Published on January 1, 2013 by Casey
A Penobscot Legend
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Generations ago, when the village relied on the forests and the rivers for food and medicine, there was a Penobscot girl who knew the woods and the rivers, and knew every plant which grew in them as well as she knew her own family. She always knew where to find the ripest berries in the summer and the juiciest roots in the winter. She knew the plants that could be used to cure the sick, and knew where to find them, as though they were calling out loud to her. With her spear and her basket of bark, she would wander the wild places, sometimes by herself, sometimes with her sisters and cousins, through the meadows and forests, along the rivers and streams. She worked hard for the people of her village, gathering food and herbs long after the other girls had gone home, or gone off to play. She would always bring home a basket filled with food when the day was done. Because she loved to gather plants, she was known as Gatherer.
The children laughed at Gatherer, but the old women loved her. They saw how she never took more than she needed, nor more than the plants could bear to give. They saw how she always gave thanks to the spirit of the plants she harvested, and they were pleased. They even said that the branches of the trees would bend low to let her pick leaves from them.
One day she was alone in the forest, far from the village, gathering muskrat roots. Gazing among the undergrowth in the forest on the river’s bank, she saw something–Maguak warriors! She ran toward the village to warn her people that their enemies were coming. The warriors saw her and ran after. As she grew closer to the village, the warriors were starting to gain on her. When they were almost upon her she cried out, “Maguak! Maguak!” so that the people in the village could hear her. The warriors caught her and covered her mouth, but even then they knew the people in the village would be taking up arms. Their surprise attack would be no surprise, and they would be outnumbered.
They took Gatherer back with them as a prisoner, running until nightfall and forcing her to keep up with them. When they camped for the evening and had built a fire, the warriors said, “Let us see how brave Gatherer is now!” and they stuck her hand into the fire. Gatherer did not cry out. She would not show pain or fear to them. She would show them how brave she was. One hand was thrust into the fire, then the other, but she made no sound. Finally they stopped. “She has fingers like arrowheads!” said one of her captors. And that was the name they called her by, “Arrowhead Finger”
After the warriors had fallen asleep, she took a root she had gathered from he dress and rubbed it on her sore, burned fingers. “Help me, little one”, she said to the root. Soon the pain ebbed, and by morning her fingers were healed.
The next day, Her captors made her travel hard again all day, over hills and mountains. At the end of the day, they burned her fingers again, to see if she would cry out, but she showed neither fear nor pain. And when they slept, she rubbed the root on her fingers again, and healed.
When the warriors woke, they saw that her fingers were still not blistered from being burned. “Perhaps she is carrying some medicine”, their leader said. “Find it and take it from her”. But Arrowhead Finger did not want to lose the root that had helped her, so she swallowed it without anyone noticing. That way, her healing remained a mystery to them. Fearing her now, they decided not to burn her fingers anymore.
When they reached the Maguak village at last, all the people of the village came out to meet them and were proud to see that their warriors had taken a prisoner. In those days, it was the custom for people to adopt young prisoners, and an old couple who had lost their daughter recently offered to adopt Arrowhead Finger as their own. “No,” said the leader of the war band, “This one spoiled our raid. We will hold a council to decide what will become of her”.
When the council met, the warrior told his story, of how Arrowhead finger had saved her village and refused to cry out when she was burned. Many of the people in the village admired her courage. Others wanted to burn her, fearing she would use her powers against them. They decided that until a decision could be reached, she could stay with the old woman and man.
After many days of keeping council, the tribal leaders agreed that it would be safer to burn her. Not everyone in the village liked this idea, because she was a hard worker and had won the respect and admiration of many people in the village in the short time she had been there. So they decided that they would wait for a few moons before burning her.
As the seasons changed, Arrowhead Finger noticed that her body was changing as well. The root she had swallowed had become a child in her belly. When her foster-parents told the tribe’s leaders this, they decided they would wait even longer to burn her, until after the child was born.
As the moons waxed and waned, the people of the village grew to love Arrowhead Finger. She worked harder than anyone else, gathering food and medicine from the forest for the village. When her baby was born, most of the women of the village came to see her and her new child.
That night, as she slept, she heard a voice beside her. She awoke to find that her newborn son was speaking to her. “I am the root that you gathered in the forest long ago. Because you always respected the plants, I will help you. The day after tomorrow, your enemies plan to put you into the fire. Even now, they are gathering the wood. You must ask my grandmother to help you. She will know what to do. You must leave me here, for I have work to do here. One day, we will be together again, but for now you must leave me.” Then the babe closed his eyes and went back to sleep.
Arrowhead Finger got up and went to her foster-mother, asking her what to do. “Daughter,” she said, “I have a plan to save you. When the women go to gather wood tomorrow, go with them, and leave your son with me. Take the path to the east, and it will take you home. No one will expect you to leave, because your baby is here”.
In the morning, she cradled her son in her arms, and kissed him goodbye. She placed him in the arms of his grandmother, turned, and went into the forest with the women. When they were safely away from the village, she took the path to the east. She followed the rising sun for many days until she came to the river.
On the river she saw her father, who was waiting for her in a birch bark canoe. He told her how a child had come to him in his dreams, saying that he must cross the river and bring her home. She told him all that had happened to her, and when they returned to the village she was greeted joyfully.
Angered with her escape, the warriors of the Magauk were making plans to attack the Penobscot village again. As they were making their plans, all of them became sick. They grew so sick that they feared they would die, and no one knew how to cure them. Finally, the old woman who had adopted Arrowhead Finger came to them.
“It is my Grandson who is making such fierce warriors weak”, she said. “He is protecting his mother by making her enemies fall ill. He is very powerful, and you could not defeat him, but perhaps if you beg mercy from him, he will take pity on you”.
The leaders of the village decided to do as she said. They went to her house and found, to their surprise, that the baby was now a young man. “We have come to tell you that we are sorry for mistreating your mother. Do not kill our warriors, and we will make you the chief of our people”.
“I was going to kill them”, said the boy, “but now I will let them live. Go to the forest and I will give you the herbs that will make them well again. I am Gwelhb’hot, and when you need medicine you must come to me. I will not be your chief. Instead, I will be a spirit of the forest, and the forest will be my house. You will not see me, but if you have respect for the plants I will lead you to the ones that can heal you”.
So it was that Gwelhb’hot taught the people about the medicine of plants. And when Arrowhead Finger went to gather herbs in the forest, she would hear the voice of her son leading her to the plants which would cure her people. That is the voice that the people who seek medicinal plants still hear in the forest when they treat the plants with respect.