In the Realm of Stone Houses


The lands that lay beyond the Mountain That Touches the Sky seemed made of a dry kind of green, a distant realm surrounded by receding mountains.  I had never visited this part of Colorado.  For many years I had peered down along the High Plains, south to where the Mountain stood, wondering.

Years ago, studying certain matters of the ancient past, I had decided that my ancestors had once dwelt there in the south, and I wondered what kind of world it might be.  I had the thought that someday I would visit.  Now I was floating across an arid green world; remote mountains hovered here and there.

Along the way I thought of Jack Kerouac’s famous novel, On the Road.  He drove here in 1950 and made brief mention of his friend, archaeologist Hal Chase, who was “somewhere off the road in front of a campfire with perhaps a handful of anthropologists[.]”  Chase conducted excavations during that time at the Snake Blakeslee site, an Apishapa phase community.  About 800 years ago the realm of the Apishapa phase unfolded south of the Mountain That Touches the Sky, stretching down into northern New Mexico.

It was probably sometime in the 15th century that the Apishapa phase population moved into the plains, flowing into the folk whose descendants became the Pawnees and other related peoples.  I believe we can glimpse memories of this history in certain Pawnee oral traditions.  And later generations of Pawnee travelers knew those traditions, and they had come back to this land, journeying in search of trade and treasure and training, stealing horses, stalking enemies, looking for adventure.

Turning east onto Highway 64 in New Mexico I skirted the edges of an ancient volcanic field.  I was soon driving through millions of years of slowly disintegrating lava flows and fading volcanic cones.  Herds of pronghorns and deer stood on the crumbling basalt.  Over the next two days I saw various animals galloping over this terrain, and I wondered how they did it, their hooves clattering on stony soils made of sharp corners.  I had to walk carefully on the stuff.  But all through the years as wind and ice did their magic, the stones slowly melted into rich soils and healthy vegetation.

I soon came upon Capulin Volcano National Monument.  I stopped my car and got out to look.  A lonely mountain capped with a vegetated caldera stood alone north of the road.  I took a photo and drove on to the Mandala Center.  There I found John Micheal Knife Chief and Walter Echo-Hawk.


The National Park Service had invited the Pawnee Nation to send a delegation to consult with them about Pawnee connections to the region – John Micheal serves as the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer and he had asked Walter and me to join him.  The next morning dawned (May 24, 2016), and we met with NPS staff and two consultants from Parametrix.  We spent the morning talking about Pawnee history in the region.


May 25, 2016: Lynn Cartmell (NPS CAVO Lead Park Ranger), Shawn Kelley (Parametrix Senior Cultural Anthropologist), Sean O’Meara (Parametrix Ethnographer / Ethnobotanist), Walter Echo-Hawk, Roger Echo-Hawk, John Micheal Knife Chief (Pawnee Nation Tribal Historic Preservation Officer); photo taken by Zach Cartmell (NPS CAVO Park Natural Resource Manager)

Capulin Volcano crouches at the southern edge of the region occupied by the Apishapa phase people.  At the northern edge of this realm stands Toos Peh, the Mountain That Touches the Sky.   I learned the Pawnee name and its translation from very obscure records provided by a friend, and then I found various traditions that made mention of a place where the earth and sky meet, a place where this world connects to another unseen world.  Since some of the stories make reference to the origin of corn agriculture, the stories tend to point to the era of the Apishapa phase.


In the course of our visit, the NPS rangers showed us a handful of small mysterious masonry structures.  No date could be attached to them, but they do vaguely evoke Apishapa architecture.  And at another nearby site someone found a beautifully made side-notched lithic projectile point of a type common in Apishapa sites.  A handful of miles to the north of Capulin Volcano can be found a few other sites in New Mexico identified as Apishapa phase occupations.

Various versions of a Pawnee migration tradition were set down between 1866 and circa 1970.  The stories are brief and vague, but they mention the southwest, the Rio Grande River, New Mexico, and houses made of stone or stone and mud.  The people had sacred bundles in that far land, and they had flint knives and flint arrow points.  And when they left that land, the journey took them through mountains into the grasslands – the stories mention how their lodge poles left grooves in the stone.  This all happened long ago.

