The following article was originally published on my personal website in 2014.
The Tale of the Vengeful Wife
The tale of the vengeful wife is an old story that has been told around Indian campfires on the Canadian plains for well over two hundred years. As is often the case with oral lore, it has a number of different variations. In some versions, the heroes are Blackfoot and the villains are Crow. In others, it’s the other way around. The names of the characters are also many and varied. In spite of their differences, however, every version of the story has one thing in common: the plot itself.
The story begins in the summer of 1775. That summer, a band of Blackfoot was camped in the Rocky Mountain foothills near present-day Calgary. The band was led by a young chief named Calf Looking. The chief had a beautiful wife named Elk Woman, and two children.
One day, Elk Woman asked her husband to take her to a particular field where she could pick prickly pear cactus fruit. Although the Blackfoot subsisted almost exclusively on buffalo, they enjoyed prairie fruit like Saskatoon berries, chokecherries, and the fruit of the prickly pear cactus when they were in season. This summer had been especially warm, and the prickly pear cactus fruits were ripe and plentiful.
Calf Looking would have loved to appease his beautiful wife, but recognized the inherent dangers in such a venture. At that time, the Blackfoot were at war with the Cree, the Crow and the powerful Snake (Shoshone) nations, and roving war parties were an ever-present danger. At first, the chief refused his wife, reasoning that the risks outweighed the benefits.
Elk Woman was persistent, however, and begged her husband time and time again to take her to the field before the fruits were out of season. Her persistence paid off, and eventually Calf Looking, against his better judgment, rode with her the field. A number of women, who were also anxious to pick fruit, accompanied them.
The party reached the field without incident. While the women foraged, Calf Looking rode his horse to the top of a nearby hill and scanned the surrounding prairies for enemies. After some time, he noticed a small herd heading in their general direction. At first, he passed it off as a group of buffalo. However, when the herd came closer, he realized it was in fact a war party of Snake braves riding flat against their horses’ backs, galloping towards them at full speed.
Calf Looking raised the alarm, and one by one the Blackfoot women in the field mounted their ponies and made their way towards the distant safety of the camp. The chief found his wife and rode by her side.
In those days, the Snake Indians were famed for owning the fastest horses on the Canadian plains, and this particular war party was no exception. The Shoshone braves quickly outstripped the Blackfoot women who, for the most part, rode little travois ponies, and struck them down with tomahawks, war clubs and lances.
In time, it became clear that Calf Looking, who rode a speedy buffalo runner, was the only Blackfoot who had a hope of escaping the Snakes. Elk Woman, who was falling behind, cried to her husband for help, and the chief pulled her onto his own horse. The couple rode together for some time. However, Calf Looking soon realized that even his buffalo runner could not outdistance the magnificent Snake horses with two riders on its back.
“Get off,” the chief told his wife. “You are young and beautiful, and you will not be killed. The Snakes will take you back to their camp, and I will go back to ours. I’ll raise a war party and rescue you.”
Elk Woman refused, entreating her husband to die with her. Calf Looking ignored his wife’s plea and shoved her from his horse. He galloped on to the Blackfoot camp while the Snakes dismounted to collect their spoils.
Calf Looking decided not to tell anyone what he had done. He returned to camp in tears. Like the other Blackfoot men who had lost their wives, Calf Looking cut his hair, tore his clothes, and painted his face black in mourning. Then he set out with the other men to the killing ground to collect the dead.
The path to the cactus field was littered with scalped women. The Blackfoot families loaded their dead into travois and hauled them back to camp for burial. When the task was complete, Elk Woman was the only one unaccounted for.
Back at the camp, Calf Looking invited three of his brothers, along with three of Elk Woman’s brothers, to his teepee. The youngest of the seven men was one of his brothers-in-law, a handsome teenager with the longest hair in the band. Inside, the warriors passed around a pipe and made a pact to ride together to the Snake camp and rescue Elk Woman.
The seven braves set out at dawn the following morning. They quickly picked up the Snake trail and followed it across the prairie for many days. The trail stopped at a river. The Shoshone had forded and made camp on the other side. The Blackfoot warriors decided to make their own smokeless camp within a hillside grove which commanded an excellent view of the Snake camp.
That night, under the cover of darkness, Calf Looking swam across the river. He crept through the Snake camp, peering through the thin slits of teepee doorways and praying for a glimpse of his wife. At last, he spotted Elk Woman sitting inside the chief’s teepee, the large teepee at the centre of the camp. She appeared to be hale and unharmed. Satisfied, he snuck back to the river and searched for a hiding place. The river was lined with cutbanks, and Calf Looking found one with a sizeable cave. The young chief curled up inside and covered himself with sand and clay until he was almost completely concealed.
