Native American Legends
The legend of the Flute
A Brule Sioux Legend
Well, you know our flutes, you've heard their sounds and seen how
beautifully they are made. That flute of ours, the siyotanka, is
for only one kind of music, love music. In the old days the men
would sit by themselves, maybe lean hidden, unseen, against a tree
in the dark of night. They would make up their own special tunes,
their courting songs.
We Indians are shy. Even if he was a warrior who had already counted
coup on a enemy, a young man might hardly muster up enough courage
enough to talk to a nice-looking winchinchala - a girl he was in
love with. Also, there was no place where a young man and a girl
could be alone inside the village. The family tipi was always crowded
with people. And naturally, you couldn't just walk out of the village
hand in hand with your girl, even if hand holding had been one of
our customs, which it wasn't. Out there in the tall grass and sagebrush
you could be gored by a buffalo, clawed by a grizzly, or tomahawked
by a Pawnee, or you could run into the Mila Hanska, the Long Knives,
namely the U.S. Cavalry.
The only chance you had to met your winchinchala was to wait for
her at daybreak when the women went to the river or brook with their
skin bags to get water. When that girl you had your eye on finally
came down to the water trail, you popped up from behind some bush
and stood so she could see you. And that was about all you could
do to show her that you were interested, standing there grinning,
looking at your moccasins, scratching your ear, maybe.
The winchinchala didn't do much either, except get red in the face,
giggle, maybe throw a wild turnip at you. If she liked you, the
only way she would let you know was to take her time filling her
water bag and peek at you a few times over her shoulder.
So the flutes did all the talking. At night, lying on her buffalo
robe in her parents tipi, the girl would hear that moaning, crying
sound of the siyotanka. By the way it was played, she would know
that it was her lover who was out there someplace. And if the Elk
Medicine was very strong in him and her, maybe she would sneak out
to follow that sound and meet him without anybody noticing it.
The flute is always made of cedarwood. In the shape it describes
the long neck and head of a bird with a open beak. The sound comes
out of the beak, and that's where the legend comes in, the legend
of how the Lakota people acquired the flute.
Once many generations ago, the people had drums, gourd rattles,
and bull-rorers, but no flutes. At that long-ago time, a young man
went out to hunt. Meat was scarce, and the people in his camp were
hungry. He found the tracks of an elk and followed them for a long
time. The elk, wise and swift, is the one who owns the love charm.
If a man possesses Elk Medicine, the girl he likes can't help sleeping
with him. This young man I'm talking about had no Elk Medicine.
After many hours he finally sighted his game. He was skilled with
bow and arrows, and had a fine new bow and quiver full of arrows.
Yet the elk always managed to stay just out of range, leading him
on and on. The young man was so intent on following his prey that
he hardly noticed where he went.
When night came, he found himself deep inside a thick forest. The
tracks had disappeared and so had the elk, and there was no moon.
He realized that he was lost and that it was too dark to find his
way out. Luckily, he came upon a stream with cool, clear water.
And he had been careful enough to bring a hide bag of wasna, dried
meat pounded with berries and kidney fat, strong food that will
keep a man going for a few days. After he had drunk and eaten, he
rolled himself into his fur robe, propped his back against a tree,
and tried to rest. But he couldn't sleep, the forest was full of
strange noises: the cries of night animals, the hooting owls, and
the groaning of trees in the wind. It was as if he heard these sound
for the first time.
Suddenly there was an entirely new sound, of a kind that neither
he nor anyone else had ever heard before. It was mournful and ghost
like. It made him afraid, so that he drew his robe tightly about
himself and reached for his bow to make sure that it was properly
strung. On the other hand the sound was like a song, sad but beautiful,
full of love, hope, and yearning. Then before he knew it, he was
asleep. He dreamed that the bird called wagnuka, the redheaded woodpecker,
appeared singing the strangely beautiful song and telling him, "Follow
me and I will teach you."
When the hunter awoke, the sun was already high. On a branch of
the tree against which he was leaning, he saw a redheaded woodpecker.
