Friday, October 22, 2010


The Beaver Medicine
By George Bird Grinnell

This story goes back many years, to a time before the Indians went to war against each other. Then there was peace among all the tribes. They met, and did not kill each other. They had no guns and they had no horses. When two tribes met, the head chiefs would take each a stick and touch each other. Each had counted a coup on the other, and they then went back to their camps. It was more a friendly than a hostile ceremony.

Oftentimes, when a party of young men had gone to a strange camp, and had done this to those whom they had visited, they would come back to their homes and would tell the girls whom they loved that they had counted a coup on this certain tribe of people. After the return of such a party, the young women would have a dance. Each one would wear clothing like that of the man she loved, and as she danced, she would count a coup, saying that she herself had done the deed which her young lover had really done. Such was the custom of the people.

There was a chief in a camp who had three wives, all very pretty women. He used to say to these women, whenever a dance was called: "Why do not you go out and dance too? Perhaps you have some one in the camp that you love, and for whom you would like to count a coup" Then the women would say, "No, we do not wish to join the dance; we have no lovers."

There was in the camp a poor young man, whose name was Ápi-kunni. He had no relations, and no one to tan robes or furs for him, and he was always badly clad and in rags. Whenever he got some clothing, he wore it as long as it would hold together. This young man loved the youngest wife of the chief, and she loved him. But her parents were not rich, and they could not give her to Ápi-k[)u]nni, and when the chief wanted her for a wife, they gave her to him. Sometimes Ápi-k[)u]nni and this girl used to meet and talk together, and he used to caution her, saying, "Now be careful that you do not tell any one that you see me." She would say, "No, there is no danger; I will not let it be known."

One evening, a dance was called for the young women to dance, and the chief said to his wives: "Now, women, you had better go to this dance. If any of you have persons whom you love, you might as well go and dance for them." Two of them said: "No, we will not go. There is no one that we love." But the third said, "Well, I think I will go and dance." The chief said to her, "Well, go then; your lover will surely dress you up for the dance."

The girl went to where Ápi-k[)u]nni as living in an old woman's lodge, very poorly furnished, and told him what she was going to do, and asked him to dress her for the dance. He said to her: "Oh, you have wronged me by coming here, and by going to the dance. I told you to keep it a secret." The girl said: "Well, never mind; no one will know your dress. Fix me up, and I will go and join the dance anyway." "Why," said Api-k[)u]nni, "I never have been to war. I have never counted any coups. You will go and dance and will have nothing to say. The people will laugh at you." But when he found that the girl wanted to go, he painted her forehead with red clay, and tied a goose skin, which he had, about her head, and lent her his badly tanned robe, which in spots was hard like a parfleche. He said to her, "If you will go to the dance, say, when it comes your turn to speak, that when the water in the creeks gets warm, you are going to war, and are going to count a coup on some people."

The woman went to the dance, and joined in it. All the people were laughing at her on account of her strange dress,—a goose skin around her head, and a badly tanned robe about her. The people in the dance asked her: "Well, what are you dancing for? What can you tell?" The woman said, "I am dancing here to-day, and when the water in the streams gets warm next spring, I am going to war; and then I will tell you what I have done to any people." The chief was standing present, and when he learned who it was that his young wife loved, he was much ashamed and went to his lodge.

When the dance was over, this young woman went to the lodge of the poor young man to give back his dress to him. Now, while she had been gone, Ápi-k[)u]nni had been thinking over all these things, and he was very much ashamed. He took his robe and his goose skin and went away. He was so ashamed that he went away at once, travelling off over the prairie, not caring where he went, and crying all the time. As he wandered away, he came to a lake, and at the foot of this lake was a beaver dam, and by the dam a beaver house. He walked out on the dam and on to the beaver house. There he stopped and sat down, and in his shame cried the rest of the day, and at last he fell asleep on the beaver house.

While he slept, he dreamed that a beaver came to him—a very large beaver—and said: "My poor young man, come into my house. I pity you, and will give you something that will help you." So Ápi-k[)u]nni got up, and followed the beaver into the house. When he was in the house, he awoke, and saw sitting opposite him a large white beaver, almost as big as a man. He thought to himself, "This must be the chief of all the beavers, white because very old." The beaver was singing a song. It was a very strange song, and he sang it a long time. Then he said to Ápi-k[)u]nni, "My son, why are you mourning?" and the young man told him everything that had happened, and how he had been shamed. Then the beaver said: "My son, stay here this winter with me. I will provide for you. When the time comes, and you have learned our songs and our ways, I will let you go. For a time make this your home." So Ápi-k)u]nni stayed there with the beaver, and the beaver taught him many strange things. All this happened in the fall.

Now the chief in the camp missed this poor young man, and he asked the people where he had gone. No one knew. They said that the last that had been seen of him he was travelling toward the lake where the beaver dam was.

Ápi-k[)u]nni had a friend, another poor young man named Wolf Tail, and after a while, Wolf Tail started out to look for his friend. He went toward this lake, looking everywhere, and calling out his name. When he came to the beaver house, he kicked on the top and called, "Oh, my brother, are you here?" Ápi-k[)u]nni answered him, and said: "Yes, I am here. I was brought in while I was asleep, and I cannot give you the secret of the door, for I do not know it myself." Wolf Tail said to him, "Brother, when the weather gets warm a party is going to start from camp to war." Ápi-k[)u]nni said: "Go home and try to get together all the moccasins you can, but do not tell them that I am here. I am ashamed to go back to the camp. When the party starts, come this way and bring me the moccasins, and we two will start from here." He also said: "I am very thin. The beaver food here does not agree with me. We are living on the bark of willows." Wolf Tail went back to the camp and gathered together all the moccasins that he could, as he had been asked to do.

