04 December 2009

The Origin of the Robin: A Chippewa Story

An old man had an only son, a fine promising lad, who had come to that age which is thought by the Chippewas to be most proper to make the long and final fast, that is to secure through life a guardian spirit, on whom future prosperity or adversity is to depend, and who forms and establishes the character of the faster to great or ignoble deeds.

This old man was ambitious that his son should surpass all others in whatever was deemed most wise and great amongst his tribe. And, to fulfill his wishes, he thought it necessary that his son should fast a much longer time than any of those persons known for their great power or wisdom, whose fame he envied.

He therefore directed him to prepare, with great ceremony, for the important event. After he had been in the sweating lodge and bath several times, he ordered him to lie down upon a clean mat, in the little lodge expressly prepared for him; telling him, at the same tune, to bear himself like a man, and that at the expiration of twelve days he should receive food and the blessing of his father.

The lad carefully observed this injunction, lying with his face covered with perfect composure, awaiting those happy visitations which were to seal his good or ill fortune. His father visited him every morning regularly, to encourage him to perseverance, expatiating at full length on the renown and honour that would attend him "through life if he accomplished the full term prescribed. To the admonitions the boy never answered, but lay without the least sign of unwillingness, till the ninth day, when he addressed his father: "My father, my dreams are ominous of evil; may I break my fast now, and at a more propitious time make a new fast?" The father answered, "My son, you know not what you ask. If you get up now, all your glory will depart; wait patiently a little longer. You have but three days yet to accomplish what I desire. You know it is for your own good."

The son assented, and covering himself closer, he lay till the eleventh day, when he repeated his request to his father. The same answer was given him by the old man, adding, that the next day he would himself prepare his first meal and bring it to him. The boy remained silent, but lay like a skeleton. No one would have known he was living, but by the gentle heaving of his breast.

The next morning, the father, elate at having gained his end, prepared a repast for his son, and hastened to set it before him. On coming to the door, he was surprised to hear his son talking to himself. He stooped to listen, and, looking through a small aperture, was more astonished when he beheld his son painted with vermilion on his breast, and in the act of finishing his work by laying on the paint as far as his hand could reach on his shoulders, saying, at the same time: "My father has ruined me as a man; he would not listen to my request; he will now be the loser. I shall be for ever happy in my new state, for I have been obedient to my parent; he alone will be the sufferer, for the Spirit is a just one, though not propitious to me. He has shown me pity, and now I must go."

At that moment the old man broke in, exclaiming: "My son! my son! Do not leave me!" But his son, with the quickness of a bird, had flown up to the top of the lodge, and perched on the highest pole, a beautiful robin-red-breast. He looked down on his father with pity beaming in his eyes, and told him that he should always love to be near men's dwellings, that he should always be seen happy and contented by the constant cheerfulness and pleasure he would display, that he would still cheer his father by his songs, which would be some consolation to him for the loss of the glory he had expected; and that, although no longer a man, he should ever be the harbinger of peace and joy to the human race.

The foregoing story illustrates the Indian custom of fasting to procure a personal spirit. The moral to be drawn from it is the danger of ambition. We should not seek for unreasonable honours, nor take unusual means to attain them.
From Chandler Robbins Gilman. 1836. Life on the Lakes: Being Tales and Sketches Collected During a Trip to the Pictured Rocks of Lake Superior. In volume I.

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