I am retelling this story about an oddly matched couple and have made slight modifications of my own. The legend itself I haven’t changed but I have been told that oral storytelling is about adopting the story for yourself. If I were telling this to you in person, you can bet I would be mimicking the young woman and the porcupine’s flight with hand gestures and changing my tone as needed. For now, settle down and imagine a time before our own.
It is said that a long time ago, the Arapaho people set up camp and a party of young women left the camp-circle in search of wood for the fire. As they gathered the fuel, one of them saw a porcupine near a cottonwood tree and, quickly, she told the others. The young women immediately dropped their wood and chased after the animal, excited to collect the quills as ornaments for their clothing.
The porcupine ran around the tree and climbed up it, using his long claws to climb swiftly. The women tried to hit the animal but he managed to keep out of their reach. He dodged from one side of the trunk of the tree to the other and began to climb higher.
One of the women started to climb after it but it kept just beyond her reach. She broke off a branch and tried to hit it with the stick but the porcupine just went little higher.
“I going to keep climbing!” she yelled down at her companions, ignoring their worried frowns. “We need those quills!”
When the porcupine had reached the top of the tree the woman smiled in anticipation and kept climbing despite the danger. The cottonwood branches were waving back and forth and she heard the shouts of her friends beneath her.
She continued to ignore her friends and reached out her stick, determined to hit the porcupine and knock him out of the tree. However, just when the porcupine was within her reach, the tree suddenly shot up, growing taller. She gritted her teeth in frustration as the porcupine resumed his swift climb, going higher and higher.
Looking down, she saw her friends far below her. They were jumping up and down and gesturing at her to come down. She glanced back up and saw that she could almost reach the porcupine.
“Just a little farther,” she told herself. She set her jaw and continued to climb. Before she realized what had happened, she was in the clouds and had reached the sky.
The porcupine smiled at her then and stopped climbing.
“Welcome to my home,” he told her. “Don’t be afraid. You are safe here.”
She stared at him in surprise and then nodded her head, forgetting all about the quills she had been wanting to take from his hide. The porcupine took the woman into the camp-circle where his father and mother lived. His family welcomed her arrival and soon, she found herself married to the porcupine.
A comfortable lodge was then put up for the young couple to live in. Her porcupine husband was very industrious and the old folks were wealthy with plenty of beautiful hides and food. The young woman was well taken care of but her heart ached with loneliness for her own people.
As she worked on a buffalo robe for her husband, she began to secretly save all the sinew from the buffalo. She formed a plan of escape and watched for her opportunity to do so.
One day her porcupine husband warned her that while in search of roots, wild turnips and other herbs, if she used the digging stick, she should not dig too deep. He also ordered her to come home early when out for a walk.
The porcupine husband constantly brought her buffalo meat and hide and the woman began to suspect that it was to keep her too busy working at home all the time so she wouldn’t have time to explore her new home. However, she was a good worker and soon finished up all the tasks he had given her.
After finishing her work early one day, she went out in search of hog potatoes and carried with her the digging stick. She found a thick patch and dug up the food to fill her bag. She ignored her husband’s warning and dug a deep hole. Suddenly, her stick hit air and there was no more dirt to move. Her heart thumped hard in her chest as she stooped down and looked into the hole she had made. To her surprise, far below was green grass flowing in the wind with a camp-circle on it.
She recognized the camp of her people and with a glad heart, she carefully covered the spot and marked it. She took the bag and went to her own tipi, happily giving the porcupine’s parents some of the hog potatoes. They were pleased and ate the hog potatoes. Her husband soon returned home, too, bringing in more buffalo and hides.
It wasn’t too long after that when, early in the morning, her porcupine husband left their home to gather more meat and hides.
“You must be careful, Wife,” he warned her. “I will be home as soon as I can.”
After he was gone, she took the digging stick and the sinew she had gathered to the place where she had dug the hole through the sky. When she got to the hole, she sat down and began tying string to make the sinew long enough to reach the bottom.
She then uncovered the hole and laid the digging stick across the hole. She tied one of the sinew strings in the center of this stick and finally, fastened herself to the end of the rope she had made. She gradually loosened the sinew lariat as she let herself down, finally finding herself suspended above the top of the very cottonwood tree that she had climbed the day she chased the porcupine.
Excited, the young women released the last of her sinew rope and felt a hard jolt. Her eyes widened in horror and she bit back her cry of anguish. No matter how much she wiggled or pulled on the rope, she was not close enough to reach the tree.
Hanging in the air, the young women kicked, desperate to yell down to her kinfolk below but afraid of alerting her porcupine husband. She watched the sky around her turn from the pale blue of day into the purples and pinks signaling the approach of dusk. She gritted her teeth, wondering if she had enough strength to pull herself up. Just as she reached up a hand to start hauling herself back up, deep brown eyes peered down at her.
“Well, the only way to do is to see you touch the bottom,” he said, his voice heavy with regret and resigned. He held up a circular stone two or three inches thick
“This stone must land right on top of your head,” he said sadly. Frightened, she could only watch helplessly as he dropped the stone carefully along the sinew string. She felt it strike the top of her head and lost her grip on the rope. She heard a strange pop and the sinew tore. She gasped as she fell, reaching upward to her porcupine husband in horror.
The wind rushed past her face and she lost sight of him above her. She braced her body for the hard impact but it never came. Instead, she landed safe on the ground without even a bruise. She smiled upwards her thanks and, free once more, she took up the stone and ran back home, to the camp-circle.
This is the way the woman returned.
Hohou! (Thank you!)