Arikara (Sahnish) Literature
“In ancient time the Great Spirit Above sent Mother Corn to our people to be their friend and helper, to give them support and health and strength. She has walked with our people on the long and difficult path that they have travelled from the faraway past, and now she marches with us toward the future.
“In the dim, distant past days, Mother Corn gave food to our ancestors. As she gave it to them, she now gives it to us. And as she was faithful and bountiful to our forefathers and to us, so will she be faithful and bountiful to our children. Now and in all time to come, she will give to us the blessings for which we have prayed.
“Mother Corn leads us as she led our fathers and our mothers down through the ages. The path of Mother Corn lies ahead, and we walk with her, day by day. We go forward with hope and confidence in the future, just as our ancestors did during all the past ages. When the lonely prairie stretched wide and fearful before us, we were doubtful and afraid. But Mother Corn strengthened and encouraged us.
“Now Mother Corn’s return makes our hearts glad. Give thanks! Give thanks to Mother Corn! She brings us a blessing. She brings us peace and plenty. She comes from the Great Spirit Above, who has brought us good things.”
Throughout the address and the elaborate ceremony that preceded and followed it, a stalk of corn stood before the altar, representing the spirit of Mother Corn.
About sunset, the staff of corn was dressed like a woman and carried at the head of a religious procession to the brink of the nearby river. White people call it the Missouri River; the Arikaras always called it the Mysterious Waters. With reverence, they placed the stalk in the water so that it might float along as a symbol of their affection for Mother Corn.
Among the Arikaras lived a young boy whose parents were so poor that the Wood Rats took pity upon him and made for him four magic arrows. The arrows were shaped from dogwood, and the shafts were fletched with Wood Rat hide instead of feathers. One of the arrows was black, another red, another yellow and another white. After presenting the boy with the arrows, the Wood Rats made him a bow of thick hickory wood.
Whenever the boy went hunting with his magic arrows he killed as many antelopes as his parents needed. No matter how far away an antelope might be, When the boy shot one of his arrows it always found its target. The people of his tribe marvelled at his skill and named him Antelope Carrier.
After his parents grew old and died, Antelope Carrier decided to go adventuring toward the setting sun to see what the world was like. One day on his wanderings he came to a very large lake surrounded by brushes and reeds. Wild game was plentiful there, and the mountains mirrored in the lake’s waters were so beautiful that he decided to stay for several days. With his bow and arrows he soon supplied himself with plenty of meat. He then built a big fire, roasted the meat, ate until he was no longer hungry, and lay down to sleep.
While he slept, two Thunderbirds glided quietly down from the sky, lifted him up and carried him to the highest of the mountains bordering the lake. When Antelope Carrier awoke, he found himself in a very strange place. The mountaintop was level but was no larger than the floor of a tepee, with steep cliffs on three sides and a dark forest descending sharply on the fourth. Antelope Carrier wondered if he would ever be able to get down from the mountaintop. On one side of the flat summit he found a nest built of sticks and soft feathers, and inside it were four young Thunderbirds.
As he sat down beside a small pool bubbling from the rock, he heard a roaring like a strong wind, and a shadow passed between him and the sun. Looking up, he saw a mother Thunderbird. She alighted close beside him and spoke to him: “My son, do not be afraid. I brought you to this place for a purpose. I have watched you for many days and know that you are a great hunter. I brought you here to help me save your young brothers in that nest. The god of the winged creatures, Nesaru, placed me and my mate upon this high place. We have been here a long time. I have built many nests and laid many eggs, but soon after my young birds hatch, a monster that lives in the big lake below always comes and destroys them. We have never raised any young Thunderbirds to take our places, and now I beg you to help me. If you can save my children I will give you what power I possess.”
“What manner of monster is this that you cannot overcome it?” Antelope Carrier asked.
