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Native American Legends

Case of the severed head

A Cheyenne Legend

Once in a lonely lodge there lived a man, his wife, and two children – a girl and a boy. In front of the lodge, not far off, was a great lake, and a plain trail leading from the lodge down to the shore where the family used to go for water.

Every day the man went hunting, but before starting he would paint the woman red all over, coating her face, her arms, and her whole body with this sacred medicine to protect her from harm.

After he departed, she would leave the children alone in the lodge and go for water; when she returned with it, the red paint was always gone and her hair was un-braided. She would manage to get back with her water just before her husband arrived. Not being a good hunter, he never brought any meat.

Though he asked her no questions, her husband thought it strange that every night the paint he had put on his wife in the morning had disappeared. One day he said to his daughter, "What does your mother do every day? When I go out, I paint her, and when I get back, she has no paint on."

The girl replied, "Whenever you start out hunting, she goes for water, and she is usually away for a long time."

The next day, the man painted his wife as usual and then took his bow and arrows and left the lodge.

But instead of going off hunting, he went down to the lake shore, dug a hole in the sand, and buried himself, leaving a little place where he could look out.

The man had not been hidden long when he saw his wife coming with a bucket. When she was near the water's edge, she slipped off her dress, un-braided her hair, sat down on the shore, and said, "Na shu eh', I am here."

Soon the man saw the water begin to move, and a mih'ni, a water spirit, rose from it, crawled out on the land, crept up to the woman, wrapped itself about her, and licked off all the red paint that was on her body.

The man emerged from his hiding place and rushed down to the pair. With his knife he cut the monster to pieces and cut off his wife's head.

The pieces of the monster crept and rolled back into the water and were never seen again. The man cut off the woman's arms at the elbow and her legs at the knees. Saying, "Take your wife!" he threw these pieces and her head into the water. Then he opened the body, extracted a side of her ribs, and skinned it.

Returning to the lodge, he said, "Ah, my little children, I have had good luck; I have killed an antelope and brought back some of the meat. Where is your mother?"

The children answered, "Our mother has gone to bring water."

"Well," he said, "since I killed my meat sooner than I thought, I carried it back to camp. Your mother will be here pretty soon. In the meantime I'll cook something for you to eat before I go out again."

He cooked a kettle of meat and took it to the children, who both ate. The little boy, who was the younger and the last one to suckle, said to his sister, "This tastes like mother!"

"Oh," said his sister, "keep still; this is antelope meat."

After the children had finished, the little girl saved some of the meat for the mother to eat when she returned.

The father got his moccasins and other things together and started off, intending never to come back. He was going to look for his tribe's camp.

After he had gone, the children were sitting in the lodge, the girl making moccasins and putting porcupine quills on them.

Suddenly they heard a voice outside say, "I love my children, but they don't love me; they have eaten me!"

The girl said to her brother, "Look out the door and see who is coming."

The boy looked out and then cried, very much frightened, "Sister, here comes our mother's head!"

"Shut the door," cried the girl. The little boy did so. The girl picked up her moccasins and her quills - red, white, and yellow -– rolled them up, and seized her root digger.

Meanwhile the head had rolled against the door. "Daughter, open the door," it called.

The head would strike the door, roll part way up the lodge, and then fall back again.
The girl and her brother ran to the door, pushed it open, and stood to the side. The head rolled into the lodge and clear across to the back.

The girl and boy jumped out, the girl closed the door, and both children ran away as fast as they could. As they ran, they heard the mother calling to them from the lodge.

They ran, and they ran, and at last the boy called, "sister, I'm tired; I can't run any longer." The girl took his robe and carried it for him, and they ran on.

At last they reached the top of the divide, they looked back, and there they could see the head coming, rolling over the prairie.

Somehow it had gotten out of the lodge. The children kept running, but at last the head had almost overtaken them. The little boy was frightened nearly to death, as well as exhausted. The sister said, "This running is almost killing my brother. When I was a little girl playing, sometimes the prickly pears were so thick on the ground that I couldn't get through them."

As she said this, she scattered behind her a handful of the yellow porcupine quills. At once there appeared a great bed of tall prickly pears with great yellow thorns. This cactus patch was strung out for a long way in both directions across the trail they had made.

