A sacred story from the land of the Winnebago. This is the beginning story. One of many that are told only when the snakes go underground.
Long ago, long-long ago, in a time before time, there was a lodge in the land of the Winnebago where ten brothers lived. The eldest brother was Kunu. He was tall and brave and good hunter. He wanted nothing but good things for his younger brothers. And the brothers listened to Kunu. All…except the youngest. He was a bit of a mischief-maker. He did not want to listen to his brothers…especially to Kunu, when he told him what he must do.
There was one time, when the little brother was supposed to be fasting before a big hunt, but no, he was eating venison. Kunu was dressing out a deer, when he saw him, “At this rate you will never be able to hunt with us!” And, he threw deer lungs at him. At that moment, other brothers walked into the lodge. When they saw the deer lungs smeared on his body, they began to laugh and called him “He Who Gets Hit With Deer Lungs.” Kunu was sorry that his brother was stuck with such a name. But, what Kunu understood, and others did not, was that getting hit with those deer lungs was a very powerful thing.
Until that time, the little brother had to stay at home while the others hunted. They said, “You are too young, too slow, and too weak to be a hunter. You must stay home and protect the lodge while we are gone.” But, after he was hit with those deer lungs, he waited until his brothers left and he went into the woods, where he felt compelled to run. And, run he did. His legs became strong and sinewy like that of a deer. He noticed that he was very fast indeed. “I wish my brothers could see me now!”
Then, one evening a messenger came from a nearby village. Kunu greeted him and invited him in to eat and rest. Finally, the messenger said, “Kunu, the great chief wants his daughter, Yellow Robe, to get married. Do you know her?” Indeed Kunu had seen her. She was beautiful. They had even made eye contact, and he thought, just maybe, he saw the faintest hint of a smile on her lips.
But he answered, “Ah, I am not sure…maybe I have seen her.”
“There is to be a big race and whoever wins the race will win the hand of Yellow Robe. You must come.”
”Yes, I love to race. My brothers and I will come together. We will make a good team.” The messenger left and the brothers prepared for their four-day journey to the chief’s village. But, when Kunu saw that his youngest brother was also preparing to go, he said, “No, you must stay here and protect our lodge.” No amount of arguing would change his mind.
Early the next morning they took off for the village…four days passed and they came to the meeting place. When they arrived, everyone whooped and said, “Look it is Kunu and his nine brothers…including He Who Gets Hit With Deer Lungs.”
Kunu looked back, and sure enough, there he was looking pathetic in an untanned deerskin blanket…turned inside out. “What are you doing here? You shame me in the way you look. Go home.”
But the other brothers said, “Oh, let him stay. He is here now. At least he can take care of our things while we race.”
Everyone was waiting for Kunu and his brothers – the thunderbirds, the Night Spirits, the Deer, the Bears, and all the birds of the air. “Come, Kunu, it is time for the race to begin.”
The Chief stood before them. His buffalo robe shown with beads and feathers. “My friends, you will race around the rim of the world following the setting sun. Whoever wins the race, wins the hand of Yellow Robe.” Yellow Robe smiled as she looked at Kunu. “The sun is now setting, but the race has already begun. Look, Turtle is already moving across the valley.” Ach, Turtle! Turtle was always breaking the rules…and with that the race began.
They ran fast and faster towards turtle, but when they got to the valley, they saw him on top of a high hill shaking his sacred pipe at them. They ran fast to the top of the hill…but Turtle was already on the next hill. Oh, Turtle likes to make trouble for, when they got to the next hill, they saw him on the next one…and the next one. Now, the animals and people were out of breath. Kunu was very suspicious. He said,” Turtle is fast, but not that fast.” When they got to the fourth hill they looked around and found a red turtle hiding. Ach, Turtle hadn’t been on the hills at all…but running along the flat valleys! He planted turtles along the way to trick them. Now, Turtle had a big lead.
It was then that the youngest brother left the spectators and began to run. They cried out laughing, “Look at He-Who-Gets-Hit-With-Deer-Lungs. He thinks he is going to do something!” But they stopped laughing, when they saw how fast he was running and caught up with Kunu.
Kunu was not running fast. Like all good runners, he was saving his strength for the last part of the race. When he saw his brother, he said, “Little Brother, you are a part of our team now…you must try with all your strength to win.” He passed Kunu and he passed one brother after the other.
On he went until the next set of runners came into his sight. They were Black Hawk, Hummingbird, Eagle, and two more of his brothers. Try as he might, he could not catch up with them. He quickly strung his bow and reached for his red cedar arrow. He shot it in their direction. He turned himself into arrow spirit, and it alit next to his brothers. They cried out, “Little Brother, try with all your strength.” So, he took another red cedar arrow and shot it in the directions of the birds. Again he turned into his arrow spirit, Higher and higher the arrow went. It passed the birds and alit far ahead of them.
