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Charred Body and First Creator

This version of the legend was collected by Martha Warren Beckwith and published in her 1937 book Mandan-Hidatsa Myths and Ceremonies.

Charred Body had his origin in the skies. There was a big village up there and this man was a great hunter. He used to go out and bring in Buffalo, Elk, Antelope until the Buffalo became scarce - they scattered out far from the village. So one day he told his close relatives, "The Buffalo seem to have gone far away from here, and I am tired of hunting them so long. Some day they may multiply again, but now I am going to build a mound to sit on and look over the country." He made a practice of going up to his mound at intervals of three or four days to survey the land and listen to its sounds. One day toward nightfall he heard Buffalo bellowing. He was excited. He could not tell from what direction the sound came. He was in the habit of changing himself into an arrow shot from a bow and thus making in one day a journey such as a man would ordinarily make in ten days. The next day he went out to the mound, changed himself into an arrow, and went into every direction, but found no Buffalo. Back on the mound he again heard the Buffalo, and they seemed so close that he thought it strange he could not place them. The next day when he went out to the mound he took an arrow and stuck it into the ground, and as the ground opened up a crack, he worked the hole. There below he saw Buffalo as if the Chokeberries are half ripe, and the bulls were fighting and bellowing. This was the sound he had heard.

He went back to his lodge and told his relatives that he had seen the Buffalo, thousands upon thousands, but since, if he went down below, it would be difficult to pack the meat back, he decided to go down ahead and build a dwelling and his brothers and sisters-in-law should follow afterwards. They could themselves see by looking down the hole that there would be Buffalo enough for all.

The chief of the village was named Long Arm. He was regarded as a holy man. He usually knew what was going on from day to day. Charred Body told him of the land he had found, so beautiful and plentiful in game. Charred Body said, "I want to leave this place and go down there, but it will not be possible to pack the meat back up here or to drive the Buffalo up here from the Earth. So I shall go down there to live and take with me all those near relatives of mine who are bound to me like a thread of the Spider web, and we shall make our home there." Long Arm said neither yes nor no; he uttered no word. The hunter went back to the hole, transformed himself into an arrow and flew through the air to Earth.

He came down so swiftly that as he landed on the ground the arrow struck the Earth, and it seemed as if he were stuck there for good. The place where he landed was near Washburn by a creek some People call Turtle, but which we call Charred Body Creek. There was an evil spirit in the creek whose moccasin tops were like a flame of fire so that when he went through the forest the Cottonwood Trees would burn down. He would undo the flap of the moccasin when he went to Windward and wave it back and forth over the ground; when he tied it up again the flame ceased. This man feared the man from Heaven lest he establish villages or take away his land or even kill him, so he caused a Windstorm and set the Prairie on fire and the flames charred the arrow here and there. Hence the name "Charred Body" is derived. Since the arrow could not pull himself out, he decided to make a spring; thus he loosened himself. So he decreed that the spring would flow as long as the World would last; you can see even today where the spring is.

Charred Body established thirteen lodges, First, he looked about and found a good site and established one lodge, then another, until he had thirteen built. Then he went back into the heavens and told what had happened and how the old man with flame about the foot had tried to kill him, how he had found the spring and how good the game was. He made it sound so attractive. He said that he went by the arrow and hence could take down only as many families as there were parts to the arrow. He would take his nearest relatives only, with their children. The groove at the end of the arrow to put the string into was one lodge. The three feathers were regarded as lodges; that made four. The two sinews bound about it were two others, making six. The three points of the arrowhead were three other lodges, making nine. The three grooves circling around the arrow in a spiral made twelve. The arrow itself was the thirteenth; there were thirteen lodges all told. The spiral is considered as Lightning; hence the arrows power. If it does not come into contact with a bone, it will penetrate the Buffalo right through.

He called his nearest relatives and embraced them, and in embracing them he gave them the power of the arrow and encouraged them to follow him. First, he went down, then all came after and he assigned them lodges. When they first came down, the mysterious bodies down there knew that he was also mysterious and tried to kill him, but when he pulled himself out (of the hole made by the arrow point) they knew that they had no power against him. Before coming down, the People had made preparations and they brought seeds of corn, beans and so forth and began to plant corn on the ground by the river and to build scaffolds for drying the corn the meat. So they lived happily for a long time. You can see today the remains of their thirteen villages, but obscured by high water and the ploughing farmers. I have heard that People have found arrowheads in the thirteen villages.

After a number of years, First Creator happened to come to the village. He asked some boys playing outside who was chief. They showed him the way to the large lodge in the center which was Charred Body's lodge. He asked Charred Body how he came there and Charred Body told him. He said it was well and that he wished to make friends with Charred Body; when there were two they could talk matters over and act more effectively (than one), three were even better, but two were strong. They must therefore love one another. So they became friends, ate and talked together, and First Creator stayed in the lodge several nights before he went on again.

