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Native American Legends

The Bridge of the Gods

An American Indian Legend - Northwest Region

In the days of the animal people, a great bird lived in the land of the setting sun. It was Thunderbird. All of the animal people were afraid of it. Thunderbird created five high mountains and then said to the animal people, "I made a law that no one is to pass over these five high mountains. If any one does, I will kill him. No one is to come where I live."

Wolf did not believe the law. "I will go," declared Wolf. "I will be the first to see what Thunderbird will do to me."

"I will go with you," said Wolf's four brothers.

So the five Wolf brothers went to the first mountain. They stood in a row, and each stepped with his right foot at the same time. Immediately the five wolf brothers were dead.

When the animal people heard that the five Wolf brothers were dead, Grizzly Bear, the strongest of the animals, decided that he would go.

"I will cross over the mountains," announced Grizzly Bear. "I will not die as the Wolf Brothers have died."

"We will go with you," said Grizzly Bear's four brothers.

So the five Grizzly Bear brothers went to the first mountain. They stood in a row, and each stepped with his right foot, all at the same time. Then each stepped with his left foot, all at the same time. Immediately the five Grizzly Bears were dead.

"I will go now," said Cougar. "I will take a long step and leap over the mountain."

Cougar's four brothers went with him. They made one leap together, and then all were dead.

"We will go next," said the five Beaver brothers. "We will go under the mountain. We will not be killed. We will not be like the Wolf brothers, the Grizzly brothers, and the Cougar brothers."

But as they tried to cross under the mountains, all five Beaver brothers were killed.

Then Coyote's oldest son said, "I will talk to the mountains. I will break down the law so that people may live and pass to the sunset."

His four brothers went with him, and two of them talked to the five mountains. They made the mountains move up and down; they made the mountains dance and shake. But the five sons of Coyote were killed. The five mountains still stood. No one could pass over or under them to the sunset.

Coyote's sons had not told their father their plans. He had told them that they must never stay away from home overnight. When they did not return, he knew that they had been killed by Thunderbird. Coyote was wiser than the others. He had been instructed in wisdom by the Spirit Chief.

After his sons had been gone five nights, Coyote was sure that they were dead. He cried loud and long. He went to a lonely place in the mountains and rolled on the ground, wailing and howling with grief.

Then he prayed to the Spirit Chief for strength to bring his five sons back to life.

After Coyote had cried and prayed for a long time, he heard a voice. "You cannot break the law of the Thunderbird. You cannot go over the five mountains. Thunderbird has made the law."

Coyote continued crying and praying, rolling on the ground in a lonely place in the mountains. After a time he heard the voice again.

"The only thing you can do is to go up to the Above-World. It will take you five days and five nights. There you will be told how you can bring your five sons to life again."

So for five days and five nights Coyote traveled to the Above- World. There he told his troubles to the Spirit Chief. "Give me strength," he ended. "Give me so much strength that I can fight Thunderbird. Then the people can cross over the mountains to the sunset."

At last the Spirit Chief promised to help.

"I will blind the eyes of Thunderbird," he promised. "Then you can go over the five mountains and kill him.

"I will tell you what you must do," continued the Spirit Chief. "When you get back to the earth, find the big bird called Eagle. He has great strength. Ask him for a feather from his youngest son. Ask for a feather, a small feather from under his wing. This feather is downy and has great strength. It has power running out from the heart because it grows near the heart. Return now to the earth."

After five days and five nights, Coyote reached the earth again. He found Eagle and told him all that the Great Spirit had said. Then he asked, "Will you give me the feather that grows nearest the heart of your youngest son?"

"I will do as the Spirit Chief bids," replied Eagle. "If he told you to come to me, then I will give you my power to fight Thunderbird."

"Fast for ten days and ten nights," he had said. "If you will go without food and drink for ten days and nights, you will be changed to a feather. You will then be able to go anywhere."

So Coyote fasted. After ten days and ten nights, he was turned into a feather, like the one Eagle had given him. He floated through the air toward the five mountains. At a distance from them, he made a noise like thunder, as the Spirit Chief had told him to do. Three times he made a slow, deep rumbling, off toward the sunrise.

Thunderbird heard the rumble and asked, "Who is making this noise? I alone was given the power to make that rumbling sound. This noise must be coming from the Above-World. I am dead! I am dead! I am dead!"

A fourth time Coyote rumbled, this time closer to Thunderbird. Thunderbird became angry. "I will kill whomever this is that is making the noise. I will kill him! I will kill him!" he repeated angrily.

Thunderbird made a mighty noise, a greater thunder than Coyote had made. Coyote, in the form of a feather, went into the air, higher and higher and ever higher. He darted and whirled, but could not be seen.

Thunderbird was afraid. He knew that if a fifth rumble of thunder came he would be dead. He sought the deep water of Great River, to hide himself there. He heard Coyote far above him.

Coyote prayed to the Spirit Chief. "Help me one more time, just one more time. Help me kill Thunderbird so that the people may live, so that my sons will come to life again."

The Spirit Chief heard Coyote and helped him. Thunderbird sank deeper into the water, terrified. Coyote, still invisible above him, made a greater noise than ever, a noise like the bursting of the world. The five mountains crumbled and fell. Pieces of the mountain, floating down the Great River, formed islands along its course.

Thunderbird died, and his giant body formed a great bridge above the river. The five sons of Coyote and all the other animal people who had been killed by Thunderbird came back to life.

Though many hundreds of snows had passed, the great bridge formed from the rocks that had been made out of Thunderbird's body still stood above the river. It was there long after the first Indians came to the earth. The Indians always called it "the Bridge of the Gods." No one must look at the rocks of the bridge. People knew that some day it would fall. They must not anger the Spirit Chief by looking at it, their wise men told them.

The Klickitat Indians had a different law. Only a few men necessary to paddle the canoes would pass under the bridge. All the others would land when they approached the Bridge of the Gods, walk around to the opposite side of it, and there reenter the canoes. The oarsmen always bade their friends good-bye, fearing that the bridge would fall while they were passing under it.

After many snows, no one knows how many, the prophecy of the wise men came true. The Bridge of the Gods fell. The rocks that had once been the body of Thunderbird formed the rapids in the river that were long known as Cascades of the Columbia.

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