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Grandmother Spider steals the Fire

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A Choctaw Legend

The Choctaw People say that when the People first came up out of
the ground, People were encased in cocoons, their eyes closed, their
limbs folded tightly to their bodies.

And this was true of all People, the Bird People, the Animal People,
the Insect People, and the Human People. The Great Spirit took pity
on them and sent down someone to unfold their limbs, dry them off,
and open their eyes.

But the opened eyes saw nothing, because the world was dark, no
sun, no moon, not even any stars. All the People moved around by
touch, and if they found something that didn’t eat them first, they
ate it raw, for they had no fire to cook it.

All the People met in a great powwow, with the Animal and Bird
People taking the lead, and the Human People hanging back. The Animal
and Bird People decided that lief was not good, but cold and miserable.
A solution must be found! Someone spoke from the dark, “I have
heard that the people in the East have fire.”

This caused a stir of wonder, “What could fire be?” There
was a general discussion, and it was decided that if, as rumor had
it, fire was warm and gave light, they should have it too. Another
voice said, “But the people of the East are too greedy to share
with us,” So it was decided that the Bird and Animal People
should steal what they needed, the fire!

But, who should have the honor? Grandmother Spider volunteered,
“I can do it! Let me try!” But at the same time, Opossum
began to speak. “I, Opossum, am a great chief of the animals.
I will go to the East and since I am a great hunter, I will take
the fire and hide it in the bushy hair on my tail.” It was
well know that Opossum had the furriest tail of all the animals,
so he was selected.

When Opossum came to the East, he soon found the beautiful, red
fire, jealously guarded by the people of the East. But Opossum got
closer and closer until he picked up a small piece of burning wood,
and stuck it in the hair of his tail, which promptly began to smoke,
then flame. The people of the East said, “Look, that Opossum
has stolen our fire!”

They took it and put it back where it came from and drove Opossum
away. Poor Opossum! Every bit of hair had burned from his tail,
and to this day, opossums have no hair at all on their tails.

Once again, the powwow had to find a volunteer chief. Grandmother
Spider again said, “Let em go! I can do it!” But this
time a bird was elected, Buzzard. Buzzard was very proud. “I
can succeed where Opossum has failed. I will fly to the East on
my great wings, then hide the stolen fire in the beautiful long
feathers on my head.” The birds and animals still did not understand
the nature of fire.

So Buzzard flew to the East on his powerful wings, swooped past
those defending the fire, picked up a small piece of burning ember,
and hid it in his head feathers. Buzzard’s head began to smoke and
flame even faster! The people of the East said, “Look! Buzzard
has stolen the fire!” And they took it and put it back where
it came from.

Poor Buzzard! His head was now bare of feathers, red and blistered
looking. And to this day, buzzards have naked heads that are bright
red and blistered.

The powwow now sent Crow to look the situation over, for Crow was
very clever. Crow at that time was pure white, and had the sweetest
singing voice of all the birds. But he took so long standing over
the fire, trying to find the perfect piece to steal that his white
feathers were smoked black. And he breathed so much smoke that when
he tried to sing, out came a harsh, “Caw! Caw!”

The Council said, “Opossum has failed. Buzzard and Crow have
failed. Who shall we send?”

Tiny Grandmother Spider shouted with all her might, “LET ME
TRY IT PLEASE!” Though the council members thought Grandmother
Spider had little chance of success, it was agreed that she should
have her turn. Grandmother Spider looked then like she looks now,
she had a small torso suspended by two sets of legs that turned
the other way. She walked on all of her wonderful legs toward a
stream where she had found clay.

With those legs, she made a tiny clay container and a lid that
fit perfectly with a tiny notch for air n the corner of the lid.
Then she put the container on her back, spun a web all the way to
the East, and walked tiptoe until she came to the fire. She was
so small, the people from the East took no notice. She took a tiny
piece of fire, put it in the container, and covered it with the
lid. Then she walked back on tiptoe along the web until she came
to the People. Since they couldn’t see any fire, they said, “Grandmother
Spider has failed.”

“Oh no,” she said, “I have the fire!” She lifted
the pot from her back, and the lid from the pot, and the fire flamed
up into its friend, the air. All the Birds and Animal People began
to decide who would get this wonderful warmth. Bear said, “I’ll
take it!” but then he burned his paws on it and decided fire
was not for animals, for look what happened to Opossum!

The Birds wanted no part of it, as Buzzard and Crow were still
nursing their wounds. The insects thought it was pretty, but they,
too, stayed far away from the fire.

Then a small voice said, “We will take it, if Grandmother
Spider will help.” The timid humans, whom none of the animals
or birds thought much of, were volunteering!

So Grandmother Spider taught the Human People how to feed the fire
sticks and wood to keep it from dying, how to keep the fire safe
in a circle of stone so it couldn’t escape and hurt them or their
homes. While she was at it, she taught the humans about pottery
made of clay and fire, and about weaving and spinning, at which
Grandmother Spider was an expert.

The Choctaw remember. They made a beautiful design to decorate
their homes, a picture of Grandmother Spider, two sets of legs up,
two down, with a fire symbol on her back. This is so their children
never forget to honor Grandmother Spider, Fire Bringer!

Return to Choctaw Legends

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