February 17, 2003

The close your eyes dance


Nanabush was very tired. He had walked all day and could no farther. On the other shore of the bay he stopped to drink and splash water on his face. Then he sat down on a large stone beneath a tree to rest his aching bones.

Near the shore on the far side of the bay there was a flock of ducks, swimming and diving and quaking loudly. Their noise drew Nanabush’s attention. He squinted in the bright sunlight. Not having eaten all day, Nanabush was hungry as well as tired. The sight of the plump, juicy ducks sent pangs of hunger shooting through his empty stomach.

Nanabush knew there was no point in trying to catch the ducks. They were much too clever. He remembered with shame that once long ago some ducks had tricked him.

Tlingit - Tlingit Rattle

Tlingit Rattle


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He had swum underwater to catch them and tie their feet together with a rope so he could pull them ashore. Instead the ducks had taken flight. 

Up in the sky they soared, dragging Nanabush clinging hard to the rope behind them. Weak and frightened and dizzy, Nanabush had lost his grip of the rope and fallen – fortunately for him into the lake. From then on he had always kept away from the ducks. 

This time, no matter how hard he tried, Nanabush could not ignore the ducks. Their din and clatter carried across the bay. The ducks seemed to be mocking him. They were eating and playing while he had not a bite to eat and not a single thing to cheer him.

Lone Brave

Lone Brave

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As Nanabush watched the ducks, he began to grow angry. They were fat, and he was thin. They were happy, and he was sad. That did not seem fair. Why should some be well fed while others went hungry, and why should he be the hungry one? His needs were as great as those of others. His skills were equal to those of others. Game was Abundant. And yet in the midst of plenty, Nanabush had to go hungry.

To comfort him self, Nanabush took out his drum and began to chant very softly. Almost immediately began to feel better. Perhaps if he sang, Kitche Manitou would take pitty on him. He closed his eyes and chanted a little louder. Then, much more cheerful, Nanabush stood up and began to dance. Perhaps a dance would bring a change in his fortunes. 

“Hey, Nanabush!”
Steve Clay - Encounter At Apache Wells {a}

Encounter At Apache Wells {a}

Steve Clay

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Startled, Nanabush shuffled to a halt. One plump little duck had crossed the bay and was swimming close to Nanabush and looking at him curiously.

“What do you want?” Nanabush demanded.
“What are you doing?” the little duck asked, his eyes wide in wonder.

“Don’t you know? I’m chanting and I’m dancing,” Nanabush explained.
“May I dance? May I chant?” The young duck asked. Nanabush laughed. “You dance!”

Jacque Day - Zuni Water Jar (LE)

Zuni Water Jar (LE)

Jacque Day

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“But I want to dance,” the little duck pleaded.
“Your feet are flat! They look like snowshoes,” answered Nanabush.

“But I can run on top of water”, the duck said.

“That’s different,” Nanabush answered. “Besides you’re too bow-legged.”

“But I want to dance,” the little duck begged.

Nanabush felt sorry for the little duck and forgot about his hunger. “Well if you want to”, he said.

The little duck clambered out of the water. He slipped and slid and waddled all over the stones. Even when he was standing, he went on wobbling.

“What do I do” asked the duck.

Mark Silversmith - Navajo Mountain Rendezvous (LE)

Navajo Mountain Rendezvous (LE)

Mark Silversmith

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“Just what do I do,” answered Nanabush, and he began to drum and chant and dance. The little duck wings outspread, beak open, feet scrunched-tripped and waddles behind Nanabush as if he were walking on hot coals. But all the while he quacked happily.

“Hey, Nanabush, may I dance too?” came another eager voice. 

“If you want to,” Nanabush muttered. And another duck joined the dance.

For Nanabush, chanting and dancing were forms of prayer. For the ducks, dancing was play and fun. Nanabush was sober and serious, but the ducks squawked in laughter.

“Hey, Nanabush, may we dance too?” came a chorus of voices.

All the ducks had swum over to the shore where Nanabush was. Nanabush stopped his chanting and dancing. And an idea had just come to him.

