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Leif Ericson Camp Legends

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Legends and lore at Leif Ericson Camp are an important part of the camp experience. Two of the most famous legends are the story of the great and wise Chief Drifting Goose, and the story of the namesake of the camp, Viking Leif Ericson, and how he came to this part of North America.

Leif Ericson and the Peanut Bird


A legend by Big Cheese (AKA Mick Zerr) © 2009


Episode 1, THE TRICK


Around the year 986, a Viking trader from Iceland named Bjarni Herjolfsson got lost after a terrible storm blew him off course. When the storm ended, a thick fog set in for two days. As the fog finally lifted, Bjarni and his crew saw a large skógi vaxinn (forested land) with no ice. When he returned to Grænland , he met Leif, second son of  Eric the Rauður   ( Eric the Red). He told Leif what he had seen when the fog lifted. Leif never forgot the story, and told it to his father, Eric the Red, who was so named because of his bright red hair.

His father told the story to his friend, Konungur (King) Olaf Trygvesson, the king of the Norse Vikings. The Norse king said he would like to send an expedition to find the land, but no one was brave enough to go. Eric the Red told him that his son was the best sailor around, but knew that Leif felt it was too dangerous to search for Bjarni’s mysterious forested land

The two Viking leaders thought for a while and came up with a plan to trick Leif to sail to try and find the new land. It is said that Leif had a crush on the Norse King’s daughter, Thorgunna, so the plan was to have her ask Leif to take her to the west shore to see the beautiful sunset, but not have him ask permission of the King Olaf, which was against Viking law. When the King was to find out about the “date”, he was to demand punishment, which would be to either paint all the houses in the Olaf’s city, (knowing how Leif hated to paint), or take the dangerous trip to the mystery land.

Thorgunna played her part well, and upon coming back from watching the sunset, the King saw the couple and demanded punishment. Eric the Red agreed, and the choice was given Leif, who promptly took the challenge of sailing to the mysterious forested land to the west. He was given the best of ships, including the same dreki bátur(dragon boat) that Bjarni had used years earlier when he first caught sight of the mysterious land.


Episode 2, THE JOURNEY


Thus in the year 1000, the Viking sailor Leif Ericson, second son of Eric the Red of Grænland, set sail with a crew of 35 men in search of the forested land seen by Bjarni, son of Herjulf back in 986. After retracing Bjarni’s route, the Leif expedition encountered a great storm that almost sank them. When the storm was over, a great fog descended, and Leif got out his signal horn and blew it. The Vikings had discovered that they could hear the horn of another ship and judge its distance by the sound. He knew that if land or ice were ahead, the sound would reflect back as an echo, so they would not accidentally run aground. After two days in the fog, an echo was heard after the blowing of the horn.

Shortly after, the fog lifted but land was not seen, so as was the custom of Norse sailors, they released a hrafn (raven), for Ravens always flew toward land, and if there were not land, the bird would return. After a few hours, the Raven did not return and Leif sailed toward the Raven’s direction. After a few hours they sighted land. But it was not the beautiful forested land that Bjarni saw; so Leif named it Helluland, meaning “flat and stony land”, probably present day Baffin Island

They continued sailing south and came upon more land, which they named Markland, or wooded land, likely present day Newfoundland. The ship sailed further south and came upon land with more trees and wild grapes and grains, which Leif named Vineland. They spent the winter there and in the year 1001, returned to Greenland with stories of adventures and samples of the rich plants and trees.   





Leif married Thorgunna, and became a famous leader, but never went back to Vineland. His adventures were recorded in the famous “Greenland Sagas”.

One of the stories the explorers told was of a venture inland following the St. Lawrence River to the Great Lakes. The Vikings were so awed by the size of the Great Lakes, that they decided to explore them. By now they had learned Indian sign language, and could communicate with most Indian tribes. The natives told them the biggest of the giant Auwa (waters) was many days to the setting sun. Leif could not believe another lake could be bigger than those they had seen, so he set sail toward the west. After many days they came to the largest of lakes. The natives called it Gichigami, meaning “big water”.