A match for these glimpses of ancient times can be found in the archaeology of the Apishapa phase.  The geography of Pawnee tradition points to the Apishapa occupation area, and Apishapa houses and the houses of Pawnee tradition both utilized stone.  These are significant conjunctions.  But to see a connection between the oral traditions and the archaeological record, we must be willing to accept that it is possible for historical information to endure over a six hundred year period.

It seems logical that this unusual mountain would draw Apishapa visitors.  Vague connections between Capulin Volcano and Apishapa are suggested by the stone enclosures and by the side-notched point – it is a type that one report describes as “ubiquitous” in Apishapa sites.  Another minor speculative point could also be made.  Pawnee tradition recalls how travelers used dog travois transport and there were so many people on the migration that they left grooves in the stone.  In the volcanic soils of northern New Mexico travois poles probably did leave visible trackways across well-traveled stony surfaces, and this could have become set in tradition as grooves in stone.


High above that vanished world, a paved path encircles the caldera of Capulin Volcano.  Our walk was very windy, but the panoramic view from the rim of the volcano was impressive.  The evidence for an Apishapa presence here is slight, and yet… there must have been visitors in that time and later.  And how can they not have felt a sense of wonder as they stood here on this mountain, absorbing the magic of the southern circles of their world?

At the northern edge of the Apishapa homeland we find the majestic ramparts of the Mountain That Touches the Sky – an almost forgotten holy place.  That mountain lingers in stories as an old religious site, a place of spiritual symbolism.  We do not know of other similar holy places in the ancient southwestern ancestral Pawnee homeland, but the unique visual silhouette of Capulin Volcano stands out.  Here at the southern edge of the Apishapa realm, surely this enchanted place meant something to my ancestors long ago.







Under the Sun and Moon, In Silver and Gold

After Pipe Chief came of age, inspired by his friend Spotted Horse, he endured the ordeal of initiation into his chosen fraternal society.   “I was of those who looked at the Sun and the Moon,” he said, telling the story to George Bird Grinnell one night long ago in Pawneeland.  He soon joined a raiding expedition led by Spotted Horse.  They traveled up the Flat River and down the south fork to the foothills of the Distant Rocks in a Line.  There they found the Sáhi, and they captured 300 horses.

Pipe Chief was born about 1836, so this memorable event in his youth probably happened during the 1850s.  He eventually became a priest and leader among the Skidi.  A man who went by that name appeared in several photos taken around 1870.  I don’t know if he was this particular Pipe Chief since versions of that name were held by different men.  But I have lately become aware of a photo that can be identified with more certainty as Pipe Chief.  It was taken just a couple years after he told the story of his youth to Grinnell.

It is not certain what year William Prettyman and his apprentice George Cornish took the photo.  Most descriptions of the photo say 1889.  But this is too early.  Internal evidence tells us that it was more likely taken in late 1890 or early 1891.  The scene shows an open tipi with seven people inside.  Four women sit on the ground; two men have seats of some kind; a young child stands in front of one of the men.

Pipe Chief Family 1891

In 1891 Prettyman apparently sent a print of this tipi portrait with several others to the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions at Marquette University.  It bore a caption: “Tepee Indian Summer House.”  If this accession information is accurate, it frames the latest possible date for the image as 1891.

The print entered the collections in company with another photo taken during the same period.  This second photo showed four women and two children in a camp.  There is a tipi and a tent and a caption: “Pawnee Indians, Located 70 Miles South of Arkansas City.”   Three of the women and one of the children can also be seen in the other photo, the tipi portrait.  In 1895 the camp scene was published in a book by George Bird Grinnell, The Story of the Indian, captioned as “Pawnee woman dressing a hide.”

Skidi Camp 1891

The tipi portrait can be found on the website for the Oklahoma Historical Society where it is identified as a photo taken in 1889 by Prettyman and Cornish, showing Pawnees in a tipi with Baptiste Bayhylle.  Studying a magnified version of the image, an old man can indeed be made out, partially obscured by a tipi pole – he does look like Baptiste Bayhylle.  A child stands in front of his knees.  One of the women is peering over at them.

