A Tale of Kaya of the Red Paint People
June 26, 2021
The early winter zephyr swept down the rocky slopes of the saw-toothed peaks, skipped across the flat, deep desert and breezed along the empty gravel road of the Southwest Apache Reservation. A light rain had gradually turned into a frozen spray that softened the harsh outlines of the rows of clapboard houses.
Over the mountains to the west, the clouds clumped dark and heavy with snow. Along the road leading out of town, a drab one-story house sat apart from the others. The wall- boards had once been white, but decades of wind and sand had stripped all but a few spots down to the bare wood.
The shell of an old Model T Ford, wheels gone, windshield missing, sat in the front yard on four concrete blocks. From a bent pipe stack on the roof of the house, a spiral of grey smoke trailed off, flowing with the wind.
Inside the house, the old woman sat on a thick red and black blanket that covered her rocking chair. She wore a dress of purple under a gray sweater. A silver and turquoise squash blossom necklace caught the lamplight when she shifted her weight to ease the discomfort in her arthritic bones. Long earrings of silver with a turquoise stone graced her ears and accented her long white hair.
It was quiet in the house, but the wind outside had picked up and was blowing a fine mist that, to the woman, sounded like sand against the windows.
“Put a piece of wood on the fire, Frank,” she said, as she blinked her sightless eyes. An older boy from the back of the semi-circle of children that sat before the woman rose and did as asked, clanging the lid of the wood-burning stove in the process.
There was some squirming among the three rows of the youngsters, but most just watched their elder’s lined face.
Slowly, the woman began to rock. Her chair creaked with each tilt, and her earrings swayed. In her left hand, she held a round, flat drum made from the fleshed raw hide of a mule deer. The drum was painted with a red sun and a jagged peak pattern.
She struck the drum with her right hand and the squirming of the youngsters stopped. For a short while, only the creak of the rocker was heard. The children waited.
In a voice powerful for one of her years, the elder began. “These stories I’m going to tell you are not my stories,” she said. “They belong to all the People. They were found in the wind that swirls in the desert. They were found in the singing of the black pines on the mountain slope. They were found in the chatter of the prairie dog.
“And now, they are in the hearts and bones of the People, and they give the People strength to endure their hard lives.
“This story is sacred. It is a gift from the old ones, and was told to me by my grandmother who heard it from her mother. So, I place a pinch of tobacco in my pipe and I will smoke it because the Above Beings like the aroma of my pipe
She smiled a toothless grin as she leaned forward. “They told me that.”
The rocking slowed, then stopped. She carefully placed the drum in her lap.
From a pocket in her faded sweater, the elderly woman withdrew a beaded leather pouch. She took a pinch of tobacco from the pouch and held it up in front of her. The children leaned forward to hear her soft chant, unable to make out the words but liking the rhythm. The small amount of fragrant tobacco mixture was then placed in the bowl of the little pipe the woman held. Four times, the story-teller took a pinch of tobacco and repeated the ceremony.
Taking a large match from a container on a table next to her chair, the blind grandmother expertly scrapped it along a round stone that sat on the table. She puffed the pipe into life, then directed the first breath of smoke towards the ceiling.
“That one’s for Usen, the Creator of all things.”
The next breath of tobacco smoke floated over the heads of the children.
“That one is for the spirit of the story.”
The children sniffed and tried to recognize the various aromatic leaves from the smoldering mixture. She puffed two more times, but the children couldn’t hear what she said.
The children watched her set the pipe aside and settle back into her chair.
Then, the story-teller began.
“Ho-ya, Hey-ya. I tell a story..
Ho-ya, Hey-ya. My words are true.
Ho-ya, Hey-ya. Listen to this story.
Ho-ya, Hey-ya. Listen to my words.”
“This is the story of a little girl who became a great woman-warrior, and a great healer of her People. Now listen, my little jumping mice, and you will learn of Bright Star, the girl who became Kaya, the most feared woman-warrior of the plains and mountains and deserts.
“Listen to my voice, while Brother Wind pushes against the windows of this lodge, and carries the sparks up the chimney into the night sky. Listen and let my voice carry you back to a time before your grandfather and grandmother were born. To a time when the People of the Red Paint were free to roam the mountains and deserts of this land, when all enemies of the People feared the name of Kaya-te-nae, She- Who-Fights- Without-Weapons.
