Myths & Legends


Shawnee: Piqua

The Shawnee (Shaawanwaki, Ša˙wano˙ki and Shaawanowi lenaweeki) are an Algonquian-speaking ethnic group indigenous to North America. In colonial times they were a semi-migratory Native American nation, primarily inhabiting areas of the Ohio Valley, extending from Ohio and Kentucky eastward to West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Western Maryland; south to Alabama and South Carolina; and westward to Indiana, and Illinois in the United States.

The legend that follows is an origin tale: in this case of the Piqua-Shawnee.
— Orly

A great while ago the Shawanos nation took up the war-talk against the Walkullas, who lived on their own lands on the borders of the Great Salt Lake, and near the Burning Water. Part of the nation were not well pleased with the war. The head chief and the counsellors said the Walkullas were very brave and cunning, and the priests said their god was mightier than ours. The old and experienced warriors said the counsellors were wise, and had spoken well; but the Head Buffalo, the young warriors, and all who wished for war, would not listen to their words. They said that our fathers had beaten their fathers in many battles, that the Shawanos were as brave and strong as they ever were, and the Walkullas much weaker and more cowardly. They said the old and timid, the faint heart and the failing knee, might stay at home to take care of the women and children, and sleep and dream of those who had never dared bend a bow or look upon a painted cheek or listen to a war-whoop, while the young warriors went to war and drank much blood. When two moons were gone they said they would come back with many prisoners and scalps, and have a great feast. The arguments of the fiery young men prevailed with all the youthful warriors, but the elder and wiser listened to the priests and counsellors, and remained in their villages to see the leaf fall and the grass grow, and to gather in the nut and follow the trail of the deer.

Two moons passed, then a third, then came the night enlivened by many stars, but the warriors returned not. As the land of the Walkullas lay but a woman’s journey of six suns from the villages of our nation, our people began to fear that our young men had been overcome in battle and were all slain. The head chief, the counsellors, and all the warriors who had remained behind, came together in the great wigwam, and called the priests to tell them where their sons were. Chenos, who was the wisest of them all (as well he might be, for he was older than the oak-tree whose top dies by the hand of Time), answered that they were killed by their enemies, the Walkullas, assisted by men of a strange speech and colour, who lived beyond the Great Salt Lake, fought with thunder and lightning, and came to our enemies on the back of a great bird with many white wings. When he had thus made known to our people the fate of the warriors there was a dreadful shout of horror throughout the village. The women wept aloud, and the men sprang up and seized their bows and arrows to go to war with the Walkullas and the strange warriors who had helped to slay their sons, but Chenos bade them sit down again.

“There is one yet living,” said he. “He will soon be here. The sound of his footsteps is in my ear as he crosses the hollow hills. He has killed many of his enemies; he has glutted his vengeance fully; he has drunk blood in plenteous draughts. Long he fought with the men of his own race, and many fell before him, but he fled from the men who came to the battle armed with the real lightning, and hurling unseen death. Even now I see him coming; the shallow streams he has forded; the deep rivers he has swum. He is tired and hungry, and his quiver has no arrows, but he brings a prisoner in his arms. Lay the deer’s flesh on the fire, and bring hither the pounded corn. Taunt him not, for he is valiant, and has fought like a hungry bear.”

As the wise Chenos spoke these words to the grey-bearded counsellors and warriors the Head Buffalo walked calm and cool into the midst of them. There he stood, tall and straight as a young pine, but he spoke no word, looking on the head chief and the counsellors. There was blood upon his body, dried on by the sun, and the arm next his heart was bound up with the skin of the deer. His eye was hollow and his body gaunt, as though he had fasted long. His quiver held no arrows.

“Where are our sons?” inquired the head chief of the warrior.

“Ask the wolf and the panther,” he answered.

“Brother! tell us where are our sons!” exclaimed the chief. “Our women ask us for their sons. They want them. Where are they?”

“Where are the snows of last year?” replied the warrior. “Have they not gone down the swelling river into the Great Lake? They have, and even so have your sons descended the stream of Time into the great Lake of Death. The great star sees them as they lie by the water of the Walkulla, but they see him not. The panther and the wolf howl unheeded at their feet, and the eagle screams, but they hear them not. The vulture whets his beak on their bones, the wild-cat rends their flesh, both are unfelt, for your sons are dead.”

