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Nawakosis [archive]

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Nawakosis: A Blackfoot Legend

Once, there were four Blackfoot brothers. They were medicine men who had spiritual powers. The eldest of them had a vision, and heard a voice telling him "There is a sacred herb out there, pick it and burn it". So he went out and saw the herb he had seen in his vision. He took it home and threw it into the fire, and the smoke it burned with was pleasant and good-smelling.

Then the second brother also had a dream about this herb. In his dream he was told to take the herb and chop it up, and carry it in a bag of hide. He did this, and the herb smelled good. When the third brother had a vision, he was told to make a pipe out of bone. He made four pipes like this for himself and his brothers.

Finally the last of the brothers had a vision. The vision said to put the herb into the pipes, and light them, and inhale the smoke, and let smoke rise from the pipe into the clouds. The brothers did this as the vision had shown them to do. They also sang songs and prayers along with the smoking, which they had learned in visions. This was the first time that men ever smoked nawakosis together.

The brothers had dreams which told them to teach all the people about smoking nawakosis, but they decided to keep it a secret among themselves; it was too good to share with everyone, to special to be spoiled by becoming common. So they only smoked in secret, lest someone should hear their songs and prayers and learn them; and they planted their sacred herb in hidden places, so that no one would find it or know what they were smoking. Nawakosis was meant to calm the spirit and bring peace, health, and unity, but the men hid it, so there was war, and disease.

There was a man named Bull-By-Himself who did not like what these men were doing. He decided that he was going to find nawakosis, and learn how to plant and grow it, so that everyone could have it. He and his wife went to a medicine lake, and set up their lodge by its sacred waters. Every day he would go out in search of food and Nawakosis, and every evening he would return with only food. One day, while he was away, his wife heard singing. Though she searched all around, she could not find who was singing, and could not quite make out the words. When her husband came home, she asked him if he knew where the music was coming from, but he heard nothing. "You are imagining things," he told her.

"No," she said, "I am sure I can hear it. Listen, it is coming from across the lake." He listened, but he heard nothing. "It is coming from the beavers' house," she said. So she went to it, and tore open the wall of the beavers' house. Inside she saw the beavers doing a strange dance, and singing.

"Close the hole you made!" said the beavers, "It is cold!"

"Teach me your songs, share your medicine with me," said the woman.

"Tonight we will come and visit you at your lodge," said the beavers. They went back to their lodge, and that night the beavers came. As soon as they were inside, the four beavers turned into four young men. "What have you come here for?" asked the beavers.

"I have come to find Nawakosis," said Bull-By-Himself. "There are four men in our village who know its power, but will not share it."

"Then you are lucky to have found us," said one of the beaver men. "We are water folk, and nawakosis is water medicine. We will share its secrets with you. Before we give you the herb, we must teach you the prayers and the dances. Remember that Nawakosis is meant to be shared. No one who tries to keep it for their own purposes truly knows its power. "

"You must go out in the daytime, and get the skins of all the animals that live around the water -- all except the beaver. Take the skins of the goose and duck, muskrat and mink, and all animals like that, for they represent the water, which makes everything grow."

So it was that Bull-By-Himself went out to get the skins, and his wife dressed, smoked, and tanned them. In the evening, the beaver people came and taught the man and his wife the prayers and songs and dances. After a while, when the skins were all ready and the couple had learned all the prayers and dances, the beavers said, "You are ready now. Make the skins into a bag, and tomorrow we will come for the last time and tell you what to do."

The next night they came, and brought the sacred herb with them. They put the seeds from it into the medicine bundle that the people had made. "Do not smoke the herb until you have planted more," said the beavers. Go and find a place that is not too shady, but not too bright. Find a place where the ground is not pale, nor too dark. Turn the soil and make sure it is not too tight. Then you, Bull-By-Himself, take a deer horn and poke holes in the soil -- one hole for each seed. Then you, his wife, take a buffalo-horn dipper, and drop one seed in each hole. Then the two of you, together, dance over the ground and pack down the seeds so they will grow. Sing the songs we taught you. After you have done this, the nawakosis will grow. That's all I know." The men left, and turned back into beavers as they went.

The man and the woman planted the seeds exactly as the beavers had taught them. The four medicine men who had nawakosis to themselves until now thought "What could they be planting?" "What songs are they singing?"

They sent someone to ask them, and the messenger learned that they were planting a sacred herb called nawakosis. The four men laughed and joked that the couple must only think they were planting nawakosis, that they couldn't possibly have learned of its sacred use. They alone had the power of the sacred herb, they thought.

When time came to harvest, the four brothers' nawakosis was destroyed by a powerful storm. They had not saved any seeds, and nothing was left. They hoped that the couple had been right, and had really planted nawakosis. They hoped that they would share it with them, now that the source of their own power was all gone. They sent a messenger to find out, and Bull-By-Himself and his wife sent the messenger back, with nawakosis to show the medicine men. The storm had not damaged the crop the couple had planted, and they would share it with anyone who would learn to smoke it in a sacred way.

That is how Bull-By-Himself and his wife taught the tribes to smoke Nawakosis, and the tribes have smoked it prayerfully ever since.

Additional Reading

 Native American Herbs
 Blackfeet History
 Blackfeet People
 Blackfoot Myths
 Montana Native Americans

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