Oeche-Monesah, The Wanderer

Chaske was tired of living in the village, where the young men, finding plenty of small game to support life, and yielding to the languor and indolence produced by a summer’s sun, played at checker’s, or drank, or slept, from morn till night, and seemed to forget that they were the greatest warriors and hunters in the world. This did very well for a time; but, as I said, Chaske got tired of it. So he determined to go on a long journey, where he might meet with some adventures.

Early one morning he shouldered his quiver of arrows, and drawing out one arrow from the quiver, he shot it in the direction he intended to go.

“Now,” said he, “I will follow my arrow.” But it seemed as if he were destined never to find it, for morning and noon had passed away, and the setting sun warned him, not only of the approach of night, but of mosquitoes too. He thought he would build a fire to drive the mosquitoes away; besides, he was both hungry and tired, though he had not yet found his arrow, and had nothing to eat.

When he was hesitating as to what he should do, he saw in the bushes a dead elk, and behold! his arrow was sticking in its side. He drew the arrow out, then cut out the tongue, and after making a fire, he put the tongue upon a stick to roast. But while the tongue was roasting, Chaske fell asleep and slept many hours.

At day-break a woman came up to him and shook him, as if to awake him. Chaske started and rubbed his eyes, and the woman pointed to the path which led across the prairies. Was he dreaming? No, he felt sure he was awake. So he got up and followed the woman.

He thought it very strange that the woman did not speak to him. “I will ask her who she is,” said he; but as he turned to address her she raised her arms in the air, and changing her form to that of a beautiful bird, blue as the sky that hangs over the morning’s mist, she flew away. Chaske was surprised and delighted too. He loved adventures; had he not left home to seek them? so he pursued his journey, quite forgetting his supper, which was cooking when he fell asleep.

He shot his arrow off again and followed it. It was late in the evening when he found it, and then it was in the heart of a moose. “I will not be cheated out of my supper to-night,” said he; so he cut the tongue out of the moose and placed it before the fire to roast. Hardly had he seated himself to smoke, when sleep overcame him, and he knew nothing until morning, when a woman approached and shook him as before, pointing to the path.

He arose quickly and followed her; and as he touched her arm, determined to find out who she was, she, turning upon him a brow black as night, was suddenly changed into a crow.

The Dahcotah was completely puzzled. He had never cared for women; on the contrary, had avoided them. He never wasted his time telling them they were beautiful, or playing on the flute to charm their senses. He thought he had left all such things behind him, but already had he been twice baffled by a woman. Still he continued his journey. He had this consolation, the Dahcotah girls did not turn into birds and fly away. At least there was the charm of novelty in the incidents. The next day he killed a bear, but as usual he fell asleep while the tongue was roasting, and this time he was waked by a porcupine. The fourth day he found his arrow in a buffalo. “Now,” said he, “I will eat at last, and I will find out, too, who and what it is that wakes me.”

But he fell asleep as usual, and was waked in the morning by a female who touched him lightly and pointed to the path. Her back was turned towards him, and instead of rising to follow her, he caught her in his arms, determined to see and talk with her.

Finding herself a prisoner, the girl turned her face to him, and Chaske had never seen anything so beautiful.

Her skin was white as the fairest flower that droops its head over the banks of the “Lac qui parle.” Her hair was not plaited, neither was it black like the Dahcotah maidens’, but it hung in golden ringlets about her face and neck. The warm blood tinted her cheeks as she met the ardent gaze of the Dahcotah, and Chaske could not ask her who she was. How could he speak when his heart was throbbing, and every pulse beating wildly?

“Let me go,” said the girl; “why do you seek to detain me? I am a beaver-woman, 1 and you are a Dahcotah warrior. Turn from me and find a wife among the dark-faced maidens of your tribe.” “I have always despised them,” said the Dahcotah, “but you are more beautiful than the Spirits of the water. I love you, and will make you my wife.”

“Then you must give up your people,” replied the girl, “for I cannot live as the Dahcotah women. Come with me to my white lodge, and we will be happy; for see the bright water as it falls on the rocks. We will sit by its banks during the heat of the day, and when we are tired, the music of its waves will lull us to sleep.”