“In the time before the coming of the White-eyes, a great hunter of the Red Paint People whose name was Brings-The –Thunder went into the Big Mountains to hunt the mountain sheep. Many of The People had become sick with the bleeding mouth disease, and the Hand-Trembler had talked to his sacred helpers who told him that the fleece coat of the white mountain sheep would cure them.
After fasting for four days and praying in the sweat lodge, Brings-The-Thunder had traveled by foot to the Big Mountains, and now sought the tracks of the sheep. With him, he took enough dried food for four days. He searched for three days without finding so much as a sign of the ghostly sheep.
“Among the Red Paint People, a warrior will suffer frustration and disappointment without letting it take his courage and determination. So Brings-The-Thunder kept climbing the rocks and valleys of the Big Mountains. As the sun began to sink behind the ridge on the evening of the fourth day, Brings-The-Thunder squatted on a large rock outcropping that overlooked the deep valley, wrapped now in purple shadow.
“’Usen,” he whispered. “I have come seeking the white mountain sheep so I may save my People. Yet, I have seen no tracks and no other sign of this sacred animal.’” His voice rose to a cry. “’Great Father, Creator of all things. Listen now to my voice. Have I offended You in some way, that You will send me back to my village in shame?
‘Have pity on me, your child. Send me a sign that will show me where I can find this four-legged.’
“Only the wind was heard moving among the stones and pines. Brings-The-Thunder hung his head. He turned from the rock and made camp for his final night in the mountains. He slowly chewed his last piece of dried meat.
“In the morning, the great ball of the sun shown its rays onto the sleeping face of Brings-The-Thunder. He came awake with a start, for he was always up before the sun rose. He shook his head, but could not remember any dreams, any sign from the Spirits. As he was breaking camp, he saw in the soil next to where his sleeping blanket had laid, a clear hoofprint of a mountain sheep. Joy replaced melancholy and the Red Paint man hurried to ready himself for the hunt.
“For the whole day, Brings-The- Thunder followed the prints as they went up the south slope of the mountain to a ridge set near the highest peak. The hunter wrapped his robe more closely around him as the air had turned frigid on the bare mountainside. Soon, he came upon a cut in the ridge that lead to a downward path, the hoofmarks of the mountain sheep still fresh. Even when the path was only stone, he could see the prints in the soil between the rocks.
“Brings-The-Thunder wondered at that. He saw that the sides of the tracks were cleanly cut, not even slightly rounded as they would be after even a short time in the mountain wind. No grains of earth had fallen into the tracks. No many-legged critters who scurried under rocks had made their own tracks in the hoofprint. To the hunter, this meant he was right behind the mountain sheep, should see the sheep on the trail ahead. But he saw nothing but the path and the prints on it. This puzzled Brings-The-Thunder, but still he followed.
“Just as dusk settled on the land, the hunter rounded a large rock outcropping and saw the light of a campfire in a small hollow, just below where he stood. A young woman sat behind the fire, in front of the door to a round hut made of grass and branches. She was wrapped in a white robe. Such a sense of peace came over Brings-The-Thunder that he lowered his bow and stepped down off the rocks toward the girl.
“’I am Brings-The-Thunder of the Red Paint People,’ he said as he approached. ‘You have nothing to fear from me.’
“The girl was smiling and motioned to the hunter to sit next to her at the fire. ‘I know who you are, Brings-The-Thunder. I have watched you hunt in these mountains many times. You are respectful to the animals you kill, praying for them to Usen, thanking them for the gift of their life so your People may live.’
“Brings-The-Thunder looked at the dark eyes and long black hair of the girl. He thought she was the most beautiful girl he had ever met. He wondered where she came from. Who were her people?
“’I have never seen any human beings in these mountains,’ he said. ‘I have never seen even a track of a human being anywhere in these mountains.’
“The girl laughed, showing white, even teeth. ‘My People are shy and hide so we won’t be harmed. We rub out our tracks and clean our camp when we move so no one ever suspects we are here. Yet we watch everyone who comes to these mountains and we know the good men and the careless ones.’
“’What is your name?’ Brings-The-Thunder asked.
“’I am Gouyen, of the High Mountain People.’
“’Gouyen. It is a pretty name. In your language, does it mean something special?’
“’It is the name of my grandmother, my mother, and now me. That is all I know.’ She pulled her white robe closer around her shoulders as the fire danced in the wind. Brings-The-Thunder had noticed her robe was from the fleece of the mountain sheep, and shown bright white in the glow from the campfire.
“’You are seeking the hide of the white mountain sheep,’ Gouyen said, noticing his interest in her garment. ‘It is said to heal the bleeding mouth disease.’