Then I found the same two photos on the website of an auction house.  Cowan’s Auctions offered for sale an albumen print of the tipi portrait photo, and this print featured a handwritten caption, “Pipe Chief & family” with the date “1889” written in another hand.  Another note appeared in pencil, perhaps in the same hand as the 1889 date: “Ben Gover and mother at left of Pipe Chief.”

The writing is faint.  We have no indication of who wrote this information or when it was set down.  Prettyman and Cornish made prints from their plates.  In this case they used the albumen process to create the images that ended up in the hands of the Cowan auctioneers – the process used silver nitrate; gold was used for toning.  These Cowan versions both come with interesting caption information.

The image showing a camp scene with four women and two children has a pencil inscription on the verso: “Mrs. Lizzie Leading Fox; & mother Mrs. Sky Seeing [with a Cowan note stating she is using “an implement of elk antler with a steel blade to chip the dried cow hide to an even thickness…”]; Mrs. Clora Gover Yellow Horse and Ben Gover; and Harry Coon’s aunt.”  There are also two pencil inscriptions on the recto margin: “Harry Coons” and “Mose Yellow Horse” with an arrow pointing toward “Clora” and “Harry Coon’s aunt.”

This information is interesting and puzzling.  Clara has been identified by some as the mother of Mose Yellow Horse, though she might have been his stepmother.  But since he was born about 1897, he was not the infant child in the photo.  Someone wrote his name on the print after that date, well after the photo was taken.  The unnamed woman, “Harry Coon’s aunt,” appeared in both photos.

Harry Coons Jr was born about 1895, the son of Harry Coons and Belle Coons, and Belle had a sister named Stah-kah Coons.  Stah-kah was the first wife of Harry Coons and she could be the unnamed aunt – she was in fact the aunt of Harry Coons Jr.  But the only information I have about her is a vague report that she died about 1887.  If we discount this vague information and theorize that she was still alive in 1890-1891, then Stah-kah Coons could be the aunt in question.

Leading Fox Earthlodge

The Leading Fox earthlodge, with Lizzie and daughter Mattie

So the camp scene includes Lizzie Leading Fox, Kate Sky Seeing, Clara Ricketts and Ben Gover, and maybe Stah-kah Coons with an infant – perhaps Lizzie’s daughter Mattie.  And the tipi portrait includes Baptiste Bayhylle, seated with Ben Gover at his knees; Kate Sky Seeing, seated behind Bayhylle; Susie Lockley Pipe Chief Garcia, sitting beside Kate; Susie’s husband Pipe Chief, wearing his medallion; Clara Gover Ricketts Yellow Horse, sitting on the ground to his left (she is the mother of Ben Gover); and the final person might be the aunt of Harry Coons Jr, Stah-kah Coons.

These two gatherings of Skidis occurred sometime in 1890-1891.  Bayhylle was then about age 60 – we can guess that he was on hand to help interpret for Prettyman and Cornish.   Kate Sky Seeing was about age 48 in 1892, married to a Skidi named Osage Sky Seeing.  In 1891 Clara Ricketts had just been married to one of the Govers and had a son named Ben.  “Ricketts” might have been her maiden name – at least, she went by that name at the time the photo was taken.  She next took up with Thomas Yellow Horse.  They raised a son named Mose who went on to become a famous baseball player.  The mysterious aunt of Harry Coons… if the woman is Stah-kah Coons, we know that she died very soon after the two photos were taken.  Susie Lockley was born about 1861 and she became the fifth wife of Pipe Chief.  They had a daughter named Nellie who married Frank Murie and then John Jake.  Pipe Chief died in 1898, and by 1914 Susie had become Susie Garcia.  All this happened in Pawneeland.

Pipe Chief was a ceremonialist.  James R. Murie wrote down an account of the Skidi New Fire Ceremony, mentioning Pipe Chief and his friend Spotted Horse.  It is a detailed memoir of a ceremony that might have been held last during the early 1870s.  In the course of the preliminary sequence of activities, Pipe Chief conducted a smudge of some sacred objects, an offering of “sweet-smelling smoke to Tirawahat.”  He finished that rite and then he “passed his hands through the smoke and down his body and returned to his place.”  He sat down as the offerings continued, the preparations for the New Fire Ceremony in Pawneeland.

