1917 | South Dakota

Losing Big

Be careful what you wish for.

There was a young man who had many horses and plenty of adornments. He had four sisters who made many ornaments of quillwork, painted robes for him, and made plenty of clothing so that he was always well dressed and finely painted and had plenty of everything.

A great chief had a young and beautiful daughter. She was industrious and could make beautiful quillwork and paint robes, and she could tan skins and make good clothing. This chief sent word to this young man that he would give him his daughter for a wife. The young man dressed in his finest clothing, putting on quilled moccasins and quilled leggings and beaded breechcloth. He took with him a fine pipe and a beaded tobacco sack. He wrapped about him a fine buffalo robe of a young cow taken when the hair was the best which his sisters had tanned, soft and white, and upon which his adopted mother had painted her dream. He took with him a love medicine that was made by the oldest shaman among all the people and a flute upon which he had learned to play love songs.

When he started for the chief’s house, his oldest sister said to him, “Watch for the trickster spirit Iktomi. Do not let him fool you.” The young man replied, “I am too wise, Iktomi can’t fool me.” He went on his way, thinking about the beautiful young girl he was to have for his wife. When he came to a spring of water he sat down in the shade and played a love song on his flute. While he was playing, another young man appeared before him, but he was very poor and had only the poorest kind of clothing. All he had was a breechcloth and an old, ragged robe, but he was good looking and strong. He said to the young man, “You play a love song very well. If you should play that way to a young woman she would take you for her man.”

There is much difference between imitating a good man, and counterfeiting him.

—Benjamin Franklin, 1738

This pleased the young man, for he thought that he would play that way for the chief’s daughter. He lit his pipe and gave the other young man a smoke. Then the other young man said, “I would like to hear you play again.” So he played another song and the second young man said, “Oh that is more pleasing than the other; no young woman could hear you play that and resist you.” This pleased the young man so that he said, “I will teach you to play that way so that you may also get a woman.”

He taught the other young man to play like he did. Then the other young man said, “I think you are very strong. Let us wrestle to see who is the stronger.” They wrestled and the young man threw the second young man. Then the poor young man said, “I think you are a great hunter, let us shoot the arrow and see who can make the best shot.” They shot arrows at a target and the young man made the best shot.

Then the other young man said, “Let us run a race and see who can run the faster.” They ran a hundred paces and the young man won the race. Then the other young man said, “Let us run around this spring and know who can run the greatest distance.” But the young man said, “No, let us run to that high hill, a long way off and back.” The other young man agreed to this. The young man stripped himself of all his clothing except his breechcloth. He piled all his fine clothing, his pipe, his robe, and the flute near the spring. The other young man said, “Let us hide our clothing, someone may come and take everything while we are running.” They hid their clothing, the young man putting his clothing in a pile and other young man putting his robe at another place. The way they had to run was very hilly and the other young man said, “I run very slow down a hill but I run very fast up a hill.” The young man said, “I run very fast down a hill, but I cannot run so fast up a hill.” Then the other young man said, “You had better run as fast as you can down the hills, because I will run by you up the hills, if you don’t.”

They started from the spring up a hill. The other young man ran as fast as he could up the hill and reached the top first; but when they ran downhill, the other young man ran very slowly and the young man ran as fast as he could and passed him very quickly so that he was at the top of the next hill before the other young man was at the bottom of the first hill.

Then the young man looked back at the other young man and laughed and cried out to him, “I will beat you badly for I will be at the top of the next hill before you will come in sight on top of this hill.” Then the other young man said, “Yes that is so. Do not wait for me.” So the young man ran on easily, for he knew he could beat the other young man. Before the other young man got to the bottom of the first hill, he turned around and ran quickly back to the spring and took all the young man’s clothing, his robe, the pipe, and the elk teeth and the flute and ran on the trail to the chief’s tepee.

FBI Wanted Notice: Edward Aloyisus Hannon (Marcel Duchamp), Wanted for the Crime of Impersonation, by Julien Levy, c. 1950. © Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania, PA, USA/ Bridgeman Images

FBI Wanted Notice: Edward Aloyisus Hannon (Marcel Duchamp), Wanted for the Crime of Impersonation, by Julien Levy, c. 1950. © Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania, PA, Bridgeman Images 

When the young man got to the high hill he sat down to rest, for he thought he could beat the other young man easily now. He waited, but the other young man did not come. Then he thought he was lost so he went slowly back over the way he had run to look for him. When he got to the spring he looked about but did not find him, so he said, “I will put on my clothing and take my things and then I will hunt for him.”

But when he went for his things he found them all gone. Then he knew that the other young man was Iktomi. He started to run as fast as he could on the trail to the chief’s tepee. But he had run so much that he was tired, and could not run very fast. It was very late at night when he got to the chief’s tepee. He found that Iktomi had gotten there very early in the day and had given the chief a smoke of cansasa so that the chief was pleased. Iktomi had given the chief’s daughter all the elk teeth so that she was pleased. He had played to her on the flute the love songs he had taught him so that she could not resist him, and she had taken Iktomi for her man.

When the young man came dressed in his breechcloth and the old ragged robe that Iktomi had left, they would not believe him when he said he was the young man to whom the chief had promised his daughter. They let him eat at the feast and then told him to go away. He went home and told his sisters. His oldest sister said, “I told you to watch for Iktomi.”

About This Text

An Oglala myth. This tale of the legendary trickster Iktomi was published under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History in The Sun Dance and Other Ceremonies of the Oglala Division of the Teton Dakota by J. R. Walker. Iktomi is a spider, but also a capable shapeshifter who assumes a variety of forms. In “On the Psychology of the Trickster Figure,” an essay published in 1954, Carl Jung wrote that the trickster “is both subhuman and superhuman, a bestial and divine being, whose chief and most alarming characteristic is his unconsciousness.”