How Shunka Sapa Saved the World


Picture by Stacy Becker
I believe it was in my sophomore year of high school that we had to do some research into Native American mythology, and one story that particularly stuck with me was from Lakota lore. The tale involves a very old woman who lives in a cave with a big black dog. I haven’t come across any name for the woman, but the dog is called Shunka Sapa. The lady spends most of her time making a blanket strip for her buffalo robe, which involves crushing porcupine quills with her teeth and dyeing them, apparently a common means of handiwork back in the days before European conquest. She’s also making wojapi, a kind of berry soup, in a clay pot. The woman has been at both these tasks for a millennium or more, and while I’m sure making things out of porcupine quills is a tedious job, it usually doesn’t take that long. The thing is, when she hobbles over to the pot to stir the soup, the dog immediately rips apart the strip. The strange thing is that the dog is actually saving the world by doing this, because the world will end when the strip is completed. I wonder if my cat thinks she’s preserving the world by scratching the couch. Eh, probably not. There’s a definite similarity to some stories from Greek mythology, like the eagle eating Prometheus’ liver every day, or Sisyphus eternally pushing the boulder up the hill.

I’ve also seen it compared to Penelope and her tapestry, although she unraveled that herself. Come to think of it, though, she DID have a dog.

Picture by Dora Wheeler
I think there’s a definite metaphor here for the human condition in general. This page also mentions that there’s a reverence for nature shown in the fact that the woman never makes any attempt to stop the dog. Just think, it someone were to give him a chew toy, it might well cause the destruction of the planet. I have no idea how old this story is, but the version that’s common on the Internet makes a point of contrasting the modern world with the time before Europeans colonized America. The old woman’s clothes, work, food, and even cookware (a clay pot instead of an iron one) are all of the old-fashioned variety; and it’s said that even now no one has been able to find her cave. It’s apparently located between the prairie and the badlands, although there seems to be a variety where the woman lives on a mesa in Monument Valley.

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