To Eliza Jonis Burke Erdrich
ONE Whirlwind and Sweetheart
TWO Strange Creature
THREE The Sighting
FIVE The Generous Ones
SIX Trail Food
SEVEN The Return
NINE Trading for Otters
TEN Diamond Willow
ELEVEN The Sorrow of the Buffalo
TWELVE Calling Buffalo
THIRTEEN The Path of Souls
FOURTEEN The Path of Life
AUTHOR’S NOTE ON THE OJIBWE LANGUAGE
GLOSSARY AND PRONUNCIATION GUIDE OF OJIBWE TERMS
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
BOOKS BY LOUISE ERDRICH
ABOUT THE PUBLISHER
Makoons opened his weak eyes, blinked, and saw himself as he used to be—a boy glowing with strength and health. He closed his eyes and heard a voice singing the way he used to sing—a voice full and pure. The hand on his arm felt like his old hand, before the sickness—capable, excited, concerned. Makoons opened his eyes again, and saw his twin brother. He struggled to rise but weakness fixed him in his blankets. The voice continued. Small things have great power, his brother sang to him. The notes were sweetly cheerful. Makoons closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He smiled. Chickadee, his twin, the other half of his soul, had returned, and Makoons was going to get well.
The boys were born in the thaw of late winter, when steam ravels from the dens of bears to signal their birth. Makwa is the Ojibwe word for “bear.” Makoons is the word for “little bear,” or bear cub. Makoons had grown ill when his twin was kidnapped and taken away. He recovered once his twin returned. The boys were connected to each other by invisible strings of life. They understood each other like nobody else, and also they annoyed each other like nobody else. Makoons knew that his brother slept beside him now, fed him from a spoon made from a buffalo horn. His brother continued to sing to him until his voice changed from the trill of the chickadee to the harsh and ragged croak of the crow. Still, Chickadee kept on, healing his brother song by song.
One morning when the two boys were alone, Makoons stared from the blankets at Chickadee and whispered.
“Brother, I have seen something.”
“What did you see?”
“Last night, I was hot with fever. I could not eat. I was staring out at nothing, when my mind was strangely opened. I saw all that is to happen. I still see it, brother.”
“Tell me,” said Chickadee.
“I am going to get well,” said Makoons, “but that is not important. We will become strong and bring down buffalo. We’ll have horses; we’ll feed our people. All of us will travel into the great grass places, toward the western stars. We will never go back east to our lake, our deep woods.”
Chickadee’s heart pinched, for he loved the trees and water of his old home.
“My brother,” said Makoons. “That isn’t all. We will be tested, too.”
“What is going to happen?” Chickadee sat very still in the blankets, a spoon poised in one hand. A bowl of buffalo broth was cupped in the other hand.
“I can’t see exactly,” said Makoons. “But I know we will have to save them.”
“Our family. Only . . .”
“Only,” said Makoons. His voice failed, tears squeezed from the corners of his eyes. His voice dropped so low that Chickadee had to bend close to hear it.
“My brother,” Makoons whispered. “We cannot save them all.”
So it began—the living out of this vision—which Makoons saw in the early summer of 1866.
WHIRLWIND AND SWEETHEART
Makoons, the Bear Child, had a way with horses. Since his family had moved from the deep woods, across the Red River and onto the Great Plains, horses had replaced canoes. There weren’t enough rivers on the grassland. The beautiful birchbark canoes made with such care by Makoons’s parents and grandparents were now abandoned, sliding back into the earth, or paddled by strangers in the lakes and rivers of what was now the state of Minnesota. Out here, Dakota Territory still belonged to the buffalo, the hunters of the buffalo, to the wolves and the eagles. Back in Minnesota the Ojibwe, or Anishinaabeg, were being forced to settle on small pieces of their old hunting grounds. Yellow Kettle, and the other old people, called those pieces of land the ishoniganan, or leftovers. The U.S. government, the settlers, and the farmers in Minnesota called them reservations. The Plains were immense, treeless, with different laws, but they were not yet parceled out into the hands of settlers. The Ojibwe, the Cree, the Dakota, Nakota, Lakota, and other indigenous peoples did not yet have to live on the leftovers.
The spotted pony that Makoons had tamed grew big and strong. He called his horse Whirlwind because the hair on its forehead, a white blaze on red-brown hide, made a whirling pattern, as did the cloudy patch along his flank. Now the twins’ father, Animikiins, watched as Makoons rode hard at a great buffalo hide hanging off a pliant sapling. The two of them had concocted this idea in order to train the pony. He would be a buffalo pony. Fearlessly, he would charge straight into a herd. Guided by Makoons’s knees and legs, the pony would follow the buffalo Makoons wished to hunt. The pony would run alongside the beast, cutting it away from the herd. Then it would run up alongside the buffalo. As soon as the shot resounded, it would veer away from the dangerous buffalo. The pony was being trained to keep a steady gait so that its rider could draw a bow or load a gun—a complicated procedure.
