Classic story, really: a theme treated by many an author. A young hero, successful in everything he does, gets a little cocky, ignores the advice of his elders, bites off more than he can chew, and struggles to get out with as many teeth intact as possible.
It wasn’t what I went to Newberry Transcribe to find. I was looking for useful work. Newberry Transcribe is a corner of the website where you can log on and read digital scans of manuscripts in the Newberry collection—mostly nineteenth century—and either transcribe the handwritten material you find, thus making it easier for future scholars to research it, or review someone else’s transcription, and puzzle out some of the harder words.
But I ran across “An Ojibway Tale, 1852” and decided to look in at it. I had turned up some interesting stories in the material that needed to be transcribed, but not many that advertised themselves as such.
Once upon a time there was a young man named Rudolph Van Dyke Smith. When hie was about eleven, his father was made U.S. Commissioner to the Ojibwa. We lose a few years here, but by the time he was in his twenties, Rudolph was living among the Ojibwa, who called him Haw-Wan-Deck, which meant “The Brush Heap”. What happened at the brush heap that got him this name I can’t really tell, and , in any case, he is not the hero of the story. He is the hero who wrote it down in 1852, as he was dying of some unspecified disease.
The story is not the legend full of wisdom and lore I was expecting. It’s a hunting story, and Smith leaves it to you to figure out how much of it actually happened and how much of it grew, as is the nature of hunting and fishing stories, in the telling.
The hero is Ish-pau-bi-kau, or High Cliff (what happened at the high cliff to get him this name is also not recorded.) High Cliff was a skilled hunter, going out without a knife or bow and always coming back with meat. He earned a great deal of respect from this, and it went to his head. One evening, he came to the lodge where the older men were telling tales and the younger ones were listening. High Cliff was so honored as a hunter that he was allowed to speak when the old men were speaking, and when they began on the terrors of facing the White Bear, he started to sneer. Polar bears did not wander into Ojibwa territory often, but the ones that did had left an impression of great strength and cunning.
High Cliff couldn’t stand this, and told everyone that if he ever met a white bear, he’d have no trouble bringing it back to the camp to be skinned by his wife. The older men were startled; the leader told High Cliff to do penance and pray that the spirits of nature would forget he ever said such a thing.
High Cliff declined to do this, and went about his merry way. One day, he decided to make himself an eagle feather headdress. This involved first bringing in an eagle, which was beyond most of his fellow hunters. He caught a rabbit alive, and dug a trench in eagle country to wait in, covering himself with grass so all the eagles would see was a distressed rabbit. When an eagle came to prey, he would find himself wrestling with High Cliff.
Imagine his surprise when the rabbit was snatched from his hand by a large white bear. High Cliff decided to play dead, figuring he might be any minute now anyhow. The bear scattered the grass and tossed High Cliff out of the trench without much trouble. High Cliff went on playing dead, and the polar bear was puzzled, retreating behind a mound to keep an eye on the situation. High Cliff timed when the bear looked over the mound, and as it lost interest and looked less often, he took off. The bear didn’t look up for some time, and was irritated to find the mysterious man gone.
The bear was a good hunter, too, and a good deal faster than High Cliff, who had to climb a tree. The polar bear is not a climber, says Smith, and just knocked the tree down. High Cliff had figured on this and jumped to another tree, and then another. The bear got tired of knocking down trees and hunkered down to watch again. High Cliff pulled leaves and branches together, and dressed a dummy in his clothes, figuring the bear would watch that while he ran naked back to the village.
Unfortunately, the stick man was too light, and High Cliff dislodged it as he was climbing down. The bear leapt on the phony when it fell, but High Cliff didn’t have as much of a head start as he’d hoped. Coming up to a lake, he spotted the remains of a honey tree he had broken up, and climbed into a hollow log too thin for the bear to climb into and too long for the bear to reach in for him.
The story goes on, both players taking turns outwitting the other. The bear, stymied by the log, holds it underwater, but High Cliff is a noted swimmer. The bear breaks a beaver dam, realizing that the water rushing through will draw everything past him, including High Cliff. High Cliff winds up running for dear life again, and makes it to the village, where every other hunter takes aim at the white bear, which ignores everyone but High Cliff, who tramples through three lodges, walking straight through the lodge fires to keep going. Both combatants are nigh dead from exertion when High Cliff gets to his own lodge, where his wife knocks down the exhausted bear. High Cliff was a good deal quieter about his exploits ever after.
So what you want to do, dear reader, while you are sheltering at home, is go to the Newberry’s website, and click on “Browse Our Digital Collections”. You don’t need to be doing research for your dissertation to get there, and you’re bound to find something you haven’t read before.