Long ago, in a small Lakota village, there lived a beautiful young woman. She was well mannered and gentle, and in her big black eyes there was always a hint of laughter. Her name was Tapun Sa Win (Red Cheek Woman).

When she grew to courting age, young men from far and near came to woo her. But she could not choose from among them.

Then one evening there came a young man, strangely radiant, who nobody knew. He had an aura about him and appeared to float over the ground like a rolling fog. When he took his turn with the other suitors to speak his words of subtle persuasion, Tapun Sa Win decided he was her man.

The people of the village were overjoyed that Tapun Sa Win and the charming stranger were to marry. But then he astounded them by revealing that he was from the Mahpiya Oyate (Cloud Nation) and lived far beyond the clouds. He humbly asked them to permit him to take Tapun Sa Win to his home, and they reluctantly agreed.

And so Tapun Sa Win and Starman married. Then the newly wed couple departed on their long journey to the sky world, leaving the Lakota village in sadness.

No sooner had they arrived in the sky world than Starman’s grandmother met them. She cast a stern eye upon her grandson’s young bride. Indeed she resented the intrusion. But she loved her grandson, and so, in a cold, methodical way, she began to teach his young bride the ways of the world above.

Soon it was springtime in this strange land so far from the earth. In the warmth of the spring air, fresh grass carpeted the rolling hills with a greenish hue. Flowers burst into bloom, and the birds sang merrily as they tended to their annual springtime chores. It was the joyous season, the waking-up time for all living things, and Tapun Sa Win felt the stirrings of new life within her. But alas, that knowledge and the warm sun sent twinges of nostalgia through her. To dispel the grip of sadness she wandered far away to the wooded hills, there to relive vivid memories of her happy childhood.

One day, after Starman had departed on another of his long, mysterious missions in the sky, his grandmother cautioned Tapun Sa Win to remember that the sky world was much different from the earth. Animals were more dangerous. Even growing plants and edible tubers could bring harm if not handled properly. But Tapun Sa Win only sulked, and again wandered far into the hills, carrying her digging bar.

She remembered the many times she had gone as a small child to gather berries, herbs and tubers with her mother. As she rambled aimlessly here and there, recalling pleasurable childhood incidents, she spied a plant which she remembered as tasting bitter but pleasant. Casting aside precaution, she reasoned it would do no harm to enjoy once again the tangy taste of the plant she had once so enjoyed.

As she plunged her digging bar into the ground to extract the root, there was an unfamiliar hollow sound. Forgetting the warnings of the old woman, she pried the ground up and Lo and behold!  There was a hole through the sky world and, looking through it, she could see her village far below on the earth.

The sight of her relatives filled her with loneliness and an insatiable desire to be with them.  So she braided together everything she could find to create a long rope that would stretch from the sky world to the earth. She tied it off, then holding onto it, shimmied through the hole and descended to its end. But it was still far above the earth. Bravely she clung to the rope. Exhausted, her grip eventually loosened and she fell to earth.

When Starman returned home and learned what had happened to his cherished wife, a sadness beyond control overwhelmed him. Despondent and sullen, he refused solace and sought a remote spot in the sky to grieve and mourn his loss in solitude. To this day, so legends say, Starman sits with bowed head, never moving. This star that forever remains in one place is known as Waziya Wicahpi (North Star), or sometimes Wicahpi Owanjila (The Star Always In One Place).

Miraculously, soon thereafter, a group of small boys were hunting. While imitating their elders by stalking game through brush and thicket, they stumbled upon a most peculiar scene. For an instant they stood paralyzed in their tracks, then ran away screaming. Before going too far, however, fright gave way to curiosity. They cautiously returned for a closer look.

A motionless woman, her beautiful face upturned, lay there as though in a deep sleep, while a tiny child busily nursed from her breast. Because the mother lay so unnaturally still, the boys picked up the baby boy, carefully wrapped him in calf-hide robes taken from their shoulders, and took him back to the village. Breathlessly they told how they had come upon the scene, and how the newborn child had been vigorously nursing. 

There was much curious speculation, but no explanation for this strange incident. Many mothers came forward to raise the baby, but the elders of the village decreed that the child should go to an elderly woman. She named him Wicahpi Hinhpaya (Fallen Star).

Now hunters brought fresh meat to the new mother and her adopted child, as custom decreed. The women in nearby lodges provided other nutritious foods. Everyone was solicitous for the welfare of the mysterious little boy.

The young boy grew strong, nursing on a calf’s bladder bag filled with nourishing, herb-flavored soups. He ate solids of pulverized meats in concentrated mixtures seasoned with herbs and wild fruits.

Wicahpi Hinhpaya was a most unusual child; he matured early into a sturdy, healthy boy. He played and hunted with the other children, but he seemed to know he was no ordinary boy and was destined for special duties. Soon after attaining manhood, he told his adopted mother that he must return to his father’s people in the sky, but that he would not forget his kinship responsibilities to his Lakota relatives. He told her that he would assist his relatives especially with medicines and in times of natural disasters.

Then one night, quietly and mysteriously, he left this earth, returning to the world of his father’s people. Ever since then, from somewhere near the Wanagi Tacanku (Spirit Road), known as the Milky Way, Wicahpi Hinhpaya watches over his Lakota relatives.

The Narrative

Based in part on LaPointe, James (1976). Excerpt from “Milky Way and Fallen Star” (pp. 29-34 in Legends of the Lakota). San Francisco: Indian Historian Press.

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