Tuesday's Tales - a North American Indian story

Found another North American Indian story on my internet travels, this one featuring a horse - how could I not share?

The Magic Horse of Ku-suk-seia

In the time before the white man, the Pawnee Indians lived in Nebraska, where their sworn enemy was the Sioux.

They lived in villages for, not only were they good hunters, they were also skilled farmers and potters.

In one of these villages, there lived an old woman with her grandson, Ku-suk-seia, which means ‘left-hand’.

She was a good woman, and the boy was good also.

Yet the two of them were not well thought of, because they were poor.

And while there was no shame in being poor, there was no glory either.

They had no horse, no cattle, and although their clothes were clean enough, they were much patched.

Ku-suk-seia did not even possess a fine headdress, for his father, who had died in a hunting accident, had had none to leave to him.

When the bison began to move in the autumn, the Pawnee went hunting.  They had to prepare for the winter, which would be long and bitter.  So when the chief gave the order to set off, the people gathered their tents and everything they needed for the journey.  Even the old woman and her grandson tied up their few belongings.  They had no mount or beast of burden, and had to load their baggage on their own shoulders.

So poor were they that the people would not let even them join the caravan.  Instead they had to trudge miserably along a little way away.  Humans can be very cruel, and the contempt of their own people weighed heavier than the burden on their shoulders.

One fine morning, before the woman and her grandson had gathered their belongings together, the rest of the group were already leaving the campsite.  Nearly dying of hunger, the pitiful couple searched through the site looking for cast-off food.  At that moment, a broken-down old bay horse approached, also looking for food.  Catching sight of them, the beast snorted.  But then he walked up to them and made friends, for the poor soon recognise the poor.

“Poor animal,” said Ku-suk-seia, “His owner must have got rid of him once he wasn’t fit for work.”

The poor creature was half-blind, deaf and lame.  His ribs stuck out under his dull coat, which was covered with sores.

“What a pitiful sight,” thought the grandmother.  “The poor creature is as useless as I am.”  Yet the animal would not stray from her side.  “Son of my son,” said the old woman to her grandson, “we are going to keep this old horse and feed it.  With the two of us already starving, a third poor wretch will not make much difference.”

Ku-suk-seia and his grandmother began to load their baggage onto their shoulders.  But the horse knelt down and began to whinny.

“Look,” said the boy, laughing.  “I think he wants to make himself useful, the brave animal.”  Ku-suk-seia put the baggage on the horse’s back and the beast followed them, limping all the time.  The rest of the tribe had disappeared but the grandmother knew the way of the old.

That evening, they reached the bend of the North Plate River.  Every year the Pawnee set up their main camp there before scattering across the prairie.  The bison rarely strayed from their ancient trail, and so the migrating herds almost always passed through the North Plate.  The rest of the Pawnee had already set up camp on the river bank.  Scouts had been sent ahead, and in the evening they returned.

“There is a big herd of bison moving westwards,” they said, “and a white female is close behind the leader of the herd.”

This was exciting news.  The skin of a white bison was the most precious thing to an Indian of the prairies, for white bison were very rare, and no Pawnee had ever been known to fell one.

The chief of the Pawnee prayed, calling on the helpful spirit, Awahokshu, and begging all the other good spirits to come to his aid.  Then he said to his people, “He who brings me the white skin shall have the hand of my daughter.”  A double honour awaited the fortunate hunter.

Next morning, when the sun rose, the hunters readied themselves and their horses to hunt the white bison over the wide prairie.  Ku-suk-seia too mounted his skinny horse, but the warriors mocked him.

“Look at the hot-headed steed,” they jeered.  “Is the horse carrying the rider or the rider carrying the horse?”

Their jeers cut Ku-suk-seia to the quick, but he would not show it.  He lagged behind, partly to escape the taunts and partly because the old mount could go no faster.  All alone they made their way through the high grasses of the prairie.

Suddenly the horse began to talk.  “Take me to that little valley,” he said.  Startled, still Ku-suk-seia obeyed.  A talking horse was certainly out of the ordinary, but who knew what the Great Spirit might have in store?  Soon they came to a stream.

“Cover me with mud,” ordered the horse.  “Not a tuft of hair must show, or the spell won’t work.”

Puzzled, Ku-suk-seia did as he was told.

“Now climb on my back, but don’t move yet.  Let the hunters go on ahead.”

The Pawnee warriors galloped after the bison in a cloud of dust.  Then they split into two groups and rode off in different directions, to surround the bison and cut out some of the herd.

