Legend of Eagle Rock
> as told by elders of the Washoe Tribe<
"I not remember so good-" the old Indian began, but was interrupted by another torrent of Washoe from Agnes, who seldom spoke anything else, although she was known to have an excellent command of the English language. After listening for a moment to her admonitions which, to the unaccustomed ear, sounded strangely like the chattering of an excited chipmunk, Pete decided to do his best at recalling the story of Chief Big Eagle. Half legend, half Washoe history, the story was slowly repeated by the old Indian as the twilight shadows deepened around the foot of Eagle Cliff.
He had been named Big Eagle because when he was still a child he had shot a huge bird of this species with a flint-headed arrow sharpened by his own hands. He was tall and very active for a man of the easy-going Washoes, and he became a chieftain while quite young, having proven his unusual abilities in various ways.
Each summer Big Eagle came into the mountains from the foothill regions, where his tribe wintered. He pitched his tepee at the sloping back of the great rock among a thick forest of young fir trees. In the early summer dawns and sometimes by bright moonlight, he would lie like a shadow along the high cliff's jutting edge watching among the trees below for game, which in those far-gone days was so plentiful here.
Down the faint wild trails that marked the woods around the base of the rock, the young doe led her spotted fawn toward the lakeshore, while buck with spreading antlers watched from the nearby shadows, and the arrows of Big Eagle brought much tender meat to the camp fires. The grey coyote, too, often walked those slim trails down to the Big Water, and sometimes sat at the foot of the rock with his sharp muzzle raised to the moon, making a perfect target for the straight arrows of the young chief. The first were always useful, even in summer, though much better after the shedding period.
There came a summer at last when Chief Big Eagle was no longer alone in his tepee and beside his camp fire, for the winter had passed when the tribe celebrated his choice of a bride. Her name was Gentle Doe and her large dark eyes were like those of her namesake. She had said shyly and earnestly, "I will follow you always, Big Eagle," and now she was always there to make his bed of furs and fir boughs, broil his deer steaks, and even snag fish for his breakfast from the boulder at the Lake's edge.
It was in the early June dawn-oh, very early this dawning-for many stars were still twinkling and the round moon was just sinking behind the western range. Big Eagle lay at the cliff's edge, his bow strung taut, his arrow ready, watching the long shadows that stretched eastward from the pine trunks below. Among those shadows in the early dawn, he knew the deer walked lightly. There was no meat left for the barbecue this coming night, but game was plentiful and by hunting early he was sure to bring in something.
Suddenly a twig snapped in the brush somewhere below. Out among the trees near the water's edge, a blurred shadow wavered among the deeper shades. The moon's last rays glinted dimly on a grey moving form. There was the unusual distance, of course, and the confusing dimness of dawn, but this might be his only chance for game this morning.
Big Eagle pulled his bow string. His arrow sped straight and sure. Out over the shimmering ripples of the blue Big Water a long agonized wail rose to meet the dawn. It was echoed a second later by the wild despairing cry of the young chief as he slid without caution down the steep jagged side of the rock. Swiftly he leaped and staggered through the lifting shadows and clutching underbrush till, down near the water, he fell on his knees at last beside a still grey shape. Sobbing a half-unconscious prayer to the Great Spirit, he clasped with trembling arms the form of Gentle Doe, his bride. But the Great Spirit had turned away His all-seeing eyes that morning, and His ever-listening ears were deaf to that savage prayer. There came a low moan and the soft, halting promise, "I will follow you always, Big Eagle, " and the spirit of Gentle Doe was gone on the grey wings of the dawning.
Some said that, when the camps were full of wailing that night, Big Eagle stood at the edge of the cliff and spoke once more to the great Spirit, asking that he might be allowed to follow his bride into the Land Beyond the Black Mountains. But the Great Spirit would not quite relent. He made only a doubtful compromise. He gave the young chieftain the form of his namesake and sent him to brood endlessly upon the high cliffs and ragged mountaintops.
For many moons after this, his tribesmen, rising at early dawn to hunt, would see a great feathered shape perched on the overhanging edge of the cliff. As still and dark as part of the rock itself, the ominous form clung there. And sometimes, just as the dawn light brightened over the shining Big Water, a wild cry sounded from the shadows on the rock on silent dark wings and drifted away over the pine tops.
As remembered by elder members of the Washoe tribe and transcribed by Ethel Joslin Vernon.
Drawing of Eagle
Rock by Carol Van Etten