When the head reached that place, it rolled up on the prickly pears and tried to roll over them, but kept getting caught in the thorns. For a long time it kept trying and trying to work its way through, and at last it did get loose from the thorns and passed over. But by this time the girl and the boy had gone a long distance.

After a while, however, they looked back and again saw the head coming. The little boy almost fainted. He kept calling out, "Sister, I'm tired; I can't run any longer."

When the sister heard him, she said while she was running, "When I was a little girl, I often used to find the bullberry bushes very thick."

As she said this, she threw behind her a handful of the white quills, and where they touched the ground a huge grove of thick, thorny bullberry bushes grew up. They blocked the way, and the head stopped there for a long time, unable to pass through the bushes.

The children ran on and on, toward the place where the tribe had last been camped. But at length they looked back and saw the head coming again.

The little boy called out, "Sister, I'm tired; I can't run any longer."

Again the girl threw quills behind - this time the red ones - and a great thicket of thorny rosebushes sprang up and stopped the head.

Again the children went a long way, but at last they saw the head coming, and the boy called out: "Sister, I'm tired."

Then the sister said, "When I was a little girl playing, I often came to small ravines that I couldn't cross."

She stopped and drew the point of her root digger over the ground in front of her. This made a little groove in the dirt, and she placed the root digger across the groove.

Then she and her brother walked over on the root digger, and when they had crossed, the furrow became wider and wider and deeper and deeper.

Soon it was a great chasm with cut walls, and at the bottom they could see a little water trickling. "Now," said the girl, "we will run no longer; we will stay here."

"No, no," said the boy, "let's run."

"No," said the girl, "I will kill our mother here."

Presently the head came rolling up to the edge of the ravine and stopped.

"Daughter," it said, "where did you cross? Place your root digger on the ground so that I can cross too."

The girl attempted to do so, but the boy pulled her back every time. At last she managed to lay the root digger down, and the head began rolling over. But when it was halfway across, the girl tipped the stick, the head fell into the ravine, and the ravine closed on it.

After this the children started on again to look for the people. At last they found the camp and drew near it. Before they arrived, however, they heard a man's loud voice. As they came closer, they saw that it was their father speaking. He was walking about the camp and telling everyone that while he was out hunting, his two children had killed and eaten their mother. He warned the people that if the children came to the camp, they should not be allowed to enter.

When they heard this, the children were frightened. Still, they didn't know what else to do but go on into the camp.

The people immediately caught them and tied their hands and feet. And the next day the whole tribe moved away and left the children there, still tied.

In the camp there was an old, old dog who knew what had happened and took pity on the children. The night of their arrival, she went into a lodge, stole some sinew, a knife, and an awl, and took them into a hole where she had her pups.

The next day after all the people had gone, the children heard a dog howling. Presently the old, old dog approached them. "Grandchildren," she said, "I pity you and have come to help you."

The girl said, "Untie me first, and I can untie my brother."

So the old dog began to gnaw at the rawhide strings around the girl's hands. The animal had no teeth and could not cut the cords, but they became wet and began to slip.

The girl kept working her hands and at last got them free. She untied her legs and then freed her brother.

That evening they walked about through the camp and picked up old moccasins to wear. Both children were crying, and so was the dog.

They all sat on the hill near the camp and cried bitterly, for they had nothing to eat, no place to sleep, and nothing to cover themselves with, and winter was coming. The girl and the dog sat weeping with their heads hanging down, but the boy was looking about. Presently he said, "Sister, see that wolf; it's coming straight toward us!"

"It's useless for me to look," said the girl. "I couldn't kill him by looking at him, so we can't eat him."

"But look, Sister," said the boy, "he's coming right up to us."

At last the girl raised her head, and when she looked at the wolf, it fell dead. Then the dog brought the tools that she had stolen before the tribe left. With the knife they cut the wolf up, and from its skin they made a bed for the dog.

The children stayed in the abandoned camp, living well now, while the people in the new camp were starving. The children kept a large fire burning day and night and used big logs so that it never went out.

But after they had eaten the wolf, they began to feel hungry again. The girl became very unhappy, and one day as she sat crying, with the dog sitting beside her and the boy standing and looking about, he said, "Sister, look at that antelope coming!"

"No," said the girl, "it's useless for me to look; looking will do no good."

