Birch Creek Pictograph panel. Birch Creek Valley, Idaho. 5.15.10
Dainape-wenoo’-mukua, Man Carrying Spirits on His Back, always looked around once again to see if he was followed before he entered. A great priest such as he could ill afford any mere hunter or child, let alone a woman, find the source of his dream medicine.
Man Carrying Spirits would part the bushes that hid the entrance to his sacred space within the bluffs above of the River That Moves Like a Snake. He carried with him a piece of wood the length of his arm whose end he’d dipped in pine pitch. With his fire-starter stones he’d spark a patch of dry grass and light his torch before entering the cave only he knew.
Pushing his torch before him and crawling into the small opening, Man Carrying Spirits could feel the cool breeze coming from within the cave on his face. It smelled of mud and moss and iron and it always gave him renewed vigor. Once through the opening, the priest was able to stand, for he had entered the first chamber of the spirits, the one he found as a boy and from which he carried home stones in a sack on his back that bore the marks of the Ancient Ones.
As he held his torch high, he could see the marks they painted onto the cave walls, circles and stick figures of men holding spears standing above other men who lay at their feet. But these paintings of victorious men at war were not the primary reason he came to his sacred space. That lay in the chamber behind a rock at the far end of the first gallery.
Pushing aside the rock, Man Carrying Spirits would feel the great whoosh of dank air, the breath of the ancients, blow his long hair from his face. It was as if they were saying, “Open your eyes, my son, to what we share only with you.”
As he stepped into the secret chamber, he’d quietly sing an incantation seeking guidance and the blessings of the Ancient Ones, for his people were hungry and game was growing scarce in their small hunting grounds. Man Carrying Spirits’ mission was to beseech the Ancient Ones to bring back the herds of buffalo and more elk and deer than the few his hunters could bring down with their spears and arrows.
Once again, he raised his torch, singing as he circled the chamber, its walls towering above him seemingly as tall as the bluffs within which they were hidden. No one would ever understand what he saw lit by the small circle of torchlight. He didn’t fully understand, but he knew they represented a powerful medicine only the Ancient Ones mastered.
On the wall were the faint drawings in charcoal and white and ochre mud of men chasing beasts Man Carrying Spirits had never seen, never considered possible to exist. There were scenes of great bison taller than a man hurtling over cliffs as men stampeded them forward, as his people hunted them to this day.
But mixed among these were fearsome beasts, some with horns growing from their noses, some like slender bison but their humps set further along their backs, some towering humped monsters with long horns extending from their mouths.
But the drawings that intrigued him most were of fat animals that resembled dogs, only much larger. Perhaps if these beasts would return to their hunting grounds, they would provide easier game to kill and more meat than The People could harvest from the deer and elk that had grown so scarce. He knew this animal would be the key to his people’s survival.
He reached into his parfleche sack and withdrew two small deerskin bags, one filled with bear grease and the other with mud from the place in the River that Runs Like a Snake where the mountain bled white along its banks. He poured some of the dried mud powder into the grease and mixed it with his finger. He took a daub of that mixture and outlined and colored in the picture of the animal as he prayed to some great Dog God he thought held power over the animal. Then, gathering his things, he’d withdraw from the medicine chamber, push the rock over its entrance and crawl back into the sunlight beating upon the bluffs above the River that Runs Like a Snake.
But the hunting failed to improve and The People had to move further south, requiring Man Carrying Spirits to travel great distances back to his sacred place to pray and gather his spirit medicine.
Growing older, he decided to take on an apprentice who he believed could follow in his place as intermediary between The People and the spirit world. He chose young Daigwade-dugaani, Talks in the Night, who had always sat quietly listening as Man Carrying Spirits told tales of the ancient times and the great beasts that lived along with The People, but were no more.
The men would laugh at Man Carrying Spirits, claiming the old priest was going mad with age or had been touched by a bad spirit during one of his disappearances. But Talks in the Night was resolute in his faith in the old man.
On his first trip to Man Carrying Spirits’ sacred place, Talks in the Night was frightened by the drawings of monsters by the Ancient Ones.
“Don’t be afraid of these drawings, Grandson,” Man Carrying Spirits said. “They have great medicine, but were put here by the Ancient Ones for me to find and talk with them, beseeching them for the blessings they represent. Blessings in war, in hunting and in living as The People.”
“I see, Grandfather, but they are such odd and frightening creatures. Except that one,” Talks in the Night said, pointing to a depiction of Man Carrying Spirits’ Dog God. “That one speaks to my spirit, to my heart.”
“You feel the same as I do, Grandson. Should we encounter this creature again, it will bring great medicine to our people. I am certain of that.”
“I can see why you would not want to share this knowledge with The People. They would not understand and so would consider this an evil place, bewitched, full of bad medicine,” the apprentice said.
