Myths / Mythologies / Legends
THE SNAKE BROTHERS
Native American LoreTold by Lame Deer at Winner, Rosebud Indian Reservation, South
For a long time people have been saying that somewhere near Soldier's
Creek a giant rattlesnake has its den. It is supposed to be a full twelve
feet long, and very old. Nobody has seen it for years, but some people
have smelled it and heard its giant rattles. It smells something powerful
We Sioux think of rattlesnakes as our cousins. They
always give warning before they strike, as if they wanted to say: "Uncle,
don't step on me; then we'll get along."
A long time ago, so long that it is not on our oldest
winter count, there were four brothers, all of them young and good hunters,
who were out scouting for buffalo. They had not hunted long before they
saw a lone buffalo and killed him with their arrows.
All at once they heard a voice, the voice of the
buffalo making human talk: "Take the meat to nourish yourselves, but put
the skin, head, hooves, and tail together, every part in its place. Do
this for sure."
The youngest brother said: "Let's do as the voice
But the other three didn't want to bother. "That
was a foolish voice," they said, "maybe no voice at all—maybe we only imagined
it. We'll take the skin home, and it will make a fine winter robe." The
youngest brother had to argue long and hard—finally had to take the skin
and offer to fight them for it—before they let him do what the voice had
While the other three feasted on buffalo hump and
lay down to get some rest, the youngest brother went to the top of a hill
and spread out the skin, skull, hooves, and tail—just as the voice had
told them. He said a prayer to the buffalo, who gave his flesh so that
the people might live.
As he prayed, all the parts of the buffalo joined
together before his eyes and came alive again, forming themselves into
a whole animal once more. It was a fine, strong buffalo, who bellowed loudly
and then walked slowly away to disappear into the hills. The youngest brother
watched the buffalo as long as his eyes could follow it. Only then did
he join the others round the fire.
He ate some of what his brothers had left. But they
had taken the best meat—the tongue and back fat—and made fun of him for
having missed it. They said: "Now we're going up the hill to get the skin
back, whether you like it or not." But the skin and the other parts were
gone, and they would not believe the youngest brother when he told them
what had happened. "You're trying to fool us," they said. "You buried it
After that, the four brothers stretched out to sleep.
In the middle of the night the oldest woke up, saying: "What's that noise
I hear every time I move?" It was a rattling sound that came from his feet.
He looked down, and in the dim light of the dying fire, saw that his feet
had grown rattles. He called to the others: "Help! Something has happened
to my feet!"
But only the youngest brother came to look; the
others tried but could not. "Something's the matter with my legs too,"
cried the second-oldest, whose feet had stuck together so that he could
not force them apart. "And look at mine!" cried the third brother. His
legs were not only joined together but rounded, like a snake's tail. "I
think were not only punished," said the oldest brother, "for not having
obeyed that voice."
While they were talking, the change moved up to
their hips. "Now I know we're being punished," said the second brother.
"We are being turned into snakes." "My body is already covered with scales!"
cried the third brother. By then the change had moved up to their necks.
"Don't worry, misunkala, younger brother,
said the other three. "Though we are snakes, we remain your brothers. We
will always look after our village and our people. You see that hill over
there? It has a big hole—the entrance to the home of the snakes. We will
go in there, but whenever you need help, stand outside and call us. Come
to see us in a little while: alone at first, the second time with all the
people. Now we must leave you." They could not say more, because their
heads were changing into snakes' heads that could only hiss.
"Elder brothers," said the youngest, weeping, "It
was your fate to become snakes. I believe this was destined to happen to
you, that the Great Spirit planned it so, I will come back as you have
told me to, first alone, then with the rest of the people. Good-bye."
He saw that his snake brothers had trouble crawling
like snakes; they still had to learn how. Though they were as big and heavy
as people, he dragged them one by one to the hole in the hillside. When
they were at the entrance to their snake home, they began to wiggle. The
youngest brother watched them crawl in and disappear, one after the other.
He heard them rattle, and then the sound of their rattles grew fainter
and fainter and at last stopped. He dried his tears and gathered up the
buffalo meat to take to the people. After all, that was what he had come
When he reached the lodges of his people, he told
them: "You see me come back alone. My three older brothers are gone, but
do not mourn for them. They are still alive, though they have been turned
into snakes, as the Great Spirit willed. They now live inside the hill
which is the snakes' home, and there you will meet them someday."
Four-times-four days later, the youngest brother
prepared to go with a war party against the Pahani on a horse-stealing
raid. He painted his face black for war. Then he took his best pony and
rode out to the hill where he had left his brothers. Standing before the
hole at the foot of the hill, he called: "Elder brothers, I have come alone,
as you have told me, and I need your help."
At once the big head of a giant rattlesnake thrust
out of the hole. Its tongue flickered in and out as if in greeting. The
young man knew that this was the eldest brother. Then two more big snakes'
heads appeared and he could sense that these were his second and third
brothers. They crawled up to him, putting their heads on his arms and shoulders,
hissing at him and looking at him with their yellow eyes.
"Brothers, I need your help," he said. "I am going
to count coup upon the Pahani."
Many more snakes came out of the hole and set up
a mighty rattling which made the earth tremble. One of the big snakes,
the oldest brother, went back into the hole and reappeared pushing a medicine
bundle before him.
"Eldest brother," said the youngest, "I know that
you are bringing me snake medicine. It will give me speed and enable me
to wiggle out of bad situations. It will make me feared by the enemy. It
will cause me to strike swiftly with a deadly weapon. Thank you, my brothers."
It was as he has said. In war he struck quickly,
with the speed of a rattlesnake. His enemies were afraid of him. He counted
many coups on them and returned unharmed with a crowd of Pahani horses.
The people were happy, and he told them: "Now we must give thanks to my
So all the people went with him to the hill which
was the snakes' home. There he called for his elder brothers to show themselves,
and they appeared with much hissing and rattling. The people made offerings
to them of tobacco and good red meat, and the snake brothers were contented.
From then on, they protected the people with their powerful snake medicine
every time they had to go to war.
And from then on, the people were successful in
everything they undertook. If the rattlesnake brothers have not died in
the meantime, they are still helping us today. That's why we never kill
Recorded by Richard Erdoes.
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