Myths & Legends



Cree: The Red Swan

The Red Swan, the daughter of a magician, is a fable from the Algonquin, the largest language group in the Americas north of the Rio Grande.
— Orly

Three brothers were left destitute, by the death of their parents, at an early age. The eldest was not yet able to provide fully for their support, but did all he could in hunting, and with his aid, and the stock of provisions left by their father, they were preserved and kept alive, rather, it seems, by miraculous interposition, than the adequacy of their own exertions. For the father had been a hermit, having removed far away from the body of the tribe, so that when he and his wife died they left their children without neighbours and friends, and the lads had no idea that there was a human being near them. They did not even know who their parents had been, for the eldest was too young, at the time of their death, to remember it. Forlorn as they were, they did not, however, give up to despondency, but made use of every exertion they could, and in process of time, learned the art of hunting and killing animals. The eldest soon became an expert hunter, and was very successful in procuring food. He was noted for his skill in killing buffalo, elk, and moose, and he instructed his brothers in the arts of the forest as soon as they become old enough to follow him. After they had become able to hunt and take care of themselves, the elder proposed to leave them, and go in search of habitations, promising to return as soon as he could procure them wives. In this project he was overruled by his brothers, who said they could not part with him. Maujeekewis, the second eldest, was loud in his disapproval, saying, "What will you do with those you propose to get—we have lived so long without them, and we can still do without them." His words prevailed, and the three brothers continued together for a time.

One day they agreed to kill each, a male of those kind of animals each was most expert in hunting, for the purpose of making quivers from their skins. They did so, and immediately commenced making arrows to fill their quivers, that they might be prepared for any emergency. Soon after, they hunted on a wager, to see who should come in first with game, and prepare it so as to regale the others. They were to shoot no other animal, but such as each was in the habit of killing. They set out different ways; Odjibwa, the youngest, had not gone far before he saw a bear, an animal he was not to kill, by the agreement. He followed him close and drove an arrow through him, which brought him to the ground. Although contrary to the bet, he immediately commenced skinning him, when suddenly something red tinged all the air around him. He rubbed his eyes, thinking he was perhaps deceived, but without effect, for the red hue continued. At length he heard a strange noise at a distance. It first appeared like a human voice, but after following the sound for some distance, he reached the shores of a lake, and soon saw the object he was looking for. At a distance out in the lake, sat a most beautiful Red Swan, whose plumage glittered in the sun, and who would, now and then make the same noise he had heard. He was within long bow shot, and pulling the arrow from the bow-string up to his ear, took deliberate aim and shot. The arrow took no effect; and he shot and shot again till his quiver was empty. Still the swan remained, moving round and round, stretching its long neck and dipping its bill into the water, as if heedless of the arrows shot at it. Odjibwa ran home, and got all his own and his brothers' arrows, and shot them all away. He then stood and gazed at the beautiful bird. While standing, he remembered his brother's saying that in their deceased father's medicine sack were three magic arrows. Off he started, his anxiety to kill the swan overcoming all scruples. At any other time, he would have deemed it sacrilege to open his father's medicine sack, but now he hastily seized the three arrows and ran back, leaving the other contents of the sack scattered over the lodge. The swan was still there. He shot the first arrow with great precision, and came very near to it. The second came still closer; as he took the last arrow, he felt his arm firmer, and drawing it up with vigour, saw it pass through the neck of the swan a little above the breast. Still it did not prevent the bird from flying off, which it did, however, at first slowly, flapping its wings and rising gradually into the air, and then flying off toward the sinking of the sun. Odjibwa was disappointed; he knew that his brothers would be displeased with him; he rushed into the water and rescued the two magic arrows, the third was carried off by the swan; but he thought that it could not fly very far with it, and let the consequences be what they might, he was bent on following it.

