Myths and Legends of the Great Plains

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Other songs there were, with words, songs of the birds which fly through that soft, tender blue:

All around the birds in flocks are flying;
Dipping, rising, circling, see them coming.
See, many birds are flocking here,
All about us now together coming.


The power to fly has always inspired Indians of all tribes and of all degrees of civilization with wonder and reverence. The bird chiefs have their own places in Indian myths. Owl is chief of the night; Woodpecker, with his ceaseless tattoo on the trees, is chief of the trees; Duck is chief of the water; but Eagle is chief of the day. It is always Eagle who is chief of the birds, even though Wren may outwit him in a tale told by the fire glimmering in the tepee, when the story tellers of the tribe tell of the happenings in the days “way beyond.” It is Eagle who inspires admiration, and becomes the most sacred bird.

Round about a tree in ever widening circles an eagle flies, alert, watching o’er his nest;
Loudly whistles he, a challenge sending far, o’er the country wide it echoes, there defying foes.


In the breeze that rippled the long grass of the prairie and fluttered the flaps of the graceful tepee, waved also the corn, sent by Old-Woman-Who-Never-Dies, the ever returning life of the green thing growing. In the ravines and on the lower slopes of the grassy waves of the prairie bellowed the buffalo, or grazed in silence, having long since come up from the underground world and become the source of the Indian’s food, clothing, home, utensils, and comfort. Endless were the charms and enchantments to bring the buffalo herds near his camping ground. Severe was the punishment meted out to the thoughtless warrior whose unguarded eagerness frightened the herds and sent them away.

Over the plains and prairies, at other times, swept the Thunder Gods, with their huge jointed wings, darkening all the land, and flashing fire from angry eyes which struck down man and beast. Terrified were the Indians when the Thunder Gods rolled. Vows made to them must be kept, for relentless were they.

“Oh, grandfather,” prayed the Indian when the sky was black and the lightning flashed, as he filled a pipe with tobacco and offered it skyward, “Oh, grandfather! I am very poor. Somewhere make those who would injure me leave a clear space for me.” Then he put the sacred green cedar upon the fire—the cedar which stayed awake those seven nights and therefore does not lose its hair every winter—and the smoke from the sacred, burning wood, rolling upward, appeased the rolling Thunders.

The authorities used in this compilation are those found in the annual reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology and the Publications of the United States Geographical and Geological Survey: contributions to North American Ethnology. Of the various ethnologists whose work has been used, those of especial importance are Alice C. Fletcher, whose wonderful work among the Omaha and Pawnee Indians is deserving of the most careful study, J. Owen Dorsey, James Mooney, and S. R. Riggs.