Leif and his men were sure the giant lakes were the greatest thing so far in their adventure, but in talking with the Ojibwe peoples, they told him of a sacred place where there is a great river that is broken and surrounded by blood that has turned to rock. Now this place really interested the Vikings, since there was no such place in all of Viking lands. They wondered how a river could be broke, and how blood could be rock. The natives told the Vikings that the broken river is 30 suns march to the south and west, but in their excitement, they read the sign for 30 as 3, so they thought it was only three days march. The Ojibwe chief offered to send a guide with them, but the Vikings, thinking it was only a three day march, said they could find the place by themselves, and thanked the Indians for their hospitality.




The Vikings left some men to tend their Dragon ships near the present port of Duluth and marched southwest toward the Broken river and Blood rock. After three days march, there was no sign of the magic place, but the Vikings continued on until they were almost out of food. They decided to have a discussion and vote to go on or head back. The Vikings were tired as well as hungry, and while they were worrying if they would starve, they heard a loud movement in the forest nearby. It turned into a loud, almost deafening laugh as a giant Indian appeared out of the forest. He was very tall, nearly seven feet, and had a great lance and shield. His face was painted in bright reds and yellows and his shield had a great golden bird painted on the leather. The Vikings themselves were not very tall; most were closer to five feet, so the native chief loomed as a giant to them.

The Vikings gathered in a circle, shields held high, swords drawn, ready for battle, but Leif, the wise leader he was, told them that the Indian showed no sign of attack, and perhaps he had a few more tall warriors behind him in the forest. Besides, Leif cautioned, the Vikings were weak from hunger and the long march. The cautious Leif put his sword down and looked at the tall warrior, who was raising his free hand, palm out, the universal symbol of peace.

“Anniin (greetings) strange men with miskondibe (red hair)”, he signed and said in a deep, concerned voice, “I am not laughing at you, but at your lament (worry). “May I join you around your fire?” Leif waved him over, and they sat around the warm fire. The Chief asked if a few of his Anishinaabe warriors could join them, and Leif said it was ok.

Out of the forest came at least 50 tall warriors. The Vikings were thankful that Leif was wise enough to not fight.

Leif asked the chief what he mean about laughing at their worries?, and the chief told them that no one who is good ever starves in this land. Leif asked how could that be, and the chief told them this most wondrous story:




“Many seasons ago, as many as the buffalo has hairs, my people first came to this land. The maji-manidoo mikwam ( Ice Giant) to the North made the winters cold, and the summers cool, resulting in difficulty for my people to find food. (The Great Lakes area was settled as the great Ice Age ended, with the ice sheets (ice giants) retreating to the north into Canada about 11,000 years ago.)

One Cold Season was very bad, and my people were running out of food, much as you, strange red haired men, and they too were lamenting, but they did not know that watching them from the top of a Chi Wajiwan (big mountain) were two Binesi  Banaysheug (giant birds). One of the birds was totally Mukaday (black) even his eyes were black. The other giant bird was Zooniyawbik (golden), in color. The great bird twins had been sent by Manitou (God) to see how the humans were doing during the cold winter. They were directed to see if the people were following the three great rules of Manitou:

1. Be kind to elders.

2. Treat nature with respect.

3. Treat others as you would be treated.

If they were practicing them, they were to get food to keep them alive during the terrible cold.

As the great birds watched, they saw that the people were following the three rules. The great golden bird told the black one that he should give the people food, as directed by Manitou, and he would fly north to tell the great Manitou the people were following the rules and were being given food.