When he came back, he reported that there was a big village East of them whose chief had a beautiful daughter. It was the custom in that village afternoon for the maidens to go along a wide path to the river for water and for the men to line up along the path and do their courting. The married women would go along the path outside the row. When a young girl came opposite a man who like her, he would clear his throat and if the girl liked him, it was a good sign. The next day he would ask a drink, and if she gave him a drink it was a better sign. So People took notice, and if a girl gave a man a drink it became a matter of gossip, the parents came together to find out whether the two were industrious and able to run a household, and if everything was favorable, they were married. Now the chief's daughter had a strong will and never looked at the young men. When they tried to catch her eye she paid them no attention. "Now, my friend," said First Creator, "You are handsome, not too slender, too tall or too short. Your hair is long and beautiful. No one could find a blemish upon you. You would certainly make a hit with the girl, so lets go over and try our luck. If you can get her and be a son-in-law to a great chief, you will be a renowned man."

So it was agreed, and when they came to the edge of the village to a place where the moles had dug up a mound of earth, they began to dress themselves up. Charred Body mixed the dirt with water and daubed mud across his chin from ear to ear and upon his cheeks, brought his hair together in a big pompadour in front and stuck a plume in at the place where he tied it up. This feather the wind waved to and fro. His robe he wore open with his bow and arrows inside. Today we say of a person who combs his hair to the side in a pompadour that "he wears his hair like Charred Body."

They went to a certain lodge in the village and were kindly received. When First Creator told them who Charred Body was they said, "We have heard about him and how he had a beautiful land in the skies and liked the country down here." When he said that they had come courting, the People said, "It is well." They went down to the path by the river and stood opposite each other and Coyote, which is another name for First Creator, said he would give a signal when the chief's daughter came so that his friend would pay no attention to the others. She came dressed in tanned white Deerskin with a robe of Elkskin from which the hair had been scraped, light and pliable as a plume. Charred Body stepped in front of her and she swerved. He turned also and she swerved again. When he was almost in front of her he said, "I wish to drink out of your cup." She said, "What you have done is not according to our custom; you should not have moved from the line but just cleared your throat, and I shall give you no drink!" "Do you make those streaks across your face in imitation of the charring?" He was angry, took out his bow and arrows and, as she turned to flee, shot her twice in the back and killed her. A tumult arose and the two visitors fled back to the village.

Coyote warned Charred Body that he had done an evil deed and that this would not be the end of it. The chief was not likely to sit still and do nothing. He had owned the land before Charred Body came there, and Charred Body must therefore build barricades and protect himself. Charred Body paid little attention to him. "I go by the arrow and it can pierce through them." he said. "Even then, " said Coyote, "You are often out hunting, and while you are away they may send out scouts and kill all in the village. More than one village may combine against you. You may think that you can fight them single-handed, but you have done a bad deed and this will cause your mind to stray, and while it is occupied with other things, they will overcome you. So whatever you do, don't let anything distract your attention or you may be destroyed."

Day after day, Charred Body would go and sit on top of a hill where he had a mound and look over in the direction of the village where he had committed the crime. He told the young men to cut up sticks for arrows and sort them out into bundles and put them under his bed. When they came back, the sticks would be already made into arrows. Soon all the young men were supplied. But he was always in deep thought, first because of the crime he had committed and second lest the village come against him. One day Coyote offered to go over the village and find out what they were planning. He said that it would take corn-balls and pemmican and spread them on the outskirts of the village, and if anyone was wounded he would give him the food and tell him it was Good Medicine for wounds. He would pretend that he had left Charred Body because of his crime. He met them on the way in such numbers as completely to surround the village. All who had children remained. When he had passed them, on the other side of the hill, he saw Meadowlark and sent him on an errand to fly to Charred Body on his mound and tell him to prepare four barricades as a great force was coming against him to avenge his crime. Meadowlark carried the message, but as soon as Charred Body got back to the village to prepare the barricades, he forgot all about it. The enemy employed a Holy Man to make him forgetful; the Holy Man raised his hand against him and Charred Body forgot what was to happen. Three times Coyote sent Meadowlark with the message, and three times Charred Body forgot it as soon as he reached the village. The fourth time Meadowlark told him to make some sign on his body to attract attention. Charred Body stuck a bunch of grass in his hair and went back to the village. Again he forgot the message. He went back to the lodge, but his head itched; he told his wife to scratch his head, and she found the grass and said. "This is the cause of your itching!" He gave a groan and sent word to the People that the next day the enemy would come against them; they must prepare a barricade, get arrows ready and be brave even to death. He went out and cut Bog Brush, put them under his bed and commanded it to turn to June Bushes. When he took it out, it had become June Bush, and he peeled the bark and made more arrows.