“Brings-The-Thunder smiled. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘My People are sick with this disease and I am to bring the hide back to our Hand-Trembler. Perhaps you could tell me where you came by this robe. I have been hunting for four suns, but have only today found its tracks.’
“Gouyen stirred the fire with a stick. ‘My People have gone to the Snow Hills,’ she said. ‘I’m lonely for someone to talk to. Stay with me this night, share my food, and in the morning, I will give you my robe to take to your People.’
The story-teller leaned forward. “Do you think,” she said quietly to the children, “Brings-The-Thunder should stay or should he keep hunting?”
“Stay,” yelled a little boy in the second row. “Go,” another advised. “She may be a witch and wants to eat him.” A small girl in the front row with large brown eyes sat quietly cross-legged, her chin resting on fists that were propped up by her elbows on her knees.
“What do you say, little owlet?” The blind story-teller seemed to look directly at the little girl. “Should he stay the night and risk getting eaten, or should he run away and keep hunting the white mountain sheep?”
The little girl cocked her head. “He should listen to his heart,” she said. “It will tell him if this woman is good or evil.”
The old woman chuckled. “So much wisdom for one so young,” she said. “Well, he did just that. He listened to his heart and the next morning, the maiden gave him her robe of the white mountain sheep.”
“’Thank you for this gift,’ he said as he took the robe. ‘As your People have gone to the Snow Hills, come back to my village with me. My People will welcome you and thank you for this great gift. If you wish, you can become my wife and I will keep our lodge filled with meat. You will never be hungry or lonely again.’
“And so it was, Gouyen became the bride of Brings-The-Thunder, the great hunter, and they lived in the village of the Red Paint People. Soon, they gave the world two children. The oldest was a boy, known later to the Mexicans as El Lobo, The Wolf. The second child born was a girl. She was named Bright Star, for when she was born, a star that shows brighter than any other, was seen in the sky just after sunset. Later, she would be known as Kaya-te- nae, and the enemies of the People would tremble at the sound of her name.”
The Story-Teller sat back, her eyes moist as if seeing into the past with her sightless vision.
“Go home my little jumping mice. Tomorrow, I will tell you the story of how Kaya’s Power found her. But now, I am tired and need to rest. Frank,” she called.
“Put some more wood on the fire. My old bones grow cold.” She sighed as the children rose and filed out into the quiet cold of the night.
Cover by Kristi Ryder of Kryderdesigns.com
The Track and the Boy
Ohtoh of the Piegan band of the Blackfoot People knew the track was there.
It was across the shorter grass of the beginning prairie, near the buffalo trail that skirted the woods. Yesterday, when hunting rabbits, the boy had spotted the track, but had no time to read its message. So today he rose before dawn and crept out of the sleeping camp to the trail.
Now he waited for Creator Sun to send him the knowledge of the animal that made the track. The impatience of youth was something he had learned to push aside, not unusual for a Blackfoot boy of ten summers of age. He pulled his elk robe closer around him to keep out the early Spring chill of the great grassland, and thought about what was to come, how his patience and vigilance would be rewarded.
It was the Moon When the Ice Breaks Up, and soon Stands-in-Thunder, the main chief, would decide the day for the small band to leave their winter camp in the trees along the river, and move out onto the plains, joining other bands for a great buffalo hunt. Ohtoh was still too young to hunt the huge shaggy beast, but his grandfather often took him to hunt smaller game, and he had proven he could be quiet on the trail, and read the wisdom of the tracks. Studying this print, and reporting his findings to his mentor grandfather, would show he practiced the knowledge of the tracker/ hunter.
The boy watched while the sky shed its stars, sending them to follow the Night Light Moon over the tall mountains to the West. Then, the tall buffalo grass, higher than a man sitting on horse, was now seen black against a pale gray smudge of light in the East. The hollows of the prairie were still filled with darkness, but the higher undulations slowly appeared first gray, then blue. A light breeze brought the scent of the wild prairie sage, and the rustle of the grass with blue stems, as the silence deepened, and the world of the prairie awaited daybreak
Now, the boy saw the track on the trail before him, visible as a dark spot on the Earth, where the animal had left part of its spirit for the boy to marvel at. And as the light became the color of the skin of the spotted fish called salmon, the birds began their welcoming chorus, and the track began to fill with meaningful shadows. Cracks and ridges told of the animal’s passage, when it walked through this place, and a score of other pieces of knowledge Creator Sun now gave to the boy. The World is a track, the old man had told him. But only those who pay attention can know its mysteries.