Upon hearing the news of the good people following the three rules, Manitou sent the Golden Bird back to help his black brother distribute the food. When he arrived back where the starving people were, he saw the great Black Bird sitting on an overlooking mountain, looking very full. He asked the black one if the food had been given to the people. The Black Bird said, “I was hungry and ate the food myself, for the puny humans can starve for all I could care”. The Golden Bird was angry and told the black one that great Manitou directed that the people be fed. The black one answered, “I am greater than the people, I am greater than you, and I am even greater than Manitou”.




He then attacked the golden one and the two giant birds fought for 7 days and 7 nights. They fought high in the sky, where they blocked the sun out and caused the first eclipse. They fought at night and their talons smashed against each others causing giant sparks. This became the first lightning. They hit so hard that the sound was deafening. This was the first thunder. On the seventh day, five miles up into the sky, the great Golden Bird moved back 40 miles and headed straight at the black one at great speed. His talons hit the black bird so hard that it killed him instantly. He started to fall faster and faster. Soon he was falling as fast as the spirit of sound travels (speed of sound). He hit right in the middle of a great river, which split in two, causing a giant gakijiwan (waterfall). He hit so hard that the ground cracked and moaned. This was the first earthquake. His body exploded in a mass of blood and black feathers as wide as a day’s walk. The blood fell down to the earth and instantly turned into rock the color of blood.

At this point in the Chief’s story, Leif Ericson commented to his Viking warriors that it was indeed the place they were searching for. All the Vikings now were excited to hear the end of the story.

The Chief continued by telling the Vikings that not only did the blood turn to rock, but the thousands of black feathers turned into crows, all cawing endlessly and flying away in different directions to populate the world so as to remind everyone of the power of good over evil.. One of the black feathers fell upon the top limb of a great, white dead tree. The chief said, “to this day, when you see a crow cawing, small birds will be chasing it because they know that the crows came from the feathers of the evil, Giant Black Bird, and if you are sharp of eye, you will see, at the top of a giant dead tree, a lone, large crow sitting, watching…


Final Episode, THE ARRIVAL


Leif Ericson jumped up and said, “What a great story, can you take us to the broken river with the blood red rock?” The Chief said it is only a day’s march toward the setting sun, so they all headed west.

Soon they arrived at a great waterfall with the rock the color of blood. The Vikings were very pleased to finally see this sacred and beautiful place. Leif asked the Chief how they were to get food for the hungry Vikings. The Chief asked them if they had been practicing the three rules of Manitou. The Vikings always practiced the rules, so the Chief told them to listen for the 7 calls of the Giant Golden Bird, and they would go to the direction the calls came from and they would find all the food they would need.

Suddenly the whole forest became still and 7 great calls came from the west. The Vikings ran over to the cliffs of blood red rock and found food (Indian potatoes*) everywhere. They thanked the great Chief for sharing his wonderful legend and helping them get the food. They all sat in a circle together, held hands and the Indians quietly thanked Manitou, and the Vikings thanked Odin.

All was quiet as the Chief and Leif noticed a shadow cast on the water and they looked up to glance a giant golden image flying fast and far toward the north, while across the broken river, far above the blood red rock, a lone crow watched from a long dead tree……


Thus the origins of thunder, earthquakes, lightning, Sioux quartzite, crows, and the Falls of the Big Sioux River

*Indian potatoes, or Arrowhead, is a very nutritious plant with a tuber that looks like a peanut (thus the “Peanut Bird”). To this day it is very common around the Falls of the Big Sioux River, where the story concludes.


Mick Zerr, Leif Ericson Camp ©2009





Chief Drifting Goose and Taps

A legend by Mick Zerr ©2010


Part One, Taps


During the Civil War, in 1862, General Daniel Butterfield, of the Union Army, was recuperating with his troops from a major battle.  It was getting close to sunset, and soon the call for bed time would be given. Not liking any of the calls given for this time, especially when troops might die the next day, General Butterfield and his bugler altered different calls to create what he called “Taps”. Taps was a combination call and prayer that became instantly popular in both the Union and Confederate armies. The words often used are:


Day is done, gone the sun
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky

All is well, safely rest;
God is nigh.


