Like many Americans, growing up I was taught that Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer, discovered America. Our nation’s history celebrated his explorations by erecting statues, writing textbooks, dedicating an entire day for his memory to be celebrated, and much more. It wasn’t until I was much older and was given new perspectives on the history of my people and this nation that I learned: one, a place cannot be “discovered” if people already inhabited the land; and two, Christopher Columbus never even set foot on the North American continent. His travels led him to the Carribean Islands (now the Bahamas) and to parts of Central and South America. So why is it that the United States commemorates his memory and explorations so deeply?
Every place where Columbus anchored had an entire ecosystem of thriving Indigenous tribes with established governments, traditions, art, and culture. These were Indigenous communities that worked in rhythm with the Earth and its inhabitants, never taking too much and always giving back. In short, Columbus didn’t “discover” America. He, and Europe, were simply made aware of the fact that this land, and these people, existed and thrived in a place they had not yet touched. As the editors of History wrote in their article “Why Columbus Day Courts Controversy,” Columbus, like many other European “explorers” of the New World, pioneered and contributed to the “use of violence and slavery, the forced conversion of native peoples to Christianity and the introduction of a host of new diseases that would have dramatic long-term effects on native people in the Americas.”
It was not until 1989 that South Dakota became the first state to switch Columbus Day to Native Americans’ Day. Then in 1992, Berkley, California became the first city to symbolically rename Columbus Day Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This reflected an acknowledgment of the need to protest the historical conquest of North America by Europeans, and to stand in solidarity with and recognize the extensive losses suffered by Indigenous People through diseases, warfare, massacres, and forced assimilation. Each year, beginning in 2014, hundreds of American cities, as well as entire states have officially renamed the day, and recently it has been celebrated in spectacle in major cities across the U.S.
For this special installment in my Indigenous Voices series, I have decided to pair the history of Indigenous People’s Day with the earliest form of theatre: storytelling. All of the stories you will read come from various tribes in the United States, and each tells its own history in powerful and intricate ways. They highlight the culture of the tribe and lend new perspectives to the creation of the world, war, love, and the relationship mankind has with the Earth. Some of these stories I grew up with, and others found their way to me through literature and conversation. I hope that they bring you as much joy as they have brought me, and I hope that they open your mind to both new and old ways to live with the Earth. Today, we celebrate the people who cared for the land that we now live on, and the cultures that have survived through the worst feats imaginable. But let us not forget that today is also for the people, cultures, and traditions that have been lost through colonization, assimilation, and genocide. These stories are their legacy.
Where the Girl Saved Her Brother
In the summer of 1876, the two most memorable battles between soldiers and Indians were fought on the plains of Montana. The first fight was called the Battle of the Rosebud. The second, fought about a week later, was called the Battle of Little Bighorn, and is where Colonel Custer was defeated and killed. The Cheyennes called the Battle of the Rosebud the Fight Where the Girl Saved her Brother.
Three columns of cavalry entered the last stretch of land left to the American Indians, led by Generals Crook, Terry, and Colonel Custer. Crook had about 2,000 men with him, and had artillery and Indian Scouts to guide him. At the Rosebud, he fought the united Sioux and Cheyenne Warriors. On the other side, many proud tribes were there besides the Cheyenne – the Hunkpapa, the Minniconjou, the Oglala, and the Burnt Thighs. Leading the Sioux were the great Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull – what a sight it was to see! As the fight began, Crazy Horse of the Oglala shouted his famous war cry: “A good day to die, and a good day to fight! Cowards to the rear, brave hearts – follow me!”
The fight started. Many brave deeds were done as the battle swayed to and fro. More than anybody else’s, this was the Cheyenne’s fight. Among them was a brave young girl, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, who rode proudly beside her husband, Black Coyote. Her brother, Chief Comes in Sight, fought in the battle too. Searching the chaos, she found him surrounded with his horse killed from under him. Soldiers were aiming their rifles at him while their Crow scouts circled him and waited for an opportunity to strike. But he fought them off with great courage and skill.
