The Legend of Ithenhiela
(An Ojibwe Tale)
Note: Background image is an untitled work by Norval Morrisseau
Long ago, in the land beyond the rolling Mackenzie River, there lived a man named Naba-Cha, Big Man, and he was more enormous than all the men on Earth rolled together. He lived in a wigwam of caribou skins -- hundreds of caribou skins -- and he ate from bowls carved of hundreds of birch trees, and he ate, each day, three entire moose, two caribou and 50 partridges.
Naba-Cha waged war on many, travelling north to the Big Water, where he fought the Inuit, and travelling east toward the country of the Yellow Knives, where he fought for rights for the copper that glistened in the rivers. Southward he travelled, too, to the Great Plains, where he stole the peoples' animals. But Naba-Cha would not travel west, for there lived a man who was even larger than he. This was the man known as The Good Man.
One year Naba-Cha, on his southward journey, kidnapped a young Cree boy named Ithenhiela, or Caribou-Footed. The boy had no parents to rescue him, for he was an orphan, and he was helpless in the face of the giant. And so he came to live with Naba-Cha, to be his slave, and always he longed to escape.
Now Ithenhiela had one friend among all those who dwelled in Naba-Cha's camp. This was a young moose whose name was Hottah, and it was Hottah who schemed tirelessly to free the boy. At long last, he told Ithenhiela that the time for them to make their escape was right. Hottah would take the boy west, to the land of Nesnabi, The Good Man.
"This is what you must do," Hottah told the boy. "Gather a stone, a clod of earth, a carpet of moss and a birch tree branch, and then we shall escape together."
Ithenhiela did as he was told, and then, just before darkness descended, he climbed up on the moose's back, and they set off toward the great plains that lay beyond the rolling river.
At dawn the next day, Ithenhiela glanced behind him, and there was Naba-Cha riding toward him on his own great moose.
"Throw your clod of earth behind you," Hottah said, and when Ithenhiela did so, immediately great hills of earth rose up between him and the giant.
"Those hills will protect us for some days," Hottah said, "for they are wide and high." And so on they rode, eating berries and the sweet grasses of the prairies for nourishment.
On the third day, Naba-Cha again appeared not far behind them. "Toss the carpet of moss behind you," Hottah said. When Ithenhiela did this, a great swamp appeared behind them, and once again Naba-Cha's progress slowed, for he and his caribou sank beneath the soupy swamp, and they were forced to travel several days out of their way for safety.
Now moose and boy travelled on, still moving west toward the land of the setting sun, and when, after many days, Naba-Cha once again appeared, Ithenhiela, no longer needing guidance, cast his stone behind him. The huge rocky mountains that rose up behind him, rose so high they seemed to touch the clouds, separated Naba-Cha again from his prey. To help to protect him still further, now Ithenhiela flung his birch branch behind him, and an enormous forest of trees rose up. The forest was so thick that Naba-Cha's caribou, trying to fight its way forward, caught its antlers in the branches, and there they were stuck. All of this slowed Naba-Cha, but it did not stop him.
Moose and boy travelled further, crossing the Great Western River, heading northward now toward the Yukon, over rocky hills, and when they turned around, they saw Naba-Cha on the far side of the foaming river. "Hottah," he cried, "come help me across the river. I promise I will not harm the boy."
Hottah did not believe Naba-Cha, but a plan quickly formed in his mind as to how he could destroy this evil giant. Hottah turned and crossed the river again, and when he reached the far shore, the giant leaped upon his tired back. Gathering his strength, Hottah staggered toward the river again, and when he was halfway across, rose up on his hind legs and hurled the giant into the wild current, and he was swept away and drowned. That was the end of Naba-Cha.
That was not the end of Ithenhiela's adventures, but those will have to wait until another day to be told. He did, however, get to the land of The Good Man, but people chiefly remember him for his daring escape from the giant, which resulted in the creation of the great Canadian Rocky Mountains.