Tonight you will kill the baby sheep for me. When you skin it leave the ears, hooves, tail and everything on the hide. After that you may kill any sheep you want. just give me the fat next to the backbone." The boy had met a stranger who had told him when to find the sheep and roots, and to bring to him a young sheep's hide with everything on it. The boy's father killed a baby sheep. After carefully skinning it he gave the hide to his son. Time went on. Soon they had much dried meat and roots. One day Father asked his son, "Why don't you let your mother eat some of that backfat you've been eating. Don't you think she might like to eat some, too?" The boy listened quietly. Then he reached behind him and covered himself with the sheepskin. He made sure that his head, arms, and legs were covered and then he began to cry. His father tried to comfort him, but he tired and his wife tried to comfort her son. The parents went to sleep and left their son there crying. Later the man got up and looked at his son. His son looked very much like a young sheep. Father called to his wife, "Look. Look at our son. I think he has become a sheep. jump up. Let's try to catch him. Watch the door and I'll go behind him." Then the boy jumped up and ran around inside the tipi, his parents trying to hold him. But he escaped out the back of the tipi. They lost him in the woods. They waited week after week for him to return and his father hunted for him each day. Soon they had no more dried meat or roots and they became very hungry. They decided to go down the mountain to the village of their people. There they told what had happened in the mountains. The next spring they returned to their mountain camp. The father looked for his son without success. One night as he sat waiting for the sheep to pass he saw a big, fat sheep leading the herd. The sheep walked up to him in his hiding place and said, "Now look at me, look at me closely. I'm your son. I'm full-grown now. I have my own father and mother in the herd behind me. The one that is following me is my brother, the next is my other brother, and the one after him is my uncle." Then the sheep-boy told his father of his other relations on down through the herd. He told his father to shoot the last sheep because he wasn't any relation. The boy's father and mother intended to stay on the mountain until they starved to death. Each night Father was to shoot the last sheep. Then they had plenty of dried meat and roots again. One night his son came to him on the trail and said, "My father, I would like to see my motherjust as I am once more. Bring her with you tomorrow night so I may speak with her." They waited the next night. The lead sheep stopped and said, "Hello, Mother. I am your son although I don't look like him. This will be the last time I speak with you. But I and my herd will pass through here each year when you camp here. You, my father, always shoot the last sheep. From now on I will not speak with you. I have my own home now and I am happy. You should never worry about me. I will be fine. When you see the herd coming you will always know I am the leader. Goodbye, my father, and you, my mother." Then his father shot the last sheep. Soon they had enough meat to last them all winter and they returned to their people. The next year they went back to their hunting place. After a time they had plenty of meat and roots. But one night Father decided to shoot a big, fat sheep that wasn't last in line. He shot one in the middle of the herd, and another one, and another one. He began gathering those he had killed but he couldn't find any of them. in his excitement he hadn't seen them coming to life and running away. So he went back to his wife and told her that he hadn't seen any sheep. But as they already had plenty of meat they started home. Toward the middle of the next summer they packed and headed for their hunting place. They set up their tipi and he went out to look at the game trail, expecting to see it covered with sign. But the trail was overgrown with brush and there were no tracks anywhere. He sat there all night but no game went by. His wife told him she hadn't found any roots either. Father knew then that his son controlled the game and the roots. He knew, too, that he had broken the law when he shot the wrong sheep the year before. They talked it over and decided to stay there anyway until they died. So they lived on until they died without ever seeing their son again. That is all.
James L. Long, or First Boy, was a member of the Assimbome tribe who collected and transcribed traditional stories as told to him by the Old Ones, elders of the tribe. While on the staff of the WPA Montana Writers' Project during the early 1940s, Long collected these stories in an effort to preserve an authentic picture of Assimboine life in the days before the encroachment of the white man's "civilization." These stories, illustrated by William Standing, were first published in Land of Nakoda, The Story of the Assiniboine Indians (1942) and have been reprinted in Michael Kennedy's The Assiniboine (1961).
How the Summer Season Came
A long time ago, the Assimboine people were in country almost always covered with snow. There were no horses and only dogs were used to carry things.
A small war party, that had been gone a long time, returned and went at once to the chief's lodge. They told him to call his counsellors together for they had an important message. The chief set food before them and sent his camp crier to call the council members to his lodge.
