Once long ago, when the Blackfeet Indians dwelt on the Canadian plains, there was a great famine in all the land. For many months no buffaloes were killed, and there was no meat to be had at any price. One by one the old people dropped off because of a lack of food, and the young children died early because there was no nourishment, and there was great sorrow everywhere. Only the strong women and the stronger warriors remained alive, but even they gradually grew weaker because of the pinch of the hunger sent into the land by famine. At last the Chief of the tribe prayed that the Great Chieftain of the Indians might come into his territory to tell the people what to do to save themselves.
The Great Chief was at that time far away in the south country where the warm winds were blowing and the flowers were blooming. But one night he heard the Chief’s prayer borne to him on the winds, and he hastened northward, for he knew that his people on the plains were somehow in dire distress. Soon he arrived at the village of the hungry tribe. “Who has called me here?” he asked.
“It was I,” answered the Chief. “My people are all starving because there are no buffaloes in the country, and if you had not come we should soon have all perished.” Then the Great Chief looked upon his people and he noticed that the old folks and the little children had disappeared; only a few children were left and they had pinched cheeks and sunken eyes. And he took pity on them and said, “There is a great thief not far from here. He is probably a wicked giant, and he has driven all the buffaloes away. But I will find him and soon you shall have food.” And the people were all comforted, for they knew that the Great Chief would keep his word.
Then the Chief took with him the young Chief’s son and set out on his quest. The people wanted to go with him, but he said, “No! We shall go alone. It is a dangerous duty, and it is better that, if need be, two should die in the attempt, than that all should perish.” They journeyed westwards across the prairies towards the Great Water in the West, and as they went, the youth prayed to the Sun and the Moon and the Morning Star to send them success. Soon they came to the rolling foot-hills covered with sweet-grass and scrubby pine.
But still they saw no signs of buffalo. At last they reached a narrow stream, on the bank of which they saw a house with smoke coming from the chimney. “There is the cause of all our troubles,” said the Chief. “In that house dwells the giant Buffalo-thief and his wife. They have driven all the animals from the prairies until not one is left. My magic power tells me it is so!” Then by his magic power he changed his companion into a sharp-pointed straight stick, while he himself took the shape of a dog, and they lay on the ground and waited.
Soon the giant and his wife and their little son came along. The boy patted the dog on the head, and said, “See what a nice dog I have found. He must be lost. May I take him home?”
His father said, “No, I do not like his looks. Do not touch him.” The boy cried bitterly, for he had long hoped for a dog of his own, and his mother pleaded for him so hard that at last the giant father said, “Oh, very well. Have your own way, but no good can come of it.”
The woman picked up the stick and said, “I will take this nice straight stick along with me. I can dig roots with it to make medicine.” So they all went to the giant’s house, the giant frowning angrily, the woman carrying the stick, and the boy leading the dog.
The next morning the giant went out and soon came back with a fat young buffalo, all skinned and ready for cooking. They roasted it on a spit over the fire and had a good meal. The boy fed some meat to the dog, but his father, when he saw what the boy was doing, beat him soundly, and said, “Have I not told you the dog is an evil thing? You must not disobey me.” But again the woman pleaded for her boy, and the dog was fed.
That night when all the world was asleep, the dog and the stick changed back to their human form and had a good supper of what was left of the buffalo-meat. And the Chief said to the youth, “The giant is the Buffalo-thief who keeps the herds from coming to the prairies. It is useless to kill him until we have found where he has hidden them.” So they changed back to the shapes of dog and stick and went to sleep.
The next morning the woman and her boy set off to the forest near the mountain, to gather berries and to dig up medicine roots. They took the dog and the stick with them. At noon, after they had worked for some time, they sat down to have their luncheon. The woman threw the stick down on the ground, and the boy let the dog run away among the shrubs. The dog wandered to the side of the mountain. There he found an opening like the mouth of a cave. Peering into the place he saw many buffaloes within, and he knew that at last he had found the hiding place of the giant’s plunder. He went back to the woman and the boy and began to bark. This was the signal agreed on with his companion. The woman and her son thought he was barking at a bird, and they laughed at his capers as he jumped about. But he was in reality calling to his comrade.
The stick understood the call and wiggled like a snake through the underbrush to the dog’s side, unseen by the boy and his mother. They then entered the large cave in the side of the mountain, and there they found a great herd of buffaloes—all the buffaloes that had been driven from the prairies. The dog barked at them and snapped at their heels, and the stick beat them, and they began to drive them quickly out of the cavern and eastward toward the plains. But they still kept the shape of dog and stick. When evening came, and it was time for the boy and his mother to go home, the boy searched for the dog and the woman looked for her stick, but they could not find them, and they had to go home without them.
Just as the woman and her son reached their house on the bank of the river, the giant-thief was coming home too. He chanced to look to the east, and there he saw, far away, many buffaloes running towards the foot-hills where the sweet-grass grew. He was very angry, and he cried loudly to his son, “Where is the dog? Where is the dog?”
“I lost him in the underbrush,” said the boy; “he chased a bird and did not come back.”
“It was not a bird he chased,” said the giant; “it was one of my buffaloes. I told you he was an evil thing and not to touch him, but you and your mother would have your way. Now my buffaloes are all gone.” He gnashed his teeth in a great rage, and rushed off to the hidden cave to see if any buffaloes were left, crying as he went, “I will kill the dog if I find him.” When he reached the cave the Chief and the youth, still in the form of a dog and a stick, were just rounding up the last of the buffaloes.
The giant rushed at them to kill the dog and to break the stick, but they sprang upon an old buffalo and hid in his long hair and, clinging on tightly, the dog bit the buffalo until the old animal plunged and roared and rushed from the cave, bearing the Chief and the youth concealed on his back. He galloped eastward until he reached the herd far away on the prairie, leaving the giant far behind to make the best of his anger. Then the Chief and the brave youth took their old form of men, and in high spirits they drove the herd of buffaloes back to their hungry people waiting patiently on the plains.
The people were very pleased to see the Great Chief and the youth returning to the village with the great herd of fat buffaloes, for they knew now that the famine was ended. But as they drove the animals into a great fenced enclosure, a large grey bird flew over their heads and swooped down upon them and pecked at them with its bill, and tried to frighten them and drive them away. The Great Chief knew by his magic power that the grey bird was none other than the giant-thief who had stolen the buffaloes, and who had changed himself into a bird to fly across the prairies in pursuit of them. Then the Chief changed himself into an otter and lay down on the bank of the stream, pretending to be dead. The grey bird flew down upon him, for he thought he would have a good meal of fat otter. But the Chief seized him by the leg, and changing back to his own form, he bore him in triumph to his camp. He tied him up fast to the smoke-hole of his tent and made a great fire inside. The giant cried, “Spare me, spare me, and I shall never do you more harm.” But the Chief left him on the tent pole all night long while the black smoke from the fire poured out around him. In the morning his feathers were all black.
Then the Chief let him down. And he said, “You may go now, but you will never be able to resume your former shape. You will henceforth be a raven, a bird of ill-omen upon the earth, an outlaw and a brigand among the birds, despised among men because of your thefts. And you will always have to steal and to hunt hard for your food.” And to this day the feathers of the raven are black, and he is a bird of ill-omen upon the earth because of his encounter with the Great Chieftain long ago.