By George Bird Grinnell
The Blackfoot believe that the Sun made the earth–that he is the creator. One of the names by which they call the Sun is Napi—Old Man. This is how they tell of the creation:
In the beginning, there was water everywhere; nothing else was to be seen. There was something floating on the water, and on this raft were Old Man and all the animals.
Old Man wished to make land, and he told the beaver to dive down to the bottom of the water and try to bring up a little mud. The beaver dived and was underwater for a long time, but he could not reach the bottom. Then the loon tried, and after him the otter, but the water was too deep for them. At last, the muskrat was sent down, and he was gone for a long time; so long that they thought he must be drowned, but at last he came up and floated almost dead on the water, and when they pulled him up on the raft and looked at his paws, they found a little mud in them.
When Old Man had dried this mud, he scattered it over the water, and land was formed. This is the story told by the Blackfoot. It is very much like one told by some Eastern Indians, who are related to the Blackfoot.
After the land had been made, Old Man traveled about on it, making things and fixing up the earth to suit him. First, he marked out places where he wished the rivers to run, sometimes making them run smoothly, and again, in some places, putting falls on them. Next, he made the mountains and the prairie, the timber, and the small trees and bushes, and sometimes he carried along with him a lot of rocks, from which he built some of the mountains–as the Sweet Grass Hills–which stand out on the prairie by themselves.
Old Man caused the grass to grow on the plains so that the animals might have something to feed on. He marked off certain pieces of land, where he caused different kinds of roots and berries to grow–a place for camas; and one for wild carrots; one for wild turnips, sweet root, and bitter root; one for serviceberries, bullberries, cherries, plums, and rosebuds.
He made all kinds of animals that travel on the ground. When he made the big horn with its great horns, he put it out on the prairie. It did not seem to travel easily there; it was awkward and could not go fast, so he took it by one of its horns and led it up into the rough hills and among the rocks, and let it go there, and it skipped about among the cliffs and easily went up fearful places. So Old Man said to the big-horn, “This is the place for you; this is what you are fitted for; the rough country and the mountains.” While he was in the mountains, he made the antelope and turned it loose to see how it traveled. The antelope ran so fast that it fell over some rocks and hurt itself. He saw that this would not do and took the antelope down on the prairie and set it free there, and it ran away fast and gracefully, and he said to it, “This is the place that suits you.”
At last, one day, Old Man decided that he would make a woman and a child, and he modeled some clay in human shape, and after he had made these shapes and put them on the ground, he said to the clay, “You shall be people.” He spread his robe over the clay figures and went away. The next morning, he went back to the place, lifted the robe, and saw that the clay shapes had changed slightly. When he looked at them the next morning, they had changed still more; and when on the fourth day he went to the place and took off the covering, he said to the images, “Stand up and walk,” and they did so. They walked down to the river with him, who had made them, and he told them his name.
As they were standing there looking at the water as it flowed by, the woman asked Old Man, saying, “How is it; shall we live always? Will there be no end to us?”
Old Man said, “I have not thought of that. We must decide. I will take this buffalo chip and throw it in the river. If it floats, people will become alive again four days after they have died; they will die for four days only. But if it sinks, there will be an end to them.” He threw the chip into the river, and it floated.
The woman turned and picked up a stone and said, “No, I will throw this stone in the river. If it floats, we shall live always; if it sinks, people must die so that their friends who are left alive may always remember them.” The woman threw the stone in the water, and it sank.
“Well,” said Old Man, “you have chosen; there will be an end to them.”
Not many nights after that, the woman’s child died, and she cried a great deal for it. She said to Old Man, “Let us change this. The law that you first made let that be the law.”
He said, “Not so; what is made law must be law. We will undo nothing that we have done. The child is dead, but it cannot be changed. People will have to die.”
These first people did not have hands like a person; they had hands like a bear with long claws. They were poor and naked and did not know how to make a living. Old Man showed them the roots and the berries, and showed them how to gather these, and told them how at certain times of the year they should peel the bark off some trees and eat it; that the little animals that live in the ground–rats, squirrels, skunks, and beavers–were good to eat. He also taught them something about the roots that were good for medicine to cure sickness.
In those days, there were buffalo, and these black animals were armed, for they had longhorns. Once, as the people were moving about, the buffalo saw them, rushed upon them, hooked them, killed them, and then ate them. One day, as the creator was traveling about, he came upon some of his children that he had made lying there dead, torn to pieces and partly eaten by the buffalo. When he saw this, he felt bad. He said, “I have not made these people right. I will change this; from now on, the people shall eat the buffalo.”
He went to some of the people who were still alive and said to them, “How is it that you people do nothing to these animals that are killing you?” The people replied, “What can we do? These animals are armed and can kill us, and we have no way to kill them.”
