Posted tagged ‘butterfly legend’

Story of the Butterfly

November 9, 2010

Long and long ago, when the world was still new, the Creator watched children playing.  He watched their sheer joy, and enjoyed their laughter.   In the four directions he looked, he saw beauty—before him, behind, him, above him, and below him.  He smelled the sweetness of flowers, heard the song of birds, saw the bright blue of the sky, and tasted the first touch of the coming cold on his tongue.  This reminded him that time was passing…that winter would come again…that these children would all grow old and pass away as he had watched human children do over and over again.  The leaves would turn brown and fall from the trees, and the flowers would fade to replenish the Earth. 

 He decided to create something to memorize this moment, something that would be a part of all this beauty.  And so he gathered the blackness from the hair of the children’s parents.  He took the orange and reds of the falling leaves.  He grabbed bits of sunlight, and the colors of the flowers.  He took the evergreen needles of the pines.  He took the soft whiteness of the clouds, and added all these things into a bag of buckskin. He smiled and after a moment, added the songs of the birds to his bag.

 When he finished, he held the bag close to his heart, and called the children to him. He handed them his bag and told them to see what was inside.  When they opened the bag, a cloud of butterflies emerged.  They were like winged jewels.  They were all the colors of the rainbow.  It was as if flowers were flying. The spirits of the children and the adults soared like hawks, for they had never seen anything like this before.  The butterflies, light as a lizard’s lick, touched on the heads and shoulders of their grateful audience.  The butterflies swirled around and began to sing.

 But then a bird flew to the Creator’s shoulder and began to complain.  “Why have you given our precious songs to these small and pretty beings?  You have already made them wings more beautiful than ours—why give them our songs as well?  You promised us that each bird would have his or her own song.  It is not right to do what you have done.”

 The Creator looked at the small bird and nodded.  “You are right.  I promised one song for each bird, and it is not right to give them away to others.”  So the Creator made the butterflies silent, and thus they remain today.  But their beauty touches all people and opens up the songs in our own hearts.

 Further south, it is said the world is a reflection of itself…the world of dreams and the world of work.  It is taught these two worlds are like the wings of the butterfly.  The dream world is one wing, and the working world is the other.  The wings must connect at the heart for the butterfly to fly and live.  Real life – true life—happens because of the movement of the wings.  And this is what marriage is like.  It mirrors the butterfly’s heart, kept alive by the love of the husband and wife, moving together like twin wings.

A traditional Tohono O’odham story (with a Mayan coda)      

 retold by CoyoteCooks

I was asked by a friend for help in finding an appropriate story for her to tell at a friend’s upcoming wedding.  I requested more details about  those involved,  and was told this was a couple in their 50’s, and it was neither’s first wedding.  I suggested the butterfly story, for a number of reasons.  First, I wanted a story that wasn’t overly long, since the focus should be on the ceremony and celebration rather than on a performance.  I wanted a story that acknowledged a couple who are able to appreciate their experience of marrying again in a way a couple in their early 20s who have never been married can’t fully imagine.  That’s why I emphasized in the story how the Creator both celebrated the moment of joy, but also had sadness that this was the Autumn of life, rather than the Spring.

Here’s part of the e-mail I sent to her: .

I thought this might be appropriate for your needs.  I decided to do a retelling of a traditional Tohono O’odham legend.  These are the people who are Native to the general Phoenix area, so it will let you bring a gift from where you have been.  I then finished with a teaching from Native people further south—the Mayan.

 In similar situations, after I would tell a story of this nature, I would then end by giving a small butterfly image as a gift to the new couple.  I would probably then add the suggestion:  “And in the weeks to come, you will see an image of a butterfly.  Perhaps you will be at work, or perhaps you will be with the one you love.  You will see a butterfly and you will smile, remembering this precious day.”

 She responded that she felt the story was “perfect for this couple,” and that she would let me know how the event went.

 I answered,

One of the advantages of being from the southwest is the abundance of Zuni “fetish” carvings of various animals one can find at various shops.  I notice that for butterfly “fetishes” the artists often use mother of pearl or abalone shells as their media, which I suspect, is to capture the iridescence of their models 🙂  Since these small carvings usually range from $10.00-35.00, I’ve given away quite a few during presentations.  My favorite happened when I was asked to keynote the International Academy of Sex Research when its conference was held in Seattle.  The President elect was the clinical director where I was working.  She said, “I’ve never heard you talk about sex, but you say so many interesting things in the staff meetings, I’m sure you talk about sex as well.”

 I went home to the reservation and asked my mom, “What should I tell a lot of white people from around the world about sex?”

 She said–“Go talk to your Uncle Rooster.”

 So I did–and he said, “Tell them about Coyote’s Growing Medicine.”

 And so I did, and at the end of the story, I presented a small Coyote Zuni fetish to the new president.  She later told me it’s become a tradition that when the new president takes office, he or she is presented with the coyote fetish 🙂

I wanted to pair a recipe that would go well with the Butterfly legend, and thought something light and sweet might do it.  This is Brett’s Blueberry Special:     Take a cup of fresh blueberries (or thawed) and add to a cup of diced fresh  heirloom tomatoes.  Tear fresh basil into small bits to release their fragrance and add to the tomatoes and berries.  I’ve been carefully tending my “plantation” of basil plants  that I’ve mentioned before on my patio.  Now drizzle a couple of teaspoons of honey and squeeze the juice of one fresh lime onto the ingredients.    Toss and enjoy.