Off he started on the run; he was noted for speed, for he would shoot an arrow, and then run so fast that the arrow always fell behind him. I can run fast, he thought, and I can get up with the swan some time or other. He thus ran over hills and prairies, toward the west, till near night, and was only going to take one more run, and then seek a place to sleep for the night, when suddenly he heard noises at a distance, which he knew were from people; for some were cutting trees, and the strokes of their axes echoed through the woods. When he emerged from the forest, the sun was just falling below the horizon, and he felt pleased to find a place to sleep in, and get something to eat, as he had left home without a mouthful. All these circumstances could not damp his ardour for the accomplishment of his object, and he felt that if he only persevered, he would succeed. At a distance, on a rising piece of ground, he could see an extensive town. He went toward it, but soon heard the watchman, Mudjee-Kokokoho, who was placed on some height, to overlook the place, and give notice of the approach of friends or foes—crying out, "We are visited;" and a loud holla indicated that they all heard it. The young man advanced, and was pointed by the watchman to the lodge of the chief. "It is there you must go in," he said, and left him. "Come in, come in," said the chief, "take a seat there," pointing to the side where his daughter sat. "It is there you must sit." Soon they gave him something to eat, and very few questions were asked him, being a stranger. It was only when he spoke, that the others answered him. "Daughter," said the chief, after dark, "take our son-in-law's mockasins, and see if they be torn; if so, mend them for him, and bring in his bundle." The young man thought it strange that he should be so warmly received, and married instantly, without his wishing it, although the young girl was pretty. It was some time before she would take his mockasins, which he had taken off. It displeased him to see her so reluctant to do so, and when she did reach them, he snatched them out of her hand and hung them up himself. He laid down and thought of the swan, and made up his mind to be off by dawn. He awoke early, and spoke to the young woman, but she gave no answer. He slightly touched her. "What do you want?" she said, and turned her back toward him. "Tell me," he said, "what time the swan passed. I am following it, and come out and point the direction." "Do you think you can catch up to it?" she said. "Yes," he answered. "Naubesah," (foolishness) she said. She, however, went out and pointed in the direction he should go. The young man went slowly till the sun arose, when he commenced traveling at his accustomed speed. He passed the day in running, and when night came, he was unexpectedly pleased to find himself near another town; and when at a distance, he heard the watchman crying out, "We are visited;" and soon the men of the village stood out to see the stranger. He was again told to enter the lodge of the chief, and his reception was, in every respect, the same as he met the previous night; only that the young woman was more beautiful, and received him very kindly, and although urged to stay, his mind was fixed on the object of his journey. Before daylight he asked the young woman what time the Red Swan passed, and to point out the way. She did so, and said it passed yesterday when the sun was between midday and pungishemoo—its falling place. He again set out rather slowly, but when the sun had arisen he tried his speed by shooting an arrow ahead, and running after it; but it fell behind him. Nothing remarkable happened in the course of the day, and he went on leisurely. Toward night, he came to the lodge of an old man. Some time after dark he saw a light emitted from a small low lodge. He went up to it very slyly, and peeping through the door, saw an old man alone, warming his back before the fire, with his head down on his breast. He thought the old man did not know that he was[Pg 16] standing near the door, but in this he was disappointed; for so soon as he looked in, "Walk in, Nosis," he said, "take a seat opposite to me, and take off your things and dry them, for you must be fatigued; and I will prepare you something to eat." Odjibwa did as he was requested. The old man, whom he perceived to be a magician, then said; "My kettle with water stands near the fire;" and immediately a small earthen or a kind of metallic pot with legs appeared by the fire. He then took one grain of corn, also one whortleberry, and put them in the pot. As the young man was very hungry, he thought that his chance for a supper was but small. Not a word or a look, however, revealed his feelings. The pot soon boiled, when the old man spoke, commanding it to stand some distance from the fire; "Nosis," said he, "feed yourself," and he handed him a dish and ladle made out of the same metal as the pot. The young man helped himself to all that was in the pot; he felt ashamed to think of his having done so, but before he could speak, the old man said, "Nosis, eat, eat;" and soon after he again said, "help yourself from the pot." Odjibwa was surprised on looking into it to see it full, he kept on taking all out, and as soon as it was done, it was again filled, till he had amply satisfied his hunger. The magician then spoke, and the pot occupied its accustomed place in one part of the lodge. The young man then leisurely reclined back, and listened to the predictions of his entertainer who told him to keep on, and he would obtain his object. "To tell you more," said he, "I am not permitted; but go on as you have commenced, and you will not be disappointed; to-morrow you will again reach one of my fellow old men; but the one you will see after him will tell you all, and the manner in which you will proceed to accomplish your journey. Often has this Red Swan passed, and those who have followed it have never returned: but you must be firm in your resolution, and be prepared for all events." "So will it be," answered Odjibwa, and they both laid down to sleep. Early in the morning, the old man had his magic kettle prepared, so that his guest should eat before leaving. When leaving, the old man gave him his parting advice.

