The Spirit Lake
The Plains Indian tribes did not have a written language and their stories were passed down orally from one generation to the next. Native legends and stories have always fascinated me. I would sit and listen for hours as the native elders told me historical accounts and legends that had been passed down over the centuries. Some of these stories have had a profound impact upon me and have even helped to direct the course of my life.
One of the stories that had the greatest influence upon me was told to me by an elder that I spent a great deal of time with. Different variations of this story have been told over the years. I’ll retell the story as best as I can remember it.
The Kiowa and Kiowa-Apache tribes migrated eastward through Montana into the Dakotas and from there they made their way south to Oklahoma. Both tribes were camping within a short distance of Spirit Lake which is located in present day North Dakota. Christian missionaries later named this sacred place Devil’s Lake. Underwater gods that possess all kinds of mysterious powers are said to reside in the bottom of Spirit Lake.
People who wanted to attain these powers have gone to Spirit Lake to pray and fast without food or water. These individuals would cry out to the water gods asking that they show mercy and bestow their special gifts and healing powers upon them. Many had tried before to receive these powers, but they would encounter all kinds of adversity or envision horrible scenes that would scare them away.
A young man from the village felt very strongly that he wanted to attain these powers. Not knowing if he would come out alive or be devoured by some water reptile or wild animal, he decided to go to Spirit Lake and place himself at the mercy of the forces and seek their blessing.
This young man asked some of his friends to go with him. He then asked them to tie him up with rawhide and stake him to the ground close to the shore of the sacred lake so he could not leave. He then told them to come back for him after four days to see if he was still alive.
The young man spent much of the first night singing and praying. An underwater creature from the depth of the lake surfaced after some time and told him, “We have no gifts or powers to offer you. There’s nothing we can do to help you, so you better go home.” But the young man was staked to the ground so he couldn’t leave.
A huge storm came up over the horizon during the second night and the waters of the lake began to rise as the rain began to pour. Again the young man was told, “We cannot help you and have no medicine power to offer you. You will surely drown if you stay here, so you better go back to your own people if you want to live.”
The waters continued to rise until they came up to the young man’s body and he became fearful thinking he would drown. But the storm began to break around sunrise and then the waters began to recede.
The underwater creature surfaced again during the third night. This time he told the young man “We know what you came here for and there are no powers or gifts here for you. Wild animals and creatures from the depths of the lake will tear you to pieces and devour you if you stay. Get up and leave if you want to live.”
The young man replied by saying, “You can take my life if you want to, but I’m not leaving. I came here to receive the medicine power from the underwater gods. I want to receive their gifts and powers and I’m not going anywhere until I do.”
Daylight came early on the fourth day. The young man had endured so much and he continued to lay helpless beside the shore of the Spirit Lake. The underwater creature then said to the young man, “Some warriors from another tribe are coming and they will surely kill you. Therefore you better be gone by the time I return.”
After some time the young man noticed a war party approaching from off in the distance. He could hear the warriors singing their war songs and saw that they were painting their faces. The warriors then charged on horseback with their lances drawn. The young man was sure that he would be killed. He closed his eyes just as the warriors were about to reach him. The next thing he knew, the warriors had transformed into geese and flew over the top of him and then landed on the lake.
Another water creature surfaced after some time and told the young man. Your father is down at the bottom of the lake waiting for you in the medicine tipi. He asked me to bring you to meet him.
The young man was cut loose and brought to the medicine tipi at the bottom of the lake. By that time the spirits were telling him not to be afraid. He sat down among all the water creatures and they began to talk with him. The water creatures all wanted to know why he didn’t run away. The young man told them that he wanted to possess their powers and gifts of healing.
The water creatures agreed and one by one they transmitted a portion of their power to the young man. They kept him in the medicine lodge for quite some time teaching him how to use the medicine powers. When they finished they sent the young man back to his own people.
The young man’s friends had come back to where they had staked him down after four days had passed. They didn’t see him anywhere and assumed he drowned or had been eaten by the water creatures.
Months had gone by and the people living in the village had forgotten about the young man. But one day when everyone was outside they heard the whooping sound of cranes off in the distance. They watched as the cranes flew toward them and noticed that one of them was carrying something on it’s back that resembled a person. As the cranes flew closer they could see that the young man who had gone to fast at the Spirit Lake was riding on the back of a crane. The cranes landed off in the distance and left the young man in a field of tall grass. As the cranes were leaving they told the young man that he could always come back to visit his father in the sacred lake whenever he needed their help.
People from the village were happy to see the young man had returned and they rushed to his side. He told his people he was happy to see them, but he needed to go into the medicine lodge and seek the blessing of the keeper of the sacred medicine bundles before he was free to interact with them.
Within the medicine lodge, the young man began to share his experiences from the bottom of the sacred lake. He revealed that he had received all kinds of medicine powers from the turtles, salamanders and every other water creature of the lake. People from the tribe began to seek his assistance from then on for all kinds of health concerns whenever they were in need.
The young man lived among his own people for quite some time. But one day the people looked up and noticed that the cranes were circling overhead again. The young man looked up and realized the cranes were talking to him. They were telling him that his father had sent for him and it was time to come back to the spirit lake.
The Kiowa and Kiowa-Apache people didn’t want to see the young man go and did everything they could to persuade him to stay. The young man told his people that he would stay as long as they kept their eyes upon him, but they would lose him if they ever failed to do so. People within the village began to set up a watch around the young man’s tipi. After some time they became careless and began to assume that he wouldn’t leave.
The people of the village awoke one morning to discover that their young doctor had disappeared. The men from the village decided to follow his tracks in hopes of over taking him. They followed his tracks all the way up to the edge of the Spirit Lake where they could see the marks of the tipi poles as they went down into the depths of the water. They stood around the edge of the lake listening to the young man’s singing and the beat of his drum. It was then that they heard a voice saying “Come back to the lake whenever you want to visit me and I will talk to you.”