Ironically this Tale is about tails–dogs at Clark Lake that have an interesting story to tell. This story is by our own Laurice LaZebnik, who lives with her husband, Bob, on Kentucky Point. The story you’re about to read has some local historical and landmark references. It’s adapted from her book– Strongheart, A Dog Who Was a Coward, and is available from Amazon.
Back story: Not long ago there was an accident along the north shore of Clark Lake. It happened during a blizzard. Two dogs were swept into a snow bank by a snow plough. They huddled inside their snow cave to wait out the storm. Walks Like a Bear, the cowardly sheepdog pup, questions Calle, the aging Irish Setter who lives next door, about their chances for survival. Calle attempts to calm the agitated pup by sharing a story of a similar situation involving a buffalo hunt during a snowstorm, but falls asleep before the story begins. The puppy’s imaginary spirit, Wolf, comes to his aide like he does when the young dog is stressed. Wolf soothes him by conveying the legend of the Potawatomi buffalo hunters caught in a blow-sideways storm, just like the storm still raging outside their snow cave.
Buffalo have not lived on Potawatomi hunting lands for many seasons, says Wolf. But they did at one time. It was a long time ago when the great Eskimo wolf dog shared the Peoples’ fire circle and hunted buffalo with them.She was called Shunka.
I scratch my ear with my back paw.
“Shunka lived with the game scout, Wapasaw. Are you listening Walks Like a Bear?
“Yes, yes Wolf. I know how to listen.”
Shunka was so tall that when she walked by Wapasaw’s side she came up to his thigh. She had a long, narrow face, erect ears and a long tail that curled over her back. A thick undercoat kept her comfortable when temperatures dropped well below the instant when water becomes hard and slippery.
The Bear clan of the Potawatomi were starving that winter. The winds had been brutal and their stored food was gone. Wapasaw went into the forest on his snowshoes to hunt game. He wore a fox fur hat and wrapped himself in a long buffalo robe. Below his heavy buckskin leggings he wore two pair of moccasin. The inside pair were stuffed with buffalo hair to keep his feet warm. The second pair was larger. They were worn with buffalo hair on the outside to keep his feet from freezing to the wood and reed platforms that kept him from sinking into deep snow.
One morning Wapasaw’s trusted dog, Shunka, caught the scent of buffalo. Wapasaw was half a day’s walk below the village on a scouting trip, not far from here, when Shunka ran to him and pulled him to a ridge that guarded the lake.
“I know that ridge,” I say. “It’s across the lake on top a hill full of boats.”
You’re right, Walks Like a Bear. It was the same place, but a different time. The legend tells that it was instinct that led Shunka and Wapasaw to choose their position downwind from the herd. They could feel the breeze on their faces as they lay on the crest of the hill among the cottonwoods. If the buffalo didn’t smell them, they wouldn’t become agitated, wouldn’t stampede and The People would eat meat .The man and his dog lay flat on the ground. They could see a large herd. The enormous animals were crowded onto a splinter of land jutting from the south shore of Clark Lake on what was called Eagle Point.
“I know Eagle Point. I smell meat roasting from there when the wind is right. Elizabeth and Bob carry rib bones home from the point for my reward when I don’t sleep in Elizabeth’s flowers. I know more than you think I know. Wolf, what is an eagle?”
Eagle is chief of all the winged creatures. He flies higher than any other bird and sends a message to those who see him…to have courage, explore, and continue to learn. Walks Like a Bear, if you listen and remember the legends Calle and I tell you, your vision will be wide like the eagle. If you remember the legends forever, you will be able to tell others so they can reach beyond what they
think is possible.
So, in this legend the shaggy brown animals called buffalo chewed the bark from tall cottonwood trees where many of the mighty bald eagles nested. They chewed willow swale, blackberry bushes, and whatever scrub brush they could find. The snow was deep. Food was scarce for them, too.
The scout, Wapasaw, crawled backwards from his viewing post without making a sound. He had counted the herd and was anxious to report Shunka’s find. Soon they were at his village. The scout howled the game-scout wolf call; a sound so terrifying it could stop the hearts of anyone within hearing range. This signal told other game-scouts that Wapasaw was about to enter the village, and that he had been successful in his scouting mission.
The next morning Wapasaw awoke first. He loaded his quiver with sharp arrows. He would need strength for the hunt so he ate a piece of the pounded and dried meat called pemmican and laid back to rest.
“What does pemmican taste like?” I scratch my ear.
Walks Like a Bear!
“Alright, I’ll listen and remember forever. But I am getting hungry and my ears itch.”
Shunka blinked awake outside Wapasaw’s wigwam. She stretched herself and sniffed the air. The smell of the herd was strong. She ran into the wigwam and jumped on Wapasaw. The brave rubbed her head and told her she smelled like a herd of buffalo. He offered her a piece of his dried meat, but she wouldn’t eat.
Shunka pulled Wapasaw outside by his legging, out where the odor from the herd almost knocked him over. ‘I understand,’ he said and stroked her long, narrow head. ‘The herd is near the village. Shunka, you are the best hunting dog in the clan. We must hurry.’ He gave her his last piece of dried buffalo jerky, and called to the hunters that the attack must come downwind from the herd, and it must come soon.
“I would have liked Shunka,” I say. “She must have enjoyed chewing that dried meat. I know I would enjoy chewing a haunch of dried buffalo.”
Walks Like a Bear, listen or I will tell this legend to that snowflake.
“Yes, Wolf.” I say and stretch my front paws under Calle’s warm belly.
