Friday, April 25, 2014

Light And Warmth Like The Sun: A First Fire Story

Hupȟéstola, aka Soapweed or Yucca, is a common sight in western North Dakota. Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Light And Warmth Like The Sun
The First Fire

By Óta Kté (Kills Many), Luther Standing Bear
GREAT PLAINS - Luther Standing Bear was an Oglála Lakȟóta. He attended the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, worked in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, appeared in twelve motion pictures, and authored six books. “The First Fire,” appears in Standing Bear’s “Stories of The Sioux,” published in 1938.

A Sioux[1] scout, tired and weary from a long journey, sat down on the plain to rest. Beside him lay a fallen yucca[2] plant with its long body stretched upon the ground. The scout aimlessly picked up a small stick that lay nearby, and, rubbing it between his hands upon the yucca, noticed a thin blue vapor arising.[3]

This vapor smelled very pleasant as it rose in the air and disappeared. The scout thought that, since it went up and out of sight, it must go to the land of the Sky People. And going up so far it would, no doubt, carry a message to those who lived in the sky.

So the scout played on, enjoying the blue clouds of smoke as they ascended and disappeared in the air. After a while a small red and orange flame[4] burst from the tip of the stick. It was beautiful, and the heat that came with it was very agreeable. Interested now beyond all care to continue his journey, the scout watched the stick and yucca plant change into this lovely flame that sprang up, looking like a beautiful plume, only to fade away and form into another just as beautiful. How strange and yet how beautiful it is, thought the scout. He never wanted to lose this beautiful being, whatever it was.

So he fed the flame with more yucca, and it lived and grew. He could not leave it here to perish, and yet he was forced to go home at last. So he carried a burning wand back to the village with him, and in the center, where all could see, he made it grow with more yucca. All the people of the village came and sat about, marveling at the wonder of it all.

"Lakota Oglala Campfire" by Hubert Wackerman.

This gorgeous red flame was warming to the hands and body, but could hurt severely if one got too close. It looked soft and caressing, but stung the fingers if one tried to catch and hold the lovely curling feathers of fire. The wood which was put in these flames to keep them alive turned into brilliant red coals that sparkled and changed color too. So all day the village people watched, and when evening came they were still gathered there. This marvel was something like the sun, for it lighted up the space in which they sat. Strange it did not do this in daytime. Only at night. This fascinating being had wondrous ways hard to understand.

Since the beautiful flame burned one’s hand and toes, what would it do to meat? A piece of buffalo meat was held close, and as the flame wound about it the odor was strangely tempting. The meat was tasted, and it was good. Everyone tasted the meat that came from the red hot coals, and all found it delicious. No longer would the Sioux prepare their meat only by the heat of the sun.[5]

And so this is the way fire was brought to the Sioux people. The man who brought it to them is great in their history.

Note: The introduction of fire brought cultural changes, such as the fire-starting, or carrying the fire - which involved carrying a live coal, perhaps from a council fire, and bringing it to the next campsite, to using fire to hunt with as in driving game, and even communicating as with smoke signals.



[1] Očhetí Šakówiŋ, the Seven Council Fires, is how the “Sioux” refer to themselves.

[2] Hupȟéstola, also known as soapweed or yucca. The roots of the plant are harvested, peeled, and pounded. The soapweed powder can then be mixed with water and produces suds which one can wash one’s hair.

[3] Paíle, is to ignite or burn as with friction.

[4] Pȟéta, fire or flame. Čhethí, is also fire, but a fire built for a purpose (i.e. Očhetí, as in Očhetí Šakówiŋ, the Seven Council Fires).

[5] The Lakȟóta have several words to describe cooking by fire: Pasnúŋ, to roast something on a spit; Wačhók’iŋ: to cook by roasting in the coals; Ğağáya: to roast something over an open fire as with meat on a stick; etc.