An argosy of fables/American Indian fables

An argosy of fables
Book 4, Kraal and wigwam fables.
Part 2, American Indian fables.




THREE Cranberries were living in a lodge together. One was green, one was white and one was red. They were sisters. There was snow on the ground; and as the men were absent, they felt afraid and began saying: "What shall we do if the wolf comes?" "I," said the green one, "will climb up the shingoub, the spruce tree." "I," said the white one, "will hide myself in the kettle of boiled hominy." "And I," said the red one, "will hide myself under the snow." Presently the wolves came, and the Three Cranberries hid themselves as they had agreed. But only one of the Three had judged wisely. The wolves immediately ran to the kettle, and ate up the hominy, and with it the white Cranberry. The red one was trampled to pieces by their feet and her blood spotted the snow. But the green one that had climbed the thick spruce tree escaped notice and was saved.

(Chippewa Fable. From Indian Tales and Researches, by Henry R. Schoolcraft.)


THE Bear once invited the Rabbit to dine with him. They had beans in the pot but there was no fat to cook them with. So the Bear took his knife and cut a little slit in his tough skin under the thick fur, and let some of the fat run out until they had enough to cook the dinner. The Rabbit looked surprised and thought to himself, "That is certainly a handy way to get fat. I think I will try it myself."

When the Rabbit started for home he invited the Bear to come and take dinner with him four days later. When the Bear came, on the appointed day, the Babbit said:

"I have beans for dinner, too. Now, I'll get the fat for them." So he took a knife, just as he had seen the Bear do, and pricked himself with it, but instead of oil all he got was a few drops of blood. The poor little Rabbit cried out, although he was more frightened than hurt. The Bear picked him up and bandaged the cut and then scolded the Rabbit roundly, "You little fool!" he said, "I am big and strong and lined with fat all over; the knife doesn't hurt me. But you are small and thin and weak, and you can't do such things!"

(Adapted from Myths of the Cherokee, by James Mooney.)


AN Owl saw a Lemming feeding just outside of his burrow. Accordingly, the Owl flew down from the tree and perched at the entrance to the burrow, and then said to the Lemming: "Two dog-teams are coming this way!" This frightened the Lemming so badly that he came up close to his burrow, pretending that he would rather be eaten by the Owl than caught by the dogs. He said, "I am very fat and you can have a good meal. Take me! But if you wish to celebrate before eating me, I will sing while you dance."

The Owl agreed to this; he drew himself up and the Lemming began to sing while the Owl danced. When dancing, the Owl looked up to the sky and quite forgot about the Lemming. While he was moving about, he spread his legs far apart, and instantly the Lemming ran between them into his burrow. The Owl called to him to come out again, saying that the dog-teams had both passed by and were gone. But the Lemming's wife told her husband not to go out but to throw dirt in the Owl's face. And that was what he did.

(Eskimo Fable. From The Eskimo in Baffin Land, by Franz Boas.)


AN Owl saw two Rabbits playing close together and seized them both, one with each foot. But the Rabbits were too strong for him, and ran away, dragging the Owl with them. The Owl's wife shouted to him: "Let one of the Rabbits go and kill the other!" But the Owl replied, "The moon is waning and will soon disappear, and then we shall be hungry; we shall need both of them." The Rabbits ran on; and when they came to a bowlder, one of the Rabbits ran to the right side, while the other ran to the left side of it. The Owl was not able to let go quickly enough and so was torn in two.

(From The Eskimo in Baffin Land, by Franz Boas.)


AT first all the Bears had long tails. One winter day the Bear met the Fox, who had a fine lot of Crawfish. Being hungry the Bear wanted some too: so he asked the Fox where and how he got his Crawfish. The Fox replied:

"Go and stick your tail down in the water and let it stay there until it pinches you. The more it hurts, the more fish you will have."

This was what the Bear had in mind to do: so he proceeded down to the lake and made a hole through the ice. Sitting over it, he let his tail hang in the cold water. When it began to freeze, he felt a pain; but as he wanted to catch lots of fish, he did not stir until his tail was frozen fast in the ice. The Fox's instructions were not forgotten: so he suddenly jumped up in the expectation of getting heaps of fish; but he merely broke his tail off near the body instead. And ever since the Bears have had short tails.

