Times Past, Pausing to Remember


The Lenni Lenape people, "tribe" in modern vernacular, had many stories that were told and retold, handed down from one generation to the next for centuries. As must be true with any oral tradition, these tales changed over time and, eventually, most were lost. Some legends survived to our day, and the tale of "Rainbow Crow" is one of them. It can be found in various sources, each version being slightly different.

I have put "Rainbow Crow" into my own words, as I understand its meaning and significance. I hope it is faithful to the original tradition.

Long, long ago, before there were human beings, the animals gathered together to discuss changes in their world and what their actions should be. Whereas it had always been warm, it suddenly turned cold. Whereas the landscape had always been green, it now was beginning to turn white with snow.

The snow kept falling, and falling, and falling. Soon, the little animals began to be covered by snow and disappear. Then the same began to happen to the next largest animals. And the snow kept falling.

The animals tried to decide which of their number should be sent as a messenger to Kishelamakank, the Creator, to ask him to stop making the snow. The owl was the wisest, but he could be blinded by the light of day and get lost. Coyote was clever, but he was known to love tricks and could not be trusted to keep his serious mission. Each animal was considered in turn, but none seemed right.

Then, just as the animals were feeling desperate and afraid, Manaka'has, the Rainbow Crow flew among them, his array of beautifully colored feathers brightening up the ever-whitening forest. Rainbow Crow, in his voice that was the most melodious of all the birds, said, "I will go, I will go!"

And so it was.

Rainbow Crow flew up into the sky, above the forest, above the clouds, above the moon and the stars. For three days he flew until he arrived at the home of the Creator. At first, the Creator was too busy to notice Rainbow Crow, until the messenger began to sing. Never before had such a sweet voice been heard or such a beautiful song. The Creator told Rainbow Crow that in exchange for the gift of music, he would give the emissary a gift in return. "Tell me what you would choose to have."

Rainbow Crow asked the Creator to stop the snow so that the animals would not be smothered and die in the cold.

"No, Manaka'has, I cannot stop the snow and the cold. They have spirits of their own. But I can give you the gift of fire. Fire will keep you warm through the cold seasons." Saying this, the Creator found a stick and set it on fire from the heat of the sun. He gave it to Manaka'has, saying, "I can give you this gift only once. You must hurry; fly back to the Earth before the fire goes out!"

Rainbow Crow flew for three days back to earth. As he flew, the stick of fire grew shorter and shorter. The first day, sparks singed his tail feathers, turning them black. On the second day, the fire blackened all of his feathers with soot. On the third day, the smoke from the fire filled Rainbow Crow's throat, making his voice hoarse and cracked. His once beautiful voice now could do nothing but croak, "Caw, caw!"

Rainbow Crow delivered fire to earth. He had lost his colors and his beautiful voice. For a while, he felt sad, but the Creator, seeing his distress, told him, "In exchange for your colors and your beautiful song, I will give you the gift of freedom. Soon, mankind will appear upon the earth and will be masters of all - all but you. You will be no good to man as food, for your flesh tastes like smoke. You will not be captured and caged to sing for him, for your voice is hoarse and unpleasant. And you will not be valued for your feathers, for they are black and without beauty."

Kishelamakank told Rainbow Crow one more thing. "Look closely at your black feathers. They shine and tiny rainbows are reflected in every one."

And so it was.