AFTER the death of Smoky Day, old Weyuha was regarded as the greatest story-teller among the Wahpeton Sioux.
"Tell me, good Weyuha, a legend of your father's country," I said to him one evening, for I knew the country which is now known as North Dakota and Southern Manitoba was their ancient hunting-ground. I was prompted by Uncheedah to make this request, after the old man had eaten in our lodge.
"Many years ago," he began, as he passed the pipe to uncle, "we traveled from the Otter-tail to Minnewakan (Devil's Lake). At that time the mound was very distinct where Chotanka lies buried. The people of his immediate band had taken care to preserve it.
"This mound under which lies the great medicine man is upon the summit of Minnewakan Chantay, the highest hill in all that region. It is shaped like an animal's heart placed on its base, with the apex upward.
"The reason why this hill is called Minnewakan Chantay, or the Heart of the Mysterious Land, I will now tell you. It has been handed down from generation to generation, far beyond the memory of our great-grandparents. It was in Chotanka's line of descent that these legends were originally kept, but when he died the stories became everybody's, and then no one believed in them. It was told in this way."
I sat facing him, wholly wrapped in the words of the story-teller, and now I took a deep breath and settled myself so that I might not disturb him by the slightest movement while he was reciting his tale. We were taught this courtesy to our elders, but I was impulsive and sometimes forgot.
"A long time ago," resumed Weyuha, "the red people were many in number, and they inhabited all the land from the coldest place to the region of perpetual summer time. It seemed that they were all of one tongue, and all were friends.
"All the animals were considered people in those days. The buffalo, the elk, the antelope, were tribes of considerable importance. The bears were a smaller band, but they obeyed the mandates of the Great Mystery and were his favorites, and for this reason they have always known more about the secrets of medicine. So they were held in much honor. The wolves, too, were highly regarded at one time. But the buffalo, elk, moose, deer and antelope were the ruling people.
"These soon became conceited and considered themselves very important, and thought no one could withstand them. The buffalo made war upon the smaller tribes, and destroyed many. So one day the Great Mystery thought it best to change the people in form and in language.
"He made a great tent and kept it dark for ten days. Into this tent he invited the different bands, and when they came out they were greatly changed, and some could not talk at all after that. However, there is a sign language given to all the animals that no man knows except some medicine men, and they are under a heavy penalty if they should tell it.
"The buffalo came out of the darkened tent the clumsiest of all the animals. The elk and moose were burdened with their heavy and manybranched horns, while the antelope and deer were made the most defenseless of animals, only that they are fleet of foot. The bear and the wolf were made to prey upon all the others.
"Man was alone then. When the change came, the Great Mystery allowed him to keep his own shape and language. He was king over all the animals, but they did not obey him. From that day, man's spirit may live with the beasts before he is born a man. He will then know the animal language but he cannot tell it in human speech. He always retains his sympathy with them, and can converse with them in dreams.
"I must not forget to tell you that the Great Mystery pitched his tent in this very region. Some legends say that the Minnewakan Chantay was the tent itself, which afterward became earth and stones. Many of the animals were washed and changed in this lake, the Minnewakan, or Mysterious Water. It is the only inland water we know that is salt. No animal has ever swum in this lake and lived."
"Tell me," I eagerly asked, "is it dangerous to man also?"
"Yes," he replied, "we think so; and no Indian has ever ventured in that lake to my knowledge. That is why the lake is called Mysterious," he repeated.
"I shall now tell you of Chotanka. He was the greatest of medicine men. He declared that he was a grizzly bear before he was born in human form." Weyuha seemed to become very earnest when he reached this point in his story. "Listen to Chotanka's life as a grizzly bear."
"'As a bear,' he used to say, 'my home was in sight of the Minnewakan Chantay. I lived with my mother only one winter, and I only saw my father when I was a baby. Then we lived a little way from the Chantay to the north, among scattered oak upon a hillside overlooking the Minnewakan.
"'When I first remember anything, I was playing outside of our home with a buffalo skull that I had found near by. I saw something that looked strange. It walked upon two legs, and it carried a crooked stick, and some red willows with feathers tied to them. It threw one of the willows at me, and I showed my teeth and retreated within our den.
"'Just then my father and mother came home with a buffalo calf. They threw down the dead calf, and ran after the queer thing. He had long hair upon a round head. His face was round, too. He ran and climbed up into a small oak tree.
"'My father and mother shook him down, but not before he had shot some of his red willows into their sides. Mother was very sick, but she dug some roots and ate them and she was well again.' It was thus that Chotanka was first taught the use of certain roots for curing wounds and sickness," Weyuha added.