(Myths of the Cherokee, by James Mooney.)


THERE were once two little boys living in a valley, who went down to the river to swim. After paddling and splashing about to their heart's content, they went on shore and crept up a huge bolder that stood beside the water, on which they lay down in the warm sunshine to dry themselves. They soon fell asleep and slept so soundly that they never wakened more. Through sleeps, moons and snows, winter and summer, they slumbered on. Meanwhile the great Rock on which they slept was treacherously rising, day and night, little by little, until it soon bore them up beyond the sight of their friends, who sought them everywhere, weeping. Thus they were borne up at last beyond all human help or reach of human voice—lifted up, inch by inch, into the blue heavens—far up, far up, until their faces scraped the moon; and still they slumbered and slept, year after year. Then at length, upon a time, all the animals assembled together to bring down the little boys from the top of the mighty Rock. Every animal made a spring up the face of the wall as far as he could leap. The little Mouse could only jump up a hand-breadth, the Rat, two hand-breadths; the Raccoon, a little higher; and so on; the grizzly Bear making a prodigious leap far up the wall, but falling back, in vain like


all the others. Last of all, the Lion tried, and he jumped up higher than any other animal had; but he fell down flat on his back. Then came along Tultakana, the insignificant little Measure-Worm, which even the Mouse could have crushed by treading on it, and began to creep up the Rock. Step by step, step by step, a little at a time, he measured his way up, until presently he was above the Lion's jump; then, pretty soon, out of sight. So he crawled up and up and up, through many long sleeps, for about one whole snow, and at last he reached the top. Then he took the little boys, and came down the same way he went up, and brought them safe down to the ground. And so the Rock has ever since been called, Tutochanula after the name of Tultakana, the Measure-Worm.

What all the great animals of the forest could not do, the despised Measure-Worm accomplished, simply by patience and perseverance.

(Meewock Legend. From Northern California Indians, by Stephen Powers, in The Overland Monthly, 1872-74.)


A MOOSE was walking along the river bank when he saw a Catfish. "Why are you lying there in the water?" he bellowed. "I came here because I chose to," said the little Catfish. "What business is it of yours? I was made to live in the water, and I have a perfect right to be here."

"Well, what's the good of your getting angry," demanded the Moose. "All I need to do is to kick you just once, and that will settle you. I have half a mind to do it, too." So saying, the Moose rushed headlong into the water; but just as he raised his leg to kick the Catfish, the little animal rolled over on his back and pointed his horns at the Moose, crying: "Take that!"

The Moose stamped on the Catfish, and drove one of the horns way into his foot. The pain was so great that the Moose leaped clear out of the water onto the bank, and ran up into the woods. The wound from the Catfish's horns was like fire, and hurt him worse and worse. He lay down on the ground and rolled over and over, and presently he died.

It is wrong to despise any living thing, no matter how small and humble it appears to be.

(Menomeni Fable. From Anthropological Papers, American Museum of Natural History, Vol. 13.)


THE Pigeon-Hawk challenged the Tortoise to a race: but the Tortoise declined it unless the Hawk would consent to run several days' journey. The Hawk very quickly consented, and they immediately set out. The Tortoise knew that if he was to obtain the victory it must be by great diligence; so he went down into the earth and, taking a straight line, stopped for nothing. The Hawk, on the contrary, knowing that he could easily beat his competitor, kept carelessly flying this way and that way in the air, stopping to visit one friend and then another, till so much time had been lost that when he came in sight of the winning point, the Tortoise had just come up out of the earth and gained the prize.

(From Indian Tales and Researches, by Henry R. Schoolcraft, 1839.)


ON a bitterly cold day of winter, the Northwest Wind, rising, saw a solitary Duck diving through the few holes still remaining in the ice, near the shore of a great Bay.

"What folly!" blustered the Wind, "to try to resist me who have driven every other living creature away."

So saying, the Wind blew so hard and so cold that he froze over all the remaining holes, and forced the poor little Duck to take shelter under the lea of the bank. Satisfied with this success, the Wind retired, whistling, to his far-away home in the mountains. When he arose the next morning, he found, to his surprise, that the Duck had discovered some new holes and was pushing the reeds out of her way and diving as cheerfully as ever.

