The Indian Tree- Part I

Long ago, in the harsh, marshy lands of Shigaugogoa, there once ruled a wise and just king. He was a true leader of his tribe for he ruled his people with a firm but gentle hand. Shiguagogao was on the banks of a mighty lake and its lands were marshy and hard to cultivate. But the king knew how to both revere and harness the elements, that his people were never lacking in food, shelter or clothing. For this reason, his people loved him very much and always obeyed his laws. And thus the land and the peoples were peaceful, living their lives with a regularity that belied change.

Because of the exceptional marshy nature and prevalence of quicksands around the land right by the great lake, most of the Cahokia (for that is what the people were called) preferred to live further inland. Shawnee and her family were only one of 5 families that lived near the lake. Her nearest neighbors were a day’s walk away on a good day when the wind was low. It was only during summer when the weather got hot and humid did the inland Cahokia move closer to the lake and built their summer longhouses.

One bitter winter morning, there came to Shawnee’s little wigwam at the outermost border of the country, a strange man. He was gaunt and gnarled but seemed to walk on the ice as if it were a cobbled street. His eyes were deep-set and his whole face wore the most stony expression anyone had ever seen. Shawnee was so startled on seeing him at the doorstep,  that she couldn’t help but let out a little squeal of fright. Hearing this, her daughter-in-law came running from her side of the house.

“Where are all your men, O lady?” asked the stranger in a deep, gruff, voice.

” It has been a very rough winter so far and we are running low on meat. So they have gone to see if they cannot find some bison meat. But you are a stranger in these parts, do come in and warm yourself by the stove.” said Shawnee, quickly recovering her composure. Her daughter-in-law brought him a little stool to sit on and they all were soon warmed by the stove while Shawnee stirred the pot with her stew. Soon the only sound was that of the daughter-in-law grinding corn in the mano-matate and the bubbling of the stew. After watching the two women work in companionable silence, the stranger said,

“You both are very quite. Are you quarreling?”

At this the two ladies looked up surprised and broke out laughing. They apologized to the stranger for their apparent rudeness and explained how they were so unused to seeing anyone at all during winter months that they forgot all about making conversation. They then asked him if he was tired after his long journey (he seemed like he had come from far away places) and would he like to rest while they finished cooking.

The stranger thanked them and followed the daughter-in-law to the inner room where he lay himself down on the mat and soon fell fast asleep. When the stranger woke, the faint rays of the setting sun were seen through the chinks and he heard some whispering in the other room. Rightly guessing that the men were back, he came out of the room and stamped his foot 3 times (for that is the form of clearing one’s throat in those parts). He saw there was an elderly man and a younger one and thought “this must be the father and son” and of course he was right.

The father Chaukato came forward, touched his hand to his forehead (as was the custom of greeting guests) and said,

” Welcome to my humble abode, stranger. I am very sorry to have missed your arrival, but we have come back with some good meat from the market. I can now make up for my absence with a nutritious meal that my good wife Shawnee has made”.

“Ah! you must be a very rich country indeed if you have markets in winter too”, said the stranger.

” We have our dear king to thank for that. Every summer he has ordered every household to give their surplus meat and other produce to the royal storehouses. There with the help of the water and earth Manitou (these are spirits, the Manitou) he keeps them until the winter. When we Cahokia can no longer find fresh meat or grow vegetables, the king gives the merchants of the market portions of the stores and we get to buy them from the market.”

“But what do you pay for them?”

“pay?”  asked Chaukato puzzled. The stranger’s speech was slightly different from the Cahokian, you see, so Chaukato didn’t perfectly understand him.

“Do you give the merchant anything in exchange for the meat?” clarified the stranger.

“Ah, yes. Our dear daughter-in-law is a great needlewoman and is deft with the abrader. We exchange the jewellery and clothes she makes for the meat”.

“Huh”, said the stranger and for the first time an expression seemed to pass through his thus far impassive face.

“What is it? Is the stew not to your liking?” asked Shawnee worriedly. For they had sat down to eat as they were talking, you see.

“Not at all, dear lady,” said he. “I was just thinking it is a strange custom indeed, that to get back your own you have to give something else in return. But, no doubt you have an excellent reason for this custom. I am after all a stranger and not used to your ways and so cannot judge its usefulness.”

At this speech from the stranger, they all looked a bit confused and uncomfortable. At last the son took courage and asked the stranger to explain. The stranger said that since the meat they got from the market was, after all, the meat they had hunted during the summer before, it was by rights their own meat. So it seemed unfair to have to give the merchant something in exchange. The family did not know what to say in response to this so they didn’t say anything at all. Soon the meal was over and Chaukato, as usual, lit his calumet and smoked, while the son started playing a tune in his flageolot. Shawnee sat by the still warm stove and chewed on her tobacco, while the daughter-in-law took up her needlework. The stranger watched each of them follow their routine in turn and refusing the calumet and the tobacco, sat down to hear the son play.

But behind this placid scene, something unusual was happening. Chewing her tobacco, Shawnee was also chewing the cud. “…but the king is a great Shaman. If it was not for him and his prowess we would have all perished in the great drought of 20 years ago. If he says it is right, then it has to be right.”

Puffing on his calumet, Chaukato thought “what a strange man! What was that strange word he used just now? wonder where he comes from. Looks like a Kikapoo but the word didnt sound Alogonquin. But if he doesn’t volunteer the information, how can I ask? Must be a very strange place indeed if the people have such strange thoughts…”

Looking at her needlework, the daughter-in-law thought ” well, this has turned out real nice. I wonder if I should do a turn here? What a pity it is that I have to part with this too like all the beautiful things I make, sigh….”

The tune the son was playing started to alter slightly as he thought,” could it be true what this stranger has said? I did take a lot of trouble hunting that bison last summer. And it was the largest one by far than any the others were able to manage. If I gave the largest meat, shouldn’t I get the largest share for free?”

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