The Kschinas are Coming

When the world was still new, before large game animals had come to the Hopi people, mice were the only source of meat. But trapping mice took a great deal of time and patience and wound up providing very little meat for the trappers’ efforts.

Shilko, the cleverest young fellow in his group, was always coming up with new ways to trick mice. “It is time to go trapping,” he said, and he walked among his friends waving a small stick with a string attached.

“What does Shilko plan for today?” asked one of the boys as he eyed Shilko’s stick.

“I am going to prop up a rock with this stick and put cornmeal under it,” he answered. “Then, when a mouse comes to get the cornmeal, I will pull the string and the rock will fall on him.”

The boys followed Shilko until he came to a spot that looked just right. They watched as he set his clever trap, stepped back to admire it, and sat down to wait.

The boys remained very quiet for a long time. No mice came to the trap. The boys waited and waited. Shilko seldom failed at anything he did. But when the sun finally came to rest on the horizon, Shilko hung his head and said, “My trap was not so clever. We have not caught a single mouse today.”

The youngest boy picked up a sack of corn and said, “I am hungry. It is time to eat.” The boys built a large fire and ate heartily.

“Tonight we must throw corncobs on the fire and call the spirits in the way of our people,” said Shilko. “We cannot go home empty-handed.”

Shilko stood up and threw the first corncob into the fire. Each boy followed with one of his own. In a few minutes the night air was filled with clouds of billowing grey smoke. The smallest boy moved close to the fire and stood where the smoke blew in his face. “Someone please help us,” he said, his voice quivering.

They waited quietly for a long time, but they heard only the crackling of the fire. At last Shilko filled the little smoking pipe his father had given him and passed it around the circle for the other boys to smoke. Then he added more cobs to the fire.

Suddenly, without warning, a tall and striking young woman appeared out of the darkness. One of the boys covered his face. Another boy ducked behind a large rock. And the two littlest ones clasped hold of each other. Everyone trembled except Shilko.

“Don’t be afraid,” he told the other boys. “It is Tihkyui, our spirit-mother.”

Tihkyui’s serene face and outstretched arms calmed their fears, and the boys returned to their circle formation around the fire.

“You signaled me with the smoke of your corncobs,” she said. “I have come to help. Do not worry that you have no mice. They are too small for meat, anyway. I will show you how to catch larger animals.”

Tihkyui began to sing a soft haunting melody that mingled with the curls of smoke from the fire and twisted

upward into the night air. When she finished, Tihkyui told the boys to remember the song so they could teach it to their mothers and sisters, who would sing it while they were grinding corn.

Tihkuyi sat down beside Shilko and said, “You will know when you awake in the morning if Nuvak, or Snow-Maiden, has heard my song.”

“How will I know?” asked Shilko.

Tihkuyi made marks like rabbit tracks on the ground and said, “You will see footprints like this in the morning. They will belong to the rabbits. Follow the footprints to where the rabbits hide in the rocks and pull them out.”

The boys were very excited about the prospect of catching animals larger than mice. Before Tihkuyi disappeared into the night, Shilko gave her a prayer-stick decorated with beautiful feathers.

The next morning, when the boys awoke, the ground was covered with snow—something they had never seen before.

“My feet are freezing,” whined one of the younger boys. So Shilko tore up the corn sack they had brought from home and gave each of the boys two pieces to wrap around his feet.

Soon after they left camp, the boys found rabbit tracks in the snow just like those Tihkuyi had drawn in the sand. They followed the tracks toward a great outcropping of rock and waited quietly for the rabbits to come out of their holes. When they did, the boys smacked them with their small wooden clubs. Soon they had enough rabbits to take back to camp.

After dinner that evening, Shilko threw more corncobs on the fire and waited for Tihkuyi to reappear, so he could show her that Nuvak had indeed heard her song. When Tihkuyi stepped out of the cloud of smoke, she was smiling. “You have done well,” she said. “Cottontail rabbits have much meat.”

She showed the boys how to clean the rabbits and dress the skins to take home for the women to make into warm clothing. “Now,” she said, “you need a spirit-father. Shilko, you must call him.”

Shilko stepped forward and called into the night. “Is there anyone out there who will be our spirit-father? If so, please come out.” Before long they heard a deep voice, and Masou came forward. He went over to where Tihkuyi stood and whispered in her ear. Together they began to draw the tracks of a jackrabbit on the ground.

“The next time you hunt or trap,” said Masou, “go into the valley near your village and look for these tracks. Follow them to where the jackrabbits hide. When you are ready to catch larger animals, go into the valley below Far Mesa.”

Before Masou disappeared, Shilko handed him a prayer-stick like the one he had given to Tihkuyi.

The next morning there was even more snow on the ground, but the boys were so eager to hunt jackrabbits that they tramped through the shin-deep snow without complaining.

When they found the tracks, they followed them into the bushes and killed many more animals than they had the day before. In fact, the boys were so successful that they had to build a carrier out of tree branches to get all of the animals home.

But the heavy carrier filled with meat made the boys tired, so Shilko suggested they build a fire and rest. “We do not have far to go,” he said. “Our village is close by.”

No sooner had the boys started their fire when the men of the village saw the smoke and came to greet them. “You have done well,” said one of the men. “We will help you carry the animals home. But first you must show us where you have been hunting.”

Shilko stuck out his hand as if to hold back the men. “Not yet,” he said. “We must return to the village and organize a proper hunt.” The men agreed, and that evening Shilko announced the spot where the hunters should meet in the morning.

He gave them the route they would take and named specific points along the way. The next day the men spread out in a great circle, and when rabbits appeared the hunters gradually closed the circle and rounded up many animals.

Before too long, Shilko grew bored with rabbit hunting and decided to hunt animals larger than cottontails and jackrabbits. “Bring heavier clubs today,” he said very casually to the men. “It will bring us luck.”

The following day, Shilko led the group on a long trek in the direction of Far Mesa where Masou had told them they would find larger animals. When they finally arrived at the foot of the mesa, Shilko directed the hunters to form a circle near its south side. He was about to signal the men to tighten the circle when he saw Masou standing in the center surrounded by deer and elk.

Their eyes met. Masou whispered, “Shout. Shout loudly, Shilko.” Shilko did as he was told, and the deer and elk went wild. They ran around in circles. Faster. And faster. And faster. At last they grew tired and fell to the ground. That evening the hunters went home with fresh deer and elk meat.

The Hopi never had to trap mice again, and rabbit meat became an important source of nourishment. Deer and elk remained a special treat.