Kokumthena

February, 1828 — near Wapaghkonnetta, Ohio

Pahtecoosaw walks silently past the outermost of the women’s cultivated fields. They form a large ring around the winter camp. Now, with snow everywhere, the stubs of corn stalks are visible above even in the half light before dawn, many with the remnants of pumpkin vines still clinging to them, their large dry leaves rattling in the slightest breeze. Pahtecoosaw expects to find a rabbit or possibly two in his traps, but he walks carefully, his bow strung and an arrow nocked, in the hope that he might encounter one of the deer people. He knows quite well, however, that this is a fool’s hope. So much new snow fell last night that they will be bedded down in the deep forest all day, unapproachable. But he has strung the bow anyway because the last meat in the village was eaten a full month ago, and the last beans a week ago. How he wishes for a rifle! He has fired a rifle once in his life, and he knows that with such a weapon he would be an unequaled hunter. With such a weapon he might be able to get close enough to where the deer lie hidden to take one. But it is impossible. There is not a single silver brooch or armband remaining in the village. All gone, all sold for food.

Pahtecoosaw himself has not eaten now since yesterday morning, a small bowl of hominy with salt, and then only because Takhi stood in front of him in the door of his tent and said that she would not let him leave the dome if he did not eat. The problem was that two days before that, in the evening, the whole band had met in the council house to pray that game might be found, and for an end to the winter, and then all had shared a small meal. When the bowls of thin hominy were being passed around Pahtecoosaw had chanced to see the little girl Chepi’s eyes follow the bowl as it was being passed from hand to hand. Even at five years of age a girl of the Shaawanwaki people knows how to keep her face impassive, but she could not hide the hope in her eyes. So how can a man eat when children go hungry? Takhi said that he could not hunt if he does not have food to keep up his strength, but Pahtecoosaw knows that he can and he shall. He is by far the best hunter in the clan, and he knows he will be able to hunt no matter what. He will teach his body to endure on water and sunlight and memories, but he will not eat again until he has found enough meat for the whole village.

Twelve years ago, when Pahtecoosaw was still a boy, a year came when the snow stayed until the Women Weed Corn Month. Which meant that they weren’t weeding much corn that year. In fact, the weather stayed too cool to plant for the rest of that ‘summer’, and was already bringing snow again in the Harvest Month. All of the people, even whites, were hungry that year, and many of the people died. Not many whites, of course, but even they were not very well-off. That was the first time Pahtecoosaw knew hunger. Ever since then the winters have seemed colder and longer than he remembers as a boy. And of course, with the whites always increasing in number like locusts, pushing the people into smaller and smaller regions, that has not made life easier. In past times, if the winters were hard, the Kickapoo might come and say ‘Here, cousins, we have extra. Please take.’ This does not happen with the whites.

The Shaawanwaki women of course know how to grow food, but the Shaawanwaki as a people have never as adept as others at such work. They cannot be, since they never stay on the same land for more than a generation or two. They have never stayed long in one place since they know that no place on the Earth will ever truly be theirs. Even in the old stories there is no explanation for this fact, but every Shaawanwaki man and woman knows it in their hearts. Others of the Tribes are skilled in hunting, or in fishing, or in the raising of food, or in prophecy. Far to the west there are the great plains tribes who hunt the remaining buffalo and who cannot be equaled as hunters on swift horseback. Although they wander a great country, even they have a strictly circumscribed domain. Of all the Tribes, only the Shaawanwaki have always wandered. They hunt a little, and they fish a little, and they farm a little, because they must. But their specialty, the way that they have always made their living among the Tribes, is by being the finest warriors upon the face of the Earth.

Pahtecoosaw knows that he is a good hunter, but he also knows that he is no kind of hunter at all next to a Kikaapoa or a Neshnabe. Pahtecoosaw knows instead that he, like his father and his father’s father, is a great warrior. He knows in the center of his bones that he and ten men like him could defeat any village or white man’s town or company of US soldiers in all of the Ohio country.

He also knows that even if he stays out for the rest of the day he will find no food to bring home to his people. He has resolved to stay out in any case, for today and tonight and tomorrow. Pahtecoosaw can face any foe, but he will not see the little girl Chepi’s eyes again unless he can bring her food.

~

An hour later he checks the last snare and, as he had begun to fear, there is nothing. There is not a rabbit. All morning it has seemed like there is not so much as a mouse all along the edge of the marsh lands, now frozen as hard as rock.

Nothing.

When Pahtecoosaw was a boy, the flocks of the poweatha birds in the autumn would darken the sky for a day in their great passage. Lately, he has noticed that the great flocks are reduced, and every year it is worse. The whites hunt them, not for food but for sport, and leave their bodies to rot. They do not hunt like men, but only kill like insane children. Maybe someday the great passing flocks will be no more, and the autumn skies will be empty.

