Cronnie Wisdom

Crone is "a phase in which you can be more authentic, more capable of making a difference in your family and in the greater world. Life gives you experience, and when you draw from it, that's true wisdom. By the time a woman is in her crone years, she is in an amazing position to be an influence. To change things for the better, to bring what she knows into a situation, to be able to say, 'Enough is enough.' You don't have to just go along with things, which is often a part of the middle years. You're often something of a loose cannon."
Jean Shinoda Bolen

Friday, July 28, 2023

“The Old Woman of Spring: The Origin of the Buffalo and of Corn” - A Cheyenne Myth or Pourquoi Tale


As a storyteller I always pause when I consider sharing a Native American story on this blog.  I do not tell these stories myself for I am not of that culture and so much has dishonored their traditions during the early recording of these stories by “white men.”  Yet many of these stories would have been long forgotten if not recorded in some fashion by the anthropologists and ethnographers of old.

The first version I found of this story was by George A. Dorsey in his 1905, two volume book “The Cheyenne.” This is the version found on the Internet and within several compilations of folktales (including Jane Yolen’s “Gray Heroes”). I thought to include it but then did some research on Dorsey. I discovered some criticism that he might have engaged in grave robbing, so I looked further. Fortunately, I found another version written about the same time by George Bird Grinnel (“Early Cheyenne Tales.” 20 Journal of American Folklore,169-194 (Jul-Sept. 1907)).  Grinnel spent much time with the Cheyenne, Blackfoot, and Pawnee tribes and wrote books and articles about their stories and culture.  I was impressed to find him mention that there were stories that could not be told. According to Cheyenne custom, only certain people can tell certain stories and even then, they can only share what has been deemed appropriate to share. His is the version that I will share, for this wise and powerful grandmother offers much to us today.

The next day they [the Cheyenne] camped near a little knoll, where a spring came out of the rock. This spring is called "Old Woman's Water."  They camped near this spring with the opening of the camp towards it. There was a fine place for the camp in the plain there. There was a little brush near the spring. Nothing happened that night.

In the morning two sets of hoops and sticks were taken to the center of the camp, and they rolled them there and gambled on the game. Two games were going on. They selected the head of the hunting party as one of the men to keep the count. While they were gambling, a man came from the right side of the camp to the center, where they were playing. He was naked except for his breech cloth and was painted yellow all over and striped down with the fingers; on his breast was a round circle, in red, and on the back a half-moon of the same color. His face under his eyes was painted black, and there was a red stripe around his wrists and ankles; he had a yellow down feather on his scalp-lock and wore his robe hair side out. He stood for a time and watched them playing. While he stood there, a man came from the left side of the camp, whose paint and dress were just the same as his. While they were rolling the wheel, the man who had come from the right said to the players, "My friends, stop for a moment." He walked toward the other and asked him to come towards him, so they met in the center of the camp and stopped a short distance apart. They stood facing each other, and the first one said to the other, "Why do you imitate me? This is spiritual paint." The second said, "Mine also is spiritual paint." The game had stopped, and all the players were listening.

The first man said, "Who gave you your spiritual paint, and where did you get it? " The other replied, " Who gave you yours? " The first man pointed to the spring and said, "My paint came from there (meaning that at the spring he was instructed to paint himself in that way). The other said, " Mine also came from the spring." Then first man said, "Let us do something for the hunters, the old men, old women, young men, young women, girls and boys." And the second said, "Yes, let us do so." By this time everyone in the camp was listening. So, the first man said again, "Soldiers of all societies, every one of you shall feel happy this day," and the other said, "Yes, you shall all feel happy this very day." The first speaker walked toward the spring, and the other followed close behind him. When he came to the spring, he covered his head with his robe and plunged under the water into the opening out of which the spring came. His friend followed him closely and did the same thing. All the people in the camp watched them and saw them go in.

The first man came up under the spring, and there under the knoll sat a very old woman. As he stepped in, she said to him, "Come in, my grandchild." She took him in her arms; held him for a few minutes and made him sit down at her left side. As the other man came in, she said again, "Come in, my grandchild." She took him in her arms, held him for a minute, and set him on her right side. Then she said to both of them, "Why have you not come sooner? Why have you gone hungry for so long? Now that you have come here, I must do something for your people." She had near her two old-fashioned earthen jars. She brought them out and set them down before her and also brought out two earthen dishes; one was filled with buffalo meat, and one with corn. She said, "Come, my children; eat the meat first." They ate it very fast, for it was very good; but, when they had eaten all they could, the dish was still full; it was the same way with the corn. They could not empty the dishes; they were full when the men stopped. They were both satisfied, but the dishes did not show that they had been touched.

The old woman untied the feathers they had on their heads and threw them in the fire. She painted each man with red paint; striped him, and repainted his wrists and ankles, and the sun and moon, yellow; then she stretched her hand out over the fire and brought out two down feathers painted red and tied them to their scalp-locks. After that, she pointed to her left and said, "Look that way." They looked and could see the earth covered with buffalo. The dust was flying up in clouds where the bulls were fighting. Then she said, "Look this way " (pointing partly behind her), and they saw immense cornfields. She said, "Look that way" (pointing to the right), and they saw the prairie covered with horses. The stallions were fighting and there was much movement. She said, "Look that way again," and they saw Indians fighting. They looked closely, and among the fighters recognized themselves, painted just as they were then. She said, "You will always be victorious in your fights; you will have good fortune and make many captives. When you go away from here, go to the center of your village; call for two big bowls and have them wiped out clean. Say to your people, women, and children and all the bands of the societies, “We have come out to make you happy; we have brought out something wonderful to give you. Tell your people that when the sun goes down, I will send out buffalo.” To each of the young men she gave some corn tied up in sacks and told them to divide this seed among the people. She told them to take some of the meat from the dish with one hand and some corn with the other and sent them away. So, they passed out of her lodge and came out of the water of the spring.