"'One day'" – he resumed the grizzly's story – "'when I was out hunting with my mother – my father had gone away and never came back – we found a buffalo cow with her calf in a ravine. She advised me to follow her closely, and we crawled along on our knees. All at once mother crouched down under the grass, and I did the same. We saw some of those queer beings that we called "two legs," riding upon big-tail deer (ponies). They yelled as they rode toward us. Mother growled terribly and rushed upon them. She caught one, but many more came with their dogs and drove us into a thicket. They sent the red willows singing after us, and two of them stuck in mother's side. When we got away at last she tried to pull them out, but they hurt her terribly. She pulled them both out at last, but soon after she lay down and died.
"'I stayed in the woods alone for two days then I went around the Minnewakan Chantay on the south side and there made my lonely den. There I found plenty of hazel nuts, acorns and wild plums. Upon the plains the teepsinna were abundant, and I saw nothing of my enemies.
"'One day I found a footprint not unlike my own. I followed it to see who the stranger might be. Upon the bluffs among the oak groves I discovered a beautiful young female gathering acorns. She was of a different band from mine, for she wore a jet black dress.
"'At first she was disposed to resent my intrusion; but when I told her of my lonely life she agreed to share it with me. We came back to my home on the south side of the hill. There we lived happy for a whole year. When the autumn came again Woshepee, for this was her name, said that she must make a warm nest for the winter, and I was left alone again.'
"Now," said Weyuha, "I have come to a part of my story that few people understand. All the long winter Chotanka slept in his den, and with the early spring there came a great thunder storm. He was aroused by a frightful crash that seemed to shake the hills; and lo! a handsome young man stood at his door. He looked, but was not afraid, for he saw that the stranger carried none of those red willows with feathered tips. He was unarmed and smiling.
"'I come,' said he, 'with a challenge to run a race. Whoever wins will be the hero of his kind, and the defeated must do as the winner says thereafter. This is a rare honor that I have brought you. The whole world will see the race. The animal world will shout for you, and the spirits will cheer me on. You are not a coward, and therefore you will not refuse my challenge.'
"'No,' replied Chotanka, after a short hesitation. The young man was fine-looking, but lightly built.
"'We shall start from the Chantay, and that will be our goal. Come, let us go, for the universe is waiting!' impatiently exclaimed the stranger.
"He passed on in advance, and just then an old, old wrinkled man came to Chotanka's door. He leaned forward upon his staff.
"'My son,' he said to him, 'I don't want to make you a coward, but this young man is the greatest gambler of the universe. He has powerful medicine. He gambles for life; be careful! My brothers and I are the only ones who have ever beaten him. But he is safe, for if he is killed he can resurrect himself – I tell you he is great medicine.
"'However, I think that I can save you – listen! He will run behind you all the way until you are within a short distance of the goal. Then he will pass you by in a flash, for his name is ZigZag Fire! (lightning). Here is my medicine.' So speaking, he gave me a rabbit skin and the gum of a certain plant. 'When you come near the goal, rub yourself with the gum, and throw the rabbit skin between you. He cannot pass you.'
"'And who are you, grandfather?' Chotanka inquired.
"'I am the medicine turtle,' the old man replied. 'The gambler is a spirit from heaven, and those whom he outruns must shortly die. You have heard, no doubt, that all animals know beforehand when they are to be killed; and any man who understands these mysteries may also know when he is to die.'
The race was announced to the world. The buffalo, elk, wolves and all the animals came to look on. All the spirits of the air came also to cheer for their comrade. In the sky the trumpet was sounded – the great medicine drum was struck. It was the signal for a start. The course was around the Minnewakan. (That means around the earth or the ocean.) Everywhere the multitude cheered as the two sped by.
"The young man kept behind Chotanka all the time until they came once more in sight of the Chantay. Then he felt a slight shock and he threw his rabbit skin back. The stranger tripped and fell. Chotanka rubbed himself with the gum, and ran on until he reached the goal. There was a great shout that echoed over the earth, but in the heavens there was muttering and grumbling. The referee declared that the winner would live to a good old age, and Zig-Zag Fire promised to come at his call. He was indeed great medicine," Weyuha concluded.
"But you have not told me how Chotanka became a man," I said.
"One night a beautiful woman came to him in his sleep. She enticed him into her white teepee to see what she had there. Then she shut the door of the teepee and Chotanka could not get out. But the woman was kind and petted him so that he loved to stay in the white teepee. Then it was that he became a human born. This is a long story, but I think, Ohiyesa, that you will remember it," said Weyuha, and so I did.