At that moment, the old horse began to move.  No longer did he limp; instead he hurled himself onwards like a tornado, charging the herd from the side.  The warriors watched, open-mouthed.  Wasn’t that Ku-suk-seia on his old blind horse?  What magic made it gallop fast as a prairie fire?

The horse forced its way straight to the white female.  Ku-suk-seia’s spear shone in the morning light.  He took aim and hurled it with all his strength.  The white bison sank to the ground as if struck by lightning, and the horse gave a triumphant whinny.

Ku-suk-seia jumped down and dismembered the dead animal, while the rest of the herd fled.  He loaded the meat to his mount, wrapped himself in the white skin and rode back to the camp.

The news of his triumph had gone ahead of him, and the chief was waiting in front of the main tepee.  “Awahokshu was with you,” said the chief.  “The spirit brought you luck, or you could never have felled the white bison.  Give me the skin.”

“All in good time,” replied Ku-suk-seia.  “First I must go to my grandmother, for she is hungry.”

It was not a wise thing to say to a chief, and the man’s angry gaze followed Ku-suk-seia as he rode to his tepee.  Ku-suk-seia unloaded the meat himself, though this was usually squaw’s work.

“A miracle, a miracle,” said his grandmother, clasping her hands.  “H’uararu, the earth spirit, must have been with you, my brave boy.  Now we shall be hungry no more.”

“Cook us some meat, grandmother,” said Ku-suk-seia, “while I give this horse some water and something to eat.  For a rider must see to his mount before he thinks of himself.” The horse whinnied in contentment.  When it had eaten its fill, it watched Ku-suk-seia and his grandmother feasting on bison meat.

Before he went to bed, Ku-suk-seia walked over to his mount.

“Tomorrow, at sunrise, the Sioux will attack the camp,” said the horse.  “Ride me right into the enemy.  Have no fear, but kill the Sioux chief, and hurl yourself at the enemy three times.  Nothing can hurt you.  But remember, three times only.  After that, turn back, or one of us will die.”

Everything happened just as the horse said.  At the first glimpse of dawn, the Sioux war cry rang out.  Countless braves had surrounded the Pawnee camp.

Ku-suk-seia mounted his horse and rode fearlessly into the enemy ranks.  Arrows and spears rained down on him, but some unseen shield seemed to be protecting him.  Riding up to the Sioux chief, he brandished his tomahawk and killed the chief with a single blow.

Twice more he hurled himself on the enemy, killing many of the Sioux warriors.  But he became over-confident and forgot the horse’s advice.  He spurred the horse on, and now the Sioux weapons met their mark.  Riddled with arrows, the horse sank to the ground.  Ku-suk-seia escaped, but his brave mount was dead.  The Sioux cut the magic horse into countless pieces, scattered them to the four winds, and fled.

When Ku-suk-seia reached his tepee, he threw himself down, beating the ground with his fists.  Why had he ignored his horse’s advice?  Now he had lost his companion forever.  Weeping, he returned to the battlefield, and searched for the remains of the horse.  He gathered up all the pieces into a heap on a hill.

Then he sat down beside them and wrapped himself in the white bison skin.  His heart breaking, he prayed to Tirawa, the Great Spirit, to the helpful Awahokshu, and to Shakura, the sun god.

Suddenly the sky darkened.  Lightning flashed, and thunder rumbled.  Huge water spouts gushed out across the prairie.  The river rose, and a great storm raged.  Hailstones came crashing down.  And it snowed, unheard of at that time of the year.  For three days and three nights, Ku-suk-seia sat wrapped in the skin of the white bison, praying. 

Then at least the veil of blackness was torn apart, and darkness gave way to daylight.  The sun shone in its brightness, and in place of the scattered bones, stood the bay horse, strong and healthy.

“Tirawa, the Great Spirit, has brought me back to life,” said the horse.  “But, tell me, why did you disobey me?”

“Forgive me.  In the heat of battle, I forgot.  Tell me what I must do.”

“You must promise to follow my counsel at all times, for it comes from the Great Spirit himself,” said the horse.

Gladly did Ku-suk-seia promise.  Returning to the camp with his horse, he handed the white skin over to his chief and received the hand of the chief’s daughter.  When the chief died, Ku-suk-seia himself became a famous chief.  He followed the advice of the bay horse at all times, and ruled the Pawnee with great wisdom and skill.

When, at last, Ku-suk-seia died, the Pawnee wrapped him in the white bison skin and laid him on the litter of the dead.

Then the warriors went to fetch his mount, to kill him on the altar of the dead so that he could accompany his master to the spirit world.

But none could find him, for the bay horse had disappeared.