AMONG the Indians who used to roam over our Western prairies in such vast numbers, story telling was of the greatest importance. From the opening of spring, through the summer, and far into the fall, the men and older boys of the tribe were out each day hunting the deer in the hills and the buffalo on the plains or spearing fish in the streams. The women and girls meantime were occupied with their household duties about the tepees.
But at last came the long winter months when game was scarce, and the old trails were covered with a blanket of snow. Then the Indians would retreat to the snug wigwams, and there await the coming of spring again. They had no books to read or newspapers and magazines with which to while away those long winter days, and life would have been dull indeed had it not been for their ability to tell stories to each other.
They never lacked material out of which to build those tales. Each bird and beast, each herb and flower; in fact, every living thing that ran, or crawled, or flew about their native forests was known to the Indians. They studied the habits of the wild creatures to an extent that we might well follow.
Then there were other forces that entered into their lives and stories. In the flash of lightning from a dark cloud, in the roll of thunder, in the rush of wind, or in the roar of waters tumbling over a cliff into the river below, they heard the voice of the Great Spirit, unseen but powerful.
And so all their legends were woven around these things and were full of strange incidents that had happened to them on their hunting trips. Many included adventures that had been related by their fathers and grandfathers around the winter camp fires years and years before.
Let us imagine that we, too, are curled up comfortably on a deer-skin in a chief’s tepee, close beside the glowing campfire, whose flames cast a ruddy light on the circle of dark faces all about it, especially on that of the chief who, pipe in hand, is just about to relate some of these old legends of the American Indians.
V. M. H.
The Lost Giant
ONCE upon a time, far back in the days when the elk, the moose, and the buffalo roamed over the hills and plains of North America, and little Indian children could call all the animals by name, there lived among one of the northern tribes a very unhappy little boy named Wasewahto.
His mother had been a chieftain’s daughter, but she had died when the boy was a mere baby. His father had taken another wife, Wapiti—“the elk”—so called by reason of her large ugly head. Wasewahto’s father was dead now, too, and the little boy lived alone with his stepmother, who had no love for him and treated him very badly. He was too small to hunt and fish for his own food, and often Wapiti refused to share hers with him, giving him only a few bones to gnaw.
One day she rolled up her belongings into a bundle and, without a word to Wasewahto, went away. Two days passed without a sign of her return. Then the little boy, hungry and frightened, sat down before his tent and cried bitterly.
As he sat there sobbing and crying he felt the earth quiver beneath him, and looking up, he saw through his tears, a giant Indian who towered up to the very tree tops.
“Why are you crying?” asked the giant in a voice like distant thunder.
“Because I am all alone,” answered Wasewahto. “My stepmother has been gone two days and I have no food.”
“You are the stepson of Wapiti?” asked the giant. The little boy nodded, and the giant continued: “Then she will never come back—she has gone to another tribe. Come home with me.” And he swung the child aloft on his big broad shoulder. Away they went to the giant’s wigwam, and there Wasewahto lived happily for many moons.
But one night the giant had a dream, in which the spirit of Wasewahto’s father appeared to him, and told him to return the boy to his stepmother. The dream was so vivid that it troubled him, and he began to break camp the next morning, and prepare for a march.
But when Wasewahto heard what his friend proposed to do, he cried and cried, and clung to the giant, and begged him not to go, but the big man was still worried over his dream, and insisted upon going.
“But I will not leave you unless I find a tribe which will be kind to you,” he said at last, as they were starting, and with that promise Wasewahto had to be satisfied. The giant swung the boy to his shoulder and set out.
After four days’ travel they reached a strange camp, and here they found Wapiti. She was furiously angry when she saw the boy, but a fear of the giant kept her silent. When he had told her his dream, she too felt uneasy, and pretended to welcome Wasewahto. But when the giant left him with his stepmother, and prepared to leave, the child sobbed and cried so hard and pleaded so earnestly with his friend to stay and live near him, that the big man paused.
“I will stay if the tribe will have me,” he said at last, and no one dared refuse. When they had given their consent the giant said: “I will work for the tribe—I will hunt and fish and fight—but one thing you must promise me. Never give me otter’s flesh to eat or I will go away and never return.”
So the tribe promised, and little Wasewahto was happy. The giant taught him to hunt and fish, so that never again would he have to starve if Wapiti should desert him. The little boy soon had many friends. He was so merry and bright, his aim with an arrow was so true and he was such a brave little warrior, that all the tribe loved him.
