Native American Legends
Blessed gift of joy is bestowed upon Man
A Kanglanek Legend
Once there was a time when men knew no joy. Their whole life was
work, food, digestion, and sleep. One day went by like another.
They toiled, they slept, they awoke again to toil. Monotony rusted
In these days there was a man and his wife who lived alone in their
dwelling not far from the sea. They had three sons, all spirited
lads, anxious to be as good huntsmen as their father, and even before
they were full grown they entered into all kinds of activities to
make them strong and enduring. And their father and mother felt
proud and secure in the thought that the boys would provide for
their old age and find them food when they could no longer help
But it happened that the eldest son, and after a while the second
one, went a- hunting and never came back. They left no trace behind;
all search was in vain. And the father and mother grieved deeply
over their loss and watched now with great anxiety over the youngest
boy, who was at this time big enough to accompany his father when
he went hunting. The son, who was called Ermine (Teriak) liked best
to stalk caribou, whereas his father preferred to hunt sea creatures.
And, as hunters cannot spend all their lives in anxiety, it soon
came about that the son was allowed to go where he pleased inland
while the father rowed to sea in his kayak.
One day, stalking caribou as usual, Ermine suddenly caught sight
of a mighty eagle, a big young eagle that circled over him. Ermine
pulled out his arrows, but did not shoot as the eagle flew down
and settled on the ground a short distance from him. Here it took
off its hood and became a young man who said to the boy:
"It was I who killed your two brothers. I will kill you too
unless you promise to hold a festival of song when you get home.
Will you or won't you?"
"Gladly, but I don't understand what you say. What is song?
What is a festival?"
"Will you or won't you?"
"Gladly, but I don't know what it is."
"If you follow me my mother will teach you what you don't
understand. Your two brothers scorned the gifts of song and merrymaking;
they would not learn, so I killed them. Now you may come with me,
and as soon as you have learned to put words together into a song
and to sing it--as soon as you have learned to dance for joy, you
shall be free to go home to your dwelling."
"I'll come with you," answered Ermine. And off they set.
The eagle was no longer a bird but a big strong man in a gleaming
cloak of eagles' feathers. They walked and they walked, farther
and farther inland, through gorges and valleys, onward to a high
mountain, which they began to climb.
"High up on that mountain top stands our house," said
the young eagle. And they clambered on over the mountain, up and
up until they had a wide view over the plains of the Caribou hunters.
But as they approached the crest of the mountain, they suddenly
heard a throbbing sound, which grew louder and louder the nearer
they came to the top. It sounded like the stroke of huge hammers,
and so loud was the noise that it set Ermine's ears a- humming.
"Do you hear anything?" asked the eagle.
"Yes, a strange deafening noise, that isn't like anything
I've ever heard before."
"It is the beating of my mother's heart," answered the
So they approached the eagle's house, that was built right on the
"Wait here until I come back. I must prepare my mother,"
said the eagle, and went in.
A moment after, he came back and fetched Ermine. They entered a
big room, fashioned like the dwellings of men, and on the bunk,
quite alone, sat the eagle's mother, aged, feeble, and sad. Her
son now said:
"Here's a man who has promised to hold a song festival when
he gets home. But he says men don't understand how to put words
together into songs, nor even how to beat drums and dance for joy.
Mother, men don't know how to make merry, and now this young man
has come up here to learn."
This speech brought fresh life to the feeble old mother eagle,
and her tired eyes lit up suddenly while she said:
"First you must build a feast hall where many men may gather."
So the two young men set to work and built the feast hall, which
is called a kagsse and is larger and finer than ordinary houses.
And when it was finished the mother eagle taught them to put words
together into songs and to add tones to the words so that they could
be sung. She made a drum and taught them to beat upon it in rhythm
with the music, and she showed them how they should dance to the
songs. When Ermine had learned all this she said:
"Before every festival you must collect much meat, and then
call together many men. This you must do after you have built your
feast hall and made your songs. For when men assemble for a festival
they require sumptuous meals."
"But we know of no men but ourselves," answered Ermine.
