The Old North Trail, by Walter McClintock, , at sacred-texts.com
The North Piegans gather their winter supply of berries.—Brings-down the-Sun tells the legend of Nis-ta-e and the Medicine Grizzly.—A sole survivor and wounded after a fight with the Snakes, faces death in the mountains.—A supernatural grizzly feeds him and carries him back home.—Legend of Itsa-pich-kaupe and the Medicine Wolf.—The community of spirit between animals and men.—Some animals can read the future.—Coyote barks an omen of death.—Owls are dreaded because they are the unhappy spirits of evil doers.
DURING my visit at Brings-down-the-Sun's camp, the women were gathering their winter supply of sarvis berries. The bushes, which the old chief so carefully guarded, were loaded down with ripe fruit. Their method was to strike the bushes with sticks, catching the berries in blankets, and then spreading them in the sun to dry. Berry-bags for carrying them were made of small skins from deer legs, wolf-pups or unborn calves of large animals such as the elk, or deer, or, most often, of the buffalo. I saw a beautiful berry-bag made of a spotted fawn skin and ornamented with coloured porcupine quills. Sarvis berries are a favourite article of diet with all the plains-tribes. They are eaten raw or cooked in soups and stews. My Indian friends warned me that the berries sometimes make people very ill, who are not accustomed to eating them. Large quantities are dried for winter use. The dried
berries, strung together in necklaces of many strands, are worn by women for ornament. They are also much used as sacred food in ceremonials. While in Brings-down-the-Sun's camp, I secured a quantity of them to take back with me to Montana for my friend Wolf Plume. I knew that they would be an acceptable present, as he owned a Beaver Bundle, which required in its ceremonial sarvis berries for the feast. One evening, while finishing our supper, a crowd of sarvis berry pickers, consisting entirely of women and children, filed past our camp, with bags and parfleches filled with the fruit. No man was allowed to accompany them, because they had to cross the river by wading. The children were in the lead, then followed the women in bright coloured dresses, some carrying babies on their backs, wrapped in blankets after the Indian fashion. Last of all came Kops-ksis-e (Swell-nosed-pup), Brings-down-the-Sun's faithful old watch dog, who brought up the rear with his canine followers. I was interested in watching the women dividing up the fruit, before separating to their tipis. Each woman seemed to know exactly the amount she had gathered, and there was no bickering.
Brings-down-the-Sun had noticed his wife, Bird, in the company, hurrying past our camp with a large sack of berries. Turning to Menake he said, "There goes Sis-tse (Bird), she is tired I know, and hungry after her hard day's work. I would be pleased if you could carry to her some tea and a little food." He then hastened to her side to tell her that he was being well cared for and that she need not cook for him. Menake soon carried a bountiful repast to the old woman and, on her return, reported to me, that she had overheard the chief say to his wife: "My white son in yonder camp will
soon leave us to start for the south. I must go over this evening to talk to him, for he will want to hear more of my stories. I will not return, until the Last Brother points downward towards the prairie" (very late).
When he had taken his accustomed seat at our camp fire, I enquired about Calf Robe's (Nis-ta-e) expedition against the Snake Indians (Shoshones). Brings-down-the-Sun said, "I remember it well, and have seen the picture writings of the expedition among the records of my father. More than fifty marks represent the years that have elapsed since the battle; four symbols stood for the four leaders; a kettle on a tripod by a solitary pine tree indicated the location of the camp, and many tracks, leading up to it, told the story of the attack by the enemy: three red marks represented the three chiefs, Brave Breast, Lone Cutter and Poor Robe, who were killed; a circle enclosing arrows, pointing in every direction, told of the surrounding, the desperate fighting and wounding of Nis-ta-e, who was left alone to die."
