Published on January 15, 2013 by Casey
Blackfoot legends about a hailstorm punishing four medicine men who refused to share the gift of tobacco. Retold from several nineteenth-century sources
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For longer than anyone knows, Indians throughout the Americas have smoked tobacco and other plants for pleasure and for praying. The smoke was the Great Spirit’s breath taking the prayers up to the Ones Above. With a pipe in his hands, a man could speak nothing but the truth. Sir Walter Raleigh learned the use of tobacco from the Indians. When he first had a smoke in a London inn, the bartender, thinking that he was on fire, emptied a tankard of ale over him. To the white man, smoking became an addiction; but to the native American, pipe and tobacco were sacred and smoking was a holy ritual. A man who had killed a member of his own tribe could not smoke ritually with the others. He had to smoke a mean little pipe all by himself — hard punishment.
There once were four brothers, all spiritual men who had power. In a vision the oldest of them heard a voice saying: “Out there is a sacred weed; pick it and burn it.” The man looked around, saw the strange weed, and put it in the fire. It gave off a very pleasing aroma. Then the second brother had a dream in which a voice said: “Take this herb. Chop it fine. Put it into a hide bag.” The man did what he was told, and the dry herb in his hide bag was wonderfully fragrant. The third brother had a vision in which he saw a man hollowing out a bone and putting the strange weed into it. A voice said, “Make four pipes like this,” and the third brother carved four pipes out of an animal’s leg bones. Then the youngest of the four brothers had a vision. A voice told him: “You four men light your pipes and smoke. Inhale the smoke; exhale it. Let the smoke ascend to the clouds.” The voice also taught him the songs and prayers that went with smoking.
So the four medicine men, born of the same mother, smoked together. This was the first time that men had ever smoked, and they sang and prayed together as they did so. The brothers, who called the sacred weed “nawak’osis,” were meant to teach its use to the people. But nawak’osis made them powerful and wise and clear-minded, and they did not want to share it with others. They planted the sacred weed in a secret place that only they knew. They guarded the songs and prayers and rituals that went with the smoking. They formed a Tobacco Society, just the four of them. So there was anger, there was war, there was restlessness of spirit, there was impiety.
Nawak’osis was meant to calm anger, to make men worship, to make peace, to ease the mind. But without the sacred herb, unity and peace were lacking.
A young man called Bull-by-Himself said to his wife: “These four powerful ones have been given something good to share with the people, but they are keeping it for themselves. So things are bad. I must find a way to plant and reap the sacred weed they call nawak’osis.” Bull-by-himself and his wife went to a sacred lake and set up their tipi close by its shore. The man left everyday to hunt and look for the plant nawak’osis. The woman stayed in the lodge to quill, tan, and prepare food.
One day while she was alone, she heard somebody singing beautifully. She searched everywhere to find the source of the music and discovered that it was coming from a beaver house close by the shore. “It must be the beavers singing,” she thought. “Their songs are lovely. I hope they don’t stop.”
Though her husband came home with plenty of meat, he had not found nawak’osis. The woman called his attention to the music, but he said: “I hear nothing. It’s your imagination.”
“No,” she said, “I can hear it clearly. Put your ear to the beaver house.”
He did, but still heard nothing. Then the wife took her knife and made a hole in the beaver lodge. Through it they could not only hear the beavers sing, but also watch them performing a strange, beautiful dance.
“My young brothers,” the wife called to them, “be of a sharing spirit. Teach me your wonderful song and your medicine!”
The Beavers answered: “Close the hole you have made, because it lets the cold in. Then we’ll come out and visit you.”
So she sealed their wall up, and that night four beavers came to Bull-by- Himself’s lodge. As soon as they were inside they turned themselves into humans — four nice-looking young men.
One asked: “What have you come here for?”
“I have come,” said Bull-by-Himself, “to find the sacred weed called nawak’osis.”
“Then this is the right place,” said the man-beavers. “We are water people, and nawak’osis is water medicine. We will give you this sacred herb, but first you must learn the songs, the prayers, the dances, the ceremonies that go with it.”
“There are four powerful men in our tribe,” said Bull-by-Himself, “who have the medicine and the knowledge, but keep them from us.”
“Ah,” said the man-beavers, “that is wrong. This sacred weed is meant to be shared. Here is what you must do. By day, go out and get the skin of every four-legged and two-legged creature that lives in and around the water — except, of course, beaver. You must get the skins of the muskrat and otter, of the duck and kingfisher, of all creatures like that, because they represent water. Sun and water mean life. Sun begets life, and water makes it grow.”
So every day Bull-by-Himself went out for the skins, while his wife scraped, tanned, and smoked them. And every night the four man-beavers came to teach them the prayers, songs, and dances that go with nawak’osis. After a while the beavers said: “Now all is ready. Now you have all the skins, and now you have the knowledge. Make the skins, which represent water power, into a bag, into a medicine bundle. Tomorrow night we’ll come again for the last time to tell you what to do.”
The following night the beavers came as they had promised. They brought with them the sacred weed nawak’osis. The top of the stalks was covered with little round seeds, and the man-beavers put the seeds into the medicine bundle the woman had prepared.
“It’s planting time now,” said the Beavers. “Don’t touch nawak’osis before you’re ready to plant. Choose a place where there is not too much shade and not too much sunlight. Mix plenty of brown earth with plenty of black earth, and keep the soil loose. Say the prayers we have taught you. Then you, Bull-by-Himself, must take a deer horn and with its point make holes in the earth — one hole for each seed. And you, his wife, must use a buffalo-horn spoon to drop one seed into each hole. Keep singing the songs we taught you all the while. Then both of you dance lightly over this earth, tamping down the seeds. After that you just wait for nawak’osis to grow. Now we have taught you everything. Now we go.”
The nice-looking young men left, turning back into beavers as they went. Bull-by-Himself and his wife planted the sacred weed as they had been told. The four medicine-men brothers said to one another: “What can this man, Bull-by-Himself, and his wife be planting? Their songs sound familiar.”
They sent somebody to find out, and this person came back saying: “They are planting nawak’osis, and doing it in a sacred manner.”
The four powerful men began to laugh. “No, it can’t be. It’s some useless weed they’re planting. No one but us can plant nawak’osis. No one but us can use it. No one but us has its power.”
But when it was time to harvest nawak’osis, a great hailstorm destroyed the secret tobacco patch of the four medicine brothers. Nothing was left, and they had not saved a single seed. They said to each other: “Perhaps this man and his wife did plant nawak’osis after all. Perhaps the hail hasn’t destroyed their tobacco patch.”
Again the four brothers sent someone to find out, and that person came back saying: “This man and his wife had no hail on their field. Here is what they have been growing.”
He showed the brothers some leaves. “It is indeed nawak’osis,” they said, shaking their heads in wonder. Thus with the help of the beaver people, Bull-by-Himself and his wife brought the sacred tobacco to the tribes, who have been smoking it in a sacred manner ever since.