Published on June 8, 2013 by Casey
“The Native American Story of the Red Old Man
Blackfeet Indian Stories by George Bird Grinnell”
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In Montana, running into the Missouri River from the south, is a little stream that the Blackfeet call “It Fell on Them.” Once, long, long ago, while a number of women were digging in a bank near this stream for the red earth that they used as paint, the bank gave way and fell on them, burying and killing them. The white people call this Armell’s Creek.
It was on this stream near the mountains that the Piegans were camped when Mika’pi went to war. This was long ago.
Early in the morning a herd of buffalo had been seen feeding on the slopes of the mountains, and some hunters went out to kill them. Travelling carefully up the ravines, and keeping out of sight of the herd, they came close to them, near enough to shoot their arrows, and they began to kill fat cows. But while they were doing this a war party of Snakes that had been hidden on the mountainside attacked them, and the Piegans began to run back toward their camp.
One of them, called Fox Eye, was a brave man, and shouted to the others to stop and wait, saying, “Let us fight these people; the Snakes are not brave; we can drive them back.” But the other Piegans would not listen to him; they made excuses, saying, “We have no shields; our war medicine is not here; there are many of them; why should we stop here to die?” They ran on to the camp, but Fox Eye would not run. Hiding behind a rock he prepared to fight, but as he was looking for some enemy to shoot at, holding his arrow on the string, a Snake had crept up on the bank above him; the Piegan heard the twang of the bowstring, and the long, fine arrow passed through his body. His bow and arrow dropped from his hands, and he fell forward, dead. Now, too late, the warriors came rushing out from the Piegan camp to help him, but the Snakes scalped their enemy, scattered up the mountain, and soon were hidden in the timber.
Fox Eye had two wives, and their father and mother and all their near relations were dead. All Fox Eye’s relations had died. So it happened that these poor widows had no one to help them—no one to take vengeance for the killing of their husband.
All day long, and often far into the night, these two sat on a near-by hill and wailed, and their mourning was sad.
There was a young man named Mika’pi. Every morning when he awoke he heard the mourning of these poor widows, and all through the day he could not forget their sorrow. He pitied them. One day he sent his mother to them, to tell them that he wished to speak with them. When they had come to the lodge they entered and sat down close by the doorway and covered their heads.
“Listen!” said Mika’pi. “For days and nights I have heard your mourning, and I too have mourned. Your husband was my close friend, and now he is dead, and no relations are left to avenge him. So now I say to you, I will take the load from your hearts; I will go to war and kill enemies and take scalps, and when I return they shall be yours. I will wipe away your tears, and we shall be glad that Fox Eye is avenged.”
When the people heard that Mika’pi was going to war many young men wished to join him, but he refused. “I shall go alone,” he said. So when he had taken a medicine sweat and had asked a priest to pray for him in his absence, he left the camp one evening, just as it was growing dark.
It is only the foolish warrior who travels in the day. The wise one knows that war-parties may be out, or that some camp watcher sitting on a hill may see him far off and may try to kill him. Mika’pi was not one of these foolish persons. He was brave and cautious, and he had powerful helpers. Some have said that he was helped by the ghosts. When he started to war against the Snakes he travelled in low places, and at sunrise he climbed some hill near by and looked carefully over the country in all directions, and during all the long day he lay there and watched, sleeping often, but only for a short time.
When Mika’pi had come to the Great Place of Falling Water, it began to rain hard, and, looking about for a place to sleep, he saw a hole in the rocks and crept in and lay down at the farther end. The rain did not stop, and when it grew dark he could not travel because of the darkness and the storm, so he lay down to sleep again; but before he had fallen asleep he heard something at the mouth of the cave, and then something creeping toward him. Then soon something touched his breast, and he put out his hand and felt a person. Then he sat up.
Mika’pi stretched out his hand and put its palm on the person’s breast and moved his hand quickly from side to side, and then touched the person with the point of his finger, which in sign language means, “Who are you?” The stranger took MIka’pi’s hand and made him feel of his own right hand. The thumb and fingers were closed except the forefinger, which was extended. When Mika’pi’s hand was on the stranger’s hand the person moved his hand forward with a zigzag motion, meaning Snake.