So she took Chaske by the hand, and they walked on till they came to an empty white lodge, and there they lived and were very happy. They were still happier when their little boy began to play about the lodge; for although they loved each other very much, still it was lonely where they lived, and the child was company for them both.

There was one thing, however, that troubled the Dahcotah; he could not turn his mind from it, and day after day passed without relieving him from his perplexity. His beautiful wife never ate with him. When he returned in the evening from hunting, she was always glad to see him, and while he rested himself and smoked, she would cook his meat for him, and seem anxious to make him comfortable. But he had never seen her eat; and when he would tell her that he did not like to eat alone, and beg her to sit down and eat with him, she would say she was not hungry; and then employ herself about her wigwam, as if she did not wish him to say any more about it.

Chaske made up his mind that he would find out what his wife lived upon. So the next morning he took his bow and arrows, as if he were going out on a day’s hunt. After going a short distance from the lodge, he hid himself in the trees, where he could watch the motions of his wife.

She left the lodge after a while, and with an axe in her hand she approached a grove of poplar trees. After carefully looking round to satisfy herself that there was no one near, she cut down a number of the small and tender poplars, and, carrying them home, ate them as if she enjoyed them very much. Chaske was infinitely relieved when he saw that his wife did eat; for it frightened him to think that she lived on nothing but air. But it was so droll to think she should eat young

trees! surely venison was a great deal better.

But, like a good husband, he thought it was his duty to humor his wife’s fancies. And then he loved her tenderly he had given up country and home for her. She was so good and kind, and her beautiful hair! Chaske called her “The Moccasin Flower,” for her golden ringlets reminded him of that beautiful flower. “She shall not have to cut the trees down herself,” said Chaske, “I will bring her food while she prepares mine.” So he went out to hunt, and returned in the evening; and while his wife was cooking his supper, he went to the poplar grove and cut a number of young trees; he then brought them to the lodge, and, laying them down, he said to his wife, “I have found out at last what you like.”

No one would suppose but that the beaver-woman would have been grateful to her husband for thinking of her. Instead of that, she was very angry; and, taking her child in her arms, she left the lodge. Chaske was astonished to see his gentle wife angry, but he concluded he would eat his supper, and then follow her, hoping that in the meantime she would recover her good temper.

When he went out, she was nowhere to be seen. He called her he thought at first that she had hid herself. But, as night came on, and neither she nor the child returned, the deserted husband grew desperate; he could not stay in his lodge, and the only thing that he could do was to start in search of her.

He walked all night, but saw no trace of her. About sunrise he came to a stream, and following it up a little way he came to a beaver dam, and on it sat his wife with her child in her arms. And beautiful she looked, with her long tresses falling into the water.

Chaske was delighted to find her. “Why did you leave me?” called he. “I should have died of grief if I had not found you.”

“Did I not tell you that I could not live like the Dahcotah women?” replied Moccasin Flower. “You need not have watched me to find out what I eat. Return to your own people; you will find there women enough who eat venison.”

The little boy clapped his hands with delight when he saw his father, and wanted to go to him; but his mother would not let him. She tied a string to his leg and told him to go, and the child would plunge into the water, and when he had nearly reached the shore where his father sat, then would the beaver-woman draw him back.

In the meantime the Dahcotah had been trying to persuade his wife to come to him, and return to the lodge; but she refused to do so, and sat combing her long hair. The child had cried itself to sleep; and the Dahcotah, worn out with fatigue and grief, thought he would go to sleep too.

After a while a woman came and touched him on the shoulder, and awaked him as of old. He started and looked at her, and perceiving it was not his wife, felt inclined to take little notice of her.

“What,” said she, “does a Dahcotah warrior still love a woman who hates him?”

“Moccasin Flower loves me well,” replied the Dahcotah; “she has been a good wife.”

“Yes,” replied the woman, “she was for a time; but she sighs to return home her heart yearns towards the lover of her youth.”

Chaske was very angry. “Can this be true?” he said; and he looked towards the beaver dam where his wife still sat. In the meantime the woman who had waked him, brought him some food in bark dishes worked with porcupine.

“Eat,” she said to the Dahcotah; “you are hungry.”

But who can tell the fury that Moccasin Flower was in when she saw that strange woman bringing her husband food. “Who are you,” she cried, “that are troubling yourself about my husband? I know you well; you are the ‘Bear-Woman.'”