"This will never do," howled the Wind, "No Duck is going to get the best of me!"

So for a whole week the Wind blew, harder and harder, bleaker and bleaker every day. But regularly each morning, when he arose he found the little Duck steadily at work, seeking out or breaking new holes, or else patiently waiting for the ice to drift out of her way, and earning her living as best she could. At last the Wind said to himself:

"Such brave persistence deserves success. I may as well leave the Duck in peace."

(Indian Fable. From American Wonderland, by Richard Meade Bache, 1871.)


ONE day, in the dead of winter, when food was very scarce, a half starved Lynx discovered a modest little Hare standing on a high rock in the woods secure from any attack.

"Come down, my pretty one," said the Lynx, in a persuasive tone, "I have something to say to you."

"Oh, no, I can't," answered the Hare. "My mother has often told me to avoid strangers."

"Why, you sweet little obedient child," said the Lynx, "I am delighted to meet you! Because you see I happen to be your uncle. Come down at once and talk to me; for I want to send a message to your mother."

The Hare was so pleased by the friendliness of her pretended uncle, and so flattered by his praise that, forgetting her mother's warning, she leaped down from the rock and was promptly seized and devoured by the hungry Lynx.

(Indian Fable. From American Wonderland, by Richard Meade Bache, 1871.)


THE Wildcat once caught the Rabbit and was about to kill him, when the Rabbit begged for his life, saying: "I'm so small that I would make only a mouthful for you. But if you let me go I'll show you where you can get a whole drove of Turkeys." So the Wildcat let him up and went with him to where the Turkeys were. When they came near the place the Rabbit said to the Wildcat, "Now, you must do as I say. Lie down as if you were dead and don't move,


even if I kick you, but when I give the word jump up and catch the largest one there." The Wildcat agreed and stretched out as if dead.

Then the Rabbit went over to the Turkeys and said in a sociable way, "Here I've found our old enemy the Wildcat lying dead in the trail. Let's have a dance over him." The Turkeys were very doubtful, but finally went with him to where the Wildcat was lying in the road as if dead. Now the Rabbit had a good voice and was a great dance leader, so he said, "I'll lead the song and you dance around him." The Turkeys thought that fine, so the Rabbit took a stick to beat time and began to sing: "Gälägi na hasuyak" (pick out the Gobbler, pick out the Gobbler.)

"Why do you say that," asked the old Turkey a little anxiously. "Oh, that's all right," said the Rabbit carelessly, "that's just the way the Wildcat used to do, and we're only singing about it."

So the Rabbit started the song again, and the Turkeys began to dance around the Wildcat. When they had gone around several times, the Rabbit said: "Now go up and hit him, as we do in the war dance." So the Turkeys, thinking the Wildcat was surely dead, crowded in close around him, and the old Gobbler kicked him. Then the Rabbit drummed his hardest and sang his loudest, "Pick out the Gobbler, pick out the Gobbler," and the Wildcat jumped up and caught the Gobbler.

(Myths of the Cherokee, by James Mooney.)


SOME Wolves once caught the Rabbit and were going to eat him, when he asked leave to show them a new dance that he was practicing. They knew that the Rabbit was a great dancer and song-leader, and they wanted to learn the latest dance; so they agreed to let him show them, and made a ring about him while he got ready. The Rabbit patted his feet and began to dance around in a circle, singing:

"On the edge of the field I dance about,
Hania lil! lil! Hania lil! lil!"

"Now," said the Rabbit, "when I sing, 'On the edge of the field,' I dance that way," and he danced over in the direction where he pointed—"and when I sing, 'lil! lil!' you must all stamp your feet hard." The Wolves thought it fine. Presently the Rabbit began another round, singing the same song, and danced a little nearer to the field, while the Wolves all stamped their feet. He sang louder and louder, and danced nearer and nearer to the field, until, at the fourth song, when the Wolves were stamping their very hardest and thinking only of the song, the Rabbit made one jump and was off through the long grass. The Wolves were after him at once, but he ran for a hollow stump and climbed up inside the hollow. When the Wolves reached the stump, one of them thrust his head inside and looked up. But the Rabbit spit down at him, and he had to draw back. The other Wolves were afraid to try, and they all went away, leaving the Rabbit safe in the stump.

