Author’s Note: In the October 1, 2006 edition of Sunday Word, an Irish Sunday newspaper, Fr. Brian D’Arcy quoted a tale told by American actor Iron Eyes Cody. It is upon this tale from Iron Eyes Cody that the following story is based, which I told first as a poem
Once upon a time, as all braves must do, our hero set out to spend time in solitude so that he could fast, have visions and communicate with the ancestors as he crossed the life stages of boyhood and man.
So he set off to the high hills, where the gods lived, to live and hunger for the normal period, through which the visions would allow the spirits to talk to him, and his own wisdom in so much as he had, make sense of their words, and so apply it to his life.
He walked for three days and three nights, leaving his camp behind him, his mother with tears of both joy and sorrow in her eyes, his father unmoved as a man must do what a man must do, reminding his wife that his son was only off to fast and pray, not heading into his first battle.
Catching the son before he left, and out of earshot of the mother, the father advised him to be wary of the animals, treat all with respect, but when he became weak the temptation to sleep may strike at the time when he should not sleep. When cramps set in, the temptation to move may set in when he cannot afford to make a sound, and even the humble plants could betray him and make him sneeze when he needed to be silent.
The son assured the father he knew all this and would be most careful.
Over the three days it took to walk to the mountain, he came upon wolves. Now wolves are sacred to his people. Some believed the ancestors came back as wolves if they did not first come to the next world. More believed that in some wolves, the spirits of evil people dwelled which explained why some packs attacked humans while more did not.
The medicine man dismissed both stories; the old tales simply explaining the relationship between the wolf and mankind. But the young brave could not remember this as during the storytelling of the elders he was too busy daydreaming, admiring some of the women as was his nature coming into manhood, and not finding as fascinating the elders’ stories as he did once as a child.
He walked a long time. It was getting dark and the wolves followed from a distance. They could be an escort, they scared the bears away. But, it was just as likely they could kill him. He grew tired, wanted to sleep, but remembered his father’s words, and knew it was not the time to sleep. He pressed on walking.
The night was a bright night, a clear moon lit the valley. He could see the wolves and they he, and when he rested he lit fire which kept them at bay. They must have been well fed, for they were not that interested in him, but the fire kept both parties within their own area.
He remembered an old saying. “Man must be one with nature, but never as nature.” This meant that man is but another creature as the wolf, but is never a member of the pack no more than a wolf one of the family. That explained to the tribe how all red men were one under the Great One, but yet each tribe keeping to their own was the best policy. Even more so with the white men, as the wolf keeps apart from the bear.
The wolves went away in their own time. The brave then climbed a tree, and slept there for the night after setting a fire that would keep a thousand hungry wolves away. He slept well, dreamed dreams of his past that he didn’t know he remembered. He dreamed dreams he hoped would happen. He dreamed dreams of of things he did not want and knew nothing, of but he thought could be tokens for future events.
On the second morning, he pressed on for the mountain, washing himself in the stream and eating a little, as he did not have to fast until on the mountain.
The second evening was cold. A bitter wind blew in from the east. The sun was hidden, and dark clouds covered the sky as he set foot in the foothills of the mountain, the home of the Brown Bear.
It was a hard year, and while the wolves eat well on the weaker animals, the bear was not as lucky, and all and everything was fair game. The wind howled as night pressed on, the rain falling drenched the young man to the skin and the cold went to his very spine.
The caves looked inviting, and a voice in his head said to take to a cave for the night and have shelter. This was the spirit of the Brown Bear talking, of which he was often warned, as when a man walks in the territory of an animal, as a spider lured a fly to its web, the spirit of the Brown Bear lures a man to its cave, as a man’s spirit seeks to lure the bear to the open when on a hunt.
The brave remembered his father’s words, and pressed on.
The rain passed in time, the night cleared up, and in the higher foothills away from where the bear normally walked, he found an old abandoned hut of the white men, and there he spent the night.
Next morning, he set for the high foothills. He ate his remaining provisions as he would need the energy for the climb, and would be fasting until he came back down again. After a hearty meal and washing in a nearby stream, he turned and prayed to the four winds, and set off again upon his journey.
Half was up the mountain, a long way above the snowline, something moved ahead.
Now all men knew of the Snake, some believed it to the be Trickster in animal form, some believed it more dangerous, some less so, but all knew to be wary of it. They knew to be very, very careful.
The medicine man had the story of how it related to the spirit world, and mankind, but believing them stories for children and the stories of the gods of the white man more powerful, as he seen from a distance the great civilization they had built. So, he did not pay attention to the story of the snake, the spirits and mankind told by the shaman.