Coyote (in the enemy's camp) said, "You have been sending out scouts but their reports are not clear. I will go myself to see what is going on." He started on a run, fell with his foot out of joint, and claimed it was too painful to put in again and that he was now too disabled to fight with them in the attack against the village. He said, "Way down on the river they are performing rites for Medicine, so I will go there and bring back corn-balls and pemmican." He caused an announcement to be sounded at a distance (He must been a ventriloquist) which said; "All you who have Medicine Bags and Mysteries, come and join in this ceremony to be performed."

He told them that he had an adopted son in the enemy's camp who was Mysterious in battle. He could not be shot by an arrow and they must keep away from him. "You will find him dressed with a bladder covering his head daubed with white clay. His body will have streaks lengthwise and crosswise. His quiver is a Coyote's hide. He will wound many of you, but I will bring a hide for the wounded to lie on and feed them corn-balls and pemmican." As soon as he was out of sight, he threw away his crutch, set his foot again, turned into a Coyote and ran around another way into the village and became a man again. He asked after Charred Body and learned that he was making arrows. But a weasel had just been in to see Charred Body, and it had scattered and trampled arrows. Charred Body had been angry and struck four times at the weasel; the fourth time it ran out and Charred Body after it. "I told him whatever happened, not allow anything to distract him!" said Coyote. "But never mind, I am here. Don't turn into women!" Charred Body's sister was at this time with child, and Coyote told her to go inside a celler-hole, and he would cover her over so that she would not be burned.

When the battle took place, there were four among the enemy's band who had supernatural power. One had no head, but only a big mouth from shoulder to shoulder into which he sucked his enemies; another was an old woman with a basket which. whenever she turned, sucked in People or birds of the air; a third was the man with the flaming moccasins; a fourth was a Beaver (called Tail-With-A-Knife) whose tail was sharp both sides. These four helped the enemy. Tail-With-A-Knife chopped down the barricade, Flame-Around-His-Ankle encircled the village and set it on fire. Coyote was in the thick of the battle dressed as he had described. When he saw that all was lost, he disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

Meanwhile, Charred Body was still chasing Yellow Weasel. It seems that there was a transformation of the Earth so that Charred Body found himself far to the North. Yellow Weasel said "Look back and see your own village!" He looked and saw the smoke. He wanted to get back as quickly as possible. His eyesight would be too slow, for he would have to stop at the end of each sight, so he used his thinking power, transformed himself into thought, and wished himself back to his village. There he found the place in flames.

Now after the battle, the enemy had withdrawn and were relating their exploits. It seemed to them as if Coyote had fought in the battle, and Coyote heard their word as he came limping back with the hide, corn-balls and pemmican. An old bear was appointed to discover whether Coyote had been in the battle. The way he did this was to lift up his paw and put it on a person, then put his paw to his nose and smell it. When Coyote entered, the paw was raise to test him, but Coyote put a corn-ball into the paw, saying, "You greedy fellow, you want this all to yourself!" then he had the wounded brought in and laid upon the robe, and gave them corn-ball and pemmican. He said, "However wounded you may be yourselves, you have destroyed the village and enticed Charred Body away." And he said, "These People were just like relatives to me, and I want to go back there and walk through the place where young men and maidens formally walked, and think about their sports and laughter and mourn there for them." So they consented and he went on his way.

Close to the village he saw Charred Body walking among the dead. As was the custom in those days, Coyote walked up to him, put his arm about his neck, and wept over him. Then he told him where he had hidden the sister, and they went to the cellar to see if she were alive. When they lifted up the hide she came out, but when she saw the desolation of the village she wept and the men with her. Coyote proposed that they have a lodge, to live in together. He faced the North, raised both eyes, and he said, "I wish for a lodge facing South furnished with bedding and all things necessary and with a scaffold in front." When they opened their eyes, there it stood just like Coyote had said. There was no food, so Coyote said, "There is all kinds of food on the hoof; let us go out and see what we can take." They followed up the creek and killed Buffalo, cut it up, left the backbone, head and shoulders and took the best pieces. The kidney, back-gut and liver they washed to be eaten raw. These raw parts are considered a tonic today to keep one from sickness. The woman at the lodge cooked for them. She began to slice the meat and roast the ribs close to the fire and they felt themselves at home once more.

After they had lived thus from day to day, bringing in game until there was plenty, Coyote went away to the enemy's camp to see what the People were doing, promising to return again. It is an old custom with both Mandan and Gros Ventre that when a sister is alone in the house, a brother must not enter out of respect to his sister. Only if someone else is with her is it right for him to enter. Hence Charred Body did not think it was right to stay alone with his sister, so he went off hunting by day to bring in his choice bits of food for her and told his sister on no account to let anyone into the house if anyone should come round asking at the door. "No one can come in if you do not take out the crossbar," he said. One day when he came back from hunting, he saw his sister outside looking as if she were laughing, and he took the meat and waited for her, but she did not come in.


To find out what happened to Charred Body's sister and her children, go on to the story of Lodge-Boy and Spring-Boy!

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 Native American Coyote legends
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