Native American Legends
The Orphan Boy and the Elk Dog
A Blackfoot Legend
The horse was introduced to this continent by the Spaniards when they arrived in the middle of the sixteenth century. Within two centuries the horses had been acquired by almost every tribe and had transformed the Indian's life. As there was no Indian word for horse, and it carried burdens like a dog, it was usually named Elk Dog, Spirit Dog, Sacred Dog, or Moose Dog.
In the days when people only had dogs to carry their bundles, two orphan children, a boy and his sister, were having a hard time. The boy was deaf because he could not understand what people said, they thought him foolish and dull-witted. Even his relatives wanted nothing to do with him. The name he had been given at birth, while his parents stilled lived, was Long Arrow. Now he was like a beaten, mangy dog, the kind who hungrily roam outside a camp, circling it from afar, smelling the good meat boiling in the kettles but never coming close for fear of being kicked. Only his sister, who was bright and beautiful, loved him.
Then the sister was adopted by a family from another camp, people who were attracted by her good looks, and pleasing ways. Though they wanted her for a daughter, they certainly did not want the awkward, stupid boy. And so they took away the only person who cared about him, and the orphan boy was left to fend for himself. He lived on scraps thrown to the dogs and things he found on the refuse heaps. He dressed in the remnants of skins and frayed robes discarded by the poorest people. At night he bedded down in a grass-lined dugout, like an animal in its den.
Eventually the game was hunted out near the camp that the boy regarded as his, and the people decided to move. The lodges were taken down, belongings were packed into rawhide bags and put on dog travois, and the village departed. "Stay here," they told the boy. "We don't want your kind coming with us."
For two or three days the boy fed on scraps the people had left behind, but he knew he would starve if he stayed. He had to join his people whether they liked it or not. He followed their tracks, frantic that he would lose them, and crying at the same time. Soon the sweat was running down his skinny body. As he was stumbling, running, panting, something suddenly snapped in his left ear with a sound like a small crack, and a worm-like substance came out of that ear. All at once he on his left side he could hear birdsongs for the first time. He took this worm-like thing in his left hand and hurried on. Then there was a snap in his right ear and a worm-like thing came out of it, and on his right side he could hear the rushing waters of a stream. His hearing was restored! And it was razor sharp, he could make out the rustling of a tiny mouse in the dry leaves a good distance away. The orphan boy laughed and was happy for the first time in his life. With renewed courage he followed the trail his people had made.
In the meantime the village had settled into its new place. Men were already out hunting. Thus the boy came upon Good Running, a kindly old chief, butchering a fat buffalo cow he had just killed. When the chief saw the boy, he said to himself, "Here comes that poor good-for-nothing boy. It was very wrong to abandon him." To the boy Good Running said: "Rest here, grandson, you're sweaty and covered with dust. Here, have some tripe."
The boy wolfed down the meat. He was not used to hearing and talking yet, but his eyes were alert and Good Running also noticed a change in his manner. "This boy," the chief said to himself, "is neither stupid nor crazy." He gave the orphan a piece of the hump meat, then a piece of liver, then a piece of raw kidney, and at last the very best kind of meat-a slice of tongue. The more the old man looked at the boy, the more he liked him. On the spur of the moment he said, "Grandson, I'm going to adopt you; there's a place for you in my tipi. And I'm going to make you into a good hunter and warrior." The boy wept, this time for joy. Good Running said, "They called you a stupid, crazy boy, but now that I think of it, the name you were given at birth is Long Arrow. I'll see that people call you by your right name. Now come along."
The chief's wife was not pleased. "Why do you put this burden on me," she said, "bringing into our lodge this good-for-nothing, this, slow-witted boy? Maybe you're a little slow-witted and crazy yourself!"
"Woman, keep talking like that and I'll beat you! This boy isn't slow or crazy; he's a good boy, and I have taken him for my grandson. Look-he's barefooted. Hurry up, and make a pair of moccasins for him, and if you don't do well I'll take a stick to you."
Good Running's wife grumbled but did as she was told. Her husband was a kind man, but when aroused, his anger was great.
So a new life began for Long Arrow. He had to learn to speak and to understand well, and to catch up on all the things a boy should know. He was a fast learner and soon surpassed other boys his age in knowledge and skills. At last even Good Running's wife accepted him.