Odjibwa set out in better spirits than he had done since leaving home. Night again found him in company with an old man, who received him kindly, and directed him on his way in the morning. He travelled with a light heart, expecting to meet the one who was to give him directions how to proceed to get the Red Swan. Toward night fall, he reached the third old man's lodge. Before coming to the door, he heard him saying, "Nosis, come in," and going in immediately, he felt quite at home. The old man prepared him something to eat, acting as the other magicians had done, and his kettle was of the same dimensions and material. The old man waited till he had done eating, when he commenced addressing him. "Young man, the errand you are on is very difficult. Numbers of young men have passed with the same purpose, but never returned. Be careful, and if your guardian spirits are powerful, you may succeed. This Red Swan you are following, is the daughter of a magician, who has plenty of every thing, but he values his daughter but little less than wampum. He wore a cap of wampum, which was attached to his scalp; but powerful Indians — warriors of a distant chief, came and told him, that their chief's daughter was on the brink of the grave, and she herself requested his scalp of wampum to effect a cure. If I can only see it, I will recover, she said, and it was for this reason they came, and after long urging the magician, he at last consented to part with it, only from the idea of restoring the young woman to health; although when he took it off, it left his head bare and bloody. Several years have passed since, and it has not healed. The warriors' coming for it, was only a cheat, and they are now constantly making sport of it, dancing it about from village to village; and on every insult it receives the old man groans from pain. Those Indians are too powerful for the magician, and numbers have sacrificed themselves to recover it for him, but without success. The Red Swan has enticed many a young man, as she has done you, in order to get them to procure it, and whoever is the fortunate one that succeeds, will receive the Red Swan as his reward. In the morning you will proceed on your way, and toward evening you will come to the magician's lodge, but before you enter you will hear his groans; he will immediately ask you in, and you will see no one but himself; he will make inquiries of you, as regards your dreams, and the powers of your guardian spirits; he will then ask you to attempt the recovery of his scalp; he will show you the direction, and if you feel inclined, as I dare say you do, go forward, my son, with a strong heart, persevere, and I have a presentiment you will succeed." The young man answered, "I will try." Early next morning after having eaten from the magic kettle, he started off on his journey. Toward evening he came to the lodge as he was told, and soon heard the groans of the magician. "Come in," he said, even before the young man reached the door. On entering he saw his head all bloody, and he was groaning most terribly. "Sit down, sit down," he said, "while I prepare you something to eat," at the same time doing as the other magicians had done, in preparing food—"You see," he said, "how poor I am; I have to attend to all my wants." He said this to conceal the fact that the Red Swan was there, but Odjibwa perceived that the lodge was partitioned, and he heard a rustling noise, now and then, in that quarter, which satisfied him that it was occupied. After having taken his leggings and mockasins off, and eaten, the old magician commenced telling him how he had lost his scalp—the insults it was receiving—the pain he was suffering in consequence—his wishes to regain it—the unsuccessful attempts that had already been made, and the numbers and power of those who detained it; stated the best and most probable way of getting it; touching the young man on his pride and ambition, by the proposed adventure, and last, he spoke of such things as would make an Indian rich. He would interrupt his discourse by now and then groaning, and saying, "Oh, how shamefully they are treating it." Odjibwa listened with solemn attention. The old man then asked him about his dreams. His dreams, (or as he saw when asleep,) at the particular time he had fasted and blackened his face to procure guardian spirits.

