'The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush'


August 29, 1999

Editor's note: Little Gopher follows his destiny of becoming an artist and finds a way to bring the colors of the sunset down to the earth.

Retold by Tomie dePaola

Many years ago when the People traveled the Plains and lived in a circle of teepees, there was a boy who was smaller than the rest of the children in the tribe. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't keep up with the other boys who were always riding, running, shooting their bows, and wrestling to prove their strength. Sometimes his mother and father worried for him.

But the boy, who was called Little Gopher, was not without a gift of his own. From an early age, he made toy warriors from scraps of leather and pieces of wood and he loved to decorate smooth stones with the red juices from berries he found in the hills. The wise shaman of the tribe understood that Little Gopher had a gift that was special.

And in a few years when Little Gopher was older, he went out to the hills alone to think about becoming a man, for this was the custom of the tribe. And it was there that a Dream-Vision came to him.

The sky filled with clouds and out of them came a young Indian maiden and an old grandfather. She carried a rolled-up animal skin and he carried a brush made of fine animal hairs and pots of paints.

The grandfather spoke. "My son, these are the tools by which you shall become great among your People. You will paint pictures of the deeds of the warriors and the visions of the shaman, and the People shall see them and remember them forever."

The maiden unrolled a pure white buckskin and placed it on the ground. "Find a buckskin as white as this," she told him. "Keep it and one day you will paint a picture that is as pure as the colors in the evening sky."

And as she finished speaking, the clouds cleared and a sunset of great beauty filled the sky. Little Gopher looked at the white buckskin and on it he saw colors as bright and beautiful as those made by the setting sun.

The next day he began to make soft brushes from the hairs of different animals and stiff brushes from the hair of the horses' tails. He gathered berries and flowers and rocks of different colors and crushed them to make his paints.

He collected the skins of animals, which the warriors brought home from their hunts. He stretched the skins on wooden frames and pulled them until they were tight.

And he began to paint pictures...

Of great hunts...

Of great deeds...

Of great Dream-Visions...

So that the People would always remember.

Many months ago, he had found his pure white buckskin, but it remained empty because he could not find the colors of the sunset. He used the brightest flowers, the reddest berries, and the deepest purples from the rocks, and still his paintings never satisfied him. They looked dull and dark.

He began to go to the top of a hill each evening and look at the colors that filled the sky to try and understand how to make them. He longed to share the beauty of his Dream-Vision with the People.

One night as he lay awake, he heard a voice calling to him. "Because you have been faithful to the People and true to your gift, you shall find the colors you are seeking.

"Tomorrow take the white buckskin and go to the place where you watch the sun in the evening. There on the ground you will find what you need."

The next evening as the sun began to go down, Little Gopher put aside his brushes and went to the top of the hill as the colors of the sunset spread across the sky.

And there, on the ground all around him, were brushes filled with paint, each one a color of the sunset. Little Gopher began to paint quickly and surely, using one brush, then another.

And as the colors in the sky began to fade, Little Gopher gazed at the white buckskin and he was happy. He had found the colors of the sunset. He carried his painting down to the circle of the People, leaving the brushes on the hillside.

And the next day, when the People awoke, the hill was ablaze with color, for the brushes had taken root in the earth and multiplied into plants of brilliant reds, oranges and yellows.

And every spring from that time, the hills and meadows burst into bloom.

From THE LEGEND OF THE INDIAN PAINTBRUSH, retold by Tomie dePaola. Text Copyright c 1988 by Tomie dePaola. Illustrations c 1988 by Tomie dePaola. Reprinted by permission of G.P. Putnam's Sons, a division of Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers.

Pub Date: 08/29/99

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