He grew up into a fine young hunter, tall and good-looking in the quilled buckskin outfit the chief's wife made for him. He helped his grandfather in everything and became a staff for Good Running to lean on. But he was lonely, for most people in the camp would not forget that Long Arrow had once been an outcast. "Grandfather," he said one day, "I want to do something to make you proud and show people that you were wise to adopt me. What can I do?"
Good Running answered, "Someday you will be a chief and do great things." "But what's a great thing I could do now, Grandfather?"
The chief thought for a long time. "Maybe I shouldn't tell you this." He said, "I love you and don't want to lose you. But on winter nights, men talk of a powerful spirit people living at the bottom of a faraway lake. Down in that lake the spirit people keep mystery animals who do their work for them. These animals are larger than a great elk, but they carry the burden of the spirit people like dogs. So they're called Pono-Kamita the Elk Dogs. They are said to be swift, strong, gentle, and beautiful beyond imagination. Every fourth generation, one of our young warriors has gone to find these spirit folk and bring back an Elk Dog for us. But none of our brave young men had ever returned."
"Grandfather, I'm not afraid. I'll go and find the Elk Dog."
"Grandson, first learn to be a man. Learn the right prayers
and ceremonies. Be brave. Be generous and open-handed. Pity the
old and the fatherless, and let the holy men of the tribe find a
medicine for you which will protect you on your dangerous journey.
We will begin by purifying you in the sweat bath."
So Long Arrow was purified with the white steam of the sweat lodge.
He was taught how to use the pipe, an how to pray to the Great Mystery
Power. The tribe's holy men gave him a medicine and made for him
a shield with designs on it to ward off danger.
Then one morning, without telling anyone, Good Running loaded his
best travois dog with all the things Lone Arrow would need for traveling.
The chief gave him his medicine, his shield, and his own fine bow
and, just as the sun came up, went with his grandson to the edge
of the camp to purify him with sweet smelling cedar smoke. Long
Arrow left unheard and unseen by anyone else. After a while some
people noticed that he was gone, but no one except his grandfather
knew where and for what purpose.
Following Good Running's advice, Long Arrow wandered southward.
On the fourth day of his journey he came to a small pond, where
a strange man was standing as waiting for him. "Why have you
come here?" the stranger asked.
"I have come to find the mysterious Elk Dog."
"Ah, there I cannot help you," said the man, who was
the spirit of the pond. "But if you travel further south, four-times-four
days, you might chance upon a bigger lake and there meet one of
my uncles. Possibly he might talk to you; then again, he might not.
That's all I can tell you."
Long Arrow thanked the man, who went down to the bottom of the pond, where he lived.
Long Arrow wandered on, walking for long hours and taking little
time for rest. Through deep canyons and over high mountains he went,
wearing out his moccasins and enduring cold and heat, hunger and
Finally Long Arrow approached a big lake surrounded by steep pine
covered hills. There he came face to face with a tall man, fierce
and scowling and twice the height of most humans. This stranger
carried a long lance with a heavy spearpoint made of shining flint.
"Young one," he growled, "why have you come here?"
"I came to find the mysterious Elk Dog."
The stranger who was the spirit of the lake, stuck his face right
into Long Arrow's and shook his mighty lance. "Little one,
aren't you afraid of me?" he snarled.
"No, I am not." answered Long Arrow smiling.
The tall spirit man gave a hideous grin, which was his way of being
friendly. "I like small humans who aren't afraid," he
said, "but I can't help you. Perhaps our grandfather will take
the trouble to listen to you. More likely he won't. Walk south for
four times four days, and maybe you'll find him. But probably you
won't." With that the tall spirit turned his back on Long Arrow
and went to the bottom of the lake, where he lived.
Long Arrow walked on for another four times four days, sleeping
and resting little. By now he staggered and stumbled in his weakness,
and his dog was not much better off. At last he came to the biggest
lake he had ever seen, surrounded by towering snow-capped peaks
and waterfalls of ice. This time there was nobody to receive him.
As a matter of fact, there seemed to be no living thing around.
"This must be the Great Mystery Lake." thought Lone Arrow.
Exhausted, he fell down among the wild flowers and went to sleep
with his tired dog curled up at his feet.
