A Native American Legend
In the Dakota camp on the bank of Lake Calhoun, Iowa, lived Cloudy Sky, a medicine-man, who was feared because of his magic power. At eighty years of age he looked for a third wife, and chose the daughter of a warrior, his presents of blankets and calicoes to the parents winning their consent. The girl, Harpstenah, dreaded and hated this man, for it was rumored that he had killed his first wife and basely sold his second. When she learned what had been decided for her she rushed from the camp in tears and sat in a lonely spot near the lake to curse and lament unseen. As she sat there the waters were troubled. There was no wind, yet great waves were thrown up, and tumbled hissing on the shore. Presently came a wave higher than the rest, and a graceful form leaped from it, half shrouded in its own long hair.
“Do not tremble,” said the visitant, for Harpstenah had hidden her face. “I am the daughter of Unktahe, the water god. In four days your parents will give you to Cloudy Sky, as his wife, though you love Red Deer. It is with you to wed the man you hate or the man you love. Cloudy Sky has offended the water spirits and we have resolved upon his death. If you will be our agent in destroying him, you shall marry Red Deer and live long and happily. The medicine-man wandered for years through the air with the thunder birds, flinging his deadly fire-spears at us, and it was for killing the son of Unktahe that he was last sent to earth, where he has already lived twice before. Kill him while he sleeps and we will reward you.”
As Harpstenah went back to the village her prospective bridegroom ogled her as he sat smoking before his lodge, and she resolved to heed the appeal of the water spirit. When Red Deer heard how she had been promised to the old conjurer, he was filled with rage. Still, he became thoughtful and advised caution when she told him of the water spirit’s counsel, for the dwellers in the lakes were, of all immortals, most deceitful, and had ever been enemies of the Dakotas. “I will do as I am bidden,” she said, sternly. “Go away and visit the Tetons for a time. It is now the moon of strawberries” (June), “but in the moon when we gather wild rice” (September) “return and I will be your wife.”
Red Deer obeyed, after finding that she would not elope with him, and with the announcement that he was going on a long hunt he took his leave of the village. Harpstenah made ready for the bridal and greeted her future husband with apparent pleasure and submissiveness. He gave a medicine feast in token of the removal of his mourning, and appeared in new clothing, greased and braided hair, and a white blanket decorated with a black hand.
On the night before the wedding the girl crept to his lodge, but hesitated when she saw his medicine-bag hanging beside the door—the medicine that has kept its owner from evil. As she lingered the night-breeze seems to bring a voice from the water: “Can a Dakota woman want courage when she is forced to marry the man she hates?”
She delayed no longer. A knife-blade glittered for an instant in the moonlight—and Cloudy Sky was dead. Strange, was it not, that the thunder birds flapped so heavily along the west at that moment and a peal of laughter sounded from the lake? She washed the blood from the blade, stole to her father’s lodge, and pretended to sleep. In the morning she was loud in her grief when it is made known to her that the medicine-man was no more, and the doer of the deed was never discovered. In time her wan face regains its color and when the leaves begin to fall Red Deer returns and weds her.
They seemed to be happy for a time, and had two sons who grew to be famous hunters, but consumption fastened on Red Deer and he died far from the village. The sons were shot by enemies, and while their bodies were on their way to Harpstenah’s lodge she, too, was stricken dead by lightning. The spirit of Cloudy Sky had rejoined the thunder birds, and the water spirits had promised falsely.
Citation: Skinner, Charles M. Myths and Legends of Our Own Land. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1903.This story is in the public domain and is part of the cited work.