by the famed folklorist, Jeremiah Curtin, in the 19th centurym
for the Bureau of American Indians. Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution
National Anthropological Archives, Washington, D.C. --Manuscript 3906
(SHAWNEE). It forms part of a collection of numbered
manuscripts of the 1850s-1880s (some earlier). I have made
minor changes in punctuation, format, and grammar. The original was not
a final manuscript, but a handwritten draft. Curtin translates
"Sawage" as being literally, 'it thaws'. Actually, however, it
means 'warm' with reference to weather; it implies the South and the
warm winds brought from that direction.)
SAWAGE lived with her grandson. She had reared him from infancy and
when old enough to shoot he killed birds of different kinds. As he grew
older he killed small animals at first, and then larger till he became
a great hunter. Old Sawage skinned every bird and beast her grandson
killed. She dried and put away the skins with care. When her grandson
had grown to be a man she said to him one evening: "You would better
put on your finest clothes and patch your moccasins, we are going to
have company tonight. Some women will come her for you."
didn't believe the old woman and thought to himself, "I have traveled
around many a year and have never seen the smoke of any house but this,
never seen any person but my grandmother." Old Sawage knew his thought
and said: "You needn't think so, they will come. They will be her very
soon. Presently they heard the laughter -- Ha! Ha! Ha! -- of a number
of women down the road. It drew nearer and soon the heard it in front
of the house. These were twelve sisters. They began to talk as soon as
the stopped before the house and the elder sisters said to the
youngest: "Go in and see the young man. "The old woman was sitting near
the door and the young man sat by the fire in the middle of the room.
He determined not to look up. When the young woman knocked and old
Sawage said, "Come," she stood inside the door. But the young man
wouldn't look at her. She stood awhile and then turned and followed her
sisters who had gone South (the sisters were all from the North). She
overtook the eleven and soon they all came back to try to see the young
man. Stopping in front of the house, they said to the youngest sister:
"Go in again. Maybe you can see him this time. Maybe he'll look up."
The young man heard every word they said and when she came in after
knocking the second time, he looked up, saw her, and was about to
follow as she moved away when his grandmother stopped him.
the girl had gone out to her sisters and all had turned to the North
and departed, Sawage said:"You'll have more visitors this evening; wait
awhile." Soon eleven young men came along, and stopping in front of the
house where the twelve sisters had stood, called out" "Are you ready to
go with us?" "Yes," said the young man. Old Sawage had cut a little
piece of skin of every bird and beast her grandson had ever killed.
These she sewed together and fastened under his arm next to the skin,
saying: "Whenever you are in trouble and distress, all you have to do
is to say what you want and straightway you will have it. When you are
in danger of death and call on me four times, you will be saved."
this Shawnee tale, the spirit of the southwind is named "Sawage"
(Shawaki) and is portrayed as a grandmother. In the sacred
Shawnee Laws, collected by C. F. Voegelin, the following is said
about the maneto of the North and South:
Creator) handed down four maneto [supernatural powers or
spirits] one on each side (of the earth). She handed down one
grandfather in the winter. He rules half the year. Whenever
he comes he carries the cold weather with him...Now also, in the
direction of the South, one sits who will bring things that will be
useful to you. (This one) rules the other half of the year, owing this
end of the year. When he comes you will call on him day after day,
because (this one) will bring you useful things, things I created
The following is a nice Shawnee song representing the cry of a turkey on a summer morning:
Tak', Tak', Tak'
He brings the morning,
Gooble, gooble, gooble.
twelve young men set out together and followed the trail of the
sisters. Soon they found snow which became deeper and deeper as they
went on. Far ahead they saw a light and before midnight they came to a
house. They went in and twelve beds were ready with the eldest sister's
bed on the right of the door, the second sister's bed next to that, and
so on all around the room to the bed of the youngest sister which was
on the left side of the door. The twelve young men slept with the
twelve sisters. At daybreak Sawage's grandson woke up: no house, no
beds, and the sisters were gone. The young men's clothes were taken
away and they were lying naked on the snow in a bitter cold. Two were
frozen stiff and dead.
grandson rose up, went to a great dry tree near by, and said" "This is
just such a tree as I used to make fires with, Let there be a fire here
now. Straightway the tree was down and a great warm fire burning.
Sawage's grandson roused the nine young men living and led them to the
fire. Then he went to a second tree and said: "This is just such a tree
as I used to find coons in, Let this be full of coons and fall."
