Native American Legends
The Sacred Weed
A Blackfoot Legend
There once were four brothers, all spiritual men who had power.
In a vision the oldest of them heard a voice saying: "Out there
is a sacred weed; pick it and burn it." The man looked around,
saw the strange weed, and put it in the fire. It gave off a very
pleasing aroma. Then the second brother had a dream in which a voice
said: "Take this herb. Chop it fine. Put it into a hide bag."
The man did what he was told, and the dry herb in his hide bag was
wonderfully fragrant. The third brother had a vision in which he
saw a man hollowing out a bone and putting the strange weed into
it. A voice said, "Make four pipes like this," and the
third brother carved four pipes carved four pipes out of an animal's
leg bones. Then the youngest of the four brothers had a vision.
A voice told him: "You four men light your pipes and smoke.
Inhale the smoke; exhale it. Let the smoke ascend to the clouds."
The voice also taught him the songs and prayers that went with smoking.
So the four medicine men, born of the same mother, smoked together.
This was the first time that men had ever smoked, and they sang
and prayed together as they did so. The brothers, who called the
sacred weed "nawak'osis," were meant to teach its use
to the people. But nawak'osis made them powerful and wise and clear-minded,
and they did not want to share it with others. They planted the
sacred weed in a secret place that only they knew. They guarded
the songs and prayers and rituals that went with the smoking. They
formed a Tobacco Society, just the four of them. So there was anger,
there was war, there was restlessness of spirit, there was impiety.
Nawak'osis was meant to calm anger, to make men worship, to make
peace, to ease the mind. But without the sacred herb, unity and
peace were lacking.
A young man called Bull-by-Himself said to his wife: "These
four powerful ones have been given something good to share with
the people, but they are keeping it for themselves. So things are
bad. I must find a way to plant and reap the sacred weed they call
nawak'osis." Bull-by-himself and his wife went to a sacred
lake and set up their tipi close by its shore. The man left everyday
to hunt and look for the plant nawak'osis. The woman stayed in the
lodge to quill, tan, and prepare food.
One day while she was alone, she heard somebody singing beautifully.
She searched everywhere to find the source of the music and discovered
that it was coming from a beaver house close by the shore. "It
must be the beavers singing," she thought. "Their songs
are lovely. I hope they don't stop."
Though her husband came home with plenty of meat, he had not found
nawak'osis. The woman called his attention to the music, but he
said: "I hear nothing. It's your imagination."
"No," she said, "I can hear it clearly. Put your
ear to the beaver house."
He did, but still heard nothing. Then the wife took her knife and
made a hole in the beaver lodge. Through it they could not only
hear the beavers sing, but also watch them performing a strange,
"My young brothers," the wife called to them, "be
of a sharing spirit. Teach me your wonderful song and your medicine!"
The Beavers answered: "Close the hole you have made, because
it lets the cold in. Then we'll come out and visit you."
So she sealed their wall up, and that night four beavers came to
Bull-by- Himself's lodge. As soon as they were inside they turned
themselves into humans -- four nice-looking young men.
One asked: "What have you come here for?"
"I have come," said Bull-by-Himself, "to find the
sacred weed called nawak'osis."
"Then this is the right place," said the man-beavers.
"We are water people, and nawak'osis is water medicine. We
will give you this sacred herb, but first you must learn the songs,
the prayers, the dances, the ceremonies that go with it."
"There are four powerful men in our tribe," said Bull-by-Himself,
"who have the medicine and the knowledge, but keep them from
"Ah," said the man-beavers, "that is wrong. This
sacred weed is meant to be shared. Here is what you must do. By
day, go out and get the skin of every four-legged and two-legged
creature that lives in and around the water -- except, of course,
beaver. You must get the skins of the muskrat and otter, of the
duck and kingfisher, of all creatures like that, because they represent
water. Sun and water mean life. Sun begets life, and water makes
So every day Bull-by-Himself went out for the skins, while his
wife scraped, tanned, and smoked them. And every night the four
man-beavers came to teach them the prayers, songs, and dances that
go with nawak'osis. After a while the beavers said: "Now all
is ready. Now you have all the skins, and now you have the knowledge.
Make the skins, which represent water power, into a bag, into a
medicine bundle. Tomorrow night we'll come again for the last time
to tell you what to do."
The following night the beavers came as they had promised. They
brought with them the sacred weed nawak'osis. The top of the stalks
was covered with little round seeds, and the man-beavers put the
seeds into the medicine bundle the woman had prepared.
"It's planting time now," said the Beavers. "Don't
touch nawak'osis before you're ready to plant. Choose a place where
there is not too much shade and not too much sunlight. Mix plenty
of brown earth with plenty of black earth, and keep the soil loose.
Say the prayers we have taught you. Then you, Bull- by-Himself,
must take a deer horn and with its point make holes in the earth
-- one hole for each seed. And you, his wife, must use a buffalo-horn
spoon to drop one seed into each hole. Keep singing the songs we
taught you all the while. Then both of you dance lightly over this
earth, tamping down the seeds. After that you just wait for nawak'osis
to grow. Now we have taught you everything. Now we go."
The nice- looking young men left, turning back into beavers as
they went. Bull-by-Himself and his wife planted the sacred weed
as they had been told. The four medicine-men brothers said to one
another: "What can this man, Bull-by-Himself, and his wife
be planting? Their songs sound familiar."
They sent somebody to find out, and this person came back saying:
"They are planting nawak'osis, doing it in a sacred manner."
The four powerful men began to laugh. "No, it can't be. It's
some useless weed they're planting. No one but us can plant nawak'osis.
No one but us can use it. No one but us has its power."
But when it was time to harvest nawak'osis, a great hailstorm destroyed
the secret tobacco patch of the four medicine brothers. Nothing
was left, and they had not saved a single seed. They said to each
other: "Perhaps this man and his wife did plant nawak'osis
after all. Perhaps the hail hasn't destroyed their tobacco patch."
Again the four brothers sent someone to find out, and that person
came back saying: "This man and his wife had no hail on their
field. Here is what they have been growing."
He showed the brothers some leaves. "It is indeed nawak'osis,"
they said, shaking their heads in wonder. Thus with the help of
the beaver people, Bull- by-Himself and his wife brought the sacred
tobacco to the tribes, who have been smoking it in a sacred manner
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