The young man then told him one dream; the magician groaned; "No, that is not it," he said. The young man told him another. He groaned again; "That is not it," he said. The young man told him of two or three others. The magician groaned at each recital, and said, rather peevishly, "No, those are not them." The young man then thought to himself, Who are you? you may groan as much as you please; I am inclined not to tell you any more dreams. The magician then spoke in rather a supplicating tone. "Have you no more dreams of another kind?" "Yes," said the young man, and told him one. "That is it, that is it," he cried; "you will cause me to live. That was what I was wishing you to say;" and he rejoiced greatly. "Will you then go and see if you cannot procure my scalp?" "Yes," said the young man. "I will go; and the day after to-morrow, when you hear the cries of the Kakak, you will know, by this sign, that I am successful, and you must prepare your head, and lean it out through the door, so that the moment I arrive, I may place your scalp on." "Yes, yes," said the magician; "as you say, it will be done." Early next morning, he set out on his perilous adventure, and about the time that the sun hangs toward home, (afternoon) he heard the shouts of a great many people. He was in a wood at the time, and saw, as he thought, only a few men; but the farther he went, the more numerous they appeared. On emerging into a plain, their heads appeared like the hanging leaves for number. In the centre he perceived a post, and something waving on it, which was the scalp. Now and then the air was rent with the Sau-sau-quan, for they were dancing the war dance around it. Before he could be perceived, he turned himself into a No-noskau-see, (humming bird) and flew toward the scalp.

As he passed some of those who were standing by, he flew close to their ears, making the humming noise which this bird does when it flies. They jumped on one side and asked each other what it could be. By this time he had nearly reached the scalp, but fearing he should be perceived while untying it, he changed himself into a Me-sau-be-wau-aun, (the down of anything that floats lightly on the air,) and then floated slowly and lightly on to the scalp. He untied it, and moved off slowly, as the weight was almost too great. It was as much as he could do to keep it up, and prevent the Indians from snatching it away. The moment they saw it was moving, they filled the air with their cries of "It is taken from us; it is taken from us." He continued moving a few feet above them: the rush and hum of the people was like the dead beating surges after a storm. He soon gained on them, and they gave up the pursuit. After going a little farther he changed himself into a Kakak, and flew off with his prize, making that peculiar noise which this bird makes.

In the meantime, the magician had followed his instructions, placing his head outside of the lodge, as soon as he heard the cry of the Kakak, and soon after he heard the rustling of its wings. In a moment Odjibwa stood before him. He immediately gave the magician a severe blow on the head with the wampum scalp: his limbs extended and quivered in agony from the effects of the blow: the scalp adhered, and the young man walked in and sat down, feeling perfectly at home. The magician was so long in recovering from the stunning blow, that the young man feared he had killed him. He was however pleased to see him show signs of life; he first commenced moving, and soon sat up. But how surprised was Odjibwa to see, not an aged man, far in years and decrepitude, but one of the handsomest young men he ever saw stand up before him.

"Thank you, my friend," he said; "you see that your kindness and bravery has restored me to my former shape. It was so ordained, and you have now accomplished the victory." The young magician urged the stay of his deliverer for a few days; and they soon formed a warm attachment for each other. The magician never alluded to the Red Swan in their conversations.

At last, the day arrived when Odjibwa made preparations to return. The young magician amply repaid him, for his kindness and bravery, by various kinds of wampum, robes, and all such things as he had need of to make him an influential man. But though the young man's curiosity was at its height about the Red Swan, he controlled his feelings, and never so much as even hinted of her; feeling that he would surrender a point of propriety in so doing; while the one he had rendered such service to, whose hospitality he was now enjoying, and who had richly rewarded him, had never so much as even mentioned anything about her, but studiously concealed her.

Odjibwa's pack for travelling was ready, and he was taking his farewell smoke, when the young magician thus addressed him: "Friend, you know for what cause you came thus far. You have accomplished your object, and conferred a lasting obligation on me. Your perseverance shall not go unrewarded; and if you undertake other things with the same spirit you have this, you will never fail to accomplish them. My duty renders it necessary for me to remain where I am, although I should feel happy to go with you. I have given you all you will need as long as you live; but I see you feel backward to speak about the Red Swan. I vowed that whoever procured me my scalp, should be rewarded by possessing the Red Swan." He then spoke, and knocked on the partition. The door immediately opened, and the Red Swan met his eager gaze. She was a most beautiful female, and as she stood majestically before him, it would be impossible to describe her charms, for she looked as if she did not belong to earth. "Take her," the young magician said; "she is my sister, treat her well; she is worthy of you, and what you have done for me merits more. She is ready to go with you to your kindred and friends, and has been so ever since your arrival, and my good wishes go with you both." She then looked very kindly on her husband, who now bid farewell to his friend indeed, and accompanied by the object of his wishes, he commenced retracing his footsteps.

