The tribes who lived on the Great Plains of North America believed that supernatural power was to be found in everything around them. It was in the wind, rain, thunder and other forces of nature. It was in the sun, moon and stars, and in animals and birds. The Sioux Indians called this all-pervading power Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery.
For the Sioux, it was Wakan Tanka who was the creator and controller of the universe, but other tribes had their own tales about how the world had come into being. According to Crow myth, for example, the whole world had originally been covered with a sheet of water. There had been nothing at all until Old Man Coyote sent down birds into the depths to fetch mud from which he formed the earth. The Pawnee believed that Tirawa, the spirit who dwelled in the highest part of the heavens, had created all things by sending his messengers, Wind, Cloud, Thunder and Lightning, to shape the world, sow seeds and make rivers.
The Indians believed that these beings not only controlled the natural world, but could also use their powers to benefit mankind. If men practised the proper rituals to honour and please the spirits, they would gain power themselves and be able to perform great exploits in hunting and war. Gifts and prayers were offered to the spirits in order to obtain their good will and to bring happiness and prosperity to the tribe.
All sorts of customs and ceremonies were claimed to have been received from the spirits in dreams and visions. There were ceremonies to make a man invincible in battle, to help him steal horses or call buffalo. Many of these ceremonies were carried out by the warrior societies to which most of the men of the tribe belonged. The members of these societies protected their village against enemy attack and formed war parties to raid other villages. They organized communal buffalo hunts and sometimes acted as a police force to keep law and order in the camps. For their ceremonies they wore elaborate costumes and face paint and performed spectacular dances before the rest of the tribe.
For many of the Plains tribes, the most important ceremony was that held each year in spring or early summer when the tribe came together after the winter. The Sioux name for this ceremony was Dance Facing the Sun and, because of this, white men called it the Sun Dance. Despite this name, it was not held to worship the sun, but because someone who had been in trouble during the previous year had pledged to sponsor such a ceremony if the spirits came to his aid.
It was a very complicated ritual in which every movement had a special meaning. First, a Sun Dance Lodge had to be built. Then a tall tree was felled and set up in the camp. A bundle of twigs, buffalo skin and offerings was placed in the forks at the top of the tree. This was said to represent the nest of an eagle or thunder bird.
The dance itself usually lasted several days. During that time, the dancers, neither eating nor drinking, circled the pole, gazing steadfastly at its top and praying for power. Some, in order to win the sympathy of the spirits, tortured themselves, piercing their skin with skewers or cutting off a finger. Often, through hunger, pain and exhaustion, they gained the vision which they sought.
The Indians explained the origins of such ceremonies in their myths. The Sun Dance, it was said, was first brought to the plains by a poor Orphan boy, the offspring of a star and a human girl, who travel led to the Star Country and was instructed in its mysteries by the great Sun himself.
It was a warm summer's night and many of the Indians had forsaken their airless tipis to sleep under the open sky among the cool, sweet smelling prairie grass. One, a young girl called Feather Woman, awoke early. It was not yet dawn and the morning star had just begun to rise above the distant horizon. The girl propped herself on one elbow and watched the star as it climbed steadily into the dark sky. She thought that she had never seen anything quite so beautiful.
'I love the morning star,' she whispered to herself.
'How clear and bright it is! If only I could find a husband half as handsome as that star, how happy I should be!' Her loving gaze followed the star until it faded into the paler light of the coming day.
The camp was busy that summer. The buffalo were plentiful and there was always meat to be cooked and dried, and skins to be dressed and made into warm clothing for the winter. There was little time to be fanciful and Feather Woman thought no more about the morning star.
She thought no more, that is, until one day in autumn when she left the camp to collect firewood. Intent on her task, she wandered far from the camp. Suddenly, she became aware that she was no longer alone. A young man, a stranger, stood before her. He was tall and handsome, dressed in a robe of soft white buckskin embroidered with porcupine quills. He wore eagle feathers in his hair and, in one hand, he carried a small juniper bush festooned with cobwebs.
Startled, Feather Woman turned to flee, but the young, man caught her arm and said gently, 'Wait, Feather Woman, do you not recognize me? I am Morning Star. One night in summer I looked down and saw you lying among the grass by your tipi. I fell in love with you then and heard you say that you loved me too. Do not return to your village. Forget your own people. Come with me now to the sky, to the land of the Star People.'
Feather Woman looked at him shyly and knew that she loved him now as she had loved him on that summer night when she had watched him rise, bright and shining, into the sky, and, although it grieved her to leave her parents and friends with no word of farewell, she agreed to go with him as he asked.
Morning Star laid the juniper bush on the ground before her. He told her to place her feet on the lowest strand of the cobweb and to close her eyes tightly. Feather Woman felt herself being carried swiftly upwards and, when she reopened her eyes, she found herself in the Star Country, Morning Star by her side.
It was a land very like the earth below. On all sides the grassy plains rolled away to meet the distant hills. Here and there lay circles of tipis, the smoke from their campfires drifting into the clear air.
Morning Star pointed to a tipi which stood nearby. 'That is the lodge of Spiderman,' he said. 'It is he who weaves the ladders by which the Star People travel between earth and sky. Tread warily here, lest you damage his webs. Then he led Feather Woman to the large, splendid tipi which was the home of his parents, Sun and Moon.
As it was still day, Sun was on his travels, but Moon was at home and welcomed her son's bride kindly, offering her refreshment of water and berries. While Feather woman ate, however, Moon drew Morning Star aside.
