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Native American Legends

The Wisdom of the Willow Tree

An Osage Legend

What is the meaning of life? Why is it that people grow old and die?

Although he was young, those questions troubled the mind of Little One. He asked the elders about them, but their answers did not satisfy him. At last he knew there was only one thing to do. He would have to seek the answers in his dreams.

Little One rose early in the morning and prayed to Wah-Kon-Tah for help. Then he walked away from the village, across the prairie and toward the hills. He took nothing with him, no food or water. He was looking for a place where none of his people would see him, a place where a vision could come to him.

Little One walked a long way. Each night he camped in a different place, hoping that it would be the right one to give him a dream that could answer his questions. But no such dream came to him.

At last he came to a hill that rose above the land like the breast of a turkey. A spring burst from the rocks near the base of a great elm tree. It was such a beautiful place that it seemed to be filled with the power of Wah-Kon-Tah. Little One sat down by the base of that elm tree and waited as the sun set. But though he slept, again no sign was given to him.

When he woke the next morning, he was weak with hunger. I must go back home, he thought. He was filled with despair, but his thoughts were of his parents. He had been gone a long time. Even though it was expected that a young man would seek guidance alone in this fashion, Little One knew they would be worried. "If I do not return while I still have the strength to walk," he said, "I will die here and my family may never find my body."

So Little One began to follow the small stream that was fed by the spring. It flowed out of the hills in the direction of his village, and he trusted it to lead him home. He walked and walked until he was not far from his village. But as he walked along that stream, he stumbled and fell among the roots of an old willow tree. Little One clung to the roots of the willow tree. Although he tried to rise, his legs were too weak.

"Grandfather," he said to the willow tree, "It is not possible for me to go on."

Then the ancient willow spoke to him. "Little One," it said, "all the Little Ones always cling to me for support as they walk along the great path of life. See the base of my trunk, which sends forth those roots that hold me firm in the earth. They are the sign of my old age. They are darkened and wrinkled with age, but they are still strong. Their strength comes from relying on the earth. When the Little Ones use me as a symbol, they will not fail to see old age as they travel along the path of life."

Those words gave strength to Little One's spirit. He stood again and began to walk. Soon his own village was in sight, and as he sat down to rest for a moment in the grass of the prairie, looking at his village, another vision came to him. He saw before him the figure of an old man. The old man was strangely familiar, even though Little One had never seen him before.

"Look upon me," the old man said. "What do you see?"

"I see an old man whose face is wrinkled with age," Little One said.

"Look upon me again," the old man said.

Then Little One looked, and as he looked, the lesson shown him by the willow tree filled his heart. "I see an aged man in sacred clothing," Little One said, "The fluttering down of the eagle adorns his head. I see you, my grandfather. I see an aged man with the stem of the pipe between his lips. I see you, my grandfather. Your are firm and rooted to the earth like the ancient willow. I see you standing among the days that are peaceful and beautiful. I see you, my grandfather. I see you standing as you will stand in your lodge, my grandfather."

The ancient man smiled. Little One had seen truly. "My young brother," the old man said, "your mind is fixed upon the days that are peaceful and beautiful." And then he was gone.

Now Little One's heart was filled with peace, and as he walked into the village, his mind was troubled no longer with those questions about the meaning of life. For he knew that the old man he had seen was himself. The ancient man was Little One as he would be when he became an elder, filled with that great peace and wisdom which would give strength to all of the people.

From that day on, Little One began to spend more time listening to the words his elders spoke, and of all the young men in the village, he was the happiest and the most content.

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