Where Miracles Happen
Hello, my people. I am Gun Guarding House. I am from the Mandan Tribe, and I have been asked to say a few words today .
We are losing stories every time we lose a person, and we are losing our elders very rapidly. There was a man buried just last week who could have been an immense help to me because he was of the Antelope Society, and I have a question which concerns those people and I didn’t get to ask him.
We buried a man eight years ago who knew all the doorway songs, what they meant, how they were to be used and when, what was appropriate and what wasn’t, and what were the penalties and the taboos that go with these things. I was offered the opportunity to record these things, not knowing how life can be so brief. I thought, “Yeah, next time I’m going to do that. Next time I’m going to bring some equipment and record him.” It never happened. He is gone and with him a whole storehouse of knowledge. There were buttes with names that he knew and why they have them names. There are places where people fast, where miracles happen, and he knew these places. And some of them he left with us and some he took with him.
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.
My mother, when I was a child, my mother used to give me tobacco or sometimes a pot of coffee and some empty cups, or sometimes she would give me a sack of biscuits and say go down there by the river. The old men are there. They are probably playing dominos or cards or checkers. Bring your gift to them. Sit and listen. They will talk.
So I would show up with whatever I happened to have that particular day. And they would say, “Oh he’s here again. Yeah, well, tell him something. And the other one would say You tell him something. I told him something yesterday. I’m all out of stories. You tell him something. They’d carry on like that for a while and then one of them would say you know, I think I remember one. Then they would go ahead and tell me.
This is an old story told to me a long time ago. They say the Mandans were fleeing in fear of their lives because there were some bad people chasing them. These bad people were going to kill and eat them. So they ran and ran until they got to a coast, and there was this great water in front of them that they couldn’t cross. They didn’t know what to do. They knew these people were trailing them. They didn’t know what to do, so they just huddled there on the beach and they prayed. And a man walked up to them. This was a great big man and they couldn’t imagine a man this huge. He stepped up to them and said, “Why are you all crying? Why are you all afraid?”
They told him that there were bad people pursuing them, and that these bad people would kill them and eat them all. He said, “What did you want to do?”
And they said, “We wanted to cross this water, but we have no way to go across. We have no boats.”
“Well,” he said, “that’s easy.”
There were some great trees standing there, tall trees. He shook the tops of the trees and these great big things fell down, like giant coconuts or big walnuts. He told them to open those. They opened them and they were hollow inside. They found that when they cleaned them out they could get three or four people in each one.
“Well, that’ll float us, but how do we get across?”
“I’ll walk across and you can hold onto my hair.”
So they got vines and ropes and things like that. And the ones in the front hung onto his hair and the other ones had their shells roped together and they stepped into the water and they all floated along behind him.
The water got very deep, almost up to his chin. He stepped out of the water where the river enters the big water. He stepped out there, and he told them, “Well now. if you’ll take your boats and turn them upside down, you can stay in them until you build homes. And get used to this place. When you move,” he said, “you must move up the river.
So they used that as their model. So they made bull boats out of buffalo hides and willows but they made them round to honor the occasion where they came across in these shells. They made the earth lodge round in the same shape. They made the sweat lodge the same shape. All these things are round and that was their model and they moved up the river.
As they moved up the river, they would set a village up and another village would go further up. It was kind of like leap frog and they came up the Mississippi. So one of the names for the people is in the Hidatsa is “L” which means “where something is kicked off”. I always think that means where the river kicks off in the ocean from the land.