Tuesday, 20 December 2011
“Leciya tuwa makipanpelo. Wiyohpeyata Wakinyan Oyate kola makipanpelo.”
The words rise and fall to the sound of Locke’s rattle, and he gives it an extra flourish at the end, signaling the close.
“We sing this to welcome the Thunder Nation,” Locke explains, referring to thunderstorms. “Maybe some of you have heard the word Wakinyan before and know its meaning?”
One slender Lakota boy raises his hand. “It’s the name of our cat—he’s orange like a Thunder Being.”
Locke smiles broadly. “Good, good. That’s right, Wakinyan are the Thunder Beings, forces with power, like the Thunder Birds. They come with the big cumulus clouds in the spring to the prairies. The Wakinyan bring the rain, hail, thunder, and lightning—all the things that renew life after the winter. But in the long ago days, before humans, the Wakinyan also used these things in a big battle. And that battle was with the evil water monsters, the Unktehila.”
There were many different kinds of Unktehila, Locke continues, but most were like huge reptiles with scaly skin and horns; some were like giant lizards, and others were like serpents; some slithered on their bellies, and some had feet. “They ate each other and every other living thing, and so the Thunder Beings were given a divine mission to kill the Unktehila. That’s when the Thunder Birds came with their thunder and lightning. They struck the water monsters with lightning bolts and boiled their lakes and streams until they dried up. After that most of the Unktehila died or were very diminished in size, so that all we have left today are some small snakes and lizards. But we know the giant Unktehila lived because our people found their bones in the Badlands and along the Missouri River.”
Indeed, long before paleontologists arrived to excavate the fossils of marine reptiles, Native American peoples were carrying away enormous bones that lay exposed on the surface. For the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Kiowa (as well as many other tribes), the bones held special powers and could be used for healing or other rituals. And, as Locke explained, the bones were also “the physical manifestation of the evil forces the Unktehila represented.”
Although Locke had learned about the Unktehila from his elders and had sung the prayers of the Thunder Feast many times, he’d never seen the kinds of fossils that likely inspired the stories. So we went to the Museum of Geology at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, where skeletons of a plesiosaur and mosasaur are on display. These and other marine reptiles had lived in the ocean that covered much of North America about 75 million years ago.
“Wow,” he said, nodding appreciatively at the long-necked, fat-bodied plesiosaur. But it was the massive-jawed mosasaur that held his attention. “Now this one,” he said, pausing to size up the 29-foot-long snaky animal, with its fierce array of teeth and double-hinged lower jaw joint that allowed it to swallow large kinds of prey (including other mosasaurs). “This one is an eating machine. If our people found one of these, I’m sure they would call it Unktehila.”
And, Locke added, mosasaur-like creatures with toothy jaws and horns were often painted on the tepee covers of the Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Blackfeet. Some Native Americans had carved images of such creatures into the rocks above the Missouri River, and others had made one out of stones along the river’s banks. “Everyone who sees these knows they’re Unktehila.”
Paleontologists often find bones of pterosaurs, flying reptiles, along with the mosasaurs. Adrienne Mayor, a folklorist, suggests that pterosaur and mosasaur remains may indeed have triggered the stories of the Thunder Birds and their battle with the water monsters.
Do the Lakota, like the people who wait for Nessie to surface, regard the Unktehila as still existing? Locke hesitated. “Well, the old Unktehila were killed by the Thunder Birds. That’s what our stories say. Some people still fear large bodies of water, and they’ll say prayers to protect themselves from Unktehila when crossing the Missouri River.”
But, he went on, the power of the Unktehila lies more in what they symbolize than in any hard reality. “They were a negative force and had to be destroyed. That’s what the Thunder Birds did for the world. And that’s why it’s important for us to keep these stories alive. Because there are still negative forces—many that are even more powerful than water monsters—in the world today. We have to fight against things like alcohol and depression and materialism. These are the new Unktehila. We can fight them with our songs and music.”
And that’s why Kevin Locke sings about sea monsters for the children: To remind them of their heritage and to tell them about the ancient battle fought to bring goodness into the world.