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Native American Legends

The adventures of Yellowbird

A Seneca Legend

A man and his wife and children lived in a little house in the woods. They were destitute and had nothing to eat but the scraps and pieces the man earned in the village.

One day the father said to his eldest son "You are old enough now to work. Go to the village and ask the chief if he has anything for you to do."

The boy had a little dog that he called Yellowbird (the dog was a bird). After he had named the dog his family called him by the dog's name.

The chief of the village was Daddy-long-legs, the boy asked for work, the chief said, "Stay with me. I will give you work to do."

The chief grew so fond of the young man that after time he gave him his youngest daughter for a wife.

One day Yellowbird said to his wife, "I am going away for a while, I want to see who is in the world." And starting toward the South he traveled all day. When night came he lay down under a tree and slept.

Yellowbird traveled eight days. Then he began to feel weak and hungry, but he was in a forest and there were no signs of anyone living near, so he walked on. After a while he saw, off in the distance, a black object. When he came nearer he found it was a bear asleep on the ground. Yellowbird had neither a knife nor a bow, but looking around he saw a heavy stone. He picked it up and creeping near he threw it at the bear's head. The bear straightened out and died.

Then Yellowbird hunted for a piece of flint to skin the bear with. Not finding flint he took a sharp-edged stone. When he had the skin off, he began to wonder how he could start a fire. He didn't want to eat raw meat. He hunted for a rotten log and when he found one he got punk out of it. Then he struck stones together till sparks flew. With the sparks he lighted the punk and soon he had a good fire. Then he roasted pieces of meat and ate heartily.

Now Yellowbird made up his mind to gather a pile of wood and stay there in the woods as long as he had anything to eat. He rested a good many days. Then, when nothing was left of the bear, he started on.

He had traveled a long time and was getting weak and hungry when he saw, in the distance, something that looked as if a tree were on the ground and the roots were sticking up. When nearer, he saw it was a buck. He killed the buck as he had killed the bear, and making a fire, roasted some of the flesh and ate it.

Yellowbird stayed there in the forest till he had eaten the buck, then he started on. After many days, when he was again getting weak and hungry, and was wondering how he was to get something to eat, he saw a smoke off in the woods "Someone must have a hunting camp there," thought he.

When near the smoke he crept along carefully, then, not seeing anyone, he went boldly to the fire. Over the fire was, a kettle and in the kettle bear's meat was cooking Yellowbird took the kettle off from the fire, cooled the meat and ate all he wanted. Then he hurried on for he was afraid that, when the owner of the meat found it had been stolen, he would track the thief. When night came, Yellowbird lay down under a tree. Soon he heard dry leaves rattle and he thought, "The man whose meat I stole is tracking me."

The sound came nearer till at last someone stopped by the tree. The young man didn't speak. After a while a woman said, "Well, Yellowbird, are you going to stay here all night?"

"I am," answered Yellowbird.

"I have come to keep you from being lonely."

The young man recognized his wife's voice, and he was glad that she had come.

"I told you," said the woman, "that I should follow you. Hereafter I shall be with you. You'll not see me, but when you come to a fire and find food cooking you must not think that it doesn't belong to you. I shall be the cause of it. I shall be with my father in the daytime and with you at night."

Yellowbird was a great many days' journey from the chief's village, but this woman could travel as fast as thought; wherever her thoughts went there she was.

Before daylight, the woman rose and began cooking, When the food was ready, she awakened Yellowbird. They ate together, then all at once the woman was gone.

Yellowbird traveled till midday, then he saw a smoke and going toward it found a fire and cooked food. He ate all he wanted, gave thanks and traveled on.

Just as the sun went down, Yellowbird saw smoke ahead and soon he came to a small house. Going in he found a kettle of meat boiling over the fire. The meat wasn't quite cooked so he sat down and watched it. thought, "Maybe this meat belongs to someone else!" when it was done he took it out of the kettle and cooled

Just as he was ready to eat he heard footsteps. "Now I'm caught," thought he. He sat with meat in one hand and liver in the other, and listened. The footsteps stopped outside the door and a rap came; the man didn't answer; another rap, he didn't answer. He put the liver and meat into the kettle and crept under a bunk that was there.