(From Myths of the Cherokee, by James Mooney.)


THE 'Possum and the Terrapin went together to hunt persimmons, and found the tree full of ripe fruit. The 'Possum climbed the tree and was throwing down the persimmons to the Terrapin, when a Wolf came up and began to snap up the persimmons as fast as they fell, before the Terrapin could reach them. The 'Possum watched his chance and at last managed to throw down a very large persimmon, which stuck in the Wolf's throat and choked him to death.

"I'll cut his ears off for hominy spoons," said the Terrapin, and having done so, started for home with them, leaving the 'Possum still eating persimmons up the tree. After a while the Terrapin came to a house and was invited in to have some hominy gruel from the jar that is always set outside the door. He sat down beside the jar and dipped up the gruel with one of the Wolf's ears for a spoon. The people noticed and wondered. When he had eaten enough, he went on, and soon came to another house and was asked to have some more hominy. He dipped it up again with the wolf's ear and went on when he had had enough. Soon the news spread that the Terrapin had killed the Wolf and was using his ears for spoons. Accordingly all the Wolves gathered together and followed the Terrapin's trail until they came up with him and made him prisoner. Then they held a council to decide what to do with him, and agreed to boil him in a clay pot. They brought in the pot; but the Terrapin only laughed at it and said that if they put him into that thing, he would kick it all to pieces. Then they said that they would burn him in the fire, but the Terrapin laughed again and said that he would put the fire out. Then they decided to throw him into the deepest hole in the river and drown him. This time the Terrapin did not laugh, but begged and begged them not to do such a dreadful thing. But the Wolves paid no attention to his prayers, but dragged him down to the river and threw him in. This was just what the Terrapin had been waiting for all the time, and he dived into the water and came up on the other side of the river and got safely away.

(From Myths of the Cherokee, by James Mooney.)


AS a Raccoon was passing a Wolf one day he made several insulting remarks, until at last the Wolf became very angry and turned and chased him. The Raccoon ran his best and managed to reach a tree by the riverside before the Wolf came up. He climbed the tree and stretched himself out on a limb overhanging the water. When the wolf arrived, he saw the reflection of the Raccoon below the limb in the water; and, thinking that it was the Raccoon himself, he jumped at it and was nearly drowned before he could scramble out again, all wet and dripping. He lay down on the bank to dry, and presently fell asleep. While he was sleeping, the Raccoon came down the tree and plastered both of the Wolf's eyes with clay. When the Wolf woke, he found that he could not open his eyes, and began to whine. Along came a little Brown Bird through the bushes and, hearing the Wolf whining, asked what was the matter. The Wolf told his story and said, "If you will help me get my eyes open, I will show you where to find some fine red paint to paint yourself with."

"All right," said the Brown Bird. So he pecked at the Wolf's eyes until he got off all the clay that the Raccoon had plastered them with. Then the Wolf took the Brown Bird to a rock that had bright streaks of red paint running through it, and the little bird painted himself and ever since has been a Redbird.

(From Myths of the Cherokee, by James Mooney.)


THE Humming-bird and the Crane were both in love with the same pretty girl. She preferred the Humming-bird, who was as pleasing to look at as the Crane was awkward. But the Crane was so persistent that in order to get rid of him she finally told him that he must challenge the other bird to a race and that she would marry the winner. The Humming-bird was so swift—almost like a flash of lightning—and the Crane so slow and heavy, that she felt sure the Humming-bird would win. She did not know that the Crane could fly at night.

They agreed to start at her house and fly around the circle of the world, back to the starting point. And the one who came in first should win the girl. When the word was given, the Humming-bird darted off like an arrow and was out of sight in a moment, leaving his rival to follow heavily behind. He flew all day, and when evening came and he stopped to roost for the night, he was far ahead. But the Crane flew steadily all night long, passing the Humming-bird soon after midnight, and going on until he came to a creek, where he stopped to rest about daybreak. The Humming-bird woke up in the morning and flew on again thinking how easily he would win the race. But when he reached the creek, there he found the Crane, spearing tadpoles with his long bill for breakfast. The Humming-bird was much surprised and wondered how this could have happened; but he flew swiftly by and soon left the Crane once more out of sight.

