Far back in the first sunrise of time (so say the legends), all the animals of the earth gathered here in the Black Hills for a big race. Here is how it happened and why it happened. At one time there were no Black Hills as we see them now. Only a vast prairie land existed, and upon it there roamed huge animals. There were flying vultures that preyed on the land animals. There were insects as big as eagles, with long sharp stingers that paralyzed and killed. The words Unkche Ghila in Lakota describe certain huge animals who once were numerous here, but are now extinct. These animals, oddly shaped and huge in size, roamed the land in great numbers. Then for some unknown reason, they disappeared.

The words Wichasha Akantu designate Man, as distinguished from the animal and spirit world. This distinction – Man, Animal, Spirit, was needed because in that world of long ago man conversed freely with the animals and the spirits. In the midst of a world filled with predatory animals, in which man killed animals for food, and animals killed man, the idea came to man that there must be a way to bring order to such a chaotic world. He pondered long and deeply upon the matter. Then one day he sent out a call to all the animals of the world to meet with him. A powwow was held. It was a memorable event because, in order to bring peace and order to the world, it was agreed that a race of immense magnitude was to be the solution. The race was to decide many things. It would result in sorting and separating the animals into their proper species by the smell of their bodies. It was to be a grand, epic feat of the ages.

Thus, to all tatuya tona, (wind flows or directions), messengers were sent, in order to announce the great event. These messengers were chosen from among the swiftest birds, and from among animals that could run like the flight of a strong arrow. Meantime, other animals were detailed to find suitable ground for a circular race track, and lay out a course wide enough and long enough so that the many animals who were expected could take part in the race. There were strict rules established, to insure a fair and orderly event. Every animal would have a chance, whether small or clumsy, weak or strong. Death was to be the penalty for any infraction of the rules in this race of the ages.

Since all sorts of animals appeared from every corner of the earth to take part in the race, heralders, in a common language, kept the newcomers informed of the rules. One rule established that once the race began, there was to be no stopping. All the racers must keep running, while the sun rose and set, one hundred times around the course. There were many guideposts, and the racers must run on the outer side of the markers. Stopping for food or water was at the runner’s own peril. When the sun had risen and set for the one hundredth time, the judges would choose the winners.

As the day drew near for the big race, the land was covered with a seething mass of animals. There was great excitement, the racers all eager and impatient to be off and away. All were determined to be winners.

And then the fateful day arrived. A voice, unearthly and vibrant as thunder, shouted: "Hokane!" Your fate is at hand! The race was on. Instantly a mass of animals was on the move. The earth trembled under the impact of the stomping hooves. The race of the ages had begun; it was a test of endurance and sheer stamina.

Before the sun had set that first day, there were already groans of agony. The squeals and wailing of the weaker animals filled the air. They were trampled and crushed under the heavy hooves of the giant animals. The damp earth lost its moisture under the constant beating of hooves. Pulverized dust rose skyward, choking and obliterating the flying hordes of birds above, as they circled with the animal racers down below. High above, a bird would screech and then fall to the ground, a victim of weariness, or of some accident in the air.

After many days, the string of racers stretched into a continuous ribbon of animal flesh, the faster animals overtaking the slower runners. Now, like a giant wheel in motion, the racers fell into a wild, rhythmic stomping, like a massive dance as they raced round and round in the course. The earth shook. The air above vibrated. Animals brayed hysterically, crazed from hunger and fatigue. The din and stench was nauseating. But the race sped on like a giant serpent chasing its tail.

As the endless stream of racing animals moved madly on, lo and behold! The path of the racers sank crazily under their combined weight. Within the circle of racing animals a bulge appeared, strangely rising out of the ground. At first it was only a small mound. But suddenly, the earth quivered and groaned like a huge animal in pain. The mound rose faster and faster, and higher and higher. Then, with a thunderous roar, it burst open. Flames and dense smoke rose skyward, carrying fire and debris. Rock and ashes pelted the racers.

The animal racers lay dead in their tracks, covered with smoldering ashes and lava. The epic race of the ages ended in a Wakipa (a curse inflicted by the Great Spirit). So say the Lakota legends.

After the air had cleared and there was calm once more, within the rim of the circle of dead animals there was seen a pile of broken rocks standing majestically high in the air. The Lakota say this was how the Black Hills came to be. They called the mass of broken rocks Paha Sapa, or Black Hills.

Since the fabulous race of the ages was visited by a great holocaust, an act of displeasure by the gods, the winners were never fully determined. But legends say the lowly magpie was ahead of all the flying birds. And the Unkche Ghila, a huge animal whom no human being in modern times has ever seen alive, was leading the ground animals.

The Lakota say, that even to this day the remains of this ancient race track are still plainly visible, and there are many large bones still lying around along the historic track. The huge bones of the Unkche Ghila, which, once upon a time, roamed these prairie lands, can be found in the badlands to the east and south of the Black Hills.

There is a ledge-like row of hills surrounding the Black Hills proper. Within this row of hills, there is a depression or indentation which also encircles the Hills. The Lakota explain this is what remains of the racetrack upon which that fabulous race was run. But scientists explain these strange formations in a more practical way. They are faults, or breaks in the crust of the earth, either shifting upward or dropping downward.

However that may be, the Teller of Tales says, “This is what happened in the long ago. This is the Lakota legend.”

LaPointe, James (1976). Excerpt from “Man and the Black Hills” (pp. 17-20 in Legends of the Lakota). San Francisco: Indian Historian Press.

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The Narrative