Native American Legends
The theft of fire
A Maidu Legend
At one time the people had found fire, and were going to use it;
but Thunder wanted to take it away from them, as he desired to be
the only one who should have fire. He thought that if he could do
this, he would be able to kill all the people.
After a time he succeeded, and carried the fire home with him,
far to the south. He put Woswosim (a small bird) to guard the fire,
and see that no one should steal it. Thunder thought that people
would die after he had stolen their fire, for they would not be
able to cook their food; but the people managed to get along.
They ate most of their food raw, and sometimes got Toyeskom (another
small bird) to look for a long time at a piece of meat; and as he
had a red eye, this after a long time would cook the meat almost
as well as a fire. Only the chiefs had their food cooked in this
way. All the people lived together in a big sweat-house. The house
was as big as a mountain.
Among the people was Lizard and his brother; and they were always
the first in the morning to go outside and sun themselves on the
roof of the sweat- house. One morning as they lay there sunning
themselves, they looked west, toward the Coast Range, and saw smoke.
They called to all the other people, saying that they had seen smoke
far away to the west.
The people, however, would not believe them, and Coyote came out,
and threw a lot of dirt and dust over the two. One of the people
did not like this. He said to Coyote, " Why do you trouble
people? Why don't you let others alone? Why don't you behave? You
are always the first to start a quarrel. You always want to kill
people without any reason."
Then the other people felt sorry. They asked the two Lizards about
what they had seen, and asked them to point out the smoke. The Lizards
did so, and all could see the- thin column rising up far to the
One person said, "How shall we get that fire back? How shall
we get it away from Thunder? He is a bad man. I don't know whether
we had better try to get it or not."
Then the chief said, "The best one among you had better try
to get it. Even if Thunder is a bad man, we must try to get the
fire. When we get there, I don't know how we shall get in but the
one who is the best, who thinks he can get in, let him try."
Mouse, Deer, Dog, and Coyote were the ones who were to try, but
all the other people went too. They took a flute with them for they
meant to put the fire in it.
They traveled a long time, and finally reached the place where
the fire was. They were within a little distance of Thunder's house,
when they all stopped to see what they would do. Woswosim, who was
supposed to guard the fire in the house, began to sing, "I
am the man who never sleeps. I am the man who never sleeps."
Thunder had paid him for his work in beads, and he wore them about
his neck and around his waist. He sat on the top of the sweat-house,
by the smoke-hole.
After a while Mouse was sent up to try and see if he could get
in. He crept up slowly till he got close to Woswosim, and then saw
that his eyes were shut. He was asleep, in spite of the song that
he sang. When Mouse saw that the watcher was asleep, he crawled
to the opening and went in. Thunder had several daughters, and they
were lying there asleep.
Mouse stole up quietly, and untied the waist-string of each one's
apron, so that should the alarm be given, and they jump up, these
aprons or skirts would fall off, and they would have to stop to
fix them. This done, Mouse took the flute, filled it with fire,
then crept out, and rejoined the other people who were waiting outside.
Some of the fire was taken out and put in the Dog's ear, the remainder
in the flute being given to the swiftest runner to carry. Deer,
however, took a little, which he carried on the hock of his leg,
where today there is a reddish spot. For a while all went well,
but when they were about half-way back, Thunder woke up, suspected
that something was wrong, and asked, "What is the matter with
Then he jumped up with a roar of thunder, and his daughters were
thus awakened, and also jumped up; but their aprons fell off as
they did so, and they had to sit down again to put them on. After
they were all ready, they went out with Thunder to give chase. They
carried with them a heavy wind and a great rain and a hailstorm,
so that they might put out any fire the people had. Thunder and
his daughters hurried along, and soon caught up with the fugitives,
and were about to catch them, when Skunk shot at Thunder and killed
Then Skunk called out, "After this you must never try to follow
and kill people. You must stay up in the sky, and be the thunder.
That is what you will be." The daughters of Thunder did not
follow any farther; so the people went on safely, and got home with
their fire, and people have had it ever since.
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