When the warrior told these things to our people, they set up their loud death-howl. The women wept; but the men sprang up and seized their weapons, to go to meet the Walkullas, the slayers of their sons. The chief warrior rose again—

“Fathers and warriors,” said he, “hear me and believe my words, for I will tell you the truth. Who ever heard the Head Buffalo lie, and who ever saw him afraid of his enemies? Never, since the time that he chewed the bitter root and put on the new moccasins, has he lied or fled from his foes. He has neither a forked tongue nor a faint heart. Fathers, the Walkullas are weaker than us. Their arms are not so strong, their hearts are not so big, as ours. As well might the timid deer make war upon the hungry wolf, as the Walkullas upon the Shawanos. We could slay them as easily as a hawk pounces into a dove’s nest and steals away her unfeathered little ones. The Head Buffalo alone could have taken the scalps of half the nation. But a strange tribe has come among them—men whose skin is white as the folds of the cloud, and whose hair shines like the great star of day. They do not fight as we fight, with bows and arrows and with war-axes, but with spears which thunder and lighten, and send unseen death. The Shawanos fall before it as the berries and acorns fall when the forest is shaken by the wind in the beaver-moon. Look at the arm nearest my heart. It was stricken by a bolt from the strangers’ thunder; but he fell by the hands of the Head Buffalo, who fears nothing but shame, and his scalp lies at the feet of the head chief.

“Fathers, this was our battle. We came upon the Walkullas, I and my brothers, when they were unprepared. They were just going to hold the dance of the green corn. The whole nation had come to the dance; there were none left behind save the sick and the very old. None were painted; they were all for peace, and were as women. We crept close to them, and hid in the thick bushes which grew upon the edge of their camp, for the Shawanos are the cunning adder and not the foolish rattlesnake. We saw them preparing to offer a sacrifice to the Great Spirit. We saw them clean the deer, and hang his head, horns, and entrails upon the great white pole with a forked top, which stood over the roof of the council wigwam. They did not know that the Master of Life had sent the Shawanos to mix blood with the sacrifices. We saw them take the new corn and rub it upon their hands, breasts, and faces. Then the head chief, having first thanked the Master of Life for his goodness to the Walkullas, got up and gave his brethren a talk. He told them that the Great Spirit loved them, and had made them victorious over all their enemies; that he had sent a great many fat bears, deer, and moose to their hunting-ground, and had given them fish, whose heads were very small and bodies very big; that he had made their corn grow tall and sweet, and had ordered his suns to ripen it in the beginning of the harvest moon, that they might make a great feast for the strangers who had come from a far country on the wings of a great bird to warm themselves at the Walkullas’ fire. He told them they must love the Great Spirit, take care of the old men, tell no lies, and never break the faith of the pipe of peace; that they must not harm the strangers, for they were their brothers, but must live in peace with them, and give them lands and wives from among their women. If they did these things the Great Spirit, he said, would make their corn grow taller than ever, and direct them to hunting-grounds where the moose should be as thick as the stars.

“Fathers and warriors, we heard these words; but we knew not what to do. We feared not the Walkullas; the God of War, we saw, had given them into our hands. But who were the strange tribe? Were they armed as we were, and was their Great Medicine (Great Spirit) like ours? Warriors, you all knew the Young Eagle, the son of the Old Eagle, who is here with us; but his wings are feeble, he flies no more to the field of blood. The Young Eagle feared nothing but shame, and he said—

“‘I see many men sit round a fire, I will go and see who they are!’

“He went. The Old Eagle looks at me as if he would say, ‘Why went not the chief warrior himself?’ I will tell you. The Head Buffalo is a head taller than the tallest man of his tribe. Can the moose crawl into the fox’s hole? Can the swan hide himself under a little leaf? The Young Eagle was little, save in his soul. He was not full-grown, save in his heart. He could go and not be seen or heard. He was the cunning black-snake which creeps silently in the grass, and none thinks him near till he strikes.

“He came back and told us there were many strange men a little way before us whose faces were white, and who wore no skins, whose cabins were white as the snow upon the Backbone of the Great Spirit (the Alleghany Mountains), flat at the top, and moving with the wind like the reeds on the bank of a river; that they did not talk like the Walkullas, but spoke a strange tongue, the like of which he had never heard before. Many of our warriors would have turned back to our own lands. The Flying Squirrel said it was not cowardice to do so; but the Head Buffalo never turns till he has tasted the blood of his foes. The Young Eagle said he had eaten the bitter root and put on the new moccasins, and had been made a man, and his father and the warriors would cry shame on him if he took no scalp. Both he and the Head Buffalo said they would go and attack the Walkullas and their friends alone. The young warriors then said they would also go to the battle, and with a great heart, as their fathers had done. Then the Shawanos rushed upon their foes.