Maybe someday the Shaawanwaki, the greatest warriors that the world has known will likewise be no more. If the great spirits that move the world wish it to be so, then it will be so. One man can do nothing. All that one man can do is to fight the inevitable. All that one man can do is to find food the best he can for his people, and not go home until he finds it. Yesterday morning Pahtecoosaw allowed Takhi to force him to eat because he loves her. He does not love her so much that he will let himself become less than a man for her. He will sit here for a while, and then set off for the deep forest though he knows that no man can surprise the deer in that place. Maybe there will be a sick one. Maybe there will be a dead one.

Pahtecoosaw breathes deeply and exhales visibly. If he could feed the child Chepi and the others like her with his own flesh, he would do it. Although it is indeed difficult to see how he could keep hunting after that.

~

An hour past dawn and the sun is shining on the snow while Pahtecoosaw sets a new snare. His bow and one arrow are sticking upright in the snow, ready to hand just in case. He is just finishing the delicate work with the snare when he feels something happen. Suddenly the world around him feels different. The sparkling light looks different and the cold air feels different on his skin. The little noises of branches shifting or distant crows calling sound different. He stops moving, giving his whole mind to the strange sensations—and then leaps to his feet, turning and grabbing his bow and arrow as he rises.

There, in the center of the clearing no more than thirty yards away, a woman is standing. Pahtecoosaw’s eyes fill with wonder. Between one beating of his heart and the next, he knows that this is the most important moment of his life. It is not possible for any man or any woman to have approached Pahtecoosaw so closely on a quiet day and him not mark their approach long since.

Then Pahtecoosaw feels a chill go through him that does not come from the winter air. He sees that in the entire field around the woman, there is not a single track disturbing the new snow.

“Grandmother,” he whispers, too quietly to be heard, but the woman smiles and calmly begins to walk toward him. And only now does she leave tracks in the unmarked snow. Did she descend, then, from the sky?

Perhaps.

She appears to be a Shaawanwaki woman, but Pahtecoosaw knows that this woman can appear however she wishes. Her hair is long and black, and gathered at the back. She is wearing the finest doeskin clothing, bleached as white as the snow, fringed and finely inlaid with beads of red and blue glass so fine that Pahtecoosaw knows he will hardly be able to see them even were she standing at arm’s length. Which she soon, apparently, will be. She is beautiful but only lightly painted, a band of blue across her eyes so faint that as she moves it seems to be there one moment and gone the next.

Realizing that he is still holding his bow with a nocked arrow, Pahtecoosaw bends slowly, as though the woman were a bear that might suddenly charge, and lays both bow and arrow atop the snow, then turns his hands palms outward toward her, in a gesture of welcome and friendship. His hands are trembling, but he is not ashamed of that. As the woman approaches him, her fine moccasins leave tracks in the snow like any mortal woman. But when he first saw her, there were no tracks at all as though she had descended gently from the sky.

Finally the woman stops only two paces from him, just in front of where he has set the bow and arrow.

“Pahtecoosaw, brother,” she says, using his name. “Do not be afraid.” Her voice is like music. “Take up your tools, and lead me to your people. I would speak with you, and them.”

“Grandmother,” he says again, his voice trembling.

He is calling her Kokumthena, which means Our Grandmother. The Shaawanwaki alone among all the people recognize a female creator deity who they believe helped to create the world and comes from time to time to help the Shaawanwaki in their times of need.

“I did not create you,” she smiles. “But I have been a friend to your people. Your people have suffered bravely, but the time for suffering is past. I will help them. But lead me to them now, that they will not be afraid.”

At last Pahtecoosaw draws in a great breath, and nods.
“Yes, Grandmother.”

~

The council house is a large rectangular log structure in the very center of the village, next to the football field. The field is on the south side of the council house, and just south of the field is the winter dome house that belonged to the previous chief before he died. The winter dome-houses of the rest of the tribe radiate outward in rough rings from this area, and the outermost ring of this structure of circles is the ring of fields that the women till. The whole winter village occupies about forty acres of relatively high ground near the middle of a large area of lakes and marshes about four miles across. The nearest large settlement is sixteen miles to the west: Wapaghkonnetta which, in spite of its name, is now mostly white.

By the time Pahtecoosaw and Kokumthena walk past the outermost houses of the village everyone is out of their homes and staring. As they walk down the lane that leads to the council house, people are gathering around on both sides. Pahtecoosaw sees Takhi in the crowd, her eyes intent with wonder. She chose you! He wishes that he could stop and tell Takhi, No I was just the closest one when she descended from the sky. People are whispering her name: Kokumthena. All of the women are silently weeping, and some of the men, but the children press forward. Pahtecoosaw’s eyes find the little girl Chepi and, perhaps emboldened by his glance, she is the first to step forward and touch the hem of Kokumthena’s garment. Then, like a dam breaking, everyone is doing it, children and adults. She walks forward smiling and touching their hands.