And during the fall the Skidis left their earthlodge city and set up their tipis and they hunted.  And in the spring in their earthlodge city, after the distribution of seeds, after the doctor dances, then would follow the New Fire Ceremony.  The Skidis would offer gifts to the stars; gifts to the sun and moon.  They would enact the creation of life in the world.  And if they wished, they would take new names.  All of these things happened long ago in Pawneeland.

Tolkien in Pawneeland

Real Myth and Mithril, May 19, 2013 (Photo by Linda Echo-Hawk)

Real Myth and Mithril, May 19, 2013
(Photo by Linda Echo-Hawk)

One of my grandmothers was Skidi, and my other grandmother had English and German ancestry.  So I found it fascinating and meaningful when I discovered that my favorite author, JRR Tolkien (who was English with German ancestry), made use of certain obscure Skidi traditions in his writings.  As I studied the evidence for this, I slowly came to the conclusion that between 1919 and 1942 Tolkien drew on at least six Skidi Pawnee stories to sculpt subtle aspects of characters and events in The Book of Lost Tales, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings.

In the course of this research, I was fortunate to have the support of the Grey Havens Group – a circle of friends who gathered each week to discuss and appreciate Tolkien’s writings.  They encouraged me to present my ideas in May 2013 at our symposium, Real Myth and Mithril.  I followed this with a longer talk in July 2013 at Mythcon 44, an annual conference of the Mythopoeic Society.


The Pawnee oral traditions that inspired Tolkien were preserved through the efforts of a Skidi named James R. Murie.  He narrated stories to the staff of the Field Museum of Natural History, and an anthropologist there edited and published them in a 1904 book called Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee.  A copy of this book made its way across the Atlantic Ocean and into the collections of Oxford University in England.  And in 1919, after Tolkien began working as a researcher at Oxford, echoes of various Skidi narratives began to enter his writings.

Roaming Scout

Roaming Scout

Two of the stories that interested Tolkien were told to Murie by an old man named Roaming Scout, a leading kurahus or priest.  Roaming Scout was born about 1839, a member of a royal family among the Skidi and a son of a priest named Mud Bear.  He held the name Tah-whoo-kah-tah-wee-ah, and in the late 1880s he married a young woman named Stah-pe-chicks-sah.  If they had any children, none survived into adulthood.

It must have been about the time of the 1892 allotment that Tah-whoo-kah-tah-wee-ah took the name Kee-lee-kee-lee-soo-lah-kah-wah-lee, or Roaming Scout.  In A Dictionary of Skiri Pawnee linguist Douglas Parks renders the name as Kirikiirisu Rakaawarii, meaning Scout Roaming the World.  Among the Americans, Roaming Scout also became known as Pawnee Tom.  Confusion grew around his Pawnee name because he had a nephew known as Running Scout who died in October 1888 – many Pawnees today are descended from this nephew.  Roaming Scout died in June 1914.

In 1906 Murie recorded Roaming Scout’s life story on wax cylinders at the American Museum of Natural History.  This autobiography begins with a story about a party of men who suffer from hunger.  As they kill and cook an animal they engage in a philosophical debate on the role of faith versus a lack of faith.  Their debate centers on a concept termed “kawaharu,” a spiritual power in the universe that can bestow both blessings and punishment upon humankind.  As Roaming Scout relates in the story, “We are not the ruling power, we people who are living, it is the power in the heavens, Tirawa[hut], and the power ready to give, Kawaharu, they are the powers who send forth game to us and through them we eat.”

Sharing his stories and the events of his life with James R. Murie, Roaming Scout sought to pass along his sense of piety and his perspective on life.  He had been born in a time when thousands of Pawnees had built earthlodge cities in their ancient homeland.  And he had witnessed the evaporation of this realm all through his life.  By 1900 it seemed fitting to predict a continuing decline of the Pawnee population and to foretell the end of the religious traditions that he treasured.  These circumstances must account for Roaming Scout’s willingness to share what he knew with Murie, to record his stories and memoirs.

