Friday, 1 June 2012
How the Reindeer Lost Their Tails
By A. Hyatt Verrill
Everyland magazine, Vol. VI, No. 4; September, 1915; column ‘Legends of the Northland’. Digitized by Doug Frizzle, June 2012.
Author of "An American Crusoe," "The Cruise of the Cormorant." Etc.
Little Kemiplu was learning to sew. Her grandmother, old, wrinkled Nepaluka, was mending skin garments and the child, with a bone needle and sinew thread, was amusing herself by stitching odd bits of fur together. At last the little girl arose, toddled to the old woman's side and proudly held forth the result of her work for approval. Upon a bit of dark sealskin she had fastened strips of white hare and when the grandmother saw it she burst into a low laugh.
"Ai, ai!" she exclaimed, "It is like the feathers of the ptarmigan when he changes from his brown coat of summer to the white of winter. Or is it that Amook has stood beside thee, little daughter, and has laid his hands upon the skin and left white marks where his fingers rested?”
Kemiplu threw down her handiwork and climbed into her grandmother's lap.
"O, tell me of Amook and the reindeer," she begged, "and of why the ptarmigan turns white in winter."
"Very well, little daughter," said the old woman. "Thy father's clothes are mended and my eyes are weary, and perchance the stranger has never heard of Amook."
"Many ages ago," she began, "before the Eskimos first came to the land, all the reindeer were brown from head to tail and all wore long, bushy tails like the foxes. In those times there lived a mighty magician named Amook who owned all the animals and birds. All creatures roamed at will except the reindeer, but these Amook kept hidden in a great hole in the earth. Every day Amook would come forth from the hole, and after pulling a big stone over the entrance to his home, he would travel all about to care for his creatures. In those days the birds and animals were all of one color and when winter came and the snow fell their brown bodies were plain against the snow and the creatures saw one another afar and it was easy indeed for the owls and hawks to see the ptarmigan and kill them and for the foxes to see the hares and devour them. At last so many were killed that Amook grew fearful lest his live things would all be destroyed and he would be without food to eat or skins and furs to wear. So Amook, the magician, gave many days to thought and made many spells, until, by touching the hair of an animal or the feathers of a bird, he could make the brown change to white like the snow. Then, when winter came, Amook would go forth throughout the land and would call to the birds and the creatures far and near. As they came to his call he would stroke them with his hands and their color would change and they would go forth from him white and spotless. But soon Amook was again greatly troubled for when spring came and the snow melted and the brown rocks and gray moss were to be seen, the white creatures were like spots of snow upon the land and fell easy prey to their enemies. From far and near the beasts and birds flocked to their master crying aloud for help in their troubles and begging him to make them brown once more.
"So Amook made another spell in his hole beneath the earth, and when he came forth and touched the birds and animals, behold! they were changed from white to brown as before.
"So, as each winter came, Amook went forth across the land and changed the brown of birds and animals to white; and again, when the winter had passed and the wild geese came to the northland, he went forth again and changed the white once more to brown.
"But some of the creatures were wary and would not come at their master's bidding, and Amook was hard put to chase and capture them. It was thus with the great bear, for he loved his white coat which Amook had given him and which helped him to hide upon the icebergs and the floes; and try as he would Amook could not catch him in the spring to once more turn him brown. So, too, the great white owl; in his white coat he could perch motionless upon a rock, and birds and beasts would think him but a piece of ice and unsuspecting would approach within easy reach. Time and again did the magician creep close and strive to catch the owl, but never did he grasp him, although the tips of his fingers touched the feathers as the owl flapped away; and to this day you may see the round brown spots, left by Amook's fingers upon the feathers of the owl. The weasel, too, timid and suspicious, but too cowardly to disobey his master, crept sneaking from the rocks and crouched snarling to the earth as Amook passed his hands over the fur, and the tip of his tail, being hidden in the rocks, to this day remains black, while his belly that was pressed to the earth is white throughout the seasons. Many other things—the geese and ducks and snipes, the hawks and the gulls—flew southward ere Amook came forth to work his spell of whiteness and came not north again until the spell of brown was spent, and so their colors changed not with the year. But the hare and the fox, the ptarmigan and the weasel, came at Amook's call and grew cunning and hid from their enemies through the magic of the Anticoot.
"Through all this time the reindeer, deep within their hole, remained brown, for under the earth there was no winter and no summer. One day, as Amook returned to his hole beneath the earth the raven, flying by, saw the magician step out of sight. Always curious he wondered what Amook had hidden in the earth and after pondering he flew to his friend the fox. 'Ai, ai!' he exclaimed, 'Tell me, O brother, what your master keeps in his home beneath the earth. You, whom he fondles and strokes to white or brown must know.' But the fox knew not and said so to the raven. This made the black bird more curious yet. 'Why have you never found out, O brother?' he exclaimed, 'Have you never wondered where this Amook gets the power to turn brown white and white brown? Think you, O brother, how fine it would be to know the secret of his power. With it in thy paws thou couldst change color at will and like the owl pose as a bit of snow in summer or a bare rock in winter. Truly, O little friend, you would find hunting easy.' Now the fox was a born thief and most cunning withal, and the words of the raven set him thinking. At last he spoke. 'With thy help, O black brother, I may find out. We will hide close by the hole of Amook and when he comes forth thou wilt fly far into the air and croak loudly, and when the magician looks up at the sound, I will place a bit of rock beneath the cover to the hole so it will not close tightly, and when Amook has passed on we will enter his dwelling and steal the charm!'
"So it came to pass that, when Amook again went forth, the cunning fox lurked close at hand, and in the air above the great black raven croaked hoarsely. Even as the two had planned, the magician looked up to see why the bird called out, and the fox slyly slipped a bit of rock into the edge of the doorway to Amook's home. So, when the magician pushed the stone shut, the bit of rock stopped it from closing and an opening was left which Amook did not see. Then, when the magician had gone far, the raven descended and with his friend the fox entered the dwelling of the magician. After a long time they came to a great valley and there they saw the herd of reindeer—all brown and with bushy tails—feeding upon the fresh moss. The fox and the raven were filled with wonder at the strange creatures with the branching horns; and the deer, who had never seen another creature other than Amook, were filled with wonder as great and with some fear at sight of the white fox and the black bird.
"But the raven with his flattery and the fox with his cunning soon overcame the fears of the deer and talked with them. The deer knew nothing of the magician's spell, for they had never been changed to white; and the fox and raven—finding the deer dull and stupid—began to tell them of the wonders of the outside world. At last the simple deer were interested and longed to go forth, and they followed the fox and raven to the opening in the rocks.
"One after the other they squeezed through, and just as the last one had come forth Amook came home. When he saw that the deer had escaped, he rushed forward and with outstretched hands tried to push the deer back into the hole; but the deer—pleased at the outside world—struck at him with their feet and where his hands had touched their foreheads broad white marks appeared, for Amook had been forth to turn all creatures white for the coming winter and the charm was still upon his hands. Then Amook, running about, seized the deer by their tails and strove to pull them back into his home. The deer struggled and tugged and all at once their tails broke off in Amook's hands and the magician, tumbling head over heels, rolled into the opening beneath the stone.
"Then the deer pushed the bit of rock from beneath the stone door which fell into place and shut Amook up forever. But, as the deer's leader closed the rock door, one of the prongs of his antlers was caught between the stones, and in drawing it forth it was bent and twisted in front of the deer's face.
"And so, little daughter, to this day every reindeer has a twisted part of each horn before his face and a stubby tail, and where Amook grasped the deer's tails and struck their foreheads in the long ago the white patches still remain."
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.