All story: The Dance of the Little People
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The Dance of the Little People

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

IN full view of Wetaota, upon an open terrace half-way up the side of the hill in the midst of virgin Big Woods, there were grouped in an irregular circle thirty teepees of the Sioux. The yellowish - white skin cones contrasted quite naturally with the variegated foliage of September, yet all of the woodland people knew well that they had not been there on the day before.
Wetaota, the Lake of Many Islands, lies at the heart of Haya Tanka, the Big Mountain. It is the chosen home of many wild tribes. Here the crane, the Canadian goose, the loon, and other water-fowl come annually to breed undisturbed. The moose are indeed the great folk of the woods, and yet there are many more who are happily paired here, and who with equal right may claim it as their domicile. Among them are some insigni (leant ami obscure, perhaps only because they have little or nothing to contribute to the necessities of the wild man.
Such are the Little People of the Meadow, who dwell under a thatched roof of coarse grasses. Their hidden highways and cities are found near the lake and along the courses of the streams. Here they have toiled and played and brought forth countless generations, and few can tell their life-story.
' Ho, ho, kola!" was the shout of a sturdy Indian boy, apparently about ten years old, from his post in front of the camp and over-looking the lake. A second boy was coming towards him through the woods, chanting aloud a hunting song after the fashion of their fathers. The men had long since departed on the hunt, and Teola, who loved to explore new country, had already made the circuit of Wetaota. He had walked for miles along its tortuous sandy shores, and examined the signs of most of the inhabitants. There were footprints of bears, moose, deer, wolves, mink, otter, and others. The sight of them had rejoiced the young hunter's heart, but he knew that they were for his elders. The woods were also full of squirrels, rabbits, and the smaller winged tribes, and the waters alive with the finny folk, all of which are boys' game. Yet it was the delicate sign-language of the Hetunkala, the Little People of the Meadow, which had aroused the enthusiasm of Teola, and in spite of himself he began to sing the game scout's song, when Shungela heard and gave him greeting.
" What is the prospect for our hunt to- day?" called Shungela, as soon as his friend was near enough to speak.
"Good!" Teola replied, simply. "It is a land of fatness. I have looked over the shores of Wetaota, and I think this is the finest country I have ever seen. I am tired enough of prairie-dog hunts and catching young prairie-chickens, but there is everything here that we can chase, kill, or eat."
Shungela at once circulated the good game news among the boys, and in less time than it takes an old man to tell a story all the boys of the camp had gathered around a bonfire in the woods.
" You, Teola, tell us again what you have seen," they exclaimed, in chorus. "I saw the footprint of every creature that the Great Mystery has made! We can fish, we can hunt the young crane, and snare the rabbit. We can fool the owl for a night-play," he replied, proudly.
"Ho, kola, washtay! Good news! good news!" one urchin shouted. Another ran up a tree like a squirrel in the exuberance of his delight. " Heye, heye, he-e-e-e!" sang an- other, joyously.
" Most of all in number are the Little People of the Meadow ! Countless are their tiny footprints on the sandy shores of W'etaota! Very many are their nests and furrows under the heavy grass of the marshes! Let Shungela be the leader to-day in our attack upon the villages of the Little People," suggested Teola, in whose mischievous black eyes and shaggy mane one beheld the very picture of a wild rogue.