Pawnee Earthlodge Art

One day in early 1919, just a few years after Roaming Scout died, my research shows that JRR Tolkien opened the pages of Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee.  What he found there intrigued him.  And in the decades that followed, he drew from two of Roaming Scout’s stories and from a handful of other Skidi traditions to shape various details in his emerging mythology of Middle-earth.

I believe that Tolkien borrowed from these Skidi narratives in order to add a certain antiquarian tone to his storytelling.  Some of the stories touched by Skidi colorations include Tolkien’s creation story in The Book of Lost Tales, the story of Beorn in The Hobbit, and the construction of aspects of Gandalf in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

I do not know what Roaming Scout would have thought about Tolkien’s use of his narratives.  But in many ways the two men were kindred spirits.  Roaming Scout was a veteran of a bitter total war, a prominent ceremonial leader, and a renowned storyteller.  Tolkien saw military service in the trenches of World War I; he was a life-long devout Christian; and he became a world-famous storyteller.  Both men were highly respected teachers of tradition in their different worlds.

Pondering what my discovery might signify, I traveled with colleagues from Grey Havens to Mythcon 44 in Lansing, Michigan.  I thought of my two grandmothers as I sat down to reveal what I had learned.  The discussion that followed was very positive and lively, and through the rest of the conference a steady succession of people introduced themselves to me, saying they either attended my talk or heard about it. All the folk of Mythcon were extraordinarily gracious and amiable.  And they all seemed to grasp what my paper signified.

Drawing inspiration from the Skidi stories to enrich the artistry of his mythmaking, Tolkien created a marvelous legacy of writings that slowly grew into a world mythology.  And with my discovery of the Skidi elements in his tales, it has become evident that Tolkien integrated Pawnee and Northern European traditional literature into a unique mythological legacy, a new narrative of global culture.  In this narrative we glimpse a social world shaped by a sharing of symbolic essences that transcend our notions of nationhood and ethnicity.

The literary endeavors of JRR Tolkien have woven together the mythological truths of Middle-earth and Pawneeland.  In this weaving of culture, when we open the pages of Tolkien’s books, we encounter a subtle Pawnee magic that has the power to enchant the imaginations of people worldwide.

When Roaming Scout sat down long ago to tell his stories to James R. Murie, he could not know what the future would hold for the stories he told.  But he was a very religious man.  He saw the mysticism of kawaharu in every aspect of life.  And I suspect that he would be pleased to see how Skidi traditions have changed the world.

Itskari, Many Wild Potatoes River, July 2013

Itskari, Many Wild Potatoes River, July 2013

The White Wood Magic

Cottonwood October 11, 2012

Eight months after I published a book called The Magic Children, I went on tour with it.  By “tour” I mean that a friend who owns a bookstore asked me to join a group of writers for a book fair, and I sat down at a table with several other authors and I sold a few books and I met a woman who had published a book on cottonwood trees.

Kathleen Cain

Kathleen Cain
May 15, 2011

Kathleen Cain grew up in the ancient Pawnee homeland.  One day in that realm her father revealed a secret of the cottonwood tree.  If you slice open a cottonwood twig at the right place you will find a pretty five-pointed star.  This star had surprised her.  When Kathleen grew up she couldn’t stop thinking about cottonwoods and she wrote a book called The Cottonwood Tree: An American Champion.

I guess it wasn’t much of a book tour for me.  But Kathleen showed me that star inside the cottonwood and I enjoyed my book tour.  I promised I would look for the Pawnee word for cottonwood, and I would write down whatever I found on the topic and I would send it to her.

I didn’t know then that I would tell this story.  And I for sure didn’t know that it would be such a strange sad frightening story.

Once upon a time a man captured a small duck and took it home to show his wife.  They kept this little duck in their tipi until the woman told him to let it go, and so he turned it loose.  Not long later the woman gave birth.  As this baby girl grew up, the parents began to notice that she loved to spend her days swimming in ponds.  The mother said to the father, “See, our girl is like that duck you brought home!  I guess we should let her do as she chooses – and you’d better not complain about it.”  They named her Young Duck.