"Men are lonely, because they have not yet received the gift
of joy," said the mother eagle. "Make all your preparations
as I have told you. When all is ready you shall go out and seek
for men. You will meet them in couples. Gather them until they are
many in number and invite them to come with you. Then hold your
festival of song."
Thus spoke the old mother eagle, and when she had minutely instructed
Ermine in what he should do, she finally said to him:
"I may be an eagle, yet I am also an aged woman with the same
pleasures as other women. A gift calls for a return, therefore it
is only fitting that in farewell you should give me a little sinew
string. It will be but a slight return, yet it will give me pleasure."
Ermine was at first miserable, for wherever was he to procure sinew
string so far from his home? But suddenly he remembered that his
arrowheads were lashed to the shafts with sinew string. He unwound
these and gave the string to the eagle. Thus was his return gift
only a trifling matter. Thereupon, the young eagle again drew on
his shining cloak and bade his guest bestride his back and put his
arms round his neck. Then he threw himself out over the mountainside.
A roaring sound was heard around them and Ermine thought his last
hour had come. But this lasted only a moment; then the eagle halted
and bade him open his eyes. And there they were again at the place
where they had met. They had become friends and now they must part,
and they bade each other a cordial farewell. Ermine hastened home
to his parents and related all his adventures to them, and he concluded
his narrative with these words:
"Men are lonely; they live without joy because they don't
know how to make merry. Now the eagle has given me the blessed gift
of rejoicing, and I have promised to invite all men to share in
Father and mother listened in surprise to the son's tale and shook
their heads incredulously, for he who has never felt his blood glow
and his heart throb in exultation cannot imagine such a gift as
the eagle's. But the old people dared not gainsay him, for the eagle
had already taken two of their sons, and they understood that its
word had to be obeyed if they were to keep this last child. So they
did all that the eagle had required of them.
A feast hall, matching the eagle's, was built, and the larder was
filled with the meat of sea creatures and caribou. Father and son
combined joyous words, describing their dearest and deepest memories
in songs which they set to music; also they made drums, rumbling
tambourines of taut caribou hides with round wooden frames; and
to the rhythm of the drum beats that accompanied the songs they
moved their arms and legs in frolicsome hops and lively antics.
Thus they grew warm both in mind and body, and began to regard everything
about them in quite a new light. Many an evening it would happen
that they joked and laughed, flippant and full of fun, at a time
when they would otherwise have snored with sheer boredom the whole
As soon as all the preparations were made, Ermine went out to invite
people to the festival that was to be held. To his great surprise
he discovered that he and his parents were no longer alone as before.
Merry men find company. Suddenly he met people everywhere, always
in couples, strange looking people, some clad in wolf skins, others
in the fur of the wolverine, the lynx, the red fox, the silver fox,
the cross fox--in fact, in the skins of all kinds of animals. Ermine
invited them to the banquet in his new feast hall and they all followed
him joyfully. Then they held their song festival, each producing
his own songs. There were laughter, talk, and sound, and people
were carefree and happy as they had never been before. The table
delicacies were appreciated, gifts of meat were exchanged, friendships
were formed, and there were several who gave each other costly gifts
of fur. The night passed, and not till the morning light shone into
the feast hall did the guests take their leave. Then, as they thronged
out of the corridor, they all fell forward on their hands and sprang
away on all fours. They were no longer men but had changed into
wolves, wolverines, lynxes, silver foxes, red foxes--in fact, into
all the beasts of the forest. They were the guests that the old
eagle had sent, so that father and son might not seek in vain. So
great was the power of joy that it could even change animals into
men. Thus animals, who have always been more lighthearted than men,
were man's first guests in a feast hall.
A little time after this it chanced that Ermine went hunting and
again met the eagle. Immediately it took off its hood and turned
into a man, and together they went up to the eagle's home, for the
old mother eagle wanted once more to see the man who had held the
first song festival for humanity.
Before they had reached the heights, the mother eagle came to thank
them, and lo! The feeble old eagle had grown young again.
For when men make merry, all old eagles become young.
The foregoing is related by the old folk from Kanglanek, the land
which lies where the forests begin around the source of Colville
River. In this strange and unaccountable way, so they say, came
to men the gift of joy.
And the eagle became the sacred bird of song, dance and all festivity.
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