The Soul of the Indian
An Interpretation by Dr Charles Alexander Eastman, 1911
A Living Book
A MISSIONARY once undertook to instruct a group of Indians in the truths of his holy religion. He told them of the creation of the earth in six days, and of the fall of our first parents by eating an apple.
The courteous savages listened attentively, and after thanking him, one related in his turn a very ancient tradition concerning the origin of the maize. But the missionary plainly showed his disgust and disbelief, indignantly saying: -- "What I delivered to you were sacred truths, but this that you tell me is mere fable and falsehood!"
"My brother," gravely replied the offended Indian, "it seems that you have not been well grounded in the rules of civility. You saw that we, who practice these rules, believed your stories; why, then, do you refuse to credit ours?"
Every religion has its Holy Book, and ours was a mingling of history, poetry, and prophecy, of precept and folk-lore, even such as the modern reader finds within the covers of his Bible. This Bible of ours was our whole literature, a living Book, sowed as precious seed by our wisest sages, and springing anew in the wondering eyes and upon the innocent lips of little children. Upon its hoary wisdom of proverb and fable, its mystic and legendary lore thus sacredly preserved and transmitted from father to son, was based in large part our customs and philosophy.
The Sioux Story of Creation
Naturally magnanimous and open-minded, the red man prefers to believe that the Spirit of God is not breathed into man alone, but that the whole created universe is a sharer in the immortal perfection of its Maker. His imaginative and poetic mind, like that of the Greek, assigns to every mountain, tree, and spring its spirit, nymph, or divinity either beneficent or mischievous. The heroes and demigods of Indian tradition reflect the characteristic trend of his thought, and his attribution of personality and will to the elements, the sun and stars, and all animate or inanimate nature.
In the Sioux story of creation, the great Mysterious One is not brought directly upon the scene or conceived in anthropomorphic fashion, but remains sublimely in the background. The Sun and the Earth, representing the male and female principles, are the main elements in his creation, the other planets being subsidiary. The enkindling warmth of the Sun entered into the bosom of our mother, the Earth, and forthwith she conceived and brought forth life, both vegetable and animal.
Finally there appeared mysteriously Ish-na-e-cha-ge, the "First-Born," a being in the likeness of man, yet more than man, who roamed solitary among the animal people and understood their ways and their language. They beheld him with wonder and awe, for they could do nothing without his knowledge. He had pitched his tent in the centre of the land, and there was no spot impossible for him to penetrate.
At last, like Adam, the "First-Born" of the Sioux became weary of living alone, and formed for himself a companion -- not a mate, but a brother -- not out of a rib from his side, but from a splinter which he drew from his great toe! This was the Little Boy Man, who was not created full-grown, but as an innocent child, trusting and helpless. His Elder Brother was his teacher throughout every stage of human progress from infancy to manhood, and it is to the rules which he laid down, and his counsels to the Little Boy Man, that we trace many of our most deep-rooted beliefs and most sacred customs.
Foremost among the animal people was Unk-to-mee, the Spider, the original trouble-maker, who noted keenly the growth of the boy in wit and ingenuity, and presently advised the animals to make an end of him; "for," said he, "if you do not, some day he will be the master of us all!" But they all loved the Little Boy Man because he was so friendly and so playful. Only the monsters of the deep sea listened, and presently took his life, hiding his body in the bottom of the sea. Nevertheless, by the magic power of the First-Born, the body was recovered and was given life again in the sacred vapor-bath, as described in a former chapter.
Once more our first ancestor roamed happily among the animal people, who were in those days a powerful nation. He learned their ways and their language -- for they had a common tongue in those days; learned to sing like the birds, to swim like the fishes, and to climb sure-footed over rocks like the mountain sheep. Notwithstanding that he was their good comrade and did them no harm, Unk-to-mee once more sowed dissension among the animals, and messages were sent into all quarters of the earth, sea, and air, that all the tribes might unite to declare war upon the solitary man who was destined to become their master.
The First Battle
After a time the young man discovered the plot, and came home very sorrowful. He loved his animal friends, and was grieved that they should combine against him. Besides, he was naked and unarmed. But his Elder Brother armed him with a bow and flint-headed arrows, a stone war-club and a spear. He likewise tossed a pebble four times into the air, and each time it became a cliff or wall of rock about the teepee.
