The Great Myths #39: Arrow Boy (Cheyenne)
After the Cheyenne had received their corn, and while they were still in the north, a young man and woman of the tribe were married. The woman became pregnant and carried her child in the womb for four years. The people watched with great interest to see what would happen, and when the woman gave birth to a beautiful boy in the fourth year, they regarded him as supernatural.
Before long the woman and her husband died, and the boy was taken in by his grandmother, who lived alone. He learned to walk and talk very quickly. He was given a buffalo calf robe and immediately turned it inside out so that the hair side was outward, the way medicine men wore it.
Among the Cheyenne there were certain medicine men of extraordinary wisdom and superhuman powers. Sometimes they would come together and put up a lodge. Sitting in a large circle, they chanted and went through curious rituals, after which each man rose and performed wonders before the crowd.
One of these magic dances were held when the boy was about ten. He made his grandmother ask if he could take part, and the medicine men let him enter the lodge. “Where do you want to live?” the chief of the medicine men asked, meaning, “Where do you want to sit?” Without ceremony the boy took his seat beside the chief. To the man who had ushered him in, the child gave directions to paint his body red and draw black rings around his face, wrists, and ankles.
The performance began at one end of the circle. When the boy’s turn came, he told the people what he was going to do. He used sweet grass to burn incense. Then he passed his buffalo sinew bowstring east, south, west and north through the smoke. He asked two men to assist him and told them to tie his bowstring around his neck, cover his body with this robe, and pull at the ends of the string. They pulled with all their might, but they could not move him. He told them to pull harder, and as they tugged at the string, his head was severed. It rolled out from under the robe, and the men put it back.
Next the men lifted the robe up. Instead of the boy, a very old man was sitting in his place. They covered the old man with the robe and pulled it away again, this time revealing a pile of human bones with a skull. A third time they placed the robe over the bones and lifted it. Nothing at all was there. But when for a fourth time they spread the robe over the empty space and removed it, the wonderful boy sat in his place as if nothing had happened.
After the magic dance, the Cheyenne moved their came to hunt buffalo. When a kill had been made, the wonderful boy led a crowd of boys who went hunting for calves that might return to the place where they last saw their mothers. The boys found five or six calves, surrounded them, and killed a two-year-old with their arrows. They began to skin it very carefully with bone knives, keeping the hide of the head intact and leaving the hooves on, because the wonderful boy wanted the skin for a robe.
While they worked, a man driving a dog team approached them. It was Young Wolf, head chief of the tribe, who had come to the killing ground to gather what bones had been left. He said, “My children have favored me at last! I’ll take charge of this buffalo; you boys go on off.”
The children obeyed, except for the wonderful boy, who kept skinning as he explained that he wanted only the hide for a robe. The chief pushed him the wonderful boy aside, but the boy returned and resumed skinning. Then the chief jerked the boy away and threw him down. The boy got up and continued his work. Pretending that he was skinning one of the hind legs, he cut the leg off at the knee and left the hoof on. When the chief shouldered the boy out of the way and took over the work, the wonderful boy struck him on the back of the head with the buffalo leg. The chief fell dead.
The boys ran to the camp and told the story, which caused great excitement. The warriors assembled and decided to kill the wonderful boy. They went out to look for him near the body of their chief, but the boy had returned to camp. He was sitting in his grandmother’s lodge while she cooked food for him in an earthen pot, when suddenly the whole tipi was raised by the warriors. Quickly the wonderful boy kicked the pot over, sending the contents into the fire. As the smoke billowed up, the boy rose with it. The old woman was left sitting alone.
The warriors looked around and saw the boy about a quarter of a mile away, walking off toward the east. They ran after him but could not seem to draw closer. Four times they chased him with no success, and then gave up.
