Native American Legends
The Beaver Medicine
A Blackfoot Legend
This story goes back many years, to a time before the Indians went
to war against each other. Then there was peace among all the tribes.
They met, and did not kill each other. They had no guns and they
had no horses. When two tribes met, the head chiefs would take each
a stick and touch each other. Each had counted a coup on the other,
and they then went back to their camps. It was more a friendly than
a hostile ceremony.
Oftentimes, when a party of young men had gone to a strange camp,
and had done this to those whom they had visited, they would come
back to their homes and would tell the girls whom they loved that
they had counted a coup on this certain tribe of people. After the
return of such a party, the young women would have a dance. Each
one would wear clothing like that of the man she loved, and as she
danced, she would count a coup, saying that she herself had done
the deed which her young lover had really done. Such was the custom
of the people.
There was a chief in a camp who had three wives, all very pretty
women. He used to say to these women, whenever a dance was called:
"Why do not you go out and dance too? Perhaps you have some
one in the camp that you love, and for whom you would like to count
a coup" Then the women would say, "No, we do not wish
to join the dance; we have no lovers."
There was in the camp a poor young man, whose name was Api-kunni.
He had no relations, and no one to tan robes or furs for him, and
he was always badly clad and in rags. Whenever he got some clothing,
he wore it as long as it would hold together. This young man loved
the youngest wife of the chief, and she loved him. But her parents
were not rich, and they could not give her to Api-kunni, and
when the chief wanted her for a wife, they gave her to him. Sometimes
Api-kunni and this girl used to meet and talk together, and he
used to caution her, saying, "Now be careful that you do not
tell any one that you see me." She would say, "No, there
is no danger; I will not let it be known."
One evening, a dance was called for the young women to dance, and
the chief said to his wives: "Now, women, you had better go
to this dance. If any of you have persons whom you love, you might
as well go and dance for them." Two of them said: "No,
we will not go. There is no one that we love." But the third
said, "Well, I think I will go and dance." The chief said
to her, "Well, go then; your lover will surely dress you up
for the dance."
The girl went to where Api-kunni as living in an old woman's
lodge, very poorly furnished, and told him what she was going to
do, and asked him to dress her for the dance. He said to her: "Oh,
you have wronged me by coming here, and by going to the dance. I
told you to keep it a secret." The girl said: "Well, never
mind; no one will know your dress. Fix me up, and I will go and
join the dance anyway." "Why," said Api-kunni,
"I never have been to war. I have never counted any coups.
You will go and dance and will have nothing to say. The people will
laugh at you." But when he found that the girl wanted to go,
he painted her forehead with red clay, and tied a goose skin, which
he had, about her head, and lent her his badly tanned robe, which
in spots was hard like a parfleche. He said to her, "If you
will go to the dance, say, when it comes your turn to speak, that
when the water in the creeks gets warm, you are going to war, and
are going to count a coup on some people."
The woman went to the dance, and joined in it. All the people were
laughing at her on account of her strange dress, a goose skin around
her head, and a badly tanned robe about her. The people in the dance
asked her: "Well, what are you dancing for? What can you tell?"
The woman said, "I am dancing here today, and when the water
in the streams gets warm next spring, I am going to war; and then
I will tell you what I have done to any people." The chief
was standing present, and when he learned who it was that his young
wife loved, he was much ashamed and went to his lodge.
When the dance was over, this young woman went to the lodge of
the poor young man to give back his dress to him. Now, while she
had been gone, Api-kunni had been thinking over all these things,
and he was very much ashamed. He took his robe and his goose skin
and went away. He was so ashamed that he went away at once, travelling
off over the prairie, not caring where he went, and crying all the
time. As he wandered away, he came to a lake, and at the foot of
this lake was a beaver dam, and by the dam a beaver house. He walked
out on the dam and on to the beaver house. There he stopped and
sat down, and in his shame cried the rest of the day, and at last
he fell asleep on the beaver house.
While he slept, he dreamed that a beaver came to him a very large
beaver and said: "My poor young man, come into my house. I
pity you, and will give you something that will help you."
So Api-kunni got up, and followed the beaver into the house.
When he was in the house, he awoke, and saw sitting opposite him
a large white beaver, almost as big as a man. He thought to himself,
"This must be the chief of all the beavers, white because very
old." The beaver was singing a song. It was a very strange
song, and he sang it a long time. Then he said to Api-kunni,
"My son, why are you mourning?" and the young man told
him everything that had happened, and how he had been shamed. Then
the beaver said: "My son, stay here this winter with me. I
will provide for you. When the time comes, and you have learned
our songs and our ways, I will let you go. For a time make this
your home." So Api-k)u]nni stayed there with the beaver, and
the beaver taught him many strange things. All this happened in
Now the chief in the camp missed this poor young man, and he asked
the people where he had gone. No one knew. They said that the last
that had been seen of him he was travelling toward the lake where
the beaver dam was.
Api-kunni had a friend, another poor young man named Wolf Tail,
and after a while, Wolf Tail started out to look for his friend.
He went toward this lake, looking everywhere, and calling out his
name. When he came to the beaver house, he kicked on the top and
called, "Oh, my brother, are you here?" Api-kunni answered
him, and said: "Yes, I am here. I was brought in while I was
asleep, and I cannot give you the secret of the door, for I do not
know it myself." Wolf Tail said to him, "Brother, when
the weather gets warm a party is going to start from camp to war."