“The Walkullas fell before us like rain in the summer months. We were as a fire among rushes. We went upon them when they were unprepared, when they were as children; and for a while the Great Spirit gave them into our hands. But a power rose up against us that we could not withstand. The strange men came upon us armed with thunder and lightning. Why delays my tongue to tell its story? Fathers, your sons have fallen like the leaves of a forest-tree in a high wind, like the flowers of spring after a frost, like drops of rain in the sturgeon moon! Warriors, the sprouts which sprang up from the withered oaks have perished, the young braves of our nation lie food for the eagle and the wild-cat by the arm of the Great Lake!

“Fathers, the bolt from the strangers’ thunder entered my flesh, yet I did not fly. These six scalps I tore from the Walkullas, but this has yellow hair. Have I done well?”

The head chief and the counsellors answered he had done very well, but Chenos answered—

“No. You went into the Walkullas’ camp when the tribe were feasting to the Great Spirit, and you disturbed the sacrifice, and mixed human blood with it. Therefore has this evil come upon us, for the Great Spirit is very angry.”

Then the head chief and the counsellors asked Chenos what must be done to appease the Master of Breath.

Chenos answered—

“The Head Buffalo, with the morning, will offer to him that which he holds dearest.”

The Head Buffalo looked upon the priests, and said—

“The Head Buffalo fears the Great Spirit. He will kill a deer, and, in the morning, it shall be burned to the Great Spirit.”

Chenos said to him—

“You have told the council how the battle was fought and who fell; you have shown the spent quiver and the scalps, but you have not spoken of your prisoner. The Great Spirit keeps nothing hid from his priests, of whom Chenos is one. He has told me you have a prisoner, one with tender feet and a trembling heart.”

“Let any one say the Head Buffalo ever lied,” replied the warrior. “He never spoke but truth. He has a prisoner, a woman taken from the strange camp, a daughter of the sun, a maiden from the happy islands which no Shawano has ever seen, and she shall live with me, and become the mother of my children.”

“Where is she?” asked the head chief.

“She sits on the bank of the river at the bend where we dug up the bones of the great beast, beneath the tree which the Master of Breath shivered with his lightnings. I placed her there because the spot is sacred, and none dare disturb her. I will go and fetch her to the council fire, but let no one touch her or show anger, for she is fearful as a young deer, and weeps like a child for its mother.”

Soon he returned, and brought with him a woman. She shook like a reed in the winter’s wind, and many tears ran down her cheeks. The men sat as though their tongues were frozen. Was she beautiful? Go forth to the forest when it is clothed with the flowers of spring, look at the tall maize when it waves in the wind, and ask if they are beautiful. Her skin was white as the snow which falls upon the mountains beyond our lands, save upon her cheeks, where it was red,—not such red as the Indian paints when he goes to war, but such as the Master of Life gives to the flower which grows among thorns. Her eyes shone like the star which never moves. Her step was like that of the deer when it is a little scared.

The Head Buffalo said to the council—

“This is my prisoner. I fought hard for her. Three warriors, tall, strong, and painted, three pale men, armed with red lightning, stood at her side. Where are they now? I bore her away in my arms, for fear had overcome her. When night came on I wrapped skins around her, and laid her under the leafy branches of the tree to keep off the cold, and kindled a fire, and watched by her till the sun rose. Who will say she shall not live with the Head Buffalo, and be the mother of his children?”

Then the Old Eagle got up, but he could not walk strong, for he was the oldest warrior of his tribe, and had seen the flowers bloom many times, the infant trees of the forest die of old age, and the friends of his boyhood laid in the dust. He went to the woman, laid his hands on her head, and wept. The other warriors, who had lost their kindred and sons in the war with the Walkullas, shouted and lamented. The woman also wept.

“Where is the Young Eagle?” asked the Old Eagle of the Head Buffalo. The other warriors, in like manner, asked for their kindred who had been killed.

“Fathers, they are dead,” answered the warrior. “The Head Buffalo has said they are dead, and he never lies. But let my fathers take comfort. Who can live for ever? The foot of the swift step and the hand of the stout bow become feeble. The eye grows dim, and the heart of many days quails at the fierce glance of warriors. ’Twas better they should die like brave men in their youth than become old men and faint.”

“We must have revenge,” they all cried. “We will not listen to the young warrior who pines for the daughter of the sun.”

Then they began to sing a mournful song. The strange woman wept. Tears rolled down her cheeks, and she often looked up to the house of the Great Spirit and spoke, but none could understand her. All the time the Old Eagle and the other warriors begged that she should be burned to revenge them.

