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Indigenous Peoples' Literature

Heavy Collar and the Ghost Woman


One summer while the Blackfeet were camped on Old Man's River, a chief named Heavy Collar chose seven young warriors to go with him on a buffalo hunt. They travelled around the Cypress Mountains, but found no buffalo and started back toward their camp. On the way Heavy Collar took the lead, for they had found signs of large enemy war parties and he wanted to keep his small group moving in the concealment of coulees and other low places as much as possible.

One afternoon as Heavy Collar was leading the way up a wide river, he sighted three old buffalo bulls lying close to a steep bank. He ran along at a fast trot, circling through a dry gulch so as to come close to the buffalo. He killed one with an arrow and butchered it. As he was hungry, he took a piece of meat down into the gulch and built a smokeless fire to roast it. Before his seven young warriors could find him, night came on very rapidly. "Perhaps I should have waited for my young men," he said aloud, "but I feared the buffalo would run away. Before it is completely dark I should climb up on the bank and try to signal them. I could also get some hair from that buffalo's head and wipe out my gun."

While he sat there thinking of these things and talking to himself, a ball of buffalo hair came floating to him through the air, falling on the ground right in front of him. when this happened, it startled him a little because he thought enemies might have trapped him alone and thrown the ball of hair at him. After a while he picked up the hair and cleaned his gun with it. He reloaded the weapon and then sat watching and listening as darkness deepened. He was very uneasy and decided to go farther up the riverbank to scout out the country. When he came to the mouth of St. Mary's River, it was very late in the night. He was so tired that he crept into a patch of high rye-grass to hide and sleep.

Now Heavy Collar did not know that he had come to a camp ground where another tribe of Indians had lived the summer before. Those Indians had been surprised by a war party. A woman had been killed during the fight, and her body was left behind in the very patch of rye-grass where Heavy Collar had lain down to rest. Although he was very tired, Heavy Collar could not sleep. He thought that he could hear sounds of movement, but what it was he could not make out. Every time he dozed off he thought he heard something nearby. He spent the night there, and as soon as daylight came he saw a skeleton lying close beside him. It was the skeleton of the woman who had been killed the previous summer.

Troubled by fears, Heavy Collar started on to the buttes beyond Belly River, a hilly place where he and his warriors had arranged to meet in case any of them became separated from the others. All day he kept thinking about his having slept beside an unknown woman's bones, and this made him more and more uneasy. He could not put it out of his mind. By day's end he was very tired because he had slept so little during the night. About sundown he crossed the river shallows to an island and decided to camp there for the night.

At the upper end of the island he found a fallen tree that had drifted downstream and lodged there. Using the tree fork as a wind shelter, he built a fire, and then sat on one of the limbs with his back to the blaze, warming himself. All the time he kept thinking about the skeleton he had slept beside the previous night. As he sat there, he heard a sudden sound behind him, a sound of something being dragged across the ground toward the fire. It was like the sound of a tepee cover being pulled across the grass. It came closer and closer.

Heavy Collar was more frightened than he had been in a long time. He was so afraid that he could not turn his head to look back and see what was making elk noise. The dragging sound seemed to come up to the fallen tree where his fire was burning. Then it stopped, and suddenly he heard someone whistling a tune.

He turned around then and looked toward the sound, and there, sitting on the other fork of the tree, facing him, was the same skeleton beside which he had slept the night before. This ghost was now wearing a piece of old tepee cover. The tepee cover had a lodge pole string tied to it, and this string was fastened about the ghost's neck. The wings of the tepee cover appeared to stretch out and fade away into the darkness. The ghost began whistling a tune, and as it whistled, it swung its legs to the tune.

When Heavy Collar saw this strange sight, his heart almost stopped beating. Finally he gathered enough courage to speak: "Oh ghost, go away and do not trouble me. I am very tired. I want to rest and sleep."

But his words only made the ghost whistle louder, and swing its legs more violently. The skull turned from side to side, sometimes looking down upon him, sometimes looking at the stars in the sky, but always whistling.

When Heavy Collar saw that the ghost was paying no heed to his pleas, he grew angry and said: "Well, ghost, you do not take pity upon me, and so I shall have to shoot you and drive you away." He picked up his gun and fired point-blank at the ghost. It fell over backward into the darkness, crying out: "You have shot me, Heavy Collar, you have killed me! You are no better than a dog, Heavy Collar. I curse you. There is no place on earth you can go that I will not find you, no place you can hide that I will not come."

At this, Heavy Collar jumped to his feet and ran away as fast as he could. Behind him he could hear the voice of the ghost calling in the night: "I have been killed once, Heavy Collar, and now you are trying to kill me again." The words followed him until at last they died away in the distance. He ran and ran through the darkness, and whenever he stopped to catch his breath he could hear far away the sound of his name being repeated again and again in a mournful voice. He was very sleepy, but dared not lie down, for he remembered the ghost's threat to follow him wherever he went. At first daylight he sat down to rest, and at once fell asleep.

In the meantime Heavy Collar's party of seven young warriors had gone on to the rendezvous point in the buttes beyond Belly River to await their leader's arrival. On that morning one of the young men, who was posted on a high hill to watch for Heavy Collar, saw two persons approaching. As they came nearer, the warrior saw that one of them was Heavy Collar. The other was a woman. The watcher called out to the others in the party: "Here comes our chief! He is bringing a woman with him." They all laughed, and joked about how they would take her away from him.