OH–UPDATE:  I was happy to find this in my e-mail this morning–

Many, many thanks for sharing your version of the story of butterfly.  I told this (with appropriate recognitions) at M’s wedding last Friday.  It was the perfect story for that perfect day.  M and T and their family and friends loved it – it was especially significant to M (which was my intent).  I followed your advice and gave them a butterfly fetish (Zuni) at the end of the story – the perfect touch!
Thank you for being such a wonderful storytelling friend. 


Origin of the Butterfly

April 6, 2010

Long and long ago, there were two caterpillar people who loved each other very much, but as with all living things,  one of them died. The caterpillar woman mourned the loss of her husband. She didn’t want to talk to anyone, didn’t want to be around anyone. She wrapped her sorrow around her like it was a shawl and began walking. All the time she was walking, she was crying. For twelve moons (one year) she walked, and because the world is a circle, she returned to where she had started. The Creator took pity on her and told her, “You’ve suffered too long. Now’s the time to step into a new world of color — a new world of beauty.” The Creator clapped hands twice, and she burst forth as the butterfly. Just so, for many Native people, the butterfly is the symbol for everlasting life and renewal.

A traditional Sahaptin story retold by Coyote Cooks

Just as life repeats art, this legend sets a pattern the Sahaptin people use in accepting the loss of a loved one.

By the way, writing about the Butterfly legend was actually the first “official” (i.e., academic) publication I ever did, through the University of Manitoba Medical Journal.  My mentor, Carolyn Atteneave, recommended me to take over her obligation to submit an article.  Since then, I’ve tried to support her effort by asking others to work with me in publishing something professionally for periodicals, or textbooks.

 When a family member dies, a Palaxsiks is held.  The mourning ceremony of the Palaxsiks follows the “map” of this legend.   After the body has been buried, the surviving spouse, usually within a week of the burial, will be stripped of his/her regular clothing behind a blanket screen. Relatives from one side of the family have brought new clothes of dark colors that are used to dress the widow/widower. This indicates the cocoon stage. The hair is cut. But since hair continues to grow, and at one point, will return to its original length, this represents the psychological and spiritual healing that is taking place internally. Incidentally, the cut hair and the dark clothing also serve to mark an individual in the mourning process, so community members can acknowledge this and act accordingly. However, when a non-Native client begins therapy, a provider will have no way of knowing if the client is experiencing bereavement until a history is taken, and even then it may not come up immediately.

At the end of one year, there is a closure ceremony where the family members who received the clothes during the first ceremony bring new clothes of bright colors to dress the widow/widower. The bright colors represent the wings of the butterfly and also signify that the time of bereavement is over, and the individual is freed of the restrictions of the previous year.  For example, when in mourning, an individual is not permitted to take part in social dancing.  After the end of the year’s observance, the headstone for the dead is usually placed.

Community members are exposed to the story throughout the year.  Like many tribal nations, Sahaptin reservations will have dances that are considered “theirs” apart from the conventional “powwow” style competitive dancing that is acknowledged as “outside” and brought back during World War II where they were shared by Native soldiers from Oklahoma.  Just so, one such traditional dance is the “wilik wilik waashasha,” or Butterfly Dance.  It is performed by adolescent females who line up single file.  They pull their colorful fringed shawls over and begin to cry out loud as they walk in a circle. Again, this represents the cocoon.  The head drummer carefully watches, and when the lead dancer completes a circle, he or she will strike the drum twice.  This is signal for the dancers to spread their shawls across their shoulders.  They then begin a skipping dance as the song’s rhythm changes from its mournful march to a bright pattern.  The legend is normally told as part of the performance.  Just so, community members grow up hearing the legend told repeatedly, even when there are no deaths to be observed.  As a result, the knowledge of how to properly mourn is passed on so when a family must deal with death, the members know how to do so.

After the Palaxsiks is performed, a feast is provided to those who attend.  Over the years (in my experience) as more and more Latinos have come into the pacific northwest as migrant workers and intermarried with Native people, it’s now common for tamales to be served, along with more traditional foods, such as salmon or deer meat.

Cooking for someone you love is, from a Native American experience, a sacred process. I believe I mentioned in an earlier post, the closest to “home style” canned salmon I’ve found is at WholeFoods—Copper River Salmon.  I’ve also used leftover salmon I’ve baked, but the slightly smoky flavor really compliments alfredo sauce.  In full disclosure, I should point out I’ve never been served smoked salmon alfredo on the reservation, even at the luxury resort.  Here’s a quick and easy recipe.  Take about 8 ounces of fettuccine pasta that you place in boiling water for about 12 minutes or so, checking to see if it’s al dente, and then drain it.  In a sauce pan, plops a stick of butter along with a couple of chopped garlic cloves, browning the garlic to fully release its flavor.  Blend in a cup of heavy cream, along with a few sprinkles of black pepper.  Mix in a tablespoon of flour to help thicken the sauce and then gradually add a cup of grated Parmesan.  Crumble 8 ounces of salmon, along with a couple of spoonfuls of capers.  If you like, you can also toss in a cup of fresh spinach.  I always keep fresh basil in my garden to add another level of flavor.   Stir it all together for 3-5 minutes, until everything is fully heated and toss with the pasta.  We also enjoy an artisan crusty bread with a splash of balsamic vinegar and olive oil as a side…it’s great to dip into the sauce.