IKTOMI AND THE DUCKS
By Zitkala-Sa – Old Indian Legends
IKTOMI is a spider fairy. He wears brown deerskin leggings with long soft fringes on either side, and tiny beaded moccasins on his feet. His long black hair is parted in the middle and wrapped with red bands. Each round braid hangs over a small brown ear and falls forward over his shoulders.
He even paints his funny face with red and yellow, and draws big black rings around his eyes. He wears a deerskin jacket, with bright-colored beads sewed tightly on it. Iktomi dresses like a real Dakota brave. In truth, his paint and deerskins are the best part of him — if ever dress is part of man or fairy.
Iktomi is a wily fellow. His hands are always kept in mischief. He prefers to spread a snare rather than to earn the smallest thing with honest hunting. Why! he laughs outright with wide open mouth when some simple folk are caught in a trap, sure and fast.
He never dreams another lives so bright as he. Often his own conceit leads him hard against the common sense of simpler people.
Poor Iktomi cannot help being a little imp. And so long as he is a naughty fairy, he cannot find a single friend. No one helps him when he is in trouble. No one really loves him. Those who come to admire his handsome beaded jacket and long fringed leggings soon go away sick and tired of his vain, vain words and heartless laughter. Thus Iktomi lives alone in a cone-shaped wigwam upon the plain. One day he sat hungry within his teepee. Suddenly he rushed out, dragging after him his blanket. Quickly spreading it on the ground, he tore up dry tall grass with both his hands and tossed it fast into the blanket.
Tying all the four corners together in a knot, he threw the light bundle of grass over his shoulder.
Snatching up a slender willow stick with his free left hand, he started off with a hop and a leap. From side to side bounced the bundle on his back, as he ran light- footed over the uneven ground. Soon he came to the edge of the great level land. On the hilltop he paused for breath. With wicked smacks of his dry parched lips, as if tasting some tender meat, he looked straight into space toward the marshy river bottom. With a thin palm shading his eyes from the western sun, he peered far away into the lowlands, munching his own cheeks all the while. “Ah-ha!” grunted he, satisfied with what he saw.
A group of wild ducks were dancing and feasting in the marshes. With wings out-spread, tip to tip, they moved up and down in a large circle. Within the ring, around a small drum, sat the chosen singers, nodding their heads and blinking their eyes.
They sang in unison a merry dance-song, and beat a lively tattoo on the drum.
Following a winding footpath near by, came a bent figure of a Dakota brave. He bore on his back a very large bundle. With a willow cane he propped himself up as he staggered along beneath his burden.
“Ho! who is there?” called out a curious old duck, still bobbing up and down in the circular dance.
Hereupon the drummers stretched their necks till they strangled their song for a look at the stranger passing by.
“Ho, Iktomi! Old fellow, pray tell us what you carry in your blanket. Do not hurry off! Stop! halt!” urged one of the singers.
“Stop! stay! Show us what is in your blanket!” cried out other voices.
“My friends, I must not spoil your dance. Oh, you would not care to see if you only knew what is in my blanket. Sing on! dance on! I must not show you what I carry on my back,” answered Iktomi, nudging his own sides with his elbows. This reply broke up the ring entirely. Now all the ducks crowded about Iktomi.
“We must see what you carry! We must know what is in your blanket!” they shouted in both his ears. Some even brushed their wings against the mysterious bundle. Nudging himself again, wily Iktomi said, “My friends, ’tis only a pack of songs I carry in my blanket.”
“Oh, then let us hear your songs!” cried the curious ducks.
At length Iktomi consented to sing his songs. With delight all the ducks flapped their wings and cried together, “Hoye! Hoye!”
Iktomi, with great care, laid down his bundle on the ground. “I will build first a round straw house, for I never sing my songs in the open air,” said he.
Quickly he bent green willow sticks, planting both ends of each pole into the earth. These he covered thick with reeds and grasses. Soon the straw hut was ready. One by one the fat ducks waddled in through a small opening, which was the only entrance way. Beside the door Iktomi stood smiling, as the ducks, eyeing his bundle of songs, strutted into the hut.
In a strange low voice Iktomi began his queer old tunes. All the ducks sat round-eyed in a circle about the mysterious singer. It was dim in that straw hut, for Iktomi had not forgotten to cover up the small entrance way. All of a sudden his song burst into full voice. As the startled ducks sat uneasily on the ground, Iktomi changed his tune into a minor strain. These were the words he sang:
“Istokmus wacipo, tuwayatunwanpi kinhan ista nisasapi kta,” which is, “With eyes closed you must dance. He who dares to open his eyes, forever red eyes shall have.”
