Once upon a time, in a land very near, our Native American sisters and brothers tell us that there was a time when the human race knew no joy. Their whole life was work, eating to keep body and soul together, and sleep. Every day went by like every other day. People worked and struggled, they ate plain food, they slept, and they woke to return to work. The tedium and dullness of their relentless routines rusted their minds, hardened their hearts and corroded their souls.
Our Native American Ancestors tell us that in those days there was a couple who lived together in their home not far from the ocean. They had three sons, each committed to being good hunters like their father. Even as young children, each young boy worked hard to become strong and to develop his stamina and endurance. The couple was proud of their sons, and trusted that the sons would provide for them as the couple aged and could no longer provide for themselves.
As the couple’s boys reached near to manhood, one day the eldest son went hunting and never returned. Some weeks later, the middle son left to go hunting and to search for his elder brother, and he too was lost to the family. The parents grieved deeply, and kept an ever closer eye on their youngest son keeping him close to home and carefully under their close protection. But, after a time, the son grew in size, strength and wisdom, and he could not be kept tied to his mother’s apron strings nor his father’s side, and so eventually he set off moose hunting.
One day, as he was stalking a moose, Ermine saw a grand and glorious eagle circling in the sky near to him. Ermine pulled out his bow and arrows, but his inner guide held his hand still and he did not shoot. As he watched the eagle flew down and perched on a small tree near where he stood. As Ermine watched, the eagle took off his hood and transformed into a young warrior who said to him:
“It was I who killed your two brothers. I will kill you also unless you pledge to hold a festival of song when you return to your home. Will you give your pledge?”
“Most certainly I would give my pledge, but I do not understand your words. What is a festival? What does this word ‘song’ mean?”
“Will you or will you not give your pledge?”
“How can I pledge what I do not understand? I will pledge if you will teach me these things.”
“Follow me then and my mother will teach you what you don’t understand. Your brothers scorned the gifts of song, dance and laughter; they would not learn. Their morose ignorance saw to their death. Upon your pledge, you may come with me to my mother, and when you have learned to make words into a song and to sing it, when you have learned to dance with joy, when you have learned to honor the gift of laughter, only then you shall be free to go to your dwelling and make your hearth a home.
“Let it be so,” answered Ermine. And off they set.
Together the two walked ever farther inland, across prairies, through valleys, towards the highest mountain, which they began to climb. “On top of that mountain top stands our home,” said the young eagle warrior.
As they neared the crest of the mountain, they suddenly heard a sound like echoing thunder. It grew ever louder as they approached the mountain home. It sounded like thundering hammers. It was so loud that it set Ermine’s ears began to echo.
“What do you hear?” asked Eagle Warrior.
“A powerful deafening noise, like nothing I have ever heard before.”
“That is the beating of my mother’s heart,” Eagle Warrior replied. “Wait here for me. I will ask my mother to receive you.”
In a few moments, Eagle Warrior returned for Ermine. Together they entered a room where Eagle Warrior’s mother sat on a bed, alone, aged and frail.
Eagle Warrior said to his mother, “Here’s a man who has promised to hold a song festival when he gets home. But he says men don’t understand how to put words together into songs. They do not even how to beat drums and dance for joy. Mother, men don’t know how to make merry, and now this young man has come up here to learn.”
This speech brought fresh life to the feeble old mother eagle, and her tired eyes lit up suddenly while she said:
“First you must build a feast hall where many men may gather.”
So the two young men set to work and built the feast hall, which is called a kagsse and is larger and finer than ordinary houses. And when it was finished the mother eagle taught them to put words together into songs and to add tones to the words so that they could be sung. She made a drum and taught them to beat upon it in rhythm with the music, and she showed them how they should dance to the songs. When Ermine had learned all this she said:
“Before every festival you must collect much meat, and then call together many men. This you must do after you have built your feast hall and made your songs. For when men assemble for a festival they require sumptuous meals.”
“But we know of no men but ourselves,” answered Ermine.
“Men are lonely, because they have not yet received the gift of joy,” said the mother eagle. “Make all your preparations as I have told you. When all is ready you shall go out and seek for men. You will meet them in couples. Gather them until they are many in number and invite them to come with you. Then hold your festival of song.”
