Two Paiute Myths

By: Edward Sapir

Originally Published in 1910

View PDF

The two stories that follow are selected from a series of Paiute myths recently obtained from Tony Tillohash, a young Paiute Indian from the southwestern part of Utah, a typically semi-arid section of our country characterized, among other things, by the washes or arroyos that are incidentally referred to in the first of these myths. All the myths obtained from Tony were dictated to the writer in the form of Paiute Indian text, and it is intended, as soon as time and opportunity will allow, to publish the whole body of myth in text and carefully worked out translation as one of the series of anthropological publications of the University Museum. The translation of the two myths here offered as preliminary specimens of Paiute mythology, while not rigidly literal, is sufficiently so to preserve both the exact content and spirit of the Indian original.

The characters in these myths, as in Indian mythology generally, are beasts and birds; not mere speaking animals in the manner of an Æsopian fable, but supernaturally endowed human beings who lived on earth before the coming of men and who were later transformed into their present shape. The human and animal characteristics of these beings interplay constantly in the mythology. Needless to say, the older Indians, particularly such as have been but little affected by contact with the ideas of the whites, believe firmly in the truth of these myths. Such figures as Sparrow Hawk and Gray Hawk are not to them the mere idle fancies of an hour of story-telling, but the mythologic prototypes of still powerful beings, beings whose supernatural aid the medicine-man strives to obtain. Characteristic of Paiute mythology in particular is the prominence of song as an element of myth-telling; some of the characters, indeed, regularly sing their parts. A considerable number of such myth songs were taken down on the phonograph and will be incorporated with the myths to which they belong when these are offered to the public.

The Strategem of Wood Hat

At that place dwelt Wood Rat, and once to the Deer and Mountain Sheep people he said, “Ho there! do you come to any place and have a round dance!” said he. “What is it that Wood Rat says?” said the Deer and also the Mountain Sheep. ” ‘To my place do you all come and have a dance!’ that is what he says,” said some. And so at his place they had a round dance. Those Deer and Mountain Sheep danced the round dance while that. Wood Rat and two from among the Deer and Mountain Sheep, one from each, sat together at the side of the round dance that was taking place and talked with one another as men are wont to do in council.

One young Mountain Sheep was the first to sing for the dance, and in this wise he sang,

Moving through the sand-wash he goes, kicking up his knees,1

sang along thus up to nearly in the middle of the night. Then one young Deer sang for the dance after him, and that one sang in this wise,

Visible are the summer footprints, footprints, footprints,’2

sang along thus up to the break of day. And then that Wood Rat went right into the round-dancing line and joined hands with the Deer and the Mountain Sheep buck who had been singing. In this wise sang he as he stood moving along between the two of them,

When indeed I say it, you will close your eyes, you will close your eyes,

and they all closed their eyes. Then both of them through the neck just above the collar bone he stabbed with his knife, and having treated them thus, he began to weep. “Oh ! what has happened to them?” said Wood Rat, and then he said, “Ho there ! do you all go and return again into that land which you own. And then at the setting yonder of the sun I shall burn them on a pyre.” “It is well,” said those Deer and Mountain Sheep, and they arrived into their own land. But Wood Rat cut up the two at that place and what leaves and branches he had butchered them on he set afire. And the Deer and Mountain Sheep, seeing the blaze from afar, said, “In that way it will be, he did indeed say. Surely it starts a-burning at his house.” But Wood Rat cut up the meat into thin slices in order that he might preserve it for food.

As he had first spoken, so did Wood Rat continue to speak from time to time, and every time he commanded a round dance to take place. Now those Deer and Mountain Sheep did say, For what reason does he always say, ‘You shall have your eyes closed as you dance,’ in such words speaking?” And one time again he announced in a loud voice that they should come together for a round dance. “Oh !” said they, “let us all go and have a round dance at his place, as he says.” And in very deed they had the round dance at that place.

Now one young Mountain Sheep, as was their wont, did sing,

Moving through the sand-wash he goes, kicking up his knees,1

and as those before him had done, so did he. sang for the dance up to nearly in the middle of the night. And then one young Deer did also sing for the dance, and as those before him had sung, so sang he,

Visible are the summer footprints. footprints, footprints.2

Then that Wood Rat sang for the dance as in times before then he had done. One of the Deer bucks together with a Mountain Sheep buck stood on either side of him as they danced along. As in times before then he started in to sing along,

When indeed I say it, you will close your eyes, you will close your eyes,

but this time a young Mountain Sheep barely peeped out from behind his nearly closed eyelids as he danced along. “He is about to stab the two of you!” he exclaimed just as Wood Rat was indeed about to stab them. Wood Rat ran off in haste and scampered down under a rock. The ‘Mountain Sheep buck struck at it with his horns, and as soon as he had done so, the rock was shattered to pieces. As far as where, perhaps, does the story go.