When Long Arrow awoke, the sun was already high. He opened his
eyes and saw a beautiful child standing before him, a boy in dazzling
white buckskin robe decorated with porcupine quills of many colors.
The boy said: "We have been expecting you for a long time.
My grandfather invites you to his lodge. Follow me."
Telling his dog to wait, Long Arrow took his medicine shield and
his grandfather's bow and went with the wonderful child. They
came to the edge of the lake. The spirit boy pointed to the water
and said: "My grandfather's lodge is down there. Come!"
The child turned himself into a kingfisher and dove straight to
Afraid, Long Arrow thought, "How can I follow him and not
be drowned?" But then he said to himself, "I knew all
the time that this would not be easy. In setting out to find the
Elk Dog, I already threw my life away." And he boldly jumped
into the water. To his surprise, he found it did not make him wet,
that it parted before him, that he could breathe and see. He touched
the lake's sandy bottom. It sloped down, down toward a center point.
Long Arrow descended this slope until he came to a small, flat
valley. In the middle of it stood a large tipi of tanned buffalo
hide. The images of two strange animals were drawn on it in sacred
vermillion paint. A kingfisher perched high on top of the tipi flew
down and turned again into the beautiful boy, who said, "Welcome.
Enter my grandfather's lodge."
Long Arrow followed the spirit boy inside. In the back at the seat
of honor sat a black-robbed old man with flowing white hair and
such power emanating from him that Long Arrow felt himself in the
presence of a truly Great One. The holy man welcomed Long Arrow
and offered him food. The man's wife came in bringing dishes of
buffalo hump, liver, tongues, delicious chunks of deer meat, the
roasted flesh of strange, tasty water birds, and meat pounded together
with berries, chokeberries, and kidney fat. Famished after his long
journey, Long Arrow ate with relish. Yet he still looked around
to admire the furnishings of the tipi, the painted inner curtain,
the many medicine shields, wonderfully wrought weapons, shirts and
robes decorated with porcupine quills in rainbow colors, beautifully
painted rawhide containers filled with wonderful things, and much
else that dazzled him.
After Long Arrow had stilled his hunger, the old spirit chief filled
the pipe and passed it to his guest. They smoked, prayed silently.
After a while the old man said: "Some came before you from
time to time, but they were always afraid of the deep water, and
so they went away with empty hands. But you, grandson, were brave
enough to plunge in, and therefore you are chosen to receive a wonderful
gift to carry back to your people. Now, go outside with my grandson."
The beautiful boy took Long Arrow to a meadow on which some strange
animals, unlike the young man had ever seen, were galloping and
gamboling, neighing and nickering. They were truly wonderful to
look at, with their glossy coats fine as a maiden's hair, their
long manes and tails streaming in the wind. Now rearing, now nuzzling,
they looked at Long Arrow with gentle eyes which belied their fiery
"At last," thought Long Arrow, "here they are before
my own eyes, the Pono-Kamita, the Elk dogs!"
"Watch me," said the mystery boy, "so that you learn
to do what I am doing." Gracefully and without effort, the
boy swung himself onto the back of a jet-black Elk dog with a high,
arched neck. Larger than any elk Long Arrow had ever come across,
the animal carried the boy all over the meadow swiftly as the wind.
Then the boy returned, jumped off his mount, and said, "now
you try it." A little timidly Long Arrow climbed up on the
beautiful Elk Dog's back. Seemingly regarding him as feather-light,
it took off like a flying arrow. The young man felt himself soaring
through the air as a bird does, and experienced a happiness greater
even than the joy he felt when Good Running had adopted him as a
When they had finished riding the Elk Dogs, the spirit boy said
to Long Arrow: "Young hunter from the land above the waters,
I want you to have what you have come for. Listen to me. You may
have noticed that my grandfather wears a black medicine robe as
long as a woman's dress, and that he is always trying to hide his
feet. Try to get a glimpse of them, for if you do, he can refuse
you nothing. He will then tell you to ask him for a gift, and you
must ask for three things: his rainbow-colored quilled belt, his
black medicine robe, and a herd of these animals which you like.