One day Young Duck dug a small hole on the west side of their tipi.  From some nearby ponds she brought flag root and peppermint, and she planted these in the hole.  That night this hole mysteriously filled with water.  Young Duck told her mother, “When I’m not doing anything, I think I’ll sit on this pool.  And every day you will wash my face with water from the pool.”

This magic water smelled fragrant, very sweet.  The mother washed her daughter’s face each day after that.  As the months went by, she noticed how Young Duck slowly grew into a pretty girl.

Cottonwood October 11, 2012

In her dreams Young Duck heard a voice.  Following the advice of this voice, Young Duck one day went to the ponds and found a hooked stick.  She took this stick with her the next time the other young women went to gather wood.  In the forest they came upon a dead cottonwood.  Young Duck said, “You girls go on.  I’ll stay here while you gather your wood.”  After the girls left, Young Duck lifted her stick, “Now pull down that dry limb!”  The hook in her hand stretched up and broke off the dead branch from the cottonwood.

When the other girls returned, they found Young Duck sitting with her wood pile neatly bound.  Each day she accompanied the young women to get wood.  And every day her mother would wash her face with water from the magic pool.  Pretty Young Duck slowly became very beautiful.

Cottonwood October 11, 2012

As noted by linguist Douglas Parks, a Skidi term for cottonwood is ráhaaktaakaaru or ráktaakaaru, meaning white wood.  This term refers to the fact that under the bark of this tree the flesh of the wood is very pale.  Versions of this Pawnee term appear in both the Skidi Pawnee dialect and the South Band Pawnee dialect.  The South Band Pawnees had another term for cottonwood: téhtu.  Among all the Pawnees, if a cottonwood tree is small in size, the term for it is pásaki, but a large one is called pásakucu.

Resources from this tree once provided firewood, construction material, wood implements, and horse-feed.  According to Parks, there is a Skidi word for a wooden bowl made from the root of a cottonwood tree: rákaraaraariksisu – the final portion of this term (rariksisu) signifies that the wood bowl is real or authentic.

Cottonwood bark

Several Pawnee words refer to the use of cottonwood as feed for horses during winter.  The Skidi word asaháktaakaaru literally means horse wood white, and it signifies the use of bark for feed.  In The Lost Universe Gene Weltfish described the preparation of “cottonwood tops and bark” for horse winter feed – axe-cuts were made to loosen the bark for horses to chew.  On cold snowy nights the Pawnees would prepare this feed and set it on a hide for their horses.  Bark prepared in this fashion is termed rákataatu or wood dung.  The South Band Pawnee terms for white horse wood and wood dung are very similar to Skidi: asaahaáktakaaru and rakataatu.

Everyone thought Young Duck looked very beautiful.  Young men found her quite fascinating.  One young gambler set up his hoop & stick playing field near Young Duck’s tipi.  Others demonstrated their mastery of the arts of archery.  A number of hopeful suitors took out their flutes in the late evening and competed for her admiration.

But Young Duck ignored them all.  Until… until one day on the eve of a ceremonial dance, Young Duck noticed a hawk sitting on the limb of a cottonwood tree.  “Yes,” she murmured softly.  “If you become a man you can court me.”

This hawk took note of Young Duck’s extraordinary beauty.  He flew to a holy place; a hidden underground house of spirit-animals.  Humbling himself, he appealed to them for help and they performed their magic upon him and he became a young man.

Magic Water

Young Duck knew him when he called upon her.  She fell in love with Hawk, and he fell in love with her, and she told her parents, “I will marry this young man, Hawk.”  So Hawk moved in with her and her parents.  Young Duck continued to sit upon her pool of water.  Her mother washed her face and her hair with the enchanted water.  And Young Duck would then wash her husband’s face and his hair.  They became a beautiful, happy couple.

And every day Young Duck gathered wood with her girlfriends.  She used her magic stick to take down branches from tall cottonwoods in the forest.  Hawk stood guard nearby upon a high hill, watching over the young women as they worked.