The spokesman said, "We have been away from our people for many moons. We have set foot on land that belongs to others-, we have set foot on land without snow. It is in the direction of where the sun rests at midday.
"In the middle of a large encampment there is a lodge painted yellow. In this the summer is kept in a bag hung on a tripod. Four old men guard it day and night. One sits in the back, directly under the tripod; another lies across the entrance and two others sit on each side of the fireplace."
The chief and his headmen sat in council until one of them said, "Let us call in a representative of each kind of the fast running animals and ask them to help us bring this wonderful thing to our country. " So the camp crier went forth and called to those medicine men, who had fast running animals for their helpers, to invite them to the lodge.
When all were in council the chief said, "My people and my brothers (the animals), far in the direction of midday there is the summer and I call you here to make plans to bring it to our people. The ones who go will never come back alive but they will do a great good to our people and their kind-, for their children will enjoy the breath of the summer forever."
It was decided to send the Lynx, the Red Fox, the Antelope, the Coyote and the Wolf. The young warriors, who knew the way, were to guide the runners to the encampment.
After many days' march they arrived near the camp and took council. The spokesman said, "The Lynx will go into the lodge and bring out the bag containing the summer, because nobody can hear him walk. He will give it to the Red Fox, who will be waiting for him along the way. From there, the Antelope will carry it to the Coyote, who will take it to the Wolf who is long-winded, and he will bring it to us by the big river, where we will be waiting on the opposite bank. From there we will take it to our people."
So, the Lynx was left there and the rest went back in the direction from which they had come.
The Red Fox first was told to take his position, and so on until all the animals were stationed a certain distance apart according to the ability of the runner. If an animal was short-winded, it was not required to make a long run, for the bag was to be carried at the fastest speed.
Towards morning, before the light showed and when the slumber was in every lodge, the Lynx softly walked to the yellow lodge and looked in. The four old men were all asleep. The bag, containing the summer, was hanging on the tripod in the back part of the lodge.
The summer was in the form of spring water. It moved about in a bag made from the stomach of a buffalo. Now and then it overflowed and trickled along the ground, under the tripod, and in its wake green grass and many different kinds of plants and flowers grew luxuriantly.
Cautiously, on stealthy feet, the Lynx entered, stepping over the entrance and, with a quick jerk, snapped the cord that held the bag. Seizing it tightly in his teeth, he plunged through the door and sped away.
Almost the same instant the old men awakened and gave the alarm: "The summer has been stolen!" The cry went from lodge to lodge and in a short time a group on fast horses were after the Lynx.
They were fast gaining on the Lynx when he gave the bag to the Red Fox who was waiting. The horsemen then killed the Lynx and started after the Fox who, after a time, gave the bag to the Antelope. The Antelope took it to the Coyote, who brought it to the Wolf, the long-winded one, who was to deliver it to the waiting party. Each time the bag was passed to the next runner, the winded animal was killed by the pursuers.
The fast horses were tired but gained steadily on the Wolf. As he sped across the country, the snow melted away directly behind him-, the grass sprang up green-, trees and bushes unfolded their leaves as the summer passed by. Fowls seemed to join the pursuit, as flock after flock flew northward.
As the Wolf crossed the river the ice moved and broke up. By the time the horsemen reached it, the river was flowing bank-full of ice. This halted the Southern people. In sign language they said to the Assimboine, "Let us bargain with each other for the possession of the summer." After a time it was decided that each would keep the summer for six moons. Then it was to be taken back to the river and delivered to the waiting party.
That agreement was kept, so there was summer half of the year in each country. In that way there were the two seasons, the winter and the summer.
After many two-season years had passed, the headmen of the Assimboines decided to have the cranes carry the summer back and forth. They were always the first of the migratory fowl to go south. They moved by easy stages, stopping for long periods at good feeding grounds. By that method of carrying the summer, the winter gradually followed the cranes, so that, instead of the sudden winter as when the summer was taken south by the men, the fall season, Pdanyedu, made its appearance. Long before the cranes returned, there were signs among the plants and animals that the summer was on its way north. That time was called the spring, Wedu.
