Tales of the Timbisha: The First Relay Race

Death Valley from Zabriskie Point. Source:  http://parks.mapquest.com/national-parks/death-valley-national-park/
Death Valley from Zabriskie Point. Source: http://parks.mapquest.com/national-parks/death-valley-national-park/

In a previous post I mentioned that after running the Badwater Ultramarathon, I became curious about the Timbisha Shoshone Indians who had long lived in the harsh but beautiful landscape of Death Valley.  This is one of their stories, passed down from generation to generation.  I thought this one might be helpful to people running in relay races….what do you think?

*          *          *

A long time ago, the animals were people. They had no fire in this part of the country.  It was cold.

Lizard was lying in the sun, trying to keep warm.  He looked up just as a particle of ash, blown by the south wind, drifted slowly to the ground.  It looked like the burned stem of a bulrush plant.  All the people came over to look.  They wondered where it had come from.

Crow thought he smelled smoke, but no-one could see anything.

Coyote walked by and pointed at the ash.

“What’s this?” he asked.  The people all shook their heads.

“You don’t know what this is?” Coyote asked, “This is ash from a fire in another country.”

They stared at him blankly.

“We need somebody to fly up in the sky,” Coyote said, “to see where it came from.”

Chickadee jumped up into the air, flapped his tiny wings, and flew a little ways up.  But he quickly tired and fell back to the ground.  Then Woodpecker and Blue Jay tried, but after a little bit they fainted and fell all the way back to earth.  Coyote put some water on their heads to wake them up.

Then Hummingbird said, “I can do this.”  As all the people watched, he soared high into the air and hovered there for quite some time, turning first to the west, then the north, then the east, and finally the south.  Coyote craned his neck and squinted, trying to see where Hummingbird was looking.  Then Hummingbird fluttered back down.

When he was on the earth again, everybody gathered around. They wanted to know what he had seen.  He told them of a big body of water far off in the south. There were many people on the shore, he said, dancing around a huge fire.

“We must go there,” Coyote said, “and get that fire.”

They all started running toward the south. They ran all day without taking any breaks until they reached a mountain peak, where they rested during the night.  The next day they ran until they reached another mountain.  On each mountain, Coyote stationed one of the people. They kept running, they did not walk, until they had crossed nine mountain peaks and sat on the tenth.  From this vantage, they could see the water that Hummingbird had first spotted and the fire burning brightly on its shore.

Evidently, the people there were having a big celebration.  They were dancing around a giant bonfire. Coyote trotted down the mountain and ripped a handful of milkweed from the ground with which he fashioned a fake beard. Then he joined the people and danced with them around the fire.  The old women eyed him suspiciously, especially the fake beard.  They weren’t stupid, they worried that he was going to steal their fire.  But their chief didn’t notice.  As Coyote danced, he moved closer and closer to the fire and then he leaned his head over the flames until the beard caught fire. As soon as it was lit, he ran off — and the fire in the camp went out.  The old women howled in dismay — and the people took off in pursuit, desperate to recover their fire.  It wasn’t hard to follow Coyote, his burning beard glowed as brightly as if he were carrying a lantern.

Coyote ran to the first person he had posted on the mountain peak closest to the lake and passed the fire to him. This person ran with it to the next one on the next mountain peak, and in this way they passed the fire along. The pursuers were close on their trail, and when they caught up to Coyote, they killed him, and then they killed everyone else who had stopped after passing the fire on.

The fire was relayed from one person to another until it was passed to Jackrabbit, who put the fire on his tail, which turned black from the soot.  Then he passed it on to Rabbit.  As Rabbit ran with the fire, the pursuers used their powers to summon dark clouds and cause hail to fall from the sky.  The hail hurt Rabbit, and he squealed in pain and fear as he ran.

Rat was living alone on the top of Lida Mountain, just north of Death Valley, in a house  surrounded by sheer cliffs.  He heard Rabbit crying and scrambled down the slope.  Rat took the fire from Rabbit and ran with it back up to his house.  The fire burned a red spot on his breast.

The pursuers gathered around Rat’s house. “Catch him,” they shouted to each other, “but don’t kill him.  We want the fire.”  But they couldn’t climb up the cliffs.

Rat took the fire and lit a large pile of brush.  Then he scattered the burning brush all over the country.

The pursuers fell down and died.

(Adapted from Anne M. Smith, Shoshone Tales, 1993 and Julian H. Steward, Some Western Shoshoni Myths, 1943, http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/ca/wsm/)

Tales of the Timbisha: The First Relay Race

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