All but Wapiti—she still hated the boy, and she hated the giant even more, for she felt that had it not been for him, she would long ago have been rid of the unwelcome child. In her heart she was always trying to make some plan whereby she might be freed from both of them. One day a hunter brought in a freshly killed deer for the giant, who was very fond of roast venison, and Wapiti at last had her chance.
She prepared a splendid roast, but here and there among the deer meat she made a tiny slit with a sharp knife, and slid in pieces of otter flesh. The giant returned from fishing, with a ravenous appetite, and sat down to the meal with a relish. But the first bite revealed the trickery of Wapiti, and with a furious glare at her, the giant leaped to his feet, strode from the camp, and never was seen again by the tribe.
Soon the warriors returned, and when they learned what had happened, Wapiti had no further chance to carry out her cruel plans against Wasewahto, for they drove her from the camp with stones and arrows, and said if ever she returned her life would be forfeited. Then they adopted her stepson as the child of the tribe.
Poor little Wasewahto! Though he was among friends, he grieved continually for the loss of his dear giant, as did all the tribe, though not as bitterly. He could not be tempted with even the daintiest foods, and he did not care to play any more. The Indians made him splendid bows and arrows, and the medicine-man carved a rattle for him out of a buffalo bone, but nothing seemed to make him happy. As winter came on he grew thinner and paler and sadder every day, and shivered at the slightest breeze.
At last his friends could bear it no longer, and begged him to tell them what, next to having the giant back again, would make him happiest.
He answered at once, “Take me where the summer is. If I could see flowers in the woods, and could shoot at the birds with my bow and arrows again, I believe I could be happy.”
“Then we will hunt for the summer-land, oh little Wasewahto,” they cried, and set out the next day at sunrise.
For many days they traveled toward the south, and at last, on the shores of a great lake, they came upon a strange tepee. It was that of a hostile tribe, however, and so Wasewahto’s friends hid themselves in the rushes by the water’s edge, and called on the beaver to help them.
“What you seek is indeed here,” said the wise old animal, when they had told him their story, “And I will help you.”
Accordingly he asked the moose to swim to the middle of the lake, and in the meantime he began gnawing busily at the canoe paddles of the hostile tribe, not enough to saw them off entirely, but merely to weaken them.
Suddenly there was a shout from the tepee. Someone had seen the moose and all were eager to chase him. The enemies of Wasewahto and his friends ran to the shore, leaped into their canoes, and put out after the moose.
When they were well out into the middle of the lake the beaver led Wasewahto and his friends into the tepee by a hidden tent flap, so that they might not be seen from the water side. From the very top of the highest tent pole there hung a great leather bag. As soon as he saw it, Wasewahto began to smile, a little at first, then more and more, and at last, laughing aloud, he caught up his little bow and arrows and aimed straight at the hanging pouch.
As the dart pierced the leather, the wigwam was suddenly filled with the twittering of birds, and in another instant they came flying out of the bag and out of the tepee—thousands of them, robins, woodpeckers, swallows, orioles, jays, wrens, bluebirds, and many others. For summer had been tied up in the leather pouch, there to hang quietly until another year.
The Indians on the lake had by this time discovered that there were intruders in their camp, and that summer, placed in their keeping, had been set free. Desperately they began to head for shore, but now under the strain all the paddles broke, and the Indians were left floating on the lake, screaming with helpless rage, while the moose swam away to cover.
Now it began to be summer everywhere. The snow and ice melted away; the brook, which had been locked up under layers of ice, began to gurgle and laugh again; the green leaves came out on the trees, and even the flowers began to spring up in the woods. Wasewahto was perfectly happy. He grew plump and rosy, and he laughed with joy as he shot his arrows and threw the harpoon for fish.
But the beaver and the moose came presently to think that perhaps they had meddled with things that were not their affair, and that if the Great Spirit had intended it to be summer all the time, he would not have tied it up in a bag part of the year. So they decided to correct their mistake; but when at last they had fixed upon a plan, they found they could not agree upon the length of time summer should be allowed out of its prison. So they called all the animals together and asked for their advice. Everyone had a different idea. Some advised a month, some ten, some eleven.
At last up jumped an old frog, and holding out his webbed foot, with its four toes, so that all might see it, he croaked in his deep voice, “Have four—have four—have four—” over and over again, until he drowned out the voices of the others. His persistence so wearied them that at last they gave in to him and decided on four, as he wished.
So now there are but four months of summer in the Northland, and little Wasewahto is perfectly happy during those days. Then he smiles all the time, as he works and plays. That is why the sunshine is so pleasant, and why the brooks seem to gurgle with joy in the summer time. But when the winter days come, and the cold rains of autumn fall, those are the tears of Wasewahto, sitting by the fire and weeping for his lost friend, the giant.