In the Arapaho culture, lying was considered worse than murder and a liar was a scourge on society, often kicked out of the band. However, in this story, the Arapaho word for trickery is the same as cleverness. And who can blame our trickster, Nih’oo3oo for his reaction?
Here is a story from 1899 that is as close to it’s original content as the modern day interpreters, Cowell, Moss, and C’Hair, could get it. As you could expect, some words just don’t translate fully into English.
Note: Nih’oo3oo is pronounced Nee-aw-thaw and translates to Spider.
Nih’oo3oo Pursued by the Rolling Skull
By Philip Rabid, Southern Arapaho, 1899
Nih’oo3oo was fishing. There was a hole in the ice, where he was fishing. When he was still fishing, the ice could be heard cracking apart at various spots. Every once in a while you could hear the ice cracking again.
“I wonder what that is,” he thought to himself.
He looked over there where the sound was coming from. He could not see anything on top of the ice.
Suddenly, where the hole in the ice was, a skull rose into view above the water! Nih’oo3oo was almost scared to death. He just ran way as fast as he could go.
“I will kill you!” the skull said to him.
All of a sudden, it was coming after him no matter where he went. He just fled from it on this side and that, over hill and dale, among trees and in the sand.
Still, inevitably, it was following him everywhere he went.
“I wish there was a sandy patch,” said Nih’oo3oo. And sure enough, there was a sandy patch.
This skull was barely moving forward now. After quite a while, the skull rolled through the sandy spot.
“I wish there was a thick brush with lots of branches,” said Nih’oo3oo. Then there was a thick, many-branched brush.
This skull got stuck there. It was trying to roll through the brush. And now Nih’oo3oo had run really hard and gotten far away, until this skull rolled around the edge of the brushy area.
After it managed to get through there, then it started pursuing Nih’oo3oo again. Once again, it had almost caught up to him.
“I wish there was a hill,” he said. And once again, there was a hill.
This skull was getting tired from rolling uphill. It was rolling uphill. Halfway up, it rolled back down again. Once again now, Nih’oo3oo had run very hard and gotten far away. The skull rolled back down the hill three times. On the fourth time, it just barely made it over the top.
Once it had gotten over, it was as if it had been hurled down that slope. Now yet again, it had almost caught up to Nih’oo3oo.
“Ohh,” he said, “I wish there was a big crack in the ground where I’m running,” Nih’oo3oo said.
And sure enough, there was a big crack on the ground just where he had come running through.
Yet again the skull was impeded. It pleaded to him.
“Okay,” it said to him, “after I have crossed over, I will not do you any harm,” it said to him.
“But if I don’t get across, I will be angry at you, and I will kill you,” the skull said to him.
“Why don’t you make a bridge across for me,” it said to him.
“Well,” he said to it, “come on across.”
He made a bridge for the skull with a small stick.
“Hold it tight,” the skull said to him.
He held it tightly for the skull.
The skull was rolling along just as nice and smooth as can be. But when it reached the middle, then Nih’oo3oo flipped the little stick over.
From the place where this skull had rolled to, it just fell from there down into the crack. And immediately after it had fallen, the earth immediately closed up. It just slammed shut.
The skull never reappeared again, or at least it was never seen anymore so far as is known. That is how Nih’oo3oo survived through trickery and cleverness.
Told by Philip Rapid of Rabbit, Oklahoma, August 17, 1899
Collected by Alfred Kroeber
NAA, MS 2560a, Notebook 9, pp. 57-61
Retold in the original Arapaho and in English, Arapaho Stories, Songs and Prayers by Prof. Andrew Cowell, Alonzo Moss Sr., and William C’Hair, pages 102 – 109
The Arapaho language is very descriptive and in this story alone, there are seven separate words for the verb ‘to roll’. These include such words as kohkotiiwo’oo, to penetrate something by rolling and noh’otiiwo’oo, to roll uphill.
Years ago, William C’Hair had told me that in order to learn more about our Arapaho culture and to understand the people, we had to immerse ourselves in the language. The more I study and read about the culture, the more this is proven true. For those interested in learning more about the Arapaho language, go to the Arapaho Dictionary Project.