All of a sudden, the Snake spoke to him. All exited at the first spirit making direct contact, the Brave ventured to the Snake and asked what if there was a problem.
“I need help!” said Snake. “It is cold. I did not get down the mountain, and will die if I stay here.”
“But you will bite and kill me, and won’t even do my corpse the dignity of eating me and giving my energy back to the Great Spirit. You will sliver away and leave me to rot, and be eaten by rats and all vermin of the Lower Earth.”
“I give you my word,” said Snake. “Save my life and I will spare yours. If you were me and I you, would you not wish me to do so?”
Two thoughts crossed the Brave’s mind, while not fully a man of the world he had intelligence, and the story of the elders of spirits who make a man think as they think is to be avoided, for a man is never a spirit until he has finished his life’s journey be it long or short, until he has died. No more than a boy can think like an old man until of age and having lived life.
But counteracting that was the story of the missionaries in the village that he had heard some braves talk about in hushed tones, far from the ears of the Chiefs and the Medicine Man. It told of a man who walked among men but who was more than men and died for men but yet lived… and he said to do for others as you want them to do for you. Combining that thought with the Native belief that we are all creatures of the earth under the Great Spirit, kindness overtook his otherwise wary heart. He took the snake, wrapped it in his tunic and set off back the way he came to the warmer slopes below.
While walking for the few hours enclosed in his cloak, the snake warmed up and slept soundly. Time was pressing for the Brave to reach the mountain summit. His food was gone and he was walking the wrong direction, but while his head told him he was in error, his heart told him to go on, and the wise words of his father were far from his mind as he could never tell stories of speaking to the snake.
After another hour, the Brave set the snake on the ground, said he could carry him no farther as he needed to set back out for the summit and time was against him.
An awkward silence followed, and as the Brave bid farwell and turned, the snake struck and bit him in the heel. In pain, in reflex, he stamped on the snake ‘neath his heel shouting, “You said you’d not bite, I’d save you and you me!”
Snake hissed, and made to strike again.
The brave kicked back at the snake. He had no stick in hand, and now regretted not taking the stick of his father that his father brought with him since he was a boy and offered to him. “For when man has little else, if he has a stick,” his father told him, “he has something.”
The snake bit again, and mockingly asked why did the brave believe him, when he could have left him to die where he was, could have continued his way and would now be on not he summit had he done so, having visions and learning.
“You were the first spirit to whom I spoke,” said the brave. “I was not going to ignore you.”
The snake mockingly replied as the brave writhed in pain on the ground. “The white man also speaks of the snake biting man’s heel, the man smiting the snake on the head ‘neath his heel since the last one listened to the serpent.”
“But you gave your word!” said the brave, now near his last breath.
“You knew what I was when you picked me up,” said Snake, “but you wished to be able to tell others you spoke to the snake as others could never say. Others have spoken to the snake, but the only ones who can tell of it are the ones who strike with a stick when there is no man to help him, for when a man has naught but a stick he has something.”
As the young man died ‘neath the setting sun, he regretted not listening to his father, and the elders. He understood but would never be able to tell them that while other’s wisdom may be good, it is only so if you understand the full story, and until you do your own wisdom, however basic, is better for you to live by and you understand it completely.
Some tell the story of a ghost snake for a while that was on the mountain. When other braves made the same journey it attacked them, to make them scared of snakes, so the serpent would not get any more victims.
Some say it is the sentence given to the foolish brave as penance for not listening to the elders, others by the white man’s God to make men wary of preachers who took God’s name in vain.
While his mother was alive, and the brave now in the snake spirit form, he tried to go to the camp and speak to his mother. She went crazy when he never returned. His father was isolated by the tribe as his wife was crazy, believing demons had taken her. The Medicine Man said so, the white man’s preacher said so, and when he heard of her.
But every time he came in, his father with the stick given to him by his father, struck his son who was now a serpent to drive him out.
The son, as a serpent, spoke to his father, and said he wished to comfort his mother. His father refused to believe him. He struck him as there were no men with him. Alone he was because his wife was crazy…but when he had no men but had a stick, he had something.
Striking the serpent ‘neath his heel, he killed his son in spirit form, and sent him back to the mercies of the Great Spirit, or to the white man’s God, both of whom he prayed to, in case either were now supreme.
The moral of this story for all braves was this: be wary of those who offer you false promises; seek to understand those who talk to you first. Get to know those around you very well before you trust their promises, and you will be safe and happy.