The skin door was pushed aside and a woman came in. She laughed, and asked, "Why are you afraid of me? I've come to keep you from being lonely."

"I wasn't afraid," said Yellowbird, coming from under the bunk, "I saw a mouse and thought I would catch it."

They ate and then slept. Before daylight food was ready. They ate, and the woman disappeared.

At midday Yellowbird saw smoke ahead and when he came to the fire found food ready, hulled corn and venison. He ate, gave thanks and went on. He didn't know how far or where he was going. At night he again found a house, and food ready. When he was about to eat someone came to the door. Yellowbird forgot the chief's daughter. He was frightened, and thought, "The owner of the house has come, he'll kill me." And taking up a club he went to the door to hit the man as he came in. When the chief's daughter pushed the door open, Yellowbird threw the club down.

The woman said, "I think you were going to kill me?"

"I was not, I was trying to kill a mouse."

They ate and slept. Before daylight food was ready. They ate again, then the woman disappeared and the young man went on. At midday he found food prepared for him. In the evening he came to a hut and went in. He stirred the fire and watched the kettle. When the meat was cooked, he took the kettle off the fire and was about to eat a piece of meat when he heard a noise outside. Again he forgot the chief's daughter and when a woman called, "Are you asleep?" he didn't answer.

"Can I come in?" asked she.

"Who are you? Where did you come from?" asked he.

"I came from the North."

After a long time Yellowbird said, "Come in."

The woman came in, laughing, and said, "It grows harder and harder to get to you. Why is this?"

"When I first came here," said Yellowbird, "people attacked me. I thought they had come back."

The woman laughed. She knew why he didn't remember her. The next morning, while they were eating, she said "At midday you will come to an opening and a long flat. The flat is guarded by women. Just before midday you will find food ready. After eating, creep up to the edge of the opening and watch. If the women are in groups, run to a large hickory tree on the opposite side of the flat. When in the middle of the flat, call out, 'Gowe! Gowe! I'm bound to run away.'"

Yellowbird started. Just before midday he came to a fire and found meat cooking. He took the kettle off cooled the meat and ate as fast as he could, then he hurried along. Exactly at midday he came to the edge of an opening and saw women sitting around here and there in groups. They were eating. He saw the hickory tree and ran toward it. No one noticed him. When he came to the middle of the flat he shouted, "Gowe! Gowe! I'm bound to run away."

The women, who were of the White Heron family, sprang up and ran after him. They almost overtook him before he reached the woods on the other side of the opening. The chief's daughter was there to encourage and praise him. She said, "I shall come to you tonight for the last time." He left her and continued his journey. At sunset he saw a cabin, went in, and found food cooking. He poured the meat into a bark bowl and was ready to eat when he heard the rustle of dry leaves. He listened, and thought, "The Heron women are coming to kill me."

This time the chief's daughter didn't rap, she called out, "I've come to visit you."

Yellowbird seized a club, held it up ready to strike, then said, "Well, come in!"

When he saw his wife he sprang back and dropped the club.

She said, "You were going to strike me."

"I was not. I was trying to hit a mouse," said Yellowbird.

The woman laughed. They ate and then lay down but didn't sleep. They talked all night. The woman said, "This is the last time you will see me. Hereafter another person will care for you. You must travel in the same direction. Your happiness is at the end of this trail."

Before daylight the chief's daughter cooked a large quantity of food.--Food was always at hand. We are not told how it came to be there.

