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Red Horn

A retelling of a Ho-Chunk myth

Long, long ago, in a time before time, there was a lodge where ten brothers lived together. The oldest was a brave warrior named Kunu. Kunu was a good hunter and a good provider for his younger brothers, and they all respected him...except the youngest. The youngest brother was something of a mischief maker.

Kunu always fasted the day before a big hunt, and he expected his brothers to do the same. But one time, the day before a hunt, Kunu was dressing a deer when he saw his youngest brother eating venison. Kunu grew angry and said, "At this rate you will never be able to hunt with us," and threw deer lungs at him. The other brothers laughed, and gave him the name He-who-gets-hit-with-deer-lungs. But Kunu understood that getting hit with those lungs was a very powerful thing for his youngest brother.

The next day, when the brothers went out to hunt, He-who-gets-hit-with-deer-lungs went outside for a run. He had always been the youngest, the weakest, and the slowest of the brothers, but today he noticed that he was running faster than ever before. He felt his legs becoming strong and sinewy like those of a deer.

A few days later a messenger from a nearby village appeared at the brothers' lodge. He said the village chief was preparing to hold a big race. The winner would win the hand of the chief's daughter, Yellow Robe.

Kunu had seen Yellow Robe many times when he had gone into the village, and thought she was beautiful. He had never spoken to her, but he had smiled at her once, and he thought he caught a hint of her smiling back.

Kunu told his youngest brother to stay to protect the lodge, and Kunu and the other brothers set out for the village. But when they arrived, they found that He-who-gets-hit-with-deer-lungs was there with them. He was dressed in an untanned buckskin blanket, turned inside out, with the fur on the outside. Kunu was embarrassed, and said, "Why do you shame me on the day of the big race? Go home." But the other brothers said, "Let him stay. He can watch our things while we race."

All the young men of the village and the surrounding country, as well as all the animals, were lined up for the race. The Great Spirits—Thunderbird, Hummingbird, Eagle, and other Winged Ones—were there also. Kunu and his brothers joined the competitors. The chief said, "You will run around the rim of the world, following the setting sun. The first one back here wins the hand of Yellow Robe. You may begin now."

But one of the racers looked ahead and said, "Turtle has already begun the race! He is already on the first hill!" And all the runners hurried to catch up to him. When the first runners approached the hill, they looked and saw Turtle already on the second hill. And when they reached the second hill, they saw Turtle on the third hill. They said among themselves, "Turtle is fast, but he is not that fast. He must be playing a trick." And when they reached the next hill, they found a turtle hiding in the grass. Turtle hadn't been running over the hills at all! He had simply placed turtles along the course to make it look like he was winning.

Kunu was in first place among the humans, but he found himself falling futher behind the Winged Ones. As he crested the next hill, he heard footsteps behind him. He looked, and saw He-who-gets-hit-with-deer-lungs. As the youngest brother ran past him, Kunu shouted encouragement, "Run fast! Win the race for our team."

But although Kunu could run like a deer, he could not run fast enough to catch the Winged Ones. So he turned himself into an arrow and shot himself forward, until he caught up with them. He shot himself forward again, and even the Spirits could not keep up with him.

But as he approached the finish line, he saw the trickster Turtle on the course ahead of him. He-who-gets-hit-with-deer-lungs shot himself forward once more and crossed the finish line first.

Turtle, though he knew he had been beat, tried to convince the spectators that he had won after all. He said, "I must be getting old. He-who-gets-hit-with-deer-lungs almost beat me!"

And the others all replied, "No, Kunu's brother won the race."

But Turtle grabbed Yellow Robe's wrist and began to run away with her. She tried to resist, but he overpowered her and carried her away.

When Kunu finished the race, the spectators said, "Your brother won the race, but Turtle has kidnapped the chief's daughter." So Kunu ran after Turtle and Yellow Robe. When he caught up to them, he clubbed Turtle and knocked him out. Kunu walked back to the village with Yellow Robe. They talked and laughed along they way, and fell in love with each other.

When they reached the village, Kunu was sad. He knew Yellow Robe now belonged to his brother.

But when the chief offered Yellow Robe's hand to He-who-gets-hit-with-deer-lungs, he said, "I am much too young to marry. You must give her to my next youngest brother."

Now all the brothers knew that Kunu was in love with Yellow Robe, so the next youngest brother also said, "I am much too young to marry. You must give her to my next youngest brother." And so on, up the line, until the only one left was Kunu. And when the chief offered Yellow Robe to Kunu, he accepted, and they were married.

Soon after, the brothers went for a hunt and killed a deer. Afterward, when Kunu was dressing it, he set down the lungs. Yellow Robe then picked up the lungs and threw them at the youngest brother. Kunu asked, "Why did you do that?" And Yellow Robe said, "Is that not why you call him He-who-gets-hit-with-deer-lungs?" And Kunu said, "That only happened once."

Then the youngest brother stood up and said, "When the Spirits created me, they did not name me He-who-gets-hit-with-deer-lungs. They named me He-who-wears-human-heads-as-earrings!" Then he spat on his hands and rubbed his ears, and on his lobes grew little heads, laughing and winking and sticking out their tongues. He spat in his hands again, and rubbed his hair, and it turned red and grew into a long braid. He said, "Here on earth, I will be known as Red Horn."

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