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The Discovery Of The Upper World

Source: Folk-lore And Legends: North American Indian

The Minnatarees, and all the other Indians who are not of the stock of
the grandfather of nations, were once not of this upper air, but dwelt
in the bowels of the earth. The Good Spirit, when he made them, meant,
no doubt, at a proper time to put them in enjoyment of all the good
things which he had prepared for them upon earth, but he ordered that
their first stage of existence should be within it. They all dwelt
underground, like moles, in one great cavern. When they emerged it was
in different places, but generally near where they now inhabit. At
that time few of the Indian tribes wore the human form. Some had the
figures or semblances of beasts. The Paukunnawkuts were rabbits, some
of the Delawares were ground-hogs, others tortoises, and the
Tuscaroras, and a great many others, were rattlesnakes. The Sioux were
the hissing-snakes, but the Minnatarees were always men. Their part of
the great cavern was situated far towards the mountains of snow.

The great cavern in which the Indians dwelt was indeed a dark and
dismal region. In the country of the Minnatarees it was lighted up
only by the rays of the sun which strayed through the fissures of the
rock and the crevices in the roof of the cavern, while in that of the
Mengwe all was dark and sunless. The life of the Indians was a life of
misery compared with that they now enjoy, and it was endured only
because they were ignorant of a fairer or richer world, or a better or
happier state of being.

There were among the Minnatarees two boys, who, from the hour of their
birth, showed superior wisdom, sagacity, and cunning. Even while they
were children they were wiser than their fathers. They asked their
parents whence the light came which streamed through the fissures of
the rock and played along the sides of the cavern, and whence and from
what descended the roots of the great vine. Their father could not
tell them, and their mother only laughed at the question, which
appeared to her very foolish. They asked the priest, but he could not
tell them; but he said he supposed the light came from the eyes of
some great wolf. The boys asked the king tortoise, who sulkily drew
his head into his shell, and made no answer. When they asked the chief
rattlesnake, he answered that he knew, and would tell them all about
it if they would promise to make peace with his tribe, and on no
account kill one of his descendants. The boys promised, and the chief
rattlesnake then told them that there was a world above them, a
beautiful world, peopled by creatures in the shape of beasts, having
a pure atmosphere and a soft sky, sweet fruits and mellow water,
well-stocked hunting-grounds and well-filled lakes. He told them to
ascend by the roots, which were those of a great grape-vine. A while
after the boys were missing; nor did they come back till the
Minnatarees had celebrated their death, and the lying priest had, as
he falsely said, in a vision seen them inhabitants of the land of

The Indians were surprised by the return of the boys. They came back
singing and dancing, and were grown so much, and looked so different
from what they did when they left the cavern, that their father and
mother scarcely knew them. They were sleek and fat, and when they
walked it was with so strong a step that the hollow space rang with
the sound of their feet. They were covered with the skins of animals,
and had blankets of the skins of racoons and beavers. They described
to the Indians the pleasures of the upper world, and the people were
delighted with their story. At length they resolved to leave their
dull residence underground for the upper regions. All agreed to this
except the ground-hog, the badger, and the mole, who said, as they had
been put where they were, they would live and die there. The rabbit
said he would live sometimes above and sometimes below.

When the Indians had determined to leave their habitations
underground, the Minnatarees began, men, women, and children, to
clamber up the vine, and one-half of them had already reached the
surface of the earth, when a dire mishap involved the remainder in a
still more desolate captivity within its bowels.

There was among them a very fat old woman, who was heavier than any
six of her nation. Nothing would do but she must go up before some of
her neighbours. Away she clambered, but her weight was so great that
the vine broke with it, and the opening, to which it afforded the sole
means of ascending, closed upon her and the rest of her nation.

Next: The Boy Who Snared The Sun

Previous: Pauppukkeewis

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