Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Elder Says "Live For The Living"

"The simple boy drives sorrow away from the mourner" from the story "The Simpleton's Wisdom" which appears in McLaughlin's "Myths And Legends Of The Sioux."
Live For The Living
Simple Wisdom

By Marie L. McLaughlin
GREAT PLAINS - "The Simpleton's Wisdom" comes from Marie L. McLaughlin’s “Myths And Legends Of The Sioux.” It is retold here with minor edits.

There was a man and his wife who had one daughter. Mother and daughter were deeply attached to one another, and when the daughter died, the mother was disconsolate. She cut off her hair, cut gashes in her cheeks, and sat before the corpse with her robe drawn over her head, mourning for her dead child. Nor would she let anyone touch the body to take it to a funeral scaffold.

She had a knife in her hand, and if anyone came near the body the mother would wail, “I am weary of life. I do not care to live. I will stab myself with this knife and join my daughter in the land of the spirits.”

Her husband and relatives tried to get the knife from her, but could not. They feared to use force lest she kill herself. They came together to see what they could do.

“We must get the knife away from her,” they agreed.

At last they called a boy, a simple fellow who possessed a good deal of shrewdness. He was an orphan and was very poor. His moccasins were badly worn through and he was dressed in wizí (course smoked hide).[1]

“Go to the thípi[2] of the mourning mother,” they told him, “and in some way contrive to make her laugh and forget her grief. Then try to get the knife away from her.”

The boy went to the tent[3] and sat down at the door as if waiting to be given something. The deceased girl lay in the place of honor where she had slept in life. The body was wrapped in a rich robe and wrapped about with ropes. Friends had covered it with rich offerings out of respect to the dead.

Mourners often took to wearing robes or blankets over their heads, smothering themselves in shadow. Anyone who saw such a person dressed in such a state knew that person was expressing profound sadness. 

As the mother sat on the ground with her head covered she did not at first see the boy, who sat silent. But when his reserve had away a little he began at first lightly, then more heavily, to drum his hands upon the ground. After a while he began to sing a humorous song. Louder and louder he sang until carried away with his own singing he sprang up and began to dance, at the same time gesturing and making all manner of contortions with his body, all while singing his song. As he approached the corpse he waved his hands over it in blessing.

The mother put her head out of the blanket and when she saw the simple fellow with his strange grimaces trying to do honor to her deceased daughter with his solemn waving, and with his song, she burst out laughing. Then she reached over and handed her knife to the simple fellow.

The simple fellow left the thípi and brought the knife to the astonished husband and relatives.

“How did you get it? Did you force it away from her, or did you steal it?” they asked.

“She gave it to me. How could I force it from her or steal it when she held it blade uppermost, in her hand? I sang and danced for her and she burst out laughing. Then she gave it to me,” he answered.

When the old men of the village heard the orphan’s story they became very silent. It was a strange thing for a boy to dance in a thípi where there was mourning, yet stranger still that a mother should laugh before her dead daughter. The old men gathered at last in a council. They sat a long time without saying anything, for they did not want to make a hasty decision.

The pipe was filled and passed many times, until at last an elder man spoke, “We have a hard decision. A mother has laughed before the body of her dead daughter, and many think that she was foolish to do so, but I think the woman did wisely. The boy was simple and of no training, and we cannot expect him to know how to do as well as one with a good home and parents to teach him otherwise. Besides, he did the best that he knew. He danced to make the mother forget her grief, and he tried to honor the dead daughter by waving his hands over her corpse.”

“The mother did right to laugh,” he continued, “for when one does try to do good for us, even if what one does causes us discomfort, we should remember the motive rather than the deed. And besides, the simple fellow’s dancing saved the woman’s life, for she gave up her knife. In this, too, she did well, for it is always better to live for the living than to die for the dead.”



[1] “Wizí” refers to the topmost part of the thípi, that which is weathered and smoked. This part of the old thípi may be recycled into moccasin soles or other use.

[2] “Tepee” in the original text. “Thípi” is the present spelling according to the Lakota Language Consortium’s standard orthography. “Thiíkčeya” or “thipȟéstola” is the proper word in reference to the conical tent of the Great Plains.

[3] Wakhéya is a general word for tents, thípi, lodge, or shelter.