The bird flew away to another tree, and another, but never very
far, looking back all the time at the young man as if to say, "Come
on!" Then once more he heard that wonderful song, and his heart
yearned to find the singer. Flying toward the sound, leading the
hunter, the bird flitted through the leaves, while it's bright red
top made it easy to follow. At last it lighted on a ceder tree and
began hammering on a branch, making a noise like the fast beating
of a small drum. Suddenly there was a gust of wind, and again the
hunter heard the beautiful sound right above him.
Then he discovered that the song came from the dead branch that
the woodpecker was tapping his beak on. He realized also that it
was the wind that made the sound as it whistled through the hole
the bird had drilled.
"Kola, friend," said the hunter, "let me take this
branch home. You can make yourself another."
He took the branch, a hollow piece of wood filled with woodpecker
holes that was about the length of his forearm. He walked back to
the village bringing no meat, but happy all the same.
In his tipi the young man tried to make the branch sing for him.
He blew on it, he waved it around, but no sound came. It made him
sad, he wanted so much to hear that wonderful new sound. He purified
himself in the sweat lodge and climbed to the top of a lonely hill.
There, resting with his back against a large rock, he fasted, going
without food or water for four days and nights, crying for a vision
which would tell him how to make the branch sing. In the middle
of the fourth night, wagnuka, the bird with the bright ted top appeared
saying, "Watch me," turning himself into a man, showing
the hunter how to make the branch sing, saying again and again,
"Watch this, now." And in his dream the young man watched
and observed very carefully.
When he awoke, he found a ceder tree. He broke off a branch and
, working many hours, hollowed it out with a bowstring drill, just
as he had seen the woodpecker do in his dream. He whittled the branch
into the shape of the birds with a long neck and an open beak. He
painted the top of the bird's head with washasha, the sacred red
color. He prayed. He smoked the branch up with incense of burning
sage, cedar, and sweet grass. He fingered the holes as he had seen
the man-bird do in his vision, meanwhile blowing softly into the
mouthpiece. All at once there was the song, ghost like and beautiful
beyond words drifting all the way to the village, where the people
were astounded and joyful to hear it. With the help of the wind
and the woodpecker, the young man had brought them the first flute.
In the village lived an itanchan, a big chief. This itanchan had
a daughter who was beautiful, but also very proud, and convinced
that there was no young man good enough for her. Many had come courting,
but she had sent them all away. Now, the hunter who had made the
flute decided that she was just the woman for him. Thinking of her
he composed a special song, and one night, standing behind a tall
tree, he played it on his siyotanka in hopes that it might have
a charm to make her love him.
All at once the winchinchala heard it. She was sitting in her father's
tipi eating buffalo hump meat and tongue, and feeing good. She wanted
to stay there, in the tipi by the fire, but her feet wanted to go
outside. She pulled back, but her feet pulled forward, and the feet
won. Her head said, "Go slow, go slow!" but the feet said,
"Faster, faster!" She saw the young man standing in the
moonlight, she heard the flute. Her head said, "Don't go to
him, he's poor." Her feet said, "Go, run!" and again
the feet prevailed.
So they stood face to face. The girl's head told her to be silent,
but the feet told her to speak, and speak she did, saying, "Koshkalaka,
young man, I am yours altogether." So they lay down together,
the young man and the winchinchala, under one blanket.
Later she told him, "Koshkalaka, warrior, I like you. Let
your parents send a gift to my father, the chief. No matter how
small, it will be accepted. Let your father speak for you to my
father. Do it soon! Do it now!"
And so the two fathers quickly agreed to the wishes of their children.
The proud winchinchala became the hunters wife, and he himself became
a great chief. All the other young men had heard and seen what the
flute did for the hunter, soon they too began to whittle cedar branches
into the shape of birds' heads with long necks and open beaks. The
beautiful love music traveled from tribe to tribe, and made young
girls feet go where they shouldn't. And that's how the flute was
brought to the people, thanks to the ceder, the woodpecker, and
this young man, who shot no elk, but knew how to listen.
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