The following day, groups of women came to the riverbank to draw water. Calf Looking watched them come and go all day from his hiding place, but never once did he see his wife. Finally, in the late afternoon, he heard a single set of soft footsteps approaching the river. When the woman came into view, Calf Looking recognized his wife. He emerged from concealment and grabbed his wife’s arm, putting a finger to her lips. Keeping his voice low, he urged her to swim with him across the river and escape. Elk Woman refused, saying that her new Snake husband had showered her with gifts, and that she would like to take some of them back with her to spite her captors. Calf Looking begged her to leave with him now, for the sake of their two children who dearly missed their mother, but Elk Woman would have none of it. Reluctantly, he told his wife where he, her brothers, and his, were camped on the opposite shore, and agreed to wait there until she slipped way in the night.
As Calf Looking swam back across the river, Elk Woman returned to the Snake camp. She took some ashes from the fire, put them in her mouth, and chewed the up to make a black paste. Then she fell to the ground in front of the chief’s teepee and began to make strange noises. The chief went outside to investigate and found his new wife writhing on the ground as if in a trance. He carried her into his teepee and summoned the band’s medicine man.
When she emerged from her ‘trance’, Elk Woman used sign language to tell the Snake shaman that she had received a vision from the Sun spirit. She claimed that the Sun spirit told her that seven enemies were camped in a hillside grove on the opposite shore. One of them was a great chief, while another was a handsome youth with long hair. All of them were to be killed, save for the chief; the chief was to be offered as a sacrifice to the Sun spirit.
The Shoshone medicine man took Elk Woman’s story at face value and quickly organized a war party. The sun was low on the horizon and the prairie sky was blood red by the time the warriors arrived at the grove where the Blackfoot were hiding. The Blackfoot warriors were massively outnumbered, but brave to a fault. Calf Looking’s eldest brother sang a war song and burst through the foliage, knife in one hand and a tomahawk in the other. He was dropped by a hail of arrows before he reached the Shoshone lines. The rest of the Blackfoot braves followed suit, determined to keep their brother company on his journey to the Great Sand Hills. Their last stand was short lived.
At the end of the skirmish, the only Blackfoot standing was Calf Looking. The Shoshone looted and scalped their fallen foes, bound the defeated chief hand and foot, and hauled their booty back to their camp. Primary among their spoils was the bloody scalp of Elk Woman’s young long-haired brother.
The Snake warriors presented Calf Looking to their chief. The young man was taken to the chief’s teepee, where a sneering Elk Woman greeted him.
“Heartless woman,” spat Calf Looking, “I came here to bring you back to your children. Look what you’ve done! Three of your brothers and three of mine are dead because of you.”
The Snake chief, who did not speak Blackfoot, asked Elk Woman to translate using sign language. The Blackfoot woman told him that Calf Looking called the Shoshone warriors cowards, and dared the Snake chief to upend the burning embers of his pipe on his chest. The Snake chief, who was honour-bound to accept the dare, obliged.
Although the red hot embers seared his flesh, Calf Looking refused to cry out so as to spite his enemies and his wife. When the deed was done, he berated his wife for her cruelty. Elk Woman ‘translated’ the Blackfoot’s outburst to her new husband, saying that he dared the chief to pour boiling water on his head. The Snake chief, loathe to refuse the Blackfoot’s dare, ordered a woman to boil some water for him. When the water was bubbling, he asked her to pour some of it on the captive’s head. The woman did as instructed.
The water scalded Calf Looking’s scalp, and small chunks of his hair began to come out. Although the pain was excruciating, the Blackfoot chief gritted his teeth and forced himself from vocalizing his agony. The Snake chief saw the Blackfoot’s stoicism as an invitation to keep pouring, and soon all of Calf Looking’s hair had fallen out. The Blackfoot chief passed out from the pain.
When he came to, Calf Looking begged his wife to ask the Snakes to kill him. Instead, Elk Woman informed the Snake chief that his Blackfoot counterpart had asked to be offered as a sacrifice to the Sun spirit. The chief agreed to grant his prisoner’s request, and decreed that Calf Looking would be tied to a tree and left for the Sun spirit to claim the following day.
Throughout all this, the chief’s teepee had become packed with warriors who gathered to witness Calf Looking’s torture. Among the crowd was an old, inconspicuous widow who had watched the Blackfoot’s ordeal in silence. This old woman was largely neglected by the tribe, as she was considered to be an outsider. Many years earlier, her late Shoshone husband had captured her from a Cree camp and taken her for his wife, and so most of the Snakes in her band assumed she was a Cree. Few, however, that the old woman was actually Blackfoot by blood. She had been captured by the Cree when she was a young girl and raised as one of them, but she remembered her roots and her mother tongue. And when she heard Elk Woman ‘translate’ Calf Looking’s words to the Snake chief, she knew the young woman was lying. The old woman pitied the Blackfoot chief and resolved to help him.
The following morning, the Snake chief informed his band that they were moving camp. Before attending to the duties that preceded such a move, he ordered several of his warriors to strip a cottonwood of its bark and paint it black. When that was accomplished, he told his warriors to paint the Blackfoot prisoner’s face black as well, and to tie him to the tree.