"Ho, ho, hechetu!" they all replied, in chorus.
"This is our first mouse-hunt this season, and you all know the custom. We must first make our tiny bows and arrows," he said, again.
"Tosh, tosh! Of course!" said they all.
In the late afternoon the sun shone warmly and everything was still in the woods, but upon the lake the occasional -cry of the loon was heard. At some distance from the camp thirty or more little redskins met together to organize their mimic deer-hunt. They imitated closely the customs and manners of their elders while hunting the deer. Shungela gave the command, and all the boys advanced abreast, singing their hunting song, until they reached the meadow-land.
Here the leader divided them into two parties, of which one went twenty paces in advance, and with light switches raked aside the dead grass, exposing a net-work of trails. The homes of the Little People were under- ground, and the doors were concealed by last year's rank vegetation. While they kneeled ready to shoot with the miniature bow and arrows the first fugitives that might pass, the second party advanced in turn, giving an imitation of the fox-call to scare the timorous Little People. These soon became bewildered, missed their holes, and were shot down with unerring aim as they fled along their furrow-like paths.
There was a close rivalry among the boys to see who could bring down the largest number of the tiny fugitives, but it was forbidden to open the homes or kill any who were in hiding.
In a few minutes the mice were panic-stricken, running blindly to and fro, and the excitement became general.
" Yehe, yehe! There goes their chief! A white mouse!" exclaimed one of the boys.
"Stop shooting!" came the imperative command from the shaggy-haired boy.
" It is a good sign to see their chief, but it is a very bad sign if we kill any after we have seen him," he explained.
"I have never heard that this is so," demurred Shungela, unwilling to yield his authority.
"You can ask your grandmother or your grandfather to-night, and you will find that I am right," retorted the shaggy-haired one.
11 Woo, woo !" they called, and all the others came running.
" Plow many of you saw the white mouse ?" Teola asked.
"I saw it!" "I too!" "I too!" replied several.
" And how many have heard that to see the chief of the mouse people brings good luck if the mice are spared after his appearance, but that whoever continues to kill them invites misfortune?"
"I have heard it!" "And I!" "And I!" The replies were so many that all the boys were willing to concede the authenticity of the story, and the hunt was stopped.
" Let us hear the mouse legends again this evening. My grandfather will tell them to us," Teola suggested, and not a boy there but was ready to accept the invitation.

Padanee was an ordinary looking old Indian, except that he had a really extraordinary pair of eyes, whose searching vision it seemed that nothing could escape. These eyes of his were well supported by an uncommonly good memory. His dusky and furrowed countenance was lighted as by an inner flame when once he had wound the buffalo-robe about his lean, brown limbs and entered upon the account of his day's experience in the chase, or prepared to relate to an attentive circle some oft - repeated tradition of his people.
" Hun, hun, hay !" The old savage cleared his throat. A crowd of bright-eyed little urchins had slipped quietly into his lodge. "Teola tells me that you had all set out to hunt down and destroy the Little People of the Meadow, and were only stopped by seeing their chief go by. I want to tell you something about the lives of these little creatures. We know that they are food for foxes and other animals, and that is as far as most of us think upon the matter. Yet the Great Mystery must have had some purpose in mind when He made them, and doubtless that is good for us to know."
Padanee was considered a very good savage school-teacher, and he easily held his audience.
"When you make mud animals," he continued, "you are apt to vary them a little, perhaps for fun and perhaps only by accident. It is so with the Great Mystery. He seems to get tired of making all the animals alike, for in every tribe there are differences.
" Among the Hetunkala, the Little People, there are several different bands. Some live in one place and build towns and cities like the white man. Some wander much over forest and prairie, like our own people. These are very small, with long tails, and they are great jumpers. They are the thieves of their nation. They never put up any food of their own, but rob the store-houses of other tribes.
"Then there is the bob tailed mouse with white breast. He is very much like the paleface always at work. He cannot pass by a field of the wild purple beans without stopping to dig up a few and tasting to see if they are of the right sort. These make their home upon the low-lying prairies, and fill their holes with great store of wild beans and edible roots, only to be robbed by the gopher, the skunk, the badger, who not only steal from them but often kill and eat the owner as well. Our old women, too, some- times rob them of their wild beans.
' This fellow is always fat and well-fed, like the white man. He is a harvester, and his full store-houses are found all through the bottom lands."
" Ho, ho ! Washtay lo !" the boys shouted. "Keep on, grandfather!"
"Perhaps you have heard, perhaps not," resumed the old man. " But it is the truth.
These little folk have their own ways. They have their plays and dances, like any other nation."
" We never heard it; or, if we have, we can remember it better if you will tell it to us again!" declared the shaggy -haired boy, with enthusiasm.
"Ho, ho, ho!" they all exclaimed, in chorus.
"Each full moon, the smallest of the mouse tribe, he of the very sharp nose and long tail, holds a great dance in an open field, or on a sandy shore, or upon the crusty snow. The dance is in honor of those who are to be cast down from the sky when the nibbling of the moon begins; for these Hetunkala are the Moon-Nibblers."
As this new idea dawned upon Padanee's listeners, all tightened their robes around them and sat up eagerly.