“It is a water serpent with two long heads, and it has a thick covering of flint stones. When I hurl my lightning upon it, the monster is not harmed. Even when I throw my lightning in its mouth, the water serpent does not die because its flint-stone covering protects every part of its body. Stay here and help me kill this monster, and you shall have lightning in your eyes, and your breath, and then you shall have control of all the birds in the whole world.”
Antelope Carrier thought for a few moments. “I owe much to the wild creatures of the earth,” he replied. “I will stay here and help you.”
The Thunderbird thanked him and flew high in the sky to keep watch for the monster in the lake. As Antelope Carrier had not eaten since the Thunderbirds brought him to the mountaintop, he descended the east bluff into the dark forest to search for wild game. The timber was filled with birds of many colours, but he left them undisturbed and searched until he found an antelope which he killed with one arrow. He carried the meat and some sticks of wood back to the mountaintop, and made a fire with flint sparks.
While he was roasting the meat he heard the young Thunderbirds crying. He looked into their nest and saw that their mouths were wide open for food. Cutting some of the meat into small pieces, he began feeding the young birds. A moment later he heard a roaring of wings. The birds’ parents swooped down and thanked him for his kindness. “We are glad you are here to help us,” the father Thunderbird said. “The feathers of our young birds are beginning to turn dark, and we know it is nearly time for the monster serpent to crawl out of the lake and climb this cliff to kill and eat our children. If you see a fog rising from the lake, you will know that the serpent is coming. We will fly high into the sky now so that we can hurl our most powerful lightning down upon it.”
The next morning Antelope Carrier arose early to watch the sun come up in the east. He sat down, with his bow and arrows placed in easy reach, and just as the sun was lighting the forest something made him glance toward the lake. He saw a small roll of fog rising from the middle of the waters. The fog spread as it rose higher, and after a while it covered the lake and the land around and seemed to reach into the sky.
He saw something crawling from one end of the lake, and then suddenly there was another movement some distance from the first one. Through the mists Antelope Carrier saw that they were the two heads of a serpent monster. Slowly it came crawling up the steep cliff.
About this time dark clouds rolled in from the west accompanied by rapid lightning flashes and thunder. Rain beat down upon the crawling monster and the storm swept the fog away. Soon the Thunderbirds appeared in the sky, and Antelope Carrier knew that they had brought the storm. They spread their huge wings and threw streaks of lightning down upon the serpent, but they could not stop the monster. In a few minutes one of its ugly heads reached the summit. The young Thunderbirds tumbled out of their nest in fright, and the mother bird dived with a terrifying scream. She hurled bolts of lightning into the open mouth of the monster, forcing it away from the summit, but it stubbornly began crawling back up the face of the rock.
Exhausted, the Thunderbird circled the summit, making a wailing noise. “It is all over,” she cried in despair. “We cannot do any more. We have failed and must fly away. And you, my son, will have to die with my children.”
Antelope Carrier watched until her weary wings lifted her above the clouds, and then he picked up his bow. From his four magic arrows he chose the black one. He fitted it to his bowstring, ready to shoot into the mouth of the monster as soon as it crawled upon the summit again. As one of the serpent’s heads slithered across the flat rock, its mouth opened to swallow Antelope Carrier. He pulled his bowstring and shot deep into its red throat.
A great noise resounded across the mountain. It was like the crashing of a falling tree, and indeed the black arrow had miraculously transformed itself into a sycamore filled with many sharp branches. The monster’s head burst open and dropped down the cliff. But the second head now lifted above the edge of the summit, jerking itself toward Antelope Carrier. Quickly he fitted the red arrow to his bowstring and its speeding force lifted off the second head of the monster, sending it bouncing down the bluff until it smashed into pieces upon the sharp rocks.
The Thunderbirds, who had been watching from the clouds, plunged down with cries of joy. At the same time from the dark woods thousands of birds of many colours flew up to join their musical voices in a song of triumph.