Buffalo Calf Road Woman uttered a piercing, high pitched war cry and raced her horse into the midst of the enemy. Her brother jumped up on her horse behind her as she laughed with joy and the excitement of battle. The soldiers were firing at her, but she moved too fast for her or her brother to be hit. The Indians and soldiers saw what she was doing, and stopped fighting to watch the brave girl saving her brother’s life. The battle was still young and not many men had been killed on either side. But the white general was thinking: If their women fight like this, what will their warriors be like? Even if I win, I will lose half my men. And so General Crook retreated his regiment a hundred miles from the battle. He was to have joined up with Custer, but when Custer had to fight the same Cheyenne and Sioux a week later, Crook was too far away to aid him and Custer’s regiment was wiped out. So, in a way, Buffalo Calf Road Woman contributed to the victory of that battle too. Many who saw what she had done thought that she had achieved the biggest coup of all: not taking a life, but giving it. The memory of her bravery will last as long as there are Indians.
Coyote Places the Stars
There were once five wolves, all brothers, who traveled together. Whatever meat they hunted they would share with Coyote. One evening, Coyote saw the wolves looking up at the sky.
“What are you looking at up there, my brothers?” asked Coyote.
The youngest wolf turned to the other wolves and said, “Let’s tell Coyote what we see up there. I’m sure he won’t do anything.”
So they told him: “We see two animals up there. Way up there into the sky, where we cannot reach them.”
“Let’s go up and see them,” said Coyote as he gathered a great number of arrows and began shooting them into the sky. The first arrow stuck in the sky and the second arrow stuck in the first arrow. Each arrow stuck in the end of the one before until there was a great ladder reaching down to the earth. The oldest wolf took his dog with him and they started the climb. For many days and nights they climbed until at last they reached the sky. They stood in the sky and looked over at the two animals… They were two grizzly bears. The younger wolves started towards the bears in curiosity. Only the oldest wolf and his dog held back. When the wolves got near the bears, nothing happened. The wolves sat down and looked at the bears while the bears sat and looked at the wolves. Once the oldest wolf realized it was safe, he too went over with his dog and sat down with them.
Coyote examined the scene, but he would not go over. That makes a nice picture, thought Coyote. I think I’ll leave it that way for everyone to see. Then when people look at them in the sky they will say, “There’s a story about that picture,” and they will tell a story about me.
So Coyote left, climbed down the ladder, and once down on Earth he admired the arrangement he had left up in the sky. Today, the animals still look the same. They call those stars the Big Dipper now. If you look up there at the sky, you will see the three wolves that make up the handle and the oldest wolf, the one in the middle, still has his dog with him. The two youngest wolves make up part of the bowl under the handle, and the two grizzlies make up the other side, the one that points toward the North Star.
When Coyote saw how they looked, he wanted to fill the sky with stars. He arranged stars all over the sky in great pictures and then made the Big Road across the sky with the stars he had left. “When I am gone, everyone will look up into the sky and see the stars arranged this way. Tell them I was the one who did that.”
How Beaver Stole Fire from the Pines
Before there were any people in the world, the different animals and trees lived and talked together just like human beings. The pine trees had the secret of fire and guarded it carefully, so that no matter how cold it was, they could always warm themselves. During a fiercely cold winter, plan after plan was hatched to discover the pines’ secret, but they were all in vain until Beaver thought up a plan. At a certain place on the Grande Ronde River in Idaho, the pines were about to hold a great council. They had built a large fire to keep warm, with sentinels posted to stop intruders from trying to steal the fire secret. But Beaver had hidden under the bank near the fire, and when a live coal rolled down the bank he seized it and ran as fast as he could.
The pines immediately started after him. Whenever they were close behind, Beaver would dart from side to side to dodge his pursuers. The Grande Ronde River preserves the direction Beaver ran, and this is why it is tortuous and twisted in some parts and straight in others. After running for a long time, the pines grew tired. Most of them halted together on the river banks, where they remain in great numbers to this day. A few pines kept chasing Beaver, but they gave out one after another, and so they remain scattered at intervals along the banks of the river in the places they stopped.
