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Unktehi and the Flood as told by Lame Deer

Images of monsters drawn onto a tipi
Images of a water monster on a Kiowa tipi.

Kiowa tipi model image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution ([E245045-0], Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution).

The Great Plains Indian tribes represent a rich and varied tapestry of unique customs, languages, and ideas. Each tribe is distinct, holding their own sets of beliefs and oral traditions. However, similar or parallel figures sometimes appear in the oral histories of multiple tribes. One such figure is that of a horned water monster or serpent.

Here, Lame Deer recounts the story of Unktehi, the Lakota water monster, and the deadly flood believed to have led to the creation of the sacred red pipestone.

“This story was told to me by a Santee grandmother.

“A long time ago, a really long time when the world was still freshly made, Unktehi the water monster fought the people and caused a great flood. Perhaps the Great Spirit, Wakan Tanka, was angry with us for some reason. Maybe he let Unktehi win out because he wanted to make a better kind of human being. Well, the waters got higher and higher. Finally everything was flooded except the hill next to the place where the sacred red pipestone quarry lies today. The people climbed up there to save themselves, but it was no use. The water swept over that hill. Waves tumbled the rocks and pinnacles, smashing them down on the people. Everyone was killed, and all the blood jelled, making one big pool. The blood turned to pipestone and created the pipestone quarry, the grave of those ancient ones. That's why the pipe, made of that red rock, is so sacred to us. Its red bowl is the flesh and blood of our ancestors, its stem is the backbone of those people long dead, the smoke rising from it is their breath. I tell you, that pipe, that chanunpa, comes alive when used in a ceremony; you can feel power flowing from it.

“Unktehi, the big water monster, was also turned to stone. Maybe Tunkshila, the Grandfather Spirit, punished her for making the flood. Her bones are in the Badlands now. Her back forms a long high ridge, and you can see her vertebrae sticking out in a great row of red and yellow rocks. I have seen them. It scared me when I was on that ridge, for I felt Unktehi. She was moving beneath me, wanting to topple me... It is I, Lame Deer, who said this."

Told by Lame Deer in Winner, South Dakota, in 1969.

The tradition goes on to describe how one beautiful girl survived the flood and was rescued by the great spotted eagle, Wanblee Galeshka. The two married and the girl soon gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, and as such they repopulated the earth and created the Lakota Oyate, an eagle nation.

Adapted from http://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/HowTheLakotaSiouxCameToBeBrule-Lakota.html

Last updated: September 2, 2020