Without even knocking at the door there noiselessly entered our northern home two large, unhandsome Indians. They paid not the slightest attention to the grown-up palefaces present, but in their ghostly way marched across the room to the corner where the two little children were playing on the floor. Quickly but gently picking them up they swung them to their shoulders, and then, without a word of salutation or even a glance at the parents, they noiselessly passed out of that narrow door and disappeared in the virgin forest. They were pagan Saulteaux, by name Souwanas and Jakoos.
The Indian names by which these two children were called by the natives were "Sagastaookemou," which means the "Sunrise Gentleman," and "Minnehaha," "Laughing Waters."
To the wigwam of Souwanas, "South Wind," these children were being carried. They had no fear of these big Indians, though the boy was only six years old, and his little sister but four. They had learned to look with laughing eyes even into the fiercest and ugliest of these red faces and had made them their friends.
So even now, while being carried away among the dense trees, they merrily laughed and shouted to each other. The bright patches of sunshine on the ground, the singing birds, and the few brilliant-hued summer flowers, brought forth their exclamations of delight, while all the time the grave, silent Indians hurried them on deeper and deeper into the forest. Yet carefully they guarded their precious loads, and as the antlered deer in passing through the thick woods and under the low branches never strike trunk or bough, so these sons of the forest glided swiftly on without allowing any hurt to come to the children of the paleface, even if at times the faint trail led them over slippery rocks and under low intertwining branches.
The wigwam of Souwanas was pitched in a beautiful spot at the edge of the great forest near the sandy, rocky eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg. This great lake is well called The Sea, which is the meaning of its Indian name. It is about as long as Lakes Ontario and Erie combined and in some places is eighty miles wide.
At the entrance of the wigwam, which was made of a couple of tanned reindeerskins, the children were carefully lifted down from the men's shoulders and then taken into this Indian abode. Coming in suddenly from the bright sunshine it was some time before they could see distinctly. The door flap of deerskin had dropped like a curtain behind them. All the light there was came in through the hole in the top, where the poles of the wigwam crossed each other. Presently, however, they were able to see a circle of Indian children gathered around a small fire that smoldered on the ground in the center of the tent. It was now in the pleasant summer time, but the fire was needed for something else than warmth, as the little Sagastao and Minnehaha discovered before long. They were soon seated in the circle with the red children, who, young though they were, were a wee bit startled at seeing these little palefaces. The white children, however, simply laughed with glee. This outward demonstration seemed very improper to the silent red children, who were taught to refrain from expressions of their gladness or sorrow.
The Indians had brought the white children for a characteristic reason. They had said among themselves, "If the white father and mother love us as they say they do we will test them by taking away their children without asking permission." They also wished to show their own love for the children, and so had really brought them to a children's feast.
It was perhaps as queer a tea party as you ever heard of. There was no table on which to put the good things prepared for the feast. No plates, no cups and saucers, no knives, no spoons, not even a chair! There were no cakes, no tarts, no jam, no pies, not even any bread and butter!
"Well, what a feast!" you say. "Without any place to sit, or good things to eat!" Not too fast! There were both of these. There was the lap of mother earth, and so down on the ground, with bearskins and deerskins on it for rugs, the children sat. Then the deerskin door was again opened and in came Indians with birch-bark dishes, called rogans, in which were nicely prepared wild ducks, rabbits, and partridges. But as they were uncooked they could not yet be eaten by the now expectant, hungry children.
Then began the preparation of the feast. Some of the Indians added dry wood to the fire until there was a hot, smokeless blaze. Others took out their sharp hunting knives and cleverly cut up the ducks, rabbits, and partridges. Then these pieces were spitted on the ends of sharp points of hard wood and skillfully broiled or toasted in the hot flames. As fast as the dainty bits of meat were cooked and a little cooled they were given to the children in their fingers, and in that way the little ones had their feast.
