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How The Humans Got Fire: An Inupiaq story

Written by Heather Penn

Borrowed from the book Another Culture Another World

By Father Michael Oleksa


ON a river lived a man, his wife and their only son. When he was a very young child his mother made him two little dolls, a man and a woman, and there were his only toys. He would often pretend that they were alive and together they held ceremonies and dances, as the boy used his imagination to entertain himself in their house, far from other people and other playmates.


Further upstream there was village the son visited to listen to stories. There he learned of the man who owned fire. The world was still a warm place, but it was getting colder every year. People, mostly hunters, went further and further up the river to find the man with fire, but they never returned. The boy wondered where they went, what happened to them and why they never came back.


The boy had an uncle in this village, and many cousins. Maybe it was this uncle who gave the boy a magic charm he always wore around his neck. The boy visited his uncle’s house for weeks at a time, always asking about the Man who has Fire, but no one had any further information. They explained that since no one had ever come back from there, they knew nothing about the man, where exactly he lived or how he kept fire. The boy began asking elders in the village what they knew about the Man with Fire, but they all answered the same way, pleading ignorance. Finally, the son went to visit the oldest man in the village. The ancient man told him that the Man with Fire lived an incredibly long distance away., near a place where huge boulders formed a chain across the river. The wise elder expressed his opinion that those who left to find the Man with Fire never got to his house because it was such a long and difficult journey.


That autumn, the son decided he would depart his home and begin the long trek to the Man with Fire’s house. He was prepared to spend years, if necessary, to find this place and bring fire back to the People. He took with him his dolls, and the magical charm, the amulet he wore around his neck that would permit him to change shape if he needed to.


He walked all fall and all winter, stopping only when he had to find food, or when he needed to rest, but never for very long. He walked all spring and all summer and into the next autumn. By the end of the second year he knew he was getting close to the place the old man had described., but it was still beyond the horizon. At the end of the third year, he arrived at the river and walked down to the beach.


According to the way the man had described the place, the house in which the Man with Fire lived should be on the other side. Leaping from one huge rock to the other with great effort he managed to cross the river. The hill leading up from the riverbank was covered with old and broken weapons – evidence that many others had arrived at this shore and had been defeated or killed here by the Man with Fire. As he reached the top of the first hill, he saw how the land fell downward, then rose again. On the second hill stood the house of the Man with Fire.


Just then the Man with Fire came out of his house and looked directly toward the son. The boy dropped to the ground and hid behind a large bump of tundra. The terrain was covered with little pillow earth, soft and pliable, blanketed in moss, grass and berries. The boy reasoned, “I’ll be too easily spotted if I remain in the form of a boy,” so he used the amulet around his neck to turn himself into a ground squirrel.


In the shape of a squirrel, the boy approached the house carefully, quietly, stealthily. But progress was slow. He raised his head above the tundra to investigate and immediately the Man with Fire came out and looked around again. Seeing nothing, he went back in, while the Squirrel Boy continued his slow advance. Again, and again overwhelmed by suspicion, the man would suddenly rush out of the house to take a look, but again and again saw nothing.


The Squirrel Boy realized that even as a small animal, he could be easily spotted and killed, so he decided to change his form again. Using his amulet, he changed himself in a feather, a tiny piece of duck down. Now, however, he was at the mercy of the wind, and the breeze was not blowing constantly or very strongly at this time. At last, the wind lifted him into the air, but he floated high above the river, the tundra and the house, his destination. The wind blew him in every direction. Finally, after some time, he landed directly in front of the house.


The Man with Fire never heard him arrive and did not come out to investigate because the boy as a feather was so light and so small. Using his magic once more, the boy returned to human form, but still the man with Fire did not come out.


Great! thought the boy. He sneaked up to the window and even dared to open it. Still the Man with Fire did not hear him and did not react. The boy saw the man sitting in the house, facing the entrance, with a lamp filled with fire on his lap.


“Now I need to distract him,” thought the boy. “I will remain very quiet, but I will use those two old dolls my mother gave as decoys.” The boy put the dolls on the windowsill and they began dancing, but without anyu need for the boy to hel them. They danced by themselves, like puppets without strings. Surprised, the Man with Fire looked up, and laughed. “Go ahead and dance! Dance all you want! Leap and dance and have a great time.!”


Knowing that the Man with Fire was enjoying the dancing dolls the boy went right into the house. He grabbed the lamp from the man’s lap and ran out the door before the Man with Fire had a chance to realize what had happened. The boy raced down the first hill and up the second, with the Man chasing him and yelling, “If I catch you, I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you like I killed all those others!”


The boy got to the rocks and began leaping from one to the other, crossing the river as fast as he could, still carrying the lamp and balancing it carefully. At the shore, the Man stopped and called him, “All right! I can’t jump over these rocks. You can keep the fire. But you cannot keep it for yourself. You must share it with all the People!”


The son began his journey homeward and, after three more years, arrived safely. It was autumn and the People needed fire now more than ever. Each year the weather had been getting colder and they could not have lived many more years without the light and heat that the fire brought into their lives.


The boy was not a boy anymore, but a young man. He had been gone for six years. He entered the village and gave fire to his uncle. Then he went home and, brought fire to his parents and lived their rest of his days. That is how human beings got fire.


About the author

Heather Penn

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