The Crane finished his breakfast and again started on; and when evening came he still kept on as before. This time it was not yet midnight when he passed the Humming-bird sleeping on a limb; and in the morning he had finished his breakfast before the other came up. The next day he gained a little more; and on the fourth day he was spearing tadpoles for dinner when the Humming-bird passed him. On the fifth and sixth days it was late in the afternoon before the Humming-bird overtook him; and on the seventh morning the Crane was a whole night's travel ahead. He took his time at breakfast and then fixed himself up spick and span at the creek, arriving at the starting-point about the middle of the morning. When the Humming-bird at last came in, it was afternoon and he had lost the race. But the girl declared that she would never have such an ugly fellow for a husband, so she stayed single.

(From Myths of the Cherokee, by James Mooney.)


IN the beginning the Deer had no horns, but his head was as smooth as that of a doe. He was a great runner, and the Rabbit was a great jumper; and all the other animals were curious to know which of the two could go further in the same time. They talked about it a good deal, and at last arranged a match between them, and made a fine, large pair of antlers as a prize for the winner. The Deer and the Rabbit were to start together from one side of a thicket and go through it, and turn and come back again—and the one who came out first was to receive the horns.

On the day fixed for the race all the animals were there, with the antlers put down on the ground at the edge of the thicket, to mark the starting point. While everybody was admiring the horns, the Rabbit said: "I don't know this part of the


country; I want to take a look through the bushes where I am to run." The other animals thought this was only fair; so the Rabbit was allowed to go into the thicket. But he was gone so long that at last the animals suspected that he must be up to one of his many tricks. They sent a messenger to look for him; and there, in the very middle of the thicket he found the Rabbit gnawing down the bushes and pulling them away, until he had a road cleared nearly all the way to the further side.

The messenger turned around quietly and came back and told the other animals. When the Rabbit at last came out of the thicket, they accused him of cheating, but he denied it until they went into the thicket and saw for themselves the cleared road. They decided that such a trickster had no right to enter the race at all, so they gave the horns to the Deer, who was admitted to be the best runner; and he has worn them ever since. They told the Rabbit that, as he was so fond of cutting down bushes, he might do that for a living, and so he does to this day.

(From Myths of the Cherokee, by James Mooney.)


ALONG time ago a Wildcat pursued a Rabbit, and was about to catch him when the Rabbit ran into a hollow tree. The Wildcat took a position in front of the entrance, and told the Rabbit that he would remain there until the Rabbit, from hunger, would be compelled to come out; that he need not think of escape. After a time the Rabbit said he would come out and let the Wildcat make a meal of him on one condition, and that was that the Wildcat should make a fire in front of the tree, saying that as soon as a bed of coals sufficient to roast him had been prepared he would come out and be roasted; that he did not want to be eaten raw.

The Wildcat built the fire as directed; and when the sticks were burned to coals, he settled himself on his haunches and notified the Rabbit that all was ready, whereat the Rabbit gave a spring, striking all his feet into the coals, knocking them into the face and over the breast of the Wildcat, and then escaping. This burned the hair in spots on the Cat's breast, and when it grew out again it was white. This is why the Wildcat has white spots on his breast.

(Myths of the Cherokee, by James Mooney.)


THE Rabbit and the 'Possum each wanted a wife, but no one would marry either of them. They talked over the matter, and the Rabbit said:

"We can't get wives here; let's go to the next settlement. I'm the messenger for the council and I'll tell the people that I bring an order that everybody must take a mate at once, and then we'll be sure to get our wives."

The 'Possum thought this a fine plan, so they started off together to the next town. As the Rabbit travelled faster he got there first and waited outside until the people noticed him and took him into the townhouse. When the Chief came to ask his business the Rabbit said he brought an important order from the council that everybody must get married without delay. So the Chief called the people together and told them the message from the council. Every animal took a mate at once, and the Rabbit got a wife.

The 'Possum travelled so slowly that he got there after all the animals had mated, leaving him still without a wife. The Rabbit pretended to feel sorry for him, and said:

"Never mind, I'll carry the message to the people in the next settlement, and you hurry on as fast as you can, and this time you will get your wife."