"Now," said he, "it is time to fight and to assert your supremacy, for it is they who have brought the trouble upon you, and not you upon them!"
Night and day the Little Boy Man remained upon the watch for his enemies from the top of the wall, and at last he beheld the prairies black with buffalo herds, and the elk gathering upon the edges of the forest. Bears and wolves were closing in from all directions, and now from the sky the Thunder gave his fearful war-whoop, answered by the wolf's long howl.
The badgers and other burrowers began at once to undermine his rocky fortress, while the climbers undertook to scale its perpendicular walls.
Then for the first time on earth the bow was strung, and hundreds of flint-headed arrows found their mark in the bodies of the animals, while each time that the Boy Man swung his stone war-club, his enemies fell in countless numbers.
Finally the insects, the little people of the air, attacked him in a body, filling his eyes and ears, and tormenting him with their poisoned spears, so that he was in despair. He called for help upon his Elder Brother, who ordered him to strike the rocks with his stone war-club. As soon as he had done so, sparks of fire flew upon the dry grass of the prairie and it burst into flame. A mighty smoke ascended, which drove away the teasing swarms of the insect people, while the flames terrified and scattered the others.
This was the first dividing of the trail between man and the animal people, and when the animals had sued for peace, the treaty provided that they must ever after furnish man with flesh for his food and skins for clothing, though not without effort and danger on his part. The little insects refused to make any concession, and have ever since been the tormentors of man; however, the birds of the air declared that they would punish them for their obstinacy, and this they continue to do unto this day.
Our people have always claimed that the stone arrows which are found so generally throughout the country are the ones that the first man used in his battle with the animals. It is not recorded in our traditions, much less is it within the memory of our old men, that we have ever made or used similar arrow-heads. Some have tried to make use of them for shooting fish under water, but with little success, and they are absolutely useless with the Indian bow which was in use when America was discovered. It is possible that they were made by some pre-historic race who used much longer and stronger bows, and who were workers in stone, which our people were not. Their stone implements were merely natural boulders or flint chips, fitted with handles of raw-hide or wood, except the pipes, which were carved from a species of stone which is soft when first quarried, and therefore easily worked with the most primitive tools. Practically all the flint arrowheads that we see in museums and elsewhere were picked up or ploughed up, while some have been dishonestly sold by trafficking Indians and others, embedded in trees and bones.
We had neither devil nor hell in our religion until the white man brought them to us, yet Unk-to-mee, the Spider, was doubtless akin to that old Serpent who tempted mother Eve. He is always characterized as tricky, treacherous, and at the same time affable and charming, being not without the gifts of wit, prophecy, and eloquence. He is an adroit magician, able to assume almost any form at will, and impervious to any amount of ridicule and insult. Here we have, it appears, the elements of the story in Genesis; the primal Eden, the tempter in animal form, and the bringing of sorrow and death upon earth through the elemental sins of envy and jealousy.
The warning conveyed in the story of Unk-to-mee was ever used with success by Indian parents, and especially grandparents, in the instruction of their children. Ish-na-e-cha-ge, on the other hand, was a demigod and mysterious teacher, whose function it was to initiate the first man into his tasks and pleasures here on earth.
Another Version of the Flood
After the battle with the animals, there followed a battle with the elements, which in some measure parallels the Old Testament story of the flood. In this case, the purpose seems to have been to destroy the wicked animal people, who were too many and too strong for the lone man.
The legend tells us that when fall came, the First-Born advised his younger brother to make for himself a warm tent of buffalo skins, and to store up much food. No sooner had he done this than it began to snow, and the snow fell steadily during many moons. The Little Boy Man made for himself snow-shoes, and was thus enabled to hunt easily, while the animals fled from him with difficulty. Finally wolves, foxes, and ravens came to his door to beg for food, and he helped them, but many of the fiercer wild animals died of cold and starvation.
One day, when the hungry ones appeared, the snow was higher than the tops of the teepee poles, but the Little Boy Man's fire kept a hole open and clear. Down this hole they peered, and lo! the man had rubbed ashes on his face by the advice of his Elder Brother, and they both lay silent and motionless on either side of the fire.
