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The Hermit, or The Gift of Corn

Corn entered widely into the legends and religious practices of North American Indian nations of the Southwest, Southeast, Plains, and Eastern woodlands. Corn gods in different regions are personified as Corn Mother, Corn Maidens, and even Corn Grandfathers as in this story of the hermit. Various parts of the corn plant are used ritually such as husks, pollen, kernels, and whole ears. Major tribal ceremonies are held prior to corn planting and after the harvest.

Alone in a deep forest, far from the village of his people, lived a hermit. His tent was made of buffalo skins, and his robe was made of deerskin. Far from the haunts of any human being, this old hermit was content to spend his many years.

All day long, he wandered through the forest, studying the different plants and collecting roots. The roots he used as food and as medicine. At long intervals some warrior would arrive at his tent and get medicinal roots from him for the tribe. The old hermit's medicine was considered far superior to all others.

One day, after a long ramble in the woods, the hermit came home so tired that, immediately after eating, he lay down on his bed. Just as he was dozing off to sleep, he felt something rub against his feet. Awakening with a start, he noticed a dark object. It extended an arm toward him. In its hand was a flint-pointed arrow.

"This must be a spirit," thought the hermit, "for there is no human being here but me."

A voice then said, "Hermit, I have come to invite you to my home."

"I will come," the old hermit replied. So he arose, wrapped his robe around him, and started toward the voice.

Outside his door, he looked around, but he could see no sign of the dark object.

"Whatever you are, or wherever you be," said the hermit, "wait for me. I do not know where to go to find your house."

He received no answer, nor did he hear any sound of someone walking through the brush. Reentering his tent, he lay down and was soon fast asleep.

The next night he again heard the voice say, "Hermit, I have come to invite you to my home." The hermit walked out of his tent to find the person with that voice, but again he found no one. This time he was angry, because he thought that someone was making sport of him. He determined to find out who was disturbing his night's rest.

The next evening he cut a hole in the tent large enough to stick an arrow through. Then he stood by the door, watching. Soon the dark object came, stopped outside the door, and said, "Grandfather, I came to--" But he never finished his sentence. The old hermit had shot his arrow. He heard it strike something that produced a sound as though he had shot into a sack of pebbles.

Early the next morning the hermit went out and looked at the spot near where he thought his arrow had struck some object. There on the ground lay a little heap of corn, and from this little heap a small line of corn lay scattered along a path. The old hermit followed this path into the woods.

When he reached a small mound, the trail ended. At its end was a large circle from which the grass had been scraped off clean.

"The corn trail stops at the edge of this circle," the old man said to himself. "So this must be the home of whatever invited me."

He took his big bone axe and knife and proceeded to dig down into the centre of the circle. When he got as far down as he could reach, he came to a sack of dried meat. Next, he found a sack of turnips, then a sack of dried cherries, and then a sack of corn.

Last of all was another sack, empty except for one cup of corn. In the other corner was a hole where the hermit's arrow had pierced the sack. From this hole the corn had been scattered along the trail, which had guided the old man to the hiding place.

From this experience the hermit taught his people how to keep their provisions while they were travelling.

"Dig a pit," he explained to them, "put your provisions into it, and cover them with earth."

By this method, the Sioux used to keep provisions all summer. When fall came, they would return to their hiding place. When they opened it, they would find all their provisions as fresh as they were the day they had been placed there.

The people thanked the old hermit for his discovery of this method of preserving their food. And they thanked him for his discovery of corn, the first they had seen. It became one of the most important foods the Indians knew.

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