“My son,” said the mother Thunderbird, “today you are chief of all the winged creatures. I give to you the power that the gods have given me. Lightning shall be in your breath and eyes. I give you a stick that shall have lightning, so that you can stun anything you strike. Wherever you go, the birds will follow you. They will warn you of monsters and other wicked animals and guard you with their power. Let us now go down where the serpent is.”
They found the serpent monster broken in two, its covering of flint rock shattered into thousands of pieces. For the first time in many years the lake was smooth and without a trace of fog. When the birds saw what Antelope Carrier had accomplished they brought him berries and seeds and in this way transferred their secret magic to him.
Antelope Carrier was now chief of all the winged creatures and wherever he went the birds followed him. Whenever a monster or wicked animal appeared, the birds brought him news of it and he went and killed the beast. Although he never returned to the Arikaras, as long as he roamed over the land as chief of all winged creatures he always kept the name his people had given him–Antelope Carrier.
A long time ago giants lived on the earth, and they were so strong they were not afraid of anything. When they stopped giving smoke to the gods of the four directions, Nesaru looked down upon them and was angry. “I made the giants too strong,” Nesaru said. “I will not keep them. They think that they are like me. I shall destroy them by covering the earth with water, but I will save the ordinary people.”
Nesaru sent the animals to lead the ordinary people into a cave so large that all the animals and people could live there together. Then he sealed up the cave and flooded the earth so that all the giants drowned. To remind himself that people were under the ground waiting to be released after the floodwaters were gone, Nesaru planted corn in the sky. As soon as the corn ripened, he took an ear from the field and turned it into a woman. She was the Mother-Corn.
“You must go down to the earth,” Nesaru told her, “and bring my people out from under the ground. Lead them to the place where the sun sets, for their home shall be in the west.”
Mother-Corn went down to the earth, and when she heard thunder in the east she followed the sound into the cave where the people were waiting. But the entrance closed behind her, and she could find no way to lead the people out upon the earth. “We must leave this place, this darkness,” she told them. “There is light above the ground. Who will help me take my people out of the earth?”
The Badger came forward and said: “Mother-Corn, I will help.” The Mole also stood up and said: “I will help the Badger dig through the ground, that we may see the light.” Then the long-nosed Mouse came and said: “I will help the other two.”
The Badger began to dig upwards. After a while he fell back exhausted. “Mother-Corn, I am very tired,” he said. Then the Mole dug until he could dig no more. The long-nosed Mouse took the Mole’s place, and when he became tired, the Badger began to dig again. The three took turns until at last the long nosed Mouse thrust his nose through the ground and could see a little light.
The Mouse went back and said: “Mother-Corn, I ran my nose through the earth until I saw light, but the digging has made my nose small and pointed. After this all the people will know by my nose that it was I who dug through the earth first.”
The Mole now went up to the hole and dug all the way through. The sun had come up from the east, and it was so bright it blinded the Mole. He ran back and said: “Mother-Corn, I have been blinded by the brightness of that sun. I cannot live upon the earth any more. I must make my home under the earth. From this time all the Moles will be blind so they cannot see in the daylight, but they can see in the night. They shall stay under the ground in the daytime.”
The Badger then went up and made the hole larger so the people could go through. When he crawled outside the Badger closed his eyes, but the rays of the sun struck him and blackened his legs and made a streak of black upon his face. He went back down and said: “Mother-Corn, I have received these black marks upon me, and I wish that I might remain this way so that people will remember that I was one of those who helped to get your people out.”
“Very well,” said Mother-Corn, “let it be as you say.”
She then led the way out, and the people rejoiced that they were now upon the open land. While they were standing there in the sunshine, Mother-Corn said: “My people, we will now journey westward toward the place where the sun sets. Before we start, any who wish to remain here–such as the Badger, Mouse, or Mole– may do so.” Some of the animals decided to return to their burrows in the earth; others wanted to go with Mother-Corn.
