Old Man and the Beginning of the World
Old Man came from the South, making the mountains, prairies, and forests as he passed along. He made the birds and animals also. He travelled northward, making things as he went along, putting red paint in the ground here and there, making it all as we see it today.
He made the Milk River and then crossed it. As he was tired, he went up onto a little hill and he laid down to rest. As he lay on his back, stretched out on the grass with his arms extended, he marked his figure with stones. You can still see those stones now, showing you where his body laid.
Going on north when he was through he tripped over a knoll and fell down hard on his knees. He said, “You are a bad thing to make me stumble so!” Then he raised up two large buttes there and named them the Knees. They are still called the Knees to this day. He went on farther north, and with some rocks that he had he built the Sweet Grass Hills.
Old Man covered the plains with grass for the animals to feed upon. He marked off a piece of ground and in it make all kinds of roots and berries to grow – camas, carrots, turnips, bitterroot, serviceberries, bullberries, cherries, plums, and rosebuds. He planted trees, and put all kinds of animals on the ground.
When he made the bighorn sheep with its large, heavy horns, he had put it out on the prairie. But it didn’t travel very easy on the prairie; it didn’t go very fast, and it moved awkwardly. So Old Man took it by its horns and led it up to the mountains, and turned it loose. There the bighorn skipped about among the rocks and went up fearful places with no trouble whatsoever. So Old Man said to it, “This is where you are meant to be; this is what you’re fitted for, the rocks and the mountains.”
While he was in the mountains, he made the antelope out of dirt and turned it loose, to see how it would go. It ran so fast that it fell over some rocks and hurt itself. Seeing that the mountains weren’t the place for it, Old Man took the antelope down to the prairie and turned it loose. He watched it for a moment, and then said, “So this is what you are suited for, the broad prairie,” as he watched it running at full stride across the prairie.
One day Old Man decided that he would make a woman and a child. So he formed them both of clay, the woman and the child, who was her son. After he had made the clay into human shapes, he said to it, “You must be people.” And then he covered it up and went away. The next morning he went to the place, and took off all of the covering, but the clay had changed little. The second morning he saw a little change, and the third, a lot more. The fourth morning he went to the place, took off the covering, looked at the clay people, and said, “Get up and walk.” They did so. They walked down to the river with their maker, and then he told them that his name was Napi, Old Man. And that is how we came to be people. It was he who made us.
The first people were poor and naked, and they didn’t know how to do anything for themselves. Old Man showed them the roots and berries and said that “you can eat these”. He pointed to certain trees. “When the bark of these trees is young and tender, it’s good. Then you can peel it off and eat it.”
He told the people that animals should also be their food. “These are your herds,” he said. “All the little animals that are on the ground; squirrels, rabbits, beavers, skunk – are all good to eat. You do not need to fear to eat their flesh. The birds that fly, too; these I made for you so that you can eat of their flesh.”
Old Man took the first people over the prairie and through the forests and the swamps, to show them the different plants he had made. He told them what herbs were good for sicknesses, saying often, “The root of this herb or the leaf of this herb, if gathered in a certain month of the year, is good for a certain sickness.” In that way the people learned about the medicines.
He showed them how to make weapons with which to kill the animals for their food. First he went out and cut some serviceberry shoots, brought them in, and peeled the bark off of them. He took one of the larger ones, flattened it, tied a string to it, and thus made a bow. Then he caught one of the birds he had made, took feathers from its wing, split them, and tied them to a shaft of wood.
At first he tied four feathers to the wood, and then shot the arrow. But he found that it didn’t fly well unless he used three feathers, and when he did, it hit the mark. Then he went out and broke sharp pieces off of some of the stones around him. When he tied them on to the shaft, he found that the black flint stones, and some white flint stones, made the best arrow tips.
When the people had learned how to made bows and arrows, Old Man told them how to shoot animals and birds. Because it isn’t healthy to eat animal flesh raw, he showed the first people how to make a fire. He gathered a soft, dry, rotten driftwood and made a punk of it. He then found a piece of hard wood and drilled a hole in it with an arrow point. He gave the first man a pointed piece of hard wood and showed him how to roll it between his hands until sparks came out and the punk caught fire. Then he showed the people how to cook meat, so that they didn’t get sick from the raw meat.
He told them to get a certain kind of rock that was on the land, while he found a harder stone. With the harder stone he had them hollow out the softer stone and to make a bowl with it. Thus they made their dishes.
Old Man told the first people how to get spirit power; “Go away by yourself and go to sleep. Something will come to you in your dream and will help you. It may be some animal. Whatever the animal tells you to do in your sleep, do it. Obey it. Be guided by it. If later you want help, if you are travelling alone or you cry for help, your prayer will be answered. It may be by an eagle, or a bear, or buffalo. Whatever animal hears your prayer, you must listen to it.
That was how the first people got along in the world; by the power that was given to them in their dreams.
After this, Old Man went back to travelling north. Many of the animals that he had created followed him. They understood when he spoke to them, and were his servants. When he got to the north point of the Porcupine Mountains, he made some more mud images, blew upon them, and they became people, men and women. They asked him, “What are we to eat?”
By way of answer, Old Man made many images of clay in the form of buffaloes. He blew his breath upon them and they stood up. When he made some signs to him, they started to run. Then he said to the people, “These animals; these buffalo, they are your food.”
“But how can we kill them?” the people asked.
“I will show you,” he replied.
He took them behind a cliff and told them to build rock piles. “Now hide behind those rock piles,” he said. “I will lead the buffalo this way. Now, when they get opposite of you, rise up.”
After telling them what to do, he went toward the herd of the buffalo. When he called to them, they started to run towards him, and they followed him until they were inside the piles of rock. Then Old Man dropped back. As the people rose up, the buffalo ran in a straight line and jumped right out off of the cliff.
“Go down and take the flesh of those animals,” Old Man cried.
The people tried to tear the limbs apart, but they could not. Old Man went to the side of the cliff, broke off some pieces with sharp edges, and told the people to cut the flesh with these rocks. They obeyed him. When they’d finished skinning the buffalo, they set up some poles and put the hides on them. Thus they made a shelter to sleep under.
After Old Man had taught the people all of these things, he started off again, travelling north until he came to where the Bow and the Elbow rivers meet. There he made more people and taught them the same things. From there he went further north. When he’d gotten almost all the way to the Red Deer River, he was so tired that he lay down on top of a hill. The form of his body can be seen there yet, on the top of the hill where he’d lain.
When he awoke from his sleep, he travelled farther north until he came to a high hill. He climbed up to the top and there sat down to rest. As he gazed over the country, he was very satisfied with it. Looking at the steep hill below him, he said to himself, “This is a fine place for sliding. I will have some fun!” And he began to slide down the hill. The marks where he slid are still there, and the place is known to all the Blackfeet as “Old Man’s Sliding Ground”.
Old Man cannot die. Long ago he left the Blackfeet and went away toward the west, going up into the mountains. Before he went, he said to the people, “I will always take care of you, and some day, I will come back.” Even today some people think that he spoke the truth, and that when he does come back, he will bring with him the buffalo, who many believe that the white men have hidden. Still others think that before he left he said that when he returned, he’d find them a different people. They would be living in a different world, he said, from that that he had made for them and had taught them to live in.