~

In a year, or at the most two,” Kokumthena says to the villagers, all packed in to the council house, “the white congress in Washington will pass this law, and in another year or two after that you will be sent to live far to the west, in dusty land.”

She is telling them about a law that is being made in Washington which she says has been talked about already for a long time, although none of Pahtecoosaw’s band have heard of it before.

There is a large fireplace off to the north side of the council house, near the front, but it is not lit. All the fuel has been used to heat the dome-houses this winter and anyway, with this many people packed in, even the big council house is already getting warm. Sunlight streams in through the council house’s two fine glass windows, purchased two years ago when Pahtecoosaw’s people were more prosperous. He is proud of the way they light up the house and how fine they look, both of them dividing the light into twelve small rectangles, both with fine stone lintels. He is proud that Kokumthena has seen how well they have made their village. On the south side the light streams past three great upright timbers, the south legs of the three large trestles that support the eighty foot length of the house. Each pillar has a bundle of fine dried tobacco tied to its top, and each pillar has a face carved into it, at just above man-height. These are the totems of the helpful spirits known to theShaawanwaki legends of old. It has not escaped the attention of anyone in the hall that the carved face on the foremost of the three south pillars is a portrait of the very woman who now sits facing them all from a chair at the front.

“Grandmother!” one man shouts. “Will you lead us in battle to take back our lands?”

It is Makkapitew who has spoken, and, fortunately, everyone knows he is always crazy for war, and more so every year. Someday maybe he will fight the snow, trying to keep it from falling. There is some restlessness in the great room after his boorish outburst. Most people just want to stare at Kokumthena and compare her face to that of her likeness carved into the old roof-pole. But Pahtecoosaw is glad that Makkapitew has spoken up. It is important for Kokumthena to know, if she did not already, that the Shaawanwaki still have some fools among them.

“You should not hate the white men,” Kokumthena says to Makkapitew. “They are slaves to masters whom they know not, and whom I cannot defeat. But the world that they have made will not last. You, my friends, need only survive until that day.”

“How can we survive if they drive us from every place where we can live?” This time it is the woman Sokanon who speaks. “Now you say they will drive us away again in a year or two years. Then what would you have us do, Kokumthena?”

Kokumthena smiles at her. “I say Do not fight, but I do not say Lay down and wait to die. What would I have you do? Now that you know their plans, I would have you leave before they can force you to leave, so you can choose your own path. I will lead you to new land where you can live, and your grandchildren, and their grandchildren, and not be forced away again. It is colder than here, but the land is good and you will find game all year, fish in the summer, and fertile ground. I would have you remember the ways of your forbears, and teach your ways to your grandchildren, and tell them to remember me. Then, when the white men’s world is ended, I will come to your grandchildren thrice removed as I come to you today, and I will lead them to a new Heaven and a new Earth.”

These words silence everyone for a while, until, to his great surprise, Pahtecoosaw finds himself speaking.

“Great Kokumthena,” he says. His voice is weak at first, but in the silence every ear can hear him. “I wish we could follow you, but you have come too late. We are already weak from hunger. It is my fault, that I have not been able to find game. We cannot teach our grandchildren. Most of us will not see the spring.”

There is perfect silence in the council hall. Then Kokumthena, without turning her eyes from him, gestures toward her likeness on the near roof-pole and smiles brightly. Although her name means our grandmother, Pahtecoosaw only now realizes that she looks no older than he does.

“Should I break faith with you, who have kept it with me?” She looks around the room. “You are not the only hungry tribe in this hard winter. Pahtecoosaw, you are the hunter of this band. Know, then that the deer-people whom you have hunted, they are also starving. If nothing were done their tribe would die before spring. I have spoken to them in the manner of their kind, and I have found enough food for their does and their yearlings. In exchange they have agreed to make a gift to you.” She stands up from her chair. “Come outside with me now, and see.”

Everyone gets out of the way as Kokumthena walks down the center aisle of the council house toward the door, and Pahtecoosaw falls in beside her. It does not feel like walking next to a supernatural being, it feels like walking next to a woman. She is quite tall, though—only a little shorter than he. He sees now that her hair is gathered at the back with a simple silver clasp like any of the women might have worn when they still had silver. As they pass, everyone else moves to follow behind.

As he emerges, squinting a little in the sunlight Pahtecoosaw at first sees nothing unusual: the first ring of dome-houses around the council house and football field, basking in the sun. The air has become quite still.

