Manataka American Indian Council
A Tail of Fire
A Cowichan Story
So long ago that the time could not be counted by suns or moons, a band of Cowichan people was drying deer meat in the sun. They spoke of how good it would be if they only had a small sun to warm them when the big sun left to let darkness come. They thought that they would never get that thing because what they wanted would take much power and magic, more than even their most powerful wise ones had.
As the people wished and talked, a little bird chirped loudly close by. It flew close to the people and they saw that it was a beautiful brown bird with a bright red tail which seemed to flicker even when the bird sat still. The bird looked down on the people from a branch just over their heads.
'What do you want, little bird?' asked an old man who had power to speak with birds. 'Nothing do I wish, Wise One, but I bring you what you wish,' it replied. 'I have something which is called fire on my tail, which is hot like a small sun. It will comfort you when the winds of winter blow, cook your meat, and bring cheer when the sun has gone, but it must be earned. Tell your tribe to meet me here when the sun comes again and ask each one to bring a little dry branch with pitch pine on it.'
Before the people could ask why, the bird suddenly disappeared. 'We should obey the wishes of that bird,' the old man counseled, 'It may bring much good fortune to us.' When the sun shone again, the people awaited the coming of the bird. Each carried a pine branch with pitch pine on it, as they had been told. A loud tweet made the people look upward. The brown bird sat on a branch above their heads, though nobody had seen it come. It asked in a language that all understood, 'Are you ready?'
They answered, 'Yes!' 'Then you must follow me, and the one who first catches up with me will be given fire, but only if the one who does so is one who does right, is patient, and tries hard without losing courage. Come!'
The bird flew off over rough ground and thick forest. The chase proved too hard for many and they gave up. Over fast-flowing streams and dangerous marshes and swamps, the bird flew. More and more of the people had neither the strength nor courage to keep on and they were forced to drop out of the chase. 'Too hard!' 'Too difficult!' 'Too dangerous!' they gasped as they fell on the ground to rest.
At last one young warrior got close enough to call to the bird, 'Give me of your fire, little bird. I have followed you far and well and I have done no wrong.' 'It is not as you say,' said the bird, flying higher and faster than before. 'You think only of yourself. That is bad. You shall not have my fire.'
A second young man caught up with the bird. 'Share your fire with me,' he called. 'I am a good man.' 'A good man does not take that which belongs to another,' the bird answered, flying faster and faster. Soon, seeing it was no longer followed, the bird flew to the ground and perched beside a woman who was nursing an old man who looked very sick. 'Bring a dry branch with pitch pine on it,' said the brown bird. 'Fire have I on my tail and you shall have it. It will keep your sick man warm and cook your food.'
The woman was afraid of a bird that could speak. When she found her voice, she said, 'You are good, little one, but I deserve not a magic gift. What I do, I do because it is right. The inner voice tells me that I must take care of one who is sick.' 'Much good I know you do,' said the bird, 'and it is greater good than that done by many people because the good you do, you think is only your duty. Come, bring a branch and take of my fire. You think first of others, so you may share the gift with them.'
The woman gladly brought a branch and lit it at the little fire which flickered on the bird's tail. Since that time, the Indians have had fire.
From the Archives of by Neshoba
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