Native American Legends
The Simpleton's Wisdom
A Sioux Legend
There was a man and his wife who had one daughter. Mother and daughter
were deeply attached to one another, and when the latter died the
mother was disconsolate.
She cut off her hair, cut gashes in her cheeks and sat before the
corpse with her robe drawn over her head, mourning for her dead.
Nor would she let them touch the body to take it to a burying scaffold.
She had a knife in her hand, and if anyone offered to come near
the body the mother would wail, "I am weary of life. I do not
care to live. I will stab myself with this knife and join my daughter
in the land of spirits."
Her husband and relatives tried to get the knife from her, but
could not. They feared to use force lest she kill herself. They
came together to see what they could do.
"We must get the knife away from her," they said.
At last they called a boy, a kind of simpleton, yet with a good
deal of natural shrewdness. He was an orphan and very poor. His
moccasins were out at the sole and he was dressed in wei-zi (coarse
buffalo skin, smoked).
"Go to the tipi of the mourning mother, " they told the
simpleton, "and in some way contrive to make her laugh and
forget her grief. Then try to get the knife away from her."
The boy went to the tent and sat down at the door as if waiting
to be given something. The corpse lay in the place of honor where
the dead girl had slept in life. The body was wrapped in a rich
robe and wrapped about with ropes. Friends had covered it with rich
offerings out of respect to the dead.
As the mother sat on the ground with her head covered she did not
at first see the boy, who sat silent. But when his reserve had worn
away a little he began at first lightly, then more heavily, to drum
on the floor with his hands.
After a while he began to sing a comic song. Louder and louder
he sang until carried away with his own singing he sprang up and
began to dance, at the same time gesturing and making all manner
of contortions with his body, still singing the comic song. As he
approached the corpse he waved his hands over it in blessing.
The mother put her head out of the blanket and when she saw the
poor simpleton with his strange grimaces trying to do honor to the
corpse by his solemn waving, and at the same time keeping up his
comic song, she burst out laughing. Then she reached over and handed
her knife to the simpleton.
"Take this knife," she said. "You have taught me
to forget my grief. If while I mourn for the dead I can still be
mirthful, there is no reason for me to despair. I no longer care
to die. I will live for my husband."
The simpleton left the tipi and brought the knife to the astonished
husband and relatives.
"How did you get it? Did you force it away from her, or did
you steal it?" they asked.
"She gave it to me. How could I force it from her or steal
it when she held it in her hand, blade uppermost? I sang and danced
for her and she burst out laughing. Then she gave it to me,"
When the old men of the village heard the orphan's story they were
very silent. It was a strange thing for a lad to dance in a tipi
where there was mourning. It was stranger that a mother should laugh
in a tipi before the corpse of her dead daughter.
The old men gathered at last in a council. They sat a long time
without saying anything, for they did not want to decide hastily.
The pipe was filled and passed many times. At last an old man spoke.
"We have a hard question. A mother has laughed before the
corpse of her daughter, and many think she has done foolishly, but
I think the woman did wisely. The lad was simple and of no training,
and we cannot expect him to know how to do as well as one with good
home and parents to teach him. Besides, he did the best that he
knew. He danced to make the mother forget her grief, and he tried
to honor the corpse by waving over it his hands."
"The mother did right to laugh, for when one does try to do
us good, even if what he does causes us discomfort, we should always
remember rather the motive than the deed. And besides, the simpleton's
dancing saved the woman's life, for she gave up her knife. In this,
too, she did well, for it is always better to live for the living
than to die for the dead."
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