How can a story that spans the centuries, perhaps a hundred of them, be handed down by a people that had no written language? Said Morning Star Kissikowasis, the old, old blind Medicine man of the Saskatchewan prairies, “Such things are born in the brain. They are behind the eyes.”
And perhaps we should not laugh at him until after we have read the recent archeological and geological findings of men of science now in the area which this legend covers. And perhaps we might reflect that the white race has been conditioned to being sight-oriented. We have co-related education to book learning, and judge others by their ability to read, and its prior art, to write.
The Indians were ear-oriented, which may be as valid a vehicle of learning as ours. We are ear-oriented too, for the first five or six years of life and retain those impressions most vividly. Perhaps, being close to nature, the Indians cultivated also the brain-imprint learning which we call “instinct” that guides birds for instance in their migrations from Arctic to Antarctic.
It was not from the Black Robes, the missionaries, that Morning Star learned the ancient tale of either their origins, or the salutation “Ayeehe, Ishrayuk” which reminded his hearer of the traditional “Hear, O Israel” of the Hebrews. “I see the words behind my eyes,” he said, “for I am a priest, a diviner, a day-seer, not like my father Stone-Gazer, a night seer… Man is very ancient and why should not a saying be born in the head?”
The story he told to R. D. Symons may be “only a legend,” but it is curiously evocative of known places and recent archeological deductions.
His people, according to the legend, came originally from an area that fits only the Great Rift Valley that runs from Lake Tanganyika in Africa to Lake Baikal in Siberia. After a “long time”, they camped north of the Lake of the last fissure (Lake Baikal?) on a plain known to them (as to us) as the (Siberian) Taiga. “Do not ask me why. It is a name,” he said. They had held to certain traditions for generations – they knew only one Great Spirit. They kept the right hand for food only (as the Moslems do today.) They set up their camps in a certain way (as the natives did when the white man met them.) They practiced cleanliness, but never let the water which washed the body touch the face. They had shamans, men of medicine, and practiced feasts and ceremonies. (Dr. Rod Calverley was allowed to sit in at a Malaysian aborigine ceremony curiously like descriptions of North American Indians!)
Now follows in the book, North by West, the myth of the “Berry Woman” who saw in prophetic vision that a group of the people who dwelt in tents (as do the Central Asiatics) would go North and East until they came to a cold and foggy area “where there were fish with shining pelts and loud voices.” (Seals?) At the same time another group led by one of her sons would go south, and wear yellow robes and write with brushes. (The Buddhists?) – and another group would go west under her eldest son’s command and “walk not upon their own feet forever, but on four feet and not a dog.” (The fearsome Asiatic horsemen out of present day Russian territory who ravaged Europe in the Middle Ages?)
Led by her five remaining sons as shamans, the eastward-moving group were instructed how to cross the Bering Strait, after a “flood of waters”, but before a great freezing of the waters. (Glacial period?) Then they were to travel south alongside the Shining Mountains (the Rockies?). To tell them when they might cross the mountains into the Garden of the Manitou, which she told them would at last be their home, she gave them a relic of herself, – a hair which was carried by Kristinow, her youngest son, in a ceremonial way.
At a certain point a portion of the nomads broke away and turned west to the sea, doubting that the Garden of the Manitou lay ahead. Morning Star said he had been told that these became the Indians who “carve the images of the Bear and of the Berry Woman to this day, together with all manner of totems and images of ravens and of fish.” (Coast Indians?)
The band led by Kristinow moved on between two ranges of mountains, (the Rocky Mountain Trench?) until they camped below a “great mountain whose top pierced the very clouds so that its greatest height could not be seen.” (Mt. Robson?) There their sacred relic revealed to its keeper Kristinow, that the people should take refuge in the rocks, sleeping on their bellies, not looking up for a time. There followed a great cataclysm, an earthquake and some form of volcanic eruption. (The Cariboo Highway near Quesnel cuts through lava beds, as does the road from Merritt to Spence’s Bridge.) These and larger areas are, as the Thunderbird flew, within two hundred miles of Mt. Robson, as is Grande Prairie and Beaverlodge. A few miles south of Grande Prairie a bed of fossil-leaf-bearing volcanic ash lies near the surface.
When the turbulence had died down a little spring appeared, which grew into a river; an eagle screamed and flew eastward. Kristinow said, “Follow the sign for it is a signal.” So the people moved on through the new mountain pass.
After a long time of moving east as the Old Ones directed, the band of Kristinow reached the prairies, to become the Plains Cree and multiply into a numerous population. This folklore refers only to that branch of the Indians of the Prairies.
The Symons book has an emotional impact. Read shortly after the CBC-TV production of the re-enactment of ancient Indian ceremonies by Chief Ernest Tootoosis, in the winter of 1974-75, assisted by two aged Indian shamans, it gave the strong impression that the new ecumenism of the modern Indian is a force to be reckoned with of modern Indian youth take it seriously, for Morning Star and Chief Tootoosis foresee the day when the Indians might lead the white men out of our modern problems, and back to the old beliefs and philosophies
For purposes of comparison of what old Morning Star “saw behind his eyes” and what some scientific anthropologists have reconstructed of the movements of prehistoric migrations, we attach an excerpt from Indian Women of the Western Morning.
“It is in the shifting of animals that much of the answer to the question of why people came to North America is to be found. When northern Europe was glaciated, as noted anthropologist Carleton S. Coon explained, the animals moved southward and eastward, reaching southern Europe and north central Asia, both of which were free of ice. The people depended upon these animals for their existence. And when, in time, it was learned that the northern part of the Asiatic continent was rich in game, the people naturally drifted toward that area.
The animals moved north and east as the glacial ice retreated, and the people followed them in order to secure a steady supply of meat and furs. They followed them into Siberia, and then they went across the land bridge [Beringia] into Alaska. Gradually, they moved on southward in the Americas.
Coon suggests that two main avenues of travel were open to them. One ran along the Pacific Coast, the other, along the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. Over these two great natural thoroughfares the people moved. Over them passed culture after culture. And each culture in turn undoubtedly left its traces although we have yet to find more than a few tantalizing hints of them.