“But I knew you would see the drawings for what they are, connecting us to the ancient ones and their world,” Man Carrying Spirits said. “Come, let me teach you the incantation to summon the Dog God to return this fine animal to our people so they will not have empty stomachs in the winter.”
Before they left, Man Carrying Spirits dipped his finger into a mixture of grease and crushed charcoal and dabbed it upon the hindquarters of the white beast.
“This represents one more time I have prayed to the Dog God to bring this animal back to The People. Let us go home, Grandson.”
It came to pass that Man Carrying Spirits’ eyesight succumbed to his years and the world grew dark to him, so he relied on Talks in the Night not only as his apprentice, but his eyes as well. The old priest’s body could no longer accept the rigorous trip back to his sacred place. He would send Talks in the Night to invoke the ancient ones, certain they would listen to the boy whose spirit he felt was as pure as his own. The old priest would go as far as he could and then would wait in a shelter for the boy to return, then ask him what he had seen on his journey.
One day, having spent from dawn to dusk praying in the caves, Talks in the Night was almost back to the place he had left his teacher, when he heard the great noise, a pounding as if in his heart. As the sound grew closer, he thought it sounded something like the sound of the bozheena, the bison, when they ran during the hunt. But this was different, a sharper sound that startled him, so he climbed a tree to both hide and to give him a longer view of what was approaching.
He saw the dust cloud from behind the rise, but could not make out what was making it. Then he heard the snorting, and eventually, the scream. From around the bluff came a herd of animals fleeter than any bison, any deer, any elk he had ever seen. At the head of the herd ran an animal of almost white, save for its rear quarters, which bore the black spots Man Carrying Spirits dappled on the cave paintings.
It was the Dog God returning the magical creatures to His People, just as Man Carrying Spirits had prayed for and foretold. The beasts thundered by just below the branch upon which he crouched, their legs seemingly whirling like a child’s spinning wheel.
After they passed, Talks in the Night jumped from his perch and ran to the shelter of his teacher, but the old man was on the trail when he found him.
“Did you see them, Grandson? Did you see them? It was the Dog God and his herd, was it not? Nothing in our world sounds like that, screaming like the wind and rumbling like thunder. What did they look like, Grandson?”
“Just as the Ancient Ones and you drew them, Grandfather. Their leader, the Dog God himself, even bore the spots you put on his hindquarters. But these animals will be difficult to hunt, they are so big, so swift. They also are too beautiful, too full of strong medicine to hunt. They must have another reason for coming back to our country,” Talks in the Night said.
“As they ran past, I had a vision, Grandson. In my vision, I saw the Dog God and one of the Ancient Ones together, chasing down the bison, but the Ancient One was not running next to the Dog God. Somehow he seemed as one with him. Most curious,” the old man said.
“Shall we go back and tell The People of this miracle,” Grandfather?” the boy asked.
“Not yet, boy. I would like to capture one to bring back first. Otherwise, they would think us mad.
“We must chase one into one of the canyons with one door, then get a rope on it. We will pray that it sees we mean it no harm so it might not kills us,” Man Carrying Spirits said with a small laugh.
A week later, Talks in the Night was able to chase an inattentive one of the creatures, which he called a bungu, which was a contracted version of the words meaning “whirling legs,” into the box canyon and slip a rope over its head. Together, he and Man Carrying Spirits sang and talked to the beast until it quieted.
“Help me onto its back, Grandson. I wish to see if my vision was true,” Man Carrying Spirits said.
“Grandfather, you are a great priest. You brought the Dog God back to this country. But I fear this beast is too wild to accept you,” the boy said.
“We must have faith, boy. You believed in me and my visions before, it is now time for you to see my greatest one come to being.”
Drawing closer and closer, gently singing and holding a fistful of grass, the old priest reached out and felt the animal calmly snort as it smelled its first whiff of man. As Man Carrying Spirits drew closer to its side, his apprentice helped him to its back. The animal turned its head and snapped at the boy, but allowed the old man to sit on its back.
The Shoshone people would talk for generations about the first time they saw the animal we know as the horse and how Man Carrying Spirits rode upon its back to show how it would help feed The People, just as the old priest foretold.
My story-a-day prompt for Day 20 was to write a story that focuses on the discovery/invention/ramifications of something that shapes my characters’ physical world. I wondered what it must’ve been like to be the first Native American of your tribe to see the horse arrive in your country after the Spaniards brought them to Mexico and the American Southwest. I chose the Shoshone people of southern Idaho because I wanted to incorporate cave drawings representing original horses that roamed the Plains and left prehistoric North America for Asia over the land bridge. I discovered there were such drawings discovered near the Snake River. I’m sure paleontologists and anthropologists will poke more holes in the story than I provided, but, hot damn this was fun.