In the early days there were no Barren Lands. Trees covered the north from Rocky Mountains across the Inuit lands on Hudson Bay. In those days a great medicine man lived near Tòndeè, our Great Slave Lake. One day he went hunting for toji ekwò, the woodland caribou, and he left his young wife behind, alone in the camp. The young wife knelt in the doorway of their shelter. She was embroidering a new shirt for her husband with a porcupine quill design. A leather tassel dangled from a thong around her neck brushing away flies as she worked.
Suddenly a shadow fell across the shirt over her lap. With a slight shiver the young wife looked up to see a young hunter standing before her with a bow in his hand. Before she even saw his eyes she noticed the man's hide shirt, poorly sewn, no quill embroidery, no fringes, and she thought, "This man has no wife to sew for him." Without meeting his eyes she looked down at her work again, proud of the neat design she was creating on her medicine man's shirt. The young hunter didn't speak at first. He just stood still, keeping his shadow on the shirt on her lap. He watched the young wife try to continue her work. Droplets of sweat formed on the tip of her nose. Her hand slipped and a quill pricked her finger. He glimpsed the drop of blood before she sucked it away. The young wife was beautiful and he wanted to wear the shirt in her lap.
"I am a good hunter," he said. "I need a good wife. Come away with me." The wife shivered when she heard these words, shivered and furtively glanced around the camp for the medicine man. In the same glance she saw the young hunter's smoothly eyes. Again she saw the hide shirt with no embroidery. "A long-toothed cats has left tracks on the other side of the river," the young hunter said. "Your husband has left you all alone. You have no one to protect you. What if the long-tooth visits you in the night?" He crouched down before her and wiped a droplet of sweat from her nose. "I need a good wife. Come away with me. I can keep you from harm."
The young wife shivered at the thought of a long-toothed cat. She shivered as she thought of her husband. She pricked her finger with another quill as she thought of the hunter's unembroidered shirt. The young hunter remained crouched before her, his fingers exploring her face. Her eyes stayed fixed on her husband's shirt. Finally the young wife said, "I'm scared to go away with you because my husband is a great medicine man. There is no way to hide from him." The young hunter took the medicine man's embroidered shirt from the wife's lap, stood up and threw it over his shoulder. He turned and started to walk away. The young wife scrambled to her feet. "I'm scared to go," she said. "But I'll go with you anyway."
So the young hunter and the medicine man's young wife set off into the bush together, heading east to where the Barren Lands are now. Near nightfall the hunter led the runaway wife to a cave where they made camp for the night. "We are safe here," the hunter said as they lay down on a bed of spruce boughs in the cave. "The bush is too big. Your husband will never find us." The runaway wife shivered a little but the hunter's warm arms under the medicine man's embroidered shirt made her believe him and soon they were fast asleep.
Out in the bush the medicine man had a good hunt. He killed two caribou close together. With his stone knife he butchered the animals and filled his backpack with hearts, tongues, livers, and kidneys to take home to his wife. Then he piled rocks on the carcasses to protect them from wolves until he could return with his wife to haul the meat back to camp. About halfway back to camp the medicine man heard voices in the distance. He called out, but there was no reply, so he thought perhaps a raven had cawed. Then he quickened his step as he thought of his wife heating stones in the fire, preparing the cooking pot for his meat.
But when he got to the camp the fire was out. At first he thought his wife had just gone to pick berries. Then he thought she had gone to the river to get water. He set his meat down beside the fire pit and waited for his wife to return. But she did not come back. The medicine man ran to the river but his wife was not there. He ran to the ravine where the berries were thick but she was not there either. He began to get worried. Back at his camp he studied the ground. He noticed two sets of moccasin prints on the ground, one small like his wife's feet, the other large like a man's.
Now the medicine man was angry. He chased the tracks into the bush, but soon lost the trail in the thick undergrowth. He got angrier and angrier chasing around in circles trying to find the trail again. He tried to remember where he had heard the voices when he was coming home and he headed in that direction but he couldn't find his runaway wife and her man. The bush was just too thick.
The medicine man's anger heated up. "I'll find them even if I have to burn the bush down," he said. He pulled out his flint stone and in no time at all he had a fire roaring through the dry leaves in the undergrowth. In no time at all the flames had raced up the tree trunks to leap from crown to crown. With the help of the west wind the flames spread like wildfire across the land from Snare Lake to Hudson Bay. Suddenly, the runaway couple woke up coughing. The cave was filled with smoke. "He's found us," the wife screamed, afraid of what she had done. "He's going to kill us." The young hunter crawled out of the cave. He saw the roaring forest fire sending clouds of smoke into the eastern sky. "K'èt'à anaâde!" he shouted to the woman. "We must go back to west to escape the fire."
Frantically the fugitives scrambled through the bush, coughing in the thick smoke, branches whipping at their faces, tearing at their clothes. When they got to the shore of Tòideè, Great Slave Lake, the smoke had cleared, but the wife stumbled into a hole and twisted her ankle. At the same time she heard a shout at her back. "My husband!" she cried. "What will happen to us?" The young hunter grabbed her hand and they fairly flew as the medicine man's shouts echoed through the bush behind them.
They fled toward Îhda K'è Tò, Marian Lake. When they got to the mouth of Gòlô Tò Deh, the Marion River, the wife was ready to collapse. She wanted to give up and let the medicine man catch her. But the hunter pointed to a mountain. Gripping her hand he led her up the mountainside, pulling her along until they reached a rock he seemed to know well. As the terrified wife heard her husband shouting down below, the hunter lifted up the rock, just like you'd lift a tent flap.
"Goyaîtåa hoò!" he yelled. The wife was too frightened to move. "Go inside. Let's go!" Roughly the hunter shoved her into the dark hole and jumped in after her. Just before he pulled the rock back over their heads he heard the medicine man shout, "I see you!" As the medicine man climbed up the side of the mountain he heard voices under the rocks. He knew the fugitives were inside the mountain. He scrambled to the spot where he heard the voices and tore a rock out of the ground. He found only more rock underneath and he heard the couple talking half way down the slope. Angrily, he rushed to the spot and started tearing rocks from the ground, but as he would lift one rock from one place he would hear them talking someplace else. Each time he lifted a rock they were in some other part of the mountain.
Finally the medicine man got tired. He got so tired he couldn't even be angry any more. He knew he couldn't reach them, so the medicine man shouted to his runaway wife and her lover, "So long as the world goes on you are never coming to the surface of the ground again." And he left them inside that mountain and set off to look for a new wife to go with him to the Barren Lands to hunt caribou. Since then we call this mountain Wezitsatla, Went-Inside-Mountain. Sometimes Dogrib medicine men can hear the voices of those two people inside the mountain.
This story was originally told by Vital Thomas to June Helm in 1962 and published in The Beaver (Autumn 1966) Retold by Armin Wiebe. The illustrations are by Angus Beaulieu