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What Have We Lost

In the Medicine Lodge, drum, hoof rattle, and eagle bone whistle blend with prayer song and rhythmic movement mesmerizing participants. When a respected elder gestures, a hush envelops the ceremony.  In a quiet voice, he begins to recite a legend faithfully handed down over time immemorial. 

A long time ago, Earth was made. Nobody knows when but there is a story that comes down to us. Our Father was on Earth while it was yet fire, his wife on his left and his son on his right as they walked among the flames. The flames would part as they walked, but the Father said to them “Don't look back at the fire.” His wife, though, was frightened and looked back, turning to stone because she had done what the Father said not to do. 

The Father and son wept as they walked on, and walking far and wide their tears flooded the Earth. 

Before the settler culture encroached, small bands of Toyahini congregated in the lower valleys of the northern Rockies during the moons of winter. The Toyahini were the mountain people of the greater Shoshone tribe [Ne'we as they call themselves]. It was during these comings together that they would trade with others and observe their ceremonies, which included reciting the sacred legends. 

It's not surprising to find that the legends of the Shoshone have commonalities with those of other regional tribes[1]. What's perhaps surprising is that commonalities exist with non-localized legends of tribes from the east to the west coasts of North America. Beyond the potentially explainable confluence of ideas, though, is that many legends contain at least figurative elements in common with Christian teachings, considering the legends originated before contact with Christian culture and very likely some thousands of years prior to Christianity. 

While recognizing an all-powerful Father, Old Man, Great Spirit or Great Mystery, though, these legends employ man and animal forms, likely able to vary and combine, or physical objects like the Sun as a manifestation. While some might see this as pagan, it's essentially recognition that all life forms are in essence variations on a theme of physical existence, sharing life sustaining habitats for the benefit of all, as opposed to a God in our own image concerned with our welfare above all others. 

These tribal belief practices weren't centered on worshiping physical forms, but rather were analogous to what we term as “animism.” Spirits were believed everywhere in the natural world, and as extensions of the Great Spirit could be beneficial in alliance towards achieving human aspirations. Thus they were sought out for guidance, protection, and augmenting prowess, in much the same way as more modern belief practices. 

Being so close to nature and observing many life forms, these early people used animal representations to help convey ideas and explanations. In Shoshone mythology, Wolf was the elder, benevolent brother of Coyote, trying to make life pleasant and easy for people. Coyote on the other hand was a trickster, and at times a culture-hero, who thought people should work hard for a living. Like the Blackfeet Napi [Old man], the Cree Wisakedjak [the Crane Manitou], the Algonquian Tcakabesh [who could take on various animal and human forms], the Arapaho Nihancan [Spider], and many others, each are interesting combinations of power and weakness, and of goodness and maliciousness, that might be considered allegories of human behavior. 

Shoshone and Bannock legends begin with the Earth a fireball on which the Great Mystery walked, and the fire being followed in his footsteps by water covering even the mountains. This is similar to Siouan[1] tribal legends which begin with the Earth covered in water. 

Algonquian tribal legends[1], similar to Huron, Iroquois, and Chehalis legends, begin with people and creatures before the Earth was flooded, and how the Great Spirit flooded the Earth in disapproval. 

In many varied legends, once the Earth was flooded, the Great Spirit asked an aquatic animal form (differing by legend) to dive to the bottom of the water and bring back mud with which to create land. Once there was land mass, the Great Spirit populated it with many life forms for the benefit of all.

As an example of the similarity between tribal legend and basic Christian teachings, the following is a short extract from a Gros Ventres creation legend. 

After the Great Spirit had created many life forms, He said to the people, "If you are good, there will be no more all consuming fire and water. Long before the flood, the world was burned, and this now is the third life." 

Showing them a rainbow He said, "This rainbow is the sign that Mother Earth will not be covered with water again. Whenever you have had rain, you will see the rainbow. There will be another world after this one." 

Then He told the people and animals to go off in pairs and find homes for themselves, which is why life is scattered. 

Recital of these legends was most often a component of tribal rituals, like one of primary importance to many tribes called the Sun Dance or Medicine Lodge Dance. The Sioux ritual was more properly a Sun Dance including a custom of looking at the sun. Many other tribes didn’t include the custom, though, or even necessarily refer to the sun, so a more general Medicine Lodge Dance label is appropriate. 

The Shoshone call this ritual Dagoo Winode meaning "Thirst Stand." In this oldest and foremost of Shoshone ceremonies, four days were spent in ritualistic preparation, and the ceremony lasted three days. One way it differed from that of other tribes was in not being held on any fixed schedule. Participants generally desired good fortune and longevity, many extending such desires to family and friends. 

In the preparation phase a Medicine Lodge was readied. A special forked pole was cut for the lodge that symbolized the Milky Way, the great path over which travel the people who have passed to the great beyond. Memory of the original meaning of much of the symbolism embodied in the lodge has been lost though, since obscured by generations of Christian inculcation. Now the Christian interpretation is that the center pole symbolizes "Our Brother"; the three stripes on the center pole, the three days He died and rose again; and the twelve poles that form the framework of the lodge symbolize the twelve apostles. 

Unexplained in the Christian interpretation is that part of the ceremony where prayers and songs were offered while strips of blue and green were added to the center pole. The green standing for the green things of spring and summer; the blue for clean water, fresh air, and the blue skies where the Great Mystery is believed to be. 

During the ceremony, the participants danced, sang, and told stories for three days while they fasted and thirsted. The many stories were those faithfully passed down through hundreds of generations, applicable through changing times given their insight into human nature and the natural world. 

Some of the stories were meant to teach lessons. One such example is that Gray Wolf had the power to change animals and plants into other forms. Some, when they were good, he changed into birds with beautiful feathers and the power to sing. Some, when they were bad, he changed into smaller beings, and if they were very bad into skunks. 

Other stories portrayed the goodness in the human spirit, like the following, possibly more well known, story. If you’ve ever visited the Yellowstone National Park region, you might be aware that to its west is the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, within which near Ashton, Idaho on the Henrys Fork of the Snake River two cascades plunge. They are Upper Mesa Falls[2], dropping 114 feet, and Lower Mesa Falls[3], dropping 65 feet. 

In times past, a Shoshone mother took he son to Mesa Falls, where she said to him, “Soon you will be a man like your father and come here to fish. In these falls is the spirit of a young woman, whose words you must heed.

Many moons ago, a pretty girl was helping her lover fish here. He skillfully speared fish, throwing them to the bank where she gathered the fish. As he waded farther out, he lost his footing and was swept away by the swift water. The girl went into the deep water after him and was also swept away.

Ever since, those that come here sometimes see the girl in the mist of the falls. They have been assured seeing her smiling face.”

The boy looked intently at the falling water for a long while, at times thinking he could almost see the young woman. Then, a soft wind picked up and he heard her sweet voice saying, “Do not long for me as I am happy here, guarding these falls and watching over the good of heart that can hear me, warning them of the swirling water below the falls. Be brave for our people but do not be foolish.” 

The more one learns of those that have gone before, the more one might wonder if, on balance, we've gained as much as we've lost.  



[1] Tribes of the northern Rockies region (Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming)

Algonquian: Arapaho, Gros Ventres, Blackfeet
Kutenai: Kootenai Tribe of Idaho
Sahaptian: Nez Perce
Salishan: Flathead, Kalispel, Coeur d’Alene
Shoshonean: Shoshone, Bannock
Siouan: Crow, Sioux, Assiniboine


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