Native American Legends
Iktomi and the Muskrat
A Lakota Legend
Beside a white lake, beneath a large grown willow tree, sat Iktomi
on the bare ground. The heap of smoldering ashes told of a recent
open fire. With ankles crossed together around a pot of soup, Iktomi
bent over some delicious boiled fish.
Fast he dipped his black horn spoon into the soup, for he was ravenous.
Iktomi had no regular meal times. Often when he was hungry he went
without food. Well hidden between the lake and the wild rice, he
looked nowhere save into the pot of fish.
Not knowing when the next meal would be, he meant to eat enough
now to last some time.
"Hau, hau, my friend!" said a voice out of the wild rice.
Iktomi started. He almost choked with his soup. He peered through
the long reeds from where he sat with his long horn spoon in mid-air.
"Hau, my friend!" said the voice again, this time close
at his side.
Iktomi turned and there stood a dripping muskrat who had just come
out of the lake. "Oh, it is my friend who startled me. I wondered
if among the wild rice some spirit voice was talking. Hau, hau,
my friend!" said Iktomi.
The muskrat stood smiling. On his lips hung a ready "Yes,
my friend," when Iktomi would ask, "My friend, will you
sit down beside me and share my food?" That was the custom
of the plains people. Yet Iktomi sat silent.
He hummed an old dance-song and beat gently on the edge of the
pot with his buffalo-horn spoon. The muskrat began to feel awkward
before such lack of hospitality and wished himself under water.
After many heart throbs Iktomi stopped drumming with his horn ladle,
and looking upward into the muskrat's face, he said: "My friend,
let us run a race to see who shall win this pot of fish. If I win,
I shall not need to share it with you. If you win, you shall have
half of it." Springing to his feet, Iktomi began at once to
tighten the belt about his waist.
"My friend Ikto, I cannot run a race with you! I am not a
swift runner, and you are nimble as a deer. We shall not run any
race together," answered the hungry muskrat.
For a moment Iktomi stood with a hand on his long protruding chin.
His eyes were fixed upon something in the air. The muskrat looked
out of the corners of his eyes without moving his head. He watched
the wily Iktomi concocting a plot. "Yes, yes," said Iktomi,
suddenly turning his gaze upon the unwelcome visitor; "I shall
carry a large stone on my back. That will slacken my usual speed;
and the race will be a fair one."
Saying this he laid a firm hand upon the muskrat's shoulder and
started off along the edge of the lake. When they reached the opposite
side Iktomi pried about in search of a heavy stone. He found one
half-buried in the shallow water.
Pulling it out upon dry land, he wrapped it in his blanket. "Now,
my friend, you shall run on the left side of the lake, I on the
other. The race is for the boiled fish in yonder kettle!" said
The muskrat helped to lift the heavy stone upon Iktomi's back.
Then they parted. Each took a narrow path through the tall reeds
fringing the shore. Iktomi found his load a heavy one. Perspiration
hung like beads on his brow. His chest heaved hard and fast. He
looked across the lake to see how far the muskrat had gone, but
nowhere did he see any sign of him.
"Well, he is running low under the wild rice!" said he.
Yet as he scanned the tall grasses on the lake shore, he saw not
one stir as if to make way for the runner. "Ah, has he gone
so fast ahead that the disturbed grasses in his trail have quieted
again?" exclaimed Iktomi.
With that thought he quickly dropped the heavy stone. "No
more of this!" said he, patting his chest with both hands.
Off with a springing bound, he ran swiftly toward the goal. Tufts
of reeds and grass fell flat under his feet. Hardly had they raised
their heads when Iktomi was many paces gone.
Soon he reached the heap of cold ashes. Iktomi halted stiff as
if he had struck an invisible cliff. His black eyes showed a ring
of white about them as he stared at the empty ground. There was
no pot of boiled fish! There was no water-man in sight!
"Oh, if only I had shared my food like a real Lakota, I would
not have lost it all! Why did I not know the muskrat would run through
the water? He swims faster than I could ever run! That is what he
has done. He has laughed at me for carrying a weight on my back
while he shot hither like an arrow!"
Crying thus to himself, Iktomi stepped to the water's brink. He
stooped forward with a hand on each bent knee and peeped far into
the deep water. "There!" he exclaimed, "I see you,
my friend, sitting with your ankles wound around my little pot of
My friend, I am hungry. Give me a bone!"
"Ha! ha! ha!" laughed the water-man, the muskrat.
The sound did not rise up out of the lake, for it came down from
overhead. With his hands still on his knees, Iktomi turned his face
upward into the great willow tree. Opening wide his mouth he begged,
"My friend, my friend, give me a bone to gnaw!"
"Ha! ha!" laughed the muskrat, and leaning over the limb
he sat upon, he let fall a small sharp bone which dropped right
into Iktomi's throat. Iktomi almost choked to death before he could
get it out.
In the tree the muskrat sat laughing loud. "Next time, say
to a visiting friend, 'Be seated beside me, my friend. Let me share
with you my food.'"
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