The Eskimo Folktale of the Red Skeleton

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Image by James Ward [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Ophan Boy

There was once a poor Eskimo boy who lived in a village on Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska.  The boy was an orphan and because of this he had no one to look after him of fend for him and some of the villagers treated him very badly.  They made him run errands for them and made him work for them.

He was allowed  to stay in the kashim, the villagers community building, in bad weather and sleep there. There came a night when it was snowing thick and fast and the adults ordered him to go out in the cold to see if the weather was getting worse or if it looked as if it might clear up.  It was a terribly cold night and he had no boots and no warm clothes.  He did not want to go but they pushed him out through the door and he ran to the edge of the village and looked at the night sky.  The snow had stopped but it was still perishing cold and he ran back with the news, banging on the door and shouting, “Good news! The snow had stopped now, but it is still very, very cold. Please let me in!”

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Native American Tales: Skeleton Island

This is a retelling of a Native American story from  The Myths of the North American Indians, (1914), collected by Lewis Spence called The Friendly Skeleton.

The Boy in the Woods

Once there was a boy who lived in the woods with his elderly uncle.   Although the boy was free to play in the woods close to the lodge his uncle always warned him that he must not go eastwards.  The boy was always full of life and like most boys filled with a natural curiosity about his surroundings and explored the woods all around his uncle’s lodge except those that lay to the east.  Although the boy often wondered what could possibly lie eastwards he always obeyed his uncle’s warning.

One day his uncle went on a long hunting expedition  leaving the boy alone in the lodge. After playing in the woods north, south and west the boy became bored and he thought about his uncle’s warning not to go eastwards.  The more he thought about it the more his curiosity was aroused and he decided he would go eastwards in the woods but be very, very careful.

The Stranger

He set off to the east through the woods and eventually came to a large lake and he stopped on its shores to rest and noticed there was an island in the middle of it .  While he was resting a strange man approached him and asked him his name and where he had come from and the boy told him.

After he had told him the stranger said, “Very well, now let us fire an arrow and see who can shoot it the highest”  The boy agreed and he shot his arrow much higher than the man did.  Next the stranger suggested they have a competition to see who could swim the furthest underwater without coming up for breath.  Once again the boy won the competition. Then the stranger suggested they sail to the island in the middle of the lake to see the beautiful birds that lived there.

Skeleton Island

The stranger showed the boy his canoe which was most strangely carved and was pulled by three swans.  Two swans were harnessed to each side and one was tethered to the front.  The man motioned the boy to take a seat next to him in the canoe and began singing a strange song.  The swans moved off taking the canoe along with them.  It didn’t take them long to reach the island which the boy now noticed was a considerable distance from the shore and surrounded by deep water making him feel his trust in a stranger was foolish.

Then the strange man ordered him to undress and he took his clothes and got back into the boat and said,  ‘Come swans, let us go home,”  and the swans took him in the canoe back towards the shore leaving the boy naked and alone on the island.

The Skeleton

The boy was angry at his own foolish naivety but as  evening came and darkness fell he began to feel very cold, very miserable and very frightened.  Huddled alone in the darkness to his utter shock he heard a husky voice nearby that appeared to be talking to him.  Looking around the boy was terrified to see lying on the ground next to him a bleached white skeleton.  “I feel very sorry for you and I will help you if you will help me.” With no other choice the boy agreed though he too felt sorry for the skeleton.

The Skeleton then told him, “I will tell you that tonight a man is coming to look for you.  If you make as many tracks as you can all over the island and hide in that hollow tree over there, the man will become confused by so many marks and will not find you.”

The boy obeyed the skeleton and when the man came ashore he had three dogs with him.  Fortunately the boy had made so many tracks going this way and that all over the island that the dogs were so confused they could not find him in his hiding place and the man left empty handed and angry.

The next morning the boy went to the skeleton  who said, “Beware, tonight the man who brought you to this island is coming back to drink your blood.  You must dig a hole in the sand on the shore and hide in it.  When his canoe arrives and he steps onto the island you must quickly jump into the canoe and say to the swans, ‘Come swans, let us go home,” and they will immediately take the canoe back with you on board.  The man will call to you but you must not look back.”

Escape From Skeleton Island

So the boy dug a hole in the sand and hid in it.  Just as the skeleton had said the canoe arrived and the man got out and stepped ashore and began searching for the boy.  The boy jumped in the canoe and said,  ‘Come swans, let us go home,” and began to sing just as he had heard the stranger sing when he had brought him in the canoe to the island.  The man called to him but the boy did not look back and the swans took the canoe back to a cave on the shore of the lake.

The boy found his clothes in the cave and put them on and found plenty of food and he ate his fill.  He then lay down and went to sleep.   The next morning he went back to the island and found the dead body of the stranger lying in the sand.  He went to see the skeleton who told him he must now take the canoe and go eastwards across the lake to look for his sister who an evil man had captured many years ago to be his wife.

The Evil Man

He set off eastwards across the lake in the canoe and after three days he came to the place where the evil man kept his sister which was just a hut.  The evil man was out and he soon found his sister and said, “Sister, Let us go quickly from this place now!”

“I dare not! An evil man keeps me here and he will be back any minute and will surely catch us.   Let me hide you away and in the morning we shall runaway together!”  said she said.  She dug a hole and told her brother to hide in it and just as she had finished hiding him the evil man came into the hut with his dogs demanding his dinner. The boy’s sister had cooked a child for the evil man and put it before him.  He looked on her grimly and said, “You have had visitors while I was out!.”

The girl shivered inside and tried not to let him see this and said, “No one has been and you are the only person I have seen.”  But the evil man said, “I will wait until tomorrow and then I will find and kill him and you shall cook him for me to eat!”  

He knew someone was there by the way the dogs were snuffling about.  He said nothing more and the next morning he left the hut saying he was going hunting to a distant swamp.  However, instead of going hunting he hid himself where he could easily spy on the entrance to the hut.  Presently he saw the boy and his sister leave the hut and make their way to the lake shore and get into a canoe.  Barely had they sat down when they saw him running quickly towards them with a large hook in his hand which he threw and it latched onto the vessel as they moved through the water and he began pulling them back.  The boy reached down into the shallow water and grabbed a stone and smashed the hook with it and the canoe shot forward over the lake.

For a second the man did not know what to do and then he dropped down to the ground and began to drink in the water.   This began to draw the canoe back to him but the boy took aim and threw the stone hitting the man on the head killing him instantly.   This caused the water to gush out of him and back into the lake sending the canoe rapidly on its way.

Return to Skeleton Island

In three days time the brother and his sister arrived back on the island and together they went to see the skeleton to thank him. The skeleton told the boy that it was now turn for the boy to help him as he had promised.  He said,

“Take your sister back to your uncle’s lodge and then return to the island.  There are very many bones laid around the island and when you come back in a loud voice tell them to arise and this will bring them all back to life.”

When the brother and sister arrived at their uncle’s lodge the old man was delighted to see them back safe and sound.  He had come home to find the boy gone and had spent the rest of the time worrying and fretting over his safety.  On hearing about the boy’s adventures he advised they should build a new lodge to accommodate all the people who he would bring back with him.   When the lodge was finished the boy went back to the island and said in a loud voice, “All arise!” and the bones formed into people and he took them back to the new lodge he and his uncle and sister had built for them.  There they all lived very happily together for a very long time.

© 25/10/2017 zteve t evans

Reference, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright October 10th, 2017 zteve t evans