The South Corner of Time hopi navajo papago yaqui tribal literature

Acknowledgements Introduction
Hopi Literature
Navajo Literature
Papago Literature
Yaqui Literature
Native American Literature: Other Sources


The Legend of
Skeleton Mountain

Refugio Savala

In the pleasant shade of a ramada, a boy who was almost a man reflected his face in the water in the olla as he dipped the gourd cup to drink.

It was in summer. A drowsy old man sat on a buckskin stool with his back resting against the wall of the carrizo that formed the jacal of his abode. The old man had just risen from the noon siesta. The adventurous boy asked his grandfather: "That mountain yonder is so beautiful and high why is it called Otom kawi, Skeleton Mountain?"

The old man sighed and replied: "In olden days a monstrous bird was invading our eight villages and a person was lost every evening. The victim was followed and always was found on top of that mountain. Piles of bones were found there and skulls of victims who were carried away by the great fowl.

"Now there was a young woman who was greatly loved by her parents. She was about to be a mother. As it was summer the young woman was sleeping outside the house, outside the jacals and the shelters. At midnight the bird swept low along the river course to where the young woman lay asleep. She was already in the bird's claws when she screamed. But it was too late to save her.

"The young woman's father followed the bird which had taken part of his soul. Other good men went with him also, taking weapons. It was far and high to the mountain top, but they reached it by morning. As usual, a new skeleton was found, and among the bones a child. He was alive. The child was taken into the village and was greatly loved by his grandparents.

"Years passed and the boy was old enough to know that he was an orphan. He studied with great interest the art of archery, which he soon brought to command. There was no other Yaqui to bow and arch so sure as this boy. When he had prepared his weapons, he called all the people in the village together. 'I ask permission to go into Otom kawi and slay the giant fowl.' But the council answered: 'Many are the good men who have tried to kill the bird. Always they have failed because it is a farsighted animal and vanishes into space when men seek its abiding place. But if you think to go, go. If you require help, it shall be given.' And the boy again spoke, 'I shall go.' Then the young man chose an arch of great power and three arrows of the most exquisite art, and everyone knew his skill as an archer. And so, many offered to accompany him. But he did not consent, saying, 'In three days you may follow me. Whether I fail or prevail will then be known.'

"Early the next morning the boy was ready to go. Thus he instructed his people: 'If I fail, you will see that beautiful carrizo grass in the patio of my house become deathly pale. If I die, so will the grass die. If I am sad, so it will become dry and withered.' Then he said farewell and the drum announced his departure.

"The abiding place of the winged monster was high in Otom kawi. Before midnight the boy stood just below, within an arrow's flight of the top of the mountain. On the west side of the mountain all night he remained wakeful and unsteady. When the first rays of morning showed in the east he was greatly surprised to see the enromous bird swinging round and round the top of Otom kawi making a noise like a huge wind, until it settled down to its nest on the mountain top. The boy cast one arrow into his bow and moved closer, making his first attempt, which missed. Never before in his life had an arrow of his gone wild. The creature did not even notice it. Another arrow was placed on the bowstring and sprung with force at the bird. This one also failed, though the bird made a movement as if preparing to' fly. The boy was disappointed when his aim again failed, and he recalled the warning voices of the older people. He had only one arrow left. If this failed, the bird would escape.

"In the village the carrizo grass began to wither. Quickly the people sent out a score of men to climb the mountain. The grass had only become dry, it had not withered away, and the men went forth against the boy's will. Traveling fast, they made themselves ready for any disaster that might come their way.

"With his last arrow the boy aimed at the bird with care. This time he did not miss. The arrow struck the great bird through its neck. With hoarse cries it tried to fly away. It rose into the air but could not sustain its flight. Down it dropped, striking the cliff, rolling over the slope of the mountain, scattering the trees of the forest, rolling down and down, the boy running wildly after it, a club in his hand. When the bird caught at last in a stump of a tree, the boy came upon it and killed it with the club. When he had done this he shouted and jumped about and sang. At this moment the men arrived. They were afraid to come near the vast animal until the boy assured them that it was dead.

"Meanwhile, in the village there was great rejoicing, for they had seen the carrizo grass become green and bright with life again. Everyone ran all the way up to the slopes of Otom kawi to see the bird which had taken so many innocent lives from the villages. Now they were no longer afraid. The boy was taken back into his village and was considered thereafter a great hero."

In this manner did the grandfather tell the story of that mountain which is called Otom kawi, Skeleton Mountain. The sun was low and the heat was not overwhelming. The boy who had listened intently went out into the field with a sharp hoe to work in the young corn.

As printed in Larry Evers, ed. The South Corner of Time. Tucson, Ariz.: The University of Arizona Press, ©1980, p. 224-227.
Go to the South Corner of Time homepage