Native American Legends
The Old Woman of the Spring
A Cheyenne Legend
When the Cheyenne were still in the north, they camped in a large
circle at whose entrance a deep, rapid spring flowed from a hillside.
The spring provided the camp with water, but food was harder to
find. The buffalo had disappeared, and many people went hungry.
One bright day some men were playing the game of ring and javelin
in the center of the camp circle. They used a red and black hoop
and four long sticks, two red and two black, which they threw at
the hoop as it rolled along. In order to win, a player had to throw
his stick through the hoop while it was still moving.
A large audience had already gathered when a young man came from
the south side of the camp circle to join them. He wore a buffalo
robe with the hair turned outward. His body was painted yellow,
and a yellow-painted eagle breach-feather was fastened to his head.
Soon another young man dressed exactly like the first came from
the north side of the circle to watch the game. They were unacquainted,
but when the two caught sight of each other they moved through the
crowd to talk. "My friend," said the man from the south
side, "you're imitating my dress. Why are you doing it?"
The other man said, "It's you who are imitating me. Why?"
In their explanations, both men told the same story.
They had entered the spring that flowed out from the hillside,
and there they had been instructed how to dress. By now the crowd
had stopped watching the game and gathered around to listen, and
the young men told the people that they would go into the spring
again and come out soon.
As the crowd watched, the two approached the spring. The man from
the south covered his head with his buffalo robe and entered. The
other did the same. The young men splashed through the water and
soon found themselves in a large cave.
Near the entrance sat an old woman cooking some buffalo meat and
corn in two separate earthen pots. She welcomed them: "Grandchildren,
you have come. Here, sit beside me."
They sat down, one on each side of her, and told her that the people
were hungry and that they had come to her for food. She gave them
corn from one pot and meat from the other. They ate until they had
had enough, and when they were through the pots were still full.
Then she told them to look toward the south, and they saw that
the land in that direction was covered with buffalo. She told them
to look toward the west, and they saw all kinds of animals, large
and small, including ponies, though they knew nothing of ponies
in those days. She told them to look toward the north, and they
saw corn growing everywhere.
The old woman said to them, "All this that you have seen shall
be yours in the future. Tonight I cause the buffalo to be restored
to you. When you leave this place, the buffalo will follow, and
your people will see them coming before sunset. Take this uncooked
corn in your robes, and plant it every spring in low, moist ground.
After it matures, you can feed upon it."
"Take also this meat and corn that I have cooked," she
said, "and when you have returned to your people, ask them
to sit down to eat in the following order: - first, all males, from
the youngest to the oldest, with the exception of one orphan boy;
- second, all females, from the oldest to the youngest, with the
exception of one orphan girl. When all are through eating, the rest
of the food in the pots is to be eaten by the orphan boy and the
The two men obeyed the old woman. When they passed out of the spring,
they saw that their entire bodies were painted red, and the yellow
breach- feathers on their heads had turned red. They went to their
people, who ate as directed of the corn and meat. There was enough
for all, and the contents of the pots remained full until they were
passed to the two orphan children, who ate all the rest of the food.
Toward sunset the people went to their lodges and began watching
the spring closely, and in a short time they saw a buffalo leap
out. The creature jumped and played and rolled, then returned to
the spring. In a little while another buffalo jumped out, then another
and another, and finally they came so fast that the Cheyenne were
no longer able to count them. The buffalo continued to emerge all
night, and the following day the whole country out in the distance
was covered with buffalo. The buffalo scented the great camp.
The next day the Cheyenne surrounded them, for though the men hunted
on foot, they ran very fast. For a time the people had an abundance
of buffalo meat.
In the spring they moved their camp to low, swampy land, where
they planted the corn they had received from the medicine stream.
It grew rapidly, and every grain they planted brought forth strong
stalks bearing two to four ears of corn. The people planted corn
every year after this.
One spring after planting corn, the Cheyenne went on a buffalo
hunt. When they had enough meat to last for a long time, they returned
to their fields. To their surprise, they found that the corn had
been stolen by some neighboring tribe. Nothing but stalks remained
- not even a kernel for seed.
Though the theft had occurred about a moon before, the Cheyenne
trailed the enemies' footprints for several days. They even fought
with two or three tribes, but never succeeded in tracing the robbers
or recovering the stolen crop. It was a long time before the Cheyenne
planted any more corn.
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