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The orphan who was blessed with a Horse

A Winnebago (Hotcâk) Legend

There in a village lived an orphan with his grandmother. Everyone called him Wainânîka, which means "Little Orphan." The other children when they saw him would tease him by saying, O wainânîka ixâjirena, "Oh, the little orphan is going by again." Nevertheless, he was a good child and always did what his grandmother asked him. So one day his grandmother told him it was time for him to fast and to seek a dream from the spirits, so the orphan blackened his face and went out to the wilderness to make himself pitiable before the spirits. Night after night the orphan would return home, and every time his grandmother would ask, "Did you dream and receive a blessing, grandson?" Even though four times he fasted four days and nights, and nearly fasted himself to death, he did not receive a blessing from the spirits. Indeed, he never received one.

In time he reached the age when he would be expected to go out on the warpath, so he went out to fast again. He felt discouraged and thought that the spirits denied him blessings because they were so much like humans that they felt towards him the same way that the villagers did. Nevertheless, he went to the wilderness and cried out to the Thunders that they might take pity on him and bless him. For four days and four nights he ate and drank nothing, indeed he did not even put so much as a pebble in his mouth; but on the fifth day he was so thirsty that he broke his fast to take a drink. As the orphan neared the spring he saw something. There, unexpectedly, was a dirty, emaciated horse laying in the mud. He had always desired a horse, but his grandmother was too poor to own one. When Little Orphan saw the horse he took pity on it. He fetched water for its parched lips, and rich green grass to sate its hunger. He brushed the dirt from its hide and kept bringing armfuls of grass so that he would have plenty to eat. Then he promised the horse that he would soon return after he had seen his grandmother.

When he arrived at his grandmother's, she asked, "Grandson, did you dream?" Again he had to answer "No," but he added, "I found a horse lying by the spring." He told her how he had almost fasted to death, and how he had sought the blessings of the Thunderbirds; but that on the fifth day he had to seek water, and that was how he found the horse. His grandmother told him that he should always help those who cannot help themselves, so he returned every day and supplied the horse with water and feed, nursing him back to health. Finally, he was able to lead the horse back to his lodge. When some people saw him leading this bag of bones home, they mocked him and said, "Now Little Orphan owns a horse!" The boy tried with all his power to fatten the horse up, but no matter how much grass he gathered, the horse always seemed ugly, and so bony that it looked as if his skeleton would pierce right through his skin.

At this time a number of men had gone out on a hunting expedition, and now they returned with the news that a great herd of buffalo was headed their way and would be there in about four nights. Scouts were sent out to find a good place to hunt the buffalo herd, and when they came back they had unexpected news: among the herd was a buffalo whose hide was as white as snow. It was very holy. The chief greatly coveted the hide of this animal, and had his criers announce that whoever could bring him that hide would receive his daughter's hand in marriage. The orphan greatly loved the yûgiwi (princess), and she in turn had not failed to notice him. The orphan went home and told his grandmother everything. He declared that he too would try to kill the white buffalo.

The hunters decided to wait until the buffalo were just one night's travel away, then they would launch their expedition. The boy decided to take his new found horse on the hunt with him. The next day he led his horse to water as usual, then he took him to green pastures. All the while the orphan seemed quiet and contemplative. As they were walking along, unexpectedly, he heard a voice nearby say quite distinctly, "Well nephew, why are you so quiet?" It seemed as if the voice had come from the horse, but he could not believe that such a thing was possible. Just the same, the boy decided to answer the question in order to find out where the voice was really coming from. "I was thinking about the hunt and how hard it will be to get the white buffalo. Indeed, it will be very difficult." Then the voice was heard again. "Nephew, if that is what you want, then we shall get it." Then he knew it. The voice was indeed that of the horse, and he thought to himself, "This horse is truly wákâtcâk (holy)." The boy now looked for particularly good pasture, as they would be going on the hunt the next day. As they were heading back to his grandmother's lodge, the horse said, "Nephew, what you have heard only you have heard and no one else, so do not speak of it." The orphan replied, "All right."

The next morning he went to where the men had gathered for the hunt. There they waited for the Bear Clan to give the order for the hunt to begin. Then the horse said to him, "Nephew, now you may get on me, but be sure to sit tight, and whatever happens, remain seated as you are." The Bear clansmen gave the signal for the hunt to begin, and everyone galloped off on their horses. No one paid much attention to the orphan, but when the signal had been given, his horse seemed to disappear. As the hunters finally began to get near the great buffalo herd, there, unexpectedly, to their great astonishment, was the orphan riding back. In his hand was the hide of the white buffalo. Thus the orphan won the prize of the princess. Great was the rejoicing of the village, for many buffalo were killed and there was meat aplenty.

Then the boy went to his horse and asked him, "Uncle, who are you?" The horse replied, "Hoho, nephew, you nearly fasted to death and we knew it. We took pity on you, and I came as a blessing to you. This very day at sunset I shall depart; but look in the direction of the setting sun and it shall be made known to you who I am." Thus did the horse speak, then he vanished.

That day near sunset he saw a black cloud form, its edges reddened by the setting sun. The cloud grew and grew, and soon a tremendous thunder storm swept over the land. And the people became alarmed, so intense was it. Lightning flashed with the voice of the Thunders. The sky was now black with clouds, and as Little Orphan looked to the west, he saw a great white horse race across the sky, lightning flashing from his eyes. Then he knew it, that the Thunderbirds had indeed blessed him.

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