The track of the great mountain cat, Omakatyo, lay before him, where the heaven softly touched the Earth. The chirp of the blue feathered jay sounded once at his back in the dark forest of tall cottonwood high over thick underbrush that stretched to the Swift-Running River. In front of him, the endless grassland, and behind him, the eternal forest and mountains.
The boy shifted his gaze to a spot a near the print of the cat. Here was a different track, a footprint that sent a quick jolt of fear through him. He breathed softly though his mouth, and his hearing became sharp enough to note the scampering of a rodent several feet away. He studied the new track, that of a moccasin print. He knew the Blackfoot People had footwear with parfleche soles, the dried hide of the buffalo carefully stitched onto the moccasins by the women of the tribe. But this was a soft soled print, the wearer’s toes slightly visible.
When the Piegan warriors raided enemy camps, they returned with moccasins from each of the tribes. Ohtoh’s grandfather would make tracks wearing the foes’ footwear so Ohtoh could learn the difference between the sign of many of the enemies on the plains. And the boy knew this was the rounded, wide footprint of the hated Cree. And it was fresh.
Ohtoh’s heart beat fast. If the enemy who made this track was scouting out the Piegan camp, he may be nearby watching. Slowly, the boy rose from his crouch, turned, and started to walk back towards the trees. Thoughts of an arrow in the back made him want to run like an antelope, but if the Cree scout thought the boy hadn’t seen the track, he may let him go. Nearing the cottonwood forest, however, Ohtoh’s resolve failed him and the boy burst into a sprint, trampling the long grasses, racing into the camp, past the barking dogs to his grandfather’s lodge.
That night, as the stars called the seven buffalo slowly moved toward their mountain resting place, Ohtoh sat with his grandfather in the shadow of their lodge. Early that morning, a counsel of the Crazy Dogs Warrior Society was called to discuss plans to deal with the Cree. Several warriors had gone to find the Cree scout after Ohtoh breathlessly told his grandfather of his discovery of the footprint, but no enemies were found. No one doubted the word of the boy, and the track was studied by the best trackers in the village. It was decided that the footprint had been made sometime near dawn. The boy had come close to losing his life, but the scout had since departed. An attack was most likely, as the scout had not noticed the boy reading the track. This was the conclusion of all the warriors.
“We will move the horses into the trees, and our warriors will hide and wait for the Cree to come into the forest. Then we will strike.”
And so it was. When the Cree war party slipped into the woods, they were met by the Crazy Dog men, and soundly defeated. It was a great victory for the Piegan people.
It was two days later that Ohtoh’s grandfather called the boy into the center of the camp. Lone Coyote, the leader of the Crazy Dog warriors, rose in front of the entire village to make a speech.
“Many winters ago,” he began, “before the time of our grandfather’s grandfathers, a great tracker lived among the People. It is said he could follow the trail of a spider across bare rock, track the birds in the sky, and see a footprint of an enemy before it was made. This man was named Looks-at-the-Ground.
“Today, we have a young man who shows the same gifts from the Sky People. Our Man-of-Knowledge, the Shaman Dancing Bear, has said the one blue eye of our little brother makes him a great tracker, one who sees the footprint of the enemy.
“It is said the eagle sees far and the jumping mouse sees up close. But the hawk looks far and near, so the hawk is called “The Bird Who Looks at the Ground.” We honor our little brother Ohtoh with this feather from the wing of a Sun Hawk, and give him the name “Looks-at-the-Ground.” Although young in years, he will grow into this sacred name and bring honor to his People.”
Ohtoh stood tall when Lone Coyote fixed the hawk feather into his hair. He knew great knowledge was a gift from Creator Sun not for the boy or man, but for the well being of all the People. And it would take many years of hard work to earn the gift. Looks-at-the-Ground, as he faced the smiling people of his Piegan Blackfoot village, was ready to begin.
Behind the boy, his grandfather felt pride, but also sadness. He knew, as sure as the thunder rolls in the mountains and the wind sweeps the tall prairie grasses, that change was coming. Already the vast buffalo herds were smaller, and the number of lodges fewer each year at the Summer Sundance. But for now, Looks-at-the-Ground has earned the right to dance his joy, and let the old men fret about the coming storm clouds. The Piegans would be here, the grandfather thought, as long as the grass grows and the waters flow. And Looks-at-the-Ground would be a Blackfoot forever.