Then the fox barked and the raven cawed his signal to the wandering tribes, and they all rejoiced and said: "Now they are both dying or dead, and we shall have no more trouble!" But the sun appeared, and a warm wind melted the snow-banks, so that the land was full of water. The young man and his Teacher made a birch-bark canoe, which floated upon the surface of the flood, while of the animals there were saved only a few, who had found a foothold upon the highest peaks.
The youth had now passed triumphantly through the various ordeals of his manhood. One day his Elder Brother spoke to him and said: "You have now conquered the animal people, and withstood the force of the elements. You have subdued the earth to your will, and still you are alone! It is time to go forth and find a woman whom you can love, and by whose help you may reproduce your kind."
"But how am I to do this?" replied the first man, who was only an inexperienced boy. "I am here alone, as you say, and I know not where to find a woman or a mate!"
"Go forth and seek her," replied the Great Teacher; and forthwith the youth set out on his wanderings in search of a wife. He had no idea how to make love, so that the first courtship was done by the pretty and coquettish maidens of the Bird, Beaver, and Bear tribes. There are some touching and whimsical love stories which the rich imagination of the Indian has woven into this old legend.
Our Animal Ancestry
It is said, for example, that at his first camp he had built for himself a lodge of green boughs in the midst of the forest, and that there his reverie was interrupted by a voice from the wilderness -- a voice that was irresistibly and profoundly sweet. In some mysterious way, the soul of the young man was touched as it had never been before, for this call of exquisite tenderness and allurement was the voice of the eternal woman!
Presently a charming little girl stood timidly at the door of his pine-bough wigwam. She was modestly dressed in gray, with a touch of jet about her pretty face, and she carried a basket of wild cherries which she shyly offered to the young man. So the rover was subdued, and love turned loose upon the world to upbuild and to destroy! When at last she left him, he peeped through the door after her, but saw only a robin, with head turned archly to one side, fluttering away among the trees.
His next camp was beside a clear, running stream, where a plump and industrious maid was busily at work chopping wood. He fell promptly in love with her also, and for some time they lived together in her cosy house by the waterside. After their boy was born, the wanderer wished very much to go back to his Elder Brother and to show him his wife and child. But the beaver-woman refused to go, so at last he went alone for a short visit. When he returned, there was only a trickle of water beside the broken dam, the beautiful home was left desolate, and wife and child were gone forever!
The deserted husband sat alone upon the bank, sleepless and faint with grief, until he was consoled by a comely young woman in glossy black, who took compassion upon his distress and soothed him with food and loving attentions. This was the bear-woman, from whom again he was afterward separated by some mishap. The story goes that he had children by each of his many wives, some of whom resembled their father, and these became the ancestors of the human race, while those who bore the characteristics of their mother returned to her clan. It is also said that such as were abnormal or monstrous in form were forbidden to reproduce their kind, and all love and mating between man and the animal creation was from that time forth strictly prohibited. There are some curious traditions of young men and maidens who transgressed this law unknowingly, being seduced and deceived by a magnificent buck deer, perhaps, or a graceful doe, and whose fall was punished with death.
The animal totems so general among the tribes were said to have descended to them from their great-grandmother's clan, and the legend was often quoted in support of our close friendship with the animal people. I have sometimes wondered why the scientific doctrine of man's descent has not in the same way apparently increased the white man's respect for these our humbler kin.
Of the many later heroes or Hiawathas who appear in this voluminous unwritten book of ours, each introduced an epoch in the long story of man and his environment. There is, for example, the Avenger of the Innocent, who sprang from a clot of blood; the ragged little boy who won fame and a wife by shooting the Red Eagle of fateful omen; and the Star Boy, who was the off-spring of a mortal maiden and a Star.
It was this last who fought for man against his strongest enemies, such as Wazeeyah, the Cold or North-Wind. There was a desperate battle between these two, in which first one had the advantage and then the other, until both were exhausted and declared a truce. While he rested, Star Boy continued to fan himself with his great fan of eagle feathers, and the snow melted so fast that North-Wind was forced to arrange a treaty of peace, by which he was only to control one half the year. So it was that the orderly march of the seasons was established, and every year Star Boy with his fan of eagle feathers sets in motion the warm winds that usher in the spring.
Chapter 6 - On the Border-Land of Spirits