“Brothers and warriors,” said Chenos, “our sons did wrong when they broke in upon the sacred dance the Walkullas made to their god, and he lent his thunder to the strange warriors. Let us not draw down his vengeance further by doing we know not what. Let the beautiful woman remain this night in the wigwam of the council, covered with skins, and let none disturb her. To-morrow we will offer a sacrifice of deer’s flesh to the Great Spirit, and if he will not give her to the raging fire and the torments of the avengers, he will tell us so by the words of his mouth. If he does not speak, it shall be done to her as the Old Eagle and his brothers have said.”

The head chief said—

“Chenos has spoken well; wisdom is in his words. Make for the strange woman a soft bed of skins, and treat her kindly, for it may be she is a daughter of the Great Spirit.”

Then they all returned to their cabins and slept, save the Head Buffalo, who, fearing for the woman’s life, laid himself down at the door of the lodge, and watched.

When the morning came the warrior went to the forest and killed a deer which he brought to Chenos, who prepared it for a sacrifice, and sang a song while the flesh lay on the fire.

“Let us listen,” said Chenos, stopping the warriors in their dance. “Let us see if the Great Spirit hears us.”

They listened, but could hear nothing. Chenos asked him why he did not speak, but he did not answer. Then they sang again.

“Hush!” said Chenos listening. “I hear the crowing of the Great Turkey-cock. I hear him speaking.”

They stopped, and Chenos went close to the fire and talked with his master, but nobody saw with whom he talked.

“What does the Great Spirit tell his prophet?” asked the head chief.

“He says,” answered Chenos, “the young woman must not be offered to him. He wills her to live and become the mother of many children.”

Many were pleased that she was to live, but those who had lost brothers or sons were not appeased, and they said—

“We will have blood. We will go to the priest of the Evil Spirit, and ask him if his master will not give us revenge.”

Not far from where our nation had their council fire was a great hill, covered with stunted trees and moss, and rugged rocks. There was a great cave in it, in which dwelt Sketupah, the priest of the Evil One, who there did worship to his master. Sketupah would have been tall had he been straight, but he was more crooked than a bent bow. His hair was like a bunch of grapes, and his eyes like two coals of fire. Many were the gifts our nation made to him to gain his favour, and the favour of his master. Who but he feasted on the fattest buffalo hump? Who but he fed on the earliest ear of milky corn, on the best things that grew on the land or in the water?

The Old Eagle went to the mouth of the cave and cried with a loud voice—


“Sketupah!” answered the hoarse voice of the Evil One from the hollow cave. He soon came and asked the Old Eagle what he wanted.

“Revenge for our sons who have been killed by the Walkullas and their friends. Will your master hear us?”

“My master must have a sacrifice; he must smell blood,” answered Sketupah. “Then we shall know if he will give revenge. Bring hither a sacrifice in the morning.”

So in the morning they brought a sacrifice, and the priest laid it on the fire while he danced around. He ceased singing and listened, but the Evil Spirit answered not. Just as he was going to commence another song the warriors saw a large ball rolling very fast up the hill to the spot where they stood. It was the height of a man. When it came up to them it began to unwind itself slowly, until at last a little strange-looking man crept out of the ball, which was made of his own hair. He was no higher than one’s shoulders. One of his feet made a strange track, such as no warrior had ever seen before. His face was as black as the shell of the butter-nut or the feathers of the raven, and his eyes as green as grass. His hair was of the colour of moss, and so long that, as the wind blew it out, it seemed the tail of a fiery star.

“What do you want of me?” he asked.

The priest answered—

“The Shawanos want revenge. They want to sacrifice the beautiful daughter of the sun, whom the Head Buffalo has brought from the camp of the Walkullas.”

“They shall have their wish,” said the Evil Spirit. “Go and fetch her.”

Then Old Eagle and the warriors fetched her. Head Buffalo would have fought for her, but Chenos commanded him to be still.

“My master,” he said, “will see she does not suffer.” Then they fastened her to the stake. The head warrior had stood still, for he hoped that the priest of the Great Spirit should snatch her away from the Evil One. Now he shouted his war-cry and rushed upon Sketupah. It was in vain. Sketupah’s master did but breathe upon the face of the warrior when he fell as though he had struck him a blow, and never breathed more. Then the Evil One commanded them to seize Chenos.

“Come, my master,” cried Chenos, “for the hands of the Evil One are upon me.”