"One morning, in the early spring, Nis-ta-e, a young chief, entered his father's lodge, saying, 'After the sun sets this evening, I will start on a long war expedition.' 'Where will you go?' inquired the old man. 'I intend to go with three other chiefs against the Snakes, for I hear they have many fine horses.' His father warned him that it would be a dangerous journey, but Nis-ta-e replied: 'I am not afraid. If I do not come back before the first big snow-storm in the autumn (November), do not be anxious, but if I do not come
before the snow grows deep in winter (December), I will never return.' 'Go,' said his father, 'and I wish you good luck. Bring back both horses and scalps, for through brave deeds you will become a great chief.' Nis-ta-e and his companions travelled southward along the Rocky Mountains. One morning, after crossing the Yellowstone River, they came upon a fresh trail. Nis-ta-e said, 'These are the tracks we have been looking for. We are now in the country of the Snakes.' They followed the trail for several days, until one evening they saw from the summit of a high ridge, the camp of the enemy in the distance. 'To-night,' said Nis-ta-e, 'we will get some horses.' They drew near the camp, and lay in ambush, for the moon was bright. After midnight, when the moon had set, Nis-ta-e said, 'Wait here for me, I will go alone into the camp and drive out some horses.' When he returned driving a herd, his companions said, 'Let us run with what we have, for day will soon break.' Nis-ta-e replied, 'We have come a long distance and must have more horses.' He again entered the Snake camp, but this time the three waiting chiefs heard the barking of dogs, and at once realised their danger. Nis-ta-e came out on the run, shouting, 'Ride for your lives; the Snakes are after us.' He took the lead, directing the others to follow with the stolen horses. As they rode away in the gray light of the early dawn, they saw the sun's rays already touching the distant mountain peaks. Morning soon broke over the plains, and as the sun rose, Nis-ta-e saw in the distance a cloud of dust made by the Snakes in hot pursuit. He signed to the other three chiefs to drop some of the horses. When a shower of arrows flew by them, Nis-ta-e shouted, 'Hurry, let us get to shelter, for we will have a hard time to-day.'
[paragraph continues] They made for a solitary pine, distant on the plain and surrounded by a thicket of poplars and underbrush. Jumping from their horses they sought shelter in the bushes. The Snakes surrounded them and shot arrows into the thicket. The Blackfeet dug a pit in which they lay and defended themselves as best they could. During the day, Brave Breast, Lone Cutter and Poor Robe were killed, while Nis-ta-e was shot through the knee. When night came on, the Snakes built fires around the thicket to prevent their escape. As he lay in the pit wounded, not daring to leave the cover of the bushes in the bright firelight, Nis-ta-e thought his time to die had come. There was small chance of escape, for the night was clear with no sign of rain. Knowing it would be sure death to remain in the bushes until daylight, Nis-ta-e took off his Otter Medicine, and kneeling, prayed to the Great Mystery in the Sun, that a heavy rain might come and put out the fires. Then, holding his Medicine in turn towards the north, south, east and west, and swaying his body to and fro, he chanted the sacred song,
"Nis-ta-e drew the Medicine to his breast and, holding it towards the sky, continued his song. While chanting, he felt upon his face the rising of a gentle breeze from the east. He then made a vow to the Sun saying:
"'Pity me, O Sun! Give me help that I may escape from my enemies. If I may return in safety to my people, I promise that I will torture myself at the next Sun-dance.'
"A bank of clouds appeared in the north and the sky became overcast. Nis-ta-e knew that his Medicine was prevailing and his life would be saved. A light rain soon began to fall, gradually increasing into a heavy shower and making the fires of the Snakes burn low. He then crawled through the bushes and safely reached the open prairie. He travelled all that night, and, when daylight came, found himself close to the mountains. His leg was badly swollen from the wound and he felt he could go no farther. Stopping in the thick pine forest, he gathered a few poles and made a brush lodge by covering them with pine boughs. He lay under this shelter, and when he was thirsty crawled to a small stream nearby. He also gathered and ate a few roots. A coyote came to the lodge and made friends with him. In a few days Nis-ta-e became so weak from lack of food, that he was unable to crawl to the stream. One day, as he lay expecting death, and dreaming of his home far to the north, and his old father waiting for him in vain, he heard the sound of heavy footsteps back of the lodge. Nis-ta-e wondered if an enemy had found him. The footsteps approached and stopped. A huge form appeared suddenly in the entrance. Instead of an Indian, it was a grizzly bear. He stood there snuffing, grunting, moving his head from side to side and gazing steadily at Nis-ta-e, who thought his end had now surely come. He raised himself feebly and said, 'I suppose you have come to eat me. If you intend to kill me, do it quickly, that I may have no pain.' The grizzly walked in and smelled him from head to foot. Nis-ta-e was wondering which part he would eat first, when the grizzly began to smell his wounded leg. He concluded it would go first, hut, to his surprise, the bear only licked the wound.