While eating she said, "Tomorrow at midday you will come to a pond of bright water. On the bank you'll find a tree turned up by the roots. Go around the roots and pick up a bark basket that you'll find there. Fill the basket with water and go on till you come to a village. The chief of that village has a great deal of wampum. Sell him the water for wampum, then say that you'll leave the wampum in his care for a while. Take only one string. Stay a day and a night, then go on. After three days' travel, You will come to a wide opening, at the end of the opening you will find a tree that shines. Pull up that tree, take it with you to the next village and sell it to the chief. My protection ends here. I'll give you food for today's journey."

When the food was ready, Yellowbird put the bundle on his back and started. He traveled till hungry, then ate and went on again. At night he slept under a tree. At noon the next day, when looking for a resting place, he saw something so bright that he couldn't look at it. When near he saw that it was water and then he remembered what the chief's daughter had said. He found the basket and filled it. "This is strange water," thought he, but he traveled on, carrying the basket, first in one hand then in the other, till he came to a village. He went to the chief's house, but men standing there wouldn't let him go in.

"I must go straight on," said Yellowbird.

"If you try to we'll cut off your head," said the men. "It's the rule of the place."

They pulled up long flint knives that were sticking in the ground, and were about to cut off his head when the chief called out, "Let the man come in!"

"Where did you come from?" asked the chief.

"From the North."

"How far is your place from here?"

"It takes many days to go there."

"Do you know a man whose name is Daddy-long-legs?" Yellowbird hung his head in thought, then a voice seemed to say to him, "Raise your head and tell him, the man he asks about is the father of the woman who has protected you so long, your own father-in-law."

Yellowbird raised his head, and said, "I know that chief. I came from his village."

"Do you know a man called Inchworm?"

"I know him. He is my father."

"Do you think you will ever see him again?"

"I do not."

"If you do, carry him this message: 'His mother died here two days ago.'"

When Yellowbird showed the shining water, the chief said, "I have wanted to find this water. I will give you many strings of wampum for it. Where did you get it?"

"From the Pond of Brightness, not far from here."

The chief and Yellowbird went to that pond and when they came back, the chief said, "I am glad that you are Inchworm's son; he and I are old friends."

The next morning Yellowbird said to the chief "I am going away and I want to leave in your care the wampum you have given me for the bright water. I will take but one string now."

"Very well," said the chief, and he gave him one string.

The young man continued his journey. The first night he slept where darkness overtook him; the second night he slept in a hollow tree; the third night he camped in a hole in the rocks.

The fourth morning he had gone but a short distance, when he came to an opening in the forest and saw just ahead a shining tree. When he came to the tree, he pushed it over, then picked it up, put it across his shoulder and went on till he came to a village. He went to the chief's house and stood outside till the chief called to him to come in.

"Who are you and why have you come?" asked the chief.

"I have come to sell this tree," said Yellowbird

"I will give you wampum for that tree. I'll give you my daughter and still more wampum if you will go with me to the place where you found the tree."

Yellowbird agreed and the two went to the place, and in the hole where the tree had been they found bright dirt and stones.

The chief said, "There are men who call these 'the eye-breaker stones.'"

Yellowbird married the chief's daughter.

After a while he said to her, "I want to go to my father's village. I will go with you," said the woman.

They started. When they came to the flat guarded by the Heron women they stole to the middle of the flat, then called out, "Gowe! Gowe! We are bound to run away." And they got to the opposite side of the flat before the Herons overtook them.

When Yellowbird came to his father's home, neither his father nor his mother knew him.

His mother said, "Our house is too poor for you."

"I went out of it to work for the chief," said the young man.

Then the mother recognized her son and was glad to see him.

The young man gave his father a string of wampum, and said, "Buy food with it, and get men to make me a bark house."

When the house was finished Yellowbird opened the door and threw in a string of wampum, then he closed the door and went away. The next morning there were a great many strings of wampum in the house, they had come from his father-in-law's house.

After many moons, a runner came to notify Yellowbird that a woman who lived on an island in a lake wanted him to come to her, and said if he didn't come he would lose his head.

Yellowbird was grieved, he didn't want to leave his wife and children, but that night he started toward the South, running as fast as he could. When he came to the edge of the lake, he said, "Now is the time to show my power to run on water."