In this Skidi Pawnee tale, told by a woman named Bright Eyes over a century ago to James R. Murie, there is an association that seems random.  A woman who has the nature of a water bird performs magic upon cottonwood trees.  The Pawnees knew that cottonwood trees prefer to live along ponds and waterways.  Anthropologist Gene Weltfish described how the Skidi doctors once used cottonwood tree-trunks in constructing the ritual spaces for the annual autumn Doctor Dance, and in so doing, “The cottonwood symbolized the Beaver and the waters of the earth.”  James R. Murie told another researcher that cottonwood boards were used to make Pawnee cradleboards, and the associated symbolism referred to star deities and to sweet cleansing rainwater.

This does not mean that a simple equation can be drawn between cottonwoods and riparian symbolism.  Cottonwood trees once had many uses in the Pawnee world.  But cottonwood sticks were also significant in the traditional rituals and religious ideology of the Skidi.  These sticks had ceremonial use in building the altar for the Skidi Morning Star ceremony (along with box elder, willow, and elm).  As Gene Weltfish makes clear, these four kinds of sticks in the Morning Star ceremony signified the four quarters of the earth, the semicardinal directions.

These same branches held some unknown significance in another story told to James Murie by Woman Newly Made Chief, daughter of a Skidi doctor.  In her story two twins of ancient legend used this same set of sticks to cremate their dead father, who they had slain.  This tradition told of frightful events, and no one knows what the twins intended when they brought forth wood signifying the four quarters of the world and used it to cremate their dead father.

Stories can sometimes touch on our fears.  And sometimes our fears are mysterious and we do not understand them.  And sometimes very fearful and mysterious things happen in our lives; and sometimes those things enter the stories we tell.

Cottonwood October 11, 2012

One day when Young Duck got home with the limbs she had gathered from the cottonwoods, she noticed a strange old woman in the tipi.  This old woman watched as Young Duck’s mother washed her face and as Young Duck washed the face of her handsome husband, Hawk.

This old lady was a sorceress.  She envied Young Duck.  “I wish I could be Young Duck,” whispered the sorceress.  Deciding that she had to have what Young Duck had, she made a plan.  In the nearby forest this sorceress found a dogwood stick, and she sharpened it and she hid it in her clothes.

When Young Duck appeared with her friends, the sorceress watched from a thicket as the other girls went on their way to gather wood.  She watched as Young Duck brought forth her magic stick.  After Young Duck gathered a bundle and tied it neatly, the sorceress stepped forth.

“Hello, dearie,” cackled the old woman.  “You are so beautiful and good; I will sit with you.”  A moment later she took out her hidden dogwood stick and she swiftly jabbed it in Young Duck’s ear!  When the sorceress decided Young Duck was dead, she blew into Young Duck’s mouth.  Young Duck’s skin came off, but only from her waist up.

The old woman crawled into the empty skin.  When she stood, she looked like Young Duck.  She rolled the real Young Duck into the stream that ran beside the old cottonwood tree and the body floated away.

Now the sorceress yelled rudely for the other girls.  The young women all noticed how wild Young Duck’s eyes seemed.  And back at Young Duck’s tipi, the sorceress threw down her bundle of sticks and announced in a crotchety tone, “Mother, I’m tired and hungry!”  She ate heartily – even eating her husband’s food.

She lay down naked with Hawk.  She cackled, demanding he give her a good time.  She kept talking loudly, making vulgar remarks as if to distract him as he tried to pleasure her.  But Hawk noticed something very disturbing.  Young Duck’s legs were no longer smooth and pretty.  In fact, from the waist down, beautiful Young Duck had somehow become… well, very old and thin and decrepit.

Cottonwood forest

The next day the sorceress accompanied the young women to get firewood.  She talked loudly and she had a mean tone that had never before appeared in Young Duck’s gentle voice.  When they came to the first cottonwood, the sorceress sent on the other girls, just as Young Duck always did.  The sorceress took out Young Duck’s magic hooked stick.  “Okay!  Come now and stretch!”  But nothing happened.  “Hook that cottonwood limb,” she demanded.  But no, nothing happened.  She had to settle for cutting a few green willows.

Back at the tipi the sorceress threw down her rather sparse bundle of green wood and she complained to Young Duck’s mother, “I’m tired and I have a terrible headache.  I’m going to take it easy on my pool of magic water.”  But when she stepped over to the pool of water, she found it had dried up.  And the next day everyone noticed an odor.  The stolen skin was rotting.