When the spring came, and the grass began to start, the war party set out. At this time the beaver talked to Ápikunni a long time, and told him many things. He dived down into the water, and brought up a long stick of aspen wood, cut off from it a piece as long as a man's arm, trimmed the twigs off it, and gave it to the young man. "Keep this," the beaver said, "and when you go to war take it with you." The beaver also gave him a little sack of medicine, and told him what he must do.

When the party started out, Wolf Tail came to the beaver house, bringing the moccasins, and his friend came out of the house. They started in the direction the party had taken and travelled with them, but off to one side. When they stopped at night, the two young men camped by themselves.

They travelled for many days, until they came to Bow River, and found that it was very high. On the other side of the river, they saw the lodges of a camp. In this camp a man was making a speech, and Api-k[)u]nni said to his friend, "Oh, my brother, I am going to kill that man to-day, so that my sweetheart may count coup on him." These two were at a little distance from the main party, above them on the river. The people in the camp had seen the Blackfeet, and some had come down to the river. When Api-kunni had said this to Wolf Tail, he took his clothes off and began to sing the song the beaver had taught him. This was the song:—

I am like an island,
For on an island I got my power.
In battle I live
While people fall away from me.

While he sang this, he had in his hand the stick which the beaver had given him. This was his only weapon.

He ran to the bank, jumped in and dived, and came up in the middle of the river, and started to swim across. The rest of the Blackfeet saw one of their number swimming across the river, and they said to each other: "Who is that? Why did not some one stop him?" While he was swimming across, the man who had been making the speech saw him and went down to meet him. He said: "Who can this man be, swimming across the river? He is a stranger. I will go down and meet him, and kill him." As the boy was getting close to the shore, the man waded out in the stream up to his waist, and raised his knife to stab the swimmer. When Ápi-k[)u]nni got near him, he dived under the water and came up close to the man, and thrust the beaver stick through his body, and the man fell down in the water and died. Ápi-k[)u]nni caught the body, and dived under the water with it, and came up on the other side where he had left his friend. Then all the Blackfeet set up the war whoop, for they were glad, and they could hear a great crying in the camp. The people there were sorry for the man who was killed.

People in those days never killed one another, and this was the first man ever killed in war.

They dragged the man up on the bank, and Ápi-k[)u]nni said to his brother, "Cut off those long hairs on the head." The young man did as he was told. He scalped him and counted coup on him; and from that time forth, people, when they went to war, killed one another and scalped the dead enemy, as this poor young man had done. Two others of the main party came to the place, and counted coup on the dead body, making four who had counted coup. From there, the whole party turned about and went back to the village whence they had come.

When they came in sight of the lodges, they sat down in a row facing the camp. The man who had killed the enemy was sitting far in front of the others. Behind him sat his friend, and behind Wolf Tail, sat the two who had counted coup on the body. So these four were strung out in front of the others. The chief of the camp was told that some people were sitting on a hill near by, and when he had gone out and looked, he said: "There is some one sitting way in front. Let somebody go out and see about it." A young man ran out to where he could see, and when he had looked, he ran back and said to the chief, "Why, that man in front is the poor young man."

The old chief looked around, and said: "Where is that young woman, my wife? Go and find her." They went to look for her, and found her out gathering rosebuds, for while the young man whom she loved was away, she used to go out and gather rosebuds and dry them for him. When they found her, she had her bosom full of them. When she came to the lodge, the chief said to her: "There is the man you love, who has come. Go and meet him." She made ready quickly and ran out and met him. He said: "Give her that hair of the dead man. Here is his knife. There is the coat he had on, when I killed him. Take these things back to the camp, and tell the people who made fun of you that this is what you promised them at the time of that dance."

The whole party then got up and walked to the camp. The woman took the scalp, knife and coat to the lodge, and gave them to her husband. The chief invited Ápi-kûnni to come to his lodge to visit him. He said: "I see that you have been to war, and that you have done more than any of us have ever done. This is a reason why you should be a chief. Now take my lodge and this woman, and live here. Take my place and rule these people. My two wives will be your servants." When Ápi-kûnni heard this, and saw the young woman sitting there in the lodge, he could not speak. Something seemed to rise up in his throat and choke him.

So this young man lived in the camp and was known as their chief.

After a time, he called his people together in council and told them of the strange things the beaver had taught him, and the power that the beaver had given him. He said: "This will be a benefit to us while we are a people now, and afterward it will be handed down to our children, and if we follow the words of the beaver we will be lucky. This seed the beaver gave me, and told me to plant it every year. When we ask help from the beaver, we will smoke this plant."

This plant was the Indian tobacco, and it is from the beaver that the Blackfeet got it. Many strange things were taught this man by the beaver, which were handed down and are followed till to-day.

- - -
George Bird Grinnell (September 20, 1849 – April 11, 1938) was an American anthropologist, historian, naturalist, and writer. Grinnell was born in Brooklyn, New York, and graduated from Yale University with a B.A. in 1870 and a Ph.D. in 1880.


- - -

Help keep Yesteryear Fiction alive! Visit our sponsors! :)

- - -

Blog Archive