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