[paragraph continues] 'Bear,' said Nis-ta-e, 'you had something in mind when you came in here. Are you going to kill me, or help me?' The bear answered, 'Yes, I will help you. I have come to take you home, that you may again see your people. In four days we will start.' 'If you wait that long,' said Nis-ta-e, 'I will be too weak to travel, for I am starving.' 'You will not starve,' replied the bear, 'for I will hunt.' He went off and soon returned with a grouse. Every day the bear and the coyote hunted, always bringing in some game. Nis-ta-e became stronger, and, on the morning of the fourth day, the bear said, 'To-day we must start. Get upon my back. Hold tight to my hair and I will carry you safely.' Nis-ta-e stretched himself upon the grizzly's broad back, and held on to the long hair. The bear started towards the north, closely followed by the coyote. They travelled at a swinging trot until Nis-ta-e, becoming exhausted, said, 'Rest awhile my brother, for I can hold on no longer.' They stopped and, while Nis-ta-e lay upon the grass, the bear followed the trail of some elk. He soon returned with a bloody mouth, and carried Nis-ta-e to the place where he had killed a bull elk. The three friends feasted together and camped there for the night. Next day, while passing through a narrow defile in the mountains, they met another grizzly. The stranger raised upon his legs and was prepared to fight, but the Medicine Grizzly also stood erect, towering above the other bear. The coyote came next and behind him stood Nis-ta-e. The strange grizzly quickly made off and there was no fight. Again they started, travelling steadily, until, one evening from the top of a high ridge, Nis-ta-e looked down upon the camp of the Blackfeet on the Marias River. The bear said, 'You will now soon see your relatives.' He
carried Nis-ta-e to the river and said he must leave him there. Nis-ta-e was sorry to part with his two faithful friends, the Medicine Grizzly and the coyote. He invited them to come and live with him, but the Grizzly refused, saying, 'The moon is now nearly past when the leaves fall off. It is time I should find a den, for the heavy snows of winter will soon come. The only favour I ask of you in return is, that you will never kill a bear that has holed itself up for the winter.' The Medicine Grizzly then turned toward the mountains, followed by the coyote, while Nis-ta-e signalled to some young men not far distant, who were trying their race horses. They swam their horses across the river, and carried him safely to camp.
"For the sake of the Medicine Grizzly, that saved the life of Nis-ta-e, the Blackfeet will not kill a hibernating bear."
"The events, which I will now relate, happened many years ago. The Blackfeet were moving camp. They travelled slowly and, when stretched out on the plains, their line extended so far, it was hard for those in front to see the people in the rear. As a protection against hostile war parties, the warriors were divided into two bands, one riding in front and the other in the rear. Between these two bands of warriors were the old men, the women and children. While passing through a hill country, a large party of Crow Indians, which had been hiding in ambush, attacked the line in the middle. Before the Blackfeet warriors came to their defence, the Crows had killed many women and children, and carried away some women prisoners. One of the captured was
a young woman named Itsa-pich-kaupe (Sits-by-the-door), the mother of Calf Looking and grandmother of Ap-ai-kai-koa (Little Skunk). She was carried on horseback by the warrior who took her prisoner, over two hundred miles to the Crow camp on the Yellowstone River. There she was presented to one of his friends, who took her to his lodge and gave her into the care of his wife, an older woman. Itsa-pich-kaupe was so closely watched she could find no chance of escape. Every night the Crow man hobbled her feet, so that she could not walk. He also tied a rope around her waist, and fastened the other end to his wife. One day, when the Crow man was away, and the two women were together in the lodge, the Crow woman conversed with Itsa-pich-kaupe in the sign language, saying, 'I overheard my husband say last night that they intended to kill you. I feel sorry and will help you to escape to-night when it is dark.' That evening the Crow man hobbled Itsa-pich-kaupe as usual and tied her to his wife. When the lodge fire burned low, and the Crow woman knew from his heavy breathing that her husband was asleep, she crawled over to Itsa-pich-kaupe and unfastened the ropes. She then tied the loose end of the waist-rope to a lodge pole, so that if her husband should waken and pull upon the rope, he would not suspect her escape. She loosened the bottom of the lodge covering from the pegs and, giving Itsa-pich-kaupe a pair of moccasins, a flint and a small sack filled with pemmican, pushed her outside. Itsa-pich-kaupe travelled all that night as fast as she could go, away from the Crow camp. When daylight came she hid in some underbrush. The Crows tried to follow her but they could find no tracks and gave up the chase. When she had walked for four nights, and was a long
distance from the Crow camp, she began travelling by day also, but her supply of pemmican soon gave out, and there were large holes in her moccasins. One day, when her feet were bruised and bleeding, she saw a large wolf following her. At first she was frightened and tried to run, but her strength was gone, and she sank down exhausted. The wolf stood watching her, and then crept nearer and nearer until he lay at her feet. When Itsa-pich-kaupe arose to walk, the wolf followed, and when she sat down again to rest, he lay down by her side. She then besought his aid, saying:
"'Pity me, brother wolf! I am so weak for food that I must soon die. I pray for the sake of my young children that you will help me.'