There was, however, one cedar who ran at the forefront of the pines. He said to the few trees who were still in the chase, “He’s too quick. We can’t catch him, but I’ll go to the top of the hill and see how far ahead he is.” So he ran to the top of the hill, but could not find Beaver. Beaver had crossed the Big Snake River and given fire to some willows, birches, and several other kinds of trees. Since then, all who have wanted fire have gotten it from these particular trees, because they have fire within them and give it up when their wood is rubbed in the ancient way.
If you look to the top of the hill, near the junction of Grande Ronde and Big Snake rivers, you can still see Cedar standing alone. He is very old, so old that his top is dead but he still stands as a testament to this story’s truth. The old people still point him out to the children as they pass by. “Look,” they say, “that is old Cedar standing in the very spot where he stopped chasing Beaver.”
Pushing up the Sky
The Creator and Changer first made the world in the East and as he slowly came westward, he brought many languages and he gave a different one to each group of people he made. When he reached Puget Sound, he liked it so much that he decided to go no further. But he had many languages left, so he scattered them all around Puget Sound and to the north. That’s why there are so many different Indian languages spoken there.
Although these people could not talk with each other, none of them were pleased with the way the Creator had made the world. The sky was so low that the tall people bumped their heads against it. The wise men of the different tribes had a meeting and agreed that all the people and animals were to lift the sky and push it upwards. So the wise men sent a message to all the people and animals and told them the day the sky was to be lifted. Everyone made large poles from giant fir trees. They pushed and pushed together until the sky settled into the place it is now. Since then, no one has bumped their head against it, or been able to climb into the Sky World.
Now, three hunters had been chasing four elks during the meetings and were not aware of the plan. Just as the people and animals were ready to push the sky up, the three hunters and the four elks came to the place where the Earth nearly meets the sky. The elks jumped into the Sky World, and the hunters ran after them. When the sky was lifted, the elks and hunters were lifted too. In the Sky World they were transformed into stars, and at night, even now, you can see them. The three hunters form the handle of the Big Dipper. The middle hunter has his dog with him – now a tiny star – and the four elks make up the bowl of the Big Dipper. Their story lives on and is forever encapsulated in the constellations we still see above us each night.
The Celestial Bear*
A grizzly bear had been terrorizing a small village so three warriors were sent to track, find, and kill the bear. They tracked the bear all the way into the sky where they became trapped. The hunters wounded the bear, and now are memorialized in the stars above. The warriors and bear sit still in the sky as the constellation known as Ursa Major, and the blood of the wounded bear paints the trees red in the fall as the Big Dipper glides across the horizon.
*Ursa Major, my own song, tells the Iroquois story of the Celestial Bear. If you wish to listen to it, you can do so here.
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I would like to acknowledge the book American Indian Myths and Legends, compiled and edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz, as the reference for some of these stories, and my own library of stories passed down to me.
For ideas on how you can celebrate Indigneous People’s Day from quarantine, check out this article from Smithsonian Magazine.
(Top image: Chicano students from the University of Wisconsin at Madison protest Columbus Day on October 12, 1992, the Columbus quincentennial. 500 years of resistance, UW-Madison Library Archives.)
This article is part of the Indigenous Voices series.
GiGi Buddie is an American Indian artist and student studying theatre, with an emphasis in acting, at Pomona College. Whether it be through acting or working in tech, GiGi has dedicated much of her life to the theatre. In the summer of 2019, her passion for art and environmental justice took her to the Baram River in Malaysian Borneo where she, alongside Pomona professors, researched the environmental crisis and how it has been affecting the Indigenous groups that live along the river. As a result of her experience researching and traveling, she student-produced the Pomona College event for Climate Change Theatre Action during the fall 2019 semester.