The journey was now begun. As they travelled, they could see a mountainous country rising up in front of them. They came to a deep canyon. The bluff was too steep for the people to get down, and if they should get down, the opposite side was too steep for them to climb. Mother-Corn asked for help, and a bluish-grey bird flew up, hovering on rapidly beating wings. It had a large bill, a bushy crest and a banded breast. The bird was the Kingfisher. “Mother-Corn,” it said, “I will be the one to point out the way for you.”
The Kingfisher flew to the other side of the canyon, and with its beak pecked repeatedly into the bank until the earth fell into the chasm. Then the bird flew back and pecked at the other bank until enough earth fell down to form a bridge. The people cried out their thanks. “Those who wish to join me,” said the Kingfisher, “may remain here and we will make our homes in these cliffs.” Some stayed, but most journeyed on.
After a while they came to another obstacle–a dark forest. The trees were so tall they seemed to reach the sun. They grew close together and were covered with thorns so that they formed an impenetrable thicket. Again Mother-Corn asked for help. This time an Owl came and stood before her, and said: “I will make a pathway for your people through this forest. Any who wish to remain with me may do so, and we shall live in this forest forever.” The Owl then flew up through the timber. As it waved its wings it moved the trees to one side, so that it left a pathway for the people to go through. Mother-Corn then led the people through the forest and they passed onward.
As they journeyed through the country, all at once they came to a big lake. The water was too deep and too wide to cross, and the people talked of turning back. But they could not do this, for Nesaru had ordered Mother-Corn to lead them always toward the west. A water bird with a black head and a checkered back came and stood in front of Mother-Corn, and said: “I am the Loon. I will make a pathway through this water. Let the people stop crying. I shall help them.”
Mother-Corn looked at the Loon and said: “Make a pathway for us, and some of the people will remain with you here.” The Loon flew and jumped into the lake, moving so swiftly that it parted the waters, and when it came out on the other side of the lake it left a pathway behind. Mother-Corn led the people across to dry land, and some turned back and became Loons. The others journeyed on.
At last they came to a level place beside a river, and Mother- Corn told them to build a village there. “Now you shall have my corn to plant,” she said, “so that you, by eating of it, will grow and also multiply.” After they built a village and planted the corn, Mother-Corn returned to the Upper World.
The people, however, had no rules or laws to go by, no chiefs or medicine men to advise them, and soon they were spending all their time at playing games. The first game they played was shinny ball, in which they divided into sides and used curved sticks to knock a ball through the other’s goal. Then they played at throwing lances through rings placed upon the ground. As time went on, the players who lost games grew so angry that they began killing those who had beaten them.
Nesaru was displeased by the behaviour of the people, and he and Mother-Corn came down to earth. He told them that they must have a chief and some medicine men to show them how to live. While Nesaru taught the people how to choose a chief through tests of bravery and wisdom, Mother-Corn taught them songs and ceremonies. After they had chosen a chief, Nesaru gave the man his own name, and then he taught the medicine men secrets of magic. He showed them how to make pipes for offering smoke to the gods of the four directions.
When all this was done, Nesaru went away toward the setting sun to prepare a place for new villages. Mother-Corn led the people in his tracks across plains and streams to this country where Nesaru had planted roots and herbs for the medicine men. There they built villages along a river that the white men later called the Republican River, in Kansas.
On the first day that they came to this country, Mother-Corn told them to offer smoke to the gods in the heavens and to all animal gods. While they were doing this, a Dog came running into the camp crying, and he accused Mother-Corn of doing wrong by going away and leaving him behind. “I came from the Sun,” he cried, “and the Sun-god is so angry because I was left behind that he is sending the Whirlwind to scatter the people.”
Mother-Corn called on the Dog to save the people by appeasing the Whirlwind. “Only by giving up my freedom,” the Dog replied, “can I do this. No longer can I hunt alone like my brother the Wolf, or roam free like the Coyote. I shall always be dependent upon the people.”