At this point a few powerful notes of a wild, melodious music burst spontaneously from the throat of the old teacher, for he was wont to strike up a song as a sort of interlude. He threw his massive head back, and his naked chest heaved up and down like a bellows.
"One of you must dance to this part, for the story is of a dance and feast!" he exclaimed, as he began the second stanza.
Teola instantly slipped out of his buffalo- robe and stepped into the centre of the circle, where he danced crouchingly in the firelight, keeping time with his lithe brown body to the rhythm of the legend-teller's song.
"O-o-o-o!" they all hooted at the finish.
' This is the legend of the Little People of the Meadow. Hear ye! hear ye!" said Padanee.
"Ho-o-o!" was the instant response from the throats of the little Red men.
"A long time ago, the bear made a medicine feast, and invited the medicine-men (or priests) of all the tribes. Of each he asked one question, ' What is the best medicine (or magic) of your tribe ?'
" All told except the little mouse. He was pressed for an answer, but replied, 'That is my secret.'
' Thereupon the bear was angry and jumped upon the mouse, who disappeared instantly. The big medicine - man blindly grabbed a handful of grass, hoping to squeeze him to death. But all the others present laughed and said, ' He is on your back !'
"Then the bear rolled upon the ground, but the mouse remained uppermost.
" ' Ha, ha, ha!' laughed all the other medicine-men. 'You cannot get rid of him.'
"Then he begged them to knock him off, for he feared the mouse might run into his ear. But they all refused to interfere.
"'Try your magic on him,' said they, 'for he is only using the charm that was given him by the Great Mystery.'
" So the bear tried all his magic, but without effect. He had to promise the little mouse that, if he would only jump off from his body, neither he nor any of his tribe would ever again eat any of the Little People.
" Upon this the mouse jumped off.
"But now Hinhan, the owl, caught him between his awful talons, and said:
"'You must tell your charm to these people, or I will put my charm on you!'
"The little medicine-man trembled, and promised that he would if the owl would let him go. He was all alone and in their power, so at last he told it.
"'None of our medicine-men,' he began, 'dared to come to this lodge. I alone believed that you would treat me with the respect due to my profession, and I am here.' Upon this they all looked away, for they were ashamed.
"'I am one of the least of the Little People of the Meadow,' said the mouse. 'We were once a favored people, for we were born in the sky. We were able to ride the round moon as it rolls along. We were commissioned at every full moon to nibble off the bright surface little by little, until all was dark. After a time it was again silvered over by the Great Mystery, as a sign to the Earth People.

"'It happened that some of us were careless. We nibbled deeper than we ought, and made holes in the moon. For this we were hurled down to the earth. Many of us were killed; others fell upon soft ground and lived. We do not know how to work. We can only nibble other people's things and carry them away to our hiding-places. For this we are hated by all creatures, even by the working mice of our own nation. But we still retain our power to stay upon moving bodies, and that is our magic.'
" ' Ho, ho, ho!' was the response of all present. They were obliged to respond thus, but they were angry with the little mouse, because he had shamed them.
" It was therefore decreed in that medicine-lodge that all the animals may kill the Hetunkala wherever they meet them, on the pretext that they do not belong upon earth. All do so to this day except the bear, who is obliged to keep his word."
" Q-o-o-o!" shouted the shaggy-haired boy, who was rather a careless sort in his manners, for one should never interrupt a storyteller.
" It is almost full moon now, grandfather," he continued, "and there are nice, open, sandy places on the shore near the mouse villages. Do you think we might see them dancing if we should watch to-night?"
"Ho, takoja! Yes, my grandson," simply replied the old man.
The sand-bar in front of the Indian camp was at some little distance, out of hearing of the occasional loud laughter and singing of the people. Wetaota was studded with myriads of jewel-like sparkles. On the shadowy borders of the lake, tall trees bodied forth mysterious forms of darkness. There was something weird in all this beauty and silence.
The boys were scattered along in the tall grass near the sand-bar, which sloped down to the water's edge as smooth as a floor. All lay flat on their faces, rolled up in their warm buffalo-robes, and still further concealed by the shadows of the trees. The shaggy-haired boy had a bow and some of his best arrows hidden under his robe. No two boys were together, for they knew by experience the temptation to whisper under such circumstances. Every redskin was absorbed in watching for the Little People to appear upon their playground, and at the same time he must be upon the alert for an intruder, such as Red Fox, or the Hooting- owl of the woods.
"It seems strange," thought Teola, as he lay there motionless, facing the far-off silvery moon, ; 'that these little folk should have been appointed to do a great work," for he  had perfect faith in his grandfather's legend of the Moon-Nibblers.
"Ah-h-h!" he breathed, for now he heard a faint squeaking in the thick grass and rushes. Soon several tiny bodies appeared upon the open, sandy beach. They were so round and so tiny that one could scarcely detect the motion of their little feet. They ran to the edge of the water and others fol- lowed them, until there was a great mass of the Little People upon the clean, level sand.
" Oh, if Hinhan, the owl, should come now, he could carry away both claws full!" Teola fancied.
Presently there was a commotion among the Hetunkala, and many of them leaped high into the air, squeaking as if for a signal. Teola saw hundreds of mice coming from every direction. Some of them went close by his hiding-place, and they scrutinized his motionless body apparently with much care. But the young hunter instinctively held his breath, so that they could not smell him strongly, and at last all had gone by.