Up rose the circle of seated ducks and holding their wings close against their sides began to dance to the rhythm of Iktomi’s song and drum.
With eyes closed they did dance! Iktomi ceased to beat his drum. He began to sing louder and faster. He seemed to be moving about in the center of the ring. No duck dared blink a wink. Each one shut his eyes very tight and danced even harder.
Up and down! Shifting to the right of them they hopped round and round in that blind dance. It was a difficult dance for the curious folk.
At length one of the dancers could close his eyes no longer! It was a Skiska who peeped the least tiny blink at Iktomi within the center of the circle. “Oh! oh!” squawked he in awful terror! “Run! fly! Iktomi is twisting your heads and breaking your necks! Run out and fly! fly!” he cried. Hereupon the ducks opened their eyes. There beside Iktomi’s bundle of songs lay half of their crowd — flat on their backs.
Out they flew through the opening Skiska had made as he rushed forth with his alarm.
But as they soared high into the blue sky they cried to one another: “Oh! your eyes are pink-pink!” “And yours are pink-pink!” For the warning words of the magic minor strain had proven true. “Ah-ha!” laughed Iktomi, untying the four corners of his blanket, “I shall sit no more hungry within my dwelling.” Homeward he trudged along with nice fat ducks in his blanket. He left the little straw hut for the rains and winds to pull down.
Having reached his own teepee on the high level lands, Iktomi kindled a large fire out-of-doors. He planted sharp-pointed sticks around the leaping flames. On each stake he fastened a duck to roast. A few he buried under the ashes to bake. Disappearing within his teepee, he came out again with some huge seashells. These were his dishes. Placing one under each roasting duck, he muttered, “The sweet fat oozing out will taste well with the hard-cooked breasts.”
Heaping more willows upon the fire, Iktomi sat down on the ground with crossed shins. A long chin between his knees pointed toward the red flames, while his eyes were on the browning ducks. Just above his ankles he clasped and unclasped his long bony fingers. Now and then he sniffed impatiently the savory odor.
The brisk wind which stirred the fire also played with a squeaky old tree beside Iktomi’s wigwam.
From side to side the tree was swaying and crying in an old man’s voice, “Help! I’ll break! I’ll fall!” Iktomi shrugged his great shoulders, but did not once take his eyes from the ducks. The dripping of amber oil into pearly dishes, drop by drop, pleased his hungry eyes. Still the old tree man called for help. “He! What sound is it that makes my ear ache!” exclaimed Iktomi, holding a hand on his ear.
He rose and looked around. The squeaking came from the tree. Then he began climbing the tree to find the disagreeable sound. He placed his foot right on a cracked limb without seeing it. Just then a whiff of wind came rushing by and pressed together the broken edges. There in a strong wooden hand Iktomi’s foot was caught.
“Oh! my foot is crushed!” he howled like a coward. In vain he pulled and puffed to free himself.
While sitting a prisoner on the tree he spied, through his tears, a pack of gray wolves roaming over the level lands. Waving his hands toward them, he called in his loudest voice, “Hey! Gray wolves! Don’t you come here! I’m caught fast in the tree so that my duck feast is getting cold. Don’t you come to eat up my meal.”
The leader of the pack upon hearing Iktomi’s words turned to his comrades and said: “Ah! hear the foolish fellow! He says he has a duck feast to be eaten! Let us hurry there for our share!” Away bounded the wolves toward Iktomi’s lodge.
From the tree Iktomi watched the hungry wolves eat up his nicely browned fat ducks. His foot pained him more and more. He heard them crack the small round bones with their strong long teeth and eat out the oily marrow. Now severe pains shot up from his foot through his whole body. “Hin-hin-hin!” sobbed Iktomi. Real tears washed brown streaks across his red-painted cheeks. Smacking their lips, the wolves began to leave the place, when Iktomi cried out like a pouting child, “At least you have left my baking under the ashes!”
“Ho! Po!” shouted the mischievous wolves; “he says more ducks are to be found under the ashes! Come! Let us have our fill this once!”
Running back to the dead fire, they pawed out the ducks with such rude haste that a cloud of ashes rose like gray smoke over them.
“Hin-hin-hin!” moaned Iktomi, when the wolves had scampered off. All too late, the sturdy breeze returned, and, passing by, pulled apart the broken edges of the tree. Iktomi was released. But alas! he had no duck feast.