V. Literature

VERBAL cleverness is common among the Crow and they play with words as such. There are "tongue-twisters" like our "She sells sea-shells by the seashore," -- phrases to be rattled off at top-speed without confusion of the proper sounds. Perhaps the best-known is: basakapupe′cdec akapupapa′'patdetk, "My people who went to the Nez Percé are not wearing Nez Percé belts." I once took the sentence down from my interpreter's dictation, carefully memorized it, and then fairly staggered an old Indian by quickly and correctly reciting it. True puns occur. I asked Yellow-brow what clan he belonged to. At once he answered in Crow: "As soon as you look at me, I am plainly revealed, you ought to know me. These lips of mine [pointing at them] are sore, I am a Sore-lip."

The attention to words as such attains incredible heights. One morning Yellow-brow prefaced his dictation with the remark that he wished to explain three words he often used in storytelling: One was "e"; sometimes it meant "yes"; sometimes an audience uttered it to encourage a narrator to proceed; finally, a speaker ejaculated it when he had forgotten something. The second word was "di′a": it could mean "Do it" as an imperative, but also -- after a stop -- "Go ahead." Finally, the expletive ha′t'ak' could best be illustrated by a query and answer. One man might ask, "When did you make that sweat-lodge?" The other would reply, "Ha′t'ak' (Why), I made it the day before yesterday."

That is to say, Yellow-brow considered speech not merely as a means of communication, but had begun to analyze its elements as to their meaning and use. No wonder my interpreter referred to him as "my dictionary." To be sure, not all men display the same interest in matters of diction; the extraordinary thing is that in one generation there are several people of this type, -- illiterates like Yellow-brow and No-horse -- recognized as masters of their mother tongue. About one of them I was told twenty-odd years ago that he would get up at a council and use


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The Crow Indians


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