When the two persons reached the top of a level ridge, Heavy Collar began walking very fast. The woman would walk by his side for a few steps; then she would fall behind and would have to trot along to catch up with him again. Immediately in front of the young warriors' camp was a deep coulee through which the chief and the woman had to cross. The warriors saw them go down into the coulee side by side, but when Heavy Collar walked out of it, he was alone. He shouted a greeting to the young men, and strode on into their camp.

"Heavy Collar," one of them called out, "where is your woman?"

The chief frowned at them for a moment. "I have no woman," he said. They laughed at him then, and he added: "I don't understand what you're talking about."

One of them said: "Our chief must have hidden her in that coulee."

Another asked: "Where did you capture her, and of what tribe is she?"

Heavy Collar looked from one young man to another, and said: "I think you are all crazy. I have captured no woman. What do you mean?"

One warrior replied: "Why, we all saw you walking with that woman when you went down into the coulee. Where did she come from, and where did you leave her? Is she down in the coulee? We saw her and it's no use to deny that she was with you.

By this time Heavy Collar knew that the woman they had seen must have been the ghost that had been following him. He sat down and told them what had happened the previous night. Some of the warriors refused to believe him. They ran down to the coulee where they had last seen the woman, and although they found the prints of Heavy Collar's moccasins, there were no other tracks near his.

Now they believed that the woman was indeed a ghost, but there was no sign of her that night. The next morning they started on the return journey to the Blackfoot camp on Old Man's River. Darkness had fallen before they reached the camp, and their friends and relatives invited them to feast with them.

After the celebration, Heavy Collar sat for a while in front of his tepee enjoying the peaceful moonlit night. Suddenly a noise sounded in the brush, and he was relieved to see that it was only a bear coming out of the woods. He felt around for a stone to throw at the bear to frighten it away. Finding a piece of bone, he threw it at the bear, hitting it a sharp blow.

"Well, well, well, Heavy Collar," said the bear. "You have killed me once, and now you are hitting me. I told you there was no place in the world where you can hide from me. I don't care where you may go, I will always find you."

Knowing that this was the ghost woman who had taken the shape of a bear, Heavy Collar ran for his tepee entrance, shouting as loud as he could: "Run, run! A ghost bear is upon us!"

Everyone in camp came running toward Heavy Collar's tepee, and in a few minutes it was crowded with people. A big fire was burning below the smoke-hole, and a hard wind from the west was shaking the tepee. Men, women, and children huddled together in fear of the ghost they had been told about. Outside they could hear the ghost's footsteps walking toward the lodge. "These people are no better than dogs," the ghost cried. "I will kill them all. Not one of them shall escape." The sounds kept coming closer and closer until they seemed to be right outside the closed entrance. Then the ghost said: "I will smoke you to death." As it said this, it moved the poles so that the wings of the tepee turned toward the west and the wind could blow in freely through the smoke-hole.

As the tepee began to fill with smoke, the ghost continued making terrible threats. Children began crying, and everyone was weeping and coughing from the suffocating smoke.

"Let's lift a man up to fix the tepee ears," Heavy Collar said, "so my lodge will get clear of smoke." They raised a man on their shoulders, but he was so blinded and strangled by the smoke that he had difficulty in turning the wings. While he was doing this, the ghost suddenly struck the tepee a hard blow, frightening those who were holding the man on their shoulders so that they let him fall down. "It's no use," said Heavy Collar. "That ghost woman is determined to smoke us to death." By this time the smoke was so thick in the tepee that they could barely see each other.

"Is there no one here who has strong enough power to overcome this ghost?" Heavy Collar called out in desperation.

"I am the oldest of the tribe," his mother replied. "I will try." She quickly found her medicine bundle and painted herself. Then she lighted her dead husband's pipe and thrust the stem out through a crack in the entrance cover. "Oh, ghost," she said in a quavering voice, "smoke this pipe and go away."

"No, no, no," the ghost answered. "You people are dogs. I will not listen to you. Every one of you must die."

"Ghost, take pity upon us," the old woman repeated. "Smoke this pipe and go away in peace."

Then the ghost said: "How can you expect me to smoke when I am outside the tepee. Bring the pipe to me. I have no long bill like a bird with which to reach the stem."

The old woman lifted the entrance cover and stepped outside. With her feeble hand she extended the pipe toward the sound of the ghost's voice.

"Bring the pipe closer," the ghost commanded. "If you want me to smoke it, you must bring it to me."

Again the old woman went toward the ghost, Which backed away, saying angrily: "No, I don't wish to smoke that kind of pipe." As it spoke, the ghost moved farther away and the old woman felt herself being pulled after it by some powerful force. She cried out in fear: "Oh, my children, the ghost is carrying me off!"

As Heavy Collar rushed to help her, he called to the others: "Come and help me save my mother from the ghost." He grasped his mother by the waist and held her until another man caught him by the waist. All the others then came out of the tepee until they were in a long line, pulling on each other with all their might. No matter how hard they pulled, however, the ghost drew them slowly towards it.

And then all of a sudden the old woman turned loose the pipe and fell down dead upon the ground. At the same instant the ghost disappeared. After that, Heavy Collar was never troubled by the ghost woman. Nor was the pipe ever seen again.




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