“And if I am,” said the Bear woman, “do not the souls of the bears enjoy forever the heaven of the Dahcotah?”

Poor Chaske! he could not prevent their quarrelling, so, being very hungry, he soon disposed of what the Bear woman had brought him. When he had done eating, she took the bark dishes. “Come with me,” she said; “you cannot live in the water, and I will take you to a beautiful lodge, and we will be happy.”

The Dahcotah turned to his wife, but she gave him no encouragement to remain. “Well,” said he, “I always loved adventures, and I will go and seek some more.”

The new wife was not half so pretty as the old one. Then she was so willful, and ordered him about as if women were anything but dogs in

comparison with a Dahcotah warrior. Yes, he who had scorned the Dahcotah girls, as they smiled upon him, was now the slave of a bear-woman; but there was one comfort there were no warriors to laugh at him.

For a while they got on well enough. His wife had twin children one was a fine young Dahcotah, and the other was a smart active little bear, and it was very amusing to see them play together. But in all their fights the young Dahcotah had the advantage; though the little bear would roll and tumble, and stick his claws into the Dahcotah, yet it always ended by the little bear’s capering off and roaring after his mother. Perhaps this was the reason, but for some reason or other the mother did not seem contented and happy. One morning she woke up very early, and while telling her husband that she had a bad dream, the dog commenced barking outside the lodge.

“What can be the matter?” said Chaske.

“Oh!” said the woman, “I know; there is a hunter out there who wants to kill me, but I am not afraid.”

So saying, she put her head out of the door, which the hunter seeing, shot his arrow; but instead of hurting her, the arrow fell to the ground, and the bear-woman catching up her little child, ran away and was soon out of sight.

“Ha!” said Chaske, “I had better have married a Dahcotah girl, for they do not run away from their husbands except when another wife comes to take their place. But I have been twice deserted.” So saying, he took the little Dahcotah in his arms, and followed his wife. Towards evening he came up with her, but she did not seem glad to see him. He asked her why she left him; she replied, “I want to live with my own people.” “Well,” said the Dahcotah, “I will go with you.” The woman consented, though it was plain she did not want him; for she hated her Dahcotah child, and would not look at him.

After traveling a few days, they approached a grove of trees, which grew in a large circle. “Do you see that nest of trees?” said the woman. “There is the great village of the bears. There are many young men there that loved me, and they will hate you because I preferred you to them. Take your boy, then, and return to your people.” But the Dahcotah feared not, and they approached the village of the bears.

There was a great commotion among the bears as they discovered them. They were glad to see the young bear-woman back again, but they hated the Dahcotah, and determined on his death. However, they received him hospitably, conducted him and his wife to a large lodge, gave them food, and the tired travelers were soon asleep.

But the Dahcotah soon perceived he was among enemies, and he kept a careful look out upon them. The little Dahcotah was always quarrelling with the young bears; and on one occasion, being pretty hungry, a cub annoying him at the time very much, he deliberately shot the cub with his bow and arrow, and ate him up. This aroused the vengeance of the bears; they had a consultation among themselves, and swore they would kill both father and son.

It would be impossible to tell of the troubles of Chaske. His wife, he could see, loved one of the bears, and was anxious for his own death; but whenever he contended with the bears he came off victor. Whether in running a foot race, or shooting with a bow and arrow, or whatever it might be, he always won the prize, and this made his enemies still more venomous.

Four years had now passed since Chaske left his native village, and nothing had ever been heard of him. But at length the wanderer returned.

But who would have recognized, in the crest-fallen, melancholy-looking Indian, the gay warrior that had left home but a few years before? The little boy that held his hand was cheerful enough, and seemed to recognize acquaintances, instead of looking for the first time on the faces of his father’s friends.

How did the young girls laugh when he told of the desertion of his first wife; but when he continued his story, and told them of the faithlessness of the bear woman also, you heard nothing but shouts of derision. Was it not a triumph for the Dahcotah women? How had he scorned them before he went away! Did he not say that women were only dogs, or worse than dogs?