He started and he ran on the water as fast as he had on land. When he was near the middle of the lake, he bent his head down, didn't look forward--the woman on the island made him do this. When she found that he was coming on the water, she threw a pebble telling it to go straight in front of the man and become a rock so high and long that he couldn't pass over it or go around it.

Yellowbird, with head bent down, was running very fast. He struck the rock, fell back in the water and was drowned. High waves rolled up and carried him in the direction from which he came, and toward night his body was thrown on shore.

The Ancient of Bears came, looked at the body, and said, "This man is like the brother of Turtle, the man who always says, 'If my brother is destroyed, I will put an end to this world.' I must bring the man to life."

The Ancient of Bears worked over Yellowbird, used all of his power, and at last brought him to life.

"You are alive," said Bear when Yellowbird opened his eyes. "Now you must go East, to the end of the world, Your brother lives there. You must pacify him. If you don't he will destroy us. Take one of my teeth; it will help you to go quickly. You must hurry, for your brother is angry, he thinks that someone has killed you."

While they stood talking they heard a great roar and far off in the East they saw a column of fire shoot up and spread out over the country.

"Hurry!" said the Ancient of Bears. "If you don't, he will destroy us!"

Yellowbird ran and his speed was so great that he seemed to fly. When he came to the edge of the world where the fire was, he saw a dark figure pushing its head forward.

"My brother," called he, "I want you to stop being angry, I am alive."

"If you are my brother," said Turtle, "you must sing our war song and cross the world four times."

The young than ran to the end of the world and back to his brother. The force of the flame coming up from below the edge of the earth began to diminish. He ran a second time and back: the flame was dying down. When he came back the fourth time, the fire was out.

Turtle said, "Thank you, Brother. Now I want You to tell me where the thing is that I gave you long ago."

"When did you give it to me? What was it?"

"I gave it to you when you were born."

"Maybe my mother is keeping it for me," said Yellowbird. "I'll go and get it."

"Have you anything to help you run faster than you do now?" asked Turtle.

"I have not."

"I'll give you power to go so fast that as soon as you think of a place you will be there. And you shall have the power of turning yourself into anything you like."

He gave him a small piece of something like flesh, and said, "When you want to use this put it in your mouth. Now go as fast as you can."

Yellowbird put the thing in his mouth and started. Right away he was at his father's house, and going in he asked his mother, "Have you anything that my brother gave me long ago?"

"I have," said she, "Here it is, I have never thought of it till now," and she gave him a tiny hand.

Taking the hand, Yellowbird went back to his brother, who, when he saw the hand said, "You are my brother. Now we will go to the woman on the island. You will go ahead, I will follow. If I overtake you, I will cut off your head, for that will increase your speed."

They started and soon the elder brother began to gain on the younger. When he was about to overtake him, Yellowbird changed to a deer and shot ahead. The elder brother changed to a deer and had almost caught up when the Younger brother became an elk and ran away from the deer. They held on in this way. Whenever Yellowbird neared his brother, the latter changed into something, and right away the elder brother changed too.

When they came to the edge of the lake, Yellowbird turned into a bass and disappeared in the water, the elder brother' became a bass too. At the opposite bank Yellowbird was an eel. The eel touched land and became a man, then an enormous eel sprang to land, became a man, and called "Stop, Brother, I give up, you have beaten me. The woman who sent for you is chief of a village not far from here. An enormous water monster destroying her people. She wants you to kill the monster. When you reach her village I will be there."

Yellowbird came to the village and went toward the chief's house, but two men stood in his way. When they refused to let him pass, he drew out his basswood knife and cut off their heads. He went into the house and said to the chief, "I am angry, for it has cost me much labor to come here. What do you want?"

"I want you to destroy a monster that is killing off my people. He makes rain come, and he can bring water out of the lake to any place where he wants to kill a person. When the person is dead, the water falls back; whomever the water touches it kills. If you destroy this monster, you shall be chief in my place."

