Selections from the American poets
William Cullen Bryant
THE BIRTH OF THUNDER.—A DAHCOTAH LEGEND.
Twenty-eight miles from the Big Stone Lake, near the sources of the St. Peter's River, is a cluster of small lakes or ponds lying much below the level of the surrounding prairie, and ornamented with an oak wood. The Dahcotahs call this place THE NEST OF THUNDER, and say that here Thunder was born. As soon as the infant spirit could go alone, he set out to see the world, and, at the first step, placed his foot upon a hill twenty Page 291 five miles distant; a rock on the top of which actually seems to bear the print, of a gigantic human foot. The Indians call the hill THUNDER'S TRACKS. The Nest of Thunder is, to this day, visited by the being whose birth it witnessed. He comes clad in a mantle of storms, and lightnings play round his head.
LOOK, white man, well on all around,
These hoary oaks, those boundless plains;
Tread lightly; this is holy ground:
Here Thunder, awful spirit! reigns.
Look on those waters far below,
So deep beneath the prairie sleeping,
The summer sun's meridian glow
Scarce warms the sands their waves are heaping;
And scarce the bitter blast can blow
In winter on their icy cover;
The Wind Sprite may not stoop so low,
But bows his head and passes over.
Perch'd on the top of yonder pine,
The heron's billow-searching eye
Can scarce his finny prey descry,
Glad leaping where their colours shine.
Those lakes, whose shores but now we trod,
Scars deeply on Earth's bosom dinted,
Are the strong impress of a god,
By Thunder's giant foot imprinted.
Nay, stranger, as I live 'tis truth!
The lips of those who never lied
Repeat it daily to our youth.
Famed heroes, erst my nation's pride,
Beheld the wonder; and our sages
Gave down the tale to after ages.
Dost not believe? though blooming fair
The flowerets court the breezes coy,
Though now the sweet-grass scents the air,
And sunny nature basks in joy,
It is not ever so.
Come when the lightning flashes,
Come when the forest crashes,
When shrieks of pain and wo,Page 292
Break on thine ear-drum thick and fast,
From ghosts that shiver in the blast;
Then shalt thou know, and bend the knee
Before the angry deity.
But now attend, while I unfold
The lore my brave forefathers taught:
As yet the storm, the heat, the cold,
The changing seasons had not brought.
Famine was not; each tree and grot
Grew greener for the rain;
The wanton doe, the buffalo,
Blithe bounded on the plain.
In mirth did man the hours employ
Of that eternal spring;
With song and dance, and shouts of joy,
Did hill and valley ring.
No death-shot peal'd upon the ear,
No painted warrior poised the spear,
No stake-doom'd captive shook for fear;
No arrow left the string,
Save when the wolf to earth was borne;
From foeman's head no scalp was torn;
Nor did the pangs of hate and scorn
The red man's bosom wring.
Then waving fields of yellow corn
Did our bless'd villages adorn.
Alas! that man will never learn
His good from evil to discern.
At length, by furious passions driven,
The Indian left his babes and wife,
And every blessing God has given,
To mingle in the deadly strife.
Fierce Wrath and haggard Envy soon
Achieved the work that War begun;
He left, unsought, the beast of chase,
And prey'd upon his kindred race.
But He who rules the earth and skies,
Who watches every bolt that flies;Page 293
From whom all gifts, all blessings flow,
With grief beheld the scene below.
He wept; and, as the balmy shower
Refreshing to the ground descended,
Each drop gave being to a flower,
And all the hills in homage bended.
"Alas!" the good Great Spirit said,
"Man merits not the climes I gave;
Where'er a hillock rears its head,
He digs his brother's timeless grave:
To every crystal rill of water,
He gives the crimson stain of slaughter.
No more for him my brow shall wear
A constant, glad, approving smile;
Ah, no! my eyes must withering glare
On bloody hands and deeds of guile.
Henceforth shall my lost children know
The piercing wind, the blinding snow;
The storm shall drench, the sun shall burn,
The winter freeze them, each in turn.
Henceforth their feeble flames shall feel
A climate like their hearts of steel."
The moon that night withheld her light.
By fits, instead, a lurid glare
Illumed the skies; while mortal eyes
Were closed, and voices rose in prayer.
While the revolving sun
Three times his course might run,
The dreadful darkness lasted.
And all that time the red man's eye
A sleeping spirit might espy,
Upon a tree-top cradled high,
Whose trunk his breath had blasted.
So long he slept, he grew so fast,
Beneath his weight the gnarled oak
Snapp'd, as the tempest snaps the mast.
It fell, and Thunder woke!Page 294
The world to its foundation shook,
The grisly bear his prey forsook,
The scowling heaven an aspect bore
That man had never seen before;
The wolf in terror fled away,
And shone at last the light of day.
'Twas here he stood; these lakes attest
Where first Waw-kee-an's footsteps press'd.
About his burning brow a cloud,
Black as the raven's wing, he wore;
Thick tempests wrapp'd him like a shroud,
Red lightnings in his hand he bore;
Like two bright suns his eyeballs shone,
His voice was like the cannon's tone;
And, where he breathed, the land became,
Prairie and wood, one sheet of flame.
Not long upon this mountain height
The first and worst of storms abode,
For, moving in his fearful might,
Abroad the God-begotten strode.
Afar, on yonder faint blue mound,
In the horizon's utmost bound,
At the first stride his foot he set;
The jarring world confess'd the shock.
Stranger! the track of Thunder yet
Remains upon the living rock.
The second step, he gain'd the sand
On far Superior's storm-beat strand:
Then with his shout the concave rung,
As up to heaven the giant sprung
On high, beside his sire to dwell;
But still, of all the spots on earth,
He loves the woods that gave him birth.—
Such is the tale our fathers tell.