Immediately, the tree was down and they killed as many coons as they
wanted. These they skinned and made clothes. Going a little further he
cane to a thicket and said: "This is just such a place as I used to
find bears in, Let there be one here." He was in there in a moment and
soon killed. Next a deer was brought.
noon the young men started on, again following the trail of the sisters
till dark when they found their house. Twelve beds were arranged in the
same order around the walls as the night before, beginning at the right
of the door and ending on the left. The ten young men passed the night
with the sisters. Next morning, house, beds, sisters, and clothes were
gone. Two young me were frozen to death. The others lay stiff and half
dead, naked in the snow.
grandson made a fire, roused and warmed his companions, got coons, bear
meat, venison, and clothing as he had the day before. About midday, the
eight young men set out on the trail of the sisters and overtook them
in their house at dark. That night two more young men were lost and so
the pursuit continued until only two of the young men were left --
Sawage's grandson and one of the eleven. Though they seemed to stop on
level ground the night before, they were now on the top of an ice
mountain. It was so steep and slippery that if any man should try
to come down, he would be dashed to pieces. In front of ice mountain,
on the northern side, was a range of steep hills, and on one of these
hills a village of many houses. Down the ice mountain and up the
opposite heights the tracks of the sisters were to be seen.
grandson said to his companion: "What could you do in your youth? If
you could do anything then that would help us now, do it.
"I was able to make myself a humming bird."
"Oh, a humming bird is too fast for this place. It would break its bill flying around here."
"I could make myself a butterfly."
butterfly would freeze to death. You can't help us, but follow me and I
will take you down. I used to make myself like wax and stick to
everything. I will do so now and you follow in my tracks."
grandson made himself like wax and walked down the mountain with the
other young man walking in his tracks. They went up on the opposite
ridge where the village was. The father of the twelve sisters was Peponki,
chief of this village. And when the two young men arrived the old man
was fiercely angry at his daughters and said: "Haven't I always told
you not to bring strange men here from other countries? Don't bring
them in here. Take them to the other house and make a fire for them
two men were taken to the other house. The fire gave out no heat; it
merely looked like a fire. Next morning, Sawage's grandson was alone.
His companion was stiff and dead. The youngest woman in whose bed he
had passed the night had gone to her father. Stiff and benumbed with
cold, he shouted to the girl. She came and began to stir the fire.
There was a piece of wood near his bed. "Take this, "he said, "It is
good to burn." The moment she came near, he seized her by the hair and
began to call on his grandmother. When the old chief heard Sawage's
name, he was terrified and sent all his daughters to stop her grandson,
saying he didn't want such a strange unseemly noise and shouting about
his place. But the young man wouldn't stop.
old chief ran for his life and disappeared in the North followed by
eleven of his daughters. The young man held the twelfth daughter firmly
by the hair. She could not get away.
the young man had called on his grandmother the third time, a warm
south wind began to blow. The snow and the ice began to melt. After he
called the fourth time, Sawage stood before him in the room.
the people who couldn't escape began to pine away and grow sick. The
took refuge on the northern side of trees and rocks and logs and became
small, and it was thought they were little children.
Now old Sawage began to dance around the fire and sing. Her grandson joined her still holding the young woman by the hair.
first song, the ice came out of the eyes, nose, and mouth of the dead
man (the last of the eleven). At the second, his body thawed out. At
the third, he sat up on the bed, but he had not all his senses. At the
fourth he sprang up, sang, and danced with the others as well as ever.
old Sawage turned and went home through the air, taking the three with
her, and they are all living yet. When there is a cold wind from the
South, it comes from the youngest of the twelve sisters, the Northern
woman who became the wife of Sawage's grandson.
Curtin (1835-1905) was a linguist, translator and author, diplomat,
world traveler, and ethnologist, and forklorist born in Wisconsin in
1835. He was educated at Harvard in folklore. After a five-year
stint at the American legation in Russia (1866-70) he embarked on a
career of travel around the world, including the Caucaus, Mongolia, and
Siberia. It is said that he mastered 70 languages and he translated
many works into English. He published works on the religion and myths
of the Russians, Magyars and Mongolians, as well as fairy tales of
Ireland and folktales of Eastern Europe. His work on Irish myth was an
important source for W. B. Years (e.g., "Cuchulain's Fight with the
Sea") and the Irish literary revival. His The Mongols in Russia (1908)
had a foreword by Theodore Roosevelt.
Curtin worked for the Bureau of American Ethnology and later for the
Smithsonian Institute, Washington (1883-91) as an ethnologist and is
famous for his works on the Seneca whom he visited in western New York
state in the 1880s. He also worked on Wintu linguistics ("Wintu words
and names") and published Wishram Texts and Wasco Tales and Myths, and
tales of many other tribes, such as "the Enchanted Moccasins" (Maskego).
well-known Shawnee tale collected by Curtin was his "The Celestial
Sisters", but the current unpublished handwritten manuscript was found
by the author in the National Anthropological Archives and has not been
previously made known. However, it reflects his interest in the
seasons and weather found in many of his other works, such as "The