Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Two Stories of Unktehi told by Lame Deer

"This story was told to me by a Santee grandmother.

A long time ago, a really long time when the world was still freshly made, Unktehi the water monster fought the people and caused a great flood. Perhaps the Great Spirit, Wakan Tanka, was angry with us for some reason. Maybe he let Unktehi win out because he wanted to make a better kind of human being. Well, the waters got higher and higher. Finally everything was flooded except the hill next to the place where the sacred red pipestone quarry lies today. The people climbed up there to save themselves, but it was no use. The water swept over that hill. Waves tumbled the rocks and pinnacles, smashing them down on the people. Everyone was killed, and all the blood jelled, making one big pool. The blood turned to pipestone and created the pipestone quarry, the grave of those ancient ones. That's why the pipe, made of that red rock, is so sacred to us. Its red bowl is the flesh and blood of our ancestors, its stem is the backbone of those people long dead, the smoke rising from it is their breath. I tell you, that pipe, that *chanunpa*, comes alive when used in a ceremony; you can feel power flowing from it.
Unktehi, the big water monster, was also turned to stone. Maybe Tunkshila, the Grandfather Spirit, punished her for making the flood. Her bones are in the Badlands now. Her back forms a long high ridge, and you can see her vertebrae sticking out in a great row of red and yellow rocks. I have seen them. It scared me when I was on that ridge, for I felt Unktehi. She was moving beneath me, wanting to topple me... It is I, Lame Deer, who said this..."
Told by Lame Deer in Winner, South Dakota, in 1969.
"When I was young, hardly more than a boy, I went after some horses which had somehow got lost. Following their tracks into the Badlands, I searched for many hours. I lost all sense of time and was surprised by nightfall, sudden and pitch-black. The clouds that were covering the moon and stars split open in a thunderstorm. Hailstones as big as mothballs blanketed the ground with icy mush, and I thought that I might freeze to death in the summer. I happened to be in a narrow gulch, where I was in danger of drowning from the rush of water. As best I could, I began scrambling up toward a high ridge. I couldn't see except when there was a flash of lightning, and the earth was crumbling under me. Somehow I made it. The thunder never stopped, and the lightening became almost continuous. I could smell the wakangeli, the electricity, all around; it made my hair stand up. The thunder was deafening. I straddled the ridge as if I were riding a horse. I could see enough in the lightning to know that I was very high up and the canyon was a long way down, and I was afraid of being blown off the ridge and hurled into that black nothingness. My teeth chattering, my legs and hands clamped to the razorback ridge, I moved inch by inch as I tried to get out of there. But I felt the presence of the Wakinyan, heard them talking to me through the thunder: "Don't be afraid! Hold on! You'll be alright." At last the storm ended, and finally dawn came. Then I saw that I was straddling a long row of petrified bones, the biggest I had ever seen. I had been moving along the spine of the Great Unktehi. Stiff with cold, I waited until the sun warmed me. Then I scrambled down and ran toward home. I forgot all about the horses; I never found them.

And I searched many times for the ridge deep inside the Badlands that formed Unktehi's spine. I wanted to show it to my friends, but I never found the ridge either."

* Told by Lame Deer in 1969 in Winner, Rosebud Indian Reservation, South Dakota

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