At first Whirlwind shied, prancing sideways, suspicious, as Makoons raced him toward the buffalo hide robe. Makoons allowed his pony to approach the hide, to look it over and smell it. Then he turned around and raced at the buffalo hide again. Each time he passed, the pony grew more accustomed to the dark, curly buffalo hide. When he was so confident that he completely ignored the hide, Animikiins tied a rope to the hide. As soon as Makoons rode the pony close, Animikiins set the hide moving.
The pony stopped so suddenly that Makoons nearly fell off. But they persisted until the pony lost its fear.
Once the pony fearlessly ran right toward and alongside the buffalo hide, Animikiins gave Makoons his bow so that he could draw it—or pretend to, since his arms were still weak after his illness. Animikiins also had a rifle, and he had to trade for the metal to make bullets. A buffalo hunter made his own bullets from lead that he melted over fire and poured into bullet molds. The hunter had to keep three or four lead bullets in his mouth. During the hunt, he would take a bullet out of his mouth, put it down the barrel with the correct amount of gunpowder, then use a ramrod to tamp the charge down tightly. All of this had to be done while riding a pony at breakneck speed! The bow and arrow was as accurate a piece of technology as the rifle, which had to be loaded for every shot, so many still used bows. Makoons went through the motions with the bow, then Animikiins handed him his musket, but didn’t really load the gun. Makoons rode with pebbles instead of bullets in his mouth. The small stones wobbled and clicked against his teeth. It wasn’t much fun. He spat them out and slowed his horse to a walk.
“Ginitam, your turn,” said Makoons to Chickadee.
“Geget! I’m ready,” said Chickadee.
Chickadee rode a spotted horse called Wing. This horse belonged to Uncle Quill, and it was used to chasing buffalo and anything else. It was a good horse—a big mare the color of dust, loyal of heart and steady. Chickadee got on and practiced with the bow, then a stick in his h
He stood up and said “Gurk!” He had swallowed a pebble, but was too embarrassed to tell anyone. The other two pebbles he spat out. How did Makoons ride so well? He made it look easy.
“You flew like a bird.” Animikiins smiled. “But don’t worry. I fell off a lot when I first started.”
He calmed down the horse and led her back to Chickadee. “Take your time, my boy! Don’t be impatient. Get the feel of your horse. Don’t yank her by the mane—hold her with your legs. Stick to her like a wood tick.”
In moments, Chickadee again flew off, quick-feathered as his namesake. Wing stopped and waited for Chickadee to get back on this time. And so it went, Makoons and his horse fast as two whirling winds, darting back and forth. Wing and Chickadee like two birds flying opposite directions. Up and down.
At last Chickadee jolted to earth so hard he felt tears spurt from his eyes.
Makoons looked down at him, worried. Chickadee glared up at his brother.
“What are you looking at?”
“Gaawiin gegoo!” Makoons galloped off.
Chickadee hid the tears from his father and brother. Furious, he stomped away and slumped behind the little cabin on a big rock that jutted from the earth. There, in the shade, he wiped his face and breathed hard until his heart resumed its usual cheer. He heard his namesake, the chickadee, calling him from a nearby branch, telling him he was fine, he was doing well. Telling him not to give up.
“Miigwech, my little namesake,” he said wearily.
He had learned always to listen to the chickadee.
He slapped the dirt off his pants and got back up. Walking around the side of the cabin, he stopped, amazed and envious, to watch Makoons galloping around and around the field, evading obstacles, sticking tight when Whirlwind jumped over a log. Makoons was laughing and shouting, oblivious of his father and brother. Chickadee walked up to his father and stood beside him. Animikiins was a lean man, with the same ferocious hawklike face he’d had as a boy, when Chickadee’s mother, Omakayas, had met him. Animikiins had been angry and hungry then. Although hunger had come to stalk the little family many times, Animikiins had grown bighearted through desperation. He was a man of trustworthy kindness, and his hunting skills had many times rescued the family from disaster. Omakayas loved him dearly and made all of his clothing with great care. He wore deerskin pants with fringe and a beaded strip along the leg, a blue flowered cloth shirt, a small yellow feather tied in his hair, which was carefully oiled and braided by Chickadee’s mother. The boys tried to evade her strict combing and braiding, but she was tenacious. Every morning she caught them and made them sit. She did not want others to see her men messy-headed—neatly braided hair was a sign someone cared for you.
“How does he ride so well?” Chickadee asked his father. “I thought when he got back on the horse he would wobble, the way he walks. He was so sick!”
“Maybe the horse gives him power,” said Animikiins. “It has always been like this with your brother. You know that.”
Animikiins was right. Makoons was a natural rider. Once on a horse he was so happy the horse sensed it and obeyed him. Chickadee liked to ride horses, but he didn’t have the same connection somehow. He watched his brother weaving back and forth through the grass, evading imaginary buffalo. Makoons was still thin and frail-looking, but there was a wild exuberance in his eyes and laughing face. Chickadee longed to ride free with his brother, so he got back on the patient Wing and started slow, sticking like a wood tick. He decided he would not give up until he could ride with ease, no matter how many times he fell off.