To the soldiers, the last line indicates that God is watching over them.  To this day, Taps is played by Scouts at sunset, at funerals of firemen and policeman, and by the military at some sunsets, funerals and special times of remembrance.


Part Two, Captain Butterfield


It is said that the General had a favorite nephew,  named after him, who became a Captain in the 7th Calvary. In the Fall of 1868, Captain Butterfield was being sent to join General Custer at the request of his friend,  Colonel Frederick Grant, son of President Grant, who was to join General Custer at Fort Abraham Lincoln, where they were to get ready for an expedition to the Black Hills.. The Captain took with him the prized bugle that his Uncle had first played taps on, as a good luck charm, since it was his most prized possession.  Captain Butterfield was to spend the winter at Fort Dakota, on the Big Sioux River (now Sioux Falls), before heading to Fort Abraham Lincoln.. Upon arriving at Fort Dakota, he was recognized by one of the forts musicians, Charles Ramsey, of  Butterfield’s home state of New York, whom he had met at a military marching festival a few years back. When Ramsey told the soldiers of how Captain Butterfield’s famous Uncle had invented Taps, the men asked the Captain if he would play that wonderful tune at sunset. The Captain, pulled out his prized bugle, and told them he would be proud to play taps for them at sunset.

The prairie sun started to sink in the western hills of the Big Sioux River, sending golden shadows flying every which way from the fort.  Captain Butterfield took his beloved bugle out of its case and climbing to the highest rampart of the fort, as all 40 of the soldiers watched, he prepared to play the beloved Taps.



Part Three, Magabobdu’s camp


Unknown to the soldiers, camped up river about ten miles, was the Great Chief of the Lower Yanktonai Dakota Indians, Magabobdu (Drifting Goose) and his band of 200 braves.

One of the reasons Fort Dakota was built was that Drifting Goose’s band had run off settlers near the Big Sioux River, so he was well known in the area.

It was a very beautiful sunset, with fireflies signaling to each other, crickets serenading them, and a nice warm breeze from the south blowing their chirps along the river. The chief had just told a story about waawaatesiwag (fireflies) to his braves. He had said that the fireflies blink to show departed souls their way to heaven. As he told his story amid the flashings of the fireflies, he threw some stones into the fire, and many sparks flew upward toward the heavens, disappearing into the last golden rays of the sunset. “My braves”, he said, “each spark leaving the fire is the soul of a departed brave going to ishpiming (heaven), and if a great, flashing, giant spark flies up, it is the spirit of an ogimaa (chief)”. His loyal braves looked at each other and nodded.  As the braves thought of this great event, the chief, who was a very good bibigwan (flute) player, picked up his flute and played a wonderful tune. As he put his flute down, he could hear a Wood Thrush singing his flute song in the distance. It is said the Indian flutes were made to sound like the beautiful song of the Wood Thrush.

Back at the fort, the Captain faced the northwest into the setting sun, and played the most beautiful Taps any of the soldiers had ever heard. The southern breeze picked up his wondrous notes and carried them for miles up the Big Sioux River. The fading notes reached the Indian camp just as the Chief put his flute down. Upon hearing these strange, beautiful notes, he jumped up and said, “My braves, I have never heard such a wonderful flute song”. “Quickly!”, he shouted, “we must follow the song and find who is playing this strange flute”. The chief jumped on his giant golden Palomino horse, his most prized possession, and headed off toward the direction of the fort, followed by his 200 braves.