They travelled slowly, and after two or three days reached the lodge of the third old man, who had fed him from his small magic pot. He was very kind, and said, "You see what your perseverance has procured you; do so always and you will succeed in all things you undertake."

On the following morning when they were going to start, he pulled from the side of the lodge a bag, which he presented to the young man, saying, "Nosis, I give you this; it contains a present for you; and I hope you will live happily till old age." They then bid farewell to him and proceeded on.

They soon reached the second old man's lodge. Their reception there was the same as at the first; he also gave them a present, with the old man's wishes that they would be happy. They went on and reached the first town, which the young man had passed in his pursuit. The watchman gave notice, and he was shown into the chief's lodge. "Sit down there, son-in-law," said the chief, pointing to a place near his daughter. "And you also," he said to the Red Swan.

The young woman of the lodge was busy in making something, but she tried to show her indifference about what was taking place, for she did not even raise her head to see who was come. Soon the chief said, "Let some one bring in the bundle of our son-in-law." When it was brought in, the young man opened one of the bags, which he had received from one of the old men; it contained wampum, robes, and various other articles; he presented them to his father-in-law, and all expressed their surprise at the value and richness of the gift. The chief's daughter then only stole a glance at the present, then at Odjibwa and his beautiful wife; she stopped working, and remained silent and thoughtful all the evening. They conversed about his adventures; after this the chief told him that he should take his daughter along with him in the morning;—the young man said "Yes." The chief then spoke out, saying, "Daughter, be ready to go with him in the morning."

There was a Maujeekewis in the lodge, who thought to have got the young woman to wife; he jumped up, saying, "Who is he (meaning the young man), that he should take her for a few presents. I will kill him," and he raised a knife which he had in his hand. But he only waited till some one held him back, and then sat down, for he was too great a coward to do as he had threatened. Early they took their departure, amid the greetings of their new friends, and toward evening reached the other town. The watchman gave the signal, and numbers of men, women, and children stood out to see them. They were again shown into the chief's lodge, who welcomed them by saying, "Son-in-law, you are welcome," and requested him to take a seat by his daughter; and the two women did the same.

After the usual formalities of smoking and eating, the chief requested the young man to relate his travels in the hearing of all the inmates of the lodge, and those who came to see. They looked with admiration and astonishment at the Red Swan, for she was so beautiful. Odjibwa gave them his whole history. The chief then told him that his brothers had been to their town in search of him, but had returned, and given up all hopes of ever seeing him again. He concluded by saying that since he had been so fortunate and so manly, he should take his daughter with him; "For although your brothers," said he, "were here, they were too timid to enter any of our lodges, and merely inquired for you and returned. You will take my daughter, treat her well, and that will bind us more closely together."

It is always the case in towns, that some one in it is foolish or clownish. It happened to be so here; for a Maujeekewis was in the lodge; and after the young man had given his father-in-law presents, as he did to the first, this Maujeekewis jumped up in a passion, saying, "Who is this stranger, that he should have her? I want her myself." The chief told him to be quiet, and not to disturb or quarrel with one who was enjoying their hospitality. "No, no," he boisterously cried, and made an attempt to strike the stranger. Odjibwa was above fearing his threats, and paid no attention to him. He cried the louder, "I will have her; I will have her." In an instant he was laid flat on the ground from a blow of a war club given by the chief. After he came to himself, the chief upbraided him for his foolishness, and told him to go out and tell stories to the old women.

Their arrangements were then made, and the stranger invited a number of families to go and visit their hunting grounds, as there was plenty of game. They consented, and in the morning a large party were assembled to accompany the young man; and the chief with a large party of warriors escorted them a long distance. When ready to return the chief made a speech, and invoked the blessing of the great good Spirit on his son-in-law and party.

