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Shapaptian And Shoshonean World Shapers

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The Nez PercÚ are the most important tribe of the Shahaptian stock. In the primeval age, they say, there was a monster in what is now central Idaho whose breath was so powerful that it inhaled the winds, the grass, the trees, and different animals, drawing them to destruction. The Coyote, who was the most powerful being of the time, counselled by the Fox, decided to force an entrance into this horrible creature, and there he found the emaciated people, their life being slowly drawn out of them, chill and insensible. He kindled a fire from the fat in the monster's vitals, revived the victims, and then, with the knives with which he had provided himself, cut their way out into the sunlight. From the different parts of the body of the hideous being he created the tribes of men, last of all making the Nez PercÚ from its blood, mingled with water. Here is another world-wide myth, the tale of the hero, swallowed by the monster, making his way again to light; though in this Nez PercÚ version it seems to be a true cosmogony, the monster being the world-giant from whose body all life emerges.

The Shoshoni, or Snake, who border upon the Nez PercÚ, regard the firmament as a dome of ice, against which a great serpent, who is none other than the rainbow, rubs his back. From the friction thus produced particles of ice are ground off, which in winter fall to earth as snow, while in summer they melt into rain. Thunder they do not ascribe to birds, but to the howling of Coyote, or, some say, to a celestial mouse running through the clouds. A great bird they know, Nunyenunc, which carries off men, like the roc of Arabian tales, but he is not connected with the thunder. Like neighbouring tribes, they tell of a time when the sun was close to the earth, killing men with its heat. The Hare was sent to slay it, and he shattered the sun into myriad fragments; but these set the world ablaze, and it was not until the Hare's eyes burst, and a flood of tears issued forth, that the conflagration was quenched. Thereafter the sun was conquered, and its course regulated.

The tale of the theft of fire recurs in many forms. The familiar type is that in which the flame is guarded by its first owners in some mountain lodge, until the tribes of animals who dwell in cold and gloom decide to steal it. Entrance is gained to the home of the guardians by craft, and a bit of the fire is smuggled out under the coat or blanket of the thief. He is discovered and pursued by the owners of the flame, but succeeds in passing it on to another animal, which in turn gives it to another, and this one to yet another, until it is distributed in all nature, or, perhaps, hidden in trees or stones. A Shoshoni version makes the great animal hero of this region, the Coyote, the thief. With the aid of the Eagle he steals the fire from its guardian, the Crane. Blackbird and Rock-Squirrel are the animals who carry the flame farther, while Jack-Rabbit revives the fallen fire-carriers. The Thompson River Indians make the Beaver the assistant of the Eagle in the theft; and they also tell a story of the Pandora type, of a man who guarded fire and water in two boxes till an Elk, out of curiosity, opened the receptacles and set the elements free. A Nez PercÚ variant also makes the Beaver the thief; the Pines were the fire's first guardians, but the Beaver stole a live coal, hid it in his breast, and distributed it to willows and birches and other trees which as yet did not possess it; and it is from these woods that the Indians now kindle fire by rubbing.

Perhaps the most dramatic fire-myth of all is the elaborate Ute version, in which Coyote is again the hero. It was in the age when Coyote was chief, but when the animals had no fire, though the rocks sometimes got hot. Once a small piece of burnt rush, borne by the winds, was discovered by Coyote, and then he knew that there was fire. He made for himself a head-dress of bark fibre, summoned the animals in council, and dispatched the birds as scouts to discover the flame country. The Humming-Bird descried it; and headed by Coyote, they made a visit to the fire-people, who entertained them with dance and feast. As they danced, Coyote came nearer and nearer to the flame, took off his bark wig, and with it seized the fire. Then all fled, pursued by the enraged guardians. Coyote passed the fire to Eagle, Eagle to Humming-Bird, thence to Hawk-Moth, to Chicken-Hawk, to Humming-Bird again, and once more to Coyote, who, nearly caught, concealed himself in a cavern where he nourished the one little spark that remained alive. The disappointed fire-people caused rain and snow, which filled the valleys with water; but directed by the Rabbit, Coyote discovered a cave containing dry sage-brush. Here he took a piece of the dry sage-brush, bored a hole in it, and filled it with coals. With this under his belt he returned home and summoned the people who were left; then he took the stick, made a hole in it with an arrow-point, and whittled a piece of hard greasewood. After this he bored the sage-brush with the greasewood, gathered the borings, and put them in dry grass; blowing upon this he soon had a fire. "This dry pine-nut will be burned hereafter," he said. "Dry cedar will also be burned. Take fire into all the tents. I shall throw away the rocks. There will be fire in every house."



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