Why The Woodpecker Bores For Its Food

A Tale from the Iroquois

Once upon a time, the Great Spirit left the Happy Hunting Ground and came to earth. He took the form of a poor, hungry man. He went from wigwam to wigwam, asking for food.

Legend Of The Iroquois - Decoration For Why The Woodpecker Bores For Its Food

Sometimes he found the Indians sitting around the fire, telling stories and talking of the Great Spirit. Then the man would pass by unseen.

One day, he came to a wigwam in which a woman was baking cakes.

"I am very hungry," the man said. "Will you please give me a cake?"

The woman looked at the man, and then at the cake. She saw that it was too large to give away.

She said, "I will not give you this cake, but I will bake you one, if you will wait."

The hungry man said, "I will wait."

Then the woman took a small piece of dough and made it into a cake and baked it. But when she took this cake from the coals, it was larger than the first.

Again the woman looked at her cake. Again she saw it was too large to give away. Again she said, "I will not give you this one, but I will bake you one, if you will wait."

Again the man said, "I will wait."

This time the woman took a very, very, tiny bit of dough, and made it into a cake.

"Surely, this will be small enough to give away," she thought, yet when baked it was larger than both the others.

The woman stood and looked at the three cakes. Each was too large to give away.

"I will not give you any of the cakes," she said to the man. "Go to the woods, and find your food in the bark of trees."

Then the man stood up and threw off his ragged blanket and worn moccasins. His face shone like the sun, and he was very beautiful. The woman shrank into the shadow of the wigwam. She could not look upon his face, for the light.

"I am the Great Spirit," said he, "and you are a selfish woman. Women should be kind, and generous, and unselfish. You shall no longer be a woman and live in a warm wigwam, with plenty of cakes to bake. You shall go to the forest and hunt your food in the bark of trees. Summer and winter, you shall eat worms of the same size as the cake you would have made for me."

Legend Of The Iroquois - Why The Woodpecker Bores For Its Food

The woman began to grow smaller and smaller. Feathers grew upon her body, and wings sprang from it. The Great Spirit touched her head, and it became red.

"Always shall you wear this red hood," he said, "as a mark of your shame. Always shall you hide from man. Always shall you hunt for little worms, the size of the cake you made for me."

At this a sharp cry was heard, and a bird flew into the fireplace of the wigwam, and up the chimney. As it passed out of the chimney, the soot left those long streaks of black which we see now on the woodpecker's back.

Ever since then, this woodpecker has had a red head, and has been hiding from man on the farther side of the tree trunk, and boring in the bark for little worms.

Sources And Further Reading

Project Gutenberg Stories the Iroquois Tell Their Children by Mabel Powers [1917]

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