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Indigenous Peoples' Literature

How Antelope Carrier Saved the Thunderbirds and Became the Chief of the Winged Creatures

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.

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The Indigenous Peoples' Literature pages were researched and organized by Glenn Welker.