But when the Whirlwind came spinning and roaring across the land, the Dog stood between it and the people. “I shall always remain with the people,” he shouted to the Whirlwind. “I shall be a guardian for all their belongings.”
After the wind died away, Mother-Corn said: “The gods are jealous. If you forget to give smoke to them they will grow angry and send storms.
In the rich earth beside the river the people planted her corn, and then she said: “I shall turn into a Cedar-Tree to remind you that I am Mother-Corn, who gave you your life. It was I, Mother- Corn, who brought you from the east. I must become a Cedar-Tree to be with you. On the right side of the tree will be placed a stone to remind you of Nesaru, who brought order and wisdom to the people.”
Next morning a Cedar-Tree, full-grown, stood in front of the lodges of the people. Beside it was a large stone. The people knew that Mother-Corn and Nesaru would watch over them through all time, and would keep them together and give them long life.
The Arikaras (Sahnish) came from the south, many years ago, to the Missouri River in what is now North Dakota and the Fort Berthold Reservation in South Dakota, where they live today. With them, they brought not only reliance on corn as their most important agricultural crop, but also their appreciation of it as a divine gift. The Great Spirit Above gave them corn and they show their gratitude every year in their ceremonies.
The oral history of the Sahnish people is taken from sacred bundles and is verified by archeological findings. Ancient objects and ceremonies are part of the oral history of the people. The Sahnish history has its roots in eastern Nebraska where numerous village sites were found. Oral history tells of a person called “Chief Above” who brought these villages together in a union for protection against waiting tribes. Archeologists confirm there was a drawing together into large villages on the Elk Horn River in what is now called Omaha, Nebraska, at the end of the prehistoric and beginning of the proto-historic period.
In these religious ceremonies, corn was honored and referred to in the endearing and also the highly respectful title of “Mother Corn.” At a certain time in the ritual, one of the leaders of the tribe made an address to Mother Corn in the following words, or in words with similar effect.
Corn played an important mythological role in many tribes as well– in some cultures Corn was a respected deity, while in others, corn was a special gift to the people from the Creator or culture hero. In addition to its importance as a food source, corn also played a ceremonial role in many tribes, with sacred corn pollen or cornmeal being used as ritual adornment and spiritual offerings.
The coyote deity Chirich is the trickster figure of Arikara mythology. He is clever but reckless, and is forever getting himself and the people around him into trouble, particularly through socially inappropriate behavior like greediness, boastfulness, lying, and chasing women. Like modern cartoon characters, Chirich frequently dies during the course of his adventures and returns randomly to life– it is impossible to truly get rid of that trickster for good. Chirich stories are often humorous in nature, but they can also be cautionary tales about the consequences of bad behavior and the dangers of interacting with irresponsible people.
The Arikara name Atina (or Atna) literally means just “Mother”; the “corn” was added to her name by anthropologists because she was the goddess or spirit of the corn. According to Arikara mythology, Nishanu created the Corn Mother from an ear of corn and she became the protector of the Arikaras, leading them to their homeland and teaching them to farm.
Chief Rushing Bear was an Arikara Indian leader of the 19th century. His Arikara name, Kuunux-tuunawiinx or Kunuh-dunawenag, means “Rushing Bear,” which he was commonly called in English; but the Arikaras more often referred to him by the honorific “Son of the Star” or “Son of Star.” He was second-in-command under Chief White Shield, and took over the position of head chief of the Arikara tribe in the late 1860’s until his death in 1881.
The Arikara tribal chief Kunuhtiwit (also spelled Ku’nu’h-tiwit, Ku-nuh-ti-wit, or Kuunux-teewiita) was the son of the important head chief Rushing Bear. His own name meant “Sitting Bear” in the Arikara language, and he was often known by that name in English. Kunuhtiwit was chief of the the Arikara tribe from his father’s death in 1881 until his own death in 1915.
Alternate names for Arikara are: Northern Pawnee, Ricara, Ree, Sahnish, Tsa’nish.