Early in the morning Yellowbird and the chief started for the lake. The villages were far apart. When they came to the last village the woman said, "The lake is close by. I will stay here in the village. I don't want Muck-worm to know that we are here; he is a bad man."

While they were talking, rain began to fall. The woman was frightened. "This will kill me," said she.

"It is nothing," said Yellowbird, and he went through the village and into a forest.

Just before coming to an opening he heard a whisper. He looked on all sides but could see no one. Again he heard some one whisper and turning he saw his brother.

"Now," said the brother, "You must use all the power I have given you. The only way to destroy the monster is to go to the lake and cut off its head. Bring its heart, tongue and claws away with you."

Yellowbird went to the lake. The place where the lake had been was covered with sand. There was no water except in the center where there was a hollow. In that hollow lay an enormous Beaver, asleep. Yellowbird cut the monster open, took its heart, tongue and claws and ran for his life. As he reached the forest down came the monster. It leaped toward Yellowbird and barely missed him. Turtle took the heart and pounded it to jelly.

Beaver spoke then to the brothers, and said, "You have great power, you have overcome and destroyed me."

Beaver went back to the hollow in the sand and as he went the forest moved up on both sides and occupied the place where the lake had been.

Turtle said to his brother, "Keep the claws, but give the tongue to the chief as a proof that you have destroyed the monster."

The woman made Yellowbird chief in her place and became his wife.

Yellowbird changed to an Eagle--his new wife, was an Eagle. He went high in the air and when he came to the ground, he was at his old home with his wife and children.

One day he sat very still as though listening. All at once he said, "Off in the West people are crying, I must find out what is troubling them."

The next morning Yellowbird started off, he traveled all day and at night crawled into a hollow tree.

Soon a voice asked, "What would you do if Whirlwind came?"

"I would be pleased."

The speaker went away and soon Yellowbird heard heavy wind and rain coming from the South. Whirlwind leveled the trees to the ground, struck the tree Yellowbird was in, raised it up, carried it away, whirled it over and over, played with it. Yellowbird got impatient; it was almost morning, still he was whirling through the air.

At last the tree fell into the sea and was torn to pieces. Yellowbird lay on one of the boughs. He fastened two or three boughs together and sat on them as on a raft. The water rolled up big waves, "My raft will go to pieces and I'll be drowned," thought he.

Someone laughed, and said, "You are a fool! You don't think of me, even when you are in trouble. You know that I am always behind you, waiting to hear you say, 'I wish my brother were here.' Sit on my back, I'll carry you ashore."

When they reached shore, Turtle asked, "Where is what I gave you?"

"I have lost it," said Yellowbird.

"No you haven't."

When Yellowbird found what he thought he had lost, he traveled on till he came to a place where the earth troubled people. It became soft, heaved up and rolled over their homes.

Then Yellowbird said to himself, "My Brother, I wish you were here,"

That minute Turtle was at his side. "I thank you," said he, "for thinking of me. The people here do wrong, They kill and eat one another. If they will cease doing that, they will have no more trouble."

Yellowbird sent a runner to tell the people to assemble and when they had come together, he said, "You kill and eat one another. If you will promise to stop doing this, I will tell the earth to keep still. Yonder is a great forest in which there are wild beasts. Kill those beasts and use their flesh for food."

They promised to do as he told them.

When Yellowbird was about to start for home, his elder brother stood by his side, and said, "On your way home pay no heed to anyone."

Yellowbird traveled four days and then came to his own village. He had not been at home long when a runner came to notify him that a woman chief summoned him to be in her village at midday. He rose up and started. As soon as he was out of sight of the house, he changed to an eagle and flew along just high enough to see what was going on below. When he saw a lake, he dropped down to the edge of the water, turned to a duck and swam to the opposite side. Then he changed to a man and traveled on till he came to the village.

At the edge of the village was a cabin. In the cabin lived an old woman and her granddaughter.