[paragraph continues] When she finished her prayer, the wolf trotted to the summit of a high butte, where he sat watching. He disappeared, but soon came back, dragging a buffalo calf he had just killed. With the flint the Crow woman had given her, she built a fire. After roasting and eating some of the meat, she felt stronger and started on, but her feet were so bruised and torn she could scarcely walk. When the wolf drew near, she placed her hand on his broad back, and he seemed glad to bear her weight. In this way the wolf helped Itsa-pich-kaupe, hunting every day and keeping her supplied with food, until he brought her safely home. When they entered camp together, Itsa-pich-kaupe led the friendly wolf to her lodge, where she related to her family the story of her escape from the Crow camp. She besought the people to be kind to the wolf, and to give him food. But she became very sick, after her return, and, as there was no one to look out for the wolf, the Indian dogs attacked him, and drove him into the hills. They would not allow him to remain in
camp. The faithful wolf waited for a long time, watching in vain for Itsa-pich-kaupe. He came every evening to the summit of a high butte, where he sat gazing down at the lodge where she lay. Her relatives continued to feed him, until he disappeared, never to return. The Blackfeet never shoot at a wolf, or coyote, believing them to be good medicine. We have a saying, 'The gun that shoots at a wolf or coyote will never again shoot straight.'"
Brings-down-the-Sun continued: "At one time animals and men were able to understand each other. We can still talk to the animals, just as we do to people, but they now seldom reply, excepting in dreams. We are then obedient to them and do whatever they tell us. Whenever we are in danger, or distress, we pray to them and they often help us. Many of the animals are friendly to man. They are able to read the future and give us warning of what will happen.
"If a coyote comes near the lodge, and barks in front of a door, it is an omen that one of the family will soon die. I can remember, many years ago, observing a band of coyotes on a ridge overlooking our camp. Every one of them, one after the other, barked directly toward our lodge. The very same day, when I came suddenly upon a coyote among the willows, it turned and barked toward me. They were omens of death, for my sister died within a few days."
The camp fire was now burning low. Every one sat gazing silently into the glowing bed of coals. From the depths of the woods came the mournful hooting of an owl, called because of his appearance, Ko-ko-nút-stòke (Ears-far-apart).
[paragraph continues] The Indians listened in silent awe, believing it was a ghost. The Blackfeet have a superstitious dread of owls and say that "their ways are evil, because they dread the sun-light and travel only at night." They believe they are the restless and unhappy spirits of people long dead, who were transformed into owls because of their evil deeds. Being dissatisfied with their abode in the spirit world, they continue revisiting their old haunts, crying dolefully through the night, and seeking to bring misfortune to the living. When the hooting came nearer, and was joined by the voice of another owl, the people became uneasy. When he finally settled in a big tree, close to the camp, some of the women became greatly alarmed. Brings-down-the-Sun said, "Listen! he calls his own name, Ko-ko-nút-stòke; Ko-ko-nút-stòke; Ko-ko-nút-stòke (Ears-far-apart; Ears-far-apart; Ears-far-apart). You can easily distinguish the different voices in a family of owls: the deep notes of the father, the higher tones of the mother, and the small voices of the children." Nitana declared that, shortly before her sister died, an owl had been seen looking in at the door of her lodge. When Spotted Eagle, the medicine man, was told of the incident, he warned her sister that it was an evil omen and gave her a charm to use, if the owl ever returned.
In order to satisfy the women of our camp, and to effectually ward off any injury from the owl, Brings-down-the-Sun called back, "Noks-sto-mo-au (You are my relative)." The Blackfeet believed that an owl will do no harm to a company, if he thinks one of his relatives is present.
The old chief then arose, saying: "I see the Last
[paragraph continues] Brother is pointing downwards toward the prairie, and it is time for us to sleep. The nights are now short and the light of day will come again quickly. When the sun rises, and is high in the sky, I will return to continue my talk."