Victor Mandan

Victor Mandan. Photo by Milt Lee.

Victor Mandan: How Cherry Necklace got his Snake Medicine

with Victor Mandan

Music: Final Journey John Huling Spiritlands Red Feather Victor Mandan: There was a time when a man who wanted power would go out and perhaps stand on a hill. Or perhaps he would seek a revered animal to take it and make it his medicine. And that is why we have people who carry eagle bundles and hawk bundles and things of this nature. And all animals and all beings were considered sacred by the ancient ones. They had no concept of evil, inherent badness in anything.

Redbelly snake

Redbelly snake. Courtesy of the National Parks Service.

Arlie Neskahi: What is good, what is bad? Sometimes these questions are answered, not by each individual in their own heart, but by the culture we grow up in. Today’s Turtle Island Storyteller Victor Mandan, asks why our culture has mislabeled the snake an inherently bad creature. So get on your cowhide gloves and put your phobias away and listen to the story of how Cherry Necklace got his snake medicine. Mandan: There was a man once who was named Cherry Necklace who was a great, great Grandfather of mine. And he was a boastful man. If someone said they were swift, he would challenge them to a race. If someone said they were strong, he would ask them to wrestle. If somebody said he was a good swimmer, he would say, “Well, there’s the river. Let’s go for it.” He was that sort of a person. And one day, he and his comrades were walking across the prairie. And one of them said, “Step back. There’s a big hole. Danger!” So they walked up on the hole very carefully, and one of them asked the other ones to grab them by the heels and he would look. And he looked down and he said “It’s a big hole, and there are a lot of snakes in there.”

Bull snake. Courtesy of the National Parks Service.

And one of them said, “Hey, Cherry Necklace, why don’t you fast in there?” He said, “You guys must hold me, so I can look.” So they went back to the hole and hung onto him and he poked his head down in the hole and he looked at it and studied it. And he said, “It can be done. I will do it. Let’s go back to the village. We have to go in the sweat. I have to get my things. You must get a big rope and a log.” So they went back to the village and got prepared. And when they came back, they had a log and a rope. They put a loop around him, put the log over the hole as a pulley, and lowered him down with his blanket and pipe.

Ringneck snake

Ringneck snake. Courtesy of the National Parks Service.

There was a big rock in the middle of this big cave underground and he sat on this large rock. Then he told his friends goodbye. And he told them “Please, don’t come and bother me for four days and four nights.” So there he was in this big hole with all those snakes in it. It was just full of snakes of all kinds. They went back to the village and then they worried. “The snakes will eat him up. The elders will be angry. We will be banished. We are going to be responsible for a life.” Some said, “Well, let’s go back and get him.” And they said “You can’t get him. When you leave him on a vision quest, you cannot interfere.” There seemed to be no easy answer for them. They had a terrible four days. And after four days, they went back to see if maybe they could at least bring his remains back for burial or something. So they went back and they looked. And there he sat on the rock. They said there were snakes around his neck and around his arms, and in his lap, and in his hair. Little snakes, big snakes, all over him. And he was sitting there holding his pipe. And they said “How are you?”

Remarkable Hills on the Upper Missouri

Remarkable Hills on the Upper Missouri, from Travels in the Interior of North America, 1839-43. Aquatint engraving Ackermann & Co., London Greenslade Special Collections and Archives Olin and Chalmers Libraries Kenyon College ArtGallery/exhibitions/9900/bodmer/

And he said “I’m ok. Please, back away from the hole. I must tell my friends goodbye. And I am very weak, so when you throw the rope down, put a big loop in it, so all I have to do is put it around my shoulders, because I’m not of any help,” he said. So they stepped back until he called them and they dropped the rope. He put it around, himself. They lifted him out, and they helped him back to the village and the sweat. When he was in the sweat, he told them. “When I was in the hole, this great big snake came.” He said, “And he was the grandfather of all snakes and he was huge. He stood up in front of me, and we were eye to eye and he had big yellow eyes. And he said, ‘Nobody likes us. They always throw sticks and stones at us. They try to kill us. When they see us, they despise us. They always stand high on a hill and pray to the eagle and the hawk. They disregard us. You are the only one that paid any attention to us. And so therefore we are going to give you these gifts,’ they said.” And when he left that hole, he had the ability to heal arrow wounds and gunshot wounds. He had the ability to fix broken things, broken arms, broken legs, and things like that.

Wind Cave National Park. Hot Springs, South Dakota.

Wind Cave National Park. Hot Springs, South Dakota. Courtesy of the National Parks Service.

He lived a long time. People were very fearful of him. They went to him for help and yet they were fearful of them because of his power that came from snakes, and people have a natural aversion to that. But these things are not evil. They just are what they are. We say, “This is good. That is bad.” How do we know that? There is no evil, except maybe in my mind or somebody else’s. But that is the thing that sometimes we must overcome. A lot of times we say things and it comes from the European point of view. And we have had it for so long we don’t realize it’s not ours. We don’t know when we speak anymore if we’re speaking from science, from tradition, from hearsay, from gossip, from learning, from what we know, or from what we think we know. Often times, second and third hand lessons are passed off as real wisdom. Those who keep the stories and tell these things oftentimes are ignored. And for myself and my people, this is a real tragedy. And I would encourage anyone who has any elders about to learn what you can and keep what you can, whether it be song, story, legend, art. There are things of value that we don’t know that are of any value. They don’t seem to be at the moment. They may be later. So I always remember that when people offer me other experiences or other things. Is this going to be good for me? Is this going to be harmful? And if I am in doubt, I try to remember what some elder told me way back when. Neskahi: Victor Mandan is a Hidatsa and Mandan musician and storyteller living in Hill City, South Dakota.