As soon as he had said this, very far over the tall hills, which Indians call the Backbone of the Great Spirit, the people saw two great lights, brighter and larger than stars, moving very fast towards the land of the Shawanos. One was just as high as another, and they were both as high as the goat-sucker flies before a thunderstorm. At first they were close together, but as they came nearer they grew wider apart. Soon our people saw that they were two eyes, and in a little while the body of a great man, whose head nearly reached the sky, came after them. Brothers, the eyes of the Great Spirit always go before him, and nothing is hid from his sight. Brothers, I cannot describe the Master of Life as he stood before the warriors of our nation. Can you look steadily on the star of the morning?

When the Evil Spirit saw the Spirit of Good coming, he began to grow in stature, and continued swelling until he was as tall and big as he. When the Spirit of Good came near and saw how the Evil Spirit had grown, he stopped, and, looking angry, said, with a voice that shook the hills—

“You lied; you promised to stay among the white people and the nations towards the rising sun, and not trouble my people more.”

“This woman,” replied the Evil Spirit, “comes from my country; she is mine.”

“She is mine,” said the Great Spirit. “I had given her for a wife to the warrior whom you have killed. Tell me no more lies, bad manito, lest I punish you. Away, and see you trouble my people no more.”

The cowardly spirit made no answer, but shrank down to the size he was when he first came. Then he began as before to roll himself up in his hair, which he soon did, and then disappeared as he came. When he was gone, the Great Spirit shrank till he was no larger than a Shawano, and began talking to our people in a soft sweet voice—

“Men of the Shawanos nation, I love you and have always loved you. I bade you conquer your enemies; I gave your foes into your hands. I sent herds of deer and many bears and moose to your hunting-ground, and made my suns shine upon your corn. Who lived so well, who fought so bravely as the Shawanos? Whose women bore so many sons as yours?

“Why did you disturb the sacrifice which the Walkullas were offering to me at the feast of green corn? I was angry, and gave your warriors into the hands of their enemies.

“Shawanos, hear my words, and forget them not; do as I bid you, and you shall see my power and my goodness. Offer no further violence to the white maiden, but treat her kindly. Go now and rake up the ashes of the sacrifice fire into a heap, gathering up the brands. When the great star of evening rises, open the ashes, put in the body of the Head Buffalo, lay on much wood, and kindle a fire on it. Let all the nation be called together, for all must assist in laying wood on the fire, but they must put on no pine, nor the tree which bears white flowers, nor the grape-vine which yields no fruit, nor the shrub whose dew blisters the flesh. The fire must be kept burning two whole moons. It must not go out; it must burn night and day. On the first day of the third moon put no wood on the fire, but let it die. On the morning of the second day the Shawanos must all come to the heap of ashes—every man, woman, and child must come, and the aged who cannot walk must be helped to it. Then Chenos and the head chief must bring out the beautiful woman, and place her near the ashes. This is the will of the Great Spirit.”

When he had finished these words he began to swell until he had reached his former bulk and stature. Then at each of his shoulders came out a wing of the colour of the gold-headed pigeon. Gently shaking these, he took flight from the land of the Shawanos, and was never seen in those beautiful regions again.

The Shawanos did as he bade them. They raked the ashes together, laid the body of Head Buffalo in them, lighted the fire, and kept it burning the appointed time. On the first day of the third moon they let the fire out, assembled the nation around, and placed the beautiful woman near the ashes. They waited, and looked to see what would happen. At last the priests and warriors who were nearest began to shout, crying out—

“Piqua!” which in the Shawanos tongue means a man coming out of the ashes, or a man made of ashes.

They told no lie. There he stood, a man tall and straight as a young pine, looking like a Shawanos, but handsomer than any man of our nation. The first thing he did was to cry the war-whoop, and demand paint, a club, a bow and arrows, and a hatchet,—all of which were given him. Looking around he saw the white woman, and he walked up to her, and gazed in her eyes. Then he came to the head chief and said—

“I must have that woman for my wife.”

“What are you?” asked the chief.

“A man of ashes,” he replied.

“Who made you?”

“The Great Spirit; and now let me go, that I may take my bow and arrows, kill my deer, and come back and take the beautiful maiden for my wife.”

The chief asked Chenos—

“Shall he have her? Does the Great Spirit give her to him?”

“Yes,” replied the priest. “The Great Spirit has willed that he shall have her, and from them shall arise a tribe to be called Piqua.”

Brothers, I am a Piqua, descended from the man made of ashes. If I have told you a lie, blame not me, for I have but told the story as I heard it. Brothers, I have done.



Source:  Anonymous

Culture:  Shawnee

Language:  Algonquin


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