There they were running around the rim of the world with little brother pointing the way like an arrow to the sun
Now, he was in the lead…except for Turtle.
Turtle had been so far ahead, he decided to turn back and get a drink. When the little brother saw Turtle, he was walking in the middle of the valley nonchalantly making his way to the finish line! Turtle could hear the spectators shouting. He was so vain…he thought they were shouting for him until he heard… “Look, its He-Who-Gets-Hit-With-Deer-Lungs. He is coming!” Turtle turned just in time to see him gaining on him. Closer and closer, faster and faster they came. And then….the race was over.
But, the race was so close that the spectators cried, “Who won the race?” Those who were nearby cried out…”The little brother won!”
Now, Turtle knew he hadn’t won but said, “Of course, I won. Kunu’s little brother followed me pretty close. I must be getting old.”
“What??” The others shouted, “No, Kunu’s brother won!” But did Turtle listen? No, he was much too arrogant. He said, “I claim my prize!” Everyone was shocked to see Turtle boldly grab the young maiden by the wrist and drag her to his lodge.
When Kunu crossed the line, the people cried, “Kunu, your little brother won the race, but Turtle has taken her by force.”
Kunu’s face flushed with anger as he grabbed his bald-headed war club, “I have always wanted to teach Turtle a lesson.” And he went to find them. When he got to the lodge, he said, “Turtle, my brother won the race, now release Yellow Robe.” And he took her by the hand.
But, Turtle was not willing to just let go, so he said, “It is true your brother almost won the race, but I came in first.” And he grabbed her wrist. With that, Kunu had enough. He took his war club and hit turtle over the head throwing him across the room.
Turtle crawled on all fours toward Kunu, “You can have her. I am not afraid of you. I do this because I want to be friends with your brother.”
Kunu and Yellow Robe walked back to his lodge. They talked and laughed the whole way. Kunu fell more and more in love with every step. But, when they got to the lodge, Kunu said, “Yellow Robe, you know what I must do.” Tears welled in her eyes as she looked away.
When they went inside, Kunu congratulated his brother, “Little Brother, you won the race and here is the hand of Yellow Robe.” Little brother looked around to his other brothers and slyly said, “Kunu, I am too young to marry.” Hope sprung into Kunu, but then his hopes were dashed, when Little Brother said, “You must give her to my next older brother.” But, the next older brother said, “Humph, I’m not ready to marry. I give her hand to my next older brother.” You see, Kunu’s feelings for Yellow Robe were no secret to his brothers. So, when the marriage was offered to the next brother, he too refused…and the next and the next…until there was no one left except Kunu. Do I need to tell you that he was very pleased to accept Yellow Robe as his wife? And, if truth be known…she was just as happy as well.
A few days later the brothers went hunting. Kunu and his little brother came home first with a deer on his back. As he was dressing the deer, he took out the lungs and set them off to the side. His young wife took the lungs and threw them at his little brother…and then laughed. Kunu was horrified, “Why did you do that?”
“That is why you call him ‘He Who Gets Hit With Deer Lungs’ because you always hit him with deer lungs.”
Smiling, Kunu said, “No, that is not true. It only happened once, when I was trying to teach him a lesson.”
Just then the other brothers came home. When they saw Little Brother covered once again with deer lungs, they laughed and said, “I guess we named you right – “He-who-Gets- Hit-With-Deer-Lungs!”
With that, little brother stood up and shouted, “When I was in the heavens, they did not call me ‘He Who Was Hit By Deer Lungs!’ They called me ‘He Who Wears Human Heads As Earrings.’” Then, he spat on his fingers and rubbed his earlobes. As he did, little faces appeared – winking and laughing and sticking out their tongues. Then, he spat in his hands and drew his fingers through his hair, It grew long and dark streaked with red. He braided his hair and placed the braid over his left shoulder. He stood up proud and strong. He looked at his brothers and said,
”And, here on earth, they call me….Redhorn.”
Picture courtesy of Pete Bostrom
Redhorn had powerful medicine. His adventures spread all over the Midwest. Many of the First People wore earrings, we call god masks, with little faces to honor his deeds. Even to this day, when the snakes go underground, the storyteller tells his story.
As the autumn morning breaks open, you will see the sky’s long, dark morning clouds streaked with red. Search the sky for the Morning Star. That is Redhorn reminding us that his story is ready to unfold.
Mississippian godmasks, go to http://lithiccastinglab.com/gallery-pages/2005octobergodmaskpage1.htm For an overview of the Redhorn myths and links to longer versions:
The Winnebago, click here: http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/tribes/winnebago/winnebagohist.htm Picture at the top of the page courtesy of "Native American Information Center"
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