A late fall or spring was a sign that the cranes had found good feeding grounds and tarried there too long. An early winter or summer was a sign that the carriers had winged their way south or north in haste.
As the cranes flew over an encampment they always circled several times and, with their loud calls, seemed to proclaim their arrival or departure.
So, finally, the Assimboine had four seasons: the winter, Waniyedu the summer, Mnogcdu; the fall, Pdanyedu, and the spring, Wedu.
During the winter and spring of 1901, anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber collected many Gros Ventre myths and tales on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in northern Montana. He did this important work as a member of the Mrs. Morris K. Jesup expedition. Although some of these stories exist in modem forms, Kroeber's transcriptions have a precise and vivid language that preserves the flavor of a tradition in its prime. His informants for these selections were "Assiniboine," a middle-aged man, and Watches All, an old woman. They appeared in Kroeber's "Gros Ventre Myths and Tales," part of the Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History (1907).
The Woman and the Horse as told by "Assiniboine"
The people sent out two young men to look for buffalo. They killed one and were butchering it. Then one of them said, I will go to that hill and look around-, do you continue to butcher." He went on the hill, and his companion went on with the butchering. The one on the hill looked about him with field-glasses. At Many-Lakes he saw a large herd of wild horses. He continued to look at them. Then he saw a person among them. Then he saw something streaming behind the person. He thought it was a loose breech-cloth. He called his companion, and said to him, "Look!" Then they went nearer. They saw that it was indeed a person. They thought that it was something unnatural (kaxtawuu). Therefore they did not try to disturb the person, but went back. They asked the people, "Did you ever miss a person?" An old man said, "Yes. A man once lost his wife as the camp moved. She was not found." Thereupon the young men told what they had seen. The people thought it must be this woman. The whole camp went there. All the people mounted their best horses in order to catch her. When they approached the place, they surrounded the whole country. All of them had mirrors. When they had gone all around, they turned the mirrors and reflected with them, signalling that the circle was complete. Then they drew together. The four that were mounted on the fastest horses started toward the herd. The wild horses ran, but, wherever they went, they saw people. The person in the herd was always in the lead. The people continued to close up on the horses. When they got them into a small space, they began to rope them. Six of the horses and the woman escaped. She was exceedingly swift. The people headed them off, and at last drove them into an enclosure. With much trouble they at last succeeded in fastening one rope on her leg and one on her arm. Then they picketed her at the camp like a horse. Pubis suac crines equi caudae similesfacti erant. At night a young man went out. He lay down on the ground near her, looking at her. Then the woman spoke: "Listen, young man. I will tell you something. You must do what I tell you. It is the truth. Long ago the camp was moving. I was far behind. I saw a large black stallion come. He had a rope on him. I jumped off my horse and caught him, thinking he belonged to some one in camp. When I had hold of the rope, he spoke to me. He said, jump on my back.'Then I climbed on him. He is the one that took me away. He is my husband. I have seven children by him, seven young horses. There is one, that gray one; there another one, that spotted one; there a black painted one; there a black one." She showed him all her children. "That is my husband," she said of a black horse that was tied near by. "I cannot go back to the tribe now. I have become a horse. Let me go. Let us all go. Tie a bell on a horse of such a color; then you will be lucky in getting horses. If you will let me loose, I will give you forty persons (you will kill forty enemies). If you do not loose me, many of the tribe will die." Then the young man went to his father and told what the woman had said. The old man went outside and cried it out to the people. Then they freed her and the horses. They ran amid flying dust, the woman far in the lead.
Alice Marriott and Carol K. Rachlin did the research, writing, and photography for Plains Indian Mythology when they were teachers at Central State University in Edmond, Oklahoma. These stories from that collection were told to them by Mary Little Bear Inkanish, a Southern Cheyenne, and Jessie American Horse, a Northern Cheyenne. One of the stories, "Bear Butte," tells of a sacred Cheyenne place north of Lame Deer, Montana. "If you go to the Bear Butte," the authors warn, 'you must take an offering of tobacco with you.... Stand on the cast side of the butte and pray for mercy and protection, while you scatter the tobacco to the four world corners. Then look on the ground at your feet. If your prayers are to be answered you will find a token, perhaps a white bead, or a quartz arrow point. Then you know that your life will always be blessed by Maheo, the Above Spirit."