Now, please don't turn up your noses at such a feast. Think of it: out in a wigwam in the lovely forest, where the wild birds sing and the squirrels chatter, where is heard the music of the waves playing on the shore but a few yards away, with great friendly Indians as your waiters! The very air of that northern summer gives you an appetite ready for anything.
Those little people, red and white, soon became the jolliest of friends, and as the white children could speak the Indian language as well as their own they were soon all chattering away most merrily while they daintily picked the bones. Of course this way of eating was hard upon their hands, faces, and clothing, but what healthy child ever gave a second thought—if a first—to any of these things?
After a time this feast, as all feasts must, came to an end. Then the question was, "What shall we do next for the children?" for the whole day had been planned by the grown-up Indians for the entertainment of the little people. Canoes had been collected on the shore of Winnipeg, handy if it should be decided that they all should go for an afternoon outing on the water. However, Souwanas, who had gone out to look at the sky and observe the winds and waves, now came in and reported that he thought they would better put off the canoe trip to some time when the lake was more calm. It was then suggested that the children be asked what would please them most. The little folks, white and red, were not slow in giving their decision.
"Tell us a story about Nanahboozhoo."
"Who shall be the story-teller?"
There was a hearty call for "Souwanas!"
On coming in from investigating the weather, but a few minutes before, Souwanas had seated himself on a robe and was now enjoying his calumet, or pipe. Stoical though he was, his dark eyes flashed with pleasure at the unanimous call of the children, but, Indianlike, it would have been a great breach of manners if he had let his delight be known. Then, again, Indianlike, it would never have done to have seemed to be in a hurry. The Indian children well knew this, but who ever heard of white children that could sit like statues, grave and dignified, while the story-teller took time to finish smoking a large pipe of tobacco?
So it was in this case. In their wild excitement and eagerness to have the story begin, both Sagastao and Minnehaha sprang up and, rushing toward Souwanas, vied with each other in seeing which could first pluck the half-smoked calumet from his mouth. Such audacity appalled the Indian children and fairly took the breath away from the older Indians. For was not Souwanas a chief, and the calumet almost a sacred thing while between his lips?
Souwanas, however, was greatly delighted. Here was a new experience, and the very boldness of the children of the palefaces was an evidence of their unbounded confidence and love. To little Sagastao the calumet was surrendered, and, with the children cuddled around him, Souwanas began his story:
|With the children cuddled around him, Souwanas began his story.|
"Now, you must know that Nanahboozhoo was a queer fellow. He could make himself as tall as a tree or as small as a turtle or snake. Nothing could kill him. He could not be drowned even if dropped hundreds of feet into the lake, nor burned to death even if he tumbled into the fire. He often met with accidents, but he always came up right again and was ready for some other adventure in some new shape. He has left his marks on the rocks and trees, leaves and flowers. Almost anywhere we look we see signs that Nanahboozhoo has been around. As his temper was very uncertain he sometimes caused trouble and injured the appearance of things which were once more beautiful than they are now. But in general he was the friend of our race and worked changes that were for our good.
"One day, as Nanahboozhoo was walking along on a sandy shore, he felt very hungry. It was now in the autumn of the year. As he wandered on he saw an object moving toward him. He had not long to wait before he saw that this object was a great black bear. He pulled up a young tree by the roots and hid himself, preparing to kill the bear when he should come near. When the bear came near Nanahboozhoo made a big jump out of his hiding place and killed the bear with one blow. Then he built a big fire, and having singed all the hair off the bear he cut him up and nicely roasted him. When the meat was cooked Nanahboozhoo cut it up into fine pieces, for he intended to enjoy his feast by eating leisurely.
"While he was thus busy preparing his feast he was annoyed by a strange sound among the tree tops that rubbed together when the wind blew. Nanahboozhoo was very quick-tempered, and as the noise continued he determined to stop it. So he left his feast on the ground and climbed away up one of those trees to the spot where the other pressed against it. He was endeavoring to pull the two great trees apart when one of his hands got caught between them and was firmly held. While struggling to get loose he heard a pack of wolves running toward his bear meat. This made him struggle the harder to get his hand free. The fierce wolves soon scented the food and had a good time devouring it, in spite of the shoutings of Nanahboozhoo.