The Contention of Sparrow Hawk and Gray Hawk

At that place were people once camping for the hunting of jack-rabbits. Now a certain one among them gave his wife a beating, whereupon that woman ran off towards the mountains. Therein was Gray Hawk dwelling up on a snow-covered peak and with him was his mother. When that Gray hawk went off in yonder direction, then there in the midst of the mountains did he find the woman and home to his house he returned with her.

Now those who were camping for the hunting of jack-rabbits began to miss the woman and they called upon the white-breasted one3that he might find her. And starting from the edge of the land lie flew about looking everywhere but on the mountain peak, which still was left. As soon as it commenced to be evening, he returned and arrived where they were camping for the hunting of jack-rabbits. “I have not seen her,” he said, “but still that snow-covered peak is left,” said the white-breasted one. Early in the morning he went off to look over the snow-covered peak and on it he found the woman, found that Gray Hawk was having her to wife. Back whence he came he returned, back to those camping for the hunting of jackrabbits. “What say you all that you will do to him?” said he. “Not easily to be overcome is Gray Hawk, and with him it is that dwells that woman. What, then, think you all to do to him ?” thus spoke that white-breasted one. Then some one said, “Let us call upon Sparrow Hawk !” “It is well,” they said, and proceeded to call upon that Sparrow Hawk. To him they said, “Go now and lead the woman away from Gray Hawk. Thus after having done to her, for your wife you shall have her,” said they who were camping for the hunting of jack-rabbits.

Then there in the doorway was Sparrow Hawk sitting and kept a-singing, “What say you all that you will do to that one, Gray Hawk? Not easily to be overcome is he, he who has great power. Will you slay him?” said he as he sat there in the doorway. Only his flesh it was that did so, singing as he sat, but that soul of his to yonder mountain peak departed and to his elder brother4 came. Then upon arriving he took hold of the woman and said, “This woman here is mine, having been given to me for a wife. Do you, then, without saying anything, give her up to me.” “I shall not give her to you, for mine she is, having been taken up by me,” said Gray Hawk. “Do not say that, say I! Quickly let her go, for mine she is, having been given to me for a wife, that is what I say.” “But mine she is, having been taken up by me. Why, then, shall I give her up to you?” “Without saying so, quickly let her go! Otherwise I shall slay you,” said Sparrow Hawk. “It is well, in no case shall I let her go. I care not if you kill me,” said Gray Hawk as he held her by her arm; that Sparrow Hawk was holding her by her other arm.

“It is well,” said Gray Hawk. “If you are angered, in what way would the earth appear, say you?” Then said that Sparrow Hawk, “When I am angered, the earth would become filled with fog. And as for you ?” “When I am angered, the mountains would all go up in dust, then all would be a level space,” said that Gray Hawk. And then said Gray Hawk to his mother, “Should I be killed, all my body you shall boil.” Then one of the woman’s arms he wrenched off, and between them both they divided her body, each pulling her to himself. After they had done so, Sparrow Hawk slew Gray Hawk, and after he had gathered together all parts of the woman’s body, all that had formed her body, he restored her to her former self.

Then the mother of Gray Hawk boiled him as he had told her to do. Then, when it dawned upon the earth, coming down from the sky was heard a noise of flapping wings, and on the rim of the bucket wherein he had been boiled he lit and sang thereon, “Sparrow Hawk I shall go and slay.” And then his mother said, “Is it of a stranger that you speak, of one who is no kin of yours, seeing that you talk of going to kill?” “No, thus I say; but that one yonder slew me too,” and towards the camp of the jack-rabbit hunters he flew. “Oh ! Gray Hawk has come to do us ill,” said those who were camping for the hunting of jack-rabbits, as they fled in haste, but that Sparrow Hawk just lay beside his wife and sang, as though nothing were happening. Gray Hawk swooped down upon him, thinking to hold him down, but in vain; whereupon that woman he took hold of. Both of them tried to tear her away from each other. Now Gray Hawk struck above him with his wing, but merely grazed his head. “Nearly, my elder brother, did you kill me,” said Sparrow Hawk. And then their mothers led them away in different directions. “Do you act as though you were strangers to each other?” said the two old women, as they held on to their sons.

Did any of you hear something make a noise on the other side from here ?5

Edward Sapir

  • 1This refers to the peculiar walk of the mountain sheep.
  • 2This refers to the footprints of the deer luring the hunting season.
  • 3A white aquatic bird. something like a seagull.
  • 4Gray Hawk is considered Sparrow Hawk’s elder brother.
  • 5This last sentence is addressed by the narrator of the story to his auditors. It is not to be literally construed, but is merely a conventional way of ending a myth by way of changing the subject. The auditors are expected to answer “No, I did not.”

Cite This Article

Sapir, Edward. "Two Paiute Myths." The Museum Journal I, no. 1 (June, 1910): 15-18. Accessed June 20, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to