Api-kunni said: "Go home and try to get together all the
moccasins you can, but do not tell them that I am here. I am ashamed
to go back to the camp. When the party starts, come this way and
bring me the moccasins, and we two will start from here." He
also said: "I am very thin. The beaver food here does not agree
with me. We are living on the bark of willows." Wolf Tail went
back to the camp and gathered together all the moccasins that he
could, as he had been asked to do.
When the spring came, and the grass began to start, the war party
set out. At this time the beaver talked to Apikunni a long time,
and told him many things. He dived down into the water, and brought
up a long stick of aspen wood, cut off from it a piece as long as
a man's arm, trimmed the twigs off it, and gave it to the young
man. "Keep this," the beaver said, "and when you
go to war take it with you." The beaver also gave him a little
sack of medicine, and told him what he must do.
When the party started out, Wolf Tail came to the beaver house,
bringing the moccasins, and his friend came out of the house. They
started in the direction the party had taken and traveled with them,
but off to one side. When they stopped at night, the two young men
camped by themselves.
They traveled for many days, until they came to Bow River, and
found that it was very high. On the other side of the river, they
saw the lodges of a camp. In this camp a man was making a speech,
and Api-kunni said to his friend, "Oh, my brother, I am
going to kill that man today, so that my sweetheart may count coup
on him." These two were at a little distance from the main
party, above them on the river. The people in the camp had seen
the Blackfeet, and some had come down to the river. When Api-kunni
had said this to Wolf Tail, he took his clothes off and began to
sing the song the beaver had taught him. This was the song:
I am like an island, For on an island I got my power. In battle
I live While people fall away from me.
While he sang this, he had in his hand the stick which the beaver
had given him. This was his only weapon.
He ran to the bank, jumped in and dived, and came up in the middle
of the river, and started to swim across. The rest of the Blackfeet
saw one of their number swimming across the river, and they said
to each other: "Who is that? Why did not some one stop him?"
While he was swimming across, the man who had been making the speech
saw him and went down to meet him. He said: "Who can this man
be, swimming across the river? He is a stranger. I will go down
and meet him, and kill him." As the boy was getting close to
the shore, the man waded out in the stream up to his waist, and
raised his knife to stab the swimmer. When Api-kunni got near
him, he dived under the water and came up close to the man, and
thrust the beaver stick through his body, and the man fell down
in the water and died. Api-kunni caught the body, and dived under
the water with it, and came up on the other side where he had left
his friend. Then all the Blackfeet set up the war whoop, for they
were glad, and they could hear a great crying in the camp. The people
there were sorry for the man who was killed.
People in those days never killed one another, and this was the
first man ever killed in war.
They dragged the man up on the bank, and Api-kunni said to his
brother, "Cut off those long hairs on the head." The young
man did as he was told. He scalped him and counted coup on him;
and from that time forth, people, when they went to war, killed
one another and scalped the dead enemy, as this poor young man had
done. Two others of the main party came to the place, and counted
coup on the dead body, making four who had counted coup. From there,
the whole party turned about and went back to the village whence
they had come.
When they came in sight of the lodges, they sat down in a row facing
the camp. The man who had killed the enemy was sitting far in front
of the others. Behind him sat his friend, and behind Wolf Tail,
sat the two who had counted coup on the body. So these four were
strung out in front of the others. The chief of the camp was told
that some people were sitting on a hill near by, and when he had
gone out and looked, he said: "There is some one sitting way
in front. Let somebody go out and see about it." A young man
ran out to where he could see, and when he had looked, he ran back
and said to the chief, "Why, that man in front is the poor
The old chief looked around, and said: "Where is that young
woman, my wife? Go and find her." They went to look for her,
and found her out gathering rosebuds, for while the young man whom
she loved was away, she used to go out and gather rosebuds and dry
them for him. When they found her, she had her bosom full of them.
When she came to the lodge, the chief said to her: "There is
the man you love, who has come. Go and meet him." She made
ready quickly and ran out and met him. He said: "Give her that
hair of the dead man. Here is his knife. There is the coat he had
on, when I killed him. Take these things back to the camp, and tell
the people who made fun of you that this is what you promised them
at the time of that dance."
The whole party then got up and walked to the camp. The woman took
the scalp, knife and coat to the lodge, and gave them to her husband.
The chief invited Api-kunni to come to his lodge to visit him. He
said: "I see that you have been to war, and that you have done
more than any of us have ever done. This is a reason why you should
be a chief. Now take my lodge and this woman, and live here. Take
my place and rule these people. My two wives will be your servants."
When Api-kunni heard this, and saw the young woman sitting there
in the lodge, he could not speak. Something seemed to rise up in
his throat and choke him.
So this young man lived in the camp and was known as their chief.
After a time, he called his people together in council and told
them of the strange things the beaver had taught him, and the power
that the beaver had given him. He said: "This will be a benefit
to us while we are a people now, and afterward it will be handed
down to our children, and if we follow the words of the beaver we
will be lucky. This seed the beaver gave me, and told me to plant
it every year. When we ask help from the beaver, we will smoke this
This plant was the Indian tobacco, and it is from the beaver that
the Blackfeet got it. Many strange things were taught this man by
the beaver, which were handed down and are followed till today.
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