"When Nanahboozhoo at length got his hand free and came down he found nothing left of his feast but the skull of the bear. He was very angry, not only at the wolves that had eaten his feast but also at the trees that had held him, the great Nanahboozhoo, in so tight a grip. As the wolves had run away he could not, at present, punish them, but he resolved that he would so punish these great birch trees that they would never give him such a squeeze again. So he prepared a great whip and with it he severely thrashed the trees. Up to this time the birch had been the most beautiful of trees. Its great trunk was of the purest white, without any blemish or blotch upon it. But ever since the thrashing Nanahboozhoo gave it it has had to carry the marks of that terrible whipping; and that is why the white birch tree is so covered with scars.
"When Nanahboozhoo had ceased thrashing the trees he found himself so very hungry that he resolved to eat the brains that were in the head of the bear, that had been overlooked by the wolves. However, he found the skull very hard. So he transformed himself into a little snake, and in this way got inside of the bear's skull and enjoyed his feast. In fact he enjoyed it too much, for when he was through with his eating he could not get out of the skull, he was so full. However, he was able to roll along, skull and all, but as he could not see where he was going he bumped along in a very erratic manner until at length he tumbled into a big lake and sank at first deep down under the waves.
"When he came up to the surface he just put a part of the head of the bear out of the water, as does the bear when swimming. Then he listened intently. It was not long before Nanahboozhoo heard voices saying:
"'Look! There is a bear swimming. Let us kill him."
"So there was a chase on the lake, and it was not long before the Indians came up, in their canoe, and one of them with his stone ax struck the bear's head such a blow that he split open the skull.
"This just suited Nanahboozhoo, and instantly he sprang out and made for the shore.
"Then Nanahboozhoo journeyed on and again he began to feel very hungry. The brains of the bear were not much to one who had had his mind set on eating the whole carcass. It was not long before he met the raccoon awkwardly carrying a birch rogan that he had stolen from a couple of blind men. Seeing the merry smile on the raccoon's face, Nanahboozhoo bade him a good day, and asked him what was amusing him.
"The raccoon, who did not know that it was Nanahboozhoo with whom he was talking, told him how he obtained the dish. When Nanahboozhoo heard this he was very angry at the raccoon for his heartless trick.
"It seems that there was quite a large settlement of people who had among them a couple of blind men. As these Indians were hunters they had to be on the move a good deal of the time following the game. As the other people were kind-hearted, instead of killing these old blind men, now that they were unable to hunt, they arranged for them a wigwam in a safe, quiet place, near the lake. Then they gave them a kettle and bowl and other necessary things and cut a large pile of wood and placed it close at hand. In order that they might be able to get water for their cooking and yet not stumble into the water their friends fastened a rope, for their guidance, from the door of the wigwam to a post on the edge of the lake.
"The old men were now quite comfortable. Their friends came frequently with abundant supplies of food and the blind men were able to do their own work and were happy together. They divided the day's work so that one day one would be the cook while the other would bring in the wood and go for the water. Next day they would change about. It gave each enough to do, and not too much.
"For a long time the two men lived contented and happy. But it happened that one day the raccoon was out prowling along the shore, looking for something to eat, when he happened to find the end of the rope that was tied to the post at the water's edge.
"Now you must know," said Souwanas, "that, next to the wolverine, the raccoon is the biggest mischief in the woods. He is full of tricks, but he is very cunning and suspicious. So before he interfered with the rope he cautiously followed it up and found that its other end was at the wigwam of these two old blind men. Hearing no noise, he cautiously peered into the wigwam and saw them both sleeping near the fire. There was a smell of something good to eat, and the raccoon decided to wait around to see if he could not get hold of it.