After a number of days' travel, Odjibwa and his party came in sight of his home. The party rested while he went alone in advance to see his brothers. When he entered the lodge he found it all dirty and covered with ashes: on one side was his eldest brother, with his face blackened, and sitting amid ashes, crying aloud. On the other side was Maujeekewis, his other brother; his face was also blackened, but his head was covered with feathers and swan's down; he looked so odd, that the young man could not keep from laughing, for he appeared and pretended to be so absorbed with grief that he did not notice his brother's arrival. The eldest jumped up and shook hands with him and kissed him, and felt very happy to see him again.

Odjibwa, after seeing all things put to rights, told them that he had brought each of them a wife. When Maujeekewis heard about the wife, he jumped up and said, "Why, is it just now that you have come?" and made for the door and peeped out to see the women. He then commenced jumping and laughing, saying, "Women! women!" That was the only reception he gave his brother. Odjibwa then told them to wash themselves and prepare, for he would go and fetch them in. Maujeekewis jumped and washed himself, but would every now and then go and peep out to see the women. When they came near he said, I will have this one, and that one, he did not exactly know which—he would go and sit down for an instant, and then go and peep and laugh; he acted like a madman.

As soon as order was restored, and all seated, Odjibwa presented one of the women to his eldest brother, saying, "These women were given to me; I now give one to each; I intended so from the first." Maujeekewis spoke, and said, "I think three wives would have been enough for you." The young man led one to Maujeekewis, saying, "My brother, here is one for you, and live happily." Maujeekewis hung down his head as if he was ashamed, but would every now and then steal a glance at his wife, and also at the other women. By and by he turned toward his wife, and acted as if he had been married for years. "Wife," he said, "I will go and hunt," and off he started.

All lived peaceably for some time, and their town prospered, the inhabitants increased, and everything was abundant among them. One day dissatisfaction was manifested in the conduct of the two elder brothers, on account of Odjibwa's having taken their deceased father's magic arrows: they upbraided and urged him to procure others if he could. Their object was to get him away, so that one of them might afterward get his wife. One day, after listening to them, he told them he would go. Maujeekewis and himself went together into a sweating lodge to purify themselves. Even there, although it was held sacred, Maujeekewis upbraided him for the arrows. He told him again he would go; and next day, true to his word, he left them. After travelling a long way he came to an opening in the earth, and descending, it led him to the abode of departed spirits. The country appeared beautiful, the extent of it was lost in the distance: he saw animals of various kinds in abundance. The first he came near to were buffalo; his surprise was great when these animals addressed him as human beings. They asked him what he came for, how he descended, why he was so bold as to visit the abode of the dead. He told them he was in search of magic arrows to appease his brothers. "Very well," said the leader of the buffaloes, whose whole form was nothing but bone. "Yes, we know it," and he and his followers moved off a little space as if they were afraid of him. "You have come," resumed the Buffalo Spirit, "to a place where a living man has never before been. You will return immediately to your tribe, for your brothers are trying to dishonour your wife; and you will live to a very old age, and live and die happily; you can go no farther in these abodes of ours." Odjibwa looked, as he thought, to the west, and saw a bright light, as if the sun was shining in its splendour, but he saw no sun. "What light is that I see yonder," he asked. The all-boned buffalo answered, "It is the place where those who were good dwell." "And that dark cloud," Odjibwa again asked. "Mudjee-izzhi-wabezewin," (wickedness) answered the buffalo. He asked no more questions, and with the aid of his guardian spirits, again stood on this earth and saw the sun giving light as usual, and breathed the pure air. All else he saw in the abodes of the dead and his travels and actions previous to his return, are unknown. After wandering a long time in quest of information to make his people happy, he one evening drew near to his village or town, passing all the other lodges and coming to his own, he heard his brothers at high words with each other; they were quarrelling for the possession of his wife. She had, however, remained constant and mourned the absence and probable loss of her husband; but she had mourned him with the dignity of virtue. The noble youth listened till he was satisfied of the base principles of his brothers. He then entered the lodge, with the stern air and conscious dignity of a brave and honest man. He spoke not a word, but placing the magic arrows to his bow, drew them to their length and laid the brothers dead at his feet. Thus ended the contest between the hermit's sons, and a firm and happy union was consummated between Odjibwa, or him of the primitive or gathered voice, and the Red Swan.


Source:  H.R.S. [2]

Culture:  Cree

Language Group:  Algonquin


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