When Yellowbird went into the cabin, the old woman asked, "My Grandson, which way did you come?"

"From beyond the lake."

"Why did you come?"

"The chief of the village sent for me. I came because I couldn't help coming."

"My Grandson, I pity you," said the old woman. "When our chief hears of a man who has power, she sends for him and gives him to a serpent that lives in the lake."

"Well" said Yellowbird, "if I am overpowered your chief and all of her people will be destroyed, my brother will come and punish your chief."

At midday Yellowbird went to the chief's house. When he saw the chief, he said, "I have come. What do you want? I am angry, for you called me from my work,"

"I want you to kill a snake that is destroying my people. If you can kill it, I will make you chief in my place. You can try now, for at midday the snake comes out of the lake."

As Yellowbird went toward the lake, the water began to rise and soon the snake appeared. As it lay on the water it was the height of a man. When it reached the shore and came toward Yellowbird, he turned to run. The snake caught him by the feet and drew him into its throat to the arms, but the man stretched out his arms and saved himself from going down. The snake went into the water. The water moved away, piled up on both sides and left the snake on the bottom of the lake, on dry land.

Then over his head somewhere Yellowbird heard his brother laugh, and say, "My Brother, you are a fool, When you saw the snake coming, you should have thought of me. Exert yourself!"

Yellowbird pulled and easily got loose, then he ran between the walls of water, the snake close to his heels. When he reached the bank the water closed up. The elder brother threw a white flint stone at the snake's head and the snake rolled over dead. The water heaved up till it reached the village, then it receded.

Yellowbird went to the chief, and said, "I have killed the snake."

She thanked him, and said, "Now you are chief in my place," but she was not pleased.

Yellowbird went to the lake, turned to a duck and swam out a good distance, then he changed to an eagle and soon was at home.

Yellowbird remained with his wife and children till a runner came with a message from the chief of the village where he had killed the Beaver. She said, "Be here tomorrow at midday."

Yellowbird did not change his form but he ran in the air till he came to a lake. He was running over the lake, but near the water, when he struck against an invisible object and was thrown back. He rose again and ran on, ran swiftly and before be could stop he was in a tangle of grape vines. He bounded back and fell. He was terribly angry and as he rose up, he said, "Why should she send for me and then try to prevent my coming?"

He reached Eagle's house, rushed in and said to her, "I am here and I will punish you!"

He seized the woman by the hair and cut off her head then he started for home. When well on the way, he met a beautiful, smiling woman, who asked, "May I go with you?"

"Don't bother me," said Yellowbird. "I am traveling."

"Rest a while," said the woman.

"I will not stop. If you speak to me again, I will cut off your head."

"Oh, stop and talk," begged the woman.

Yellowbird turned, and seizing the woman by the hair, cut off her head. Then he went on till he came to his own village.

One day, after Yellowbird had been at home a long time, he heard a terrible noise and going out saw that the earth was cracking open here and there. It cracked more and more, opened great ditches. All at once a man appeared in the air, and said, "You are frightened. You think you and your people are going to die. You will not. Follow me."

Then Yellowbird rose in the air and the two traveled southward followed by all of Yellowbird's people. As they looked back, they saw the village, where Yellowbird had been, sink out of sight and water rise up there. Then the head of Turtle came from under the water and he called out, "Gowe! Gowe! This is the kind of man I am."

The guide, whom Yellowbird and his people were following, said, "Your brother is angry because you killed the Eagle woman. To show his power he has destroyed everything."

They traveled on till the air was fragrant. They saw beautiful ripe berries, and then houses where people lived. One house was larger than the others.

The guide said, "The man of controlling power lives there."

They went on and on till they came to a village that Yellowbird recognized. It was his native village.

The guide said, "Now you are at home, and safe."

The people went into their houses and found everything, as it seemed to them, exactly as they had left it--But this village was above the Blue. Their guide was the man of the Blue.

Yellowbird, though he was called after his dog, was not a bird; he was an inchworm. His first wife was a grasshopper.

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