"While he was thus waiting the old men woke up, and one said to the other, 'My brother, I am feeling hungry; let us prepare our dinner.'
"'Very well,' said the other; 'it is your turn to go to the lake for water while I make the fire.'
"When the raccoon heard this he ran down to the lake and quickly untied the rope from the stake and, drawing it back, tied it to a clump of bushes on the land. When the old man with the kettle felt his way along the rope until he reached its end he tried to dip up the water as usual, but all in vain. There was nothing but the dry earth and bushes. Not finding any water he returned to his brother with the sad news that the lake had dried up, and that already bushes were growing where yesterday there was plenty of water. When his brother heard this doleful story he laughed at it, and said:
"'Why, that cannot be possible. No bushes could grow up in such a short time.'
"However his brother declared it was the case, and so the other one said, 'Well, let me go, and see if I can find some water.'
"When the tricky raccoon heard this he hurried back and at once untied the rope from the bushes and refastened it to the post near the water. When the second brother came along he easily found the water, and filling the kettle he returned to the wigwam where he vigorously accused his brother of lying. He, poor fellow, could not understand it and was much perplexed.
"The preparation of their dinner went on, and soon it was ready. There was, however, another one present that the blind men had no suspicion of, and that was the raccoon, who had now noiselessly come into the wigwam and greedily sat watching the preparations. This dinner consisted of eight pieces of meat which, when cooked, were placed in their rogan, or wooden bowl. When ready they sat down with this bowl between them and began to eat. Each took a piece of meat, and they talked of various things while they ate.
"The raccoon now noiselessly took four of the pieces of meat out of the bowl and began eating them. Soon one of the men reached into the bowl, to get another piece of meat, and finding only two pieces left, he said:
"'My brother, you must be very hungry, to eat so fast. I have only had one piece of meat, and there are only two left.'
"'I have not taken them,' was the reply, 'but I suspect that you are the greedy one who has eaten them.'
"This made the other brother very angry, and as they thus went on arguing, the raccoon, to make matters worse, and to have, as he told Nanahboozhoo, some more sport with the old blind fellows, hit each of them a smart blow on the face. The poor old men, each believing that the other had struck him, began to fight; and so they upset the rogan and lost the rest of their dinner and nearly set the wigwam on fire.
"The raccoon then seized the two remaining pieces of meat and the bowl, and, with shouts of laughter, rushed out of the wigwam. The old men, hearing this, perceived that they had been fooled, and they at once stopped fighting and apologized to each other.
"The raccoon's rascally trick made Nanahboozhoo very angry. Indeed he had had a good deal of trouble to keep from letting the raccoon know who he was. So just as soon as the raccoon had finished he said:
"'I am Nanahboozhoo. Those old blind men are my brothers, and I'll teach you a lesson you will never forget!'
"So he seized the raccoon and killed him, and carried his body back to the tent of the blind men and made out of it a great feast for them, and declared that in future the old raccoons should have to carry as many circles on their tails as pieces of meat that had been stolen out of the rogan of the blind men."
"Good for Nanahboozhoo!" shouted Sagastao. "Mr. Raccoon couldn't play any tricks on him. Now tell us another story."
But here Minnehaha interposed.
"I think," said she, "we had better go home now, for father and mother may begin to think they have lost their little ones."
"Let us wait until dark," said Sagastao, "and then Mary won't see our dirty clothes!" For their greasy fingers had soiled them badly.
The wishes of the little girl, however, prevailed, and so it was not long ere the Indian salutations, "Wat cheer! Wat cheer!" were shouted to all, and once more the two children were hoisted upon the shoulders of the big Indians, and in the same manner in which they had been brought to the wigwam in the forenoon they rode home in the beautiful gloaming.
Very tired were they, yet not so weary but that they were able with their little hands to rub some of the paint off the faces of their big stalwart carriers and daub it on their own. The effect was so ludicrous that their merry laughter reached the ears of their expectant parents even before they emerged from the gloom of the forest.