I have heard it told on the Cheyenne Reservation in Montana and the Seminole camps in the Florida Everglades, I have heard it from the Eskimos north of the Arctic Circle and the Indians south of the equator. The legend of the flood is the most universal of all legends. It is told in Asia, Africa, and Europe, in North America and the South Pacific. This is one of fifteen native American legends that tell about the great flood.
We had been talking of the visions of the young men. He sat for a long time, looking out across the Yellowstone Valley through the pouring rain, before he spoke. “They are beginning to come back,” he said.
“Who is coming back?” I asked.
“The animals,” he said. “It has happened before.”
“Tell me about it.’
He thought for a long while before he lifted his hands and his eyes. “The Great Spirit smiled on this land when he made it. There were mountains and plains, forests and grasslands. There were animals of many kinds–and men.”
The old man’s hands moved smoothly, telling the story more clearly than his voice.
The Great Spirit told the people, “These animals are your brothers. Share the land with them. They will give you food and clothing. Live with them and protect them.
“Protect especially the buffalo, for the buffalo will give you food and shelter. The hide of the buffalo will keep you from the cold, from the heat, and from the rain. As long as you have the buffalo, you will never need to suffer.”
For many winters the people lived at peace with the animals and with the land. When they killed a buffalo, they thanked the Great Spirit, and they used every part of the buffalo. It took care of every need.
Then other people came. They did not think of the animals as brothers. They killed, even when they did not need food. They burned and cut the forests, and the animals died. They shot the buffalo and called it sport. They killed the fish in the streams.
When the Great Spirit looked down, he was sad. He let the smoke of the fires lie in the valleys. The people coughed and choked. But still they burned and they killed.
So the Great Spirit sent rains to put out the fires and to destroy the people.
The rains feil, and the waters rose. The people moved from the flooded valleys to the higher land.
Spotted Bear, the medicine man, gathered together his people. He said to them, “The Great Spirit has told us that as long as we have the buffalo we will be safe from heat and cold and rain. But there are no longer any buffalo. Unless we can find buffalo and live at peace with nature, we will all die.”
Still the rains fell, and the waters rose. The people moved from the flooded plains to the hills.
The young men went out and hunted for the buffalo. As they went they put out the fires. They made friends with the animals once more. They cleaned out the streams.
Still the rains fell, and the waters rose. The people moved from the flooded hills to the mountains.
Two young men came to Spotted Bear. “We have found the buffalo,” they said. “There was a cow, a calf, and a great white bull. The cow and the calf climbed up to the safety of the mountains. They should be back when the rain stops. But the bank gave way, and the bull was swept away by the floodwaters. We followed and got him to shore, but he had drowned. We have brought you his hide.”
They unfolded a huge white buffalo skin.
Spotted Bear took the white buffalo hide. “Many people have been drowned,” he said. “Our food has been carried away. But our young people are no longer destroying the world that was created for them. They have found the white buffalo. It will save those who are left.”
Still the rains fell, and the waters rose. The people moved from the flooded mountains to the highest peaks.
Spotted Bear spread the white buffalo skin on the ground. He and the other medicine men scraped it and stretched it, and scraped it and stretched it.
Still the rains fell. Like all rawhide, the buffalo skin stretched when it was wet. Spotted Bear stretched it out over the village. All the people who were left crowded under it.
As the rains fell, the medicine men stretched the buffalo skin across the mountains. Each day they stretched it farther.
Then Spotted Bear tied one corner to the top of the Big Horn Mountains. That side, he fastened to the Pryors. The next corner he tied to the Bear Tooth Mountains. Crossing the Yellowstone Valley, he tied one corner to the Crazy Mountains, and the other to Signal Butte in the Bull Mountains.
The whole Yellowstone Valley was covered by the white buffalo skin. Though the rains still fell above, it did not fall in the Yellowstone Valley.
The waters sank away. Animals from the outside moved into the valley, under the white buffalo skin. The people shared the valley with them.
Still the rains fell above the buffalo skin. The skin stretched and began to sag.
Spotted Bear stood on the Bridger Mountains and raised the west end of the buffalo skin to catch the West Wind. The West Wind rushed in and was caught under the buffalo skin. The wind lifted the skin until it formed a great dome over the valley.
The Great Spirit saw that the people were living at peace with the earth. The rains stopped, and the sun shone. As the sun shone on the white buffalo skin, it gleamed with colours of red and yellow and blue.
As the sun shone on the rawhide, it began to shrink. The ends of the dome shrank away until all that was left was one great arch across the valley.
The old man’s voice faded away; but his hands said “Look,” and his arms moved toward the valley.
The rain had stopped and a rainbow arched across the Yellowstone Valley. A buffalo calf and its mother grazed beneath it.