The creator said, “That is not hard. I will make you something that will kill these animals.”
He went out and cut some straight service-berry shoots, and brought them in, and peeled the bark from them. He took a larger piece of wood, flattened it, tied a string to it, and made a bow. Now he was the master of all birds, and he went out and caught one and took feathers from its wings and tied them to the shaft of wood. He tied four feathers along the shaft and tried the arrow at a mark and found that it did not fly well. He took off these feathers and put on three, and when he again tried it at the mark, he found that it went straight. He picked up some hard stones and broke sharp pieces from them. When he tried them, he found that the black flint stones made the best arrow points. He showed them how to use these things.
Then he spoke to the people and said, “The next time you go out, take these things with you, and use them as I tell you. Do not run from these animals. When they rush at you and have come pretty close, shoot the arrows at them as I have taught you, and you will see that they will run from you or will run around you in a circle.”
He also broke off pieces of stone, fixed them in a handle, and told them that they should cut up the flesh with these stone knives when they killed the buffalo.
One day after this, some people went on a little hill to look about, and the buffalo saw them and called out to each other, “Ah, there is some more of our food,” and rushed upon them. The people did not run. Instead, they began to shoot at the buffalo with the bows and arrows given them, and the buffalo began to fall. They say that when the first buffalo hit with an arrow felt it prick him, he called out to his fellows, “Oh, my friends, a great fly is biting me.”
With the flint knives that had been given them, they cut up the bodies of the dead buffalo. Old Man came up about this time and said to them, “It is not healthful to eat raw flesh. I will show you something better than that.” So he gathered soft, dry rotten wood and made punk of it, and took a piece of wood and drilled a hole in it with an arrow point, and gave them a pointed piece of hardwood, and showed them how to make a fire with fire sticks, and to cook the flesh of animals.
After this, the people found a certain sort of stone in the land, took another harder stone, and worked one upon the other and hollowed out the softer one to make it a kettle.’
It is also told that the creator made people and animals in another place and in another way. At the Porcupine Mountains, he made other earthen images of people, blew breath on the images, and became people. They were men and women. After a time, they asked him, “What are we to eat?” Then he took more earth and made many images in the form of buffalo, and when he had blown on them, they stood up, and he made signs to them, and they started to run. He said to the people, “There is your food.”
“Well, now,” they replied, “we have those animals; how are we to kill them?”
“I will show you,” he said.
He took them to the edge of a cliff and showed them how to heap up piles of stone, running back from the cliff-like, with the point of the V toward the cliff. He said to the people, “Now, do you hide behind these piles of stones, and when I lead the buffalo this way, as they get opposite to you, stand up.”
Then he went on toward a herd of buffalo and began to call them, and the buffalo started toward him and followed him until they were inside the arms of the V. Then he ran to one side and hid, and as the people rose, the buffalo ran on in a straight line and jumped over the cliff, and some of them were killed by the fall.
“There,” he said, “go and take the flesh of those animals.” Then the people tried to do so. They tried to tear the limbs apart, but they could not. They tried to bite pieces out of the bodies, but they could not do that. Old Man went to the edge of the cliff and broke some pieces of stone with sharp edges and showed them how to cut the flesh with these. Of the buffalo that went over the cliff, some were not dead but were hurt, so they could not run away. The people cut strips of green hide and tied stones in the middle, and with these hammers broke in the skulls of the buffalo and killed them.
When they had taken the skins from these animals, they set up poles and put the hides over them and so made a shelter to sleep under.
In later times the creator marked off a piece of land for the five tribes, Blackfoot, Blood, Piegan, Gros Ventre, and Sarsi, and said to these tribes, “When people come to cross this line at the border of your land, take your bows and arrows, your lances and your war clubs and give them battle, and keep them out. If they gain a footing here, trouble for you will follow.”
Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated June 2021.
About the Author: Blackfoot Indians Stories was published by George Bird Grinnell in 1913 and is now in the public domain. George Bird Grinnell studied at Yale with an intense desire to be a naturalist. He talked his way onto a fossil collecting expedition in 1870 and then served as the naturalist on Custer’s expedition to the Black Hills in 1874. Grinnell was interested in what he could learn from the Indian tribes of the region, and early on, was well known for his ability to get along with Indian elders. The Pawnee called him White Wolf, and eventually adopted him into the tribe. Grinnell was also editor of Forest and Stream, the leading natural history magazine in North America, the founder of the Audubon Society and the Boone and Crockett Club, and an advisor to Theodore Roosevelt. Glacier National Park came about largely through his efforts. Grinnell also spent significant time working for fair and reasonable treaties with Native American tribes, and for the preservation of America’s wildlands and resources.
Native American Proverbs & Wisdom