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Legend of the White Plume

The Iowa tribe belonged to the Siouan linguistic family. While the Iowa seemed to move often they generally remained within the boundaries of the state that still bears their name. In their early history, they located on a western tributary of the Mississippi River and later moved into the northwestern/Iowa Okoboji Lake district as far as the Red Pipestone Quarry, even to the Big Sioux River. The Red Pipestone Quarry was across the Iowa line in southwest Minnesota. Indians from the entire region travelled to obtain the red stone for their pipes, giving name to the surrounding area and the future site of Pipestone National Monument. In the nineteenth century, they encountered the Dakota warriors and were defeated by Black Hawk in 1821. In about 1850, an Oklahoma tract held by the Iowa was granted to them in severalty. Other Iowans were allotted lands extending from the Platte River of Missouri through western Iowa up to Dakota country.

Long ago, near what is now Iowa City, lived a flourishing Iowa Indian tribe. The Chief of the Iowas was very proud of his daughters. He was secretly hoping for one of them to marry the handsome hero White Plume, so called because he always wore one in his black hair.

One day, the Chief smeared his daughters' faces with charcoal and took them into the woods for them to fast and pray that one of them might attract the White Plume. The girls were most unhappy, crying until all the animals heard them and came running to find out what was the matter.

Each animal in turn asked, "Am I the one you are looking for?"

"What do you do for a living?" they asked. "What animals do you kill for your food?" In this way they learned the nature of the animals. When the girls said, "No, you are not the one," that animal ran away.

On another day, a man came wearing a white plume. He announced, "Surely I am the one you are seeking. I hunt for deer, elk, bear, turkey, and all the other good things you like to eat."

Without hesitation, Older Sister decided to marry the man who- wore-the-white-plume. Next morning, Younger Sister said, "You have married the wrong man. Today the real White Plume will come." Older Sister was very cross and declared emphatically that she was certain she had married the true hero, White Plume.

In the middle of that day, birds began to chatter and sing, "White Plume is coming! White Plume is coming!" Even the meadowlarks, whom the Iowas say are really persons in disguise, were broadcasting loudly, "White Plume! White Plume!" Finally White Plume arrived.

"I believe that I am the one you have been seeking," he said to the two sisters.

Older Sister did not believe him, but Younger Sister welcomed him warmly. That same day, the two men each claiming to be White Plume went hunting. The real White Plume killed bear and deer, soon returning with his game.

The other hunter brought back only a few rabbits. Again and again the two men hunted, each returning with the same kind of game as before.

In a few days, the Chief of the Iowas came to visit his daughters. When he judged the results of the hunt, he was convinced that the first man who married Older Sister was an imposter. The Chief believed that the man who was the good provider was the real hero, White Plume.

Older sister began to have some doubts about her husband, and asked, "Why do you not kill larger game for us?" Her husband gave a poor excuse, "I do not think the larger game provide such good meat."

Again the two men hunted together, arriving in a valley where they paw a raccoon. The imposter tricked White Plume into chasing the raccoon into a bog. Now it happened that the imposter had the power to change people; so he changed White Plume into a dog.

Later when the imposter returned to his lodge with the dog following him, he announced, "I found this dog in the woods. White Plume must have hunted in a different direction."

That night the dog slept in the lodge of Younger Sister. She fed him and made a comfortable place for him to sleep. Next day she took the dog with her into the woods to look for White Plume.

The dog soon killed a sleeping bear and other animals. Together the girl and dog hunted many times, always with success. One day when they were alone in the woods, the dog said to Younger Sister, "Take me to a hollow log and put me in it, then help pull me out at the other end." This she did. From the other end of the log she pulled out the real White Plume!

When the two of them returned to the lodge, the imposter said to the real White Plume, "You must have been lost in the woods." White Plume's answer was casual but pleasant. Later he told his wife, "Some time, I will even the score."

In a few days, the two hunters started out for more game. White Plume killed a buffalo. They built a campfire, intending to camp there for the night. A sudden snowstorm came upon them. "Watch yourself," said the imposter. "This kind of a moon will burn your clothes."

That evening, they told many stories at the campfire, after which they prepared their blankets for a good night's sleep. Later in the night, White Plume called out to the imposter, but hearing no response, he quietly exchanged his own clothes, which he used for a pillow, with those of the imposter.

Much later in the night, the imposter awoke and stole the clothes from under White Plume's head and tossed them into the fire.

Next morning was bitter cold. White Plume grabbed for his clothes but they were not under his pillow. "Brother, my clothes are gone," he shouted, shivering with cold.

"Did I not tell you that this is the moon that burns your clothes?" said the imposter. Then he reached for his own clothes, only to discover that they were White Plume's clothes! The imposter had burned his own clothes!

Soon they started for home, with White Plume in the lead dragging the frozen buffalo. Somewhere along the way, the imposter must have frozen to death.

White Plume returned to his wife and Older Sister. He supplied them well with plenty of meat for the entire winter. Then he told them and the Chief of the Iowas that he was really an eagle.

"When your supplies run low, I shall return. When your Iowa hunters wish plenty of game, always they should wear an eagle's white plume in their hair," said White Plume with this parting blessing. Instantly he became a beautiful large eagle and flew far away.


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The Indigenous Peoples' Literature pages were researched and organized by Glenn Welker.