Wapasaw led the hunting party in single file into the forest before dawn lit the sky. Each brave followed with his own dog. The scout’s steady pace led them south of the village, around the sunset end of the lake, then to the ridge where they could view Eagle Point. A large herd grazed in the deep snow on the peninsula of land.
‘Woo, woo, woo’ was the signal from the throat of the game-scout to the hunters positioned around the herd. On cue, dogs barked and howled and charged the buffalo. Braves wailed and war-whooped so fiercely they scared one another. They were hungry for meat.
Startled, the buffalo grew confused. Some stampeded toward the sunrise, others towards where the sun sets. All were uncertain of which way to escape. The snow-covered lake was the route the herd chose. They plunged onto the prairie of ice. Their momentum carried them far from shore where they were again confused and ran this way and that.
The hunters shrieked a war cry and emptied their quivers. The herd swept toward the opposite shore. Many dead buffalo were left behind pierced by the hunter’s arrows. The animals lay in black mounds on the white lake ice. Some from the herd escaped, scampering up on the lake’s north shore.
It was a successful hunt for the Potawatomi. Once more the village would eat well until spring. A happy chant came from far out on the lake where Wapasaw unsheathed his knife. He began the work of skinning and cutting the meat into pieces small enough to carry on Shunka’s back and on his own shoulders.
“How much of that delicious buffalo meat could a dog Shunka’s size carry?”
Walks Like a Bear! Do you want to hear the legend or ask questions?
“I just wondered. I’m a little peckish…didn’t eat today.”
All the hunters were busy working when one brave called attention to a change in the weather.
‘The morning sky has turned deep blue, the sign of a blizzard.’ He pointed towards where the north wind lived. ‘We must hurry into the nearby woods before it reaches us.’ Some heard his warning, passed on the signal, and then hurried towards the wood where others had already arranged crude shelters and gathered dry wood for fuel. Around the campfire the half-starved hunters sat and
stood, while slices of savory meat roasted. The storm enveloped them in its whirling whiteness. ‘Woo, woo!’ they called to those who had not yet reached camp. One after another answered, and in the end the only ones missing were Wapasaw and his dog, Shunka.
“What happened to Shunka?”
I’m getting to that part, says Wolf. Be patient and listen. One of Wapasaw’s friends told the assembled hunters, ‘I know he will be all right. He is brave and experienced. He will find a safe place in the storm and will join us when the wind dies. Let’s eat!’ They feasted and then wrapped themselves in their robes and lay down to sleep.
All that night and the following day the storm raged. Late the second night the storm blew out. The hunting party awoke to a thundering quiet. It was so still they could hear the thumping feet of hungry jack rabbits echoing down the slopes. The air soon filled with wolf howls and coyote yelps. Packs of the ravenous creatures rushed onto the ice and ripped at the snow covered carcasses.
Braves scrambled and slid onto the ice. They shouted war whoops and waved their weapons at the foragers feeding off their kill. Wolves worked in packs to drag the meat away, across the ice and onto the north shore.
Hunters moved further out on the frozen lake to recover their prizes. That’s when they heard the hoarse bark of Shunka, the missing scout’s dog. They moved towards the sound and heard the muffled war-whoop of a man, as if it came from under the ice.
“Wolf, please hurry and tell me what happened to Shunka. I am so hungry.”
Walks Like a Bear, I will not tell you again. Listen & remember! The braves approached their friend’s voice. The sound came from near two buffalo carcasses the wolves had dragged to the sunrise end of the lake. Skunka was seen hovering over one of the mounds. Blood stained her coat. When the braves arrived the dog staggered and fell.
Hearing Wapasaw’s voice, the men attempted to pull open the lumpy hide covering the buffalo’s belly, but it had frozen shut. Using the sharp blades on their hunting knives, they peeled back the skin until they found the lost man. He was warm and happy inside his nest of buffalo hair wrapped in his own robe. He had been kept alive from the heat of the dead buffalo. Freed by the braves, the scout stepped from the buffalo skin with a face anxious for his loyal friend. ‘Where is Shunka, the bravest of our clan?’
The scout told his friends he had placed his dog in one of the carcasses and climbed inside another for protection from the storm. He admitted Shunka had been wiser than he had been. He heard her paw her entrance open. Wapasaw had let the hide of his carcass freeze shut, confining him inside.
Hunger drove the wolves to the dead buffalo at the end of the lake. Wapasaw said he heard Shunka scratching her way out of her frozen hideout. He said he heard the battle between Shunka and the wolves. He said his dog being surrounded and outnumbered. He could do nothing to help her. He said he could feel the pack drag his frozen shelter over the slippery ice while his loyal Eskimo dog fought off the rest of the wolves.
The hunters had arrived too late for Shunka. Her wounds were fatal. ‘Here,’ said a friend pointing to the ice stained with Shunka’s blood.
Wapasaw knelt beside his dog, stroking her narrow face. His heart was hollow. ‘My friend,’ he said ‘go to where the Great Spirit lives. I will meet you there.’
The scout carried his loyal dog’s body to the woodlot overlooking the lake. He scattered red sand over her burial mound as was the custom of The People. The Bear clan’s farewell song was sung as The People stood around the distraught scout. Since that time this mound has been known as the sacred burial ground for dogs with soongetcha, strong hearts.
Walks Like a Bear? Why are you quiet now that the legend has an end?
“Where is this burial ground?”
You will know when the time is right.
Pulling my front legs gently from under Calle, I push my snout up the tunnel to inhale fresh air and find a sky filed with stars. The wind has grown tired and gone to sleep. I push the snow and climb out. Calle is awake and a heartbeat behind me.
“Let’s go home,” she says.
“Which way is home?”
“Walks Like a Bear, are we lost again?”