'I fear that your father will not approve of this marriage,' she said with a worried frown. 'Take care that she does not anger him, for he is a stern man and will not hesitate to banish her if she does wrong.'
When Sun returned in the evening, he was indeed far from pleased to see his son's new wife. He had no very high opinion of the Earth People, considering them weak and stupid, but, despite his misgivings, he greeted Feather Woman courteously. 'Learn our customs, daughter,' he said gruffly, 'and obey our laws, and you will be happy here.'
Feather Woman was nervous of Sun, but she grew to love the kind and gentle Moon. Moon instructed her in all the ways of the Star People. She taught her how to tan deerskins so that they became as soft and white as snow, and how to extract the juices of herbs and flowers to make colourful dyes. She gave her a digging stick of ash wood, sharpened and hardened in the fire, and showed her where to hunt out the edible plants and roots which nestled close
to the earth--the wild potato and turnip, the camus root, the milk vetch and the evening primrose.
For a long time Morning Star and Feather Woman lived happily together in the Star Country. When their son, Star Boy was born, their happiness was complete.
One day, as Moon and Feather Woman were out gathering roots and berries, the girl noticed a very large turnip half-buried in the ground. It was so enormous that its green leafy top came almost to her waist.
Moon, following her gaze, said, 'Take care! That is one root which you must never touch, for it is sacred to the Star People and great sorrow and distress will come to anyone who tries to uproot it. You must leave it where it is.'
In the days that followed, Feather woman frequently passed by the giant turnip, but, although she wondered much about it, she was mindful of Moon's warning and left it well alone. One day, Moon fell ill. She lay on her bed pale and wan, and so Feather Woman took her digging stick and went to gather roots on her own. By chance, she found herself once more by the giant turnip. She gazed at it, speculating on what lay beneath it.
'What secret can it hide?' she wondered. 'Perhaps it is a great treasure of some kind. Surely it would do no harm to peep below, only for a moment. If I replaced it very carefully, no one need ever know that I had disturbed it.'
Her curiosity at last got the better of her, and she drove her digging stick into the earth at the base of the root ant pushed with all her might. She gripped the tall green top with both hands and tugged as hard as she could, but, in spite of her efforts, the turnip remained immoveable. When she finally paused for breath, it was as firmly rooted as before.
She was about to give up the struggle when two large white cranes swooped from the sky and landed beside her. 'Your poor digging stick will never move I hat great root!' cried one. 'Let us help you. Our strong beaks will soon have it out.' Feather Woman accepted their offer gratefully, for she was not to know that the cranes were the sworn enemies of the Star People. One of their favourite tricks was to tear down the ladders woven by Spider Man so that the stars tumbled to earth and were killed. The Indians believed that the puff-balls which they found on the ground were the remains of stars which had fallen from the sky in this way. The cranes began to lever and prod with their long, sharp beaks until at last the great tulip, creaking and groaning, was loosened from its bed of earth and, with a mighty crash, rolled over on its side.
'There !' cried the cranes triumphantly. 'Now you can see what lies below,' and they flew off, delighting in the damage they had caused.
Where the giant turnip had been, there was now a huge crater. Feather Woman knelt down and peered into it. Far, far below lay her old home, the earth. She saw the wide prairies, the woods, rivers and mountains. She saw men hunting buffalo and girls gathering berries on the hillsides. In the camps the women were tanning skins or preparing food, while the children played between the tip is. The smoke from the campfires rose up to her and she heard again the voices of her own people. Homesickness overcame her and she longed to return.
Night was falling when she finally turned away. She rolled the giant turnip back into place as best she could and, with a heavy heart, made her way home.
Her sad and guilty face aroused Sun's suspicions at once and he demanded to know what had happened. When he learned the truth, he flew into a terrible rage.
'I knew that no good would come of this!' he stormed, stamping the ground so that the whole tipi shook with his fury. 'Have I not always said that Earth People were not to be trusted? They are all the same, these creatures, constantly meddling in what does not concern them!' He towered over Feather Woman and she shrank back in terror. 'Well, my girl, since you like to look at the earth, you had better return there. You cannot remain here any longer!'
Morning Star and Moon pleaded with him and Feather Woman wept bitter tears of remorse, but Sun remained implacable. Feather Woman was banished from the Star Country forever.
Sadly, Morning Star led his wife to where Spider Man wove his gauze ladders. He put Star Boy in her arms and wrapped a white buffalo robe around them both. Spider Man fastened a strong line about her and let her down from the sky.
It was evening and the Indians sat by their tipis, resting after their day's work. Suddenly a boy pointed upwards. 'Look!' he cried. 'A shooting star!'and the people saw a bright light descending from the sky.
They ran to where it fell and there they found Feather Woman and her son, wrapped in the white buffalo robe. They recognized her as the girl who, long ago, had gone to gather firewood and had never returned, and they led her back to her father's tipi.
So Feather Woman came back to her own people, but she found no happiness there. She thought constantly of her husband and her home in the distant star Country. Every night, with Star Boy on her breast, she climbed far up into the western hills and sat, waiting and watching, until Morning Star came into view. She longed to speak to him, but he seemed so cold and distant that for a long time she did not dare.
At last, she plucked up her courage and cried out, 'Morning Star, my husband! Forgive me! Take me back!' Morning Star looked down at her. 'Too late, too late,' he answered sorrowfully. 'You disobeyed. You can never return,' and he went on his way.
Lonely and unhappy, Feather Woman grew paler and thinner day by day, until finally she died, her heart broken.
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