But there was one among his old acquaintances who would not join in the laughter. As she looked on the care-worn countenance of the warrior, she would fain have offered to put new moccasins upon his feet, and bring him food. But she dared not subject herself to the ridicule of her companions though as night came on, she sought him when there was no one to heed her.

“Chaske,” she called and the Dahcotah turned hastily towards her, attracted by the kindness of her voice “there are no women who love as the Dahcotah women. I would have gone to the ends of the earth with you, but you despised me. You have come back, and are laughed at. Care has broken your spirit, or you would not submit to the sneers of your old friends, and the contempt of those who once feared you. I will be your wife, and, mingling again in the feasts and customs of your race, you will soon be the bold and fearless warrior that you were when you left us.”

And her words were true; for the Indians soon learned that they were not at liberty to talk to Chaske of his wanderings. He never spoke of his former wives, except to compare them with his present, who was as faithful and obedient as they were false and troublesome. “And he. found,” says Chequered Cloud, “that there was no land like the Dahcotah’s, no river like the Father of waters, and no happiness like that of following the deer across the open prairies, or of listening, in the long summer days, to the wisdom of the medicine men.”

And she who had loved him in his youth, and wept for him in his absence, now lies by his side for Chaske has taken another long journey. Death has touched him, but not lightly, and pointed to the path which leads to the Land of Spirits and he did not go alone; for her life closed with and together their spirits watch over the mortal frames that they once tenanted.

“Look at the white woman’s life,” said Chequered Cloud, as she concluded the story of Chaske, “and then at the Dahcotah’s. You sleep on a soft bed, while the Dahcotah woman lays her head upon the ground, with only her blanket for a covering; when you are hungry you eat, but for days has the Dahcotah woman wanted for food, and there was none to give it. Your children are happy, and fear nothing; ours have crouched in the earth at night, when the whoop and yell of the Chippeways sent terror to their young hearts, and trembling to their tender limbs.

“And when the fire-water of the white man has maddened the senses of the Dahcotah, so that the blow of his war club falls upon his wife instead of his enemy, even then the Dahcotah woman must live and suffer on.”

“But, Chequered Cloud, the spirit of the Dahcotah watches over the body which remains on earth. Did you not say the soul went to the house

of spirits?”

“The Dahcotah has four souls,” replied the old woman; “one wanders about the earth, and requires food; another protects the body; the third goes to the Land of Spirits, while the fourth forever hovers around his native village.”

“I wish,” said I, “that you would believe in the God of the white people. You would then learn that there is but one soul, and that that soul will be rewarded for the good it has done in this life, or punished for the evil.”

“The Great Spirit,” she replied, “is the God of the Dahcotah. He made all things but thunder and wild rice. When we do wrong we are punished in this world. If we do not live up to the laws of our forefathers, the spirits of the dead will punish us. We must keep up the customs of our tribe. If we are afraid that the thunder will strike us, we dance in honor of it, and destroy its power. Our great medicine feasts are given in honor of our sacred medicine, which will not only heal the sick, but will preserve us in danger; and we make feasts for the dead.

“Our children are taught to do right. They are not to injure one who has not harmed them; but where is the Dahcotah who will not rejoice as he takes the life of his enemy?”

“But,” said I, “you honor the thunder, and yet it strikes you. What is the thunder, and where does it come from?”

“Thunder is a large bird, flying through the air; its bright tracks are seen in the heavens, before you hear the clapping of its wings. But it is the young ones who do the mischief. The parent bird would not hurt a Dahcotah. Long ago a thunder bird fell dead from the heavens; and our fathers saw it as it lay not far from Little Crow’s village.

“It had a face like a Dahcotah warrior, with a nose like an eagle’s bill. Its body was long and slender, its wings were large, and on them was painted the lightning. Our warriors were once out hunting in the winter, when a terrible storm came on, and a large thunder bird descended to the earth, wearing snow-shoes; he took but a few steps and then rose up, leaving his tracks in the snow. That winter our hunters killed many bears.”

Dakota, Legends, Sioux,

Fort Snelling,

Eastman, Mary H. Dahcotah, Or Life and Legends of the Sioux around Ft. Snelling. New York: John Wiley. 1849.

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  1. According to the wise men of the Dahcotahs, beavers and bears have souls. They have many traditions about bear and beaver-women.[]

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