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The Tree-bound

Source: Old Indian Legends

IT was a clear summer day. The blue, blue sky dropped low over the edge
of the green level land. A large yellow sun hung directly overhead.

The singing of birds filled the summer space between earth and sky with
sweet music. Again and again sang a yellow-breasted birdie--"Koda Ni
Dakota!" He insisted upon it. "Koda Ni Dakota!" which was "Friend,
you're a Dakota! Friend, you're a Dakota!" Perchance the birdie meant
the avenger with the magic arrow, for there across the plain he strode.
He was handsome in his paint and feathers, proud with his great buckskin
quiver on his back and a long bow in his hand. Afar to an eastern camp
of cone-shaped teepees he was going. There over the Indian village
hovered a large red eagle threatening the safety of the people. Every
morning rose this terrible red bird out of a high chalk bluff and
spreading out his gigantic wings soared slowly over the round camp
ground. Then it was that the people, terror-stricken, ran screaming
into their lodges. Covering their heads with their blankets, they sat
trembling with fear. No one dared to venture out till the red eagle had
disappeared beyond the west, where meet the blue and green.

In vain tried the chieftain of the tribe to find among his warriors a
powerful marksman who could send a death arrow to the man-hungry bird.
At last to urge his men to their utmost skill he bade his crier proclaim
a new reward.

Of the chieftain's two beautiful daughters he would have his choice who
brought the dreaded red eagle with an arrow in its breast.

Upon hearing these words, the men of the village, both young and old,
both heroes and cowards, trimmed new arrows for the contest. At gray
dawn there stood indistinct under the shadow of the bluff many human
figures; silent as ghosts and wrapped in robes girdled tight about their
waists, they waited with chosen bow and arrow.

Some cunning old warriors stayed not with the group. They crouched low
upon the open ground. But all eyes alike were fixed upon the top of the
high bluff. Breathless they watched for the soaring of the red eagle.

From within the dwellings many eyes peeped through the small holes in
the front lapels of the teepee. With shaking knees and hard-set teeth,
the women peered out upon the Dakota men prowling about with bows and

At length when the morning sun also peeped over the eastern horizon at
the armed Dakotas, the red eagle walked out upon the edge of the cliff.
Pluming his gorgeous feathers, he ruffled his neck and flapped his
strong wings together. Then he dived into the air. Slowly he winged his
way over the round camp ground; over the men with their strong bows and
arrows! In an instant the long bows were bent. Strong straight arrows
with red feathered tips sped upward to the blue sky. Ah! slowly moved
those indifferent wings, untouched by the poison-beaked arrows. Off to
the west beyond the reach of arrow, beyond the reach of eye, the red
eagle flew away.

A sudden clamor of high-pitched voices broke the deadly stillness of
the dawn. The women talked excitedly about the invulnerable red of the
eagle's feathers, while the would-be heroes sulked within their wigwams.
"He-he-he!" groaned the chieftain.

On the evening of the same day sat a group of hunters around a bright
burning fire. They were talking of a strange young man whom they spied
while out upon a hunt for deer beyond the bluffs. They saw the stranger
taking aim. Following the point of his arrow with their eyes, they
beheld a herd of buffalo. The arrow sprang from the bow! It darted into
the skull of the foremost buffalo. But unlike other arrows it pierced
through the head of the creature and spinning in the air lit into the
next buffalo head. One by one the buffalo fell upon the sweet grass they
were grazing. With straight quivering limbs they lay on their sides. The
young man stood calmly by, counting on his fingers the buffalo as they
dropped dead to the ground. When the last one fell, he ran thither and
picking up his magic arrow wiped it carefully on the soft grass. He
slipped it into his long fringed quiver.

"He is going to make a feast for some hungry tribe of men or beasts!"
cried the hunters among themselves as they hastened away.

They were afraid of the stranger with the sacred arrow. When the
hunter's tale of the stranger's arrow reached the ears of the chieftain,
his face brightened with a smile. He sent forth fleet horsemen, to learn
of him his birth, his name, and his deeds.

"If he is the avenger with the magic arrow, sprung up from the earth out
of a clot of buffalo blood, bid him come hither. Let him kill the red
eagle with his magic arrow. Let him win for himself one of my beautiful
daughters," he had said to his messengers, for the old story of the
badger's man-son was known all over the level lands.

After four days and nights the braves returned. "He is coming," they
said. "We have seen him. He is straight and tall; handsome in face, with
large black eyes. He paints his round cheeks with bright red, and wears
the penciled lines of red over his temples like our men of honored rank.
He carries on his back a long fringed quiver in which he keeps his magic
arrow. His bow is long and strong. He is coming now to kill the big red
eagle." All around the camp ground from mouth to ear passed those words
of the returned messengers.

Now it chanced that immortal Iktomi, fully recovered from the brown
burnt spots, overheard the people talking. At once he was filled with a
new desire. "If only I had the magic arrow, I would kill the red eagle
and win the chieftain's daughter for a wife," said he in his heart.

