When the Great Spirit created the earth and all living things upon it, the people and animals lived in peace. Neither people nor animals ate flesh.
Over time, the Buffalo began thinking they were the most powerful beings in the world. They came to believe this gave them the right to kill and eat other animals people as well.
Then the people said, “This isn’t fair; we humans and the Buffalo were created equal. But, if it happens that one or the other must be the most powerful, then it should be us!”
The Buffalo said, “Let’s get this settled. We should have a contest to see whether you eat us or we eat you. How about a race?”
The people said, “But in a race, you have an unfair advantage; two legs can’t compete with four. Suppose we let the birds race for us. They have wings. You have four legs, that makes it more even.”
The Buffalo said, “Agreed. We’ll choose our fastest runner, and you choose some birds to race for you.”
Then some of the other animals said, “We should have a chance to race, too.”
“That’s right; it’s only fair,” said the Buffalo and the people.
So, all living things went to a place at the edge of the Black Hills called Buffalo Gap. There they lined up for the race.
Contestants Are Chosen
The Buffalo chose Running Slim Buffalo Woman as their contestant. She was a young cow who was the fastest of all animals and had never been beaten in a footrace.
The human beings chose four birds to race for them: a hummingbird, a meadowlark, a hawk and a magpie.
Preparation for the Race
In those early days of the world, the birds and animals had no color.
But, for the race, they all painted themselves carefully, each creature according to its own medicine, its own vision.
For example, the skunk painted a white stripe on its back. The black-tailed deer painted its tail black. The antelope took some red-brown earth, mixed it with water, and painted its whole hide.
To this day, all creatures have looked the same since they painted themselves for this great race.
The Race Begins
The signal to race was given, and the crowd of runners started toward a hill, which was the halfway point.
Running Slim took off in a flash, with the Buffalo cheering her on.
Hummingbird flew along with her for a while, but soon he fell back exhausted, and Meadowlark took over.
Still, Running Slim kept far ahead, leading the great mass of racers with her thundering hooves. Though they had already covered a great distance, Running Slim was fresh.
By the time Running Slim reached the halfway point, she and the lark were far ahead of the field. At the hill, the umpires were shouting, “Now turn and race back to the starting point, to Buffalo Gap!”
The lark heard this and thought, “I can’t make it that far.” He dropped out of the race, but Hawk was coming on strongly.
Making It Halfway
Hawk, acknowledged to be the fastest of the birds, suddenly shot ahead of Running Slim. The people shouted for joy, but not for long.
Hawk’s endurance did not match his swiftness, and the sudden spurt exhausted him.
Again Running Slim came on, thundering ahead. With her deep chest, powerful legs and great lungs, it seemed that she could keep up the pace forever.
Then, far behind, a little black and white dot could be seen coming up, flying hard. This was Magpie, a slow bird but strong-hearted and persevering. The buffalo herd paid no attention to Magpie; they were cheering their runner while the people watched silently.
Some of the racers were running so hard that blood spurted from their mouths and nostrils. It colored the earth beneath them, which remained red along the trail where the race was run.
Nearing the Finish Line
At last, Buffalo Gap came into sight. Powerful and confident as she was, Running Slim herself was beginning to slow down, though it was hardly noticeable. Even though she was not aware of the tiny Magpie, she ran along feeling sure that she would win.
Then, very slowly, imperceptibly, Magpie began to gain on her.
Buffalo Gap was closer now, though still a good way off. Running Slim could felt herself tiring. The Buffalo were grunting and stomping, trying to encourage her. Magpie was still behind but coming along steadily.
Now Buffalo Gap was near. Running Slim Buffalo Woman was really tired, but she gathered all her strength for the last spurt, thundering along with her heart close to bursting. By then, however, Magpie had come up even with her.
Both the Buffalo and the people were cheering their racers on, calling out to them, yelling and stomping.
The two racers were speeding up, putting the very last of their strength into their contest. They neared the sticks, painted red, planted in the earth, which marked the finish line.
It was not until they were a hand-breadth away from those sticks, at the last moment, that Magpie finally shot ahead.
The people gave a great shout of happiness, and both racers fell exhausted.
Thanks to Magpie’s determination, the humans won, and the Buffalo were defeated.
Since the great race, the people have respected the Magpie, never hunting it or eating it.
After the race, the people became more powerful than the Buffalo and all the other animals, and from that time on, people have hunted the Buffalo for their food.
Available in our store: The Great Race
American Indian Myths and Legends; Edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz. New York: Pantheon, 1984, page 390-392