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Migration Legends And Year Counts

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The historical sense had reached a certain development among the Indians of the Plains as among those of the east. Not only are migration-legends to be found, such as that of the Creek, but pictographic records, like the Walum Olum of the Delaware, are possessed by more than one western tribe.

Among the most interesting of these migration-traditions — interesting because of their analogies with similar legends of the civilized Mexican peoples — are the Cheyenne myths reported by G. A. Dorsey. The tales begin with an origin story, telling how, in the beginning, the Great Medicine created the earth and the heavenly bodies; and, in the far north, a beautiful country, an earthly Paradise where fruits and game were plentiful, and where winter was unknown. Here the first people lived on honey and fruits; they were naked, and wandered about like the animals with whom they were friends; they were never cold or hungry. There were three races of these men: a hairy race; a white race, with hair on their heads; and the Indians, with hair only on the top of the head. The hairy people went south, where the land was barren, and after a time the Indians followed them; the white, bearded men also departed, but none knew whither. Before the red men left this beautiful country, the Great Medicine blessed them and gave them that which seemed to awaken their dormant minds, for hitherto they had been without intelligence. They were taught to clothe their bodies with skins and to make tools and weapons of flint.

The red men followed the hairy men to the south, where the latter had become cave-dwellers. These, however, were afraid of the Indians, were few in number, and eventually disappeared. Warned of a flood which was to cover the southland, the Indians returned to the north, to find that the bearded men and some of the animals were gone from there. Nor were they able, as before, to talk with the animals, but they tamed the panther and bear and other beasts, teaching them to catch game for the people. Afterward they went once more to the south, where the flood had subsided, and where the land was become beautiful and green. Another inundation came, however, and scattered them here and there in small bands, so that they never again were united as one people. This deluge laid the country waste, and to escape starvation they journeyed north once more, only to find the lands there also barren. After hundreds of years, the earth shook, and the high hills sent forth fire and smoke; with the winter came floods, so that all the red men had to dress in furs and live in caves, for the winter was long and cold, and it destroyed all the trees. The people were nearly starved when spring came; but the Great Medicine gave them maize to plant and buffalo for meat, and after that there were no more famines.

A second myth of the same people, which is in some degree a doublet of the preceding, tells how the ancestors of the Cheyenne dwelt in the far north, beyond a great body of water. They were overpowered by an enemy and in danger of becoming slaves, when a medicine-man among them, who possessed a marvellous hoop and carried a long staff, led them from the country. On the fourth night of their journey, they saw before them a bright light, a little above the ground, and this went in front of them as they advanced. When they came to the water, the medicine-man told them that he was going to lead them to a land where they should live forever. He sang magic songs; the waters divided; and the people crossed on dry land. The fire now disappeared, and when day came they found themselves in a beautiful country.

In these events the missionary influence is obvious : the Exodus of Israel is adapted to Cheyenne history. The story goes on, however, with elements that seem truly aboriginal. In the new country the Cheyenne were physically strong, but mentally weak. They could carry off large animals on their backs; they tamed the bear and the panther. Animals, too, were huge. One variety was in the form of the cow, though four times as large; it was tame by nature, and men used its milk; twenty men and boys could get upon the back of one of these creatures at a time. Another species resembled the horse, but had horns and long, sharp teeth; this was a man-eater, and could trail human beings through the rivers and tall grass by scent; fortunately, beasts of this kind were few in number. Most of the animals were destroyed in a great flood, after which the Cheyenne who survived were strong in mind, but weak in body.

It is tempting to see in these stories vague memories of great physiographical changes, reaching back perhaps to the glacial age, and to the period when the elephant kind was abundant in North America, and the great sabre-tooth not yet extinct. On the other hand, the northerly and southerly wanderings of the tribe may well be historical, for it is altogether in keeping with what is known of the drift of the tribal stocks; naturally, such migrations in search of food would be accompanied by changes in the conditions of life, in fauna and in flora. The legend of the bearded white men in the far north is interesting, both as recalling the Nahuatlan myths of Quetzalcoatl, and for its suggested reminiscence of the North-men: for may it not be possible that the hairy men of the first races in the extreme north were the fur-clad Eskimo, and that the bearded men, who came and disappeared, none knew whither, were descendants of the Scandinavian colonizers of Greenland?

Myths having to do with the gift of maize and of the buffalo to mankind are of frequent occurrence. A Cheyenne tale re-counts the adventures of two young men who entered a hill by diving into a spring which gushed from it." Inside they found an old woman cooking buffalo meat and maize in two separate pots; and they saw great herds of buffalo and ponies and all manner of animals, as well as fields of growing maize. The ancient crone' gave them the two bowls with maize and meat, commanding them to feed all the tribe, last of all an orphan boy and an orphan girl, the contents of the vessels being undiminished until it came the turn of the orphans, who emptied the dishes. Buffalo arose from the spring, while from the seed that the young men brought maize was grown, this cereal being thereafter planted every year by the Cheyenne. It is easy to see in the episode of the orphans the symbol of plenty, for with wild tribes the lot of the orphan is not secure: it is the orphan child that is sacrificed in the hour of danger, the orphan who is left to starve in time of famine, the orphan, too, who is sometimes led to a wonderful career by the pitying powers of nature.

The Dakota divide their national history by the epochal de-scent of the Woman-from-Heaven,' which, in the chronology of Battiste Good (Wapoctanxi), a Brulé, occurred in the year 901 A. D. All the tribes of the Dakota nation were assembled in a great camp, when a beautiful woman appeared to two of the young men, saying, "I came from Heaven to teach the Dakotas how to live and what their future shall be. . . . I give you this pipe; 3° keep it always." Besides the pipe, she bestowed upon them a package containing four grains of maize — one white, one black, one yellow, one variegated — with the words, "I am a buffalo, the White Buffalo Cow. I will spill my milk [the maize] all over the earth, that the people may live." She pointed to the North: "When you see a yellowish cloud toward the north, that is my breath; rejoice at the sight of it, for you shall soon see buffalo. Red is the blood of the buffalo, and by that you shall live." Pointing to the east, symbolized by blue: "This pipe is related to the heavens, and you shall live with it" — that is, the blue smoke of the pipe is akin to the heavenly blue to which it ascends. Southward: "Clouds of many colors may come up from the south, but look at the pipe and the blue sky and know that the clouds will soon pass away and all will become blue and clear again." Westward: "When it shall be blue in the west, know that it is closely related to you through the pipe and the blue heavens, and by that you shall grow rich. . . . I am the White Buffalo Cow; my milk is of four kinds; I spill it on the earth that you may live by it. You shall call me Grandmother. If you young men will follow me over the hills you shall see my relatives." And with this revelation she disappeared.

Battiste Good's chronology, or "Cycles," is one of the most interesting pictographic records made by an Indian north of Mexico. It recalls the Nahuatlan historical documents by its cyclic character, although the numerical period, seventy years, is different. Each cycle is represented by a circle, surrounded by tipis, and containing emblems recalling note-worthy events. Occurrences from 901, the year of the mythic revelation, to 1700 are legendary, but from 1700 onward each year is marked by an image emblematic of some event of an historical character. The veracity of the record is proved in part by the existence of other Dakotan "Winter-Counts" (so called because the Dakota chiefly choose winter events to mark their chronology) with corroborative statements. Similar pictographic chronologies have been discovered elsewhere, those of the Kiowa showing a division of the year into summer and winter and even into moons, or months; but in no other part of the American continent, north of Mexico, do we find an antiquity of reference equal to that claimed for the Siouan records.



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