The family sent for doctors.  But none could help.  The sorceress kept them at bay because she needed to protect her horrible secret.

Hawk had strong suspicions.  He thought of someone who could help.  When Hawk returned with this man, they both saw that Young Duck’s skin had a bruised look.  The man’s face was painted black.  He held a black gourd.

The sorceress cried out, “You black-eyed crow, I know you!  You are going to discover my secret!”  This man was a Crow Wizard.  He called for a bowl of water.  He sang and gestured with his gourd.  Tiny scenes appeared in the water and the Crow Wizard studied them and then he denounced the sorceress: “This crazy old woman has taken Young Duck’s skin and it is rotten!”

Hawk heard a far-off voice.  He didn’t linger to see what happened to the old sorceress.  A pretty song echoed in Hawk’s mind.  “Here now stands Young Duck!”  He came to a stream and listened.  Where was the singing?  The song made his heart ache for Young Duck.  He would find her!

He turned himself into a hawk and he flew up and down the stream.  For days he sought the voice.  He grew weary and hungry, but still he searched.  On the evening of the fourth day he paused upon a hilltop.  There was smoke in the valley below.  There stood a tipi.

Landing, he became a young man again.  He stepped inside.  There sat a man, a woman, and four young girls.  “I thought I heard my wife singing,” he said to them.  “Is Young Duck here?”  They said no.  There is no Young Duck here.  But he knew… he asked again.  And again.  Finally, the youngest girl pointed to a heap of things just beyond the firelight.

There Hawk saw two legs sticking out.  He recognized those pretty legs.  Young Duck!  He reached for her.  “No, husband,” spoke Young Duck.  “Do not uncover me!  For I am not the same pretty girl you married!”  But he uncovered her anyway.

Duck family

His beautiful wife had the upper body of an old woman.  “Dear husband,” cried Young Duck, “I will never go back to what I was.  I will never be your beautiful wife ever again!”  And she wept.  The family stood watching.  They were crying, too.  They loved Young Duck.  They were her duck family.  She had floated down the stream and they had rescued her and they loved her no matter what she looked like.

Hawk stared at the old woman with the young legs.  Yes; this was Young Duck.  He began to weep.  Young Duck thought he felt sorry for himself.  “See what I am now?  I can never be your beautiful wife, and you must let me go.  Carry me up into the sky and let me go.  And then you will marry again, Hawk.  You will find a pretty wife and you will both be happy.”

“No, Young Duck!” said Hawk.  “You are my wife and I will love you forever!”  Now she wept again, knowing he felt sad for her.  “Can’t you see?” she said to him, “I can never be happy, dear husband!  I can never go back to who I was when we first met and fell in love!  You must let me go.”

After a long night together Hawk at last understood the truth.  Young Duck was miserable.  She was old and thin and very frail.  Her skin hurt her.  The pain was terrible; her suffering was awful.  He had to let her go.

“We will take care of her until she is gone,” said the father.  The mother nodded, “You can leave her to us.”  But Hawk decided that he had to help Young Duck himself.  He carried his wife to the top of the hill.  There he turned again into a hawk.  He gathered up Young Duck upon his back.  “Now fly,” she whispered to him, “You are strong and I am withered.  I will be easy to carry.”

Hawk spread his wings and he leaped into the sky.  High above the earth, Hawk turned one last time, “I love you, Young Duck!”  And he let go of her.  He watched her fall.

Far below, Young Duck fell into a stream.  When Hawk flew down to the water’s edge, he found her there.  She had become a clam.  Her shell looked like old skin.  But inside the shell, the clam was smooth and young.

When you find yourself standing beside a stream, there might be a cottonwood tree nearby.  The bark will look rough and grey and wrinkled, as if very old.  But underneath this old bark the pale flesh of the cottonwood is forever young.

And standing there, if you happen to notice a hawk flying above… and if you peer into the stream at your feet… perhaps you will see what that hawk sees.  Young Duck will look old.  But somewhere inside her shell she will always be young and beautiful.

Cottonwood October 11, 2012