The Snake Brothers
For a long time people have been saying that somewhere near Soldier’s Creek a giant rattlesnake has it’s den. It is supposed to be a full twelve feet long, and very old. Nobody has seen it for years, but some people have smelled it and heard it’s giant rattles. It smells something powerful, they say.
We Sioux think of rattlesnakes as our cousins. They always give warning before they strike, as if they wanted to say: “Uncle, don’t step on me; then we’ll get along.”
A long time ago, so long that it is not our oldest winter count, there were four brothers, all of them young and good hunters, who went out scouting for buffalo. They had not hunted long before they saw a lone buffalo and killed him with their arrows.
All at once they heard a voice, the voice of the buffalo making human talk: “Take the meat to nourish yourselves, but put the skin, head hooves, and tail together, every part in it’s place. Do this for sure.”
The youngest brother said: “Let’s do as the voice told us.” But the other three didn’t want to bother. “That was a foolish voice,” they said, “maybe no voice at all–maybe we only imagined it. We’ll take the skin home, and it will make a fine winter robe.” The youngest brother had to argue long and hard–finally had to take the skin and offer to fight them for it–before they let him do what the voice had directed.
While the other three feasted on buffalo hump and lay down to get some rest, the youngest brother went to the top of a hill and spread out the skin, skull, hooves, and tail–just as the voice had told them. He said a prayer to the buffalo who gave his flesh so that the people might live.
As he prayed, all the parts of the buffalo joined together before his eyes and came alive again, forming themselves into a whole animal once more. It was a fine, strong buffalo, who bellowed loudly and then walked slowly away to disappear into the hills. The youngest brother watched the buffalo as long as his eyes could follow it. Only then did he join the others round the fire.
He ate some of what his brothers had left. But they had taken the best meat–the tongue and back fat– and made fun of him for having missed it. They said: “Now we’re going up the hill to get the skin back, whether you like it or not.” But the skin and the other parts were gone, and they would not believe the youngest brother when he told them what had happened. “You’re trying to fool us,” they said. “You buried it all somewhere.”
After that, The four brothers stretched out to sleep. In the middle of the night the oldest woke up, saying: “What’s that noise I hear every time I move?” It was a rattling sound that came from his feet. He looked down and in the dim light of the dying fire, saw that his feet had grown rattles. He called to the others: “Help! Something has happened to my feet!”
But only the youngest brother came to look; the others tried but could not. “Something ‘s the matter with my legs too,” cried the second-oldest, whose feet had stuck together so he could not force them apart. “And look at mine!” cried the third brother. His legs were not only joined together but rounded, like a snake’s tail. “I think we are being punished,” said the oldest brother, “for not having obeyed that voice!”
While they were talking, the change moved up to their hips. “Now I know we are being punished,” said the second brother. “We are being turned into snakes.” “My body is already covered with scales!” cried the third brother. By then the change had moved up to their necks.
“Don’t worry, misunkala, younger brother,” said the other three. “Though we are snakes, we remain your brothers. We will always look after our village and our people. You see that hill over there? It has a big hole–the entrance to the home of the snakes. We will go in there, but whenever you need help, stand outside and call us. Come to us in a little while; alone at first, the second time with all the people. Now we must leave you.” They could not say more, because their heads were changing into snakes’ heads and they could only hiss.
“Elder brothers,” said the youngest, weeping. “It was your fate to become snakes. I believe this was destined to happen to you, that the Great Spirit planned it so. I will come back as you have told me to, first alone, then with the rest of the people. Goodbye.”
He saw that his snake brothers had trouble crawling like snakes, they still had to learn how. Though they were as big and heavy and people, he dragged them one by one to the hole in the hillside. When they were at the entrance to their snake home, they began to wiggle. The youngest brother watched them crawl in and disappear, one after the other. He heard them rattle, and then the sound of their rattles grew fainter and fainter and at last stopped. He dried his tears and gathered up the buffalo meat to take to the people. After all, that was what he had come to do.
When he reached the lodges of his people, he told them: “You see me come back alone. My three older brothers are gone, but do not mourn for them. They are still alive, though they have been turned into snakes, as the Great Spirit willed. They now live inside the hill which is the snakes’ home, and there you will meet them someday.”
Four-times-four days later, the youngest brother prepared to go with a war party against the Pahani on a horse-stealing raid. He painted his face black for war. Then he took his best pony and rode out to the hill where he had left his brothers. Standing before the hole at the foot of the hill, he called: “Elder brothers, I have come alone, as you have told me, and I need your help.”
At once the big head of a giant rattlesnake thrust out of the hole. It’s tongue flickered in and out as if in greeting. The young man knew that his was his eldest brother. Then two more big snakes’ heads appeared, and he could sense that these were his second and third brothers. They crawled up to him, putting their heads on his arms and shoulders, hissing at him and looking at him with their yellow eyes.
“Brothers, I need you help, he said. “I am going to count coup upon the Pahani.”
Many more snakes came out of the hole and set up a mighty rattling which made the earth tremble. One of the big snakes, the oldest brother, went back into the hole and reappeared pushing a medicine bundle before him.
“Eldest brother,” said the youngest, “I know that you are bringing me snake medicine. It will give me speed and enable me to wiggle out of bad situations. it will make me feared by the enemy. It will cause me to strike swiftly with a deadly weapon. Thank you, my brothers.”
It was as he had said. In war he struck quickly, with the speed of a rattlesnake. His enemies were afraid of him. He counted many coups on them and returned unharmed with a crowd of Pahani horses. The people were happy, and he told them: “Now we must give thanks to my elder brothers.”
So all the people went with him to the hill which was the snakes’ home. Thee he called for his elder brothers to show themselves, and they appeared with much hissing and rattling. The people made offerings to them of tobacco and good read meat, and the snake brothers were contented. From then on, they protected the people with powerful snake medicine every time they had to go to war.
And from then on, the people were successful in everything they undertook. If the rattlesnake brothers have not died in the meantime, they are still helping us today. That’s why we never kill rattlesnakes.
–Told by Lame Deer at Winner,
Rosebud Indian Reservation, South Dakota, 1969.
Recorded by Richard Erdoes.