So he went on to the next town, and the 'Possum followed close after him. But when the Rabbit got to the townhouse he sent out the word that, as there had been peace so long that everybody was getting lazy, the council had ordered that there must be war at once and they must begin right in the townhouse. So they all began fighting, but the Rabbit made four great leaps and got away just as the Possum came in. Everybody jumped on the 'Possum, who had not thought of bringing his weapons on a wedding trip, and so could not defend himself. They had nearly beaten the life out of him when he fell over and pretended to be dead until he saw a good chance to jump up and get away. The 'Possum never got a wife, but he remembers the lesson, and ever since he shuts his eyes and pretends to be dead when the hunter has him in a close corner.

(Myths of the Cherokee, by James Mooney.)


ONCE a Mink was running along the bank of a river when he saw a Pickerel basking in the water close to the shore. He gaped at the Pickerel and licked his chops. "Oh, how I wish I could eat that one," he thought; but he hesitated to jump at it: "My, no, he's too big." So at last the Mink started off disappointed.

He trotted along and presently came to a place where he saw another huge fish close to the shore. This time it was an enormous Pike. The Mink gaped at him too. "Oh, how I wish I could eat that one. Oh, if I could only eat either one of the two wouldn't I have a full stomach?" But the Mink dared not tackle the Pike any more than the Pickerel. "But isn't there some way I can manage it?" he thought in his heart. "Perhaps I can fix it so as to get one of them. If I could only start them fighting, then perhaps one would kill the other, and I could eat that one."

So the Mink went back to the Pickerel and found him still basking in the spot where he had first seen him. "Pickerel," he called down to him, "The Pike is telling lies about you." The Pickerel answered, "What right has he to speak of me at all? Such an ugly looking fish too, with whitish eyes!" The Mink trotted back to where he had left the Pike. "Pike, Pickerel is telling lies about you!" The Pike called back in answer, "What business has he to speak of me at all?—A fish with such a long homely jaw!" The Mink ran back to the Pickerel and tattled again. "How dare he lie about me? He is an ugly, short-bodied, pot-bellied beast," said Pickerel. The Mink hurried back to the Pike. "Say Pike, Pickerel is lying about you again." This time the Pike was very angry indeed, and uttering the worst curse that a fish can, he said, "How dare he talk like that? A thing with spots on him! Oh, you bad Pickerel! I know that Mink is telling the truth!" Mink ran back and tattled some more. "Pickerel is at it again, telling more lies about you!" "Well, then, he and I will have to fight it out," was the reply.

Mink ran back and said, "Pickerel is on his way up-stream to fight you." "All right, I'll fight him," said Pike, and he started down stream. The two fish met half-way and fought, while the Mink stood on the bank and watched. They bit each other and rolled over and over, churning up the water. As they rolled Mink could see the gleam of their white bellies plainly. "I wonder how it will come out," he kept repeating to himself. The two fish raged on for quite a while. At last they were so tired that they could hardly throw each other. "Perhaps they are nearly played out already," said Mink.

After a while the Mink saw that both fish were exhausted, and only their fins moved. They lay floating with their undersides turned uppermost. "Oh, they've killed each other, they're both done for! Well, I may as well roll up my leggings and wade in." So the Mink waded in and dragged the two heavy fish, one after the other, high up on the bank. Then he started a fire, and arranged a grill of branches over the flame. When the fish were cooked the Mink started in to eat them. He ate and ate, and presently his stomach felt fuller than it had ever felt before.

Those who listen to tale-bearers are likely to be drawn into foolish quarrels.

(From Menomeni Folk-lore, by Skinner and Satterlee.)


THE Birds met together one day to try which could fly highest. Some flew up very swiftly, but soon got tired and were passed by others of stronger wing. But the Eagle went up beyond them all, and was ready to claim victory, when a grey Linnet, a very small bird, flew from the Eagle's back where it had perched unperceived, and being fresh and unexhausted succeeded in going highest. When the Birds came down and met in council to award the prize, it was given to the Eagle because that Bird had not only gone up nearer to the sun than any of the other Birds, but had carried the Linnet on its back.

(Ojibway Fable.)