Long Arrow thanked him and vowed to follow his advice. For four
days the young man stayed in the spirit chief's lodge, where he
ate well and often went riding on the Elk Dogs. But try as he would,
he could never get a look at the old man's feet. The spirit chief
always kept them carefully covered. Then on the morning on the fourth
day, the old one was walking out of the tipi when his medicine robe
caught in the entrance flap. As the robe opened, long Arrow caught
a glimpse of a leg and one foot. He was awed to see that it was
not a human limb at all, but the glossy leg and firm hoof of an
Elk Dog! He could not stifle a cry of surprise, and the old man
looked over his shoulder and saw that his leg and hoof were exposed.
The chief seemed a little embarrassed, but shrugged and said: "I
tried to hide this, but you must have been fated to see it. Look,
both of my feet are those of the Elk Dog. You may as well ask me
for a gift. Don't e timid; tell me what you want."
Long Arrow spoke boldly: "I want three things, your belt of
rainbow colors, your black medicine robe, and your herd of Elk dogs."
"Well, so you're really not timid at all!" said the old
man, "You ask for a lot, and I'll give it to you, except that
you cannot have all of my Elk Dogs; I'll give you half of them.
Now I must tell you that my black hair medicine robe and my many-colored
belt have Elk Dog magic in them. Always wear the robe when you try
to catch Elk dogs; then they can't get away from you. On quiet nights,
if you listen closely to the belt, you will hear the Elk dog dance
song and Elk Dog prayers. You must learn them. And I will give you
one more magic gift: this long rope woven from the hair of a white
buffalo bull. With it you will never fail to catch whichever Elk
Dog you want."
The spirit chief presented him with the gifts and said: "now
you must leave. At first the Elk dogs will not follow you. Keep
the medicine robe and magic belt on at all times, and walk for four
days toward the north. Never look back-always look to the north.
On the fourth day the Elk dogs will come up beside you on the left.
Still don't look back. But after they have overtaken you, catch
one with the rope of white buffalo hair and ride him home. Don't
lose the black robe, or you will lose the Elk Dogs and never catch
Long Arrow listened carefully so that he would remember. Then the
old spirit chief had his wife make up a big pack of food, almost
too heavy for Long Arrow to carry, and the young man took leave
of his generous spirit host. The mysterious boy once again turned
himself into a kingfisher and led Long Arrow to the surface of the
lake, where his faithful dog greeted him joyfully. Long Arrow fed
the dog, put his pack of food on the travois, and started walking
On the fourth day the Elk Dogs came up on his left side, as the
spirit chief had foretold. Long Arrow snared the black one with
the arched neck to ride, and he caught another to carry the pack
of food. They galloped swiftly on, the dog barking at the big Elk
When Long Arrow arrived at last in his village, the people were
afraid and hid. They did not recognize him astride his beautiful
Elk dog but took him for a monster, half man and half animal. Long
Arrow kept calling, "Grandfather Good Running, it's your grandson.
I've come back bringing elk Dogs!"
Recognizing the voice, Good Running came out of hiding and wept
for joy, because he had given Long Arrow up for lost. Then all the
others emerged from their hiding places to admire the wonderful
Long Arrow said, "My grandfather and grandmother who adopted
me, I can never repay you for your kindness. Accept these wonderful
elk Dogs as my gift. Now we no longer need to be humble footloggers,
because these animals will carry us swiftly everywhere we want to
go. Now buffalo hunting will be easy. Now our tipis will be larger,
our possessions will be greater, because an Elk dog travois can
carry a load ten times bigger than that of a dog. Take them my grandparents.
I shall keep for myself only this black male and this black female,
which will grow into a fine herd."
"You have indeed done something great, Grandson." Said
Good Running, and he spoke true. The people became the bold riders
of the Plains and soon could hardly imagine how they existed without
these wonderful animals.
After some time Good Running, rich and honored by all, said to
Long Arrow, "Grandson, lead us to the Great Mystery Lake so
we can camp by its shores. Let's visit the spirit chief and the
wondrous boy; maybe they will give us more of their power and magic
Long Arrow led the people southward and again found the Great Mystery
Lake. But the waters would no longer part for him, nor would any
of the kingfishers they saw turn into a boy. Nor, gazing down into
the crystal clear water, could they discover people, Elk Dogs, or
a tipi. There was nothing in the lake but a few fish.
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