Part 4- The Great Chief at the Fort


Back at the fort, the soldiers were all congratulating Captain Butterfield for playing such a wonderful Taps, when the lookouts shouted that a storm was coming, for a great cloud of dust had appeared on the northwest horizon. The soldiers looked and were puzzled, as there was not enough wind to blow so much dust. Suddenly, one of the lookouts who was watching with a telescope, hollered down that the dust was from hundreds of horses carrying Indian braves. Quickly the soldiers took their defensive positions as the cloud of Indian braves came closer. Some of the soldiers were frightened because they were outnumbered by the 200 Indian braves approaching. Suddenly, the great dust cloud stopped, and the hundreds of braves were all lined up with a tall chief on a large golden horse at the center. As the frightened soldiers watched, two braves and the chief on the Palomino slowly came toward the fort.  As the three Indians came closer, one of the soldiers shouted, “It’s Drifting Goose! It’s Drifting Goose!”. The commander of the fort, Major Knox, knowing the danger of starting hostilities, told the troops to hold their fire unless attacked. Suddenly, the great chief held his hand up in the sign of peace and hollered in his fierce, deep voice, “Aaniin! Mookomaanag!”(greetings white soldiers) Major Knox’s eyes lit up in relief, as he shouted back, “Aaniin Magabobdu!”

The Major quickly told his troops to stand at ease, for the great chief had greeted them in peace. He shouted down to the chief to come in and they would talk. As the great chief rode in on his giant golden horse, the soldiers were awed at how tall and fierce looking the chief was.  Drifting Goose, who spoke English, French, his native Dakota, Lakota, Ojibwa, Ree, Cheyenne, Ponca, Mandan, and Nakota, indicated that he has an important question for the soldiers. He told of the beautiful flute music he and his people had heard up river, and wondered if he could meet the fine flute player and see his flute.  At this point, the soldiers were puzzled, for no one had played a flute today.  Corporal Ramsey stated that the chief might be talking about Captain Butterfield’s playing of taps. Hearing this, the Captain came forward, and said, “Oh great Drifting Goose, chief of the Yanktonai, It was I who was playing the “flute”, which we call a bugle”. Upon hearing this, the Chief asked for a demonstration, and the captain obliged by playing a few notes for the Chief.  “It is magic”, said the chief, “I must have this flute/bugle”.  He asked to play it, so the Captain let him try, but it is difficult to learn to play a bugle, so the Chief just sputtered into it. As he took the flute back, Captain told the Chief that it would take many tries to learn to play it.


Part Five- The Trade


The Chief wanted to know more about the bugle, so he asked Captain Butterfield where he had obtained it.  The Captain told of how his favorite uncle had invented the song and gave him the bugle, and that it was a lucky charm and his most prized family possession. At this point, the soldiers started to look very nervous, for they were worried if the chief did not get the bugle, there would be trouble. Sensing this, the Captain, even though the bugle meant so much to him, felt he must give it to the Chief to prevent his fellow soldiers from being harmed. As he started to hand the instrument to the Chief, Major Knox grabbed his arm and pulled him aside. He told the Captain that it would be an insult to the Chief if he gave his most prized possession away without asking something in trade for it. He held the bugle out to the Chief, and asked what the Chief could trade for such a valuable prize. Now Drifting Goose and his people had the greatest respect for family, especially for magic possessions that are handed down as elders became old. The great Chief looked back at his two braves, and they both nodded, for they knew what the Chief was going to offer in trade. He turned around and took his fine blanket and rifle off his giant horse. The soldiers whispered that the Chief was going to give his fine rifle and blanket for the bugle, but to the surprise of the soldiers, he handed the Captain the reign of his giant golden Palomino horse to trade for the bugle.  He told the soldiers how the golden horse was his people’s symbol of the setting sun.  The Captain was very honored by the Chief’s offer, and he gave a little speech, telling Drifting Goose how he is a fair man and all white men will hear of his honesty and fairness for years to come.


Final Chapter- the Chief’s Last Years



The Chief loved speechs, and in the years to come, he would go to the white men’s capital and give a speech to congress. President Hayes wrote an executive order (*below) giving Drifting Goose’s band their own reservation, the only such decree ever done by a president for a specific chief.


*EXECUTIVE MANSION, June 27, 1879.