Currier Ives - North American Indians

North American Indians

Currier Ives

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“If you want to,” he said. With a glint in his eye, he added “I will teach you an new dance. It is called the close your eyes’ dance.”

All the young ducks cheered and flapped their wings, but one duck grumbled, “I have never heard about that dance, how does it go?”

“It’s easy,” Nanabush explained, “one long gliding stride and two taps with the foot, one long gliding stride and two taps with the other foot, followed by a wiggle of the tail. You must close your eyes and chant as loud as you can. You must not peek. If you do the dance is over.”

“Good! Good! Good!” the ducks quacked.

Marianne Millar - Dancing til Dawn

Dancing til Dawn

Marianne Millar

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Then Nanabush said, “We need a big fire for this dance. Before we begin, you must gather lots of wood.”

The ducks did not need to be told twice. They wanted to dance. Off they went, some in to the bush, others along the beach. They brought back twigs, branches, and dead wood. Soon there was a huge pile of wood on the beach, enough for a great bonfire.

Nanabush lit the pile of wood. “First, I want you to learn the step,” he said. “I will drum and chant. When you have learned the step and the beat, you can chant with me. Chant as loud as you want to, but remember you must not open your eyes. Do you understand?”

“Yes, yes,” answered the ducks.

“Make a big circle,” Nanabush ordered. And the ducks formed a great circle around the sizzling fire.

Jeanne Rager - Night Fires

Night Fires

Jeanne Rager

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Nanabush began to chant. “Aaaayee, eeeeyae.” The ducks waddled one long stride and two taps. They were wobbly. 

“Shorten your strides. Your legs are to short and to far apart,” Nanabush commanded. After a couple of turns around the fire, Nanabush declared they were ready to perform the dance.

“Remember,” Nanabush said, “I chant and I drum. You chant with me, but keep your eyes closed. Are you ready?”

“Ready,” came the reply.

Nanabush began to chant and drum. Soon ducks were making such a din that Nanabush’s voice was drained out. Only the drum could be heard-and the scraping of feet.

Frederic Remington - The Scout: Friends or Foes, C.1900-05

The Scout: Friends or Foes, C.1900-05

Frederic Remington

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Without losing a beat, Nanabush grabbed a duck, twisted his neck, and tossed him into the fire. The ducks had their eyes closed tight and did not see what was happening. Nanabush seized a second duck then a third. The dancing and squaking continued. 

Nanabush went on seizing ducks, one after another. The other ducks went right on quacking, and dancing, not daring to open their eyes, not wanting to spoil the dance by breaking the rule.

But the old duck was uneasy and opened one eye. To his horror, he saw Nanabush seize a duck, twist his neck, and stuff him into the embers.

“Nanabush is killing us. Fly! Fly! Fly!” the old duck screeched, and he flew off. The other ducks opened their eyes. When they saw what Nanabush was doing, they too flew off, squawking in terror.
Nanabush did not care. He had eight or nine fat ducks. He could not remember how many. As soon as they were cooked, he would eat. He laughed at how clever he had been-tricking the ducks who had always been so watchful.

I Do Not Agree

I Do Not Agree

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Still laughing, Nanabush drew in a whiff of the roasting duck. He was hungry, hungrier than he had ever been, and he was tired. All the drumming and chatting and dancing had worn him out. He lay down to rest while the ducks cooked, and soon he was fast asleep.

As Nanabush slept, he began to dream about food, all kinds of food, but particularly roast duck. His dream was so real that he could even smell it.
He awoke with a start. He was no longer tired but he was starving. He rushed to the fire with a picture in his head of sixteen beautiful drumsticks. With his mouth and his stomach telling him to hurry, hurry, Nanabush reached into the fire for the nearest duck.

But all he got was a handful of charred, black bones! While he had slept, the ducks had burnt to a crisp.

Over head the ducks were screeching. “Have a feast, Nanabush. Shall we have another dance? Will you drum and chant for us while we dance the dance the ‘dance of hunger’?”

Ojibwe / Chippewa Legends
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