Of all the folk legends handed down by Native Americans, surely there are none so rich or so varied — or so utterly pointless — as those of the Ooh La Las.
The Ooh La La Indians were quite similar to their distant cousins the Oglala Sioux, in that both were nomadic societies of hunter-warriors with strong shamanistic beliefs. The Ooh La Las, however, were known to cheat at cards, to file fraudulent tax returns, and to wear socks that clashed terribly with their slacks. Often they fished in sacred lakes without buying permits, and in one surprise war raid several hundred were caught driving with expired licenses.
All this led to the Oglala-Ooh La La War of 1481, in which the Ooh La La’s territory was reduced from an area the size of Wyoming to several square inches on the side of a crumbling mesa in Death Valley. For years afterward the surviving Ooh La Las — all 28 of them — lived there in a state of peace and plenty broken only by starvation and murderous assaults upon their neighbors and one another. Then the white man discovered valuable deposits of sandstone on their land, and their complex culture came to an all-too-timely end.
Fortunately for anthropology teachers, many of their countless “gokiblu” (dirty stories) have survived, transmitted orally or sometimes by a virus. These rambunctious tales were not meant to instruct or even to entertain, but rather to “jibbegawah” (torment) the listener, much like the television programming of today. Judging from the examples below, they must have been eminently successful.
The Great Spirit
Most Ooh La Las professed to believe in a Great Spirit, the First Cause and Prime Mover of all things, an entity they referred to out of respect as “Mel.” Mel was omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient — which made it awfully difficult to plan a surprise party for him. It was common practice to leave food offerings for Mel; say, a dish of salted nuts, or some crackers and onion dip. In times of trouble a 15 percent gratuity would be added. Mel was said to be the son of Ruth and Irving, but Ruth could never prove it in court.
How the Snake Lost His Legs
This was a favorite tale among the Ooh La Las, along with the one about the three Irishmen. Often when sitting around a crackling fire one of them would begin this story, and then the others would wordlessly toss him into the flames.
It seems there was a hapless hunter called Limping Worm who would neither hunt nor fish and spent most of his time trying to catch horseflies in his hands. One day he was visited by Weasel With the Face of a Former President, who was a very wicked but cunning forest creature.
“Listen, oh foolish one,” said Weasel. “If you stand near the edge of the woods at midnight, you will receive an omen that will assure you of good hunting forever.”
“How do I know you’re not lying?” asked Limping Worm as he absent-mindedly popped a horsefly into his mouth.
“I am lying, you twit.”
“Oh. Well, as long as you’re honest about it…”
That night Limping Worm crept to the outskirts of the forest and waited. Slowly the moon set and night deeped around him. He was about to leave when three men in dark medicine masks blocked his way.
“Are you the witless one called Limping Worm?” the biggest of them inquired.
“Why, yes, I am,” he began. “But what –”
Before he could finish they beat and kicked him, stole his popcorn necklace and left him to die. A few minutes later he was eaten by a nearsighted bear with a very poor sense of smell.
And ever since that day, the snake has had no legs.
One of the oldest Ooh La La legends (stop me if you’ve heard it) concerns a warrior’s quest for his Power Vision, a way of peering into the spirit world without drugs or corrective lenses. The young tribesman sat alone on a hilltop in the wilderness, naked, with no food but a bag of hard candy. He fasted and prayed and chanted Mel’s name to no avail. At last he reached into a buffalo-skin pouch and produced a spider as large as his own hand. Placing the dark wriggling form on his face, he let out a scream that shook the saguaro cactuses and echoed in the hidden ravines of the desert. Suddenly he heard a high-pitched whine just overhead, and then a deep, booming voice:
“Look, it’s after hours; I’m on straight salary, no overtime. Can it wait until Monday?”
“Oh mighty Mel, give me a vision, that I may know on what path to place my moccasins.”
There was a whirring sound in the young man’s ears, and then a resounding crack as of an oak tree split in two by lightning. Something struck him on the back of the head, and he fell unconscious to the ground. In his fitful sleep he found himself lost in a nightmare world.
He saw great leafless treetrunks coughing a black mist into the air; he saw pale-fleshed strangers in their clinging garments with little alligators embroidered on their chests; he saw some of them hitting their women and torturing their animals; he saw them emerge as one from the hideous square burial mounds where their children sat bewitched by the shifting gray lights from the Box of the Dead Spirits; he saw them willingly swallowed by the Shiny Buffalo That Run Without Hooves, and watched in horror as the growling beasts collided aimlessly and stampeded toward the Village That Eats Its Young, a place of filth and smoke filled with the howls of the dead and the dying.
There the Shiny Buffalo spit up their sickly cargo, and the pale strangers entered the burial towers of their ancestors, which reached into the heavens and must have been crowded with corpses, or so the young warrior thought.
He awoke in a cold sweat and gingerly felt the lump at the base of his skull.
“Oh Mel,” he cried, “what means this evil dream?”
But for once the Great Spirit was silent, and the only sound was of a mournful wind sweeping across the prairie.