 Drifting Goose Reserve

It is hereby ordered that townships numbered 119, 120, and 121 north, of range 63 west, in the Territory of Dakota, be, and the same are hereby, set apart as a reservation for the use of &$147;Mag-a-bo-das” or “Drifting Goose” band of Yanktonais Sioux Indian.


Unfortunately, as with many agreements with American Indians, the president, under pressure from land hungry settlers, took the Drifting Goose Reservation away from the Yanktonai.

For many seasons, as the Drifting Goose band moved up and down the James and Big Sioux Rivers, the great Chief tried endlessly, but unsuccessfully, to play the flute/bugle. It was now a new century, and all Indians had been placed on reservations which were mostly poor land that no white men wanted. Drifting Goose would leave the reservation often to visit his beloved homeland along the James and Big Sioux. In the year 1909, the great Chief was sitting with his braves around a campfire when he told them that he was close to leaving them and going to the great afterlife, ishpiming, where gichi-manidoo, the Great Spirit, would greet him.  The great Chief was now 88 years old, and had outlived most other chiefs.  He told his braves he wished for their children to have an education in the modern ways so they could survive in the changed world. Earlier, he told this to the famous missionary priest Father Pierre De Smet when he met with him on his (Drifting Goose’s) land, which was now on the Crow Creek Reservation, and later, the priest founded the Stephen Mission Indian School on the site.                                                                                                 

The Great Chief Drifting Goose, Magabobdu, Chief of the Lower Yanktonais of the Dakota peoples, lies buried in the Immaculate Conception cemetery in back of the Stephan Indian school where his pillared gravestone rises above all others.

 Legend has it, that around the campfire that night, the Chief told his loyal braves, after he dies, to take his prized possession, the bugle/flute, to a secret spot along the James or Big Sioux Rivers, and bury it. The braves agreed to this.  The Chief’s face broke out in a broad smile of contentment, and he lay down on his blanket and departed to the Spirit World.  Suddenly, a giant spark left the fire and headed straight up to the heavens, and the braves looked at each other and nodded.  Quickly, they took the great Chief’s bugle/flute and rode without stop to the two sacred rivers of the east and buried it in the sands. As the loyal braves headed back to their horses, they saw thousands of fireflies making paths of light in the heavens.

  It is said that if you are near that spot, you too will see the fireflies, and if the wind is right, you might hear, in the distance, the sound of the beautiful song of Taps being played by the spirit of the Great Chief Drifting Goose.

Mick Zerr, Leif Ericson Camp, YMCA©2010













Campers and staff will understand this poem which describes the sounds and experiences of the two weeks of Leif Ericson summer camp.
For more information on the camp, go to http://www.leifericson.org/

Passing Summer

Camp is over, the last overnight is done.

Come Monday, squirrels will search for crusts of bread,

But there will be none.

Dragonflies under the bridges listen for campers’ tread,

Yet only silence greets their rainbow ears,

For Johnny Appleseed is gone.

And with it, the campers’ cheers

That came with singing the camp song.


Frogs wait to greet the first fishing group,

But their croaks and splashes bring looks no more.

Swallows in the fields don’t swoop

At bugs flushed by the passing corps.

The birthday flag doesn’t raise

In the green chapel trees,

For there are no happy faces to gaze

As it waves in the breeze.


Ships cannon are silent.

The Jolly Roger doesn’t stare

At small pirates to be sent

On a long cable ride, in a high scary chair.

Giant kindly birds of gold

Have taken their food back to the land

Where Vikings still live, as in the days of old,

Under Leif Ericson’s skilled hand.


Green trails are empty of the sound

Of happy children having fun.

No cheering kids are to be found

Playing in the shade and sun

Where the forest helpers live,

For they are the Gnomes.

With red and green hats to give,

But the campers have returned to their homes.


The Great Chief is dead,

But his story lives on,

In each camper’s head

When they hear the beautiful song

Of Taps being played,

From some distant place up high

With final notes as they fade

Echoing the words “God is nigh”.

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