"But look even so," said the boy. "Perhaps it will do as the wolf did."

The girl looked, and as with the wolf, the antelope fell dead.

They cut it up and used its skin to make a bed for themselves. They ate the flesh and fed the old dog on the liver. The girl would chew pieces up fine for the toothless animal.

At last the antelope was all eaten, and again they grew hungry. Again the boy saw a strange-looking animal - this time an elk, which fell dead before the girl's look.
She stretched the elk hide, which they used for a shelter. With the sinews the dog had stolen, they sewed their moccasins and mended their clothing.

When the elk ran out, the boy saw a buffalo coming straight to their shelter, and the girl killed it by a look. They cut up the meat and used the hide to make a larger and better shelter, where they stayed until winter came and snow began to fall.

One night when the girl went to bed, she said, "I wish that I might see a lodge over there in that sheltered place in the morning. I could sleep there with my brother and the dog, on a bed in the back of the lodge. I could make a bow and some arrows, so that my brother could kill the buffalo close to the camp when they gather in the underbrush during bad weather." She also wished that her brother might become a young man, and that they might have meat racks in the camp and meat on them.

In the morning when the boy got up and looked out, he said, "Sister, our lodge is over there now." It was in the very place the girl had wished. They moved their possessions and their fire over to it, and when the boy entered the lodge, he was a young man. That winter he killed many buffalo and they had plenty of meat.

One night as she was going to bed, the girl made another wish. "Brother," she said, "our father has treated us very badly. He caused us to eat our mother, and he had us tied up and deserted by the people. I wish we knew how to get word to the camp, and I wish that we had two bears that we could tell to eat our father."

Next morning when the girl got up, two bears were sitting in the lodge on either side of the door. "Hello, my animals," she said. "Arise and eat."

After giving them food, she went out to one of the meat racks and pulled off a piece of bloody fat. She called to a raven that was sitting in a tree nearby: "Come here; I want to send you on an errand."

When the raven had flown to her, she said, "Go and look for the camp of my people. Fly about among the lodges and call them. And when the people come out and ask each other, `What's that raven doing? And what is he carrying?' drop this piece of fat into the thick of the crowd. Then tell them that the people you came from have great scaffolds of meat."

The raven took the piece of fat in his bill and flew away. He found the camp and flew about, calling and calling, and a number of men sitting here and there began to say to each other, "What's that raven carrying?"

The raven dropped the meat, and someone who picked it up said, "why, it's fresh fat." Then the raven said, "Those people whom you threw away are still in the old camp, and they have scaffolds of meat like this." Then the raven flew back to the girl.

An old man began crying out to the people as he walked through the camp: "Those children whom we threw away have plenty of meat! They are in the old camp, and now we must move back to it as quickly as we can."

The people tore down their lodges, packed up, and started back. Some of the young men went ahead in little groups of threes and fours, and when they reached the children's camp, the girl fed them and gave them meat to carry back to the others. All the trees about the lodge were covered with meat, and buffalo hides were stacked in great piles.

After a while the whole village arrived and camped not far from the children's lodge, and everyone began to come to the lodge for food. The girl sent word to her father to hold off until all the rest had been fed, so that he could come and take his time instead of eating in a hurry. She said to the bears, "I'm going to send for your food last. After that person gets here and has eaten, I'll say, `There's your food,' as he goes out of the lodge. Then you may eat him up."

In the evening when the last of the people was leaving the lodge, she said to her brother, "Tell everyone not to come anymore tonight; it is my father's turn now."

When the father came and they fed him, he said happily, "Oh, my children, you're living well here; you have plenty of meat and tongues and back fat."

He did not eat everything his daughter had set before him. "I'll take all this home for my breakfast," he said.

After he had left the lodge, the girl said to the bears, "There's your food; eat him up!" The bears sprang after the father and pulled him down. He called to his daughter to take her animals away, but they killed him and began to drag him back to the lodge.

The girl said, "Take him off somewhere else and eat him, and what you don't eat, throw into the stream."

What the bears did not eat they threw into the creek, and then they washed their hands, and no one ever knew what had become of the father. Since that time, bears have eaten human flesh when they could.

The boy and the girl returned to the camp, and always afterward lived well there.

- Based on an account by George Bird Grinnell in 1903.

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