The big, brown mice did not attend this monthly carnival. They were too wise to expose themselves upon the open shore to the watchful eyes of their enemies. But upon the moonlit beach the small people, the Moon-Nibblers, had wholly given themselves up to enjoyment, and seemed to be forgetful of their danger. Here on Wetaota was the greatest gathering that Teola had ever seen in all his life.
Occasionally he thought he noticed the white mouse whom he supposed to be their chief, for no reason except that he was different from the others, and that was the superstition.
As he watched, circles were formed upon the sand, in which the mice ran round and round. At times they would all stand still, facing inward, while two or three leaped in and out of the ring with wonderful rapidity. There were many changes in the dance, and now and then one or two would remain motionless in the centre, apparently in performance of some ceremony which was not clear to Teola.
All at once the entire gathering became, in appearance, a heap of little round stones. There was neither sound nor motion.
"Ho, ho, ho!" Teola shouted, as he half raised himself from his hiding - place and flourished part of his robe in the clear moon-light. A big bird went up softly among the shadowy trees. All of the boys had been so fascinated by the dance that they had forgotten to watch for the coming of flinhan, the owl, and now this sudden transformation of the Little People ! Each one of them had rolled himself into the shape of a pebble, and sat motionless close to the sand to elude the big-eyed one.
They remained so until the owl had left his former perch and flown away to more auspicious hunting-grounds. Then the play and dance became more general and livelier than ever. The Moon - Nibblers were entirely given over to the spirit and gayety of the occasion. They ran in new circles, sometimes each biting the tail of his nextneighbor. Again, after a great deal of squeaking, they all sprang high in the air, towards the calm, silvery orb of the moon. Apparently they also beheld it in front of them, reflected in the placid waters of Wetaota, for they advanced in columns to the water's edge, and there wheeled into circles and whirled in yet wilder dance.
At the height of the strange festival, another alarm came from the shaggy-haired boy. This time all the boys spied Red Fox coming as fast as his legs could carry him along the beach. He, too, had heard the fain,* laughter and singing of the Moon-Nibblers, and never in hi- :le wild career 15 he better pleased than when he can catch a few of them for breakfast or supper.
No people know the secret of the dance except a few  old Indians and Red Fox. He is so clever that he is always on the watch for it just before the full moon. At the first sound that came to his sharp ears he knew well what was going on, and the excitement was now so great that he was assured of a good supper.
“Hay - ahay! Hay - ahay!” shouted the shaggy-haired boy, and he sent a swift arrow on a dangerous mission for Red Fox. In a moment there carne another war-whoop, and then another, and it was wisdom for the hungry one to take to the thick woods.
"Woo. woo! Eyaya lo! Woo, woo!" the boys shouted after him, but he was already lost in the shadows.
The boys came together. Not a single mouse was to be seen anywhere, nor would any one suspect that they had been there in such numbers a few moments earlier, except for the finest of tracery, like delicate handwriting, upon the moonlit sand.
"We have learned something to-night," said Teola. "It is good. As for me. I shall never again go out to hunt the Little People."


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