Mika’pi was glad. Here had come to him one of the tribe he was seeking, yet he thought it better to wait for a time before fighting him; so when, in signs, the Snake asked Mika’pi who he was he replied, by making the sign for paddling a canoe, that he was a River person, for he knew that the Snakes and the River people, or Pend d’Oreilles, were at peace. Then the two lay down for the night, but Mika’pi did not sleep. Through the long night he watched for the first light, so that he might kill his enemy; and just at daybreak Mika’pi, without noise, strung his bow, fitted an arrow to the string, and sent the thin shaft through his enemy’s heart. The Snake half rose up and fell back dead. Mika’pi scalped him, took his bow and arrows and his bundle of moccasins, and went out of the cave and looked all about. Day-light had come, but no one was in sight. Perhaps, like himself, the Snake had gone to war alone. Mika’pi did not forget to be careful because he had been fortunate. He travelled only a little way, and then hid himself and waited for night before going on. After drinking from the river he ate and, climbing up on a high rock wall, he slept.
He dreamed that he fought with strange people and was wounded. He felt blood trickling from his wounds, and when he awoke he knew that he had been warned to turn back. Other signs were bad. He saw an eagle rising carrying a snake, which dropped from its claws. The setting sun too was painted, a sure warning that danger was near. In spite of all these things Mika’pi determined to go on. He thought of the poor widows mourning; he thought of the welcome of the people if he should return with scalps; he thought also of two young sisters whom he wished to marry. If he could return with proof of brave deeds, they would think well of him.
Mika’pi travelled onward.
The sun had already disappeared behind the sharp pointed dark peaks of the mountains. It was nearly night. As the light grew dim, the far stretching prairie began to be hidden. By a stream in a valley where grew large and small trees were the lodges of a great camp. For a long distance up and down the river rose the smokes of many fires.
On a hill overlooking the valley sat a person alone. His robe was drawn close about him, and he sat there without moving, looking down on the valley and out on the prairie above it. Perhaps he was watching for enemies; perhaps he was praying.
Creeping through the grass behind this per-son, something was slowly drawing near to him. There was no noise, the watcher heard nothing; still he sat there, looking out over the prairie, and turning his head neither to the right nor the left. This thing behind him kept creeping closer, and presently it was so near it could touch the man. Perhaps then there was some little rustle of the grass, and the watcher turned his head. It was too late. A strong arm around his neck bent his head back, a hand covered his mouth, a long stone knife was thrust into his breast, and he died in silence. The fading light had kept people in the camp from seeing what had happened.
The man who had used the knife scalped his enemy, and slowly, hidden by the grass, crept down the hill that he had just ascended, and when he reached the cover of a low place Mika’pi rose to his feet and crept away. He had another Snake scalp tied to his belt. His heart was glad, but he was not satisfied.
Several nights had passed since the signs warned him to turn back, but notwithstanding the warnings, he had succeeded. Perhaps his success had made him too confident. He longed for more of it. “One more scalp I shall take,” he said, “and then I will return to the people.”
He climbed far up the mountainside and hid among the pines and slept, but when day came he awoke and crept out to a point where he could see the camp. He saw the smoke rising as the women kindled their morning fires; he saw the people going about through the camp, and then presently he saw many people rush up on the hill where he had left the dead enemy. He could not hear their angry cries, nor their mournful wailings, but he knew how badly they felt, and he sung a song, for he was happy.
Once more the sun had disappeared behind the mountains, and as darkness grew Mika’pi came down from where he had been hiding and carefully approached the camp. Now was a time of danger. Now watchers might be hidden anywhere, looking for the approach of enemies, ready to raise a cry to warn the camp. Each bush or clump of rye grass or willow thicket might hide an enemy. Very slowly, looking and listening, Mika’pi crept around the outskirts of the camp. He made no noise, he did not show himself. Presently he heard some one clear his throat and then a cough, and a little bush moved. Here was a watcher. Could he kill him and get away? He sat and waited to see what would happen, for he knew where his enemy was, but the enemy knew nothing of him. The great moon rose over the eastern prairie and climbed high and began to travel across the sky. Seven Persons swung around and pointed downward. It was about the middle of the night. At length the person in the bush grew tired of watching; he thought no enemy could be near and he rose and stretched out his arms and yawned, but even as he stood an arrow pierced him through, beneath the arms. He gave a loud cry and tried to run, but another arrow struck him, and he fell.