Back to his lonely wigwam he hastened. Beneath the tree in front of his
teepee he sat upon the ground with chin between his drawn-up knees. His
keen eyes scanned the wide plain. He was watching for the avenger.

"'He is coming!' said the people," muttered old Iktomi. All of a sudden
he raised an open palm to his brow and peered afar into the west. The
summer sun hung bright in the middle of a cloudless sky. There across
the green prairie was a man walking bareheaded toward the east.

"Ha! ha! 'tis he! the man with the magic arrow!" laughed Iktomi. And
when the bird with the yellow breast sang loud again--"Koda Ni Dakota!
Friend, you're a Dakota!" Iktomi put his hand over his mouth as he threw
his head far backward, laughing at both the bird and man.

"He is your friend, but his arrow will kill one of your kind! He is a
Dakota, but soon he'll grow into the bark on this tree! Ha! ha! ha!" he
laughed again.

The young avenger walked with swaying strides nearer and nearer toward
the lonely wigwam and tree. Iktomi heard the swish! swish! of the
stranger's feet through the tall grass. He was passing now beyond the
tree, when Iktomi, springing to his feet, called out: "How, how, my
friend! I see you are dressed in handsome deerskins and have red paint
on your cheeks. You are going to some feast or dance, may I ask?" Seeing
the young man only smiled Iktomi went on: "I have not had a mouthful of
food this day. Have pity on me, young brave, and shoot yonder bird for
me!" With these words Iktomi pointed toward the tree-top, where sat
a bird on the highest branch. The young avenger, always ready to help
those in distress, sent an arrow upward and the bird fell. In the next
branch it was caught between the forked prongs.

"My friend, climb the tree and get the bird. I cannot climb so high. I
would get dizzy and fall," pleaded Iktomi. The avenger began to scale
the tree, when Iktomi cried to him: "My friend, your beaded buckskins
may be torn by the branches. Leave them safe upon the grass till you are
down again."

"You are right," replied the young man, quickly slipping off his
long fringed quiver. Together with his dangling pouches and tinkling
ornaments, he placed it on the ground. Now he climbed the tree
unhindered. Soon from the top he took the bird. "My friend, toss to
me your arrow that I may have the honor of wiping it clean on soft
deerskin!" exclaimed Iktomi.

"How!" said the brave, and threw the bird and arrow to the ground.

At once Iktomi seized the arrow. Rubbing it first on the grass and then
on a piece of deerskin, he muttered indistinct words all the while.
The young man, stepping downward from limb to limb, hearing the low
muttering, said: "Iktomi, I cannot hear what you say!"

"Oh, my friend, I was only talking of your big heart."

Again stooping over the arrow Iktomi continued his repetition of charm
words. "Grow fast, grow fast to the bark of the tree," he whispered.
Still the young man moved slowly downward. Suddenly dropping the arrow
and standing erect, Iktomi said aloud: "Grow fast to the bark of the
tree!" Before the brave could leap from the tree he became tight-grown
to the bark.

"Ah! ha!" laughed the bad Iktomi. "I have the magic arrow! I have the
beaded buckskins of the great avenger!" Hooting and dancing beneath the
tree, he said: "I shall kill the red eagle; I shall wed the chieftain's
beautiful daughter!"

"Oh, Iktomi, set me free!" begged the tree-bound Dakota brave. But
Iktomi's ears were like the fungus on a tree. He did not hear with them.

Wearing the handsome buckskins and carrying proudly the magic arrow in
his right hand, he started off eastward. Imitating the swaying strides
of the avenger, he walked away with a face turned slightly skyward.

"Oh, set me free! I am glued to the tree like its own bark! Cut me
loose!" moaned the prisoner.

A young woman, carrying on her strong back a bundle of tightly bound
willow sticks, passed near by the lonely teepee. She heard the wailing
man's voice. She paused to listen to the sad words. Looking around she
saw nowhere a human creature. "It may be a spirit," thought she.

"Oh! cut me loose! set me free! Iktomi has played me false! He has made
me bark of his tree!" cried the voice again.

The young woman dropped her pack of firewood to the ground. With her
stone axe she hurried to the tree. There before her astonished eyes
clung a young brave close to the tree.

Too shy for words, yet too kind-hearted to leave the stranger
tree-bound, she cut loose the whole bark. Like an open jacket she drew
it to the ground. With it came the young man also. Free once more, he
started away. Looking backward, a few paces from the young woman, he
waved his hand, upward and downward, before her face. This was a sign of
gratitude used when words failed to interpret strong emotion.

When the bewildered woman reached her dwelling, she mounted a pony and
rode swiftly across the rolling land. To the camp ground in the east, to
the chieftain troubled by the red eagle, she carried her story.

Next: Shooting Of The Red Eagle

Previous: The Badger And The Bear

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