Then a great buck comes slowly walking from behind one of the houses. He is enormous and still carries his antlers even this late in the winter, but Pahtecoosaw can see that his body is gaunt. The deer stops and looks at Pahtecoosaw and Kokumthena, then continues forward, approaching them slowly. Behind himself, Pahtecoosaw can hear the others emerging from the council house, and uttering quiet expressions of surprise. No one has ever seen a buck walk into an occupied camp like this.

As the great deer walks slowly forward, two more emerge from behind the same house, and then he sees: there is a line of them, extending far between the rows of the dome-houses. People are whispering urgently, but the deer come on with occasional hesitation.

Finally there are twenty animals standing on the football field, all elder bucks. They remain standing as Kokumthena walks toward them. She stands with them, talking quietly and they allow her to touch them. Then the bucks start lying down. They lie down as if to sleep, but Pahtecoosaw sees immediately: they are dying. The life leaves their bodies easily, and leaves them calm. Kokumthena remains standing for a minute, and finally turns to face the tribe.

These deer-people give their lives to you that you may live. Take their bodies and waste nothing, and remember their courage in the years to come, and honor them. You will not hunt their kin again until I tell you, after we begin the journey to the new home to which I will guide you in the spring. Now—take this gift that your children may live. I will return to you at the equinox.

Everyone begins to rush forward, except Pahtecoosaw who remains standing by the council house door. Kokumthena approaches him.

“You should stay with us,” he says. “Then I would not have to hunt.” Kokumthena laughs, like any woman.

“I cannot stay,” Kokumthena says. She leads Pahtecoosaw back inside the council house now that everyone is outside and closes the door behind them. “And you will still need to hunt in the new land, and on the way there. Which is why I have a gift just for you.”

No one has entered the building since everyone came out. Pahtecoosaw has been standing in front of the doorway the whole time. Even so, there are now several large wooden boxes at the front of the room next to the chair that Kokumthena had been sitting in. Pahtecoosaw rushes forward. One of the boxes is of a length to hold a rifle. With an exclamation, he unlatches and opens the box and then stops. There is indeed a beautiful rifle in the box, but it is unlike any he has seen.

“This is something new,” Kokumthena says. She points to the unusual mechanism at the back of the rifle, where the flint should be. “It is called ‘percussion cap’. There is no flint, or frizzen. You only place one of these caps here—” She produces a small brass button in her hand, and places it on part of the mechanism where it fits snugly. “This is the percussion cap. It contains the priming charge. You do not need to put powder in the pan. This hammer strikes it, and the weapon fires. It will fire in the rain, without any cover.”

“In the rain,” Pahtecoosaw whispers. Normally one must load the weapon in a dry place and then carefully cover it with leather. It is a troublesome process and greatly prone to failure.

“And, easier to load, because of this.” Kokumthena takes hold of the back part of the barrel and pulls, and it tilts up! It separates from the rest of the barrel. “See. You do not ram the charge the whole length of the barrel, only this part. And then push it back down.”

Pahtecoosaw touches the piece gingerly, pulling it up as she has done, and pushing it down again. It is like a miracle. This means that one would not need to laboriously ram the charge the entire length of the barrel. Which means that one could fire the weapon many times without stopping to clean fouling from the barrel. It also means that a man could load the entire weapon in pouring rain, by merely leaning over it.

“Kokumthena,” he looks at her. “Did you create this?”

“Oh, no!” she laughs again. “A man called John Hall, in the east, at a place called Harper’s Ferry. They are quite new. But of course, you will need a large supply of the little caps. They are in this box. And bullets, and powder.”

She rises, and he rises with her.

“Kokumthena. This is a great gift.”

She looks at him seriously. “You will lead your people, Man-Who-Goes-Straight.” She emphasizes the meaning of his name. “Use this rifle to help feed your people. Do anything possible, rather than use it against men. If you must, then you must. But if that happens, then we have probably already lost everything.”

She smiles at him. “You and Takhi will wed?”

“I—hope so, Kokumthena.”

“Please do. You have my blessing. I will come to your children, and theirs.”

She smiles into his eyes, and Pahtecoosaw knows that she will come again in the spring to guide them. But after that journey, he will not see her again in his own life. Although to think that she will come to his children and grandchildren is a great joy. Still, his heart feels large, but hollow.

“Why do you help us, Kokumthena?”

She holds his gaze and then turns to look out the lovely glass windows. Those windows will be carefully packaged and taken on the trip, as will the lodge poles.

“Great changes are coming,” Kokumthena says. “You will see the beginning of them, and your grandchildren thrice removed will see the end. When these changes have passed,” she looks back to him, “I do not want your way of life to have perished from the Earth. So go straight, Pahtecoosaw. And shoot straight.”

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