And now from out the camp rushed the warriors toward the sound, but even as they came Mika’pi had taken the scalp from his enemy and started to run away into the darkness. The moon was bright, and close behind him were the Snakes. He heard arrows flying by him, and presently one passed through his arm. He pulled it out and threw it from him. Another struck his leg, and he fell, and a great shout arose from the Snakes. Now their enemy was down and revenge for the two lives lately taken was certain.
But Mika’pi’s helpers were not far off. It was at the very verge of a high cut wall over-hanging the river that Mika’pi fell, and even as the Snakes shouted he rolled over the brink into the dark rushing water below. The Snakes ran along the edge of the river, looking into the water, with bent bows watching for the enemy’s head or body to appear, but they saw nothing.
Carefully they looked along the shores and sandbars; they did not find him.
Mika’pi had sunk deep in the water. The swift current carried him along, and when he rose to the surface he was beyond his enemies. For some time he floated on, but the arrow in his leg pained him and at last he crept out on a sandbar. He managed to draw the arrow from his leg, and finding at the edge of the bar a dry log, he rolled it into the water, and keeping his hands on it, drifted down the river with the current. Cold and stiff from his wounds, he crept out on the bank and lay down in the warm sunshine. Soon he fell asleep.
When he awoke the sun was in the middle of the sky. His leg and arm were swollen and pained him, yet he started to-go home, and for a time struggled onward; but at last, tired and discouraged, he sat down.
“Ah,” he said to himself, “true were the signs! How crazy I was to go against them! Now my bravery has been useless, for here I must stop and die. The widows will still mourn, and who will care for my father and mother in their old age? Pity me now, O Sun; help me, O Great Above Person! Give me life!”
Something was coming through the brush near him, breaking the sticks as it walked. Was it the Snakes following his trail? Mika’pi strung his bow and drew his arrows from the quiver. He waited.
No, it was not a Snake; it was a bear, a big grizzly bear, standing there looking down at Mika’pi. “What is my brother doing here?” said the bear. “Why does he pray for life?”
“Look at my leg,” said Mika’pi; “swollen and sore. See my wounded arm; I can hardly hold the bow. Far away is the home of my people, and my strength is gone. Surely here I must die, for I cannot walk, and I have no food.”
“Take courage, my brother,” said the bear. “Keep up a strong heart, for I will help you, and you shall have life.”
When he had said this he lifted Mika’pi in his arms and took him to a place where there was thick mud, and there he took great handfuls of the mud and plastered it on the wounds, and while he was putting on the mud he sang a medicine song. Then he carried Mika’pi to a place where there were many service berries, and he broke off great branches of the fruit and gave them to him, saying, “Eat, my brother, eat.” He kept breaking off branches full of large, ripe berries until Mika’pi was full and could eat no more.
Then said the bear, “Now lie down on my back and hold tight by my hair and we will go on”; and when Mika’pi had got on his back and was ready the bear started. All through the night he travelled on without stopping, and when morning came they rested for a time and ate more berries, and again the bear put mud upon the man’s wounds. In this way they travelled on, until, on the fourth day, they had come close to the lodges of the Piegans and the people saw them coming, and wondered.
“Get off now, my brother, get off,” said the bear. “There is the camp of your people. I shall leave you”; and at once he turned and went off up the mountain.
All the people came out to meet Mika’pi, and they carried him to his father’s lodge. He untied the scalps from his belt and gave them to the poor widows, saying, “These are the scalps of your enemies; I wipe away your tears.” Then every one rejoiced. All Mika’pi’s women relations went through the camp, shouting out his name and singing songs about him, and all prepared to dance the dance of triumph and rejoicing.
First came the widows. They carried the scalps tied on poles, and their faces were painted black. Then came the medicine men, with their medicine pipes unwrapped, and then the bands of the All Friends dressed in their war costumes; then came the old men; and, last of all, the women and children. They went all through the village, stopping here and there to dance, and Mika’pi sat outside the lodge and saw all the people dance by him. He forgot his pain and was happy, and although he could not dance, he sung with them.
Soon they made the medicine lodge, and first of all the warriors, Mika’pi was chosen to cut the rawhide to bind the poles, and as he cut the strips he related the coups he had counted. He told of the enemies he had killed, and all the people shouted his name and the drummers struck the drum. The father of those two sisters gave them to him. He was glad to have such a son-in-law.
Long lived Mika’pi. Of all the great chiefs who have lived and died he was the greatest. He did many other great things. It must be true, as the old men have said, that he was helped by the ghosts, for no one can do such things without help from those fearful and terrible persons.