All the people of the village were sitting in a circle watching the spring. The two young men walked on together to the center of the village, where the one who had first appeared said, "Old men, old women, young men, young girls, I have brought out something that is wonderful. Soldiers, I have brought out something wonderful for you. When the sun goes down, the buffalo will come out." The other young man repeated these words. The first man stood ahead, and the other right behind him. The first man said, "I want two wooden bowls, but they must be clean." A young man ran to the right and another to the left to get the bowls. They set one down on each side of him, and with his right hand he put the meat in the right-hand bowl, and with his left hand he put the corn into the left-hand bowl. The bowls became half full. The other man did the same, and the bowls were filled.

Just before leaving the old woman, she had said, "The medicine hunter is to eat first," so the medicine hunter performed the ceremony making a sacrifice of a piece of the meat at the four points of the compass - and the first man said to him, "Eat all you can."

The old woman had told them that the oldest men and women were to eat first. They all ate, first of the meat and then of the corn; then the young men, young women, and the children ate, but the pile in each dish remained nearly the same. After that the people in the camp ate all they could, and after all had eaten there was but little left. At the last came two orphans, a boy, and a girl; they both ate, and when they had finished the meat was all gone and also the corn. It was just as the young men had said, everyone was happy, for now they had plenty to eat.

As the sun went down, all the village began to look toward the spring. After a time, as they watched, they saw a four-year-old bull leap out. He ran a little distance and began to paw the ground, and then turned about and ran back and plunged into the spring. After he had gone back, a great herd of buffalo came pouring out of the spring and all night long they could hear them. No one went to sleep that night, for the buffalo made too much noise. Next morning at sunrise the earth, as far as they could see, was covered with buffalo. That day the medicine hunters went out and brought in all the meat they could eat.

The village camped there all winter and never lacked food. Toward spring they sent out two young men to look for moist ground to plant the seed in, for the old woman had told them that it must be planted in a damp place. They divided the corn seed; everyone got some, for there was enough for all. They made big caches in the earth to hold the meat they had dried, and then went to the place the young men had found and planted the seed. They made holes with sticks and put the seed in the ground. Sometimes when they were planting the corn, they would go back to get their dried meat, for the buffalo had moved to another place. Once, when they returned with their dried meat, they found that some of the seed had been stolen, and they thought that it was the Pawnees or the Arickarees - and that that was the way these tribes got their corn.

There is much more to unpack in this story about the Cheyenne culture for the story is filled with symbolism and reference to spiritual beliefs, but I’m not learned enough to do so. Here is the little I do know.  There were two branches to the Cheyenne tribe (the northern and the southern Cheyenne), and these were often represented in stories by two young men or culture heroes.  One is called Sweet Medicine or Sweet Root or Sweet Root Sanding and the other is called Red Tassel, Straight Horns, or Standing on the Ground. Each helped feed their people through a time of starvation. They moved into southwest Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas, where they planted corn and built permanent villages.  After they had acquired horses, the Northern Cheyenne went to live in Montana and Wyoming, while the Southern went to Oklahoma and Colorado.  This story references the move of the Cheyenne from an agrarian existence to becoming hunters.  This is thought to have occurred in the 18th century.

Julian C. Rice writes that Sweet Root is an orphan.  His creative soul is free of conventional authority and identity. His name suggests “the source of all creative development, both the male and female principles, and especially the idea of spiritual nourishment, since the “sweet root” stimulates the flow of mother’s milk.  The teller of stories about Sweet Root sprinkled sacred sage upon a hot coal and purified his body in the smoke before beginning.”

The Great Spirit of the Cheyenne tribe is known as Maheo.  He named the earth as the Grandmother.  When the two young men enter, the old woman greets and embraces each in turn. She asks “Why have you not come sooner?  Why have you gone hungry so long?”  It’s a question we might ask ourselves today as we face one natural disaster after another due to climate change.  Why have we not come sooner? Why haven’t we asked “Grandmother earth” for her advice? Why do we choose to suffer instead?

The two young men want to do something for the “hunters, the old men, old women, young men, young women, girls and boys.” They don’t come for themselves.  This is a spiritual quest, and they are marked in spiritual paint. In the story, Grandmother loves all her creations and wants to help. “I must do something for your people,” she says. She shares a prophecy of their future filled with horses and buffaloes and of their success when fighting neighboring tribes. Finally, she brings forth a never-ending supply of buffalo meat and corn to feed the people. Each eats according to their status, the medicine hunter first, the oldest to the youngest and lastly the two orphans.

At sundown the buffalo appears, and, in the spring, they plant the seeds.  In one version of the story the tribe fails to honor the words of the Grandmother.  They let others steal their seeds, so they lose their ability to raise corn.  They must now live on the plains and hunt bison.  Grandmother is loving and kind.  She’s willing to help if they will only ask.  But asking requires humility. It also requires respect.  Grandmother earth is powerful.  She knows exactly what to do.  The two young men come to her. They dress as the spring has asked them to. They have followed her words and are worthy of her counsel. They embrace the old woman and in doing so they show her the love and respect she is due.  In return she offers them food enough for all the people.  Perhaps Grandmother earth would do the same today, if we would only ask and listen for her reply.

"Old men, old women, young men, young girls, I have brought out something that is wonderful. I have come to make you happy!"

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