The Great Race

When the Great Spirit created Earth and all living things, the people and animals lived in peace and neither people nor animals ate flesh.

But, over time, the buffalo began thinking they were the most powerful beings in the world. They started to think this gave them the right to eat animals and people.

Then the people didn’t believe this was fair, as humans and buffalo were created equal. But, if that were to change, humans wanted to be the most powerful.

The buffalo said, “We should hold a contest to see whether you eat us or we eat you. How about a race?”

The people didn’t think that was a fair idea. Surely two legs couldn’t compete with four legs.

The people said, “Suppose we let the birds race for us. They have wings, you have four legs. That makes it more even.”

The buffalo agreed to these terms.

But then, some of the other animals wanted a chance to see if they could be the most powerful, too, and joined the race. All living things went to a place at the edge of the Black Hills called Buffalo Gap. There, they lined up for the race.

The buffalo chose a young female buffalo named Running Slim Buffalo Woman as their contestant. She had never been beaten in a foot race and was fiercely quick.

The humans chose four birds to race for them: a hummingbird, a meadowlark, a hawk and a magpie.

It’s been said that animals had no color in the early days of the world. But, for the race they all decided to paint themselves.

The skunk painted a white stripe on its back. The black-tailed deer painted its tail black. The antelope took some reddish-brown earth, mixed it with water and painted its whole hide.

All creatures have looked the same since the day of the Great Race.

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.

For a while, Hummingbird flew along with her, but soon he fell back, exhausted. Meadowlark then took over.

Still, Running Slim led the great mass of racers. Her hooves thundered as she ran. Though they had already covered a great distance, Running Slim was not showing signs of being tired.

By the time Running Slim reached the halfway point, she and Meadowlark were far ahead of the field. As the pair reached the hill, the umpires of the race shouted for them to turn back and run to the starting point, where the race would end.

Meadowlark heard these directions and knew he could not complete the race. Hawk flew in strongly to take over.

Hawk was the fastest of the birds and he 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, making room for Running Slim to take the lead again.

Then, far behind, a small speck of black and white was making its way forward, flying hard. This was Magpie. Although a slow bird, it was strong-hearted.

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 they left a blood trail. It colored the earth beneath them, which has ever remained red along the trail where the race was run.

The finish line at Buffalo Gap came into sight. Running Slim herself was beginning to slow down, though it was hardly noticeable. She was sure she would win, and didn’t even notice the tiny Magpie.

The race continued. Buffalo Gap was closer now but Running Slim could feel 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. Tired, Running Slim gathered all her strength for the last spurt, thundering along with her heart close to bursting.

However, Magpie had come up even with her.

Both the buffalo and the people were cheering their racers on, cheering, yelling and stomping.

The two racers put the last of their strength into the race as they burst toward the finish line.

In the very small moments before Running Slim crossed the finish line, Magpie shot ahead. The people gave a great shout of happiness, and both racers fell to the ground, exhausted.

Thanks to Magpie's determination, the humans won, and the buffalo were defeated.

Due to its determination, people have respected the Magpie since the Great Race and have never hunted it. After the completion of the Great Race, humans became the most powerful.

Source: American Indian Myths and Legends; Edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz. New York: Pantheon, 1984