Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Dog Days of Summer

The Structured World of the Niitsitapi: The Landscape as Historical Archive among Hunter-Gatherers of the Northern Plains
Gerald A. Oetelaar, D. Joy Oetelaar
Structured Worlds: The Archaeology of Hunter-Gatherer Thought and Action
Aubrey Cannon, editor

pages 84-86

In addition to the problems of crossing major rivers, the Niitsitapi face further challenges when moving across the open prairie during the summer months. Critical among these is the shortage of essential resources, especially potable water. Although there is rarely a shortage of water on the prairies during the spring and early summer, by late August, many of the ponds and sloughs have dried up completely while the rivers are little more than mere trickles of lukewarm water. Fortunately, as indicated in the following narrative, a number of springs are scattered throughout the Niitsitapi homeland because the Sun and the Moon listened to six poor boys and a medicine dog.

Long ago, there was a poor family of six boys living in a large Blackfoot camp. Every spring, the other parents brought their children nice red robes from buffalo calves, but the six brothers had only poor brown robes. When the other children played buffalo together, putting the skins over their heads and running after each other, they made fun of the poor brothers and called them names.

Finally, the boys decided to leave their misery and escape to the sky country. As they left, they decided to pay back their tormentors by taking all the water away from the people.

Once in sky country, the Moon took pity on the boys and persuaded the Sun to withhold water fron the people for seven days. The next day on earth was so very hot, the water in the lakes and streams boiled until it all evaporated.

The Blackfoot people were desperate. They took two dogs to the river bed, and the dogs began to dig a hole in the bank. After they had dug a long time, water came out of the hole like a spring. This is the way springs were made.

Over the next days, the people dug holes in the hills, and crawled into them. It was so hot above the ground, they would have died there. When the water in the first springs gave out, the dogs dug other ones. On the seventh day, a medicine-dog prayed to the Sun and Moon, explaining the former life of the boys, and asking for pity. On the eighth day, the people were granted rain. It was a tremendous rain, which lasted for a long time.

The six boys remained in the sky, where they became the Bunched Stars [Mióhpokoiksi].

[Adapted from Wissler and Duvall 1995 (1908):71-72 and McClintock 1969 (1910):490]

As with many Niitsitapi stories, this one accounts for the way a number of things came to be. Primarily, the story narrates how six poor boys became the Bunched Stars, or Pleiades, an important constellation in the autumn night sky. The narrative also contains an important moral about the proper treatment of the less fortunate members of the community, especially the children. Significantly, the Bunched Stars are depicted on the smoke flaps of most painted tipis (e.g. Oetelaar 2000), and thus serve as a constant reminder of one’s oblication to the younger members of the community.

This story also accounts for the origin of springs and of their importance to the survival of the Niitsitapi while traveling across the prairies during the summer. Many of the rivers dry up or become little more than a succession of pools in late summer, but the majority of springs provide good, fresh water year round. Knowing where the springs are between major rivers valleys is thus critical for survival, especially during warmer months when the groups are travelling more. Even in the long ago, the Southern Peigan camped “at the edge of a little grove, close to which a large, clear spring bubbled up from a pile of sunken bowlders [sic]” on their annual trek to the Cypress Hills. (Grinnell 1982 [1901]:222). Further, the story of the Bunched Stars reminds Niitsitapi not only to examine the slopes of prominent landmarks and the banks of small streams, but also to rely on their dogs for assistance in this endeavor.

[text omitted]

. . . most of the other lodges were pitched around a clearing, which had a spring with good, cold water to drink. Since neither supply nor access to good water would have been a problem at this point on the river, there must have been other reasons for selecting a location with two water sources at hand. Convenience may have been one reason. River water was not always easy to procure, often involving movement down and up a relatively steep incline. Thus, a spring at hand would have provided water on demand for drinking as well as assorted daily tasks. Predictability may have been a second reason. Even large rivers such as the Oldman are subject to marked fluctuations in their seasonal flow. Camping next to a reliable spring guarantees a source of fresh water in years with little or no runoff, as well as years with torrential flow or abnormally high flood levels. Yet, the primary motive for camping near the spring was spiritual. Unlike the rivers which serve as the home of the Water Beings, springs are focal points of spiritual energy because they are related to the actions of spirit beings in the long, long ago. As a result, spring water not only quenches one’s thirst; it also renews one’s spirit.

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