After Quill watched Chickadee fall off for another hour, he winced, shook his head, and said to Animikiins that they’d better find him a shorter horse, a pony. It wouldn’t be so far for him to fall! Wing was used to having Quill ride her. The perfect pony for Chickadee was just north of the camp, said Quill, and he set off to trade a buffalo robe and some blankets for it. Late in the day, he rode back with a wild fuzzy yellow pony that frothed furiously at the mouth and looked outraged at being tied behind Wing.
“Yours,” said Quill grandly, handing the end of the rope halter to Chickadee.
The yellow pony reared, spooked, bucked, kicked up a storm of dust.
Chickadee was whipped side to side. The rope burned his palms. He tried not to yell with fear, but a strangled gurgle came out of his mouth. At last, Quill kindly took the rope out of Chickadee’s terrified grip. The yellow pony went meek and trotted calmly behind Quill.
“What are you naming your horse?” asked Makoons.
“Mean Heart,” said Chickadee. “Why does it follow Quill so nicely and then go crazy with me?”
“Name it something the opposite of how it behaves,” advised Makoons.
Chickadee was very tired, but that thought made him grin. Just being around his twin lifted his spirits.
“How about Sweet? Wiishkob? Or Duckling? Zhiishiibens? Maybe Spirit Mouse? Or Happy Little Prancing Killer?”
Laughing, the twins thought of name after name.
“That’s the perfect name,” laughed Chickadee. “Maybe if I call her Sweetheart, if she hears it every time I call, someday she’ll break down and love me in return.”
So that became the name of the little yellow horse. Ninimoshehn. Or just Ehn! when Chickadee was scared, tossed, or trying so hard to stay on that the whole name wouldn’t come out of his mouth. Passing by the pasture where Chickadee practiced, his mother and grandmother heard him shouting, “Sweetheart, oh Sweetheart, oof, awrg, eiii! Owah! Sweetheart! Don’t drop me! Slow down! Be nice, Sweetheart! Sweetheart, don’t bite me! Sweetheart, no kicking! Ow! Let go of my shirt, Sweetheart! Wah!”
“What kind of boys are you raising?” said their grandmother Yellow Kettle with a severe look at Omakayas.
Nokomis began to laugh, and Omakayas grinned. Her grandmother had a burbling laugh that was contagious. Though twenty years younger, with fewer aches and pains, Nokomis’s daughter Yellow Kettle rarely even chuckled.
“Sweetheart, no kicking! Sweetheart, don’t bite me!” Nokomis laughed. “Did you really think Chickadee was calling out to a girlfriend?”
Omakayas burst into laughter and she and Nokomis went on until their eyes teared and their stomachs ached. Yellow Kettle retained her dignity.
“Boys get in trouble very young these days,” she sniffed. “It doesn’t hurt to be suspicious.”
Each morning now, when Chickadee walked into the pasture, he rejected his brother’s advice. Makoons had told him to bring his pony a treat—a bit of bannock, a handful of grass, something sweet—every single time he approached. But if a bit of maple sugar or honeycomb came his way, Chickadee had always eaten it all. The idea of saving even one bit for a horse seemed crazy! The yellow pony on the edge of the grass, tied to a stake, eyed Chickadee bitterly and pawed the earth. He was thirsty and hungry. All the grass within his reach was devoured. And now this useless human probably expected to jump on his back! Well, just let him try.
Chickadee did try, over and over.
At last Chickadee stopped, exhausted. Accepting his brother’s advice, he hauled some water over in his mother’s best kettle, and let the pony drink before his mother saw. He also picked some juicy grass. Makoons had told him that even if a horse had lots of grass it would like it better if you picked it.
Like magic, Sweetheart let him get on without a kick.
Chickadee quickly sneaked the kettle back and stole a tiny bit of bread from under a piece of cloth.
After that, he saved bits of bannock, picked armfuls of the sweetest grass, made certain that he had something his pony would like every single time he approached. His black and blue spots began to turn green, then yellow, then disappear. His aching eased. One day he came to
As the days passed, Makoons and Chickadee found they walked in a new way—a little bowlegged. Makoons began to learn how to fire his father’s hunting rifle while running full tilt ahead on Whirlwind. He still didn’t use actual ammunition or gunpowder, for he was learning to maneuver while holding on firmly to his horse with his knees, steering through obstacles. Someday he would race alongside a real buffalo and pretend to fire while in motion. Day after day, he practiced this maneuver. Animikiins fired his gun off near the horse, teaching Whirlwind not to spook in fear. Finally, his father allowed Makoons to use real ammunition. For the first time he actually took a shot at a the target, which was nothing more than a leaf fixed to a piece of bark, about the height of a buffalo, and just behind the shoulder. He shot the leaf off the bark.
“Howah,” said Animikiins softly.
Chickadee tried to smile, but all he could think was that he still had a very, very long way to go.
Everyone gathered for a feast of thanks—winter and spring had been times of hardship and fear, but the family was together now. The gracious sun stroked their shoulders, the wind was light, prairie roses budding, the horses happily devouring tender new grasses. The women had spent the afternoon in the shade plucking feathers, laughing and talking. A whole family’s feast of duck was now cooking, boiling away in big pots above the coals of an open fire, and the boys were so hungry they could barely sit still.