People became afraid of the wonderful boy. Still, they looked for him every day and at least saw him on the top of a nearby hill. The whole camp gathered to watch as he appeared on the summit five times, each time in a different dress. First he came as a Red Shield warrior in a headdress made out of buffalo skin. He had horns, a spear, a red shield, and two buffalo tails tided to each arm. The second time he was a Coyote warrior, with his body painted black and yellow and with two eagle feathers sticking up on his head. The third time he appeared as a Dog Men warrior wearing a feathered headdress and carrying an eagle-bone whistle, a rattle of buffalo hoof, and a bow and arrows. The fourth time he was a Hoof Rattle warrior. His His body was painted, and he had a rattle to sing by and a spear about eight feet long, with a crook at one end and the shaft at the other end bent in a semicircle. The fifth time his body was painted white, and on his forehead he wore a white owl skin.
After this the wonderful boy disappeared entirely. No one knew where he went, people thought him dead, and he was soon forgotten, for the buffalo disappeared and famine came to the Cheyenne.
During this time the wonderful boy traveled alone into the highest ranges of the mountains. As he drew near a certain peak, a door opened in the mountain slope. He passed through into the earth, and the opening closed after him.
There inside the mountain he found a large circle of men. Each represented a tribe and was seated beneath that tribe’s bundle. They welcomed the wonderful boy and pointed out the one empty place under a bundle wrapped in fox skin. “If you take this seat, the bundle will be yours to carry back to the Cheyenne,” the head man said. “But first you will remain here for four years, receiving instruction in order to become your tribe’s prophet and counselor.”
The wonderful boy accepted the bundle, and all the men gave thanks. When his turn came to perform the bundle ceremony, they took it down and showed him its sacred ceremonies, songs, and four medicine arrows, each representing certain powers. Then for four years under the mountain peak, they taught him prophecies, magic, and ceremonies for warfare and hunting.
Meanwhile the Cheyenne were weak with hunger, threatened by starvation. All the animals had died, and the people ate herbs. One day as the tribe was traveling in search of food, five children lagged behind to look for herbs and mushrooms.
Suddenly the wonderful boy, now a young man bearing the name of Arrow Boy, appeared before them. “My poor children, throw away those mushrooms,” he said. “It is I who brought famine among you, for I was angry with your people when they drove me from their camp. I have returned to provide for you; you shall not hunger in the future. Go and gather some dried buffalo bones, and I will feed you.”
The children ran away and picked up buffalo bones, and the wonderful boy, Arrow Boy, made a few passes that turned them into fresh meat. He fed the children with fat, marrow, liver, and other strengthening parts of the buffalo. When they had eaten all they wanted, he gave them fat and meat. “Take this to your people,” he said. “Tell them that I, Motzeyouf, Arrow Boy, have returned.”
Though the boys ran to the camp, Motzeyouf used his magic to reach it first. He entered the lodge of his uncle and lay down to rest, for he was tired. The uncle and his wife were sitting just outside, but they did not see Arrow Boy pass by.
The boys arrived in camp with their tale, which created great excitement. The uncle’s wife went into the lodge to get a pipe, and it was then that she saw Arrow Boy lying covered with a buffalo robe. The robe, and his shirt, leggings, and moccasins, all were painted red. Guessing that he was Motzeyouf, the men went into the lodge, asked the stranger to sit up, and cried over him. They saw his bundle, and knowing that he had power, they asked him what they should do.
Motzeyouf told the Cheyenne to camp in a circle and set up a large tipi in the center. When this had been done, he called all the medicine men to bring their rattles and pipes. Then he went into the tipi and sang the sacred songs that he had learned. It was night before he came to the song about the fourth arrow. In the darkness the buffalo returned with a roar like thunder. The frightened Cheyenne went in to Arrow Boy and asked him what to do. “Go and sleep,” he said, “for the buffalo, your food, has returned to you.” The roar of the buffalo continued through the night as long as he sang.
The next morning the land was covered with buffalo, and the people went out and killed all they wanted. From that time forth, owing to the medicine arrows, the Cheyenne had plenty to eat and great powers.
– Richard Erdoes & Alfonso Ortiz, American Indian Myths & Legends, 29-33; retold from a tale reported by George A. Dorsey in 1905.