While the warriors went about their business, and while the rest of the camp packed their belongings onto travois, the old woman led her travois dog into a copse of trees. She muzzled the animal and tied it to a tree before packing up her own belongings. Later, when the chief announced that it was time to depart, the old woman called loudly for her dog. Of course, there was no response. She cursed the animal and muttered to herself as she ‘searched’ throughout the camp. When the chief asked her why she was not ready to leave, she explained her predicament. The chief offered to give her one of his own dogs to haul her travois, but the woman refused. The chief, at a loss, rode to the head of the column and led the Snake band into the prairie.
When the band was out of sight, the old woman retrieved her dog and went over to Calf Looking, tied as he was to a tree. She cut the hide strips that bound him and began to nurse him back to health. She gave him water and pemmican, and dressed his scalded scalp to the best of her ability. When Calf Looking asked her why she was helping him, the old woman replied in Blackfoot that she never had any sons, and that she was adopting him.
When Calf Looking was sufficiently recovered, he thanked the old woman and told her his tale. He assured her that he would return with a war party and would exact revenge on his treacherous wife. When the old woman asked what she could do to help, he told her to rejoin the Snakes and travel with them. She was to pitch her teepee a slight distance from the main camp, so that he and his braves could identify her lodge easily when the time came. If the band split, she was to travel with the chief and his wife, and plant a green twig in the ground of the old camp pointing in the direction in which they went. The old woman agreed.
Calf Looking said farewell his new mother and made the long journey back to his own camp on foot. After travelling for some time, he neared the camp and was picked up by a Blackfoot scout. The scout brought the sorry-looking chief into the ring of teepees, where the Blackfoot gathered round to learn what had befallen him and his brothers. Calf Looking told his band of his wife’s betrayal, of how she had condemned her own brothers to death, and of the torture he had suffered resultant of her wiles. Soon, the whole camp was in an uproar. Furious Blackfoot braves counted their arrows and sharpened their tomahawks as they prepared for a revenge raid.
Soon, the Blackfoot amassed a revenge party of more than three hundred participants. Unlike typical war parties, the revenge raiding party included not only braves but also women and older boys. Only the very young and the very old and a handful of guards remained in the camp while the revenge party set off on the warpath.
The war party stopped at the river to pay their respects to the Blackfoot warriors who fell there. After placing the bodies on burial scaffolds, the party forded the river and moved on.
Calf Looking sent several scouts ahead to search for the enemy. The scouts soon discovered an abandoned camp used by the Snakes not too long before. It appeared that the band split up after breaking camp.
The scouts searched the camp, and just as Calf Looking had foretold, they found a green stick planted in the ground, pointing in the direction of one of the Snake’s two trails. The scouts followed the trail stealthily on foot and found the Snake camp a distance ahead. They returned to the revenge party to report their findings.
Soon, the revenge party reached a coulee just out of sight of the enemy camp. The Blackfoot intended to attack the Shoshone in the night and take them unawares. While the Blackfoot prepared themselves for the upcoming battle, Calf Looking told his warriors that he would sneak into the enemy camp first and warn his new mother. The warriors maintained he should stay with the war party in case the old woman betrayed him, but Calf Looking was adamant.
The Blackfoot chief stole into the Snake camp under the cover of nightfall and found the teepee of his new mother. He warned her of the upcoming raid, and asked for news about his treacherous wife. The old woman told him that, since her ‘vision’, Elk Woman had been accorded great reverence and respect. She remained in the chief’s teepee, the largest teepee in the camp. Calf Looking thanked the old woman for the news and, after she had fed him some pemmican, returned to the revenge party.
The Blackfoot attacked just before daybreak. The Shoshone were caught completely unawares, and many were struck down before they even had the chance to arm themselves. A number of women and children fled to trees and bushes that lined the coulee bottoms, while most of the men fought and died in the camp.
The raid was over quickly. The Snake band had been almost utterly destroyed, while the Blackfoot had suffered minor casualties. Among the prisoners the Blackfoot had taken was a remorseless Elk Woman.
The Blackfoot pulled down the Snake teepees and heaped the lodgepoles into a pile. Then they put the Shoshone chief’s scalp on a thong and placed it around Elk Woman’s neck. They threw Calf Looking’s vengeful wife on the pyre and lit it, telling the woman to dance the Scalp Dance as she burned.
Elk Woman stood on the pyre, defiant. She sneered at her Blackfoot husband and told the entire band of how he had cowardly pushed her from his horse. The band was unmoved. Elk Woman had committed the greatest crime known to the Blackfoot nation; she had betrayed her friends, and would now suffer the consequences. As the flames licked at her legs, the screaming woman tried to escape. Every time she jumped from the pyre, however, another Blackfoot would push her back on. Eventually, she lay still and the flames consumed her.
Calf Looking invited his new mother to live among the Blackfoot once again. The old woman agreed, and spent the rest of her days in the Blackfoot camps honoured and respected as the one who saved their chief.
- The Vengeful Wife – and other Blackfoot Stories, Hugh A. Demspey, 2003