Thus spoke the old mother eagle, and when she had minutely instructed Ermine in what he should do, she finally said to him:
“I may be an eagle, yet I am also an aged woman with the same pleasures as other women. A gift calls for a return, therefore it is only fitting that in farewell you should give me a little sinew string. It will be but a slight return, yet it will give me pleasure.”
Ermine was at first miserable, for wherever was he to procure sinew string so far from his home? But suddenly he remembered that his arrowheads were lashed to the shafts with sinew string. He unwound these and gave the string to the eagle. Thus was his return gift only a trifling matter. Thereupon, the young eagle again drew on his shining cloak and bade his guest bestride his back and put his arms round his neck. Then he threw himself out over the mountainside. A roaring sound was heard around them and Ermine thought his last hour had come. But this lasted only a moment; then the eagle halted and bade him open his eyes. And there they were again at the place where they had met. They had become friends and now they must part, and they bade each other a cordial farewell. Ermine hastened home to his parents and related all his adventures to them, and he concluded his narrative with these words:
“Men are lonely; they live without joy because they don’t know how to make merry. Now the eagle has given me the blessed gift of rejoicing, and I have promised to invite all men to share in the gift.”
Father and mother listened in surprise to the son’s tale and shook their heads incredulously, for he who has never felt his blood glow and his heart throb in exultation cannot imagine such a gift as the eagle’s. But the old people dared not gainsay him, for the eagle had already taken two of their sons, and they understood that its word had to be obeyed if they were to keep this last child. So they did all that the eagle had required of them.
A feast hall, matching the eagle’s, was built, and the larder was filled with the meat of sea creatures and caribou. Father and son combined joyous words, describing their dearest and deepest memories in songs which they set to music; also they made drums, rumbling tambourines of taut caribou hides with round wooden frames; and to the rhythm of the drum beats that accompanied the songs they moved their arms and legs in frolicsome hops and lively antics. Thus they grew warm both in mind and body, and began to regard everything about them in quite a new light. Many an evening it would happen that they joked and laughed, flippant and full of fun, at a time when they would otherwise have snored with sheer boredom the whole evening through.
As soon as all the preparations were made, Ermine went out to invite people to the festival that was to be held. To his great surprise he discovered that he and his parents were no longer alone as before. Merry men find company. Suddenly he met people everywhere, always in couples, strange looking people, some clad in wolf skins, others in the fur of the wolverine, the lynx, the red fox, the silver fox, the cross fox–in fact, in the skins of all kinds of animals. Ermine invited them to the banquet in his new feast hall and they all followed him joyfully. Then they held their song festival, each producing his own songs. There were laughter, talk, and sound, and people were carefree and happy as they had never been before. The table delicacies were appreciated, gifts of meat were exchanged, friendships were formed, and there were several who gave each other costly gifts of fur. The night passed, and not till the morning light shone into the feast hall did the guests take their leave. Then, as they thronged out of the corridor, they all fell forward on their hands and sprang away on all fours. They were no longer men but had changed into wolves, wolverines, lynxes, silver foxes, red foxes–in fact, into all the beasts of the forest. They were the guests that the old eagle had sent, so that father and son might not seek in vain. So great was the power of joy that it could even change animals into men. Thus animals, who have always been more lighthearted than men, were man’s first guests in a feast hall.
A little time after this it chanced that Ermine went hunting and again met the eagle. Immediately it took off its hood and turned into a man, and together they went up to the eagle’s home, for the old mother eagle wanted once more to see the man who had held the first song festival for humanity.
Before they had reached the heights, the mother eagle came to thank them, and lo! The feeble old eagle had grown young again.
For when men make merry, all old eagles become young.
The foregoing is related by the old folk from Kanglanek, the land which lies where the forests begin around the source of Colville River. In this strange and unaccountable way, so they say, came to men the gift of joy.
If we are going to build a world were the dignity of all beings is respected, where there is justice, peace and compassion — then there is an important lesson for us in this folk tale. For there to be community there must be music, celebration and laughter!
Laugh my friends like your life depended on it! laugh.