The Bear Butte as told by jessie American Horse
Once there was a very beautiful young woman. Her father was a chief, who was a wise guardian for his people. He had no son, but he had many horses, and lots of young men came to ask him for his daughter. He always said no.
A Crow man came, walking proud and handsome, his long hair trailing on the ground behind him, as if he owned the earth.
"Give me your daughter," he said to the chief.
"No," the father answered, "she must stay with her own people."
The Crow man went away, shaking his head, and very angry.
I don't want a Crow to cut your hair off and paste it to his own to make himself look more handsome," said the chief to his daughter. "You are too beautiful to be treated like that."
Next came a Sioux man, with his great crested war bonnet standing up straight on his head, and his nose hooked and pointed down, as if he smelled something bad.
"Give me your daughter," he said. I have three wives all ready, and I promise you she will not have to work."
"No," said the father, "she is a good worker, and while I prize her, I want her to work. Otherwise she will become fat and lazy."
"Have it your own way," said the Sioux, and he got on his horse and rode off, never looking back.
"That is no life for a young healthy woman," said the chief. "You shall stay here with me until the right man comes along."
Next came a white man, loaded with traps and furs, and with a little keg on his back. I hear you have a daughter for sale," he said to the chief.
"She is not for sale," the father answered. I certainly would not give her to you."
I will give you all my skins."
"No. I can catch better ones myself."
I will throw in all these traps, with the skins."
"No. She is not for sale."
I will throw this in, too," said the trapper, juggling the keg on his back so that it gurgled.
"Go away," the chief shouted, "do you think I would trade my daughter for that stuff that makes men crazy? She is too good and proud for that!"
So the trapper went off into the mountains, and nobody ever saw him again.
At last a very tall, handsome young man, dressed like a Cheyenne, came.
I am looking for a wife," he said.
"That's better," the chief snorted. "All the others just said, 'Give her to me.' Who are you? You look like one of our own people. Are you Cheyenne?"
I am Cheyenne," the young man proudly said. I have been a Cheyenne as long as there have been Cheyennes."
"You are too young," the chief protested. "You could not have lived that long."
I am as young as I am old," said the suitor, "but I will make your daughter a good husband."
"We will ask her," the chief said, and sent for the girl.
When she saw the handsome, well-dressed young man, with two fine bay horses, the girl hung her head shyly, and thought he would make a very good husband. So she agreed and they were married.
After a white, the husband said, "There is one thing that you must never do. Never turn your back on me."
"Why not?" asked the young wife, who was curious, like most women.
"Because I tell you not to. Something bad will happen if you do," her husband told her.
When they had been married about a year, a son was born The father was very pleased and happy, and as soon as the little boy could sit up straight, the man began putting his son on the saddle behind him and teaching him to ride.
"Don't do that," the mother protested. He's too little to start riding yet."
"I know more about this than you do," her husband growled.
"Maybe you know more about riding, but not about babies," she exclaimed, and snatched the boy down and began to run away with him.
"I told you never to turn your back on me!" her husband howled. He got down off his horse and started chasing her.
The woman ran and ran, and she heard him pounding behind her. Once she turned her head and looked back. There was a great grizzly bear chasing her, not a man at all.
"I'll catch you and eat both of you," he threatened.
The woman was running to the east, and all of the sudden she saw a little mound of earth ahead of her. It was not much, but it was better than nothing. She ran to its top.
"Oh, Maheo, Above Person," she wept, "help me. Help me."
Maheo looked down and saw her and took pity on her. The mound of earth began to grow up into the air, carrying the woman and the little boy with it. When the bear got there, and saw what was happening, he was very angry.
"I'll get you yet!" he roared, and began clawing at the side of the mound, trying to get a foothold so he could climb it. But the mound kept on growing until it turned into a great sandstone butte, and the bear was left raging at the bottom. That night Maheo sent the girl's father to get her and take her home where she and her child would be safe.
Today, if you go to Bear Butte, you can still see the claw marks the bear made when he tried to climb it, and if the light is right, you can see the moccasin tracks of the woman and the little boy at the bottom. It is one place in the old Cheyenne country where women can go to look for power.