The wind seemed to come in on the hooves of the buffalo that night. The sound was that of the wolves’ mournful cry. I know; I was there. I was a young boy then.
That night the whole village knew the spirits were trying to tell us something; and as the wind blew, we all stood very still and watched and listened. I tried not to show any fear, but as I stood next to my father, I knew he had to feel me trembling. But you know, I think he was trembling, too.
Everyone kept looking out into the forest like they were waiting for something to come. I really wanted to keep my eyes closed, but even my little sister was looking. So I stood there and watched; and in a moment that seemed to be forever, a fog covered the forest and rose into the sky. As it grew, it became so thick there were no trees any more.
The winds howled so bad my ears hurt. Then I saw our medicine man, Azontae, stand in front of the fog. He was a great man with a gentle heart, yet as I saw him standing there he looked so small and fragile. His face showed no fear. Everyone else around me had fear in their eyes.
He raised his hands high, and in a booming voice as loud as the wind itself, said: “Caretakers, I am happy you are here. Please tell me why you have come.”
Azontae started singing a song I had never heard before. It was a happy song and it reminded me of waters flowing down a stream dancing over the rocks and leaves, whirling around on the ground. I got lost in the song and seemed to lose the fear I had in me. All seemed to find peace in this song.
Then, dancing out of the fog, appeared the little people. They were like the people in our village but so small – smaller than my little sister. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I had heard of the little people but had never seen any. They were dressed in hides and moccasins, and had braided hair. They almost looked like children, but you could see in their eyes they were not.
After the song ended, Azontae greeted them. They appeared to know him. I wondered why they were here. I watched every move they made and watched their faces. They seemed happy.
Then, without warning, the ground started to move. It sounded like giant trees hitting the ground. Before our eyes, the reason became visible.
Standing as tall as the trees themselves stood the ones we call the “Caretakers of the Forest.” All I could do was stare. After I got over my surprise, I was curious to know why they were here. It was a great gift just to have them visit.
Azontae motioned to all of us to come to him and we did. I must admit some moved slower than others.
As we came face to face with our visitors, we knew we had nothing to fear from them. Azontae wanted everyone to help make a fire. We ran about trying to gather wood, leaves and anything dry to get a fire going. The little people were also helping, dragging branches and pine cones. They were very strong for their small size. My young-man’s pride made me gather larger branches. I tried to show them I was a strong young warrior. They just laughed and kept gathering.
Finally, the biggest fire I had ever seen was roaring and we all gathered around it. The caretakers stood one on each side of the circle we had formed. They were covered in hair, but not like mine and their hands were as large as my head. They were very quiet. Somehow that scared me a bit, but I knew I should not be afraid of them for they are good friends and Creator’s caretakers. But through the eyes of a young man, things appear differently than they do to older men with more wisdom.
As we sat, Azontae stood up and asked if we would be quiet and listen, for the caretakers had come to us with an important task. I sat waiting to hear them talk. Then the one on the north end of our circle spoke, and I listened harder than ever before. “Brothers and sisters, we need the land, the forests, waters and all that Creator has made to always be taken care of. We must not waste what has been given to us!” All agreed with a nod.
“After our visit with you, my brothers and I will visit the three other directions and talk to the peoples there and ask the same of them. We want you to tell the story of us and pass it on to your children’s children’s children, so Mother Earth always has caretakers. Mother Earth is a gift to be taken care of always!”
All in the circle agreed and promised this giant spirit what he asked. I was surprised when he spoke: he spoke in my language. I guess I thought he would sound like an animal, but as I grew older I learned he spoke many languages and also spoke in silence.
As the night went on, we gathered food and cooked a great feast to feed our visitors. All ate and laughed, sang and told stories. As the sunlight started to peek through the trees, our friends said their goodbyes and started to leave for other lands because they had much to do. As I watched them walk off, a thick fog began to pour in out of nowhere.
As I strained my eyes to see, I saw the little people dancing; and as they danced the fog grew and swirled up, covering and protecting the big caretakers. Before I knew it, they were gone.
It was hard to get back to my work that day. I was so happy to have met the caretakers. As night came and I finally closed my eyes to sleep, all I could do was smile and dance in the fog, hoping that one day I would see my friends again.
So whenever you see the fog rolling in, you can wonder if the caretakers are still roaming our lands and taking care of Mother Earth.
<i>Ken “Rainbow Cougar” Edwards, from the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington, is an accomplished painter and storyteller. Edwards is a graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe and is a longtime cartoonist for Indian Country Today.